We are many and if not now, when?

Big poems

Dearest Claire,

Greetings once again — what can I say but that statues continue to fall, flags are furled, more particularly the Confederate flag … the boogaloo boys, a far-right, racist movement that wants to incite a second civil war in the US, push back with hate-filled posts on Facebook, while support for Black Lives Matter in the populace at large appears to hold. I write this from a place that is an odd combination of deep exhaustion, a committed endurance overlaid by doubts, moments of anxiety, a continuing and abounding curiosity about what the future might hold, astonishment at the many, many apparently positive responses to the uprising against anti-Black racism, concern about my health and, surprisingly, some laughter. Laughter in response to the foolishness of us humans, a foolishness that is dangerous and even fatal in these times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the woman who stated to the Miami City Council that she didn’t wear masks for the same reason she didn’t wear underwear. But allow me a few preliminary comments before continuing my thoughts from last week:

In conversation last week with a friend and colleague I was talking to her about how helpful it was to engage in the exercise of writing to you and it became clearer to me that something about the time in which we are at present generates a need for the relational. Being in relation to is, of course, a fundamental human quality and I am using it here in the multifaceted way in which Glissant uses it, related to engagement with the Other in all the possible ways, including the Other within ourselves. Those of us who have been colonized, understand how the Other lives within, sometimes hides out in our innermost sanctums. Finally, in our case, the Afriscendant whose home is the Afrospora, to use a couple of neologisms, the relational embraces the realms of the Ancestors whose collective passing was never acknowledged, let alone mourned.

Last week I began with an epigraph by Baraka, which included the line — “Fuck poems.” I note he doesn’t say “fuck poetry” — a distinction without a difference, perhaps, but which could generate an interesting discussion. It being not so much poetry that is being contested but the individual poem.  But I turn to another poet who is actually known for his fiction, much of which I would describe as poetry: “I consider myself a fetish maker” is how Ishmael Reed, another member of BAM, describes his practice and craft. “I see my books as amulets, and in ancient African cultures words were considered in this way. Words were considered to have magical meanings and were considered to be charms.” Reed’s manipulation and use of words and language comes closer to how poets work with and within language than to prose writer. Indeed, much of his work could be described as prose in poetry, much of it inflected by African American speech and thought patterns. His views align with my own about how I think about this tool, language — in this case english, which because it is not a mother tongue and remains a “foreign anguish” continues to present profound challenges for me.  How can I make this fathered, furthered, furrowed tongue, express ways of being and being human, which are not a part of the Western heritage? I also make links — another meaning of Glissant’s relations — between how Reed views the inherent magic of words and Lorca’s view of the duende.

You and I never did talk about African spirituality, but you had lived in Africa for a few years, so I do wonder what your views are on matters such as Reed is talking about. For now, however, I want to turn to a poet from the “Mother Country,” as we in the colonies once referred to England — that “green and pleasant land.” I’m referring to Shelley, described as Red Shelley in an eponymous work by Paul Foot. 

As you well know, like Coleridge and other Romantic poets, Shelley was active in the “boycott of sugar grown by slaves” movement; indeed many of the activist techniques we use today, like petitions, actually began during the abolitionist movement against slavery in England. I recall when I arrived here in Canada in 1968 — London — to do graduate work, there was a party at our department head’s home to which someone brought a bottle of South African wine, which outraged our host — an Englishman. Coming from the Caribbean I hadn’t known much about the boycott movement against South Africa, still incipient at that time in Canada. For my part, I was outraged by the fact that we had been asked to BYOB (bring your own bottle). In the Caribbean the host always provided alcohol for guests and the idea of bringing your own alcohol to a party was inconceivably rude to me then. That was my introduction to the boycott against the brutally racist South African apartheid system. To return to Shelley — he and his wife, Mary, refused to use sugar in their tea, indeed stopped drinking black tea and drank only green tea so that they could avoid sugar. He did, however, continue  to eat cakes and other sweet treats. I will have more to say about Mary Shelley later.

