THIS IS PURE comfort food viewing. But, like so much comfort food (say, mac and cheese) it’s irresistibly delicious.
Moxie is a coming of age story with a difference. All the usual and clichéd tropes of the Hollywood teen movie are there: pretty girls, bumptious jocks, (American) football and classrooms. But the moxie of a bunch of girls, led by the shy, introverted Vivian (Hadley Robinson), to call out and publicize the boorish sexism of their teenage school world, is the catalyst for change and self-awareness. Their moxie also wrecks havoc, not to mention sweet cumuppance on the complacent male dominated status quo of the school, facilitated by a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, rock-no-boat principal(Marsha Gay Harding). And who doesn’t love a bit of cumuppance?
Along the way, the story touches on racism, immigration, teen sex and rape; heavy topics handled by director Amy Poehler (who also doubles as Vivian’s mum) with a deft comic touch that skillfully manages to balance their seriousness with the movie’s feel good, sparkly mood.
The whole enterprise is kept aloft by a grab-bag of richly engaging characters – spearheaded by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) who’s the first to stand up to and question the boorish jock’s presumption of entitlement – and a sure footed witty script (from Dylan Meyer). The charm of the story makes it a no-brainer to accept the central character’s improbable evolution from shy teenager to ‘rebel leader’. It’s an evolution that’s in no small way facilitated by Hadley Robinson’s screen charisma, whose character’s socialized timidity is never drowned out by her more rambunctious girlfriends.
This is only Amy Poehler’s second major directorial launch (the successful Parks and Rangers actor had directed smaller initiatives before); I suspect the liberating reality of Netflix, freed from the vast expenses of marketing and distribution, has made such smaller scale enterprises like this a wonderful portal for launching great new talent into our locked-down living rooms.
Well done Amy; well done Netflix
MOXIE. Dir: Amy Poelher. With: Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Nico Hiraga. Writers: Jennifer Mathieu (based on her novel), Dylan Meyer. Cinematographer: Tom Magill (Parks and Recreation)
THE FIRST IMAGE in this magnificent, award winning movie (it won the British Independent Film Award), is of a group of schoolgirls (they’re about 15 or 16 years old) hanging out, chatting, laughing, leaning on the railing of one of the many apartment tower blocks that blight the city of London. It’s a setting that immediately signals the class context of the story (very down market). Out in the hazy distance stand the pompous, implacable towers of the city of London. These are its citadels of power and wealth. The image suggests not only the contrast between wealth and poverty, but between the solidity of power and money and the fragility of poverty.
It’s a fragility that veers into overdrive when the leader of the group, Shola or ‘Rocks’ (with a stunning affectless performance from first-timer, Bukky Bakray) is forced to become the sole carer for her seven year old brother. Things go from bad to worse when the little money they have, like the electricity in their cramped apartment, runs out. And then the authorities turn up; and then they’re on the run.
It’s a harrowing story. Kinda
Here are the two main reasons why I was so taken by this movie.
The first is that the direction (from Sarah Gavron who also directed Suffragette) and the acting felt totally honest. There was never a moment of artifice or over-scripted dialogue (much of it from the story by Theresa Ikoko, felt ad-libbed anyway) or faked sentiment. You feel as though you’d been plunged into the heart and belly of a very real world; one that for most people is only one we read about. The eco-system of these girls: their school, and homes and the tight crowded streets of their neighbourhood felt viscerally, immersively present. The director pulls us into her tale, this meandering slice of living, in a way that’s a technical marvel to experience (and it that isn’t the role of art, what is?) I feel we can expect a lot more from Ms Gavron
The second reason that enthralled me about this movie was its wellspring of joy and hope.
As things spiral downward for Rocks and her brother, there are two forces that provide them something of a safety net: friendship and – notwithstanding all the negatives we would have expected the story to unearth – the state.
Here, friends are really the only people that Rocks (just barely holding it in) can hit out against. And this she does. But despite her worst aggressions (she steals from one of them), their friendship and love holds them together. It may sound corny. And it’s not very profound. But the idea of friendship as a bulwark against the storm feels real; it works.
