Camille Ralphs reviews Fred D’Aguiar

Letters to America is published by Carcanet Press (2020)

Derek Walcott’s influence on contemporary poetry has never been as pronounced as it is now: Vahni Capildeo’s pamphlet Odyssey Calling, for instance, has a distinctly Walcottian undertow; Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal is heaped with the steep waves, sea grapes and almonds native to his work, as well as some of its darker aspects. But in parts of Letters to America, Fred D’Aguiar comes to seem like Walcott’s true twenty-first-century heir.

‘King David Cooks Ital in Port Antonio’, for instance, is formally an homage to Omeros, with its rippling, sometimes dissipating terza rima and its heightening of salt-sprayed quotidian island life to something classical or biblical, in the case of King David, who “got his honorific from a toddler”. The “waves of zinc roofs” remind the reader of the corrugated roofs nearly buckling under torrential rain in Walcott’s masterpiece, and when the speaker mentions “sunlight’s stones harvested at sea”, we think of Walcott’s Achille under the pickling water, scouring the seabed for conch shells. But D’Aguiar’s poem is more compressed than Walcott’s and must more swiftly show its heart. “When rainfall all men high and low must get wet”, King David says, in one of several moments of demotic swagger in the poem – or rather stagger: “with a song and a cut foot dance, he surrenders to night”. Elsewhere the speaker declares, “I stand strong with the poor – the world’s most crowded windowsill”. Who are the poor? They are more the sacred meek who crowd history, the “righteous dead” who have not yet inherited the earth; and history itself writhes horribly, prettily in and through the poem. “He believes in the light that falls free of history”; “birds ride unhurt / By the current of history”; “many promontories where the sky breaks / With history: voices lost at sea coming ashore over and over”. It is here we start to get D’Aguiar’s message: “brethren read the scripture / Of the sea, pages turned by tides, waves stacked in a library // Whose spines are middle passage bones” – brethren presumably including Safiya Sinclair, whose own “sea [is] a dark page / I am trying to turn”, “miles of skeletons clutching each other from island / to island, linked like a shackle, femur to femur”. D’Aguiar’s speaker regrets the legacy of slavery as he leaves King David’s blessed greenness for a world in which Black freedoms must still be fought for. “It tugs at me to leave him, so very alone / In his mercy, his bounty, and me, underdeveloped, ostensibly civilized.”

In ‘Call and Response’, James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin, addresses his target in four twelve-line rhyming verses, before King responds. The first half of the poem is superior, because a dramatic monologue, like anything involving the mechanics of personality, is strongest when its central character is morally complex – King’s monologue is dampened by its speaker’s martyrdom and its author’s reverence. Ray’s best lines include a mention of “your funeral / March to add to a life of marches, sermons, gone viral” – the allusion to the Ides of March is inescapable – and the rhyming of the heteropalindromes “war” and “raw” with the more fractured, Muldoonian “flowers”. That this first part has the very regular rhyme scheme of ABAABCDCCDEE draws attention to the exact and implacable hatred “stencilled in” the speaker’s “manufacture”, and one area in which the second half of the poem succeeds is its switch in rhyme scheme, clearly intended to evoke love’s loose-ended, ungatherable alternative. When King speaks, he does so in sonnets, ABCDABEFCDEFGG. But the rhymes have been driven apart. The poem feels ghostly and fiddly. It is “cut loose as big data”, in an anachronism that makes clear, again, D’Aguiar’s intention to find the contemporary in the historical and vice versa.

The title poem, ‘Letters to America (An Abecedary)’, continues this theme, but is more a palimpsest than a monologue. “Pigeons / Flock rooftops, twist, launch, shout / As one, spin sky, turn skulls porous” recalls the tight, verb-heavy opening of Danez Smith’s ‘Summer, Somewhere’, but later the poem loosens. Literary and musical references abound – King Lear’s Gloucester, Auden, Epicurus, and Woolf, all by the bottom of page two; later, the poet alludes to the archetypal defiant slave Kunta Kinte, perhaps via Kendrick Lamar’s ‘King Kunta’ (Letters to America is crammed with kings). These must be D’Aguiar’s “Juggernaut ancestors”, contributors to his work and person, for better or worse, as much as the “Stepped-on alligator Uncle // Takes for a log bridge // Until it shifts, yawns”, as much as “Reagan. Nope, slavery”. The abecedary is a fine choice of form to catalogue such a range of stimuli. Its all-inclusive facility seems at first to court flipness, but re-reading clarifies that even the most bizarre interjections – “Robins who, channelling Auden, whistle – // Bang! WTF!” – are necessary rupturings, chaotic shrapnel breaking in on an organized mind.

