by Patience Agbabi
(Gecko Press, ISBN 0-9524067-1-3)
Blood on the Page
by Labi Siffre
(Xavier, ISBN 0-9520942-1-5)
Red Poets Society 2
(Cymru Goch, PO Box 661, Wrecsam, LL 11 1QU)
Political poetry is always somewhat suspect. The weight of a message can sink verse just as effectively as an over-academic style. Poetry lives and breathes by its own rules, and in its resistance to prescriptions it is political in its own way. But the heart gladdens at these three volumes of fighting verse that, in the main, don’t compromise the muse.
Performance poet Patience Agbabi’s debut collection is an unadulterated treat, the poetry leaping off the page, instead of dying on it as much spoken-word stuff tends to do. Agbabi uses tight sprung rhythms, a driving rap style with an impeccable sense of timing – the poems never outstay their inventiveness. When thinking of labels such as black or lesbian to write about her, one finds them hollow, for while her poetry engages constantly with issues of race, sexuality and gender (to say nothing of the political system), she celebrates a pansexuality and an awareness of race and culture that values the individual rather than stereotypes:
Everyone’s born / no-one’s found
until they find themselves /
hurting in the back of the throat /
because they’ve swallowed /
serious pepper / painful as truth
(from ‘Serious Pepper’)
This isn’t victim verse: it’s free from specialist attitudes. Lurking within its momentum are unexpected subtleties. Enjoy.
Take no prisoners / Not even yourself
Go where everyone / tells you not to
Go where you yourself / are afraid
Safety wins no place /
in the pantheon of passion /
(from ‘Blood on the Page’)
Right from the outset Labi Siffre’s collection establishes a ranging, exploratory attitude which is quite the best thing about it. Siffre is searching for an ideal citizenship in our world, a sense of belonging which allows asking bold questions and sometimes coming up with the wrong answers. Sardonic, tender and surreal by turns, the poems create a worldly-wise persona for Siffre and a feeling of being stifled by straight society.
Siffre is better known as a singer – remember Something Inside So Strong? – and his poetry sometimes reads like song lyrics, a touch flat, a touch too self-absorbed. But there is also much to commend, a bluesy depth and honesty which works well late at night.
On the back cover of Red Poets Society 2 is a quote from the Welsh Arts Council about their earlier anthology – ‘Red? We prefer them dead’. This smells suspiciously of a wind-up but it reminds me of my initial reaction to this volume – ‘Oh God! Poetry by Welsh lefties’. Expecting sloganeering doggerel I was soon won over by the wit and quality of the poetry. This collection has a more obvious political agenda than the other two and its identity is pretty firmly Welsh, but this focuses rather than narrows it. Sure there are a few duds but on the whole this is a blast of a book with enough pith to please a camel.
Here are the closing verses of ‘Obscenities’ (which begins with graffiti in a motorway toilet!) by Lloyd Rees, a good indication of the tenor of the book
There is a leftover argot / like punk and aggro
on estate walls in the sticks /
and there too the willing dicks /
and phone numbers in copperplate /
for a trembling date. /
Not these. / These are not obscenities. /
It’s the 9” headlines slagging /
sanity and sense, bragging /
of Britishness and victory / that make me sick.
by Patti Smith
(Arista CD/MC 74321 38474 2(9)/ 74321 38474 4 (3))
It’s impossible to quantify Patti Smith’s impact on rock music. It’s 21 years since Smith’s portrait stared out from the cover of her debut album, Horses, and into a world that was about to irrevocably change. A poet who had been a teenage Rimbaud freak, she embodied defiance, strength and a grace of word and limb. Punk rock would not have existed without her, or at least, its liberating, revolutionary energies could not have. Single-handedly, Smith redefined the position of women in what was still a very male medium.
And now she’s back with her first album in eight years; the result is awe-inspiring. Predicated on loss – the deaths of close friend and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989, of husband and co-writer Fred ‘Sonic’ in 1994, followed a few months later by brother, Todd – this album might be a work of mourning. But it’s not this alone. The cleansing fires of Horses are present, their substance tempered over time. Smith’s defining qualities are here in abundance, but so too is a ringing sense of compassion.
Smith’s voice carries its full range of emotional colour; but the music now offers up new possibilities. Still rock-based, it’s wider than before. There are some hissing, fizzing atmospherics: the guitar scratches that introduce ‘About A Boy’ (a tribute to Kurt Cobain) completely electrify the air around it.
Poetic cadences dominate, Smith’s voice achieving a contradictory combination of measured effect with freeform spontaneity. The spiralling energy is less sexual than on earlier albums, more transcendental. Smith’s Cobain commemoration, for example, fades into silence, riding alone on Smith’s panting breath. Life’s breath? Or the last gasp before death? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Smith’s great achievement is to stress the intimate connection between life, death and all points in between. Gone Again is a majestic return to the public arena.