Even the state, initially faceless and, to Rocks, a mortal threat, turn out to be an institution of genuine help. I don’t think the writers sought to craft a tale to shill for the state. It certainly isn’t the main point of the movie. More likely, they have offered up a perspective that the role of the state in caring for the defenceless can have its positive values.
The movie plays with the contrast between (our) expectation and (the story’s) reality. The group of girls is overtly racially mixed: Rocks is a large black girl; her closest friends are Muslim, Jewish, white and ‘mixed’. They come together, they bicker, they fall out, they share experiences, they laugh and dance as a group of friends. Race and religion and even class hasn’t (as yet?) affected how they relate to each other. The negatives of British endemic racism or Islamophobia never enters into the tale…perhaps suggesting the extent to which racism and Islamophobia may be more the result of entrenched police prejudice, the attitude of the ruling powers and the focus of the press, than is ‘natural’ to our friendships and loves.
And that’s why this tale of loss and poverty never sinks into despair. The potential of laughter seems to lurk forever in the background…that wellspring of joy and hope.
It’s not a negation of, more a complement to the darkness of Ken Loach’s dystopian Britain
ROCKS: Dir: Sarah Gavron. Writers: Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko (from her story). With: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissieudu. Cinematographer: Hélene Louvart (Never Really Sometimes Always)
THIS OTHER EXAMPLE of exphrasis is from William Carlos Williams, a Puerto-Rican American doctor (he was a paediatrician) cum poet (1883-1963) and essayist. (I’ve always had the image of him dashing off brilliant short poetry on prescription pads between patients). He’s one of the icons of twentieth century poetry; some of his poems (There’s a short one called the Red Wheelbarrow) are anchor poems in that rich cannon of American poetry.
Here, I bring you the first poem from one of his books, Pictures from Brueghel (1962) It’s a poem is based on a self-portrait that Brueghel painted around 1550. It mirrors and celebrates the art of portraiture in its magical ability to suggest with a single image (or here, in seven short stanzas) both a likeness of the sitter and an insight into the person. First I offer you the painting and then the poem
SELF-PORTRAIT In a red winter hat blue eyes smiling just the head and shoulders
crowded on the canvas arms folded one big ear the right showing
the face slightly tilted a heavy wool coat with broiled buttons
gathered at the neck reveals a bulbous nose but the eyes red-rimmed
from over-use he must have driven them hard but the delicate wrists
show him to have been a man unused to manual labor unshaven his
blond beard half trimmed no time for any- thing but his painting
There are, for the sake of brevity, (just) three aspects of the poem I’d like to enthuse about.
First, the structure The poem is actually split into two distinct halves, with the middle, fourth stanza, acting as a shift in tone from the first three. These (first) three stanzas offer us a pretty clear impression of the man. They note his “blue/eyes smiling”; his bulky size…the “big ear”, “head and shoulders/crowded on the canvas”, the somewhat comical “red winter hat” and that “heavy coat/with broad buttons”. In all, he seems like a pretty down-to-earth kind of guy, not the effete painter you might expect. The way Williams (henceforth WCW) describes his “face slightly tilted” and the “shoulders/crowded on the canvas” suggests to me the idea of a big personality; someone who is barely contained by the limitations of the canvas.
The truism that the clothes are a marker of the man is heralded in the fourth stanza with the continuation of the thought, “the heavy wool coat” that “gathered at the neck reveals…” and here comes the almost jokey, bathetic revelation: “a bulbous nose” So we know what he looks like. He’s friendly enough; the tone of the poem makes him seem a bit of a jester.
And then the shift comes: those smiling blue eyes are now described as “red-rimmed”. Really? Has he been crying? No, the poet notes. They’re red-rimmed “from over-use”. These are, after all, not the eyes of (just) a friendly down to earth man. But also, those of an artist. His eyes and his “delicate wrists” are the tools of his trade. They, more than any red hat or broad buttons, are the real signifiers that express who he really is.
These last three stanzas morph from a description of what he looks like to an evocation of his calling, the deeper idea of Brueghel as the artist. WCW notes that his “blond beard is half-trimmed” because he’s too busy. The poem effortlessly leads to the conclusion that he has “no time for any-thing but his painting”
Voila. Portrait indeed.
