Meaning between the raps and rhythms
There is much more to John Agard's exuberant raps and rhythms than first meets the ear. The geography teacher who says: "I'm a million dreaming degreesbeyond the Equator" touches the part of the teacher which must remain resolutely younger than her desk-bound pupils and wiser than the systems which would darken the dreams of children and teachers alike.
Then there is the gentle mockery in poems like "The Howdooyoodoo" which measures our frailty, puts a proper perspective on our absurdities and, most importantly, makes us laugh at ourselves.
Despite the lightness of touch, these are uncompromising poems which explore race, class, gender and all those uncomfortable issues so easily clouded by political correctness. In "Limbo Dancer at Immigration", the dancer who "held up handsthat told a tale of nails" has the advantage of historical resilience over the "bunch of official catsready to scratch".
There is a sure sense of the Divine in many poems. But this is a rebel God, a "God in Blue Denims" who touches the rebel within each one of us. Then, like the victim in "The Hurt Boy and the Birds" who finds "Their wings taught him new ways to become", we dare to aspire to the wholeness so lightly postulated in John Agard's brave and witty collection.
Strange Goings-On is the latest title in the Viking Poetry Originals series, each book introduced by an interview with the poet. Interviewer Anne Harvey sets a pertinent agenda, especially when she draws attention to the poet's early fascination with the sound of words. The listening ear must be cultivated.
The poems themselves are deceptively simple. Sometimes, however, the vision is of a bleak world at the very edge of our comfortable securities.Whether it is the poignant role-reversal in "Dressing Mother" or the sense of inescapable histories and even darker destiny in "Great Grandma and James Andrew" there is challenge as well as accessibility. We may, however, defy our destinies: in "Streams" A and C stream schoolgirls "flowedout in the worldin alphabetical disorder".
Such cheerful optimism is a topical antidote to the pigeon-holing, the monitoring and standardising into mediocrity which bedevil education. Not least, the fine and beautiful observation in poems like "Bulbs" and "All Hail the Hollyhocks" will encourage the kind of looking which will not only raise awareness but inform children's own writing.
It is, however, the builder whose own run-down house boasted a light in every dark cupboard who is truly representative of this book. "And maybe he had his priorities right -leaving the front of his life unpainted and all the dark places light."
This is a collection which strips away facades and the result is as satisfying as it is, at times, uncomfortable. Upper juniors and lower secondaries will respond and profit.
Ann Ziety's anthology has few pretensions to profundity. It has, however, all the energy and wit of the performance poet and for some children will be an exciting threshold. They will delight in the polysyllabic excesses and nastinesses. There are also moments in poems like "Last Day in Broadstairs" when the jokiness relents and the town child remembers when she "thought [her] heartbeat was the rhythm of the ocean".
Children will choose this book from the library shelves. But it is a threshold only, over which teachers must guide their pupils. Then Ann Ziety's work will be well done.