Causes for Celebration

Sunflowers in your Eyes: Four Zimbabwean Poets, edited by Menna Elfyn
      (69pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press)

I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems
, Grace Nichols
     (191pp, 9.95, Bloodaxe)

Here are two books that are a cause for celebration. The first brings into circulation new writers, against the odds, while the other marks not yet a life's work but a significant bringing together of twenty and more years of it.

'Sunflowers in your Eyes' began in 2002 as part of a British Council-sponsored online mentoring project, pioneered, as the Foreword tells us, by Graham Mort. The project put writers from across Africa in touch with writers in the UK. Menna Elvyn was part of this to-and-fro, and in 2004 visited Zimbabwe and led workshops; this book is one of the results.

It's never enough for a reviewer to bunch four writers together, this time all women, and characterise them; these voices, though, all speak of personal matters, they are strong and they carry well; the overall description must add, crucially, here voice is poem is voice is life spoken as only - paradoxically - poems can sound it.

Quoting a few lines can suggest only, but well enough, I think, to show what's here. A poem from each of them:

First, Ethel Irene Kabwato's  'Reminiscences' (all, after the initial T, in lower case):

     This is the place / we once called home - / the place where
     we danced / during the full moon / and played hide and seek
     / behind the boulders /at the chief's homestead. / we called
     his place home / when the rivers were / still flowing in the
     summer, / and we would sing / and shout to the wind, / to give
     us good men, / but the wind carried /our voices / with it / and
     gave us tight-fisted men / whose cruelty we now see / in the
     eyes / of the nameless children we hold / in our unempowered
     hands: / the products /of a man made tragedy / that is haunting us.

A poem by Fungai Rufaro Machirori, 'I am':

     I am a composition / of words, full stops and commas of blood
     clotted through / the paragraphs of nerves that write my story /
     on pages of flesh and bone. / My skin's the thin envelope / that
     seals this letter of lyrics / written, unread, unspoken - / address
     unknown / travelling unopened/ to your doorstep / to unwrap
     and read / me into life.

By Joyce Shereni: 'Destiny':

     Should I let myself / need you? / must I be honest / and admit
     to myself / what you mean to me? // I do not want / to depend on
     you / for my happiness / because / in accepting your reality / I'm
     losing control.

And by Blessing Musariri, one section from a sequence of four prose poems called 'Related', this one number IV 'Kalahari desert dreams':

     People are eating geckos in my dream. In the day, they speak
     in languages I don't understand so I sip cups of tea and nibble
     on small squares of pink cake - surprisingly delicious. The
     sun beats the rhythm of a dry season and behind sunglasses,
      beneath hats and caps and umbrellas, we melt. Amid
     different tongues and strange tastes, the lights go out at four
      a.m. and I find myself in darkness.

It's not a book of cheerful tales, on the contrary it makes often for painful reading; the invigoration is in the telling, it's what poems can be transformatively; the photos of the writers on the back cover show a mix of smiles and quiet strength: 'Glad to be here' and 'Lives transformed? Well maybe'. Certainly, with Menna Elvyn's encouragement, being heard.

It's years and years now since I encountered Grace Nichols and John Agard, at this or that location, always in celebratory style, and most notably for me as two of the seven poets who took part in the first Poetry Squantum, an idea I set going for the Hay Festival when it was early, small, still at venues in the town centre while having already (as I recall) that special buzz about it. A book of that Squantum and of other poets reading that year was published in my 'Border Country: Poems in Process', 1991.
Grace's writing life is represented in 'I have crossed an ocean' by selections from 'I is a Long-Memoried Woman' (1983) through three further books and arriving at 'Startling the Flying Fish' (2006), plus a section of 'poems for younger readers'. There is a companion volume of new work, 'Picasso, I want my Face Back' (Bloodaxe 2009).

As I was led into this new book, it was as if I was meeting again cultural landmarks. Remember 'The Fat Black Woman's Poems' (1984)? Then 'Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman' (1989)? Landmarks not least in feminism, these were.

I recall very well her strong Caribbean voice but, looking at these poems now, the voice I remember isn't often there; that's to say, on the page the language is clear, strong English, yes, but usually it needs the subject matter, and even that doesn't always tell, to speak of origins, of what is there in her life and soul.

Just one example, the opening of 'Winter Thoughts':

      I've reduced the sun / to the neat oblong of fire / in my living
      room // I've reduced the little /flesh tongues of the vagina / to
      the pimpled grate / and the reddening licking / flames
But then of course in these decades' worth of work there's Anansi, and there's Africa, and so on, and just occasionally something more telling of origins surfaces:

     Talk to me Huracan
     Talk to me Oya
     Talk to me Shango
     And Hattie
     My sweeping, back-home cousin.   
               [From 'Hurricane hits England' in 'Sunris', 1996]

And a poem will suddenly call out from the page as if to tell me, 'You've got me wrong, listen!' 'Baby-K Ray Rhyme', for instance (a poem for younger readers), where there's,

     Ah rocking with my homegirl,
     My Mommy
     Ah rocking with my homeboy,
     My daddy

and later a repeated chorus that starts,

     poop po-doop
     poop-poop po-doop

Not that I know if this is traditional Guyana or Grace Nichols genius; I suppose perhaps both.

Whatever its author's origins and development, this book is the showing of an important now-British poet, a voice that has delighted audiences and a book that couldn't be bettered for giving to a young poet as an example of how to do it.

           David Hart 2010