The second aspect I’d like to enthuse about is the way WCW breaks the lines and subverts the structure of language. In his introduction to a collection of poetry, Chris McCabe notes that the craft of poetry is to “defy, distort and transform…everyday language”; to “go beyond what…everyday language can do” And we see this right at the beginning when the cliché of smiling blue eyes is turned into “blue/ eyes smiling”. Subtle, but clever.
WCW constantly breaks the lines so as to disconcert the reader; it’s almost as if he’s using the scansion to create these mini cliff hangers with lines that are often meaningless on their own until we read on and on.
For instance, consider the first line, “In a red winter hat blue” Huh? Why is the “blue” left hanging there? Why didn’t he write the second line as “blue eyes smiling”? (Partly because the emphasis is on the smiling, not the blueness) Or take the description of his wrists that “show him to have been a” Why breaks the line with “a”? Consider that second line in the second stanza: “arms folded one”. And that wonderful conjoining of ideas “manual labor unshaven his”. To me these odd breaks create a pace to the poem. It’s as though you need to read it at a gallop for the opaque lines to reveal their meaning.
Which leads me to my third and final enthusiasm (and which I appreciate might be a bit of a stretch).
Painting is the only art form that we engage with in one fell swoop. When you wander through an exhibition, it’s the painting that catches the eye that forces you to linger most; and thence to ferret out the kinds of details WCW has just shown us. There’s an immediacy to the apprehension of a painting; unlike, say a movie which takes two hours to unfold…unfolds in time or even a sculpture that demands you walk around it to take it all in (unfolding in space).
WCWs exphrasic poetry seeks to suggest this experience of immediacy in its breathlessness. This is the reason, I think why the poem is one long sentence. He never allows you to pause; like a painting you must take it all in at once for the full effect.
A Parting Zinger My search for this self-portrait of Brueghel (One of his poems, The Hunters in the Snow would suggest that WCW is writing about Brueghel the elder) wasn’t an easy one. The image I kept encountering was that of a skinny, aged man. I wasn’t the only thus stymied. It seems, based on the, now accepted, point of view of his Spanish translator, Juan Antonio Monteil, that the painting I’ve put up and the painting WCW referenced as Brueghel is actually a painting from a Spaniard, Gonella. It’s a Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester. (So maybe those red eyes were really eyes of sorrow, not over-use after all).
Did WCW know this? Was he simply having us on via some meta idea about the nature of portraits, with this one chosen because it fulfilled his idea of the artist? Or was it a God-almighty cock up?
“EKPHRASTIC”. STRANGE WORD isn’t it. It’s the adjective that describes that genre of poetry written about other works art (mainly paintings). An art of art in other words. Ekphrastic poetry doesn’t intend to be art criticism in rhyme. Rather, the image (of the painting for example) is the poet’s jumping off point for a meditation on matters of relevance (to the poet).
It’s also a study in observation: the poem opens the door for us to focus on the painting through the eyes of the poet, which painting is itself a way of contemplating the world through the eyes of the painter. I’ll look at two radically different ekphrastic poems (though not in the same blog, as that’ll make it unreadably long). The first is by a poet called Natasha Trethewey who was the US poet laureate a few years ago.
Her book, “thrall”, which I highly recommend, explores her mixed race and mixed cultural identity (She’s a brown Hispanic American), often through her troubled relationship with her father and via the catalyst of a number of paintings, photographs etc.
The one I’m focusing on is “Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus; or, The Mulatta” After the painting by Diego Velasquez, c. 1619” Here’s the image. Have a look at it for a few minutes before we see what she makes of it.
I see a Black maid who seems to be absent-mindedly looking at one of her pots, perhaps pondering the meal she’s just served (that’s why the table is so clean!). Way over on the left, very much on the tertiary plane (The first plane is that of the still life utensils, the second is that of the maid and then, the tertiary plane, separated and framed by a window…) is that of Christ and a disciple.
You’d think that this naturally would be the focus of the painting (a theme Caravaggio covered exhaustively), because since this was where Christ revealed his divinity to a couple of his disciples, it’s, ahem, a bit more earth-shaking than a maid looking at some pots
Here’s the poem:
She is the vessels on the table before her: the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red and upside-down. Bent over, she is the mortar, and the pestle at rest in the mortar – still angled in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand. She’s the stain on the wall, the size of her shadow – the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her: his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans Into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.
