Where were you when….? This is often a question that roots us to a place, a memory where the global meets the local. For my parent’s generation it was either the end of the Second World War or when Kennedy was shot (I was probably asleep in my pram). For my generation it was when Thatcher was elected, fall of the Berlin Wall, or when Princess Diana died (I think I was asleep for that one as well). And for today’s generation it must be 9/11 or when Simon Cowell appeared on the Simpsons. But of course there are many less tragic memories that take us back in time.
In Jacob Sam-La Rose’s epic five part poem Speechless, he takes us through the stages of his life with references to major events (both good and bad), linking them to his own family’s history and those that affected him personally. It begins in 1950: ‘Uruguay beats Brazil 2-1/to win the World Cup, China invades Tibet’. In Guyana his mother who ‘has a voice like ripe Jamoon wine‘ is trying to find her freedom in the shadow of her Father who is a Police Sergeant and whose ‘word is law’ and on the wall is ‘a poster/proclaiming that Britain needs you.’
Leap to 1984 where we have Torvill and Dean, Jesse Jackson, protests in the Philippines, and the first untethered space walk. Our poet is ‘promised the freedoms/my mother never had‘, which entails being sent to numerous singing and dance classes; but from a passing car he observes the other kind of freedom in the form of a boy on a BMX in a skatepark, ‘testing gravity’s leash,/blazing against the sky.’
1990 and Mandela is free and the music of Nirvana is mixed with N’s with A’s, and he and his friends are ‘wondering if it will ever be cool/to throw the N word around like a casual slap/on the back.’ Political consciousness and racism enters his life and resultant anger in the form of ‘a lump of black coal, a black gloved fist in my pocket’. But he is advised that silence, at least where the police are concerned, is the smart move.
It is here the historical references end, maybe they are fresh enough for us not to need them (I don’t think it refers to Fukuyama’s rather troublesome End of History treatise of that time). But the personal is what lies at the heart now as he becomes a man, independent and separate from old friends. Silence becomes the theme, and the feeling that ‘the world we’ve grown into/won’t ever allow us to be free‘.
I am a sucker for a happy ending, but also one that doesn’t believe that there are only negative stories of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Jacob Sam-La Rose finishes his poem with a truly moving and uplifting story of when he teaches poetry to kids who say, ‘We’re the dumb kids, sir,/…Why did they give you us?’ Well, when you read the final stanzas of this poem you see why, because you see the power that poetry can bring to enable young people to break out of the silence and opportunity to decide on their own type of freedom.
Jacob Sam-La Rose is a poet, performer, educator and artistic director. His most recent collection ‘Breaking Silence‘ was shortlisted for a Forward Poetry Prize and the Fenton Aldeburgh award. Sam-La Rose has facilitated workshops, delivered literature programmes and held residencies internationally at hundreds of schools and arts institutions. He currently leads the Spoken Word Education Programme, based at Goldsmiths University.
He is particularly well known for his work with youth ‘slam’ poetry initiatives, and his advocacy for the positive impacts of new technology on literary practice and collaboration. His level of involvement in and commitment to these projects have resulted in him being described as “a one-man literary industry…passionate about poetry and its power to change people’s lives.” (Patrick Neate). His work is grounded in a belief that poetry can be a powerful force within a community, and has united in praise the sometimes divided strands of poetry, proving it is possible to combine the immediacy of performance with the rigour of the page.
At 15, she has a voice like ripe Jamoon wine
and her name is on everyone’s lips.
1950. Uruguay beats Brazil 2-1
to win the World Cup, China invades Tibet,
Truth or Consequences debuts on American
television, and her father forbids her
from playing her guitar, hoists it up
on a wall between pictures of Ella Fitzgerald,
King George and a poster proclaiming
that Britain needs you. It will hang there, souvenir
of the freedom she enjoyed since she was nine
and spent three months learning to play
My Home is Heaven Just Waiting for Me,
three simple gospel chords, in secret,
taught by her Sunday school teacher,
before unveiling her voice one evening
in front of the family. Her father stayed silent then,
but he’s Police Sergeant on the Demerara’s
west bank, with a sharp, black serge uniform
and standards to match. And I’d like to know how
the cogs and wheels turn in his head,
how the decision is made, whether
he weighs her tears and pleas against
the notion that a father knows best,
that his word is law, that a proper young
Guyanese woman belongs to the home
behind curtains, not music. I’d like to know
if it’s that easy. Easy as lifting
a gramphone’s needle from a groove,
closing the door, or blowing out a candle.
He forbids her from playing guitar,
forbids her from singing, orders her
to fold her voice down into a small,
pocketable silence. Hangs the guitar from a nail
on a wall like a trophy or stuffed animal,
like something he’s hunted and killed.
Weeks pass, before whatever’s left inside her
rises, claws its way out – before she stands on a chair,
unhooks that guitar from its resting place, brings it down
with an overhead swing that cracks the frame,
again and again, until it’s broken wood, tangled nylon,
a few snagged keys.
The girl will be my mother.
When she tells the story, it’s just a guitar.
You don’t have to make it sound so bad, she’ll say –
he loves us in his own, stiff way.
