Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Diabolical Delights - Remembering the Joys of Halloween Masks

I vividly remember walking, as a three, four, and five year old, through the now non-existent Trinity Street Arcade, an understated, winding labyrinth of shops constructed in the 1970's and demolished a few years ago to make way for the soulless Trinity Leeds, an enormous draughty precinct where a million shops are stacked on top of one another. The old arcade had a definite identity, its tiles, and decor distinctly 70's, its arthritic escalator shuffling slowly upwards like a hungover slug, conveying us past mannequins decked in 80's fashions, towards the silvery steeple of the Holy Trinity Church, which spiked above the rooftops of the city in slightly wonky looking grey, and through a tunnel-like row of shops. 


But my infant memories of those slow ascents are not of church spires or window displays - save for one in particular - a now forgotten toy shop at the top level, at the end of the arcade, to which, from mid September,  I was beckoned by a gallery of grotesque faces.  Throughout the summer I would ask how much longer to wait until the masks might appear, and as Halloween approached would feel the lull of fear gripping me as we came closer to that hideous window, inexorably, irresistibly.


Buying a mask, preparing costumes, venturing out to "Trick or Treat," these were the pleasures of those infant autumns, evoked each time I pass a shop window festooned in pumpkins and fake spiderwebs, see a tribe of pint-sized ghouls and witches on some unsuspecting street, or wait for a knock at the door with my jars of vegetarian sweets.  It is probably not long before Halloween, and its related masks and costumes, are banned in Britain, but no amount of social conditioning, religious over-sensitivity or political absurdity can erase the impressions of those eerie faces, scowling, grimacing, back at me from beyond the glass, and now from beyond the tides of time, their villainous visages glimmering like macabre mirages through the mists of memory, ravenous fanged mouths arced in warm, devilish smiles.

MASKS

Like grisly batiks they hung head-high
grimacing in ill-lit windows,
the grinny scowls of green-cheeked witches,
thin-eyed skeletons' taut jaws
and shrunken features in greyscale morbidity,
a long bunched line of chunk-jowled monsters,
snarl-scrawled ugly mugs punching air with leaden stare,
devils, demons, wolf-men, bone-white ghosts,
blood-faced ghouls and vampires dripping
with nightmarish evil -

how I loved these seasonal arrays
of diabolical delight,
irresistible faces, haggard, shaggy masks
resplendently grotesque
and radiant
with all the gory glory of the damned.











Ryburn Ramblings

Often it is the beauty on our own doorsteps that we forget about or overlook, and only in the last few weeks have I been retracing my steps through the lush labyrinth of the Ryburn Valley, a valley within a valley, the area I lived in when I first moved to the Calder Valley, and still only a stone's throw from my present home.In doing so, I have been reminded of three poems I wrote in 2013, all related to the Ryburn Valley, and which I would like to share here, after a brief look at how the area came to be significant for me.

 

I lived in the Ryburn Valley for three years, during which time I first ventured into the arts and literary scene of the Calder Valley, criss-crossing between different jobs, and gradually undergoing significant life changes.  In April 2013 I published my debut poetry collection Little Creatures (Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms). Later that month, already familiar with the River Ryburn's source just west of the Ryburn Reservoir, and its presence in my town of Sowerby Bridge, I decided to walk its entire course to where it flows into the Calder.  Somehow, more than four years had elapsed before I took another wander to the river's origins, and in today's autumnal glow, the reservoir looked majestic.


There are definitely quite noticeable, dramatic differences in the geography and contours of the Calderdale area, from the wooded hills outside Halifax and Sowerby Bridge, towns which bear the gritty evidence of recent industry, to the primeval landscapes outside Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, whose industrial pasts are rooted further back, and the understated hamlets, villages, canals and meandering streams segueing in between, such as the civil parish of Ripponden, where I worked as a teaching assistant at the local primary school, the role which brought me to the Ryburn, and by association the Calder, Valleys.




From the summer of 2013, to March 2015 when I moved along the Calder Valley to the Bolton Brow area of Sowerby Bridge, I maintained a blog - Ryburn Ramblings - https://sites.google.com/site/ryburnramblings/home - celebrating the history, wildlife and literature of the district, and in the final post, I described my earliest experiences of the Ryburn Valley, when I would arrive on autumnal Tuesday mornings, to undertake voluntary duties at the school where I would later work :

As the bus from Halifax rolled through Sowerby Bridge and through the Ryburn Valley, I loved to see the sandy-coloured Yorkshire stone of the cottages and farms, and even the rows of shops and houses, which all seemed friendlier than the city buildings I had grown so used to.  Passing fields of cows at Triangle, and complicated several-storied houses which line up as you pass by the Post Office and cricket club without ever seeming squashed or awkward, I would alight at the terminus where one road leads into the fields of Kebroyd, another to the sunlit fringe of Hirstwood and the hills that peel away to Barkisland and the distant moors.

 

 Moving to the area in the ensuing hard winter of 2012, I would struggle to find my feet, juggling two jobs, and awed by the sheer vastness of the surrounding area - ironically, having migrated from the city, I found myself overwhelmed at the many miles of land in all directions, stretching in watery woodlands and hills climbing towards the peripheral moors.  2012 came and went in a wet, dark blur, and the winter of 2013 was almost hibernatory, but that spring I began to develop some sort of contextual appreciation for the place where I was living.  My poem Spring Time in the Ryburn Valley was written at around this time. Implicit in the poem is a focus on the science of flowering plants - I had just finished my second course of study in Horticulture - and an appreciation of the minutiae of the Valley's natural life. 
SPRING TIME IN THE  RYBURN VALLEY

The gorse is leaking into life, a yellow moor's mane,
tiny pea-flowers crowded on each spiny stem,
inundated with bees.

Old standing stones are leprous with lichen,
quarried soils heather-shawled, as swallows
torpedo through the evening air;

more insect-like than bird, it seems, as they skim
the telegraph wires in swift descents of inky black,
trios splitting like divided cells.

Their twittery-twizzle muffling the motorway's faint hiss,
they float on breezes wind-whistling in uneven lines
diminishing like outdated ideologies

until they are barely discernible,
twilight-smothered,
soot-specks above the moonlit moor.


