The Verandah Poems, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Bloodaxe, 2016, £9.95 (paperback)
Selected Poems, Michael Symmons Roberts, Cape 2016, £14 (paperback)
Looking into Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s eighth collection, The Verandah Poems, gave me a small shock, so drab do I expect poetry books to be: a title page with red and green letters and Tehron Royes’s richly coloured photos scattered through the text. The pictures amplify vivid stories in the poems, journalling Breezes’ recuperation from illness, back home in Jamaica. She writes at the family house where she lived as a child, on the verandah, a colonial and literary setting and, throughout these lyric poems, a place to observe the sea, the sky, the community and its changes. Jean, the narrator and verandah oracle, is asked for sex, for money, and, repeatedly, for her judgment on old and new ways. In ‘Evening’, for example, bush medicine is supported by her companion Phillip, modern medicine by her mother:
Phillip is into bush for his nerves it’s sour sop leaf tea neem is the cure for diabetes and the present miracle bush is called merengeh He chews the seed and drinks the leaves in hot tea every morning My mother passes by that bit of talk on her way to water flowers in the front garden ‘i will die of something I’m sure but I won’t die of bush,’ she says
The debates of Jean’s homeland bear down on one major question: to go or stay. There are pressures to go. The heat is one.
By lunch time if we’re lucky the thunder of the early afternoon will break the sky and the rain smell of the earth will cool us humans down and maybe just maybe night will not come with the anger of heated arguments
Staying is attractive too, when you are the beggar in ‘Stranger’ and free to come onto the verandah, because this is ‘countryside Jamaica’ and you will not be prejudged:
so just a bus fare for not every man is a dawg no mam not every man is a dawg if you have children you know what I mean not every man is a dawg He leaves me on the verandah leaves with my last fifty dollars leaves me with the two sides of the story
Breeze has written previously of her early life, notably in The Fifth Figure. That remarkable tour de force, in my view her major work, examined the historic mix of white and black, and the unsettlement and pain of the many
ways of being mixed. The Verandah Poems is a quieter book, smaller in scope but pitch perfect in tone and form. Breeze is in command of her linguistic and mythic traditions, as in ‘A Visit from Scotland’:
This rastaman I do not recognise but from the confidence of his step he recognises me
Sista Breeze yuh come?
Just the Queen I want to see yuh tink it right, sista yuh tink it right for Scotland to ask for freedom?
I am caught somewhere mid-atlantic trying to remember where I am coming from and how to get back home
That journey, from where we grow up to a different place, is made by us all and it is the material of Breeze’s poetry. It’s not a simple trip, from Jamaica to England, warm to cold, village familiarity to international renown. But even where Breeze shows irritation at either side, when she does not know or cannot decide, her poems are geodes, plain writing on the surface, coruscating experience inside. Worth cracking open.
Michael Symmons Roberts’s Selected Poems, with all the chosen-ness of that title, is an extended piece of mystical writing. In one respect, at least: unity is a mystical end point and this overpowering collection has no sec-
tions through a hundred-and-sixty-three pages and twenty years of poetry. Yet the poems show us splits as well as joins, from the first:
From the night-shift cement works, dust built on fields, seeped into buildings, coughed me awake.
It fused with fallen rain to make a crust so thin one heel could break the landscape open. ‘Angel of the Perfumes’
Here are Roberts’s favourite scenarios: deadly night, creation’s day of the woken soul, the world as we know it, the world as the narrator believes it to be, an other-worldly being shortly to come to a human narrator (an angel in stanza four), and both sides of any border interlocked. These binaries of the spiritually sensitive poet may be between ordinary and transfigured rather than between opposing states. And they are witty:
Cautious and clean-shaven all his life, the next world woke him gaunt and stubbled by the shrinkage of his skin. ‘Food for Risen Bodies V’ Metaphors used in mystical writing occur through the book;
It begins in song, in fact in songs, such chaos it’s as if each dead bird is reborn to join the same dawn chorus ‘Abyss of Birds’
Canonical poets homaged by Roberts (Hopkins, Donne) allow the natural world to exemplify the divine. Roberts sees God in the edgelands (he has co-written an award-winning book on these inbetween boundaries to our
settlements) but also in the city:
No evening cool, no garden. A metropolis. The dead hours. Air steams with sleepers.
Empty streets, slow between sheer glass, no one expects him to come like this. ‘Night Drive’
This poem refigures Jesus for our time. Aside from mysticism, which can strike a believer of any religion, many of the poem-narratives are ghosts of bible tales. Roberts was an atheist, an aggressive one he says, and is now a Catholic. I grew up in that culture and love to spot a lurking Catholic plot but I wonder how it reads for someone not already given these stories, someone beyond the boundary of faith? Can an atheist find the poetic bliss point in the countless references to ‘soul’? Roberts thoroughly biblicises the apparently godless: nuclear power, war, genetic life.
Here, Adam and Eve began one night
the chinese whispers of genetics. One sultry night perhaps, or maybe one
so cold they held each other tight beneath the leaves for warmth.
…There is nothing here to mark
this as the place where humankind began, just the embers of a fire nearby, still smouldering, a pair of jeans, some tee shirts dripping on a branch… ‘Origin of Species’
It is psychologically apt to transfigure a myth into a contemporary observation, honouring cliché; we look around and are exhilarated to see what we already thought. This is wonderfully and lightly done in ‘Annunciation at the Hookses’:
O Gabriel make her waking as gentle as the eye-blue of a distant sail. Still she’ll drop her half-full glass in shock and joy at what you ask.
‘Half-full glass’ is humorous but the reader really wakes up to divine union with the clever insertion of divine absence: ‘shock and joy’ suggests an absent word, ‘awe’, which would have been appropriate here if it had not been famously appropriated.
I enjoy the sequences in this selection (Roberts has included four and left some out), perhaps because they offer some ordering of the lyric onslaught. Selected Poems is, in a way, one long sequence, a sustained examination of the ways souls get and spend their heavens. It is not forensic in that the pathologist poet knows what he is going to find, as here:
Night falls now, and under lightlessness I listen for the footfalls of God in the garden, The cool of evening is the time
he walked beneath the boughs of Eden, softly, with his lips dried shut. The apple was gone, man and woman with it, and already the bass tones of birdsong were becoming shrill, sonorities of breeze in grass were turning into whispers. This was the fall of sound,
a rise in frequency which rendered paradise inaudible. ‘The Frequency’
This is exquisitely written. Michael Symmons Roberts’s beliefs are his strength as well as his weakness and, surprisingly, it’s a pleasure to be lyrically door-stepped.