1984 Torvill and Dean score 12 perfect 6.0s
and Olympic gold, Jesse Jackson botches
a presidential campaign, half a million people
protest the regime of Ferdinand Marcos,
astronauts make the first untethered space walk
and I attend singing lessons every Saturday morning.
I’ve been promised the freedoms
my mother never had, so there’s
choir and tap shoes, jazz hands, pianos
and Saturdays, learning to sing.
We’re taught to shape mouths to tame
voices, taught to chorus and harmony,
How to turn on a smile for an audience,
each bright rictus like an artificial flower.
Sometimes a new kid bursts out into tears
and we carry on singing around him.
One afternoon, after class, on the drive
to Brixton market for Saturday shopping,
we pass a skate park. For a short moment,
I’m silent, pressed against the car’s window
watching boys on their BMX bikes, one planning
up from a dip with a wild whooping holler,
handle bars twisted limbs at brazen
angles, front wheel spinning free,
testing gravity’s leash, blazing against a sky.
1990. Mandela is free, poll tax protestors riot
in the streets. The kids I know listen Nirvana, Pearl Jam
and N’s with A’s, wondering if it will ever be cool
to throw the N word around like a casual slap
on the back. I’m not supposed to say I’m angry.
I don’t know where it comes from. It’s a lump
of coal, a black gloved fist in my pocket. I’m a shadow
in the corner of every room, the single dark cloud
and everyone suggests making a smile from a frown.
The autobiography of Malcolm X dog-eared
in my school bag, everyone’s fingers in my hi-top fade
and I don’t have a chip on my shoulder
but I feel like an ink blot on a blank page and I know
I’m not supposed to talk back. No is inked out from
the lexicon of polite exchange between mother and son,
and a friend says, it’s best if you don’t give it lip
when they pick you up on the street. If you were smart,
you know when to stay silent. Each of the boys
I’m close to tells stories of brothers disappearing
into the backs of police vans to reappear with fresh,
dark bruises and I don’t know how to say I’m angry
so I turn up the volume until my mother jabs a broomstick
at the kitchen ceiling beneath my bedroom floor,
and I know she doesn’t understand bass,
how it’s best when it’s physical, reaching deep down,
resounding like an hallelujah or amen in one of God’s houses.
And I don’t really dance anymore. I stand by the speakers,
know all the words, spit them out like devotions
to something I believe in. The kids I know
think they know about Compton and West side
and fighting the power and drive-bys
and I’m right there with them,
though I’ve once held a gun in my hand,
just for a few short seconds,
and rejected its cold, dead weight.
By the time Dante’s born again
and denounces hip-hop
as the devil’s music,
I find it hard to avoid
his wide, open mouth
and fierce, scattered glare,
almost ready to believe
in anything built on a fervent desire
We touch fists at a bus stop in Brockley
and for minutes, I suffer
his depths of conviction,
the fine layer of ash on his skin –
The tongue also is a fire, a world
of evil among the parts of the body.
I’ve known many types of silence:
the emptiness after a 6th Form lesson
when a teacher suggests
that the world we’ve grown into
won’t ever allow us to be free,
or the phone call I get
when a girlfriend is raped,
or the night on the walk back
from the party in Eltham when
is launched from a passing car window
like a slow motion bullet.
There are words that won’t fit
into verses and rhymes,
and I don’t know
there are silences I’ll break
and be broken by,
and as Dante walks on,
I offer a devotion of my own:
Grant me a tongue
worthy of the weight
of everything I’ll come to know.
Tell me I’ll write
The windows look out on open school grounds
and already, before I’ve begun to speak
or even know their names, they’re out there
on the pitch, or up in the clouds – anywhere
but here. Their teachers have said that this
is a valuable opportunity to learn
but ask the boy face down on the desk
as if its surface is a requisite for breathing,
or the three girls squealing something
I don’t understand, and the rest of them
proclaiming boredom, a preference for
the Rock Club project up the hall,
Hangman, anything other than poetry
because poetry means writing, and writing
is long, man – so say the ones that can be bothered
to speak. We’re the dumb kids, sir,
says one. Why did they give you to us?
Before the end of this lesson, the girl that lacks
patience to raise her hand before speaking
will compare herself to a broken slot machine
in the basement of a pub, inside out
and forgotten in the widening fissure
between her parents.
The boy with a desk for a face
will write of depression in a black
and beautiful light, detailing a warm,
dark pool that whispers your name.
I’ll scribe for the boy who will refuse to write,
ask questions and write his answers down:
Bangladesh, a red Honda generator,
how there’s nothing like family,
nothing like home, regardless of heat
when the air-con kicks out.
I’ll cherish the look on his face
when I read back his words and see
a clean, unarguable flame behind his eyes,
how he’s never heard himself sound like this before
and never thought it could sound so good.
(Speechless is from Jacob’s collection, Breaking Silence published by Bloodaxe Books, 2011)
This is wonderful, extraordinary. In tears. Can’t give back the right words. Thank you. Beth McDonough
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Thank you for your comment Beth. I felt the same way when I was writing the commentary.