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Poem Focus: Great Poems from Identity Parade #04

Patience Agbabi has been an exceptionally important figure for "British" poetry over the last decade or so, both as practitioner, and exemplar, of a mode of composition I have termed "fusion poetry" - that is, a style of writing that is equally adept on the page, and in performance (on the stage). Agbabi's work has been marked by formal intelligence, humour, sociopolitical engagement, and humanity. Without stretching comparisons out of context, she is the UK's Patricia Smith (without the scandal) - a universally-admired performance poet, but also a distinguished published poet, as well.

This is important, because, for a long time, black British poetry was somewhat sidelined, or marginalised, it seemed, by mainstream (and avant-garde) circles, of publication, and critical, reception (though Bloodaxe was always open to this poetry) - perhaps because the explosive diversity and range of the works challenged received notions of what "British" poetry (especially English poetry) was or should be. Remember, the emphasis on form, and mastery of craft, and lack of emotive exposition, has often shaped the critical discourse in the UK, especially over the last few decades. Still, the pressure of post-colonial and "identity" writing, from America, the Caribbean (Walcott), and the superb British poetry from Linton Kwesi Johnson and Fred D'Aguiar, among others, began to break down barriers. Agbabi has been one of the poets to aid in this transition.

Agbabi's poem 'Josephine Baker Finds Herself' is not one of her most dynamic performative poems, nor is it particularly funny. However, it does highlight the other elements of her writing, that are so impressive. La Baker is a very significant figure in her own right - and her dual citizenship (African American and French citizen) complicates ideas of identity politics, as does her multiple activities as civil rights activist, performer, and all-around legend. This duality or complexity is formally expressed in the shape of the text - two sixteen line stanzas, that mirror each other, with end words repeating as follows (1 and 32, 2 and 31, 3 and 30, 4 and 29) and so on. This form was one that intrigued, among others, Dylan Thomas (another famous figure intrigued and moved by the War).

As such, the words that double-up include up/up, down/down, Brixton/Brixton, lesbian/ lesbian as well as negative/negative and diva/diva. The language is racy, and fluid. The poem inverts, as well, its emotional content. At first, we follow the poetic speaker as she confronts a female lover (dressed in twenties Baker fashion, with pearls) who "picked me up/ like a slow-burning fuse. I was down / the girls' club used to run in Brixton" - so that upbeat eros and a very definite time and place are simultaneously evoked. However, as the poem runs, its mood turns, and we sense a different relationship between the lipstick lesbians, one dark, the other her "light-skinned negative", so when the poem ends "I was down. / She picked me up" we see the doubled significance of such an encounter of textual and sexual opposites (as lesbians also the "same"). Thus, Agbabi plays well with heterodoxy and homogeneity as tensions and releases, in clubland, England, and also, poetry itself.
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