Why my interest in Shelley? Because he was writing at a time of great turmoil much like ours, both of which share a common root — the crime against humanity which was the transatlantic trade in Africans. Let me contextualize Shelley and his engagement with a revolutionary time in his poetry.  As a point of orientation, I’ll begin with the Zong massacre which occurred in 1781 and which was the (un)foundation of Zong!, my book-length poem on the catastrophe. You may have read it — I say may because your terrible illness had already begun to ravage you by the time it was published. Ten years later, in 1791, the year before Shelley was born, the abolitionist William Fox called for a “boycott of sugar grown by slaves” in the British West Indies. The conditions of production were barbaric and fatal for many. Many plantation owners found it cheaper to work a slave to death and replace them rather than provide safe working conditions. While Shelley’s origins were upper class, he knew the evils of plantation life and was politically active against it. By the time he writes “Queen Mab” in 1813, he appears to be aware of the growing resistance against slavery and is fully in support of the boycott movement. By this time, although the British slave trade would have been ended for some five years, in 1807, slavery continued, as did the abolitionist movement. In that poem he describes slaves working “to the sound of the flesh-mangling scourge” to produce “all polluting luxury and wealth,” which projects Shelley’s concerns onto more contemporary movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter. It had to be a moment similar to ours where the unthinkable, freeing enslaved Africans, had become a radical possibility and was being discussed, albeit to great opposition. Today, issues such as defunding the police and decarceral policies, not to mention the wider acceptance that Black lives should matter, all once unthinkable, echo that earlier moment.

Much like today, domestic discontent was widespread in the United Kingdom in 1819 — the Napoleonic wars had ended some four years earlier with the legendary Battle of Waterloo but there was chronic unemployment and the price of bread was exorbitant because of the Corn Laws. The north of the country, the centre of the industrial revolution, was especially hard hit; women didn’t have the vote, but neither did some ninety percent of the male population — the nonlandowning class. Despite the banning of trade unions, on August 16 of the same year a Manchester union organized a large rally in St. Peter’s Field in the city. When the speaker began to address the crowd, soldiers, on orders of the local magistrates, slashed their way through the crowd injuring hundreds and killing some fifteen people. That event came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre (the word is an elision of Peter and Waterloo) and was immortalized in literature by Shelley in his poem, “The Masque of Anarchy,” in the very year of the massacre.

The poem itself did not have a public life in the wake of the massacre and was only published after his death in 1821, but Shelley appears to be clearly working in extremis,given when he wrote the poem and in light of the profoundly disruptive political events occurring in England at the time, all of which have direct bearing on the economic life of the country and, therefore, the continued enslavement of Africans. Some thirteen years later, between 1834–1838, the British Empire would abolish chattel slavery.

Shelley’s poem addresses the Peterloo massacre, but his language continually signifies another reality, the horror of the enslavement of Africans. For instance, stanza 39: 


What is Freedom? — ye can tell

That which is slavery is, too well —

For its very name has grown

To an echo of your own …

Stanza 50:

This is Slavery — savage men,

Or wild beasts within a den

Would endure not as ye do —

But such ills have never knew …

And finally the last stanza in which he calls the many to arms:


Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number —

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you —

Ye are many — they are few.

The cross-racial allyship of Shelley and his fellow poets offers another striking parallel to contemporary events around support for Black Lives Matter by non-Black people, as does his support of the working classes and their struggle against the ruling class, of which he was a member. Perhaps we can see the Shelley’s poem as an early nod to an understanding of the potential intersectionality of race and class.

Shelley’s poem may not have done anything for the victims of the Peterloo Massacre in its immediate aftermath, or affected the outcome of the political events surrounding it, yet the poem has continued to reverberate since its publication as a call to arms against tyranny. Excerpts from the poem have been frequently used in music, television, and books and have been quoted by politicians claiming progressive views. Indeed, as late as June 7, 2017, the former leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, used the last stanza of the poem in one of his political addresses to his followers.

