By PETER RILEY.
Equipage (Cambridge) 2013 | 32pp A4 booklet | £6.00
TURNING TO CARIBBEAN poetry (though not all of these poets could be called “Caribbean”) from the British zones I normally inhabit is in many ways a relief. There is a confidence of audience, a loss of psychological worry, political panic is replaced by political problems, and there is a sense of rich cultural resources across a wide range from village tales to contemporary poetry techniques.
The Jamaican poet Kei Miller commands a cross-cultural vocabulary freely mixing Jamaican and standard English, and takes on board all the cultural complexities involved in standing both here and there. His audience is as much Caribbean as Western and as much for entertainment as for enlightenment. He is sometimes quite a relaxed writer: there are “easy” poems ringing permutations on everyday perceptions, but there are also poems tackling head-on questions of race and power, and of personal fate. He has a particularly strong line in what he calls “magic” — poems which may focus on ritual or what we would call “superstition” and other practices in the more rural side of Jamaican society and enacting their invocations and stories. But the “magic” becomes a poetical quality, and the strength of such poems is founded in modern poetry itself rather than cultural reportage, so that it is released directly and verbally without apologies or explanations, as in this from his 2010 book A Light Song of Light ―
On the Ninth Night
The night, full of bread and salt. The hours flicker like candles.
The Singerman’s mouth, round as the stone no longer
at the river. The lid lifted from the pot; the goat’s head risen;
the teeth of the goat as white as the teeth of your dead mother.
The ninth night is an ecstatic funeral ceremony, but it’s important that we’re not told that (I got it from his book of essays) but the force of the event is held entirely in the poetical writing. Here as often, he takes advantage of the opportunities offered by modern lyrical poetry to embody his attention in a construct separated from depiction or discussion. We get some help from other poems in the book which repeat terms like “Singerman”, but basically the event is in the poetry itself, conveyed in its unrationalised images and rhythms, without sinking into artifices of concealment and dark threat. It is also noteworthy, in view of the ways of other black poets, that the word “white” in the last line quoted, although distinctly uncomfortable does not carry implications of blame, guilt, anger or hatred.
He has said that his poetry is all song and story, or lyrical and narrative if you like, and this informs everything he writes. The songs partake richly of the singer’s licence to transgress sense ― what looks like surrealism may be just Jamaican commonplace. The stories are village tales or his own international experience, and involve the lives of others, who in Jamaica often seem, with their language, to have a certain quaintness which I think is perfectly justified. That is how such lives present themselves at this distance and the stories reveal their strength, ultimately, in a religious assurance, but also in Miller’s “magic” script, through which their words and acts participate in a possibly global poetical field.
He has developed these techniques through two previous Carcanet books, the first of which, There is an Anger that Moves, 2007, is somewhat more dialectic and therefore oppositional in a lamentational tone (“we have been bruised / into ourselves”) but his senses of perseverance and optimism are already strong, and he is not willing to be threatened by the past. The more severe or irrevocable it is the more it empowers action and hope ―
But the dying bequeath us all their roads,
slipping from their beds into eternity
they tell us: walk good.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is different as it is one thematic construct through the book, in the title-sequence of 26 poems intermixed with some thirty other poems bearing on the same issues. It is, centrally, an argument between the Cartographer, who purveys science, permanence and large-scale objectivity and is trying to map a way to Zion (the meaning of which is withheld), and Rastaman who is the local, native, purveyor of the contrary knowledge, which is held on the ground and maintained by word of mouth. There is no way that these can be thought of as a simple confrontation of white and black, nor that the poet pits them against each other as a strategic anti-Western polemic. The Cartographer speaks ―
My job is to imagine the widening
of the unfamiliar and also
the widening ache of it;
to anticipate the ironic
question: how did we find
ourselves here? My job is
to untangle the tangled,
to unworry the concerned,
to guide you out from cul-de-sacs
into which you may have wrongly turned.
Rastaman retorts ―
Him work is to make thin and crushable
all that is big and as real as ourselves; is to make flat
all that is high and rolling; is to make invisible and wutless
plenty things that poor people cyaa do without ― like board
houses, and the corner shop from which Miss Katie sell
her famous peanut porridge.
SO THE CATROGRAPHER’S language is standard English and Rastaman’s is full of patois and Rastafarian, and sometimes you can tell which of them is speaking by this, but sometimes you can’t and the voices merge and exchange phrases. There is no glossary ― why should Rastaman’s language be explained to the Cartographer any more than the other way round? The distinction seems clear enough in these personifications, but the poems in the authorial voice are mostly in a mixture of these dialects, as is normal with Miller. In fact there is no reason to assume that the Cartographer is white. These are two contrary faces of the human spirit in dialogue with each other, during which the two voices are absorbed into each other and the product of the confrontation is the third term, the poetry, the author’s self-healing. The centre of the work is not the theme but the poetry it releases, the craft in the writing, as always, which keeps everything moving.