The poem begins: “She is the vessels on the table before her: The copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher Clutched in her hand…” Not only does the poet not focus on the ta-da moment of Christ with his disciples, she isn’t even focusing on the central subject of the painting, the maid, but on the pots. The fact that “She is the vessels etc” carries the suggestion that the maid is perhaps – either to Velasquez or maybe to her master – nothing more than her function. It’s as if her humanity is secondary to her role as maid.
The poem then draws your focus along the painting’s objects: from the copper pot to the white pitcher, the stack of bowls, the basket etc. There are two aspects to notice:
The first is that she’s drawing your gaze away from the Christ: all the stuff she highlights is on the right of the frame. Why we wonder?
The second is that, despite her almost Biblical use of the repeated “and’s”, this isn’t merely a catalog of items. The inherent drama of the moment (The maid has after all just served supper to God!) is communicated through the objects, since, according to the poem, the maid “is” after all the accumulated objects. Thus the arc of the poem is one that converts each of the items into signifiers of life. In a sense, the initial suggestion was that she was no more than her function, is just a first glance. Look deeper, the poem suggests, as the ‘still life’ is made dramatically active: the pitcher is “clutched in her hand”, the copper pot is “tipped”, the mortar is “angled in its posture of use”; even the white cloth in the basket is observed as “recalling her hand”. And hovering in the background is her shadow, “the color of blood”. Not just a series of objects, but objects that dimensionalise the maid in one way or the other
Finally, the poem focuses on her; and like a movie frame, widens to include the dining scene. This shift in focus is heralded by a shift in language: “She is echo/of Jesus at table” Where are the definite articles? Why isn’t it, “She is the echo or an echo…” It’s as though the poem gasps in its sudden revelation…that the maid IS in a sense, the Christ, who is sitting still and implacable on the left, but also reflected in her
She is the echo, “his white corona, her white cap” and, unlike the shadow on the wall, the stain, when the emphasis finally falls on her face (“Listening…into what she knows”) the focus is no longer on a shadow but on the light that falls on her face. He and she are both the light…which presumably she has seen; and which is the point of the entire painting. Indeed, at this moment when He’s revealing his divinity to these disciples, the Light has certainly fallen and has been apprehended by her.
There is of course a meta comment here on the part of the poet: that this Black woman: a maid; a person who to many remains invisible and certainly no more than her function, is the embodiment of her Christ’s divinity, herein lies a new, a true visibility.
Next up, sometime soon (I know you can’t wait) will be a look at one of William Carlos William’s poems from his book “Pictures from Breughel”
TOM HANKS IS, as always, spell-bindingly watchable in Paul Greengrass’ (Captain Phillips, The Bourne Identity) marvelous adaptation of News of the World (from the novel by Paulette Jiles). It’s a story set in Texas a few years after the civil war. Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (such a quintessentially American sounding name). He’s an itinerant newsreader: a man who journeys from town to town, reading excerpts of the weekly news, to an audience eager for news that aligns them with others even while providing a moment of escape from the harshness of their lives. His journey, moving ever forward (“always in a straight line” he claims), is his own un-acknowledged escape from a past of loss and death…a straight line that is dramatically stopped when he finds his path blocked by an overturned wagon, a lynched man and Joanna, a frightened little girl (a stunning, almost wordless performance from Helena Zengle). She has been kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe and was being returned to her home. In this story about journeys (we see sad desolate Indian tribes journeying through hazy mists, and large wagon trails, the new nomads of these empty lands, heading wearily into the distance), of people seeking new places to call home, it becomes pretty clear that home really isn’t a physical destination. And the journey to get there – which can never be a simple straight line – is fraught with dangers. These are dramatically magnified when Kidd takes it upon himself to find this “twice orphaned” child’s family. Neither really wants the other. But as he, and then they together, battle to survive and confront the many dangers ahead, their relationship evolves. She, in particular, morphs from frightened child, viewed as a wild savage that needs to be tamed (at one point she is tethered like an animal), to endangered sexual object that needs to be protected (Kidd is offered $100 for her) finally to helpmeet and ‘daughter’ that needs to be loved. They needed, even if initially they may not have wanted each other. And as for that home, that distant family to which they’re journeying, the realization comes slowly to the widowed Kidd, that kinship, the idea of family, is built not of blood, but of bond; the bond of kindness and love and shared experiences…shared stories. These are the kinds of stories his news delivers (with readings that morphed from that of a myopic old man peering at the lines of type through a magnifying glass to that of a full-blown showman, holding his audience in rapt attention). They are themselves a part of that process of family-making…of bonding these disparate communities. These are the stories, the shared experiences that are helping to forge the newly emerging American family; stories that have the potential to transcend the divisions of distance and language and can begin the process of healing a war-ravaged, divided nation. The relevance to today is overt and intentional. Greengrass’ direction beautifully balances the story’s weave of contrasts: Kidd’s life of words with Joanna’s inability to understand them; his nature as a man of peace with his ability as a man of war, the wide beauty of the open plains where the buffalo roam (wonderfully captured by Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography) and the relentless encroachment of townships and squalor and the new world where the buffalo are slaughtered for their hides.