And was followed by reflections on the previous autumn, in a sister poem - Autumn Morning, Ryburn Valley. This poem is less place-focused, and owes more, I think, to my mental state during those early Ryburn Valley days. What is sobering is the nihilistic tone; the daily news of warfare which has come to characterize our times, disrupts the attempt at domestic peace amid a splendid landscape.  My frustrations at the drill-like successions of traffic which would mount up outside the place I was living at the time is implied as early as the second verse, though those who know me (or, more importantly, my poetry) will know that a comparison with cockroaches is not necessarily a criticism.  There is a feeling of a year turning sour, or of idealized dreams dulled by cynical realizations, and the ending - which I had forgotten until re-reading the poem this evening - is truly morbid.


AUTUMN IN THE RYBURN VALLEY

Morning opens on a frost-pored valley,
unaskingly resplendent , whose slopes impose
infinities of contours.

At ten or fifteen minute intervals
cars slide by like cockroaches down walls
as distant kitchens sparkle in electric light,

pylons gradually assume their shapes
lie bones on grainy x-rays;
a foal skips by a stable

weak sunlight's a reminder
of mortality as the radio crackles into life
and the roads start clogging up.

News of bombings, murders,
cut-price carpets,
hours blur by like buses

conveying us to workplaces, court-rooms
or doctors' surgeries. By ten there's rain
slanting down in waves like napalm.
 

My time in the Ryburn Valley was one of unpredictability, periods of personal and professional unhappiness, but also one of rediscovery, and a second swipe at being young. I had spent much of my twenties lonely and bogged down in jobs I did not like, losing touch with the artistic world. In the Ryburn Valley I would find myself neighboured by a fellow writer and his flamboyant boyfriend.  At odds politically, the writer being something of a fanatical, self-avowed Communist, our worlds nevertheless converged for brief periods, and their bohemian abode became a sort of second home, a 24 hour party zone, decked in African statues, exotic decorations, and, incongruously, a glitterball which would glow above us like a kitsch-kindled moon as we danced to disco in the early hours, a colourful assortment of friends and foes spinning around the living room in a haze of smoke. Our paths intertwined also thanks to the local arts organization which was gearing up at that time, and in which I became centrally involved.  Beginning as a happy band of volunteers who simply wished to enhance the cultural diversity of our town, and to share in the symbiosis of collaborative arts, this group would dominate my life, at first positively, a channel through which to experiment with my own writings and performances, but more to promote the talents of others, an avenue which came to assume the central purpose of my life. In time, the organization crumbled due to egos, the founder members turning proprietorial and paranoid, seeking only their own gratifications and profits from a previously egalitarian endeavour, and using this showcase of community arts as a means of platforming their beliefs, while stifling those of others, the final straw coming for me with a very public demonstration of bias relating to an international conflict, followed by a swift rebuttal of my own request to devise a cultural event aimed at promoting peace between the two communities concerned - provisionally granted on the understanding that its language and terminology be acutely censored, which I refused.  Shortly afterwards, I vacated the Valley.

Since leaving, I have continued to live within walking distance, but visited the river's outer fringes less, until, that is, of late. Rediscovering the nooks and crannies of the Valley, delving among its dells and woodland waterways, and its ice-like reservoirs gleaming in the autumn sun, I'm reminded of those early wanderings, my thrill at first encountering the cottongrass and unusual fungi which spring up among the billowy grasses and moorland stones, not to mention the abundant wildlife.








 
 I'm reminded of how perhaps its most well known local attraction is one I notice every day on passing through, the Sowerby Bridge Geese, who not only congregate on the Calder and the Ryburn, but stop the traffic sauntering over roads, marching along pathways and gaggling en-masse on the pavements outside the superstore and swimming baths.


And as I walk the selfsame pavements, kicking up tufts of bronze leaves and rubbing my hands in the chill of an October wind sharpened by the precipitous, rain-and-river climate of the Ryburn Valley, I'm reminded of how special it is, that quietly grand corner of Calderdale, with its Yorkshire stone cottages and lop-sided terraced, its expansive fields splaying out towards the tributaries of the Calder, and the confluence of that muscular bloodstream of a river with its slighter, gentler cousin, the Ryburn, trickling politely through rocky woods and ochre blazes of autumnal gorse.  Reading through my other writings, I am reassured to find that the third of my Ryburn Valley trio of poems is not driven by anxiety or underscored with imagery of wars, but is in fact an affectionate daydream on the Valley's delights, something I wrote in the hope of conveying the tranquility of the area to those outside, and to demonstrate its value not only as a place for human peace and contemplation, but as a haven for varied and beautiful natural life.


RYBURN REVERIE 


Goldfinches stud bushes,
bulbous nuggets bouncing
bough to bough 


while up in branched complexities
blue-tits flit like pebbles
bobbing on a shore 


tree-top canopies
crackle with fiery
chattering; a jay pops out. 


Further down the hillside
where the hedgerow's feet
are tickled by the trickling 


of a stream beginning its snaky
circumnavigation of the valley,
wrens come and go, mice skirt kerbs 


and a myriad of insects
populate the branches, worlds
tucked under rocks and stones. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Where There Are Wolves - Barkisland in History and Poetry

Standing like a massive reminder of a former age on the edge of fields splaying over Stainland, Barkisland Hall is a Sixteenth Century mansion, its triangular Stuart structures chunkily cast in dark Yorkshire stone, weathered by the years.



















The modern, mini-suburbia of Sandyfoot clusters to the rear, while to the immediate North and South woodlands blur into the distance. Looking East from the building’s Gothic frontage, the Saddleworth Road weaves along the moors, herons wade the brooks which thread their tenuous ways through the surrounding moors to the Calder.  


Barkisland its self,a small Calder Valley village, is like a country of its own - too remote to feel very connected to the Calder Valley’s busy towns like Halifax or Hebden Bridge, too full of big, grand buildings to feel truly pastoral or rustic. Indeed, when I first read the name on bus timetables I remember imagining, based on my assumption the pronunciation was "Barkisland", a strange river island inhabited entirely by canines!
Apropos of its unusual name, one might also fancifully assume a connection with London's Isle of Dogs, and yet, its cricket club, its mid-Nineteenth Century chapel, its dignified War Memorial rising over the hills, neatly bracket Barkisland as traditionally rural.


 The village is quiet, gentle, at times it is possible to walk along the Scammonden Road without hearing even the remotest car. 