This dialogue develops through the book in fits and starts. Either speaker seems to gain our sympathy at different times. Normally it is the Rastaman, bearer of the true localism, who weaves tangled threads of unmappable lore and deep dialect round the Cartographer’s reductive vision ―
But the mapmaker is slowly getting lost
in de iya ites of de rastaman’s talk, for consider when
de rastaman I-nunciates something like: Map
was just a land-guage written gainst I&I
who never know fi read it…1
but the Cartographer issues strong and sympathetic challenges ―
The cartographer sucks his teeth
and says ― every language, even yours
is a partial map of the world…
And what to call the blood
of hummingbirds but maps
that pulse the tiny bodies across
oceans and then back?
And what are turtles born with
if not maps that break
eggs and pull them up from sand
guide them towards ocean instead of land?
The Rastaman’s denial is involved in anything from serious disquisition in local talk to absurd songs ―
The secret roads and slaving roads
the dirging roads, marooning roads.
Our people sing:
Alligator dah walk on road,
Yes, alligator dah walk on road
though as a mockery of the mapmaker and all the things he can’t see there is a lot of point here. All those roads represent dangers or losses not visible on maps. But as the sequence progresses it gains increasingly in seriousness and scope, notably when the Cartographer, after “smoking a chillum pipe” enters into the local as a form of flight, and begins to see from up there the current and historical harm concealed in the topography ―
but how fields are now beige with bagasse;2
how thin rivers choke on carcasses;
how a woman stumbles through the hurting
night, blade wedged into her back; how birds
and bullets pack the purple band of evening
and sing the sky to black.
This is one of the places where the point is made that only mutual interchange of languages and their understandings will reach the reality.
SLAVERY AND WAR increasingly figure in the sequence, but never take over, as it moves to its quite apocalyptic conclusion in a sometimes Bunyanesque approach to the goal, Zion, which is revealed by Rastaman as not a paradise and not a place at all, but first a day, “a turble day”, “an accounts settling day” and finally a state of being, a well-wishing, on which Rastaman delivers a sermon. He does get the final word, I think because the Cartographer has no religious vocabulary at his disposal, though the final lesson remains humanistic, the wishing of “heartbless”.
This linear outline does little justice to the book as it omits all the intervening and tangential poems which intrude on the sequence, carefully placed as bearers of subtle relevance and sudden changes of tone. Just before the summation there is a poem on his mother’s collection of dolls, of disarming simplicity ―
…how we arrange the dead like dolls,
set their arms in precise positions,
how we touch their unseeing eyes;
and how they lie so sweetly still
within their perfect boxes.
It may have been the dolls that taught
my mother how to die, how to travel
once again, how to wave goodbye.
The verse movement here, the interplay of sound values in inner rhyme and consonantal pairing, in fact the whole lyrical movement of the text, I find exemplary.
There is also an intruding scattered set of prose pieces on what Wordsworth called “Poems on the Naming of Places” (Poetical Works, 1944, Volume II.) These retail the stories, hidden from the Cartographer but familiar, of course, to the Rastaman, of what happened so as to leave a name inscribed permanently on the landscape (which is exactly Wordsworth’s theme). It is a very varied set but the events are predominantly violent, in a land which Miller always makes clear is overloaded with that substance both historically and currently, without any easy connection to be made between the two. There is a particularly harsh piece about the place named “Flog Man” which I shall return to later for comparison.
There is also a remarkable poem called “The Blood Cloths” coming near the end of what, in spite of all the pointed comedy and diversions, has been an accumulating story-book of wrong and harm in which the author refuses to abandon hope and equanimity. Suddenly this, which I quote entire ―
The Blood Cloths
the ingenuity of women
who, when cornered, fished out
their cloths of menstruation―
raised them in their hands
like conquering Japanese flags;
the high decibels of men, dashing
through cane, distancing themselves
from such soft, soaked weapons
they had not known
could be formed against them;
And raise then
a cloth against the dark
corners of cane, and a cloth
against such corners
as they still exist today;
And acknowledge then
the staining blood of women
which gave to them victory
shining bright as rubies.
Whatever the historical reference, and there may not be one — “bloodclawt” is apparently a strong and common Jamaican swear-word and the poem may have derived only from that ― this is such a heartening vision of the success of soft resistance, of fighting steel and bullets and whips and money with harmlessness — and winning.
