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Progeny of Air

Written by Tilla Brading for Poetry Quarterly Review on no date provided

The roots of these collections are mostly in Jamaica (with a bit of Canada too). My pale-white view-point found the world of Kwame Dawes’s school to resemble closely English public or grammar school, where the author encountered Shakespeare, Hopkins, the ‘evergreen of Oxford lawns’ and ‘Steven the farrier in his muddy boots’, in The English Room. The difference is that as well as all this air-conditioned conformity hangs the unruly guinep tree, symbol of the unruly world behind. Kwame Dawes gives us narrative, descriptive work of the first order which seems to roll off his pen in a consistently interesting flow often with humour.

I found a progression of theme from the autobiographical incidents in the 1994 volume, Progeny Of Air - which won the Forward Prize for the best First Collection that year - to the total view given in Prophets.

The author moves from schoolboy experiences through portraits of the people around him in Jamaica to the title poem, Progeny Of Air. In this poem Kwame Dawes establishes a distance and attitude which enables his people (or fish) to represent more of society than the limits of his own character-portraits.

So in the first book he finds his material and his theme which he then explores through the total narrative of the second publication. The hypocrisy that makes for the guilt of sin introduced in ‘Off The Mark’, in the earlier collection, is worked out through the developed characters in the second.
Prophets is fun and a fiery, fast moving exploration of the issues: sin, guilt, hypocrisy, morality, history, religious fervour, confused identity etc. These issues are played out ‘in this Ninevite valley’, through Clarice, the prophetess of a blue-eyed religion and Thalbot who rails ‘against the canker of colonial edifices’. A biblical satire. Try a bit:

Two angels with brief cases
and diplomatic immunity
landed in Kingston from heaven... (p 72)

or

If a liar and deceiver comes and says, 
‘I will prophesy for you plenty wine and beer,’
he would be just the prophet for this people... (p 132)

This is a review of Progeny of Air

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