(Rumi CD/MC 951)
Lilting, evocative, catchy, haunting, Takiririllasu is the latest offering from Rumillajta, one of Bolivia’s folk music groups best-known in the West. The title is Quechua for ‘Let’s sing and celebrate together’ and, indeed, it celebrates the band’s fifteenth year together. As with previous releases, traditional melodies are mixed with tunes composed by group members and other artists.
Their style may be contemporary and the music largely aimed at Western audiences, but Rumillajta have remained faithful to the principles which have guided them from the outset: a deep respect for their cultural inheritance and a reverence for the beautiful but harsh environment of the Andean highlands. In Takiririllasu they have produced a richly-textured, predominantly instrumental collection which displays a variety of rhythms and moods, ranging from, for example, the intimacy of a lover’s plea in ‘Negra del Alma’, to the vast open spaces of ‘Cielo y Montaña’; the festive bustle of ‘Jina Jina’ to the light, charango-produced ripple of ‘Arpita Venezolana’.
If ‘Andean music’ means ‘panpipes’ to you, you won’t be disappointed – but expect more than just pipes. This is a superb collection which will have you humming and tapping from beginning to end. It’s a must for anyone who enjoys Andean music – and for those unfamiliar with the genre, start here!
(Also available on cassette, from Rumillajta Recordings, PO Box 544, Bristol, BS99 1NP)
Reviews by Urvi Patel, Louise Grey and Alison Ware.
Reviews editor: Vanessa baird
Carolyn merchant’s The Death of Nature was one of the first texts to look at the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a feminist and ecological perspective. Reading it as a young graduate, I found much which helped me to understand my personal alienation from physics – the subject which I had thought would enable me to understand the universe.
Merchant argues that, during the shift towards empirical science, the underlying metaphor of the world changed from one of a living organism infused with internal spirit, to that of a dead, passive machine moved by external forces. The result of this shift in perspective was to legitimate the exploitation of nature for the economic profit of human beings. In the long-term, this has led to our present ecological crisis.
Many have suggested that we may currently be undergoing a change in world-view as profound as that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the thoughts and theories of René Descartes, Isaac Newton and others helped revolutionize ways of thinking about the world. The rise of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and the thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine all challenge the mechanistic view of the world as being made up of particles which obey simple, linear laws. The emerging world-view of modern science, with its emphasis on the importance of process and context, has more in common with older, organic ideas about the cosmos than it has with mechanism.
The organic view of nature saw the Earth as female and this identity has led to women’s history being linked with the history of ecological change. Merchant makes it clear that concepts both of nature and of women are social and historical constructions, not reflections of essential characteristics. She argues that in challenging society’s domination of nature ecofeminists today are attempting to overturn constructions of both women and nature as passive and subordinate.
Throughout human history people have lived in immediate, organic relation with the natural world. The root metaphor binding together the self, society and the cosmos has been that of an organism. But the image of a female Earth has two sides: the nurturing mother, but also wild, disordered, uncontrollable nature which sent droughts, storms and general chaos. The two dominant ideas of the Scientific Revolution were to see nature as a mechanism, and to seek control and mastery over nature.
These two ideas were able to legitimate the activities of industrial capitalism, with its emphasis on economic growth, the accumulation of capital, and the exploitation of natural resources. If people believe the Earth to be a living organism, a nurturing mother, then they will not want to mine into her entrails or cut down her forests. If, however, the planet is a lifeless machine, then it becomes acceptable to reshape it in the pursuit of profit.
Human society and culture exist in a dialectical relationship with the natural environment. Changes in one lead to changes in the other, and during the period from 1500 to 1700 the result was to create an accelerated exploitation of nature and of people. An increase in mining activity and the introduction of machines meant that people’s direct experiences of nature came to be that of control and human alteration of the environment. Two kinds of machines became more common in the everyday lives of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans. The first kind were windmills, cranes and pumps which magnified human and animal muscle power. The second were clocks which were models of the ordered motions of the sun and planets. The first became symbols of power and the second of order – the two most important aspects of the mechanistic worldview.
Several simultaneous revolutions were occurring within the different sciences of cosmology, medicine, chemistry and physics, but all tended towards the replacement of organic ideas with metaphors of the machine. Merchant looks at the ideas of several of the ‘fathers’ of modern science: Francis Bacon, William Harvey, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and Isaac Newton, placing them within a wider cultural and ecological context. She argues that the language they used was not just an individual’s choice of words, but was also indicative of cultural assumptions about nature. However, the organic worldview was never entirely suppressed. Modern ecology is returning to such a view and Merchant argues that if we are to avert ecological crisis we will have to look again at integrating human needs into the cycles of nature. A re-evaluation of the ideas associated with pre-industrial organic worldviews may aid this process.
The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant is published by Harper and Row, San Francisco and London, 1983, reprinted 1990.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996