Like a New Muscle

Romalyn Ante, Antiemetic for Homesickness

Chatto & Windus, 96pp, £10.00, ISBN 978-1784743000

reviewed by Nikita Biswal

Romalyn Ante’s debut collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, opens with an image of snow which so closely resembles flakes of coconut that it leaves its subject bloated. Ante extends these poems as a repetitive documentation, rather than a cure, of a chronic longing for home, the familial and the familiar. Ante grew up in the Philippines and moved to the UK at 16, two years after her mother who worked ‘overseas’ as a nurse. She moves naturally between these two positions in her collection – the lonely mother bereft of her children and the child left waiting behind. Ante’s own experience as a specialist nurse gives her writing an acute understanding of pain. Homesickness is a gaping wound realised on the body. Ante urges us to look, ‘See the sediments/ under my nails – fermented fish and all/ we dip in it’. In another poem, titled ‘Tagay! [Drinking Lambanog with my Filipino Colleagues]’, she describes her veins throbbing with ‘the orchestra of jeepneys’. Years are licked off palms, the bone marrow vibrates with the gong of the kulintang, tidal waves divide the skull – the evidence of longing is lodged deep into the skin.

It is impossible to separate these poems from the poet. Ante’s multiple identities are ever-present in her writing and one never forgets that she is, in fact, a nurse, who routinely comes into contact with grief, trauma and loneliness. In her world, these come with ‘Lorazepam in a spoonful of yogurt’. In contrast to the surgical rehearsal of her practice, Ante writes of a poetic and medical helplessness when faced with her own homesickness. This is a mastering of the art of ‘selective hearing’ as Ante describes it in one of the most haunting poems in the collection, ‘[             ]’. Attuned to the white noise of cardiac monitors, the poet’s attention drifts to ‘the zest of sinturis’ and ‘akapulko flowers’. She recalls that ‘before bones were just bones/ they were my Nanay Lola’. There is a humanity and vulnerability to these poems that Ante conveys without second-guessing.

The collection’s most promising element is its diagnostic style. The poetry takes shape as instructions that Ante leaves her family, her past self and the reader on what to remember, what to forget, what to sustain or eject from bodily memory. This is an effort to prevent emotions from becoming overwhelming, keeping the nausea of longing from retching up – an antiemetic.

Ante’s yearning is familiar. While her poems have a straightforward, accessible quality, they demand little engagement from the reader. This is writing of a recognisable emotional code. We are left waiting for something surprising or shifting as it becomes increasingly possible to anticipate the poet’s next move. Instead, Ante’s strength lies in her ability to draw from a shared sentimentality. The reader is invited to relax in the backseat as Ante enacts her narrative with an affective theatricality. The weight of her grief is magnified by the repetition of these stories, generation after generation. The repetition is crucial to Ante’s argument – ‘At a wake, the youngest family member must jump/ over the corpse, otherwise – I forget the consequence.’ she writes.

The collection is a relearning of kindness. In ‘Anosmia’, Ante writes:

You roll onto your shoulder, and don’t fear
falling off. You memorise the stories
of her town – the cow rides, and the man
who put a plumeria behind her ear,
her breath warming the end of your spine.

And ‘Soon, you get used to it’. We learn to trust the poet and slowly grow accustomed to her instincts. Comfort develops gradually and softly, like a new muscle.

Antiemetic for Homesickness is a celebration of both cultural and formal plurality. The collection taps into a body of cultural knowledge that includes indigenous forms of folk poetry such as tagay, a type of drinking song and uyayi, a cradle song. Each poem intractably looks back at the past and the future, reinstating the harrowing solitude produced by displacement. Writing of a pot noodle, Ante imagines ‘How everyone evaporates when the kettle snaps’. She shares experiences from her new life without pretence, finding comfort in the company of fellow Filipino migrants as she wills herself to ‘Enjoy the homecooked pansit guisado,/ the roasted pig’s head, the blood-red apple/ in its mouth’. The endnotes are just the sweet medicine one needs to situate these poems in Ante’s delicate construction of memory.

Ante’s writing pulls at the pleasures of reading poetry out loud and insists on being heard. The drinking songs and lullabies, along with the tape recordings the collection is punctuated with, activate traditionally spoken forms of poetry on the page. These become intimate possessions over time. In the final and titular poem, Ante advices the nebulous ‘you’ to keep the cassette tapes of her children’s voices and Tagalog songs as remedies against the English winter, rendering the words into a lasting source of strength. In another poem, home is remembered as melody:

      the next generation that will meet at this gate,
the same old stories that will hum out of younger mouths.
Let’s go home – to our elders’ kitchens
where tapioca pearls soften in the choir of casseroles.

Sounds, wrapped carefully in banana leaves, are seeped into the language of the poetry. We learn to say alimasag crabs, patis, lanzones, lomi, Tagay! and haematoma of flowers, E45 cream, Betadine, Hibiscrub. Meanwhile, the poet teaches herself to ‘Say Jason, Darius, Vernon. Say cancer, myocardial infarction, query schizophrenia’. We are invited to ‘listen’ ever more closely to the sounds and the silences that intervene them, to notice ‘The loneliness/ of stretchers along A&E corridors’. The act breathes life into the music introduced by the collection’s bilingualism.

As Ante narrates her most prized memories, there is an intuitive invitation to pass them along. These are poems designed to be read to a loved one, to be sung at their bedside. The poems, and the minutely carved moments in them, do their work quietly, as we learn to hear, smell and touch longing. And all throughout, one senses Ante’s unvarying presence, her hand on your back, the warm essence of her breath easing the spine into giving in to her words.
Nikita Biswal is a writer based in Delhi. Her criticism has previously appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and Ambit. You can find her @nikitabiswal on Instagram.