Dean Atta is an acclaimed poet from London whose work dances around the intersection of blackness and queerness. His latest collection, Black Flamingo, was inspired by a black flamingo that “was spotted at a salt lake on the South Coast of Cyprus” where he was visiting with family. As word of this anomalous black flamingo flew around the island, Dean saw his relationship with his grandfather mirrored in his nonchalance about the black bird: “My grandfather didn’t see what all the fuss was about and it made me reflect on the nature of our relationship, specifically how I never discussed my blackness or my sexuality with him.” If his work is inspired by adversity, he’s a deft hand at imbuing it with an uplifting and bouncing cadence. Indeed, his words are imbued with a hope and compassion for the world around him, no doubt a result of deep and searching introspection. Utilising poetry as a tool for examining and processing our innermost feelings, though, is nothing new; a 2013 study, conducted by the University of Exeter (By Heart: An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose), shows that “poetry activates brain regions that have recently been associated with introspection.” Perhaps that’s why we find Dean’s work so soothing.
The Black Flamingo
April Evening in Cyprus Your grandfather draws your attention to the news; the story, a black flamingo has landed on the island. An expert on screen explaining it is the opposite of an albino. Too much melanin, he says. Camera pans the salt lake full of pink but the eye is drawn to that one black body in the flamboyance.
I Want to Be a Pink Flamingo
Pink. Definitely pink.
I want my feathers to match the hue you imagine. I want to blend in.
Nothing but flamingo-ness. David Attenborough would say,
Here we see the most typical flamingo. Though I don’t want to be the most, just typical. A wrapping paper pattern. I don’t want to stand apart. Nothing different about my parts. My beak just a beak, my head just a head. My neck, body, wings. Simply fit for purpose. Standing on one leg, just like the rest. Pink. Definitely pink.
Another April Evening in Cyprus Your beach towel and shorts are dry now. Couples on mopeds ride past the house. The dogs walk their humans before dinner. Your grandfather coughs violently
And then lights another cigarette.
Your grandmother calls you both in to eat. The black flamingo is on the news again.
You pick the dining chair facing the TV.
Grandfather asks, Why does it matter if he’s black? Adding, The other flamingos don’t care.
And you are certain what he’s saying is, I love you.
Passing the potato sorting factory where lorries halt and men shuffle to the gates, passing the dance school where girls in pink mid-pirouette leap in unison to the window, passing the car wash and petrol station where hoses of water and gasoline gush and escape the hands of men and women with slack jaws, the black flamingo parades proudly past, the priest with black robes and white beard gasps and makes the sign of the cross – head to heart, shoulder to shoulder – not knowing if he is an omen or a blessing.
The black flamingo has begun plucking his own feathers since being taken captive. This is used as evidence when denying an application for release; authorities say they need to keep a close watch on this troubling behaviour. When black flamingo feathers are discovered for sale on the black market an inventory is kept of every feather. They are stored in an insured facility. Black beauty valued most when removed from the black body.
I masquerade in make up and feathers and I am applauded. I evoke you as a metaphor; attach my meaning to you. O Black Flamingo, here I stand in your shadow. You are my costume, my muse, my poetic and purpose. When I am naked and plainly spoken I don’t feel worthy of attention.