Yet Barkisland’s history is a great deal less genteel than its present-day tranquillity suggests.
Barkisland Workhouse was erected in 1827 with money from the sale of coal from local White Birch farm, of which, reads the 1827 plaque records, the interest that arises there from, is to be distributed to such poor people of Barkisland as have no Parochial Relief. The local stocks, which still exist, and are in fact classified as a Grade 2 Listed Building, can be seen on passing through the village, on the same site where they were once used.
If the poor were not to subsist in workhouses, or sink through devilment to the penury of the Stocks or worse, the main option locally was mill work, yet conditions here were often harsh. Look at the conical towers of Bower’s Mill, pointing steeply at the Heavens like the hats of ruthless Puritans. This Eighteenth Century fulling mill, a colossal testament to water-power, stands half obscured by trees, one wall facing the soft stream of Barsley Clough in a windowless hostility, like the cold hard flank of some military prison. Above, like frightened eyes glancing over blankets, small windows look out onto the hills. Over the centuries, the mill was used for corn, worsted, and wool, and the last textile company to occupy the premises, J&S Taylor Ltd, relocated to Sowerby Bridge in 1991, while nearby Bottomley’s, now demolished, was a corn mill. Bowery’s is now rented out to small businesses, but until recently, Barkisland Hall its self rose like a ghost above the watery wilderness, fronted by a reedy tangle of weeds and woodland. Now a residential building, it still appears like a relic of the Industrial Revolution, the pretty floral displays beside its stone gateposts doing little to dispel this grim impression. The Hall which, as documented on the excellent website, Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale, was built in 1638 for John Gledhill, part of the locally important Gledhill family who married into the Barkisland line in the 1300s. John Gledhill's initials appear along with his wife's above the main doorway. Barkisland Hall was bought not long after it was built by the Hortons of Howroyd, who retained possession until recent years. M. Eli Sutcliffe, cotton spinner, was the next resident. As well as the ordinary features of a Stuart structure, it has a three storey porch, a carved oak fireplace and ornate plasterwork. Unlike other contemporary houses of the area it is of three storeys.
 
Several local schools were built in the hope of providing education for poor infants. In 1657, landowner Sarah Gledhill bequeathed the sum of two hundred pounds current English money unto the use of a school master, for teaching such poor children of Barkisland, whose parents…shall not be able, to bring them up in learning.
By the eary 19th Century the building was a Grammar School, and its Master was the poet John Baxter. Born in 1790, Baxter presided over Barkisland Grammar from 1807 until his death in 1830. In 1818 he published a book of advice for the country’s young, modestly entitled A compendium of Christian Knowledge: consisting of a Series of Lessons on Morality, Virtue and Religion, carefully selected from the best Authors. Compiled chiefly for the Instruction of the Young, in their Religious, Moral and Social Duties, and to imbue their minds with the love of Piety and Virtue. Intended as a Class-Book at School; especially for the use of Sunday Schools. Intended for the Use of Young Persons, of both Sexes, at School, and for Families.   Or, more snappily, The Young Christians' Cyclop√¶dia.
Baxter’s God-fearing Christianity was also expressed in his poetry, in particular the strident 1824 polemic The Thunder Storm and The Atheist, which he suggested in the preface, possessed little merit … (and is) too trifling to gain or to deserve the Attention of the Public. The “trifle” begins with Latin quotes about the wrath of God, before Baxter launches into a threatening premise:

The gath’ring clouds portend the coming storm,
And a deep, solemn gloom o’erspreads the sky:
In mazy dance the forked lightning darts,
And lights the hemisphere with sudden blaze.
Hear now the distant thunder’s solemn roll;
The lofty hills reverberate the peal:
Near and more near approach th’ explosions dire,
Til o’er our heads bursts forth the awful voice,
And speaks aloud th’ Omnipotence of God!


 This fearsome passage seems at odds with its author’s account of how, in composing the poem, he afforded himself a pleasing relaxation from severer Studies. One dreads to think what studies might prove more severe than the contemplation of Such fire and hail as smote curs’d Egypt’s land, but nonetheless the relaxing Baxter hopes that should his poetry yield the least Amusement to others, his Wishes will be attained. With demonic - or perhaps Godly - energy, the poem rolls on, through a storm, in which after A loud crack swipes terror to the soul, the villagers (presumably of Barkisland) watch helplessly as:

The raging flood, impatient of restraint,
O’erflows its banks, and inundates the plain…
The well made hay, that late made the meadows crown’d,
Glides swiftly down the stream! The rip’ning grain,..
Lies prostrate on the ground, cover’d with sand,
And now appears a miserable wreck!


The exclamation marks suggests a certain zest in these descriptions, as if far from reflecting with regret, the poet actually wants to celebrate, or at least draw dramatic emphasis from, the watery misfortunes adding fresh terrors to the stricken villagers. Asking provocatively, Is this the God to which ye bow the knee? the eponymous atheist is mocked as impetuous wretch and Infidel. Baxter holds that this appalling, elemental war, which he acknowledges might seem bad to a jaundiced eye, is actually something to be happy about - for it clears away airborne impurities and makes it safe to breathe. The storm is now simply a refreshing breeze, and rather than address the question of how to love a God responsible for carnage and depletion, he urges readers to embrace worship instead of Avarice and Lust, leading into an assault on the atheist (and all thy sad fraternity) whose scepticism is more symptomatic of Mammon-worship and a life of stealing, than genuine disbelief. Those who do not worship are simply Harden’d in wickedness, for even though they blaspheme and deny that God exists, secretly that he exists thou know’st, but they dupe themselves into believing otherwise in the hope that by denouncing Christianity they will not suffer punishments in the way a believer might - like a criminal who claims not to have realized he has broken the law. Baxter goes so far as to declare, Rebels, not Infidels, in truth ye are, and soon after his repudiations are concluded, he is able to delightedly proclaim:

The raging storm (note his reversion to dramatic language) has passed. -
The parting clouds,
Glitt’ring with burnish’d gold, as they withdraw
Unveil the fair face of heav’n.


For all its contradictions, hollow arguments and at times pompous tone, Baxter’s poem contains striking passages, and a vivid picture of early Nineteenth Century Christian fervour, which must have been allowed to develop into manifold extremes in such places as Barkisland, which takes long enough to reach from nearby cities today but which two centuries ago must have been almost inaccessible at certain times of year.


The profusion of churches in and around the Ryburn Valley is a good indication of how deeply many of Baxter’s neighbours, far from taking the derided atheist’s position, would have endorsed the poet’s point of view, or at least of the significance of Christianity to the local population, and while towns such as Sowerby Bridge and Todmorden, with their gradual increase of Irish and Scots labourers, were to see the status of Nonconformism strongly marked on their heritage, Barkisland would remain anchored to tradition. Christchurch, built in 1820, is Barkisland’s only church.


But the history of Barkisland stretches further back than 19th Century Christianity. Archaeologists have uncovered a thousand year old axe, further evidence that Barkisland, later a Dane stronghold, was an Anglo Saxon settlement.