“I am large, I contain multitudes” It’s a movie really made for the full stretch of the big screen. But hey, Hanks has a credibility and a presence that can stretch to the fullest girth of any imagination…or any heart
NEWS OF THE WORLD. Dir/Writer: Paul Greengrass. With: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengal. Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland). Screenplay: Greengrass + Luke Davies (Lion). Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski (Sicario 2, The Martian)
THE DIG (NETFLIX) is a pleasant enough movie, lifted by the outstanding performances of its two principals, Ralph Fiennes and Cary Mulligan, both of whom manage to transform a pedestrian script into something human and worthwhile.
The story, set in 1938 with Britain’s entry into war looming, is that of the remarkable discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures. This was a precious cache of funerary gold found in the hull of a well preserved, long buried Saxon vessel; it must have been the tomb of an important person, having been dragged overland to this site on the property of Edith Perry, one of the landed gentry. Based on her hunch that there must be something buried under the vast, bulbous midden on her land, Perry hires Basil Brown, a salt of the earth working man descended from a neighbouring family of layman excavators.
It’s a ‘true’ story, so the writers were understandably modest in wringing too many deep insights from the events. This didn’t stop them from dusting the tale with a mish-mash of ideas, as if the reality of excavation was the starting signal to delve into the arty excavations of the human heart.
The thematic links between the fact that Sutton Hoo was a burial site, that Perry was dying and that the war, with its promise of death was about to begin, are suggested, but (mercifully) treated with restraint.
Actor/writer/director Simon Stone leans in more heavily on the idea of the past as just one point in a thread of the tapestry of who ‘we’ are, as a nation and as individuals. To this there is a (be-laboured) perspective that the discovery of the past (and therefore of ourselves) is akin to the wider dimension of discovery …of new worlds, of the future.
But, at its heart, the story squeezes to the fullest the social clash between the untrained working class excavator and the trained, snooty professionals who descend like locusts on the discovery (and who never gave him the credit he deserved). The class snobbery is underlined by the contrast with the genuine connectedness between the working man Brown and his rich employer, Perry. It’s the familiar upstairs/downstairs and quintessentially British divide that’s a must-have for any costume drama.
Add to this a sub-plot of passions unearthed and revealed between two of the excavators (Lily James as Peggy and Johnny Flynn as Rory) and what we’re offered is a thoroughly watchable, good looking, well-crafted, but thoroughly cliched piece of forgettable entertainment.
THE DIG. Dir: Simon Stone. Writers: Moira Buffini (Harlots, Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe) from the novel by John Preston. With: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn (Emma, Vanity Fair), Ben Chaplin. Cinematpgrapher: Mile Eley (My Cousin Rachel); Production designer: Maria Djurkovic (Red Sparrow, Gold, The Imitation Game)
THE WHITE TIGER, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s book and with a screenplay by its director, Ramin Bahrani, is a fast-paced, thoroughly compelling tale of ambition, fate, prejudice, caste divisions and murder in an India where breaking through the glass ceiling of caste is akin to social anarchy
The story centers on that of Balram, a young slum-dweller kid, bright enough to be called a white tiger (i.e: exceptional and rare). As the metaphor of caged chickens awaiting their slaughter suggests, his fate – due to his lowly class, not his innate talent – is to forever be caged awaiting ‘slaughter’. It is not a fate he is willing to accept. As his way out of poverty, Balram hustles his way into becoming the lead driver for a rich family. It’s some progress. Just. For though he may drive their cars, he’s really just a servant from whom selfless obeisance is expected.
