Short Leash Kept On
Candace Hill
London/Materials, 2022

Reviewed by Howard Slater 

The African-American poetry tradition has a long and propulsive past. However, beyond certain more well-known writers such as Langston Hughes (currently on the syllabus) and Amira Baraka and Sonia Sanchez from the 60s onwards and more recently, NourbeSe Philip and Claudia Rankine, the depth of this history, reaching back to the likes of Melvin Tolson and beyond, is not as well known in this country as one would assume (a similar fate befell Edward Kamau Brathwaite who was resident in this country in the late 60s.) However, there is an even more neglected form of writing that could be loosely described as ‘experimental’, which this collection by Candace Hill and the books editor, David Grundy, have here brought back into view. Grundy, author of Black Arts Poetry Machine, continues his fond excavation of African-American avant-garde writing by publishing Candace Hill ’s quite extraordinary long-form poem. This marks only the second collection of hers to be published since the early 1980s and it comes across like an upwelling, a long gestating free jazz solo. 

A solo it may be but Candace Hill selects a backdrop, a rhythm section, from which to set out from, from which to Get Out with: the Umbra group of poets, represented here by Lloyd Addison and Leroy McLucas as well as Russell Atkins. In a kind of honouring of the tradition as well as of signifyin’ upon it, adding to it in an act of solidarity, as is often the case with jazz, Hill interweaves poems and extracts from their writing and figures her own book as almost containing an anthology within itself. Hers is an ensemble voice (and the ‘I’ as an ensemble) that hovers in a time-defying present; a present that draws down onto the page a magma of verbal collisions, memories, other people places, soul lyrics, cultural jetsam and racist woundings. It is as if the method of the writing is one that draws on what Freud called the ‘primary process ’, a process prior to self-censorship, or mores to the point, freely blowing with language-notes, bent notes, blatted words, within the confines of the loosest of forms. That said there are many keystones that ballast this work and show that it is not a ‘shut-in’ extemporisation but a considered contribution to the black avant-garde tradition 

As such, we could do well to consult Henry Louis Gates, Jr, whose book, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, raises many points that are apposite to Hill’s work. Not least of these is Gates’s tracing of signifyin’ in African American culture or as it is often known, ‘playing the dozens.’ This amounts to word games played out on the street within a conversational context. Gates lists a panoply of words to make his point: woofing, spouting, jitterbugging, rapping, beating your gums etc. Hill’s work, I feel, should be taken as grounded in this context, a context also explored in the poetry of pianist Cecil Taylor, but which is not readily recognisable in an Anglo-poetic context. Hill gives voice to this in the introduction to the book: “Sometimes I feel just leave it alone but that’s so difficult to do when there’s an urge to whack it around a bit more.” This urge puts one in mind of the takes and retakes of jazz, the repetition and revision of a fixed song, albeit in this case it seems that Hill is signifyin’ on her own writing, a writing that makes free use of the “double voiced word.”

This phrase of Bakhtin’s (cited by Gates as a means of explicating signifyin’) is a key to becoming immersed in Hill’s work, for what is most noticeable is the play on words that she exhibits, a play with language that is as irreverent and subversive as Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky (a work she cites in her book.) There is a marked usage of homophones …


nose: knows
sew: so
maid: made
in: inn
dun: done

… where the similarity in the sound of words creates slippages in meaning and yet act as a kind of dub effect where meanings are doubled, tripled, thickened.  Chink by chink, they undo the signifying chain, our slavishness to iced-over meaning, and extend out in a vertical vertigo. Up and Out and On.  And so, Hill’s work is closely linked to spoken language, to an oral culture, to a pronunciation that sets up an always fruitful dialectical tension between speech and writing as well as giving rise to made-up words … 

hoe tells

These are all modes of signifyin’ and Gates tracks this back to the coded language of slaves and the negotiation of white spaces by jazzmen. One could also add that Hill also exhibits another tactic of occlusion which is witnessed in her broken-up syntax, perhaps better described by Fred Moten as “syntactic degeneracy”, which, again, seems to mirror the way people speak. So, there’s deliberate ‘imperfections’ here too, not just the syntax, but extended words that summon forth a stuttering speaker, an unusual cadence, in which sentences achieve a hiatus of missed emphasis. Or a kind of tourettes in which positive pleonasms and cuss words suddenly spew forth to mix in a ‘tellingly inarticulate’ low culture. 

As with free jazz which many find unlistenable, there is an ‘active reading’ that is needed when embarking upon this book. And as with free jazz once you acclimatise to its skewed expressionism, its upsetting of form and time-measure, there is a method and surefooted intent in its “whacking around”; you get to suspend the obsessive pursuit of meaning, the narcissistic desire to be mirrored, in an onrush of rambunctious words that, at many times in this book, reach a kind of bitter sweet poignancy, a material sensuality that recompenses us for the way the meaning-making of the senses is often overlooked. The same could be said of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and, as with this work by Candace Hill, there is somewhat latent here, a tale of crimes that keep pppppestering forth as a narrative drive of sorts; that is, a narrative that disaligns itself from the routines of all kinds of fiction, and opts for a kind of weaving, a dream-work, an unveiling of defences, a candid reeling.



Henry Louis Gates Jr (1988/2014) The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press. 

David Grundy (2018) Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amira Baraka and the Umbra Poets, Bloomsbury.

Fred Moten (2003) In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, University of Minnesota Press.

Jordan Peele (2017) Get Out, Blumhouse Productions.