In the Hebden Bridge magazine Village Voice, an article entitled The Early Inhabitants of Barkisland appeared in February 1991, explaining there are the remains of an ancient British settlement called Meg Dike. This earthwork was built on a rectangular pattern and it included the site of an artificer's workshop. From here there was a track which led directly to the Ring of Stones (an ancient Druid place of worship)


In 1775, John Watson, Curate of Ripponden, published his History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax, where he explains: Barsey or Barkesey are Anglo-Saxon words meaning low-lying enclosures where birches grow. It also is the Anglo-Saxon for a district where there are wolves.
 In 1836, John Crabtree’s Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax states:
(the name) may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for a wolf, and land... as much as to say, the country remarkable for wolves; in this case, the place in the township called the Wolf-fold, must be looked upon as having actual reference to this animal.

The site of the Ring of Stones, Wolf Stones as called by some, stands at the outer reaches of Barkisland, near the reservoir lapped by Great Northern Divers and Canada Geese, near where the motorway throbs through Scammonden and where thin, trickling streams melt into the moors. The scene can hardly have changed throughout the centuries. Looking around at the vast, airy expanse, it is easy for the mind to slip back to bygone times, to the days of Danes, Druids, and wild wolves.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Three Zimbabwean Poets, 3: Fungisayi Sasa







Having just re-published my poetry collection Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, I've found my antennae finely tuned to poetry relating to the diminutive, so my discovery of Fungisayi Sasa's poem Flight Paths was most welcome, especially in the context of Caterpillar Poetry:


Flight Paths

Does Sir David Attenborough know that African blue-winged butterflies migrate?
My heart is the flame-lily on which they land.



Fungisayi Sasa was born in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, and, having been a poet since childhood, came to England in 2002 to study Business Administration, but enrolled three years later at the University of Bedfordshire, to study Creative Writing.  A children's author and a writer of fiction, she produced her debut poetry collection, Searching for the Perfect Head, in 2009, through New York publisher Eloquent Books. Much of her early work centred around her immediate surroundings and family, as the poet explained to Poetry International: I once wrote a short story about my older sister called 'My Margaret Murdered', complete with a cover of blood dripping from her neck. Naturally, most of my family didn't encourage my writing pursuits.
But this sinister quality would be refined by the time Fungisayi Sasa's first poems started to be published, into a tightly controlled style of macabre imagery, wryly framed in a sense of irony, allegory, or surrealism:

300 ROUNDABOUTS

Concrete cows have calculated
that only eight chicks are required
to change an energy-saving
light bulb.


There is often a vein of ghoulishness, as in Monsters, where

they shut
themselves 
behind doors
in darkening rooms


as

everywhere
memory has
broken through
barriers of the mind
.

























A somewhat shocking poem is the brilliantly brutal I Am Cannibal, in which - to my mind at least -  human hypocrisy and industrialized, cold-blooded violence are served up in a deliciously ironic slab of straight-faced satire:

I AM CANNIBAL

Take one man.
Remove his feet and head (for the head holds the mouth,
the mouth conceals the tongue
and a man’s tongue lies)
Pound, then knead the flesh until soft and pliable.
Place in a preheated oven (400°F/200°C/Gas 6) and roast for 50 to 60 minutes.
Serve hot before bitterness sets in.


But the poetry of Fungisayi Sasa is not all composed of metaphor, grisly imagery or dark humour.  It treads a finely woven tapestry of horror and lyricism - for instance, the hypnotic Dreamscape:

sleep deprived hides in chambers of
naked-bulbed wakefulness where
the conscious splits and hours
hidden by the mind creep
on reality and masqu-
erading thoughts
rise to take
control.


There are also more direct references to international problems, as in her witty retort to the rhetorical effusions of President Mugabe:

mr president
nobody is tuned in
to your frequency


or the hopeful Anthem, with its contrasting depictions of the land and people, and the nation's violent authorities:

when untreated water flows
from stainless steel taps
and kills thousands,
when those who cry out for peace
disappear; only to be returned
beaten and broke
n

and the scathing Myths and Legends, in which a return to the poet's home city reveals a place where Graveyards overflow, reminding her our country is in crisis:

 I roam the streets of our sunshine
city where death no longer yields
wailing or tears
but mute apathy.
Newspapers preach abundance
whilst the government’s doctrine of pilfering
and hoarding wealth thrives.
Where is the man who swore to rule
for the good of the people?
Where is the mind which conceived
a vision of independence?
The man has grown old and his wilted
wits tyrannize us all.


The poem is a blistering assault against political corruption, the crumbling of a dream gone sour, and a testament of despair at the Titan who fought for freedom, but now has had his fill and tramples many in his haste to kill and eat.

I walk through the ruins
of what once was a mighty fortress
of stone.
The wind echoes emptiness
and the merry conversations of a prosperous people
are now
silence.




Many of the poems of Fungisayi Sasa drip with pain, anger, and disgust.  When aimed at the legacy of her country's leaders, her ire is sharply focused and unwavering:

 his mouth is intrusive
invading my conscience
with words
his promises
i believe his tongue
dripping honey is a dagger
through my ears


(Mr President)
 
men you and i trusted
have violently taken from you all
that is precious
many of your children who fled in fear weep
for your pain and those left behind


(House of Broken Stones)

There is often the sense of a poet in exile:

how long i have missed your red earth
your scent of jacaranda
your balancing rocks and your dazzling smile


 Fungisayi Sasa is a poet of versatile talents -  polemical, with a targeted anger, and an ability to contextualize humour into rebutals of corruptions and injustice.  Unafraid of peppering her immaculate English with words and phrases from Zimbabwe (I owe to her my discovery of the Shona word nematambudziko, meaning "my condolences") in ways that lend an authentic edge to her laments for the troubles of her native land, she is a name to watch out for, an exciting talent to emerge from the country which brought to us the poetry of Zimunya, Chimedza, pioneering female voices such as Kristina Rungano and Ethel Kabwato, whose spirit Sasa's writing may be said to echo - but with the wonderful uniqueness of her own poetic identity, an identity of wit, lateral thinking, subversive storytelling, and, above all, beautiful language, and a deep sense of love for the land of her birth.

You are beautiful, my Zimbabwe,
though the sharp words of corrupt men
are the heavy, hard instruments
raping you again; again and again,
though the stench of a government’s
betrayal
is raw sewage fermenting in your streets
and even though your children lick the pus
from their wounds so that hunger may be appeased.
You are still beautiful.




