Jason Rehel, Story Producer
Brian Sankarsingh’s poems are microcosms of enlightenment, pain, and the wages of injustice and hate. They also rhyme and fuse together the voices of oppressors with the pain and trauma they create, in a sort of renewed intimacy, an intimacy that only the written word, and only really poetry, can provide. These poems also bring a sharp rebuke of the cesspool of marketing, infotainment, fake news and social media sociopathy that has infected our political and intellectual cultures and left many of us muddling through daily life without a means to nurture hope. But A Sliver of a Chance also goes several steps beyond that, daring to suggest that we haven’t arrived at this moment by accident; that history itself, as told by (mostly) white conquerors and colonizers (they get to write it, right, as the so-called “victors”), is itself a lie, and one that attempts to furiously erase pain, trauma and anguish that’s dug us all into a hole that is only becoming fully visible of late. This book is both difficult and necessary, beautiful yet severe, and hopeful but clear-eyed and laser-focused.
The verses here often crackle as Sankarsingh’s wide range of narrators skewers (and self-skewer) the so-called scions of power among us and their various false talismans. This broad range of voices is able to lift the cloak on much of what we all feel and often struggle to convey in our daily lives and tribulations.
The energy and visceral emotion embedded in words like those of “An Encounter in the Rumble” and “The Slave’s Lament” demand a reckoning in the (privileged white) reader to inhabit those moments, and the fear, sadness and despair contained in them, an experience that A Sliver of a Chance channels so well, and often. “The Slave’s Lament” in particular is infused with devastating beauty and sadness. Its cry of Massah, the slave’s address of the master, is here a musical cry, a cry all who resist must share, and more than mere passive resistance. We also see a raised fist and hear a cry for justice loud and clear, too, as “Bend a Knee” ends echoing Christian Cooper’s “No more” with its own emphatic “No fear” while channelling the futility that Colin Kaepernick faced alone when he first bent a knee at the cost of his athletic dream, with many fewer people behind him. There are reminders here that resistance is dangerous and lonely work -- and the implicit meaning, at least for a white reader like myself, is that there is much peril in people turning away from this fight, from insisting that it’s “not our problem”.
Also remarkable for this reader is Sankarsingh’s uncanny ability to take the scourge of experience, of slurs, race taunts and worse, and then turn those words on their heads into warriors for love, for understanding and for questioning the divisions and hate embedded in the status quo. “Flesh and Bone” is a sparkling example of spinning dogma like a top — “Love your neighbour as you love yourself / When did that get put on the shelf? — a frequent strategy of Sankarsingh in these poems. His ability to turn so-called common sense, the sense of the status quo of racial oppression on its head, is fueled by exploding cliches, a common practice across this entire book. At times, like in the thundering “The Burden of Colour”, the voice of the white oppressor is the most direct way to place the reader into the mindset of radical change, and to thrust aside the procrastination of the present, to show the artifice and ultimate inherent weakness and fear in oppression and its practitioners.
The book, which is split into six distinct sections of poems, dedicates a lot of time to the author’s concerns for clarity about the current reality of politics. The cleverly named opener “Politricks” pulls no punches, with razor-sharp rhymes that take the full piss out of our limp political culture and its ongoing grasping at the idea of principled government: “How do we make them realize, the error of their ways? / How do we stop the cliché of monopolizing sunny days?” It’s as frustrating for the poet and reader here as it is for the commentators and indeed voters. Rhyme is used repeatedly throughout the book with this tongue-in-cheek acerbic comment style. We are meant to share the sardonic flights, but I believe Sankarsingh also wants to jar us out of the usual mainstream media glib streams of prose that create their own cliches while calling out others. The game here is to point out the utter stupidity of taking this kind of political theatre seriously and calling for something more to take its place.
At other times, the poet takes other forms, such as the hymn, and crosses it with call and answer in an uneasy and devastating duet of a school shooter and one of their victims. To call a work like “Thoughts and Prayers” jarring is not really fair: fender benders and horror movies are jarring. This is … visceral. Disturbing. But deep within this work, you can hear the speeches, the hollow words after every shooting, calling for those same thoughts and prayers, and telling us all how “meaningless” all of these deaths are. In the poet’s parlance here, these are only meaningless lost lives if we choose to continue turning away, and leaving them to the rust and atrophy of inaction.
