- United Kingdom -
Claudine Toutoungi is an award-winning playwright and poet. Her first collection Smoothie (Carcanet, 2017) received warm reviews and was followed by Two Tongues (Carcanet, 2020), a surreal exploration of the dislocations of modern life, that won the Ledbury Munthe poetry prize in 2021 and an Authors’ Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared widely in the UK and abroad in such publications as Poetry, Poetry Review, PN Review, the Guardian, the Spectator, the New Statesman, the Financial Times and her many live poetry contributions to festivals include Tongue Fu, Poetry East, the National Theatre River Stage, Kendal Festival, Ledbury Festival and appearances on BBC Radio 4.
Claudine’s plays Bit Part and Slipping ran at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2014, following Slipping’sselection for New York’s Lark Play Centre’s international HotINK series. A bittersweet drama about a relationship sparked in an ocular prosthetics clinic, Claudine’s adaptation of Slipping for Radio 4 was a 2015 BBC Audio Drama Awards finalist in three categories. Her dramas for BBC Radio 4 include Deliverers, Home Front, The Inheritors and multiple dramatisations of work by writers such as Delphine de Vigan and Mira Hamermesh.
Claudine Toutoungi grew up in Warwickshire and studied English and French at Trinity College, Oxford University. After a Master’s at Goldsmiths, she trained as an actor at LAMDA and worked as a BBC Radio Drama producer and English Teacher. As a dramatist, her plays Bit Part and Slipping have been produced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. She lives in Cambridge. Two Tongues, published in 2021 by Carcanet, was the winner of the Ledbury Munthe Prize for Second Collections in 2021. Of Two Tongues, Steve Whitaker of the Yorkshire Times, says “Toutoungi’s poems are a blistering hail of words, a ravening, gathering storm of sound and meaning that insinuate themselves into every receptor… her latest collection is overwhelming, leaving the reader aghast at her lexical brilliance”. Smoothie, Toutoungi’s debut collection, published in 2017, laid the foundation of “lexical brilliance” Two Tongues developed. Of Smoothie, Claire Trevien of Poetry London said: “Smoothie is a jet of multilingual exuberance…this is, in many ways, what you want from a debut collection: a willingness to experiment with tones and voices, and the promise of deeper excavations in the future.”
Two Tongues satisfies that promise of deeper excavation. The title –– which is sonically related to the author’s last name –– is, as Toutoungi explains in various appearances, a shade of falsehood. Two Tongues contains various languages: English, smatterings of French, fractions of Hungarian, German, Arabic, and Spanish. Toutoungi’s poems destabilize: languages other than English veer in like cars emerging from blind spots. Where other poets set up scenes by describing architecture, the physical specificities of place, Toutoungi suggests place through the tongue:
J’admire votre hérisson
you tell the woman in the artisanal cake shop
because it isn’t every day you see a chocolate-sculpted
(“The Marmots are Suffocating”)
The collection struts inside of fragmentation, at times melancholy, at times ecstatic. With Toutoungi having trained as an actor and dramatist, I can’t help but feel that each poem begins, not in the oft necessary silence between the title and the first line, but rather with stage-lights flashing on, the scene having been reset in complete darkness, the speaker in another position, dressed in a different costume and language altogether. But the dramatic monologue, –– which many of the poems could be read as –– yes, proceeds through psychological association of the speaker, but, in Toutoungi’s craft, does not require the typical restraints of grammar and syntax. In “There are Mushrooms in the Gallery”, a poem composed primarily of monostiches, Toutoungi is at her most compelling, as it creates its own micro-form through repetition:
there are mushrooms in the gallery
lion’s mane oyster
and whilst the artist’s project may be to provoke reflection upon
impermanence and friability
the curator would urge you to remember that
there are mushrooms in the gallery
also expressions of racist and homophobic views which the curator is at
pains to point out
do not reflect the ethos of the gallery
Toutoungi’s idiosyncrasy evokes the “crystalline jumble” Ashberry remarks of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Refraction could be one goal of the poems, as opposed to reflection, a tidy reflection of the poet’s psyche. The opening poem of Two Tongues “Rift” almost seems to give a treatise on how to continue reading the collection. In seven pliant lines of autumnal, almost pastoral, imagery, the speaker terminates the poem: “Nothing more incomprehensible than that, / nothing more consoling.” It’s almost as if, after being handed “sunlight on bare arms”, “marauding ducks, and “sheep [wearing] serious faces”, we are asked to rest our senses which might reach towards the ‘certain’, the ‘beautiful’, the ‘there’, and find consolation in the incomprehensible. I don’t think incomprehensible, in Toutoungi’s work, means impenetrable, but perhaps, another mode of understanding may need to rise. Perhaps we may need to default to the ear. Toutoungi’s sonic richness and variety recall English poet Geoffrey Hill, restless in their colliding of vowel sounds and often devoid of rhythmic function words:
I am taking up a new position
spreadeagled on the shingle
welded by the half-baked
sun to the earth’s crust, a
draggled with bladderwack
(several suppurating encrustations
Many poems contain behemoth words. In Two Tongues you’ll find words like “appoggiatura”, “dipsomaniac”, and “obstreperous”; in Smoothie, “crenellate” and “supra-ventricular”. There’s a way in which these kinds of words, in the context of Toutoungi’s poems, do not obfuscate but rather dazzle, often making even English feel like a second tongue (it’s a known fact that native English speakers use very little percentage of the full lexicon).