Three Zimbabwean Poets, 2: Hopewell Seyaseya

Little appears to be known about Hopewell Seyaseya, other than that he began writing poetry while living in New Zealand, was first published in a1980's anthology of African poetry,and used to edit the Zimbabwean literary journal Counterpoint, along with fellow poet Albert Chimedza, from the country's capital, Harare.  I discovered Seyaseya in The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (1984), and was struck at the lyrical solemnity of his writing:

Silvery in the moonlit night
the river of my mind flows
to the nightsong of the truly great
entombed in the caves of history.




















But also present was a penetrative sincerity, in which a sense of personal loss was intertwined with a kind of valedictory spiritualism:

My brother's unmarked grave
only takes me to a dream and I will get no closer to him
than in my first death, and homeward I turn
to the whims of life and the certain death of man.



Seyaseya writes of death and graves in a softly flowing English, in which the gravity of the subject coalesces with a tempered exactitude of rhythm, setting out the images like macabre images in a slideshow, somehow simultaneously distinct, and seamless:

The serenity of the graves, the air,
the stones, the engraved names and dates;
the stillness of the cemented atmosphere
imprison the dead in the forest of death

And yet, the keyword in this montage of moratlity is "serenity", for he follows the funereal description by explaining And there I long to retire / for the burden is too heavy.  

Seyaseya has been described his contemporaries as a poet writing of the struggles of the underdog, of the troubled times he lived in, and of the burdens of the Zimbabwean poor.  This is evident in his poem about an urban prostitute, whose poverty has rendered her, in Seyaseya's eyes, Neither black or white, but simply defined by her role as Emilda of the flats, who  Lives lonely, not alone.

Thirty years ago, the University of Zimbabwe praised Seyasaya for articulating the predicament of the whole of Zimbabwean society in his often despairing poems, but as a writer he was interested not only in the problems of humanity, but also those affecting the natural world.  In 1978, while working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, he published the academic text River Reserves: a policy for the conservation of waterways and their adjacent lands in New Zealand, lending to his legacy an uncanny relevance to my own experience, reading his work as I do amid the watery environment of the Calder Valley, an area largely dominated by waterways, canals, reservoirs, and of course by its eponymous River Calder.  When Seyaseya writes Silvery in the moonlit night / the river of my mind flows, I picture him perched on the bridge by the Calder, a stone's throw from my window, listening to the nightsong of our owls, and the hooting of the geese ploughing en-masse through a star-speckled midnight sky, the music crescending through the valley with the faint whir of the recycling plant, the echoes of long-gone industries, their sad histories imprinted on our skyline in decaying husks of chimneys, factories and mills.


But it is a wholly different history of which Seyaseya speaks - one of ghost towns and stabbed villages, of the memories of war which scar his country's past.  His poem Nightsong, published in 1984 when the Mugabe regime was less than half a decade old and had not yet developed - or digressed - into the full-blown tyranny it would become, may seem to hint at a brighter tomorrow for Zimbabwe, but there is no doubt that the poet's veneration is reserved not for any modern day policy makers, ideologues or revolutionaries, but for fallen heroes of yesteryear, who perished in forging the freedoms still denied to their successors, entombed in the caves of history,but whose example will come down to settle on our hearts / like dew on leaves, enshrining the poet's hopes for a better future for his country.  Tragically, more than three  decades after it was written, the dream envisaged by this profoundly allegorical, deceptively short, beautiful poem, continues to elude the troubled country of Zimbabwe.

Nightsong

Silvery in the moonlit night
the river of my mind flows
to the nightsong of the truly great
entombed in the caves of history
at heroes' acre. The music
crescending through the valley
of ghost towns and stabbed villages
will come down to settle on our hearts
like dew on leaves, tears for those
who surrendered their lives at the altar
leaving in us an eternal flame.


Three Zimbabwean Poets, 1: Musaemura Bonas Zimunya

I was appalled to hear this week of the decision of the UN World Health Organization to list Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador.  When I worked in healthcare, many of my colleagues were from Zimbabwe, and over the years of working on the wards of psychiatric hospitals I got to know many Zimbabweans.  In later years I have also worked with Zimbabweans, and all had one thing in common - a detestation of Mugabe, and I was unsurprised when, following this week's ludicrous news, opposition spokesman Obert Gutu,told reporters The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state. It is an insult.  Mugabe trashed our health delivery system. He and his family go outside of the country for treatment after he allowed our hospitals to collapse.
Thankfully, Mugabe's ambassadorship, dreamed up by the WHO's Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was short lived.  Following condemnation from global health groups, and WHO staff, the clownish Ghebreyesus, announced that he had "listened" to the criticisms, and after just three days the appointment was revoked.  Ghebreyesus remains in post - presumably because, even by their current standards, the UN have been unable to find anyone sufficiently stupid to replace him.

Reflecting on this situation, though, had one positive outcome for me.  It reminded me of former colleagues, and the discussions we would have about the culture and literature of their country. Zimbabwean poetry in translation has long been an interest of mine, and I want to look at a trio of poets in particular who have influenced me personally, and to which I most instinctively relate.


I have a special affection for Musaemura Bonas Zimunya, on three counts.  First, those of us whose surnames begin with Z are few - even in countries whose names also start with Z - and among poets, especially so - ensuring a certain loyalty from the off.   More seriously, Zimunya's work ponders one of the profoundest ethical questions facing humanity - our relations with the non-human world - and was one of the single biggest inspirations behind my decision to write Little Creatures, my poetry collection celebrating insects, small mammals and micro-organisms.



Born in eastern Zimbabwe in 1949, Zimunya left Zimbabwe in the 1970's to study at the University of Kent at Canterbury, returning in 1980, and becoming a Professor of English. A scholarship to study in New York followed, and Zimunya has also been secretary general of the Zimbabwean Writers' Union, as well as now teaching Black Studies at Virginia Tech.  But, despite his wide travels, the land of his birth remains a vital presence in Zimunya's work, such as his descriptions of the native mountains:

Arched solidly he remains
Like a pangolin during a mating season
And the green carpet white he stains
Until mystery dissolves him.


and in the more panoramic, long poem I Like Them:

 I like the northern mountain of my home
crouching like a monstrous lion –
with a brown bald head

I like the Chevrolet western mountains
lying still below the vivid blue of the sky –
with wheels of boulders
and axles of earth
and windows of stone –
tearing its way towards the south.

How I like the Eastern mountains
leaning closely together  like collapsing waves
threatening to drown the northern
and splash upon us too. 


