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Progeny of Air

Written by George Clarke for The Mail Star on no date provided

ABOUT A YEAR AGO I reviewed Kwame Dawes’s second book of poems, Resisting the Anomie (Goose Lane), and found it less than impressive, especially given its author had received the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize, a British award recognizing an auspicious first collection. After receiving a copy of my comments, Dawes sent me his first book, Progeny of Air (Peepal Tree), and his third, Prophets (Peepal Tree), to urge me to re-assess his talents. I have finally had an opportunity to do so. These two books declare the presence of a signal poet.

Born in Ghana, raised in Jamaica, colleged in Canada (at the University of New Brunswick), and employed as a professor of English in South Carolina, Dawes exemplifies the transatlantic life experience of many writers of African Diasporic heritage. Even so, his poetry sounds his Jamaican memories, with Canada providing incidental, negative, Torontonian backdrops.

Progeny of Air, a collection of lyrics, sketches schoolmasters, students, and teachers encountered in Jamaican schools. These pieces stage a complex, almost Victorian dialogue between sexuality and sinfulness - accepting a tension between the twain. (I used to accept this tension, but I’ve been to France.) There is Claudette, a once-lusted-after teacher who becomes an illegal immigrant in the US: ‘Five years of nun-like purity, and now this.’ Another character, Miss Everbreast, sparks the poet’s desire to visit Canada, a disillusioning experience. Still, he hopes to meet her again: ‘let me embrace you, burying my face / in the world of mystery and adventure still caught in your bosom.’ And there is Perch, with ‘her fish-shocked eyes,’ who had been caught ‘spread and supine / on the woodwork table / cradling the woodwork / teacher between her thighs.’

Dawes is at his best when writing longish lines; he seems to require almost prose-length measures to release his music; shorter ones cramp and constrain his voice. His images are powerful, but bear witness to poetic intelligence that relishes treating the messiness of history and of love. A slave ship operative possesses a ‘crotch teeming with syphilis and worms’; a lover notes his ‘squandered innocence;/ spilt seed on the urine-smelling mattress’; a white teacher speaks ‘the coloured cockney of expatriates,’ while his pupils dream of startling ‘his poor blond head with blood.’

Though Dawes is a vital poet, his work is harmed by one problem: good, vibrant lines are prodded or clouded by laxer ones. In short, he fails to concentrate his poems: prolixity sacrifices exactness. (Note: Peter Gzowski is transformed into Peter Zorski perhaps deliberately, on p.88)

Yet, Prophets, Dawes’s book-length, narrative poem, written in unrhymed triplets, is a capital advance over his tyro work. Dawes’s voice sings in narrative, a form in which he pays obvious debts (and homage) to Derek Walcott, the Nobel laureate of Anglo-Caribbean poetry. Certainly, Walcott’s 1990 opus, Omeros, haunts the structure of Prophets; Dawes has absorbed the master’s genius for contrasting dramatic and standard Englishes. Then again, Prophets’s plot suggests a tinge of Alexander Pope’s comic epic, The Rape of the Lock (1717), for Clarice, Dawes’s Bible-packing heroine, exhibits some of the coquetry of Pope’s Belinda. Indeed, Dawes examines sexual guilt and hypocrisy among members of a holyrollers sect in Kingston, Jamaica.
The narrator, a would-be lover spurned by Clarice for supposedly religious reasons, discovers that she has been fooping illicitly with a church member: ‘I dare to imagine her coupling / in the blackness of the beach, / her coming, that same mouth / saying, ‘Harder, harder, harder.’ / I am seeking clues, some explaining / that will reveal the sleight-of-hand / of this fundamentalist miracle...’
Dawes writes evocatively of Clarice (‘the paste of Pond’s white on her face,’ her ‘thick, dipped-in-burnt-sienna lips’), poets (who wait ‘for night to gather, when they will crawl out / and collect the leaves into sheathes sandwiched / between elegiac introduction and well researched glossary...’), and a thousand other things. This book demands and holds attention.

If you have yet to read Dawes, Prophets is the best place to begin. I look forward to his future work.

This is a review of Progeny of Air

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