Before leaving the Shelleys I want to make reference to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and a darker or more unfortunate aspect of how the enslavement of Africans has woven its way into our literary DNA. According to Miranda Seymour, her biographer, Mary Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster was based on African slaves she observed at work on the docks in Bristol, a major hub in the English slave trade. The very same port where a statue was erected in honour of the Bristol slave trader, Edward Colson, and the very same statue that was pulled down and dumped in the Bristol Harbour on June 7, 2020. You may recall that I mentioned all this in a previous letter to you. (And a very good thing it was to have happened, I might add, the pulling down of that statue.)  We can see how literature becomes a vector for the idea of the monstrous being an aspect of and, indeed, wedded to the Black body, and how easily that idea could transmogrify into the normalcy and universality of the practice we now call anti-Black racism. Uncannily enough in 1824, seven years after the publication of Frankenstein, George Canning, who was first foreign secretary and then prime minister, and who had been working assiduously against emancipation, bolstered his views  “by comparing the African to Frankenstein’s monster.” (The Guardian, June 20, 2020.)

 left: diagram of a slave ship. right: depiction of Peterloo massacre with Shelley poem text: "Men of England, heirs of Glory, Heroes of unwritten story, Nurslings of one mighty Mother, Hopes of her, and one another; Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number. Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you — Ye are many — they are few."

I return to the Baraka poem, an excerpt of which I used as an epigraph in my last letter to you: 

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and 

Cleanly. Let Black people understand

That they are the lovers and the sons

Of Warriors and sons

Of Warriors Are poems & poets &

All the loveliness here in the world … 

Baraka appears to be urging us to understand that until love can exist freely, there can be no love poems, which reminds me of Fannie Lou Hamer who similarly said that until everyone was free, no one was free. I also recall Peter Tosh, whom I’m listening to as I finish this letter to you, and who in the documentary about him, Red X Files, curses love songs, using powerful Jamaican expletives.  And yet he has written some of the tenderest love songs about the plight of the downtrodden and the need for a more just world. That is what I think Baraka means when he says that “sons / Of Warriors Are poems and poets & / All the loveliness here in the world …”; that tenderness and love can be found in the struggle for a better life for all and not only in romantic love poetry. More importantly, for me at least, he seems to be saying that such poetry should “come at you, love what you are, / Breathe like wrestlers,” challenging the reader to come to terms with an embodied aspect to the poem — and possibly in times that are in extremis. For him the poem can be both weapon and caress, each a necessary act.  

In a recent CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Ideas documentary (June 2020), the English writer and critic Nick Hornby stated: “Everybody writes poetry. Nobody reads poetry.” I would add, except inside the academy. Typically Hornby doesn’t include spoken word, hip-hop, or rap within the category, poetry, which continues the hierarchies within eurocentric culture. In light of Hornby’s accurate observation, is my question to you in my previous letter about writing poetry in extremis of any possible relevance? If nobody reads poetry. Except for students and academics. But we are in the sleaze, the ice, the fire, the vomit, and the blood. And like Gwendolyn Brooks I want “Big Poems.” Poems that roar.  I need them.  And if not now, when? 


I am tired of little tight-faced poets sitting down to 

Shape perfect unimportant pieces.

Poems that cough lightly — catch back a sneeze.

This is the time for Big Poems,

Roaring up out of sleaze,

Poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.

This is the time for stiff or viscous poems.

Big, and Big.
— Gwendolyn Brooks




P.S. I should have mentioned that Aunt Jemima has been cancelled: as is Uncle Ben: the Google title was: “Aunt Jemima brand retired due to racial stereotype.” Retired? Such a gentle, catching-back-a-sneeze kinda Victorian euphemism for the end of one small aspect of a viciously immoral system —now there’s a poem!