Another influence D’Aguiar has acknowledged in the past is calypso, particularly the lyrical artistry of the Trinidadian calypsonian Lord Kitchener. In this book’s final poem, ‘Calypso’, he combines Augustan heroic couplets (the piece includes a reference to Jonathan Swift) with a thought-quick, at times slick and at others slapstick, social commentary reminiscent of freestyle rap: a calypso is improvised, and has a syncopated rhythm perhaps best imitated by paired rhymes and capricious metre. The problem with all improvised material, of course, is that it is unrevised. We must hope to one day hear this poem in performance, because if it were experienced as a musical phrase in a transient moment it would sound virtuosic; but ink and paper provoke us to read D’Aguiar as we might Dryden, and this is not to his gain: it is tempting but very difficult to argue, encountering the poem in print where any bum note resonates indelibly, that D’Aguiar finds English brick, specifically a “two-up / Two-down, redbrick number” (‘1960’), and leaves it sea glass.

One section begins “I know when I strike this note you hear pure Lennon”, and it’s right: there the verse is saccharine and abstract, without quite leaning into comedy; and who can read lines like “our world revolved around the bedroom, / We filled each other’s head, swept cobwebs with a broom / Of desire” without doing a double take? This is a shame, because elsewhere ‘Calypso’ is memorable for the right reasons. “[The elites’] country’s majority lack two red cents / To cover dead eyes”, he writes, and observes that “[Calypso King] got an aroma that lingers like an empire”. Later he apostrophises, startlingly, “Africa, cradle of our species, oh Africa, skull in profile, / Mercator mapped. Africa, the child; Europe, the paedophile”. These ideas are reprised in the superb ultimate section, which also resurrects the imagery of ‘King David’: “Undersea light bends over backwards in benediction / To an element whose unmade bed of white bones, / Of Africans thrown overboard, form a road back home”. Of course, something would be lost if this piece were edited as acutely as any other poem, but I suspect that its “Imagine”-esque middle could have been painlessly excised.

The shorter poems are also striking: they burn with concise, rapt rage. “Atlantic Ground” opens with a synopsis of much of the rest of the book: “Where bones build pace under / Water over grown with currents // Where pickaxes solder sparks / plunged into such cranial soil” – the past is present in the present, D’Aguiar argues, not as laughter from the Eliotic rose garden but as inherited trauma. ‘Black Lives Matter’ sees “blue jays” (“black lives matter but blue lives matter more” – ‘Letters to America’) with “articulate claws” (where “articulate” means “having joints” as well as “eloquent”) attack a “young rabbit, no bigger than a tangerine” in groups “until we intervene”. ‘Body Count’, like Jay Bernard’s Surge (2019), takes the notorious New Cross Fire, and the young Black lives lost in it, as its subject. Its lines are harsh but wispy, arranged to imitate a drifting curlicue of smoke: “those beaten / choked / by fire / by police / breathe now / underground / underwater / over us all”.

There is more to say about this ambitious and determinedly principled collection, but part of its appeal is its variety, its references to Guy Fawkes, Carole Boyce Davies, Kamau Brathwaite, Karl Marx, et alia, and to go on might impoverish readers’ fresh encounters with the work. Fred D’Aguiar has written “a canticle of water”, a book for the individual bowed, imperilled, under the wave of history – monarchical and imperial – and crying out for collective action to stop it from consuming further shores. Letters to America is emphatically worth reading.

Camille Ralphs is the poetry editor at the TLS. Her most recent pamphlet is Uplifts & Chains (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2020).

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