Writing down the Vision is a collection of prose writings, essays and stories, going back to 2005 but mostly recent. It is a very varied collection, including occasional pieces, some of them quite slight, but with a lot of strong items exploring central aspects and lived experiences of his Anglo-Jamaican vision. Some are studies of the roots and effects of the endemic violence of the country, such as ‘These Islands of Love and Hate’ which narrates the production of hatred and harm out of love and self-respect, in the reign of the prime minister Michael Manley in the 1970s, when the slogan was “The word is love”, a period in which poor black Jamaicans were for the first time able to feel some hope and self respect. But the slogan was “a powerful thing that had no meaning” and the new confidence accompanied by the old poverty led to an increase in racial violence, and before long people started leaving. “White and Chinese Jamaicans no longer felt safe. They took their capital with them, leaving Jamaica in an even sorrier state than it was before.”
Miller’s complex feelings for Jamaica and about being black are made very clear in this and other pieces, extending into his remarks about poetry, particularly an essay on what he calls “Nuance”, which he believes in as the necessary test of valid usage in a poem, that the words should respond to the complexities that we inhabit, and thus avoid simplistic, unthought formulations. But there is also a big caution: in the context of racialism nuance can serve to divert from and mitigate the harm, and to mask the complicity of the spectator. There is a necessary anger when faced with real racist aggression which is diluted by defences of the “After all, 90% of white people are not racist” kind (which increasingly seems to be untrue in all of Europe). Some things, he insists, can only be shouted at.
But the piece which seems to me to settle all this is a long failed interview from 2008, in which two black academics do everything in their power to press him into the standard role of the academically acceptable black poet: angry through and through, constantly re-angered in daily life, evincing “the woes related to colonialism” still embedded in the “psyche” of the colonised peoples. He responds―
It again seemed a desperate attempt to make me into a suitable “black poet”. …. Look (I should have said) I’m sorry I cannot be your angry black poet; I’m actually angry about a lot of shit, but maybe they’re not the things you’re angry about […] I’m sorry that I’m comfortable in my own black skin.
He will not accept that being black forces a fixed agenda on his writing, thick with clichés of the selfhood, or that he can speak only on behalf of Caribbean and black people in the roles of victims and the deprived (“Cannot we sometimes allow a folk to stand with an iPad in one hand and a mango in the other?”) “I don’t want”, he says, “to lock myself in the tradition of protest poetry […] because it often holds on to a pain and anger and a righteous kind of passion simply for the sake of holding on to it.” He does acknowledge the validity of the moral outrage of the victim, but as a habitation it becomes addictive: “…I become suspicious of myself when I linger too long in this wounded place, in the place of the victim, because […] we become much more committed to the battle than to its victory; in a sense we no longer want to win, because that would be the end of our ‘fix’.” He acknowledges the trauma, but “…the trauma in a strange way becomes beautiful and magical.” This protective “magic” surely comprises all the Jamaican realities absorbed into Miller’s poetry, the spells, accents, tales, histories and images allied with the workings of modern poetry.
CARIBBEAN ANGLOPHONE POETRY now has a century-old tradition and holds a collection of distinguished names, of which forty years’ involvement in British and American poetry has left me woefully ignorant. But it is as much ours, participating in our poetical development, as theirs. New Caribbean Poetry is not a sampling anthology but has eight poets chosen by Miller because, as he says in his Introduction, they refuse the choice between a communal “African” innovative position, (represented by Kamu Brathwaite), and a traditional, western, poetry of the self (represented by Derek Walcott), adding that these are in any case false characterisations of those two poets and that “self” cannot in practice be contemplated in distinction from “community” and vice versa. These poets are, then, open to an expansiveness of influence, including extra-Caribbean, and take a direction which is less safe, opening the gates that scholarship has closed on them in its mania for categorisation. He also adds that in this climate “Poems which continue to blame ‘whitey’ and ‘England’ seem derivative and disingenuous” and proposes a heterosexual restriction as a greater threat, now, than the old colonial one.
All eight are worthy of attention, though they are all rather more chatting poets than Miller himself is. Two of them who particularly attracted me, Christian Campbell and Loretta Collins Klobah, now have collections out here from Peepal Tree Press. Campbell is, like Miller, well ensconced in the Anglo-British poetry world, both academic and popular, and his book Running the Dusk won the Aldeburgh first collection prize in 2010, with a shortlisting for a Forward prize. His poems are bright, fast-moving exercises in a light Jamaican mode influenced by oral poetry. Good, but perhaps not necessarily as superlatively unbelievably outstandingly excellent as prize judges have to claim for their winners.
