Saturday, November 27, 2010

Litany on the Line: subversive sonnets

Litany on the line: subversive sonnets in thirty-three suites, a manuscript I've been working on for five years, is finally at the point where I've decided to stop working on the poems – at least until someone agrees to publish it.

I don't know that any poet ever feels completely satisfied with a poem, so I'm not saying the MS is finished. Taking a leaf out of the books of Kamau Brathwaite, who has always felt free to revise and has done so extensively in, say, Ancestors, and of Mervyn Morris, whose 1997 edition of The Pond contains revisions of several poems, I had included in Certifiable (2001) three poems from my first collection, Journey Poem (1989), all of them revised in varying degrees. I've been repeating one or two poems from collection to collection, with the exception of my crucifixion poem de man: a performance poem (1995). So Certifiable contains those three poems from Journey Poem, and The True Blue of Islands contains an excerpt from one poem in Certifiable.

Continuing that tradition, Litany on the Line contains one long poem from The True Blue of Islands, slightly revised and re-lineated, and a poem from Journey Poem that's been substantially rewritten. The remaining thirty-one poems are new. They are collected in suites, mainly of two or three, though a few are longer and there is one suite that contains only one sonnet. I'll end this post with that one, called "Who loves not self, loves not..."

Three of them, "Counting the Ways and Marrying True Minds," "Jamboree – Darfur maybe," and "Yarn Spinner" have been featured on Geoffrey Philp's blogspot. Many thanks again, Geoff, for that, and for the blogspot's continuing great work..

The first can be found here:

and the other two here:

I've just said that I've been working on this MS for five years, and that's both true and not true. The oldest notebook for writing drafts of poems that I have to hand contains some "Endsongs" with drafts dated 1984 and 1985. The idea for Litany on the Line begins with those poems. In fact, I think I recently came across grant proposals for this collection that used Endsongs as a working title.

In the beginning, the poems were conceived of as being about various kinds of endings: former lives, old worlds, old friendships, life itself, the world.... That idea composed and recomposed itself several times in the course of the writing, and the collection as it now stands is as much about the (often comic) desperations of living as those of dying. So there are indeed endsongs, poems like “From Everlasting to Everlasting,” Our Lady of Good Voyage,” "Poor execution," and the title poem, “Litany on the Line,” and there are endings of other kinds sneaking around under poems like "Zambesi 1995,” "Wade in the Water," and “Remembering nothing", and there are poems about beginnings and the triumph of just being like "Temitope," "Zoey stands up to Schrodinger's Cat" and "Blooming in Barcelona."

So, as promised:

Suite thirty-one: Who loves not self, loves not…

If Robert Southwell made a hymn for a soulful boy child

‘whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand

no deed defiled;’ if Hopkins sprung new rhythms for

his falcon spry on wing, wind hovering bird,

up full, fiercely flaming on Spirit’s swing, is it not Lord

that these are saints who have selves that they love,

and loving self so, and so loved by self, can others love?

You Self have said that we must love others

as we love self. But what if we despise

that craft, sweet purling that your Father set

about as he wove every self each in

his mother’s womb? What if inside us, animus

flares furious, eating all air, prayer? What then, most valorous

when we say no to God’s grandeur in us?

© Pamela Claire Mordecai 2010


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Can a good poem be political?

Years ago, when I was doing my first degree, we were told that the best critics and literary theorists held that good poetry could not be political. It couldn’t advocate any ideology, couldn’t be Republican or Democratic, socialist or communist. In fact, overall, a poem shouldn’t get too worked up – Wordsworth’s old “recollection in tranquility” bit.

The injunction prompted me to write my own poem, published in what would now be a very old issue of that venerable Barbadian journal, BIM. I remember the words, but the lineation here is probably revised.


good poets

have no tears

they taught me.

Hopes, fears


are all distilled

into a necessary distance.

The poem is

the sweet mouth water

of a slightly-passioned kiss –

no phlegm, and non-infectious.

© Pamela Mordecai 2010

Clearly, I was not persuaded.

