Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter (poetry review)

Author picture from raymondantrobus.com

It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.

Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.

Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British…

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.

At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…

In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’

Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for

our language has not come from the future,

it has crawled from a cave

and rowed to so many shores

that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.

Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:

I told no one

how old he was

in case

his death

seemed too

inevitable…

More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.

The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.

Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept

where someone I love is the shape

of the missing thing.

 

 

 

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Quick Reviews: Kate Tempest, David Peace

tempestKate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses

Becky, Harry, and Leon are leaving London in a fourth-hand Ford with a suitcase full of stolen money, in a mess of tangled loyalties and impulses. But can they truly leave the city that’s in their bones?

That’s the blurb. And the story takes us back to nearly a year before this significant moment, to see what led them to desperate measures. I have a hard time making up my mind about this book. There were aspects of it I really liked: the nuanced observation of life in South London, the ability to squeeze so much in a single sentence or description, the ear for dialogue. Plenty of raw emotion too, helping everyone to understand the younger generation better. Yet overall, the structure and the interplay between characters did not quite hold together for me. Too many coincidences, although I could relate with the characters’ struggle to find jobs and meaning in an urban life full of compromises and rejection.

However, Kate Tempest is a very talented and innovative poet and performer, and also a playwright, so I will always read anything she has to offer. She even has rapped with a band and brought out an album. Here is one song which seems to fit well with the novel: ‘The Beigeness’.

tokyozeroDavid Peace: Tokyo Year Zero

David Peace is another performance poet. This became clear to me when I saw him reading from his books in Lyon. He has a sensitive ear, so highly tuned to oral storytelling and any kind of sound effect. So many will find the excessive use of onomatopoeia exasperating (even I did at times, no matter how kindly disposed I am towards the author), but I can discern a purpose to all this. It’s the soundtrack of a  postwar Japan which has hit rock-bottom, has lost its soul, is being humiliated and punished (but also rebuilt). This is most certainly not going to appeal to everyone. The almost unbearably graphic portrayal of the Victors and Losers, the city teeming in bad smells, lice, prostitution, hammering. Peace describes the hunger and despair, the daily suicides and train delays, the overcrowding, with all the juxtapositions and repetitions of a rapper.

A very brief summary of the plot: A serial killer seems to be preying on vulnerable young women in 1946 Tokyo but the police are too frightened for their own jobs, too shaken by the trauma of war and the daily crime and horrors they encounter. The unreliable, frenzied, unlikable main character Detective Minami seems to be the only one stubbornly pursuing leads.

As usual in a David Peace novel, there is little comfort or fluffiness or redemption to be expected. An admirable experiment, but one that will divide readers like Marmite.

And now for something really, really different…

Megan Beech in performance, image from Flickr (unattributed).
Megan Beech in performance, image from Flickr (unattributed).

Megan Beech is young, loud, unashamedly intellectual and feminist. She is one of the freshest voices in the powerful spoken word or performance poetry movement, which is gaining momentum especially amongst young people in the UK. You may have heard of Kate Tempest and her audio recordings in Britain or Saul Williams in the US, one of the leading lights of slam poetry – which is like a sort of ‘dance-off’ for poetry. Megan is just as talented, though less well-known (so far) and I love the way she combines her bluestocking propensities with wit, humour and outspoken candour.

When I grow up I want to be Mary Beard.
A classy, classic, classicist,
intellectually revered.
Wickedly wonderful and wise,
full to brim with life…

Although this is poetry to be heard rather than read on the page, I’ve had ot make do with this slim volume of poetry entitled When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard, published by Burning Eye Books in 2013. There is something clearly declamatory and more direct in this kind of poetry than the one I am used to reading. So much depends on the personality of the poet, I suppose, how they ‘perform’ the poem. It is also much more political – a form of protest poetry.

So sit down, retire your reckless, restless rhetoric
and actually start listening.
Make some decisions.
Sort out the system.
Or better yet,
give me a Britain that’s actually Great
and not this state that I live in.

Portrait from thepoetrysociety.org.uk
Portrait from thepoetrysociety.org.uk

However, although it looks artless and ranting, spoken word poetry is also carefully planned and balanced, it has to sound just right, there are internal rhymes, puns and word plays. The rage and indignation are carefully controlled and edited – yet still ring true and raw.

The charm of fearless youth is that there is no subject that is off-limits. Michael Gove,  rowdy students, negligent parents, Easyjet, a boyfriend with widely differing musical tastes, Harry Potter and a couple snogging on the Circle Line are all targets of her barbed wit. I particularly enjoyed the rant about ‘Behind Every Great Christmas There Is Mum’:

…it seems crazy we’re embracing
misogynistic depiction presented by ASDA-ian dictum,
whereby women must be prim, proper and Christian,
and only give birth to children
in order to spend Christmas in the kitchen.
Having no sense of own volition
under patriarchal systems
which are clearly non-existent.
While her family insist on
a swell of patronising applause
which only stands to reinforce
subservient slave is her dictionary definition.

I can’t wait to see what Megan Beech does next. I hope she doesn’t lose her wild streak and continues to expand her subject matter. You can see Megan in action in one of the videos featured on her website.