The narrative arc follows Balram’s journey out of the cage of his own servile sense of self – the role imposed on him by tradition – to some measure of self-worth and success.
And what a journey it is! The story lodges Balram – naive and dedicated, but wily and independent-minded – at the centre of a deep-rooted culture clash; one between rich and poor, class and caste, tradition and modernity, India and the rest of the world.
It’s a wonderful piece of story-telling: Director Ramin Bahrani (Fahrenheit 451) immerses us in the contrasting worlds of five star hotel suites and one-room squalor with a cast of nicely realized characters (which lifts them above their symbolic roles) from the traditionalist pater-familias, Ashok (Rajkumar Rao) to his modern American-Indian daughter-in-law, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas). He deftly balances the private intimacy of a slum-born boy (brilliantly realized by Adarsh Gourav) making his way upward (the metaphor of the chauffeur as mobility) against a wall of prejudice, and the bigger themes of a country’s fight to emerge from the inhibitions of its inherited values…all with energy and wit.
Thanks you Netflix
THE WHITE TIGER. Dir: Ramin Bahrani. Writers: Aravind Adiga (book) and Ramin Bahrani (screenplay). With: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkumar Rao, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas. Cinematographer: Paolo Carnera. Production Designer: Chad Keith
I’D BRAVED THE plague for Tenet; and what a waste of time that stab of bravery was. The other movie I was prepared to don mask and PPE gear to see was Wonder Woman 1984. The first WW launched Gal Gadot blazing across the superhero screen like a comet: sexy, confident, funny, naive, unbeatable; a script wrritten with that mix of self-awareness and swagger. (So what if it wasn’t a movie that bore repeat viewing well. No matter, I was a convert.)
Finally, thanks to Amazon Prime, and the £15.50 price of rental, I could finally by-pass the virus and settle in for the stirring comfort food of Gal/Diana Prince/Wonder Woman Part 2.
It’s a sloppy mess. This dull, eight-hour movie, with its exciting highlights of WW flying in the clouds, over and over and over again… that is, when she wasn’t moping about in love with her long dead lover (Chris Pine: a pretty mannequin who was even less engaging than his first time outing) slipped into every tired cliché the first one had managed to avoid.
The story re-acquaints us with Diana sixty years after we first met. She’s become a cut-rate, low-rent super-hero, down-graded from the energy and drama of the raging battlefield to fighting off second-rate crooks in a shopping mall.
And it pretty much stays at that mundane suburban level.
The writers try to gussy up things with the hammiest of hammy bad guys (A tortured performance from Mandalorian, Pedro Pascal) who has unleashed chaos on a world hooked on the drug of wishful thinking; a world redeemed only through Truth and Love. And sacrifice. And Moral Fiber. And (insert your own homily here)
It’s the superhero as YA teen romance WITH A MORAL.
WW emerged from the shadows as the mysterious ‘other’ to a dueling Batman and Superman.
Time to revert to those shadows. May she find love, happiness and a white picket fence.
WONDER WOMAN 1984. Dir: Patty Jenkins. Writers: Geoff Johns (TV: The Flash). Screenplay: Johns, Patty Jenkins and Dave Callaham (Zombieland: Double Tap). With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascale
A few weeks ago, the BBC aired a five-part drama, Small Axe, written and directed by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. The drama focused on the lives and life of the West Indian community in a hostile Britain in the 70’s. Roger Robinson is an Anglo Trinidadian, whose tremendous second book of poetry, A Portable Paradise focuses on the same community now, fifty years later. And, surprise! Nothing has changed. The government has with fanfare and pride boasted of creating a “hostile environment”; many of that generation of West Indians back in those 60’s and 70’s were the ones forcibly repatriated a few years ago to lands most were unfamiliar with; and the same systemic, government-encouraged racism still shapes the eco-system of their lives
A Portable Paradise examines this eco-system. The poems often seethe with anger, restrained only by the tempering nuance of the craft and buoyed up by the performance vigour of Robinson’s spoken word style.
