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New and Selected Poems

Written by Stewart Brown for Poetry Review on no date provided

In what seems a very short time (his first book of poems was published only in 1994), Kwame Dawes has established a reputation as a poet and critic of an unusually wide-ranging and sympathetic intelligence. His biography demonstrates what a broad definition Caribbean poet can be torn in Ghana of West Indian parents, Dawes grew up in Jamaica, was educated in Canada, lives and works in the USA, and is mostly published in Britain. As a critic of contemporary Caribbean writing his analysis has been both generous and original, particularly in his work on the notion of a reggae aesthetic, as developed in his study Natural Mysticism, and illustrated both in his anthology Wheel and Come Again and his collection of poems Shook Foil. One has a sense, reading over Dawes's work, that his is an active intelligence in the best tradition of the practitioner-critic, the different facets of his work -- poetry, drama, public reading, reviewing, interviews with other Caribbean writers, and academic criticism -- each serving to inform his overall artistic project.

It is clear from his account of the evolution of a reggae aesthetic that Dawes has a strong sense of the importance of tradition in understanding contemporary cultural expression, albeit that the tradition he identifies is not that Walcottian ""mighty line of Milton and Marlowe"" which ratified the Caribbean canon. His exploration of the ways a complex reggae aesthetic, informed by a ""history of rebellion and defiance"" but characterised too by a Rastafarian re-definition of love, permeates and liberates the work of a whole generation of Caribbean writers (as well as a significant corpus of African, American, and European writers) fundamentally challenges prevailing orthodoxies but is argued with both authority and great subtlety. This is a period of redefinition for Caribbean culture and Natural Mysticism and Wheel and Come Again may well prove to be seminal texts in that process of reassessment and reclamation.

The notion of a reggae aesthetic -- of the language moving to a different rhythm, under different kinds of pressure -- also underpins all Dawes's work as poet. It is, in part, what has established the distinctive voice in his poetry, which is in other ways both formally and thematically diverse -- ranging from the exploration of intensely private emotion to a consideration of huge public historical issues, particularly around slavery, the Middle Passage, and its consequences. But that history is, of course, itself one source of his private emotions; so again we have this sense of crossover in Dawes's work, of the wholeness of his intellectual and artistic enterprise. The distinctiveness of the voice and the range of his concerns is perhaps best illustrated by reference to two of the eight collections represented in this generous New and Selected Poems; the 1996 collection Requiem, and the more recent Shook Foil (1998).

Requiem is a moving sequence of poems responding to the historical facts of the Middle Passage, powerfully evoking the horror of the slaves' experience but also managing to transcend the conventional responses of outrage and horror to convince his readers that the voices they hear, the emotions they encounter, are genuine, are felt. It is that conviction which enables the cathartic, healing energy of the sequence to come fully into play. The sequence is not just a re-imagining of the Atlantic crossing; it includes several poems that focus on the life-after-the-crossing, from those set in plantation times to others very much of the present. Requiem addresses the legacies of slavery with regard to issues of race and colour and confronts the notion of cultural alienation -- even of the slaves and their descendants having in some neocolonial sense connived with plantation lore in order to survive. The sequence is characterised by the economy of the writing, the sense of measured utterance, the gravitas and respect with which the poet addresses his subject. Not that these are in any sense decorous poems; the emotion that most informs them is an anger which -- in the character of particular personae -- is both raw and violent. As, for example, in the poem ""Crime of Passion"" which powerfully images both the rage of the man-who-would-become-the-slave and the frustration of alienation in his descendant who might-be-a-poet.

... Oh to stay in the simple 
dialectic of hatred and brutality
there at the edge of my flaming hut,

to remain ín that fire-bright place 
of purest hate, the stranger, a beast 
my fist clear-eyed, pounding life

from his faceless howls. All this long before 
the gospel of crosses, blood; the song 
of promised lands I have embraced,

long before I copulated
with his books and gave birth to words, l
ong before he found my tongue,

could sing my tongue, owned my tongue 
while I toyed with his. Now my fist 
is a cataracted beast, unable to shake

the monkey of affinity from my back.

The Shook Foil collection is in various ways a homage to Bob Marley which anticipates and complements Dawes's recent biography of the great Jamaican musician: it illustrates the formal awareness of the bass line that characteríses the reggae aesthetic:

.....the bass, a looping lanky 
dread, sloping like a lean-to, 
defying gravity and still limping 
to a natural half-beat riddim, 
on the rain-slick avenue
(""Some tentative definitions, 1"")

Shook Foil also suggests the sensibility, the sensuality, the one-love weight of spirituality and metaphor - ""light like a feather, heavy as lead"" - that the reggae aesthetic encompasses:

I stir from my trance hungry and thirsty,
and as sudden as a prayer formed, the sky is ashen-- 
heavy, sputtering pellets of rain.
I stand before the language of this storm
again an alien, a sojourner, waiting for a clue
to lead me homeward -- a place of quiet rest. 
(""I am a stranger on earth"") 

This is poetry dancing to a different drummer: the range of reference, the cultural assumptions bound into the poems, the cast and turn of the language, the lyrical drive . . . all of these announce another way of thinking about ""poetry in English"", where both ""poetry"" and ""English"" are problematic terms to be challenged and redefined.

And that's essentially what Dawes is doing through the rest of the New and Selected Poems, from the poems of alienation and lament in the Forward Prize-winning first collection Resisting the Anomie, through the extended verse narratives of Prophets and Jacko Jackobus, to the exploration of what it means to claim fully a New World African inheritance in his most recent collection Midland, which won the prestigious Hollis Summers poetry prize in the USA in 2001.

The new poems in this collection constitute a significant chunk of the book, and include several sharp and substantial pieces on coming to terms with middle age and trying to make sense of being who he is, now. I have perhaps made him seem too serious in this review, for there is much laughter in this book and a self-deprecating wit that can be disarming, as in ""Fat Man"":

I stare at my stranger self in hotel mirrors. 
I am afraid to meet this stomach-glorious 
creature, unable these days to find an angle 
of satisfying grace. I am now a circle of errors…

This is a review of New and Selected Poems

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