His early poetry explores the beauty of nature, later work articulates the alienation of his generation under Colonialism, and eventually Zumunya was to condense these two themes in books like Country Towns and City Lights (1985), where he laments the disillusioning realities of both rural and urban life.  In a 1998 interview, Zimunya described his own motivations for this side of his writing:

Having been raised in rural areas and suffered culture shock of city life myself, it was only natural that I would benefit creatively from the conflict and tension of that experience. My first impressions of the city and city life were actually very divided, being attraction to the bright lights and being repelled by the immorality and the ugliness of racism. As for growth points, I see them as a shaky bridge between the rural and the urban, combining the worst forms of cultural assimilation.
 
 
We have fled from witches and wizards
on along long road to the city
but behind the halo of tower lights
I hear the cry for human blood
and wicked bones rattling around me





The inescapability of the past may taint the memory of lives left behind, but sense of impending threat seems to hang over Zimunya's depiction of the urban future:

 We moved into the lights
but from the dark periphery behind
an almighty hand reaches for our shirts. 

 
Regretting what he saw as the country's cultural malaise, Zimunya despaired of Zimababwe in the 1970's, and prior to his years in exile would mourn the passing of ancestral traditions.

We have no ancestors
no shrine to pester with our prayers
no sacred cave where to drum our drums
no
svikiro to evoke the gods of rain
so we live on
without rain, without harvest 


Later blending the corporeal into metaphor:

No whistle of a bird,
no flutter nor flap
amid the brown fingers of trees
without leaves
when spring’s lushness
should be wiping my tired eyes
and dipping gleams of sunshine
into the young leaves.

Where shall we find the way back?
opaque darkness guards our exit
we have groped and groped until
our eyes were almost blind and
it was hard to rediscover.

The threat of violence seems ever present in the lines above, and the poem Tarantula published in 1982, recounts an interaction which, for me, exposes the root cause of so much of human violence: fear.  

Emerging red-claw raised between my pillows, the eponymous tarantula has surprised Zimunya by appearing in his home, to ambush my nerves.  and the poet then describes a disoriented search for implements to kill the creature: 

I lost my decision awhile as the space
I knew so well diminished in the search
for weapons - books, combs, chairs.

The spider's fate is clear, as its expiring limbs bend to your face / with the pain of the spray-bursts held so long / like a fire extinguisher, but its human killer then indulges in a bout of Anthropocentric philosophizing:

 How are you dead
when my ankles and my hind-arm
still echo my fears with aching burning?

In other words, how - when the significance of your presence is still so evident in me, can I accept the sudden lack of it? What I like about Zimunya is his honesty, and when I first read the poem, glued to the shelf of a library whose books I was supposed to be ordering as part of my job, I felt as though I could have been reading about any one of my own encounters with unexpected arachnid visitors, whose lives I have rashly ended with uncharacteristic violence.  Zimunya goes on, lending a poignancy to the spider's demise:

your unsuspecting fate
for tenderly - stealthily - endlessly searching
for prey and resting in nooks in human surroundings.

and begging the question from us all, as to why it deserved to have been killed.

But of course, it is easy to make judgements from the safety of a detached perspective. Zimunya's poem stopped me in my tracks, famed my own impulsive killings in a shaming light: my sympathy with his victim seemed to make a mockery of my own vegetarianism, my continual condemnations of the fur industry, my hatred of hunting. When I think of the poem now, and consider my recent encounters with wildlife - empathic and awed when out of doors, struck with shock when my own home was "invaded" by a rat - it is a sense of defeatism which takes over me.  Despite my many attempts at humane pest control - my sonic devices, sealed surfaces, natural sprays, the handy contraption that I bought for trapping and releasing spiders, I still resorted, earlier this autumn, to the presence of a pest controller to rid my flat of its unwelcome rodent visitors.  Knowing poison would be used, I left the matter in the hands of my landlord, resigned to my - or the rodents' - fate.  The thought of it leaves me with a slightly sick and guilty feeling, but also with the acceptance of a sobering fact: that human beings will often undertake unpleasant, unethical and violent courses of action, but that this inevitability does not make the actions any less wrong. 

Often in Zimunya's poetry, I get a similar sense of resignation, as when the poet states The beauty of the city / only lasts the lick of an ice-cream / and the melting of chewing gum / or the coolness of beer, comparing the transient, temporary pleasures of city life to the groan of a prostitute and the tinkle of a coin. 


This is not a poet determined to sugar-coat the realities of life, but an honest, unpretentious distiller of human and non-human predicaments, the changes faces of his country through the years, and the landscapes - rural, urban, metaphorical - which have shaped it.

I don't know whether I shall ever visit Zimbabwe - whether the dangers of its political instability, or my fears of encountering tarantulas, or the sheer logistics of attempting such a trip, will prevent me.  But the poetry of Musaemura Bonas Zimunya certainly injects a tangible atmosphere of the country and its troubles into my imagination, and has done ever since I first discovered him among the magical miscellany of that library shelf. 


.


Thursday, 19 October 2017

School Blues. An educational absurdity, and a poem by Fleur Adcock

It is twenty two years since I first read For Heidi with Blue Hair, by new Zealand poet Fleur Adcock, for a GCSE English module.  The poem, inspired by its author's niece, articulates in fluent, conversational terms the author's scarcely tempered despair at a farcical, deplorable situation.

When you dyed your hair blue, the narrator begins, you were sent home from school...

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.


 

I remember the sense that we were reading about a time and place removed from our own progressive era. Yet the poem was written in the 1980's, and often at that mean-spirited school one had the sense that a good half of the teachers craved a return to the good old days of enforcing uniform regulations with the trusty cane.  No doubt some would have supported the poem's headmistress, trotting out cliches about order and conformity without really knowing what they meant.  But ever since I read For Heidi with Blue Hair, I have been asking - who would think a person's hair colour could affect their, or others', academic chances?   That depriving such a person of a day's learning could enhance their education?  It is a position without any basis in fact, and it is easy to imagine the scene the poet describes at the ejected student's home:

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
'She's not a punk in her behaviour;
it's just a style.' (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)


Nowadays, this would never happen.  Today's schools are run by enlightened professionals, in tune with the needs of teenagers to develop their own identities, too clever to hold outdated attitudes, too busy - we are constantly told - with the demands of their important work, to find the time for stressing about irrelevant issues.  Or so I believed, until I read about the case of a 12 year old pupil of a Manchester Academy, who was put in isolation this week by that establishment, whose headmistress told the Manchester Evening News, “It’s very clear in our behaviour policy that extreme hairstyles are not acceptable in school, as they aren’t in many workplaces. Everything we do in school is important to raise standards and improve outcomes and life chances for our young people and help them develop employability skills.”