One early poem, written a year before George Floyd, in a form that’s almost haiku, is expressive of the anger: It’s called Beware
When police place knees
at your throat, you may not live
to tell of choking.
The book is anchored by two pillars: one evokes the tragedy of Grenfell Tower (where, for those who may not be aware, eighty people, mainly poorer, black and immigrant were burnt to death in a fire that spread as a result of criminal neglect and government indifference) and the other, the idea of British citizenship in a country busy with forced repatriations.
The end of the poem, Haibun For the Lookers (“haibun” is the name that’s given to poetry that’s a mash-up of classical poetry, spoken word, prose and haiku), Robinson describes the onlookers, facing the inflamed tower, with…
“their faces illuminated by the glow of fire-ash floating gently down…then a flaming fire-snake slides its way from the fourth floor straight to the top…”
There’s a mythic premise (Note the reference to the fire-snake or Satan or flames of hell) that recognises no presence of help, just the terrible, almost painterly spectacle of the illuminated on-lookers “imagining their settees in flames, their orange floral wallpaper bubbling up and bursting like blisters”
The reality is so harsh, the poem almost has to hide its face and re-imagine the moment through subtler images, such as the blistering settees; as if the mention of people, of flesh, is too much to bear, too melodramatic.
Initially the inhabitants are visible only as … “shadows [that] wave makeshift flags”. These shadows re-appear as “…the swan dive of a few bodies.”
Finally, the delicate peacefulness of the opening image of “fire-ash floating gently down” and the shadowy bodies, are all brought together and repeated at the gut-wrenching end:
As for the onlookers, whose numbers have swelled, this is what they’ll remember: the floating ash and flaming debris, bodies in flight and bodies in shadow, the smoke leaving discreetly into the night sky, clouds at night and the snake, the giant snake of flaming fire.
The heat at my back,
I throw my baby out of the window.
Catch him, Lord!
He offers three poems on the theme of the (West Indian/British) citizen. In Citizen I, the poet revisits the Windrush explusions, from a perspective of the deep feeling of betrayal and loss felt by the West Indian community.
So, after slavery, colonialism, two world-wars,
teddy boys, skinheads, rivers of blood speech,
neo- nazis, thatcher, 3 kids…
…a small pension,
Now you want to send me home
There is the attempt to recapture that moment when the scales drop from the eyes; that moment when the awful reality of the Mother Country reveals itself, when truth finally replaces wishful thinking.
Truth is you were always planning my departure,
from the moment I walked down the gangplank,
freestyling “London is the Place for Me…
…From the slaveships to world wars,
to the underground and the hospitals, it’s always
been about the labour, never about the living”
The poem winds down not with anger, but tears; the tears of the rejected child orphaned into a kind of statelessness with the full realization that the relationship was purely one-sided and transactional
…How can you be banished
from your own home? Congratulations.
You fooled us. Render your work, not your lives”
But for the poet escape/resilience/strength comes from those portable paradises; those moments and memories and talismans that bolster the spirit and that, perhaps, matter more than the loss, the rejection, the hostility:
Basically they’re a few, somewhat ad hoc “enthusings” about some of the many poets I Iove (OK, I know, I’ve already lost many of you. Go with the flow…)
If fictional narratives unlock lives beyond our own limited realities (with which we might find and share commonalities), poetry (for me) forces us outside the vault of our brains. It lifts us entirely into the sensibility or “mode of apprehension” of another. Call it an out of body thing. Each poem is a little gem of apprehension: both the dual thrill of sudden revelation when the poem (they’re often pretty opaque) opens itself to you, and the gob-smacking admiration of such word-perfect craftsmanship.
One podcaster (whose podcast I heartily recommend is “Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast”) described poems like a Tardis.. in that no matter how small, they contain whole new worlds and dimensions.
My intention in these enthusiasms is to offer my own reading of a few of my favourite poets, by zeroing in on one or a couple of their poems. And maybe this’ll encourage you…someone, anyone… to sample the poet’s wares and also maybe to find one of these “sudden revelations”
Let’s start with Louise Gluck
She is an American poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. In 2020, she was awarded the Noble prize for literature. Averno, the subject of my enthusiasm, is probably her most (deservedly) lauded book.
