Background Poems/No Limits

Windrush Songs, James Berry (80pp, 7.95, Bloodaxe)
There Is an Anger that Moves,
Kei Miller (80pp, 9.95, Carcanet)

Berry and Miller wear their origins on their sleeves; Berry's notes his book 'explores different reasons his fellow travellers had for leaving the Caribbean', Miller's that his poems 'travel from Jamaica and back'.

The drive in Windrush Songs
is conservation, as Berry makes clear in the introduction. He attempts to find 'a way of going back and retrieving [his] Caribbean experience' in writing the book. 'It was a way of hearing and preserving Caribbean village voices'. In order to do so, the poems are narrative, often dramatic monologues, and often in dialect:

     I used to get up some midnight
     and come sit at mi doorway
     a-think, a-think, a-smoke mi pipe.
'Sitting up Past Midnight']

As poetry, there
's nothing new here. In the introduction, Berry writes that the Jamaican dialect is 'concrete, full of images, a good language for poetry'. This is a bizarre comment for anyone interested in language art, since poetry is what you make it. Berry is asserting that poetry is something already decided, which he can fill up: basically a box. Dialect poems are nothing new, and Berry doesn't further their capacity. The images are defunct ('towering palmtrees', 'bugle-blow of wind'). Then there are poetic (i.e. pretentious) phrases: 'I learn the beauty of tenderness' 'sunlight's dominion', 'maps of time'. A student of poetry wouldn't come to this book.

So who would? Someone wishing to learn something about history? Unfortunately not. The devices Windrush Songs
employs prevent it from being a record, except of the author's opinions. Dramatic monologues mean that the voices have no truth value -- they are made up. Since there are no facts, Berry has to convince through emotion -- and the burden makes the writing false. For instance, the last line of the book reads, 'Oh how everything has its movement, its voice, its ending -- / it is overwhelming.' The initial 'Oh' is there to convince us that the writer really feels what he's about to write. Then we have 'everything has its movement, its voice, its ending', which is meaninglessly vague, finished by 'it is overwhelming' -- which is simply not true. As Patty Smith sang, 'we're only given as much as the heart can endure'. Beyond that, you die or go crazy.

Finally, the kind of poetry Berry has chosen forces him to compromise himself in ways he condemns. For instance, in
'Empire Day', we see children being 'drilled' in patriotism for Britain:

    We sing we heart out, singing
', glowin with all we loyal
     virtue to King, Country and Empire.

Berry makes the point that his Jamaican heritage becomes subsumed:
' Mi union Jack sweets-tin / turn mi treasure, keeping / mi slate an mi marble-them.' The idea is a complex one -- of Britain as a preserver, a place within which Jamaicans and their experiences are able to remain, in relative security; and as a prison. Propaganda influences which interpretation you take. Yet this point is blunted by Berry accepting the convention that a poem should end on something symbolic, heavy enough to give it weight. By taking the childhood experience of keeping tings in his tin, and making it symbolic, Berry limits the significance of the experience, and makes it subservient to the demands of the kind of poem he writes. The poems are boxes: anything inside is preserved at the cost of mummification.

So this book functions as an opinion. Only those with experience of what Berry writes about could judge the truth of what he writes -- and that seriously limit
's the book's use and appeal.

There Is an Anger that Moves shows more interest in poetry. Miller is in dialogue with modernism, specifically the New York school, bringing Jamaica along to make poems with a spin.

The New York ease and wit makes these poems fun to read. They often reminded me of the recent John Ash, another poet bringing New York style to less glitzy places. Take, for example, part of 'The silent things':

     I am giving up on prophecy. I tried,
     but there were no earthquakes at the end
     of my sentences, or hurricanes
     in my vowels; not one knee weakened
     at the sound of my warnings,
     and there was no ash, no gnashing
     of teeth, or sombre bells. After everything
     Jamaica is still Jamaica, the city
     still a city of pulpits big as skyscrapers
     and every prophecy a billboard,
     large but inconsequential.
     so I'm giving up; it isn't worth it.

There's the camp first sentence, flippant, prosy, vaguely blasphemous and self-centred. There's the rich structure: 'I tried', two words, broken at the line, of a sentence that takes six lines to complete. There are the references to writing. There are the truisms ('Jamaica is still Jamaica') and the chat ('After everything'). There's the metaphor, complete with explanation for the stupid or lazy: 'every prophecy a billboard, / large but inconsequential'.

The book is as well structured as the poems. The six sections are very different from one another: compare the previous poem, from section III, with the sober poems of section IV: 'Borders are jagged; every island is proof. / Straight lines on a map are decisions / made by men who knew nothing'. And individual poems connect with each other, meaning that there is feeling of a whole: in section I, all poems begin, 'In this country'). I'll give you one called 'A whole song to the colour orange':

     In this country, you realise sipping cocoa
     was luxury back home -- as if bones
     ever needed thawing there. In this new country
     you sing songs to tea, to kettles, radiators and all forms
     of exhaust. A whole song to the colour orange.
     But mostly, you Hosanna
     to sheep and wool: to knitted scarves,
     sweaters and socks. All praise any coat
     of any colour. All praise the sheared lamb.

This is wonderful because there is no orange in the poem, apart from the title and identical third sentence, which, without subject or verb, hardly seems to belong in the poem and is unclear. Indeed, it seems to occur in the middle of the previous sentence, which resumes with 'But'. As a result, it is the most memorable part, subjecting the rest of the poem to it. (Gilbert Sorrentino does similar things in The Orangery
, a collection where each poem contains orange). This is a tidy place to end -- by saying that, having no limits on the material or tone allowed into the poems keeps them vital. Miller writes from his background, but not only about it.

              Thomas White 2008