Month: November 2018

‘Unwritten’ Caribbean Poems after the First World War. Edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, with excerpt of poem ‘Her Silent Wake’ by Malika Booker

black soldiersHistory is nothing without memory, memorials, and remembrances. And on such a day as this, the marking of the end of the First World War, there is a particular resonance to what it means today. As Hobsbawm termed it, this was the beginning of the short 20th century, which started with horrific loss of lives due to the power hungry international alliances, and ended in what at the time seemed a somewhat relative peaceful transition with the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could call it the slow death of empires.

History is a mining exercise; it constantly tries to uncover stories that give a more holistic picture of what went on at any particular moment. Just today, I saw two pieces of news which filled a gap in the history of WW1. The first about the role of Indian soldiers – 1.5 million of whom fought for Britain (they mainly came from the North from the Punjab to the Gurkhas in Nepal). The second was an article by David Olusoga, titled ‘Black Soldiers were Expendable Then Forgettable’, where even though they fought for ‘Empire’ were horribly racially abused after the guns fell silent.

unwrittenOf course, poetry is very much a part of our understanding of the horrors of the First World War; it is ingrained in our learning as children and it is one of the times where you feel poetry is central to our understanding of war’s horrors. But they are mostly, if not all, white poets who tell of their experience. Karen McCarthy Woolf has thus edited a remarkable collection of Caribbean and diaspora poets in ‘Unwritten, who write in that ‘vexed space’ where the ‘mother country’ refuses to accept you as one of its own, yet wishes/forces you to fight for it. Kwame Dawes says of the collection, ‘In Unwritten, the grace, clarity, imaginative invention of poetry, filled with passion, empathy, lamentation and pride, somehow manages to build a monument for those Caribbean people who fought in WW1. This is a work of deep and grand importance.’ There are contributions from Jay Bernard, Malika Booker, Ishion Hutchinson, and Tanya Shirley amongst others.

So, lest we forget, history is a process of renewal, reassessment, and therefore hopefully affecting a change in ourselves of how we view those who sacrificed themselves (the majority of whom are nearly always working class, whether soldiers or civilians) for just and not-so-just causes. Olusoga sums it up well in his article about what must now not be forgotten:

“A century on, if we as a nation are serious about remembrance, then the process of remembering must not come to an end this November. As well as remembering the service of the non-white soldiers and auxiliaries of the first world war, we have also to remember what happened to them and their dreams of justice in the months and years after the armistice.”

Below is an excerpt from a poem by Malika Booker called ‘Her Silent Wake’, which follows Malika’s focus on uncovering and making visible the lives of black women.

 

Her Silent Wake

V

in this small place your worth as a woman is measured by the number of sons you produce. each day is long now and I cook up pots of empty, the main ingredient is loss with a dash of woe, its scent foul, stagnant and cloudy. my only boy child is dead – young still in his chin. that bitch of a stepmother in England built a forest of bones for rats to feast on succulent black men, the scent of her actions rancid as hell. now I am worthless. my grief is a carcass swinging on a butcher’s hook, stabbed into the back of my neck. my neighbours’ sympathy simply slices each pound of flesh.

You can buy Unwritten from Nine Arches Press here.

 

Carrion Song for Major Tom by Bob Beagrie

post modernPost-modernists are smug bastards. They sit on their upside down, inside out sofas opining about how terrible things still are, with that ‘I told you so. Now come here, put this bandage round your bloodied head and get in the car, I’ll take you to a therapist.’ Enlightenment chaps, such as the voluminously silver-haired Steven Pinker, all ivory-towered up to in his corduroy trousers and leather padded elbows, will say, ‘hold on a minute, we are a much less violent society than we were. Yes, there was the First World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Cambodia, Rwanda, Syria, the Yemen, blah-di-blah, but in modern day developed countries, things have never been so peaceful.’

Are we regressing or progressing? This is the existential question of our hyper-modern times. How best are the world’s problems solved, in a time when the post-modern chaos-loving theorists can draw on the fact that since the turn of the millennium, unpredictability is very predictable (from the Internet to climate change). And yet, we are living longer, child mortality is at its lowest level, and viewing figures for Strictly Come Bake Off X Factor showdowns, are through the roof.

