Patience Agbabi’s Bloodshot Monochrome is a collection of poetry that highlights social and political issues, captures and considers moments in time through long-dead authors, and offers readers a diverse sampling of the author’s views of life in a variety of places. It’s obvious from Agbabi’s poetry that the color of her skin was sometimes a struggle to deal with in certain social climates so one of the prevalent themes in her collection is racism.
Agbabi was born in London to Nigerian parents and lived there for years before moving to Wales. The title of her book Bloodshot Monochrome, alludes to a color-conscious theme that runs throughout the collection that stems from her life experience. The first poem “Seeing Red” continuously contrasts black and white, separates them, and though in the poem the colors don’t specifically signify people, you realize the intention of the contrasts in the line: “…I see the world through a red eye / where blood and heart mean more than black and white”. This line makes clear that the black and white objects are people, whom Agbabi is saying should be judged by what’s inside rather than by skin color.
One of Agbabi’s poems presents an encounter two young women have with racism. “Parce qu’elle est noire (translated: “because she is black”), delivered at such speed and with such hatred it stung me: to encounter such rage; more, for being judged solely by colour”. This sonnet shows Agbabi’s frustration with racism but there is another part of the fictional encounter that she deems even worse. The young woman who was verbally attacked refused to translate his words, to which Agbabi writes: “that’s the killer, / her silence, like a shroud”. Agbabi is bringing these topics to light because she recognizes the importance of having open discourse about them.
The Problem Pages discuss racism on the “Knew White Speech” page. This instance in particular hits home for Agbabi because in this problem page Agbabi writes from the perspective of Gwendolyn Brooks, a black poet who, like Agbabi, used the sonnet – a “traditional white form”. Brooks received flack for this from the black community, as might have Agbabi herself to some degree. In Brooks‘ letter to Agbabi she says, “I’ve been accused of degrading the sonnet with black, anti-war propaganda: and of not being black enough!” In an interview Agbabi talked about this very problem when asked about the “Knew White Speech” problem page. She said, “Throughout literary history there are fashions and fads. For black writers these tend to coincide with political history e.g. after Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the Olympic rostrum in 1968, it was a signal for black people to celebrate black culture”. In the problem page, her answer to Brooks is, “[Some say] that blackpoet+sonnet=sellout… It’s literary skill that counts”. From Agbabi’s little niche in the London poetry scene, she says she hasn’t seen that the controversy of black people using “white forms” still exists but does recognize that it probably does outside of the liberal London scene.
Agbabi did an interview in 2012 about her works and writing style. One of the questions asked was how her gender and race effect her view on the world and subsequently her poetry. She replied, “Yes, I think race and gender do affect my work… In the 80s and 90s there was lots of pressure on Black poets and/or women poets to reflect their politics and ‘positive images of black people/women”. Agbabi continues on to say that in her first book she was very color conscious in the sense that she wanted to portray black people in only a positive light. Her later books have a “much broader range” because she began to “let the characters speak for themselves”, regardless of whether the characters are ‘speaking’ good or bad things and regardless of their skin color. Thus Bloodshot Monochrome has a large cast of characters that show the author’s understanding that the bad elements of human nature are universal, as are the good.