I rarely believe what I read in the papers or online - but in this case the story does seem to have been confirmed by both the girl's family and the school.  Rarer yet are my strayings into social issues. I find the contemporary world so complex that it is not often I position myself squarely pro or anti anything, but something about this absurd, ridiculous, downright stupid turn of events did get my goat, and has prompted me to ponder it in the context of Fleur Adcock's poem. It also prompted me to write myself - so taken was I with the school's ingenious description of "Extreme Hairstyles."  We are living in a climate of extremities, and it is to be hoped that schools are doing their part to address the various problems of extremism in all its forms.  Religious extremism.  Political extremism.  But haircut extremism? 

Extreme Hairstyles

We must take care to protect ourselves
at all times 
from Extreme Hairstyles.

Many of them start out innocent - 
clean-cut, neat, unobtrusive 
short-back-and-sides

But there's something rotten in the state
of our nation's hair. Something subversive,
leading teenagers astray.

Just today, as I tried in vain
to teach the Periodic Table,
I noticed civilized side-partings 
slowly curling out of shape,
bland Grade-Two's twisting
into Lithium-streaked dreadlocks,
Magnesium Mohicans flaring up from nowhere,
until a lab full of brash, bedeviled bonces 
burst like a volcano erupting with hair gel, 
gobbling all within its hairy blaze.

Running home, I was ambushed by walking hairstyles -
waylaid by a gang of  pugnacious perukes,
threatened by curt crew-cuts,
mugged by an enormous knife-wielding wig,
so shaken and distressed that I couldn't wait
to race inside, clamp shut the door, 
grab a pair of scissors, 
shove my head in front of the mirror,
lop off the lot and start again,
only to notice, with a shriek of giddy fright,
that my own well-mannered, regulation, proper hair
was slowly turning pink. 


 Society seems to be ensnared at present in a negative web of personalized judgements, in which assumptions are made based on appearance, and barely a day goes by without I hear somebody lamenting another's choice of clothing, to wear piercings, to have tattoos, criticisms (including those made face to face) shot through with genuine moral outrage.  People who will happily sit down and munch a butchered animal that has been tortured to death in a slaughterhouse, assume an air of ethical alarm at the sight of a slogan on a t-shirt, a choice to forego the accepted gender codes of  dress, or indeed a streak of differently coloured hair.  I do not believe schools should be encouraging this kind of prejudice, and am appalled that a teacher, let alone a headteacher, should consider it time well spent to police, on public money, the hairstyles of pupils, when their only priority should be in delivering the highest possible educational standards.   As for discouraging hairstyles which reduce employability, should the school not be leading by example? Not that long ago, people were limited in their "employability" by race or colour, yet it is inconceivable that a school should enable such injustice by paring its standards with those of discriminatory employers, and I fear that this particular head's bigotry is far more of a threat to the standards of their school than any hairstyle or appearance.  In any case, precisely which professions do the school think are barred to those who dye their hair? I have worked in retail, the NHS, Social Services, the homeless community, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, primary education, Tourist Information, libraries, as a gardener, a childminder, on market stalls, in voluntary capacities in Conservation and arts festival organizing, and never have I found my suitability for a role determined by my personal appearance. I find it impossible to believe that this headteacher would refuse to be treated by a doctor or nurse with blue hair, and in the case of professions such as Politics or Law, where a fancy hairstyle may - rightly or wrongly - be deemed unhelpful to a person's chances, those concerned are usually of a sufficient intelligence to come to this conclusion independently.  It can only be assumed that the school are referring, in their reference to the "many workplaces" where appearances are policed, to such solemn jobs as tax officers and council play clerks.  But why would any school set its sights so low as to encourage pupils to aspire to those soul-destroying, cold, completely useless areas of employment?

 

I believe it is the responsibility of a school, as well as to ensure high educational standards, to encourage positive attitudes among its pupils, and to dispel negative ones. I don't believe headteachers should be obsessing about hair colour.  The pupil in question had previously been bullied, and had found that her change of hair colour - on the advice of teachers at a singing club - had increased her confidence at school. Surely that should matter more than any concern for archaic prohibitions? The idea of long hair being "extreme" is utter rubbish, considering that a twelve year old's hair grows naturally long, therefore the school's only claim of extremity must rest entirely on the issue of its colour. If it is regarded as extreme for a pupil to wear streaks of blue hairspray, then presumably the Academy must also have outlawed any other evidence of the colour blue in the appearance of their pupils? This appears not to be the case, since the school uniform happens to be blue.


But, if we are to adhere to the rigid policies of this worthy institution, maybe a new reckoning should be in place - a stricter interpretation of the rules and regulations.  Why draw the line at the colour blue? If adding different colours to their appearance is so detrimental to the well-being of pupils, it makes sense to ban all colour from the school - no green, no red, no yellow, no pink - and insist that students simply turn up covered from head to toe in grey.  But why stop there?  In order to eliminate all possible offence arising from extreme appearances, the school should surely ban pupils altogether.  Shut down the school, send everybody home, and replace the teachers and pupils with custom-built, pre-programmed, black-and-white robots.  Though evidently, in the case of the headteacher, I fear that this may have already taken place.

For Heidi with Blue Hair, by Fleur Adcock

When you dyed your hair blue
(or, at least ultramarine
for the clipped sides, with a crest
of jet-black spikes on top)
you were sent home from school

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
'She's not a punk in her behaviour;
it's just a style.' (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)

'She discussed it with me first -
we checked the rules.' 'And anyway, Dad,
it cost twenty-five dollars.
Tell them it won't wash out -
not even if I wanted to try.

It would have been unfair to mention
your mother's death, but that
shimmered behind the arguments.
The school had nothing else against you;
the teachers twittered and gave in.


Next day your black friend had hers done
in grey, white and flaxen yellow -
the school colours precisely:
an act of solidarity, a witty
tease. The battle was already won

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Opting for Glaciers - Hove-to is a State of Mind, by Mark Carson

This is a lengthier version of a review I originally published in January 2016, for Sabotage Reviews.


