Throwing in an extra bit of freeness

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
A Caribbean Dozen, Edited by John Agard and Grace Nichols. Illustrated by, Cathie Felstead, Walker Pounds 12.99. 0 7445 2172 6. Jackie Hardie, The Secret Oceans, By Betty Ballantine, Dorling Kindersley Pounds 15 0 7513 5253 5. Chickichong. My cheeky chickichong giddying-up with tipsybutterflies zigzagging over zinnias.

In the shut-in gallery I am free as my brown paper kite playing with the wind, tail a crazy thing without zwill, without sting, zingataying in a whistled breeze.

John Lyons

Like the good old English baker's, a Caribbean dozen is a generous and lucky thirteen. In their introduction to this handsome anthology, John Agard and Grace Nichols, who have done much in recent years to enlarge the world of children's poetry with the cadences of tropical magic, explain that in the markets they recall from their childhood the vendors would always throw in a bonus - an extra bit of freeness - especially if the customer had bought a lot already. It was a reciprocal generosity, a bargain struck in the midst of banter and bustle, and it is one of the chief pleasures of this book that the combination of vivid illustration, sensuous domesticity, exotic legend and spirited rhythms becomes in itself a pick-and-mix market-place. Which of the thirteen poets is the free gift? They all are and, although the editors don't exactly say so, that is obviously the point.

These are poems for reading aloud. Even the weakest of them, and a few get by on rather thin material, are joyously enthusiastic. Since no poet is represented by more than five poems, some of them very short, there is a tendency for the individual poetic voice to become lost as it joins the communal celebration, but this is all part of the fun. The individual poetic voice, that is. Autobiographically and anecdotally, each of the poets is well-served by a full page including a photograph and the space to reminisce. We learn that David Campbell has travelled the world with his guitar, that Faustin Charles was too shy to enter an island-wide Recitation Contest at the age of thirteen, that John Agard himself played the part of Captain Hook when he was fourteen, that at seventeen Dionne Brand "already knew that to live freely in the world as a black women I would have to involve myself in political action as well as writing" and so on.

The last poet in the collection - and in one sense perhaps the bonus - is Frank Collymore who died in 1980 and was, the editors tell us, the friend and inspiration to generations of Caribbean writers. "It is said that no letters to Colly ever went unanswered." That note of generosity again which informs the whole of A Caribbean Dozen.

Cathie Felstead's splendid colour illustrations complement the text, not least finding animated, decorative equivalents to the kind of onomatopoeic playfulness of poems like John Lyons' "Chickichong" which is typical of much of what is to be found in the anthology.

More than twenty poets will be taking part in James Berry's 70th birthday celebrations at the Royal Horticultural Halls, Vincent Square, London SW1 on Friday, December 9. Tickets Pounds 10 from Morag McRay, the Poetry Society, 071 240 4810. Proceeds to Index on Censorship.

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