Loretta Collins Klobah is a highly accomplished poet. The poems in The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman are almost all based in Puerto Rico, where she lives, and narrate its life in a richly figured poetry with “a masterful co-ordination of sound” as Miller describes it. What this means is that you are told “what it’s like here” in a way which exceeds the telling without departing into symbolic distances; the details remain actual but the lyrical resourcefulness gathers a reverberation round them which echoes into anyone’s imaginative theatre, and sometimes, as in the title poem, a dominant figure exceeds any naturalistic identity to become an iconic entity who speaks in chants, but is still inalienably local. “What it’s like here” is a matter of everyday make-do survival in an exotic setting: going to the laundromat, etc., but also police brutality, repressed homosexuality, drug trade murder, the wake of a child killed by a “stray bullet” and a lot of storms. Everything touched on remains what it is and is orchestrated into an exemplary wholeness which is poetry. It is an enhanced telling which I think many talented “mainstream” poets of the West could be doing if only they knew how, or could escape from the current epidemic of interiorisation, or maybe had the living occasion before them.
City of enemy hands,
City unconcerned with piety and purity of heart,
City that forgets its collapsed bridges y los árboles caídos,
City that forgets children sucked into floodwaters,
City that uproots, designs, executes, emits,
City of daily lucha, nightly struggle,
I had the desire today to lie on my back
under a turpentine tree on the ant-filled grass.
D.S.MARRIOTT IS something completely different and is where the entire course of this review changes gear. All the Caribbean poetry I have read, including the senior figures, has been realist, tough, ecstatic, and has shown an excitement, even a gladness, in being where it is, in the Caribbean, as if it has been offered there a valuable opportunity to grasp a meeting of dialects with both comedic and analytical potential, and thereby utter a poetry which both welcomes and indicts. It has not agonised about “the ironic question: how did we find ourselves here?” Marriott, who is Jamaican only by ancestry, deals in anger and depression, and would be the perfect, academically preferred “angry African poet” if he wrote differently. But there is not a trace of populism; the poetry is addressed not to an activist crowd but to the individual grimly negated soul, his own or others’, it is difficult to know which. Although being black is at the heart of his poetry, his way of writing makes him stand out starkly from both Caribbean and academic categories and I think this is because of the allegiances of his poetry as it has developed, as much as his person.
His earliest poetry (mid-1980s) was in the manner of J.H.Prynne, and at that time he wrote a doctoral dissertation on Prynne’s poetry. Soon afterwards he rather suddenly changed his way of writing to something more accessible, fully revealing its occasions, and it is from this that the writing in these books descends. But he never got all that far away from the Prynne aura, for although he will not indulge Prynne’s radical disjunction between words, the writing normally refuses to yield fully to transmission and is inclined to thwart the reader with scenes and speeches which do not fulfil themselves or form a complete utterance. Even less has he, I feel, removed himself from the beliefs and attitudes behind “Cambridge” poetry as it has been developed more recently, the political and historical extremism, the belief in total societal and linguistic corruption, the inversion of values and negation of hope. This last agreement, with poets such as Keston Sutherland, is particularly emphasised by Marriott’s use of singular atrocities as moments of exclusive significance.
Most of the pieces in The Bloods are substantial. He launches into a sustained and quite masterful discourse of self-declaration, account, narrative etc., in strong and resonant phrases balanced and contrasted against each other, anticipating continuity and sense of purpose, but it is a discourse which, deliberately, refuses to resolve into actual content, and does not go anywhere because of a sense that there is finally nowhere to go, no actual purpose or goal. Graphic sections of narrative or depiction come up against abstract or theoretical statements which don’t relate. Or an apparently symbolist writing does not establish any graspable figurations because everything is diverted into elsewhere before it has established itself. A dignified account abandons its own purpose by refusing all determinate terms, positive or negative. Where we are left, again and again, is nowhere, or nothing.
So a constant shifting: every time you think you are somewhere the ground is removed from beneath you. It all happens somewhere else, because the establishment of an entire or real place is avoided. It happens as an artifice. It happens “in the mind” but we don’t know whose mind. The speaking “I” is never exactly anyone, though it may announce itself as authorial or as a persona. And in close attention to the text we are liable to be thwarted by verbal cramming, impossible formulations, wild and reckless leaps, and above all a habit of abandoning the discourse at any moment in a sense of futility. Phantasmagoric scenes dissolve into anguished personal statements. A commentary seems to be taking place but its subject is masked. There is a range: some, especially, of the prose pieces and shorter poems maintain some coherence of site and address, but even there the obsessive dark figuration seems to transform everything into a fantasy scenario, and especially into a psycho-drama of the self. Whether the discourse is straight or contorted there hovers over everything an atmosphere of desolation. A night cityscape is nothing but paranoia―
It is the time of night.
