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Progeny of Air

Written by Sudeep Sen for Lines Review on no date provided

Very rarely in the current literary landscape do we experience a tremor that is hard to get away from, a shift that is unobtrusive and quiet but powerful, an impact that leaves you stirred, one that jolts the imagination and thought dramatically. One such recent occurrence, one that may alter the new poetry’s course, is the appearance of Kwame Dawes and his brilliant first collection of poems, Progeny of Air. Born in Ghana in 1962, Dawes has lived in Jamaica, Britain, Canada, and now teaches in America. He is young, highly original and intelligent, possessing a poetic sensibility that is rooted and sound, unshakable and unstoppable, both in its vibrancy and direction.
He writes poetry as poetry ought to be written. Just consider the opening lines from the title poem ‘Progeny of Air’:

The propellers undress the sea; 
the pattern of foam like a broken zip 
opening where the bow cuts the wave

and closing in its wake.

Here, Dawes displays a mastery over poetic language that is already mature, tightly-wrought, and energetic. And he does this without resorting to nostalgia or shallow romanticism, but instead, he injects into the landscape a vision that is very contemporary. His imagery and passion is such that it is difficult to replicate or to even escape from, it is wholly his own. Further on in the same poem, we experience along with the poet, smelling the stench as ‘the smell of rotting salmon lingers over the Bay // of Fundy, like a mortuary’s disinfected air.’

Kwame Dawes is fascinated with the two-line and three-line structure that he uses so effectively in his poems. Whether it is the sparse couplet form in the ‘Prime Minister’, or the three-line stanza recreating old school memories and sexual fantasies in ‘Miss Everbreast’s Lesson’, Dawes makes each line livid, each phrase pungent, and each image memorable. This second poem opens rhetorically commanding Miss Everbreast to ‘take off the wig’, to

remove the mask of make-up and the sweet accident
of language of your tongue, strip off the pretence;

for I know you now to be a fraud, a conjurer 
with your maps, your globes, your coloured picture.
Speak to me in the language I know you know

and tell me it was all a dream, all a game;...

In this poem, not only are serious issues of colonizing present, that of an adopted tongue and academic upbringing that has been thrust upon those who are far removed from its original relevance, but also, what comes through is the imaginary relationship of couched intimacy between teacher and student, between young boys and older women. Notice too the care with which details are sculpted and phrased: ‘I’ve seen the Rockies and the prairies hot as pumice stones / in the humid nights’, or, ‘well tutored by your strict tongue and magical paraphernalia’, or ‘sharp pines, needles / pricking the sharp blue sky’, or the ‘winding St John’s River / spread into tiny parts of itself, each with its own name / owning the sprawling landscape with flood waters’.

The structural and iconic fascination with ‘two’ and ‘three’ is evident in the certain repetition of sustained images in various poems, and in the deployment of paired constructs. The former is evidenced in the image of ‘cutting propellers’ of ‘Grace’ earlier found in the title poem itself. The latter is explored with paired images of ‘seed’ and ‘egg’, ‘sex’ and ‘breast’, ‘sperm’ and ‘sweat’, ‘passion’ and ‘smell’, to name a few. Then there are triangulated image-patterns, linked narratives between the poems (even though each one stands on its own), and, long-line narratives of the opening section of the book (the first half a dozen poems in particular) as well as in a poem like ‘Prime Minister Reunites with his Mother’.

Cultural specificity is an aspect that merits highlighting. Poems like ‘Foggy’, ‘Yap’, ‘The
English Room’ and ‘Recall’ are good examples. Colonial education, the game of cricket, cross-cultural landscapes are only some of the subject matter evoked in this vein. Sex seethes and bubbles throughout his work, whether it is actual passion, or an imagined fantasy, or a half encounter - public or private. It maybe couched in simplicity and innocence as in ‘Sex Education’, but more often than not, the protagonist is an active participant. Take for instance, a section in ‘Off the Mark’:

Waking, she declares her love for me 
clasping my startled body hard 
against her tremble, and kisses

me a mouthful of sour wine, her tongue
clumsy against my teeth. I want
to run away with my softening member now drowned

by the sperm swimming in the condom.
While I weep confession to my God,
still shaking from the revelation of the ejaculate’s riotous exit,

But it is what we learn further on in the poem that lends the sex and the passion a deep sense of sadness, weight and gravity:

She is confident as a bethrothed princess 
impatient for the song and feasting of the ceremony. 
What I feel is not love, it is that tight throat

of sorrow on a dark rainy day, that 
bigness of tears ready to flow 
uncontrollable as a suppressed giggle;

Both the irony and the down-to-earth reality are quite memorably handled in this poem. But my favourite poem, perhaps one of the strongest is ‘Excursion to Port Royal’, where the poet completely dispenses with formal lineation, end-breaks of a traditional line, and punctuation (except for two full-stops in thirty lines). The poem is written completely in lower case, with space-breaks in the middle of lines, a fragmentory style that both compresses and separates out the basic units of poetry - image, rhythm, structure. Here, the operative force is pure language, and the result is magic:

the sea sand is black shells glint white in the tick of waves
the water is moving the horizon shifts the sun’s morning clean edge
smudges into stark sheets of white light a thin line of cloud
moves the wind toying with its tail.

canon crusted with centuries of rust black sea sand dirt points
admiral nelson surveys the royal port from his quarter deck goblet of
gold rum swishing in his unsteady hands the bitch is singing
from the wooden whore house there a blue yorkshire shanty her tongue
is heavy on the vowels his dick erect

here was napoleon’s nemesis long-haired bitch with a royal name
teasing the rum to flame in the sweet roast fish air singing 
josephines their tongues dancing in the voice you smell their
sex nelson searches the horizon for the ship’s sail needling its way 
across the fabric of green silk.

It is not surprising therefore, Kwame Dawes’s debut collection won the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize for the best first collection - a fitting take-off for a hugely talented poet.

This is a review of Progeny of Air

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