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Progeny of Air

Written by Linda France for Poetry Review on no date provided

Progeny of Air takes its title from a single poem describing a fishing trip, referring to the life-cycle of the salmon, both actual and hypothetical. This also neatly reflects the themes and concerns of the whole collection: movement and the impulse of natural energy; the need to go back and visit meaningful times and places in one’s life; a way of living an authentic life, the possibility of growth and self-awareness. The leap and dash of the salmon is also caught in the poetry’s musical rhythms and striking language.

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana (1962), went to school in Jamaica (1971-87) and now lives in South Carolina, where he works as a lecturer, playwright, actor, artist, story-teller and reggae musician. The legacy of his background and these various skills inform what he achieves as a poet - ‘leaping, still instinct, still travelling’ - like the salmon itself.

The book extends across a wide range of experiences, its first section focusing on incidents from childhood and adolescence. Many of these poems convey the painful cruelty of children, the pecking order of threat and coercion, terrible rites of passage. The playwright’s skills of strong characterization are evident in the ‘Hall of Fame’, a series of vignettes of various characters, pupils and masters. The teachers are portrayed as figures of power and influence, but Dawes is aware of their off-duty lives too, striving to paint the whole picture. These portraits are invigorating and compassionate, suggesting that these men had futures as well as pasts, just like the boys on the threshold of adulthood. This is only one example of the way Dawes often offers a very different perspective on quite ordinary things, implying that time is more than simply a chronological device, and that culture and society is more than the hierarchy imposed upon ‘the disorder of our terrible existence’. Once again like the salmon, childhood is presented as a place we must return to and returns within us anyway, whether we like or not. Dawes revels in the ‘freedom to write the hidden’.

Sexual awakening and the associated rituals masturbation, homosexuality and sport in a boy world are addressed in a series of extremely open and provocative poems, evoking feelings of risk and excitement, the sordid as well as the expansive. The clear-eyed candour of these poems is remarkable and refreshingly un-English; although I’m sure the experiences related are fairly universal. But here is a man not afraid to call a condom a condom, who knows that sex is never safe and wouldn’t want it to be. His openness to the positive when it comes to matters physical is beautifully shown in the tender but supple poem for his new-born daughter, her ‘quick-suck mouth / locked on like a fish in passion’. She becomes the future he’ll watch in the blaze of her eyes; another home-coming, another grace - ‘for what we are about to receive’.

The energy and power of Progeny of Air is always affirmative, even when dealing with ‘difficult’ subject matter, most notably the ‘Cabinet of Beggars’ living a Hogarthian life under pressure in the North America of the 90s

broncoing the smoke, green and silver stink

chaos of the rush hour home,
kisco boys, star boys, peanut boys

balance their lives on the dull chrome
edges of the jolly-buses

He takes many admirable risks, borrowing narrative techniques from the story-telling tradition and rhythms from reggae. His vocabulary is a curious mixture of formal precise or prosaic words together with street slang and surprising compounds, all informed by a love of traditional ‘English’ poetry instilled at school in Jamaica - ‘the jazz of words against words / making beauty in rhythm, sound, in twisted / clash of constructs we did not really grasp // but felt...’ My only problem with this book is that I regret not having heard it read aloud. Its richness is evident on the page but some of its music feels trapped within the confines of two dimensions. I’d like to hear its rhythms in the poet’s own voice and listen to its stories.

I am grateful to Kwame Dawes for writing this book and bringing some heat to a grey and chilly autumn; grateful also to the Forward panel of judges for awarding it their First Collection Prize and so bringing it to the attention of a wider audience. Peepal Tree are bringing out two further books. I look forward to seeing what else this man can do.

This is a review of Progeny of Air

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