The windows of office blocks shudder with thirst,
and spider webs decay without end,
and fresh snow buries itself on the topmost wires.
It is the time of night
when taxis say no is the only answer,
and what comes to pass in the back alleys
is a lesson in impossibility.
How easy it would be
to deny my eyes and stop my ears,
forget everything. Confess I haven’t seen a thing.
What’s there to say?
There is nothing to say and the details continue to accumulate: a suicide’s laughter, “…the signs, stretched across the sky / like a line of severed heads” leading, as often, to a denial of the self as human, as author, as agent, numbed into indifference by the constancy and ubiquity of the horror―
A chattel carved out of fire and earth,
with no imprint, or thought,
hope, or delusion,
and no blood to shed upon the rust thick neon.
‘The Red Ribbed Ledges’.
The scene is not just some city; it is the world and life. The details are too intensely negated and too anthropomorphic for any actuality to be admitted. If we say it is a Hell there is no Heaven to set against it. Only one thing can go on in the back alleys, too horrible to be spoken. No scene is allowed to develop into anywhere on earth for more than a second, but all remain emblematic, theatre curtains opening onto horrors―
The forest, wolves white and childless,
and shadows around them, like dark glass.
The door comes unknowing out of the bracken,
while a brook glides by cold and quiet
and follows dirt roads and grey birds
and a youth slowly dying in the tangled foliage.
Soon a buzzard falls down the gorges―
the flesh cloven, unzipped to the bone.
‘The Wolves (Acts I and II)’
And again at the end of Act II we are brought to the nullification of the author: “Once I had a voice; now I have silence […] From my mouth emerges a sound / that is no sound, a howl hushed by a miracle, / because of me wolves arrive suddenly, then vanish.” But in the very first line the wolves are instantly wrenched away from reality: white and childless ― “white” is often used as a strategically placed political token. The world is more or less absent from the writing, replaced by a psychology.
THE POEMS TAKE different approaches but mostly end up in the same place, which is an impasse of the unutterable, and lines are thrown out of a quite extraordinary bleakness, so extreme as to cancel themselves: “Oh to be a child again, dying without knowing it.” “Only what destroys us can truly be loved.” “The world with no evil is evil itself.” These are sentences which want to have their cake and eat it.
These gestures are not all without aggression: “The measurer, / by definition, is always murderous.” Kei Miller’s Cartographer is not murderous, and an accusation like this suggests an open attack on “whitey” which is normally subsumed into the poetical psycho-drama, but occasionally shows itself. In Hoodoo Voodo more than the later books “white” signals harm and guilt, but at the same time the inevitable spread of this harm in a totalising medium finally implicates everybody: white and black, reader and author. In any event the condemnation here is surely total: “murderous” would be bad enough, but “by definition” murders thought. There is no society to furnish any definition. The events in these poems do not take place in a society.
There are far more realistic “scenes” in these books, especially of atrocities ― slave floggings, rapes, traders dumping surplus slave cargo in the sea, the murder of young children, disturbing accounts of the experiences of boy prostitutes, especially in In Neuter. They are all brief, all graphic, and all decontextualised, so stripped of circumstance that no moral position can apply except plain abhorrence. The victim is the only actor. And sometimes politically allegorised ― an Arab boy is raped by an Israeli man. I think these horrible little pictures are there purely for their psychological impact, which is made to replace history. Slavery is tremendously important; the word “slave” is dropped strategically a great deal and from about half-way through The Bloods slavery dominates the writing. But there is no history. Marriott is more interested in one severe flogging, or one rape of a slave girl, than in the entire global history of slavery. Like everything else this poetry touches on, slavery is interiorized (helped powerfully by the atrocity snapshots) and totalised by the de-specifying curtailments and obscurities of the poetry. Thus he makes the slave trade (he only refers to the later African trade) into a kind of original sin. It lurks behind all the depression and failures of the texts and of such of the world as is admitted to the poetry, which is in fact very little. Through these strategies the writing achieves a great deal of power, and is forced into a very narrow channel.
There are some poems, such as “Newborn as Letter C”, which to me show emphatically the psychological basis of the poetic. These are first-person poems speaking of a personal psychic condition of dread ―
Another year has passed. I’ve returned to the place of my birth,
to the enemy whose grin unfolds like dark butterfly wings
in the wilderness […]
tormentor, whose bright eyes are the shade of mine, mired in the same
The gorge is a pulsing chasm. I can smell his skin
and his inside-out organs. And the charred heart devoured
from its pitch black cavern
as he hunts me through the ice; the wreck of snow
melting us to nothing as day breaks onto storm.