It's easy to relay logics that are unconventional to the logic of dreams, but to remark on Toutoungi’s two collections as solely surreal doesn’t quite fit. These poems leave a real impression, however much they may seem to arise from some nether region; perhaps this nether region is identity, persistence, or, just the composite static that sits behind any life. As Peter Pegnall in Ploughshares said of Smoothie, “There is a real danger and exhilaration here and a kind of excoriating honesty”. Smoothie begins with a declaration of wanting to be noticed, but it's Toutoungi’s acute ability to notice, document, contradict, and collate that is entirely noticeable and lastingly noteworthy.
/ Future Perfect
The Linguisticator meets you at Carrefour.
Un vrai galant, he buys you rouge à lèvres.
Teaches socially accepted forms of extrication.
If someone gropes you, say Arrête tes bêtises.
If someone wonders why your hair is mussed, say C’est le mistral.
If someone asks you to admire their ugly baby, say Je me sa uve and leave.
The Linguisticator is a veritable language experience.
You programmed him in Oregon but he caught a virus.
Now his Frenchness is cent fois off the spectrum.
Sings Aznavour as you tour the centre historique and Piaf on the tram;
Padam, Padam, when it clangs.
The Linguisticator can stop a tram with one raised eyebrow,
one soi-disant eyebrow. A fatalist, he has abandoned caution
with certain potent liquors of the region. Ask him if he’s ok, he’ll say
Le silence éternel de ces vastes espaces m’effraie.
Ask him what irony means, he says
Tout pour le mieux dans ce meilleur des mondes possibles.
But if his ennui peaks, he suspends all conversation.
Broods for hours muttering Putain,
je suis rien qu’un two-bit trompe l’oeil.
Malaise on a loop. It never fades.
i.m Niall McCabe
In the space between two worlds
I poach an egg. It’s early.
I have fasted all night, a long night,
spent mainly talking with my spirit guide,
or rather, listening.
And when I say spirit guide, I mean
Niall, the Omagh boy from Drama School,
who used to be all thunder in the pub.
He wore his cloud-mass like a crown,
daring you to come and try and break it,
but in the dream, if he was weather,
he was a gulf-stream,
he was a golden O reciting Shakespeare
in a parlour-room with chintzy décor.
Once I was afraid to catch his eye during a love-scene,
but in the parlour-room we gazed and gazed.
No-one could look away.
Of course, I begged him, “How do you do it, Niall?”
because, in truth, I was desperate for his secret,
I was parched for his charisma,
but I couldn’t hear his answer.
Still it was enough to see him back again and shining
resplendent in that parlour room,
after his miserable December passing.
/ Midtown Analysis
after Lorca’s A Poet in New York
Some of those edge-of-the-precipice
people are circling
smiling at breasts
asking directions to places of worship.
Sunlight glares through gaps in metal towers.
You are always walking
towards the Norman Foster building.
Men rise again
from a hole in the street.
A red hand flashes.
You reach for a cocktail
swallow a cab.
The Stock Exchange is not yet
covered in moss
but everyone’s timing is off.
The sense of scale is mortifying.
A man wants to explore your bag/
your heart/your mind.
You lie upside down on his couch.
