One rarely discussed distinction between poets is between those who capitalize the first words of lines, and those who don’t. In general, you either do or you don’t, but in The Rose of Toulouse, Fred D’Aguiar switches back and forth between the two, and this flexibility is mirrored in the poems themselves, which refuse to be pinned down in style or approach. D’Aguiar moves from dreamlike associativeness to personal stories and from considerations of history to the extended narrative of ‘The Giant of Land’s End,’ the thirteen-page poem in rhymed quatrains that concludes the book. It is so often said that a poet should try to develop a unique “voice”, but The Rose of Toulouse provides an alternative: D’Aguiar develops a range of “voices” instead, all of them convincing, and all very much his own.
The range of voices is also a range of visions — with vision itself being a theme he holds up to the light at various angles: “Let light build a world,” he writes in ‘Key West,’ a poem which begins with the re-creation of the world by light itself when the speaker wakes up in the morning:
I open my eyes.
Dawn builds a bedroom
instantly to house itself
The moment of waking becomes a moment of vision and creativity, even if the limitations of vision appear elsewhere, as in the military trucks described in ‘Wartime Aubade’: “I hear them before I see them.” Vision, that is, must be complemented by the other senses, as in ‘Wednesday’s Child’ as well: “I wake to birds I cannot see, singing in the trees.”
‘Wednesday’s Child’ goes on to tell an apparently autobiographical story about the poet hearing bad news from his son. The bad news breaks into his morning routine:
… scan email and open a blank page
Ready for my conjuring trick.
Your message, son, first thing, catches my eye.
You confirm your diagnosis of MS, by Britain’s experts
Here, D’Aguiar turns to a common contemporary poetic mode, the family narrative in which poets tell stories about their parents or children. In ‘The Giant of Land’s End,’ he implicitly criticizes such modes for being “Garnished for academic / Consumption with a cherry / Of narrative that’s pandemic / Right now in every // Published story or poem.” Yet despite that criticism, ‘Wednesday’s Child’ pulls off the “conjuring trick” of turning a sentimental story into an unsentimental poem climaxing with the memory of his son learning to ride a bike, his “feet kicking and pedals’ whirr.”
D’Aguiar “conjures” history, too, grounding it in its connection to the bodies and lives of individuals. ‘Calypso History Lesson’ sings of history in a “calpyso” voice and rhymed quatrains:
History is a nation attached to your skin
For light to shine at and blind, not enlighten.
Unzip that fool’s suit they say you born in,
That some fool zip on when you were sleeping.
Here and elsewhere, D’Aguiar’s imagery explores how history “zips” those with black skin into the “fool’s suit” of race that song would like to “unzip.” That “unzipping” can also be an imagined attempt to change the past, as in ‘Dreamboat’ and its vision of the slave trade:
I tried to steer
the ship back
to the slave coast
by sheer will
The next poem repeats the image not as a dream but as a titular ‘Wish’: “I wind the clocks back and turn the ships / Around.” Such “conjuring tricks” cannot change history, but they do make the relationship between history and the individual into experiences—into poems.
All of these elements come together in ‘The Giant of Land’s End,’ a tale of getting lost where “roads turn into tracks” and meeting a giant in the woods, “a thing you go to the top / Of a beanstalk to stumble upon.” Having lost the friends he was on an outing with, the speaker is the only one to see the giant, and he never tells anyone about the encounter, keeping the giant’s secret from the world, which turns out to also be his own:
We share a black skin
In a mean time of race
Wars, that makes us kin.
I said to him, “But you
Mouthed You’re dead
To me, that’s why I flew.”
“No, I said You’re Fred.”
Whether with lower-case or upper-case words at the beginnings of lines, in tightly rhymed stanzas or more “open” forms, in the fantastic voice of dreams or the personal voice of a storyteller, “Fred” is far from “dead” in this wide-ranging collection exploring this “mean time of race” and other wars.
Andrew Shields (http://andrewjshields.blogspot.co.uk/)
The Rose of Toulouse is published by Carcanet Press, 2013, £9.95.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)