Rather unexpectedly, this kind of performance reminds me of someone like John Burnside, a psychological poet in a more straightforward way, but still psychological with his gloomy mediaeval forests and snow-storms. Burnside seems to say, “I have a special psychological condition which makes me very sad, and through the images of my poetry you can empathise with me.” People seem to love this. Marriott seems to say, “I have a special psychological condition caused by slavery and being black, which is such a torment that it annuls everything.” It is interesting too, that the Cambridge-inherited liberties with irrational metaphors and language damage in general make his version deeper and more dramatic.
There is sometimes a passionate (but unspecific) declaration of purpose, or there are claims of imperative righteousness, but issued from within a clearly psychological enclosure ―
Strange that nobody notices
when it starts raining
my mouth melts into a dark pool
of iridescent glass.
I am the boy from the green cabaret, but no one knows it,3
the story I tell is more secret
and more true (like a picture),
and I wish to speak it
with my entire being.
‘Child Boy Man’
This is of course convincingly earnest, though I feel that a lot of the time Marriott doesn’t speak his stories, but devotes his skills to annulling or breaking them.
THERE IS NO guarantee that the psychological conditions here are those of the author personally, though it can be difficult to know where else they can have come from. Quite possibly Marriott manufactured the whole thing from his poetical techniques and the theories he has studied, starting from the “Cambridge” assumption that the world, or this side of it, is irredeemably rotten, and attaching the whole black issue to form a uniquely forceful poetry. There are one or two pieces spoken by a white person, including Robinson Crusoe, but here you get the same thing. Crusoe’s sight of the footprint in the sand repels him and makes him want to live in “a world no longer inhabited” which is like the apparent force of the black author’s repulsion from the horrors he chooses to dwell on. And it is Crusoe who seems to damn the whole of science and civilisation with the remark about the murderous measurer.
There is no doubt about the intellectual background to these writings. From the names thrown out in epigrams, citations, references etc. in all three books, and Romana Huk’s Preface to Hoodoo Voodoo, we can put together a substantial list of both psychological and cultural authorities. These include Freud, Winnicott, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Feuerbach, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Gillian Rose, Adorno, Benjamin, Fanon, Derrida and Barthes ― almost the entire bag of tricks! It is difficult to imagine how anyone could emerge from this crowded classroom not believing that nothing is as it seems, our culture is in total crisis, and communication must be avoided at all costs, to mention but a few. I wonder if Marriott realises that he writes from a position of power, not only by the army of authorities which places a vast academic consensus behind him, especially an American one, but also in the poetry’s foundation in a fictive psychology without grounding, so that its force cannot be resisted other than by resisting what is offered as a personal psychic condition, all the more sacrosanct as a black psychology the anguish and anger of which are things for which we are all responsible.
The Cambridge poetic reinforces considerably the poetry’s psychological basis (“psychoanalytic” might be closer to the truth) as it has always been a matter of uncovering the realities hidden under common language. But it also entails a kind of tricksiness and deliberate acts of concealment for the sake of it which Marriott indulges from time to time in spite of his mourning mask, and which take him momentarily far away from his usual black ground. There is, for instance, a poem called ‘Willie Eckerslike’. This is, I find, the stage name of the former drummer of a “folk comedy” band called The Lancashire Hotpots. The poem itself has no reference nor the least possible relevance to this band or its repertoire (which by the way I resent having had to listen to in order to research this poem). The poem is a short piece of dismayed meditation at the loss of the dream, a loss which on this occasion is redolent of death. But what about poor old Willie Eckerslike? Nothing about him. It so happens that in 2010 he hanged himself while under police investigation for sexual crimes involving children. Still nothing about him, but in his more recent work Marriott has repeatedly referred to or depicted such crimes, and I think this is because they represent the nadir, the worst acts of cruelty and appropriation he can think of, the rape of beauty and hope. But still nothing about Willie Eckerslike4 whose alleged crimes sound a great deal milder than some of the murderous abuse depicted elsewhere in Marriott’s work. Poem titles which challenge the reader to locate any relevance, or to mean anything at all, are a common device of “innovative” poetry in English. Marriott has a poem called “Hoerenjongetje”. This is a typographical term for what we call the “orphans” of “widows and orphans”, but happens also to be the Dutch for boy prostitute. Again no relevance to the poem in either sense except the faint suggestion of impasse and atrocity. I actually have no understanding of why Marriott does things like this, nor of why there is in the two most recent books such incessant reference to boy-sex, given the range of alternative nastinesses possible. The absence of emotion from the transaction might be the most important thing.