Beyond Politics, and Racism (the second section from which I discussed several works above), Sankarsingh touches down in Colonialism, which acts almost like a vessel, its three poems embedded with the yearnings and false promises between those who dream while in transition and those who feed like vultures off the dreams of others. We are ported to the back of this slim work into Struggle, (its introduction calling us in, to solace, to common despairs, to find humanity’s shared experiences and so that we might overcome: “I pray, dear reader, for your peace and solace as you battle your own personal demons.” These short section commentaries, which often also surface at the beginning of individual poems, are one of my favourite features of A Sliver of a Chance. They offer that rare glimpse of the author with their hands in the soil, showing you where and how they’ve sown the seeds of verse. Its a practice in poetry that I’ve loved since first reading Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man, a book that author held back from the publisher until he could revise it with commentaries over many poems, an exercise that turned the work from a collection of metaphysical lovers’ laments into a reflexive powerhouse of experience embedded in language.
Within Struggle, it’s a work about the late Anthony Bourdain that most unnerved and left a mark on this reader. It's a work Sankarsingh notes “brewed inside me for almost two years”. It’s that sort of depth in language that surfaces here, of words, rolled around in the mind for months on end, like the emotions tethered to them, that are able to finally express a deep-seated pain, and give it voice. There’s a universality in what Bourdain’s life came out, despite wealth, privilege, etc., that we can all see in a mirror -- being naked to our own pain. It’s impossible not to feel sick when you read the lines “Today you see me smiling, you can’t tell me from the rest / Putting on a false demeanour is the one thing I do best.” This, more than anything, is what the human condition has become. “Keep calm and carry on” might have worked for a colonial empire brought to its knees -- the suggestion here is a strong one: that ethos is what destroys our common humanity, and drives us further apart. And that’s an interesting comment on false notions of stoicism, the kind that merely ignores, denies or turns inward the pain of trauma, of mental illness, of violence done by others. If we proceed like this, yes, we may fool the enemy temporarily, but we ourselves become inhuman, become the pain, and lose any chance at transcendence.
“The Future” and “Capitalism Gone Mad” would have made George Orwell wince and nod. He also warned us of the fascistic and totalitarian ideals embedded in ideologies of all stripes… these poems remind us that we’ve come to fall so in love with our own version of technocracy fueled by the cult of the new. Marx might have added: “It was always mad, and I tried to tell you.” In “Suddenly” there is more of the universal experience, but with the author moving now more towards a description of our condition, told unvarnished, in a voice where the narrator’s comes close to matching the author’s. Here, we see the point of A Sliver of a Chance explicitly: to display this common ground in such a way as to point a way home, to togetherness, to recognizing how we all hurt in these ways and need each other to understand it. Here the rhymes chime in the reader’s mind and heart. We feel the confluence of Sankarsingh’s understanding collide with our own in his words -- and there is a joy in recognizing and acknowledging and reckoning with common pain. Here, on the page, is an invitation to feel along with your fellow humans. To see them for what they are: your brothers and sisters. To share some of the burden. “We know life gives no guarantees,
One moment flying, the next on your knees. Losing someone hurts every fibre of your being. Part of you silent, another screaming.” These moments later in the work inform the earlier, more political works, by reminding us that we must consider the common pain across our so-called divides, of race, of political culture, of histories. We must find ways to get back to the common humanity that many of us know and hope to be still at the core of this species.
By the time we’ve travelled into the two conclusion sections -- Love’s DNA, with its delightful (and in its own way devastating) foray through the triumphs and trials of the heart, and For the Love of Poetry, with its playful jaunts through drunken remorse, it’s obvious that we’re dealing with a kind poet. His is a language of hope, and wonder, at both the pain and the joy of living, and of the trials, many of us endure. Here are celebrations of beginnings, and endings. Of relationships lost, and of loves savoured. Of children leaving the nest. By the time we land on “Silver Linings,” as soft a landing as any poet has ever made for this reader, we are left to wonder at the breadth of it all. Brian Sankarsingh has found a master key in poetry -- that the word turned in the mind, on the tongue, and between the author and their reader, can flip despair into joy, happiness back to melancholy, and is one of our surest paths to understanding, if only we’d take a minute to put our latest apps down to read, and really listen.
I sincerely hope this won’t be the last works Sankarsingh shares with us. Thanks for the ride.
