Poetry book of the month: Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante – review

An NHS nurse pines for her native Philippines in her captivating debut as a poet

Romalyn Ante is a nurse who came to the UK from the Philippines when she was 16 and is now based in Wolverhampton. This collection, her captivating debut, gives insight into her life: the everyday labour of working for the NHS – with its emergencies – offset by memories of the country she misses (the antiemetic of the title being a drug used to treat sickness and nausea). The opening poem, Half-Empty, begins with a quotation from Prince Philip: “The Philippines must be half empty - you’re all here running the NHS.”

His remark, balanced between compliment and insult, throws down a gauntlet (or a hospital glove). Ante is more playful than angry but in this moving, witty and agile book, there is more than one full-hearted poem of prince-shaming potential.

These poems have a tended quality, as though Ante’s kindness as a nurse extended to them. She is an unforced poet with a lightness of touch and fortitude, not neglecting to see her situation within a wider cultural and historical context. There is a particularly animated piece, Tagay! – Drinking Lambanog with My Filipino Colleagues, in which she shares her situation. Tagay is a Tagalog toast: each swig involves a different drinker and a freshly nuanced dream of return:

It’s my turn, Tagay!
The window is pockmarked by hailstones
but someday, Manila’s heat will smother us
and thaw our frosted lungs

In Ante’s England it is usually winter – a place of ankle-deep snow, red buses, cold comfort. In the superb title poem, she forecasts a chilly assimilation: “You’ll walk on gritted streets, light snow/ shawling you like a mother’s warmth.”

The Philippines comes across as more varied, precise – and warmer in every sense – than the UK. A whole poem, Patis, is devoted to her grandmother’s cooking:

There is a Batangas I cannot return to –
round my grandma’s table
glazed by dus
k, where each of us
takes a pinch of the rich fish flesh
and all we need is in our reach.

The poem conjures a vanished world: the locals “no longer nap in the grotto of bougainvillea” and the paddy fields are a “steadfast highway”; her grandmother doesn’t cook her famous patis any more.

Food sustains Ante’s work. In Group Portrait at the Stopover, she writes: “Let’s go home – to our elders’ kitchens/ where tapioca pearls soften in the choir of casseroles.”

It is the detail, the small print of home, which ambushes her. For us, the evocation of the Philippines charms (even when a detail is uncouth). She describes her father selling a buffalo to rent a jeepney – a Filipino bus – to take her to the airport and “the driver who spat out phlegm with the trajectory/ of a grasshopper that lands on the ground”. She remembers this with the special vividness we attach to turning points in our lives.

Each poem is a go-between: it is through poetry that worlds meet and converse. In #family, she shifts between hospital and home, the clinical and domestic, between actual and metaphorical fracture. The poem is an attempt to graft broken things. In The Shaman, The Servant, she contrasts her grandfather’s life as a revered shaman with hers as a slighted UK nurse, accused by one patient of stealing her job. In At the Other End of the Bridge, the idea of a poem as a go-between goes further still. In an afterword, Ante explains that, traditionally, when a woman leaves her village, her lover will send her off and watch her cross the bridge that connects her village to the next. This short, strange poem serves as a fantastical farewell and here, as elsewhere, Romalyn Ante proves an accomplished bridge builder.

• Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante is published by Penguin (£10). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

At the Other End of the Bridge

They cannot recall the explosion
of wings the day he watched her
walk the length of the bridge.

Gone are the nights he steals
the moon with a mango picker
and swaps it for her pocket mirror

and gone are the days she harvests
scales from the claws of an eagle
and uses them to bind his scars.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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