There is also a strange and fierce rejection of the visual, of seeing and depicting, and of the visual arts, which must be important to him because it takes place in ‘Whittling, a Likeness without Shade or Shadow’ which is his central big prose piece of the slave trade. In it the painting of a damaged slave girl’s face is represented as the inflicting of that damage. He sets up an opposition between visibility and truth: “Life was not something to be shown, an effigy of the world made perfectible. No, life was the work of absolute truth.” In the story an errant slave master, conflated with visual artist, realises that “The said could not be seen; the dark could not be spoken.” It is the darkness, which Marriott places as the revealed state of humanity, which cancels the visual.5 He says elsewhere, “The lynched body does not resemble an image”. I don’t know what to make of this ― is it an attack on a major strand of modern Anglo-American poetry? What does it say about Derek Walcott? But I hear it as part of his refusal to disclose, to set his events in a continuum of time where they could be “shown” as being somewhere and within a process, and thus to break open the psychological hermetic enclosure. It is his refusal of objectivity, which he wants to transcend in a Romantic inner theatre.
There is of course no defence against poetry conceived in these ways, especially for the white reader, though she might not be the only one to need one. If you agree to the contract, you are implicated in all the harm, and the invitation of the writing is very persuasive. Myself I am reluctant to sign up and the nearest to a defence I have at hand just now is Kei Miller. There are several points at which the two poets can be directly compared on the same material, and what I think this does not show is that Miller is in any way compromised or shields himself from the brutalities of his black history by mitigated response. Marriott’s picture of a severe, probably fatal flogging is in the first part of the poem ‘Venus as a Boy’ : “The whip […] crowns / the body as it folds, / exposes concealed bone…” and goes on to subsume the event into a big symbolic structure in which the boy’s body is “changed from black to gold, from flesh to icon”, subsiding at the end to “He had no rights, only wrongs. / The singular suffering of a boy, / whipped because he had no flaw to offer, or condone.” It is one of his most impressive poems, not least in the yearning for the destroyed beauty of the child. One of Miller’s place name pieces is called ‘Flog Man’. Following a remark on the common practice of flogging slaves for next to nothing ― “…why not rename the whole damn country Flog Island?”, it says ―
But it had one beating so brutal, no one could cork their ears from it; both black and white man fail in the long practice of deafness; years pass like salve but they was still hearing it, the cow whip flicking up flecks of skin, and this Mandingo man who they did think was too big, too proud to ever let eye water grace him eye was bawling out a bruck-spirit sound even larger than the barrel of him chest. Blood did sprinkle the ground like anointing and now people walk by and cringe as memory curl like S an lash them owna skin.
It is the difference between symbolism and realism, perhaps between religious and secular, though Miller is the one who seems actually to profess a religion. But note that the hurt of memory, which Marriott greatly relies on, is here acknowledged, in a different way which reaches beyond interiorisation. I also find Miller’s depiction the more disturbing, but of course Marriott refuses “depiction” as such.
Miller also shows himself cognisant of boy prostitution, as a current problem in Jamaica rather than glimpsed episodes of cruelty from anywhere on earth. This is mainly in the story ‘A Kind of Silence’ in Writing the Vision. But Miller gives us the boy’s entire life story from birth, and that of the policeman who casually kills him, and the whole thing is briefly but authoritatively contextualised ― “There are places where people live as wild pigs and hungry dogs; this isn’t a metaphor.” That last remark suggests that poetical treatment of the facts is not necessary: the figures are already there walking the streets. Marriott employs every device of poetical figuration that the history of European poetry can supply him with, until the event is transferred to an elsewhere which is both mental and literary. With Miller the damage results from poverty, with Marriott it is a framed icon of human cruelty.
Romana Huk, in her Preface to Hoodoo Voodo, which is very helpful as long as you give the poet the benefit of the doubt, says that what Marriott principally does is to mourn. I cannot hide a slight grin here because mourning entered the academic literary vocabulary in a big way in, as I recall, the 1990s because of Gillian Rose. It swiftly became a figure of everything we lack. It is true, but Marriott will mourn only the sum total ―
Don’t think me melancholic,
I have no patience for elegies.
The most I can handle is the sad sad
nothing, and for these islands
I will remain the tattered whisperer of nothings,
ring-tone for the voicemail of ex-slaves.
This silence needs to be set against Miller’s music in his elegy on the death of his mother.
