Slow Tongue is a powerful collection, using language and design in an innovative way to create a new space for emerging voices. The title evokes the image of languid sexuality, a theme which pervades the collection, described by ripe fruit, “licking”, “sucking” and breathing heat. Douglass uses abstract imagery coupled with tangible language to beautifully depict love and sex. While this theme is an aspect which makes Slow Tongue such a valuable read, the collection ultimately showcases the struggle Douglass has faced as a woman of colour trying to explore and assert her identity and voice.
I have been lucky enough to see Douglass perform a few of these poems live. In one performance of ‘The Man Goes Bang continuously’, Douglass chose members of the audience to read parts in the poem, their freshness to the material adding to the pervading feeling of miscommunication and disorder. Poems that lend themselves so well to performance are sometimes in danger of falling flat when read. This is not the case with this collection however, as dynamic design allows this collection to become a work of art on the page.
Douglass visually represents struggle through misspellings, incongruous spacings and black boxes which obscure words, reminiscent of political censorship. Through this device the reader is constantly reminded of the effort that it has taken to put these words on the page. This is further emphasised by the editorial notes which litter the copy. As Douglass explains in her commentary, she left them in because:
“finished collections should not be polished bodies of work, but instead service as evidence of the processes of writing and the analysis of the self”.
The ‘run-on’ style of the publication helps the collection to be thought of as a whole, allowing new conversations to occur as the reader’s attention is drawn to the links between the poems.
As referenced in the title, Slow Tongue has been written in part as a response to M. Nourbese Philip’s collecton: She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks.
Both NourbeSe and Douglass explore the challenges of using post-colonial language to question racial and gendered repression, and in doing so, create a new, separate lexicon.
The explicit reference to other writers – NourbeSe is an active voice in one of Douglass’s poems – allows Slow Tongue to become part of a wider conversation. The author’s journey to find a voice becomes contextualised and layered when mixed with the voices of others.
She also weaves in historical narratives, like that of Sara Baartman, a South African woman who became a point of colonial fascination due to her ‘exotic’ body-type. Douglass tells her story in footnotes to give visualisation to the exploitation of black narratives. One of the most poignant phrases in the collection is Douglass’s editorial note: *write this again but instead Sara Baartman lives in a cottage in the country-side and has white skin*.
Douglass uses her position as the narrator to incredible effect. This ‘meta-narrative’ style guides our experience as a reader, as she voices the part of ‘audience’ while also challenging the reader through direct questions. In contrast, her narrative voice is deeply personal. She draws on real experiences: “I am twelve years old and my body has just learnt that the only safe way for me to command a room is when I am on stage”.
Slow Tongue brings together an impressive collection of poems, which can be read individually or holistically. Covering stunning narratives which expose important themes through new language and voice, Douglass has created an enriching read, both visually and otherwise. I highly recommend the collection, and look forward to seeing what this young poet does next.
Slow Tongue, reviewed above, is a collection of poems by writer and performer Olivia Douglass. It broadly focuses on creating language outside of the colonial lexicon and challenging the concept of identity, as a writer and as a woman of colour. After the initial success of the book I caught up with Olivia to discuss her next project, I-ntimised, the relationship between the two pieces of work, and her own development as an artist and a woman.