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Progeny of Air

Written by n/a for Poetry London Newsletter on no date provided

‘Progeny of Air’ - the title poem of Kwame Dawes’ first collection - is one of the most moving poems I have read. For that alone I can see why this book was awarded the 1994 Forward Prize for the best first collection. Having reread it aloud many times I then proceed outwards to the other poems.

Whether Dawes writes about a person or ‘General’ - the salmon of the title poem, his concerns are with nature, human nature, human intervention with the natural world and the effect of the natural world on people. From the first poems on childhood bullying to the powerful depiction of a salmon’s imagined bid for freedom from a salmon farm, the issues are with oppression and survival.

‘General’ embodies the plight of the oppressed:

after denying herself social security and

the predictability of a steady feeling
and the safety from predator seal and osprey;
after enacting the sisyphean pattern of all fish

here, in the shadow of the Connors Sardine Factory
she spawns her progeny of air and dies

Every element of this poem, the rhythm, sound, imagery, is precisely employed. ‘The propellors undress the sea; / the pattern of foam like a broken zip’. From the first line, the sea is in the process of being raped, mechanised, poisoned. Its dress suggests a body bag. The finality of this image is offset by the poet’s will. Dawes fantasises that ‘General’ returns to her spawning ground in Lake Utopia and in the rest of the book he himself returns to his youth.

Born in Ghana, he lived in Jamaica as a child and adolescent. The first two sections of the book are about his schooldays, but the scope is far wider and has global relevance. In ‘Miss Everbreast’s Lessons’ he addresses his geography teacher who idealised Canada where he has since lived, to find:

A native Indian (people you never mentioned once)
stares into the Northern lights and reads the future;
his open palm of colour bleeds red as the scent of

burning flesh rising slowly from the pyre into the night:
reclaiming the legacy of his beginnings on these lands;
his ancestral lands now golf courses and theme parks

and who:

still gets embarassed to meet folks like me,
who, well tutored by your strict tongue and magic paraphenalia
knows the names of his dreamland better than he does

Dawes expresses gratitude ‘learning and relearning lands like conquistadors’, then reveals not only her fraud, but the fraudulent maps of cartographers, the inaccurate accounts of historians, just as the native Indian ‘laments the maps and globes which have so carefully / limited the scope of his dreamings’.

The poem is part of a long section ‘Hall of Fame’ - character portraits as humorous as they are serious. Miss Everbreast had ‘mountains of flesh tightly secure in your rigid bra - that swell of tenderness / during everlasting lessons on glaciers and fjords’. The portraits become landscapes: ‘the way his eyes would disappear / as if reentering the Berbice forest’ (‘Mighty’). Many images are of fish, swamps, rivers, mountains - natural phenomena interchangeable with bodies, especially when the theme is sexual, or more specifically sexual destiny. The wonderfully musical and sympathetic ‘Sex Sells Annette’ describes a prostitute’s life. Her dressing table is decorated with shells she has collected. Here is a vignette:

The soldier crab was naked
when Annette captures his home.

She didn’t kill him, just plucked him out and tossed him
brandishing his claws like a fist full of knives
in the swallowing black sand.

She backed back and watched
the seagull wail and dive.
Bye-bye, soldier crab; so life go.

The splendidly named Peepal Tree Press is named after the ficus religiosa, sacred tree of India which labourers brought with them to the Caribbean and which has become a symbol of the strengths of transplanted cultures in new environments. I hope that this strong collection will reach a very wide audience, multiplying like the transplanted Peepal tree.

This is a review of Progeny of Air

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