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Wheel and Come Again: An anthology of reggae poetry

Written by Geoffrey Philp for The Caribbean Writer on no date provided

'Wheel and Come Again is no academic treatise - it is an attempt to hold a dancehall session in poetry, to take readers to the heart of reggae and carry them into the compelling seduction of the drum and bass’ (26). This bold assertion, made in the introduction of Dawes’s latest work, Wheel and Come Again, could have also added the word ‘celebration’. And there is a lot to celebrate in this anthology.

Kwame Dawes has compiled an anthology which offers a showcase for poets who have come to the fore since The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse and demonstrates a continuity of concerns in West Indian poetry. This continuity of concerns - a canon if you will - defines West Indian poetry through a dialogue with reggae music. I am defining ‘canon,’ not in an exclusionary sense as Bloom does in The Western Canon, but as a means of grouping a common set of ideas that permeate the poetry: Who are our heroes? What are the cultural assumptions that we value? What are the characteristics that define us as a people? These are just a few of the issues raised by Wheel in its homage to reggae, and poets such as Marion Bethel in ‘Reggae Prophecy’ and Stewart Brown in ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’ bear witness to the influence of the music.

But beyond the poems that celebrate reggae, there is also a search for heroes. As if to give a lie to Naipaul’s canard, Dawes has found many heroes for us. Out of the 86 poems in the collection, twelve are either ‘livicated’ to or mention Bob Marley. Several others such as ‘Psalm of Silk’ by Malachi Smith and ‘Music’ by Rohan Preston note the contributions of Garnet Silk and Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney to the development of reggae. Also included in the collection is Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Stone,’ a fitting eulogy to the late Mikey Smith (whose own work is curiously absent from the book). Indeed, the exclusion of poets such as Oku Onoura and Mutabaruka is puzzling to say the least, for they belong (even as an historical footnote) in any anthology of reggae poetry. Onoura and Mutabaruka were two of the first poets to begin the dialogue with reggae and were pioneers in the form now known as dub poetry. These poets confirmed the versatility of reggae and were the first to shape certain cultural stances that were immediately recognized as Jamaican, but are no longer limited to the island.

Reggae encompasses a wide range of beliefs and attitudes, and at its heart is a music of resistance that celebrates individual strength and cunning. Lorna Goodison in ‘Upon a Quarter Million’ and Edward Baugh ‘Nigger Sweat’ echo these concerns. Opal Palmer Adisa in ‘Ethiopia Unda a Jamaican Mango Tree’ and Anthony McNeill in ‘Ode to Brother Joe,’ on the other hand, prefer to question the Rastafarian utopian vision in the midst of a harsh Third World existence plagued by calls for real action. Dennis Scott’s ‘Apocalypse Dub’ continues the mystical apocalyptic vision of Rastafari into a frightening version that is as equally at home in reggae as it is in the literary traditions of the Caribbean.

And it is this range that makes Wheel such a compelling collection. The inclusion of elder poets such as Kamau Brathwaite and younger poets such as Dorothy Wong Loi Sing confirms the vitality of Caribbean poetry in the choice of subjects and the various poetic forms. Yet the placement also puts the work of younger poets (specifically the dub and performance poets) at a serious disadvantage because many of their flaws become glaringly evident. The fault lies neither in comparison, nor because they write dub or performance poems - but they are simply weak poems. Some of the younger poets rely solely on voice instead of the full range of poetic resources. Verse sustained only by voice becomes dialogue. Interesting dialogue, but dialogue nonetheless.
Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Stone,’ however, is both textbook and tribute. ‘Stone’ uses the full range of poetic resources as defined by Stephen Haven in The Vision Thing:

A sense of line, the well-trained ear’s sense of measure, the eye’s imagistic sense, and the ability to recognize when enough of a poem’s visual, aural, and conceptual power interact to arrive at aesthetic unity or its near approximation - these are the tools of the writer’s trade. (13)

In Brathwaite’s case, performance would add to the poem’s many strengths, but in the case of some performance and dub poems, performance would save them.

Despite these reservations, Dawes is to be commended for such an undertaking. An anthology that merely collects poems, dates, and names is daunting enough because of the difficulty in gaining permission from the poets, their publishers, and in some cases their estates. Dawes has done one better. His anthology attempts to convince the reader that reggae is worthy of critical inquiry. The range and variety of poetic forms displayed (including the tour de force poem by Vejay Steede ‘Reggae’ - the first published poem by this author and alone worth the price of this book) make Wheel and Come Again a truly outstanding collection.

This is a review of Wheel and Come Again: An anthology of reggae poetry

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