We may not be experiencing any civil war in the historic sense in our centrally heated hegemonic states, but it does seem our societies are more riven than they were just twenty years ago (I’m glad Rahul won GBBO, but was hoping for Kim-Joy – now, who wants a fight about it). I am not a pacifist. If the fascists come knocking on my door, I’d be up early ready to spurt CS gas through the letter box at them. But then I would probably just go and write about it.

FB_IMG_1537989936577We look back at history and essentially try our best to understand what went wrong (and right). And here in the United Kingdom, as it heads into another era of reformation, it makes sense to go back to other times for insight. This doesn’t mean rewriting history in the logic of revisionism, but more like putting another layer on the cake and seeing how it tastes now. Bob Beagrie does this in much of his writing (both page and performance) and like the best historians he brings it to our contemporary porches. In today’s poem ‘Carrion Song for Major Tom’, (which can be heard here) Bob takes us back to the febrile 17th century of the English Civil War, when the baddies had the world revolving around its empiric urges, but couldn’t keep its own house in order, so decided to turn it all upside down. This was a star-studded battle for the governance of the Isles, the Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Diggers and Levellers (of Winstanley), and the emergence of forms of anarchism (the good kind) and socialism, and some say the making of the English Working Class.

The ecology of conflict resolution, involves barrel bombing civilians, dictates from narcissistic bulbous men, to high teas at high tables, then back to bombing. We no longer fight with long staffs, pikes, trebuchets, and the like, but still we fight. Poverty may be relative, but like discrimination, it is still poverty and until the bottom of the pile is catered for, and not looked down upon whether it be by King Charles I or Elizabeth II, there will be struggle and possibly violence. Whether this is modernity or post-modernity is academic, for the thread of inequality remains as does the fight against it. But if I had to choose, I would go with Bob’s Bowie lyric reference at the start of his poem – ‘All the nightmares came today/ And it looks as though they’re here to stay’. If that makes me a smug bastard, I apologise from the bottom of my modernist heart.

 

Bob Beagrie is a poet, performer and occasional playwright. Born in Middlesbrough he has worked as a literature activist and as freelance writer with community groups for 20 years. He co-runs The Electric Kool-Aid Cabaret of the Spoken Word and is a founder member of the experimental poetry and music collective Project Lono. This poem is from ‘Civil Insolencies’ which is due to be published by Smokestack Books in 2019 and will be his eighth collection.

 

Carrion Song for Major Tom

“While men are gazing up to Heaven, imagining after a happiness, or fearing a Hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they see not what is their birth right.”
          Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1652

“Look out my window and what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay”
          David Bowie, Oh! You Pretty Things, 1971

They took me in under the storm cloud’s wing
fed me on fire, bid me level these barren heaths
with spade, rake, hoe
          with spade, rake and hoe
in joined desire, we remove rough stones,
our fathers’ scattered groans
layers of self we’ve sloughed off in growth,
dismembering ourselves, to stand alone
          as Osiris or John Barleycorn
We turn, together, the soil of memory
compact years, smell ripe turf
          Whatever shall we find as we finger the dirt?
spend hours sowing suns in common ground
to grow the pillars of Eden before sin,
as before my fall,
in rhymes of dipping scythes
sacks of sweat-won grain
and scarecrow grins wide as a rolling moor
          Remember when, remember
          when remembering
this remains an old battle scene,
a place for levelling men on points of swords,
over the fence we’ll forever tear down
undermine, come each month’s curdled cream,
through distances drawn up in murky pails
to our long-lost hanging grounds:
          Doggerland,
          Avalon, Lyoness,
          Albion

poaching trails and corpse ways
still lead stray quails toward a mythic
sleeper dreaming under the golden hill –
not our King, divine, with his head lopped off,

his blue-blood-spill soaked in strips of cloth
and sucked on to ease a blight or bitter ache
          to bring prosperity
          to reverse a curse
but some starveling sovereign, low itinerant,
peasant-born pilgrim with a leaking song,
ear clipped, pilloried, with branded cheek,
or a departed starman crowned on Mars
          with nothing left to lose
So, halt one moment in manuring, hear
those mouldwarps scurry to their Lazarus Palace,
secreting treasures beneath the grasses
shadow-cast by our booted soles
by our spades, rakes and hoes.