THE QUALITY OF Marriott’s writing is not in question. I have nothing but admiration for the way he maintains the poetical impetus in lines which Romana Huk justifiably calls “Romantic” and “Rilkean”, how this sustained energy and resource moves across all his self-interruptions and lapses and creates, in itself, the conclusion his sense of poetical process won’t allow. This is what saves him as a poet. There is also a lot of prose, which allows his inventiveness to expand and coheres the telling better than in much of the poetry, sometimes, in parts at any rate, conjuring up a trace of gladness. In Hoodoo Voodoo there a prose piece, ‘Veil No.2’ based on Andrew Crozier’s The Veil Poem which is a fine piece of writing as it unfolds its earthly perceptions, and yet… Crozier could be truly gloomy but his The Veil Poem does not end with, nor ultimately imply, bleakness, the taste of ash in the mouth (ash is another obsessively itterated word for him; I think it may represent the fruit of all human endeavour). The message in the comparatively easy-flowing, persuasive and more readable prose remains one of gloom and futility. In Neuter is mostly prose, a lot of it arranged in columns and blocks alongside poems, all reflecting off each other in provocative ways. This is also his grimmest book, with the most insistent emphasis on bodily damage. It is possible to be reminded of Beckett, but not really, for it is entirely without the cynical smirk of game-playing, the comedic inventiveness, which means you don’t actually take Beckett seriously.
The question is about what the poetry is for. I don’t know the answer to this, and instead I prefer to ask, What does the poetry do, to the reader, and especially to the white reader? In a review of In Neuter on the website Black Box Manifold, John Wilkinson6 articulates his response as centred on slavery “as a dynamic constituent of every moment’s experience, historically, psychologically and philosophically. I am forced to know that for me to figure myself as anti-racist would be ridiculous.” He does not say that it persuades him that he is a racist, but that he cannot be an anti-racist, and this double negative is precisely where Marriott’s enterprise lands you if you agree to it, a double negative which does not form a positive but leaves you in a total impasse, a nothing. Romana Huk describes her response as “…being shocked into a space of tumult […] This book puts one out to sea, metaphorically, in part by dismantling the very idea of seeing, leaving us clinging to coffins instead as flotation devices, dead image of identity and ‘otherness’…” But both of these critics are committed to a belief not only in the value of the corrosive perceptual processes of this kind of poetry, but also in the entire theoretical library which props it up. I don’t find it has these damaging effects on me (and I don’t know why academic critics of the advanced kind so thirst for them); I find that “to see” still means to understand and understanding is denied in this poetry. You are not encouraged to think about or understand (“see”) even slavery, the master term, indeed you are not allowed to. You must only take in an empathetic sense of the pain and horror involved in particular moments of inhuman cruelty to which all other such acts form an echoic support. I do find these books sad, and dispiriting, especially if that take-over of the human spirit by memories of slavery is an authentic experience.
The trouble is finally that if you negate a negation what are you left with? Nothing, as he says. But nothing is itself a negative, and the field in which he operates, which is that of human harm and suffering, is inescapably a duality. “Black” would become a special condition of privilege here, an authority allowing those paralysing forces to take us over, if there weren’t other black poets on the opposite side of the laptop, such as Kei Miller, sobbing and laughing. The only actors in this theatre are harm and not-harm and if the latter is eliminated the show is off.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
- Without being at all certain, I think that the Rastafarian usage of “I-“ or “i-“ as a prefix conveys a unity of individual and plural as a religious concept. “I&I” stands for the unity of the whole tribe with God (“Jah”) but is also used casually to mean “we”. Meanings such as wutless = worthless, cyaa = can’t, fi = (here) how to, are easily picked up in reading the poems. ↩
- bagasse is the fibrous residue of sugar-cane when the juice has been extracted, and has various industrial uses. I assume the reference to be to colonial or post-colonial exploitation, probably by monoproduction. ↩
- I find it curious that the note to this line acknowledges Barry MacSweeney as its source, rather than MacSweeney’s source, Rimbaud (‘Au Cabaret-Vert’, 1870). Marriott must know this, he is a university lecturer in literature. But no matter how passionately committed, certain types of contemporary poetry will always be ready to mystify in the margin. ↩
- The name Eckerslike must be formed from the Lancashire negative expletive “Heck as like” in which “Heck” is Hell and “as like” is a meaningless emphatic. So the retort “Is it heck as like!” means “No it certainly isn’t.” I wonder if Marriott knows this. ↩
- The piece has an epigram from Wittgenstein: “What can be shown cannot be said”. I know I am unfair to and very ignorant of Wittgenstein. If British poets would stop quoting remarks of his which are clearly nonsense I might begin to take him seriously. If this remark were correct it would not be possible to show that… ↩
- The Wilkinson review is here. ↩