Of course, things are now much changed, and we are in a literary world in which we all acknowledge, poets and readers and critics alike, that, as Jamaican poet Edward Baugh puts it, “Every line commits you.” There’s no question about whether testimonial and political poetry belong in the fold.

It’s complicated, though, because we also all agree that good literature, whether it be story or poem or play, has no message. Message is a dreadful word that we avoid. And this is probably what the people who originally put the embargo on political poetry wanted to save us from, messaging in poems and plays and stories as ordered, say, by the Third Reich, or the cultural arm of the Politburo, or the architects of China’s Cultural Revolution.

So, even though every act, thought, statement, presence-or-absence is political, because we live in a polis, a body of citizens, and willy-nilly cannot speak or act outside of that context, when an author writes merely and mostly and pointedly in order just to persuade people to think a particular way, then we are veering away from writing literature and moving towards writing tracts – religious, political, or otherwise.

But there’s a lot of qualifying in that last sentence: “merely and mostly and pointedly;” “in order just to persuade;” “veering away”. That careful treading is a far cry from the earlier bald proscription: "Good poetry can’t be political."

Plain and simple can be good and helpful, but that absolute is difficult to defend, because surely all literature intends to persuade the reader in some way? Even when writers adopt a naturalistic, slice-of-life approach, the very act of choosing this scene to expose in its ordinary, actual aspect, rather than that one, involves a choice, based on a value, that embodies a point of view. Assuming that the scene has an impact and that it hits the reader as it ought, then that POV will get across.

And aren’t ideology and politics just heightened points of view?

So might it be a matter of degree? In other words, how hard the writer is working his words in his bid to haul the reader over to thinking as he does?

There may be a way out of this, which has to do less with whether the work presents an ideological, religious or other position, less with how hard the writer is working at co-opting us, and more with whether the work invites the reader into a larger or narrower arena, constricts or expands her response. Does the work engage the reader’s imagination? If it sets that maverick faculty in motion, then it is an artistic creation. If it doesn’t, then it’s a dud.

All literature, all art, is the actual transformed into the imagined. It is that transformation that makes the new creation. And the artist’s imaginings, knit into the created thing, summon the imagination of the respondent, so that the act of appreciation is unfettered, complex, multifarious, wild. That is the still point of art’s turning world. The tract, the catechism, the tablets of the law say “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not”. But the story or the poem says, “Get on the back of my bike, or climb on my shoulder, or hold my hand, and come with me down this road. Look at the colours of these flowers. Look at those shifting blades of grass. See that worm. Or is it a snake? Look at that man with an axe in his hand! See what I see, but not as I see. See what I see, but see it as you see!”

So one can write political poetry, and indeed, poetry of the kind that wants to rouse real people to real concern and real action about real situations because even when he summons his readers to overthrow a tyrant, the poet has no message except wonder, and his call to action is a summons to our hearts and our senses and our faculty of whimsy. It's an appeal to our imaginative and not our conative faculty.Of course, the one can serve as a powerful prompt to the other!

I've written a couple of political poems myself. I'm thinking of "Protest Poem" and "Last Lines," in my first collection, Journey Poem, both overtly political. Many, many years after it was published, I received a letter from someone in West Africa who said how important it had been for him to come across "Protest Poem," how much it had meant to him in the trying political times in his country.

I leave you with "Last Lines". More soon.

This is the last line I draw.

Alright. Draw the last line.

But I tell you, yonder

is a next. No line ever last,

no death not forever.

You see this place? You see it?

All of it? Watch it good.

Not a jot nor a tittle

going last. Every old

twist-up man you see,

every hang-breast woman,

every bang-belly pickney,

every young warrior

with a head wrench

with weed, white powder,

black powder, or indeed

the very vile persuasion

of the devil – for him not

bedridden you know –

every small gal-turn-woman

that you crucify on the

cross of your sex

before her little naseberry

start sweeten,

I swear to you

every last one shall live.

Draw therefore, O governor,

prime minister, parson,

teacher, shopkeeper,

politician, lecturer,

resounding revolutionaries,

draw carefully

that last fine line

of your responsibility.

from Journey Poem (Kingston, Jamaica: Sandberry Press), 1989, p. 53

© Pamela Mordecai 1989