Skip to main content

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.
1 comment

Popular posts from this blog

DANGER, MAN

Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…

AMERICA PSYCHO

According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…

SEXTON SHORTLIST!

Announcing the Shortlist for the 2016 Sexton PrizeSeptember 13, 2016 / By Kelly Davio
Eyewear Publishing is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2016 Sexton Prize. The finalists are, in no particular order, as follows:


THE BARBAROUS CENTURY, Leah Umansky
HISTORY OF GONE, Lynn Schmeidler
SEVERE CLEAR, Maya Catherine Popa
GIMME THAT. DON’T SMITE ME, Steve Kronen
SCHEHERAZADE AND OTHER REDEPLOYMENTS, David McAleavey
AN AMERICAN PURGATORY, Rebecca Gayle Howell
SIT IN THE DARK WITH ME, Jesse Lee Kercheval

The shortlist was selected by Eyewear’s Director Todd Swift with Senior Editor Kelly Davio. Don Share of Poetry Magazine will select the winning manuscript, which will be released at the 2017 AWP conference in Washington, D.C. The winner will be announced in October. 
Congratulations to our finalists!