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-smoke mi pipe.
[from '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
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 'Rule
Britannia', glowin with all we loyal
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.
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
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,
were no earthquakes at the end
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
still Jamaica, the city
still a city
of pulpits big as skyscrapers
prophecy a billboard,
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
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':
country, you realise sipping cocoa
back home -- as if bones
thawing there. In this new country
songs to tea, to kettles, radiators and all forms
of exhaust. A
whole song to the colour orange.
to sheep and
wool: to knitted scarves,
socks. All praise any coat
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