“a balancing and a completeness”

Travel Light Travel Dark John Agard, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

john-agard-travel-light-travel-darkTravel Light Travel Dark suggests a balancing and a completeness. Reflection is a persistent theme, the act not only of an individual looking from themselves to the outside world but also looking from outside in. The collection is loosely based around themes, starting with the colour poems which are untitled and don’t seek to distinguish shades or hues. Red is simply red, never scarlet, carnelian or poppy. The concern is with what the colours represent, e.g. “They say the poem dressed in white/ takes on the role of the angelic host/ for those who trust in the footprints of ghosts.” The generic “they say” and “those who” suggests the poet’s narrator doesn’t share these beliefs but is writing at one remove. These aren’t poems of solid foundation where a narrator shares a viewpoint, but rather rafts where the readers come aboard and let the river carry them.

A discovery that Jimi Hendrix had lived at 23 Brook Street Mayfair and Handel at number 25 inspires ‘Jimi Hendrix and Handel Under One Roof’ as the building is now combined into one.

Rumour has it a pair of ghosts, one white one black,
would flutter over chords and choral counterpoint.
Sometimes they’d share a hug, sometimes a joint.

But you know how gossip multiplies the truth.
Mostly H and H spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days
when childhood’s oratorios bloomed in a purple haze.

I appreciate the rhythms and references but wanted more detail rather than the throwaway comment, “spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days,” which is too generic to be specific to Hendrix or Handel

An actor considers the ethics of “blacking up” to play a character in ‘White Actor Prepares To Be Othello’,

Shall I invoke the muse of melanin?
Perhaps root out my family tree
for traces of a darker kin?
What if I inject a street-cred note
with some hiphop in my stride
to modernise his Moorish pride?
Ah, Max Factor to the rescue.
Mahogany, my instant hue.
We’re halfway there.
I smell catharsis in the air.
Yes, I shall blacken my face
and be quite beautiful.
A relaxed lion.
I’ll thread the thin line of race.
Inhale his story.
Lose myself in the folly
of skin.
A white handkerchief my nemesis.

Again, John Agard builds the raft but lets readers decide if this is a successful Othello or not. It successfully captures that there’s more to becoming a character than painting skin or donning a costume. There’s history, attitude and pose. The white actor never asks if he should play the part at all: the readers get to do that.

Travel Light Travel Dark has a thematic coherence and shows a poet in command of language. John Agard has a keen ear for rhythm using colloquial speech, or traditional calypsos, with some poems using phonetic spellings to capture accented speech and cross-cultural connections.

Emma Lee

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