 Mark Carson hooked me on the opening page of this twelve poem collection Hove-to is a State of Mind (Wayleave 2015), when he described ticks as handsome. Cherangani, the book's first poem – deservedly commended in the 2011 Troubadour competition – recounts the poet’s early morning experiences among Kenya’s Cherangani hills, taking in depictions of a kingfisher, roasted coffee, crusty rolls and marmalade – even the sun rising in the Kerio Valley. But it was the ticks that got me: The handsome black and yellow ticks which shouldered their way up the grass stems / to the very tip / shoving each other / for the most advantageous position, to be precise.

Having often written about – and at times been scorned for writing about – the beauties of insects and other unsung little creatures, how could I fail to be attracted to this unexpected and mindful description of an African arachnid? While I would not want to play down the damage that these diminutive blood-suckers can do – not least to other non-human animals – who could fail to be charmed by these grass-scaling Ambylomma?
I admit I had to do a bit of research before identifying the Latin genus of the tick, but diving into the dictionary or exploring Google was something I found myself doing on several occasions thanks to this unusual little book. Even the names of the poems were at times unknown to me. Cherangani, Flycamping by the Mari River, Splicing Cordage, Per Ardua ad Nauseam, my vocabulary has been substantially enlarged as a result of reading this collection. By the time I got to My Tattoos and Donegal I was not sure whether I should feel relieved or disappointed that I required no dictionary to understand their titles.
Mark Carson is adventurous in his wordplay within poems too. serving up portmanteaus and unexpected conjunctions aplenty:
Flysoup air thickens…
Disisisaster!
 (Flycamping by the Mari River)
and the seat squab was pushy
in all the wrong regions

(Mistaken)
Though he can at times be almost nihilistically straightforward, as in the title poem:
Mark time, this world goes nowhere.
It tilts, was there a time when it did not? Try to remember it
and fail. World
without end.

The ocean heaps in ugly lumps
and rips itsself to shreds,
muscles its meaningless bulk

 This is a sea, and world, of violence and almost banal brutality – a world without peace viewed from the eye of somebody who, after a career as an ocean engineer, has seen it from some of its most extreme angles. And yet I suspect somehow that the centre-piece of this collection, or the poem in which its themes are given fullest vent, is the nostalgic, anecdotal ‘Knucklebone’, four poems in – a recollection:
I once dined alongside a man with two fingers missing
who drank his share of the Chablis, the claret, the sweet dessert wine,
then deep draughts of port. There was a time, he said,
’twas a good time, the best of times …
He was not dining “with” the man – there is a distance between them which cannot as yet be bridged by any further familiarity than that of two people alongside but not with each other, and it is implied that this distance has at its heart the unique experiences of this partially de-fingered diner, the exotic and at times dangerous nature of which places him a world apart. This is because the man opted for glaciers, and this choice of work meant that he had
Spent the rest of his life in the world’s coldest places,
Antarctic Peninsula, lost fingers to frostbite, eyes burnt out from snow-glare.
The knucklebone choice, he said…


Knucklebone is the collection’s pivotal poem, presenting us with a vision of the youthful, wide-eyed author – quietly intoxicated by a tale of adventure – embarking on his own “knucklebone choice.” Now it is we, the readers, who play the part of listener, as Carson expands:
And my knucklebone choice is this caucus
of deep-water scientists, grizzled oceanographers…

I gave up a landlocked career for an ocean.
The blurb records that Carson’s poems are flavoured by his Irish roots, career on the ocean, and time spent in Africa, and this tapestry of international influence is highly evident in poems like A Message from the Southern Ocean:
We crouch on English shingle but
Off Cape Horn a storm so violent
speaks to us, a long low wave
sweeps north past capes and islands,

rock-strewn Falklands,
Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena
Lanzarote, the Azores.
It is evident in the atmospheric Sea-ghosts, with wetsuit grazing coral and the reef’s cornice, in Mistaken, down its common as muck sidestreets of Dublin, and the gorgeous pairing of the two last poems – In County Clare and Donegal. In the former, whose beginning reads like a continuation or, well, a post-script to Seamus Heaney’s poem Postscript, a somehow mythic love dangles in the drama of the sinking sun as the figure of the girl will appear in the east, a farewell song which seems to echo with the pains of exodus and exile, as the poet wishes for a curragh and a crew of hard-armed lads / and a wet brown cow with a bucket of kelp and bladderwrack.


 The whole of Irish history is hinted at, but only hinted at – as the trails of geese are stretched to the furthermost island, past grievances and pains might be laid to rest, but not forgotten. It is an honest poem, as its author confides that murmuring speech / leaks secrets that I don’t wish to know across inlets. How refeshingly human, that this acutely painful poem has at its hub that most Universal need to sometimes turn away, or not to know, to not want to be burdened with what knowing might bring. The poet’s acknowledgment of this is effective, as an unflinching mirror of barbaric truths, and also for its strangely soothing vulnerability.
Carson does something else that I have never come across. We need now to revert to the opening poem, Cherangani – that of the crusty rolls and handsome ticks. The crux of the poem is not so much the poet’s uncanny observations (strange hybrid cornflakes) as a cross-cultural exchange between he and his family, and an approaching African woman and her children:
and now they were really quite close
shy but forward and we could see
the dull gleam of her neckrings
and the colour gash of her beads
and her little ones giggled
at the fair voluminous curls of our little ones.
But just as we think we are about to stumble upon a fairly normal and predictable re-hashing of a cliche – worldly but spiritually poor Westerners contrasted with tribespeople obviously impoverished but exuding purity and wisdom – a chance interaction offers unexpected results:
she couldn’t say what
she wanted, she couldn’t say it in English or Swahili
or anything
it wasn’t the food or drink she intimated but
yes it was the empty del Monte can
the top cut out she could see
she could tell it was empty
empty, a can for putting things in
for putting water in
and I took the light ballpen hammer I always carried
and skilfully hammered the edge smooth and dimpled
and fixed a piece of bullwire as a handle.
If there is a nod to inequalities, it is in the sense that what for Carson and his fellow Westerners is a discardable object is, for his fellow human being, purely as a victim of international circumstance, a thing of value which will make a direct difference to her life, and her children’s lives. The poem is a rebuke to waste, and champions a metaphorical recycling which casually transcends national and cultural gulfs and boundaries. In producing this practical and straightforward offering, Carson also shows us how, whatever the strange and fantastic journeys he may be about to take us on, regardless of the feats of oceanography, the fathoms and dolphins, the vertigo and crumbling horizons, it is the simple things which, to run the risk of coining a clich√© myself, often make all the difference. As the poem ends, the two families prepare to go their separate ways:
And then the sun rose in the Kerio Valley
and warmed our backs kindly
as we set off homeward.