A Sliver of a Chance: Insights and Observations of a Canadian Immigrant by Brian Sankarsingh is a short collection of poetry of the very highest order. Sankarsingh covers the full gamut of the human condition in his poems, even switching styles from time to time to change things. From politics to racism, colonialism, struggle, all the way through to love, romance, and heartbreak, the poet covers them all with his own unique perspective, style, and insight. Each poem is preceded by a short explanation of the occasion that inspired the poem and often what was driving his emotions at the time. As an immigrant, the poet is drawn to topics that resonate with the immigrant experience. Despite being in Canada, he is fully cognisant of the current political situation in the U.S., and several of his poems, such as Partisans and Guns – Us & Them, address the hyper-partisanship and gun culture of the States. Some of his most powerful works, such as The Slaves Lament and Indentured, address the evils of slavery and colonialism, especially the raping and pillaging of a culture’s resources and peoples to enrich the colonial power, often in the name of religion and/or “civilization”.
I’m not normally a poetry person but A Sliver of a Chance really spoke to me in places on a visceral level. Poet Brian Sankarsingh has a perspective that is fresh and somewhat untainted as an immigrant. His style is flowing, eminently readable, and with an excellent grasp of the power of the written word. As with any collection of poetry, some poems spoke to me more than others but any poem from this wonderful collection could accurately be described as a “headliner”. If I had to choose three personal favorites, though, I would probably go for A Sliver of a Chance which perfectly sums up the mindset of almost anyone who has made the life-changing decision to leave the country of their birth and seek a new life in a strange, foreign land where often they don’t speak the language. One line in particular resonated with me: “But with my dark skin, And your avoiding glance, I never even manage to get, A sliver of a chance.” Playing the Victim Card was a wonderful exposition of the problem of “white privilege” that so many people seem unable to understand or empathize with. I loved this poem. Roller Coaster was a wonderful poem that defines the heights and depths of love. In quoting Shakespeare, the poet mused, “I believe that music is, indeed, the food of love, but poetry is its DNA.” I certainly couldn’t argue with that sentiment. If ever there was a book to open a self-proclaimed Philistine to the beauty of the poetic word, I would say this is that book. This was the first publication of this artist’s work – I hope it will not be his last. A fantastic read.
A Sliver of a Chance by Brian Sankarsingh is the author's collection of poetry that focuses on the personal experiences of Canada's marginalized communities. While North America's largest country is usually viewed by its neighbors to the south and much of the rest of the world as not having the same issues of systemic racism and disenfranchisement as the United States, Sankarsingh breaks this myth down with poignant and profoundly honest verses, without disregarding the frailty of democracy just below Canada's borders. The poems are divided into six categories, Politics, Racism, Colonialism, Struggle, Love's DNA, and For the Love of Poetry. Each poem is prefaced with an introduction in order to provide additional context.
I was drawn to A Sliver of a Chance by Brian Sankarsingh as I am also a brown immigrant to a country that colonized and subjugated my people, but I still chose England over the States for exactly the same reason many minorities choose the UK, Australia, or Canada: racism is universal but at least most of the racists here don't have guns. Sankarsingh writes with a painful degree of wit that elevates him above the parapet of like-minded poets, using wordplay with intelligence and a marked, direct feeling of purpose that is wholly grasped by a reader. I was particularly touched by the poem The Burden of Colour which says, “But you, oh, animal of mine, With your skin of varying colour, Subjugation is your lot—To be forever in my power.” As the father of a daughter, I also loved the poem For TBS, an ode to a child that is as beautiful as it is promising. This is an excellent anthology and I'm so grateful to have come across it. Very highly recommended.
A Sliver of a Chance: Insights and Observations of a Canadian Immigrant by Brian Sankarsingh contains some true and moving emotions. From politics, racism, segregation, and slavery to doing everything humanly possible to provide for a family, this book has it all. The fear of the stigmas brought on by anxiety, depression, and mental disorders. The pain and anger of racism that has been taken so lightly that it has become lost on deaf ears or completely misunderstood. Fighting for the right to drop guns or bear arms, losing so many people to COVID-19, and the poor getting poorer while everyone else hoards, complains, and refuses to do the right thing. This poetry book covers centuries-past history to modern-day truths.
Brian Sankarsingh is a poet I would love to see a lot more work from. A Sliver of a Chance: Insights and Observations of a Canadian Immigrant is an amazing work of verbal art that will fill the reader with emotions concerning each topic. The beauty and truth in every single line are made up of a pure emotional commitment to humanity in the way society has treated so many issues with blatant disregard and sometimes disdain. The poetry in this volume is nothing like anything else you will see in other books. The words are not always formed to rhyme perfectly which in turn makes the work perfectly unique and interesting. I love how all of the poems give deep insight into each and every topic covered. From migration in colonial times, slavery, depression, anxiety, and the coronavirus, this poet has covered it all! I recommend this volume to anyone, even those that do not like poetry, and look forward to many more volumes by Sankarsingh!