Claire Crowther

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Jour­ney­ing Souls

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

‘Heat’

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.

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