An anthology of Caribbean British poetry reviewed in Poetry Review, Volume 74, Number 2, from 1984. There is some language in the review that wouldn’t be used today.
News For Babylon: The Chatto Book of Westindian-British Poetry,
edited by James Berry, Chatto, £4.95
‘Educated’ writers whose native speech is a dialect of English rather than the standard variety (itself, ironically, once a regional dialect) are likely to find themselves suspended precariously between two languages, the one vividly experiential, the other conceptually elaborate. Both, to adopt Theodor Adorno’s comment about high and mass culture, ‘are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up’. Exactly how they don’t add up is one of the fascinations of this rich collection. From the calculated burring of William Barnes to the carefully dropped aitches of Rudyard Kipling, mainstream English poetry has dipped condescendingly into dialect from time to time, but such linguistic slumming has usually been firmly distinguished from its more ‘proper’ achievements. Only with a Hardy or a Lawrence does one hear dialect as a kind of resonance of strangeness within formally ‘standard’ speech, inscribed within it as overtone rather than oddity. Contemporary Westindian-British poetry, by contrast, seems to slip unselfconsciously from Creole to standard English between or within poems, creating a dialogue or polyphony of discourses in which the unequal encounter of two cultures is directly enacted.
Grace Nichols’s fine long poem ‘I Is a Long Memoried Woman’, which takes women’s oppression as symbolic of a whole history of Caribbean slavery, starts off in the Creole of its title –
From dih pout
Of mih mouth
calm of mih
you can tell
I is a long memoried woman
– but veers within a page or so into the imagistic notations of a more recognisable English:
of black moon
I squat over
dry plantain leaves
and command the earth
to receive you
in my name
in my blood
to receive you
my curled bean
Linton Kwesi Johnson pushes Nichols’s Creole to a flamboyantly ‘outrageous’ extreme, spontaneously reinverting the graphic appearance of the later Joyce:
it woz in April nineteen eighty-wan
doun inna di ghetto of brixtan
dat di babylan dem cause such a frickshan
an it bring about a great insohreckshan
an it spread all ovah di naeshan
it woz a truly an hisarical okayjan.
The self-parodic feel of this hints at a certain calculation: what Jim Rand defiantly calls ‘nigger talk’ is a conscious political act, an oppositional mode of linguistic identity rather than some nostalgic regression to roots:
Ya dig de funky way to talk
Dis na white talk:
Na white talk dis.
It is coon, nignog samba wog talk;
Na pussyfooting talk dis.
Rudolph Kizerman, sardonically mourning a compatriot hopelessly lost to the high-falutin white intelligentsia, ends on a satirically compassionate note:
Let the brother be;
the cat’s just trying
to find his way
back to the tribe
on a new
Most poetry of exile and oppression is likely to evince the same, sometimes contradictory spiritual conditions.