The title (as noted in the book) refers to a small crater lake in Naples. It was also the entrance to the underworld; that dividing point between life and death (and the focus of the book). The poems use a mythic world to explore meanings of death, loss, impermanence and love in a startlingly arresting way. Averno also means winter in Italian…that period when Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and fertility, returned to her lover/kidnapper, Hades, deep in the cold dark of the underworld. Every year, Persephone was permitted to return to earth for six months. And during this time, the flowers would again bloom and the world would warm…until it was time for her to plunge back into the dark, and once again the flowers would shrivel and the earth would freeze.
Let’s look at the first poem in the book, The Night Migrations. Have a read of the poem (it’s short) and then have a look at my reading of it. Here it is:
This is the moment when you see again the red berries of the mountain ash and in the dark sky the birds’ night migrations
It grieves me to think the dead won’t see them- these things we depend on, they disappear.
What will the soul do for solace then? I tell myself maybe it won’t need these pleasures anymore; maybe just not being is simply enough, hard as that is to imagine.
The first line of the poem, This is the moment when you see again is, to me, typical of her approach, in that it sets up both a series of questions that the subsequent line immediately unsettles, heralding the unexpected ahead. (Just what is this “moment” referred to? By “you”, does the poet mean “one” or is it directed to a specific person? Are you seeing something one more time, when the emphasis is on “again”, which implies that you’ve seen it before or is the emphasis on “see” as sight to a blind person?) and it suggests expectations (What would one normally expect to see again?)
What ‘you’re’ seeing again are “the red berries of the mountain ash”; not something I’ve ever seen before, let alone “again”. The literal reference, grounding the poem initially in a sense of tangible place, refers to a high-altitude tree; one with apparently magical powers to protect from harm. The red berries also probably refer also to the pomegranate seeds Persephone was given by Hades to ensure her return from earth.
But the reference also signals a changing of the seasons, which you’re seeing “again” every year
So we know from the first two lines that it’s cold, clearly dark and the herald of winter, the return from life to death, is in the offing. Again
The poem continues: And in the dark sky the birds’ night migrations
Have you ever seen birds migrating in the night? Well, for many birds, that’s actually when it happens. What’s unexpected is that, despite the “dark sky” it’s easy (for somebody) to see…again! Perhaps this leans in to the idea of “seeing again” as more than seeing something once more to a kind of sight that transcends the darkness of the night. What powers of sight they have!
But not everyone can see them. Certainly not the dead: It grieves me to think the dead won’t see them Now this is an interesting couplet. What it’s saying isn’t so much that the dead won’t see birds migrating and the changing of the seasons. Duh, they’re dead. Perhaps it’s implying that the dead are too busy seeing something else.
What’s that something else? The poem doesn’t take us here immediately. Once again, Gluck pulls a sleight of hand and focuses back on the damn birds: the poem continues, these things we depend on, they disappear
“these things…” refer to mountain ash trees, red berries and migrating birds. We depend on seasonal change. It’s part of the ebb and flow of life. But there’s a deeper sub-text here. Maybe the “you” of the poem, who is clearly dead, depended on those things. What matters is the POV that “they disappear”. “They” don’t literally disappear. They only disappear to ‘you’, because ‘you’re’ dead. Maybe. We -who are alive and on earth -can but guess how “you”, no longer of earth (mythically, in Hades), experience not life, but “being”.
After all, though these images have disappeared, they’re really being seen (to go back to the beginning) again or anew. So have they disappeared to ‘me’ or am I seeing them again? Is this a contradiction? Perhaps, more pertinently, I may be seeing them with a new kind of sight.
The final stanza wraps it all up. i.e underlines the conceit that, like Persephone’s annual return to the underworld, to death, there may well be simply another state of existence for the soul (one known to faith and, nowadays, to quantum multiverse theory) which we (the living) can guess at, but never understand. Or as the poem explains: maybe just not being is simply enough, hard as that is to imagine
Just reread that whopper of a conclusion. It’s epiphanic. Wowza