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Wales Book of the Year shortlist review: Cowboy by Kandace Siobhan Walker

08 Jun 2024 5 minute read
Cowboy by Kandace Siobhan Walker is published by CHEERIO Publishing

Cowboy is one of the three shortlisted books in the poetry category for this year’s English language Wales Book of the Year Award

CJ Wagstaff

Novel, eccentric and disruptive: in this debut full-length collection, Kandace Siobhan Walker offers us fifty-four birds of surprising rarity, confronting heavy questions of self and society with conversational ease.

Compared aptly with jazz music by publisher Cheerio, Cowboy takes delicious joy in providing new and abstract filters with which to view familiar images, subverting in places how we understand and expect language to work.

Previously the recipient of the Eric Gregory Award and the White Review Poets Prize, here Walker earns every one of her bygone honours again.

Her voice is every inch as strong and distinctive as in 2022’s high concept pamphlet Kaleido, yet in this volume we see her seek to cast her net wider, arriving confidently at her analyses of identity and belonging.

Past and Present

Growing up is the unifying theme of this collection. Memory is illustrated with striking detail as the poet employs close scrutiny of the self at each phase of her life.

In ‘Brownie McGhee’ the speaker is presented as a child, with the image of “mum’s braids / whipping the sweat from her shining waist.”

In ‘Forrest Gump’, she offers a reflection on being a young woman learning to absorb the blows of contemporary existence, playing “sad gay albums to a nub”.

Throughout the book, time is represented through physical talismans, “starry lipgloss” or box sets of “The OC season three”. The work is characterised by a uniquely modern voice and sensibilities which are steeped in a millennial sense of humour.

In addition to reminiscence of personal history, this output calls upon the poet’s ancestral legacy, generating narratives which serve as a connecting bridge between the past and present.

Walker wields the stories and struggles of her Afro-Caribbean forbears to reflect upon her own identity and the broader cultural landscape.

In ‘Three Mangoes, £1’, she contends, “our dead / couldn’t stay dead even if they wanted to”, highlighting the potency of lineal heritage and tradition as she reckons with close familial grief.

She not only honours her roots but asserts the relevance of these histories in shaping her lived experience.

In ‘Traditional Religion, or, Animism’ the poet invokes imagery and symbols from her diverse cultural ancestry, with reference to the West African storyteller, “griot in / his dry grass cape”.

Here and elsewhere, she uses precise description to create sensory immersion with the smell of “burnt soap” and the taste of “seawater”, inviting the reader to engage with the rich cultural narratives that have hewn her as an individual.


A duality of experience informs this work. Walker relates the challenges and triumphs of navigating multiple cultural identities, reflecting on the sense of in-betweenness that comes with being part of these distinct worlds.

Her poems grapple with themes of diaspora and displacement, exploring how cultural heritage can be both a source of strength and power, “I decide when I come home” (‘Wales / You! Me! Dancing!’) and a site of conflict and longing, of “trying to remember the meaning of ‘home’ and ‘address’” (‘Nationality and Borders’).

Through this lens, the poems are sure to resonate with readers who have experienced their own journeys of self-discovery and cultural reconciliation.

Walker administers poignant and evocative imagery through her application of lexis, capturing the resilient spirit of her ascendants while providing a panoptic view of the present day.

In Cowboy, the poet makes garden-fresh use of metaphor. The book’s second offering ‘Mustang’ delivers figurative constructions such as “I’m absolutely dolphins,” echoing the unbalanced sensation of early infatuation.

This poem is the first of a number in which heave with abstract expression and are fastened eruditely shut with their closing lines: with “Spare me / while we’re still four-legged, hoofed and wild,” we recognise an impulse to reject modernity for something altogether more primal.

In The Pleasures of Poetry, Hall posits that “the new metaphor is a miracle, like the creation of life”. Walker approaches this abiogenesis with a spirited humour.

Many of the poems are challenging, testing the limits of the reader’s imagination as the artist draws unearthly but rock-solid depictions from her fancy.

Hidden Stories

Gender, sexuality, place and relationship are realised and navigated with a nimble and confident hand, with language folded playfully back into itself to exact a miscellany of alternate meanings.

In an interview with Cheerio, Walker states, “I’m interested in how the world makes us and is made by us”, a sentiment which permeates the pages of this debut.

We see this cyclical approach enacted again and again, in numbers such as ‘Astronaut’, ‘Neopet’, and the ‘Cleaning Ladies’ poems.

On page sixty-four, ‘Cleaning Ladies I’ delivers a final lethal blow with the line, “We own nothing in the world, just the world.”

This persona poem serves as a tribute to the dignity and perseverance of undervalued domestic workers while giving nuanced consideration to the layers of social hierarchy at play.

Readers are welcomed to reflect on their own perceptions and judgements of the hidden stories that surround them as the collection is brought skilfully to an apposite close.

Cowboy is a feat of wonder: an astute and accomplished existential commentary which prompts the reader to dig deep to understand its montage of robust voice and image.

With this body of work, Kandace Siobhan Walker dispenses a grounded take on an actively mobile existence that sets the standard for new poetry in the UK and beyond.

Cowboy by Kandace Siobhan Walker is published by CHEERIO Publishing and is available from all good bookshops.

Vote for the Wales Book of the Year 2024 People’s Choice Award.

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