Vermont Clothbound Cheddar fills your throat.
He blames the axial
pull of the vertical.
You choke. He suggests
you try to be less literal.
You’re there in front of me
looking like the longest, tallest
coolest glass of water. You might as well have
Drink me written on your collar.
My heart swims in my chest like a fairground
goldfish trapped in plastic and
whether it’s the fact we’re gulping coffee
after coffee from the buffet, or that every time
you touch my elbow things feel worse, or the way
we don’t make room for others in our conversation – I can’t
tell, but it seems to me your tongue sticks to the roof of
my mouth, though it doesn’t and I can’t pronounce the
words I need to say and even when my friend, your wife,
arrives it doesn’t come and so I say congrats. Not
even the whole word just its shrunken cousin –
and your expression hovers right before your face
and doesn’t seem to want to land.
/ glacial erratics
we drank unpasteurised milk in the valley
we imbibed the non-compliant polyamorous air in the valley
we got in touch with our authentic rage in the valley
we made inroads into inroads in the valley
we took the tops of our heads off in the valley
we held as ’twere a mirror up to nature in the valley
we ate the flesh of the valley
we bathed in glacial flour in the valley
we got a sort of stupid crush on the valley
we objectified the valley
we to some extent coerced the valley
and to a lesser extent empowered the valley
we bought shares in the valley
we lost everything at the casino in the valley
we exhausted the valley
we denuded the valley
we discussed whether it was hedg-emony or hegg-emony in the valley
we put ourselves through eccentric contractions in the valley
we died intestate in the valley
we came back to life in the valley
we expected a hell of a lot from the valley
we forgot the names of what we were looking at in the valley
we glowered in the valley
we wore approach shoes in the valley
we diagnosed a handful of complaints in the valley
we had a case of the vapours in the valley
we melted, thaw’d and resolv’d into a dew in the valley
we were entirely transparent in the valley
we added our innate natural charm to the innate natural charm of the valley
/ lost ü
in Iskenderun or Cairo or God only knows
it fell from my name
got trampled in dirt, wasn’t
scorpion-crunched but scrambled and scuttled and fashioned
from dust a magnificent hopalong gung-ho
hop and went
up to a perch in the cleft of a spindly
not a halo as such nor legible
signage—construed as a fly or an optical
blur, dashed-off-forever-unfinished notation
scrap—a blink or a blip, caress, kiss, wince or
half of an upturned
but up there for years
an ahem, an unnoticed
in the olive trees
in the blackest recesses of Bistro Malatesta entre les heures du quatre à cinq
(forgoing his liaison with Odette for the third time in as many days) Prudhomme observes a snailfish
undulating round the hat stand’s spine, the stalagmites of candles (its sad, small eyes, its cryptic lack of scales)
wants to cleave to it
wants to shake the dipsomaniac in the corner, hiss Ay caramba! Have you seen it? Here on the Rue Mouffetard – so far from deep-sea canyons, so far from home?
considers eating it flavoured with rosemary, flavoured with dill
sees it, loses it in Gauloise furls, catches it again, its curl/uncurl progression along a velveteen banquette
it stirs him – its decision in oblivion to be a thing of light and so gelatinous
thinks of turtles nibbled at by surgeon-fish
wonders if perhaps he’s lost his grip, and if he has,
After your biggest mail-out yet to 4796 of your
closest friends and acquaintances, three replied.
One said yes I can come. Another said yes I
might come. A third said no, I can’t come.
Then it was time for sleep because it was
Thursday and for anti-ageing purposes
you always tried to be asleep by five.
In your dream there were eight Toyotas
six Kias and a Lamborghini. You totalled
all of them in fifteen separate crashes.
Ended up in hospital where you met
a shepherd, a vegan and a gerontologist.
The shepherd taught you to count sheep
in Cumbrian—Yan. Tyan. Tethera. Methera.
The vegan was mute and the gerontologist
advised you to ditch the number 3, the letter
C and all your relations. What all of them?
you queried. But I have 417 and that’s only
my nuclear family. In the dream it came out
as enucleate family, which over time got
interpreted by five psychiatrists as passive
aggression, toxic narcissism, Capgras
Syndrome, low blood pressure and angst.
You went with angst because you enjoyed
saying Ich babe angst and because it had the
fewest letters and because partially it was true.