Monday, 21 December 2009

Trade Passages

A couple years ago I was invited (after several auditions, interviews and a ten year hiatus from performing) to write and perform a piece of poetry to commemorate the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain ..

The ‘Freedom Showcase’ was presented at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester.

Ten ‘emerging poets’, two mentors, a director, a video editor and a composer, and a host of arts organisations and live literature-managing agencies were commissioned to produce and stage a performance of epic proportions (for the poetry scene, man) ..

Scheduled for performance in July, we had only a few months to pull this original performance poetry event into shape and present the Midlands with an exciting and challenging show ..

So, we spent a lot of time preparing: writing, workshops, rehearsing, writing, recording, travelling, memorising and of course, writing ..

I approached my piece attempting to capture the perspective of the people I knew when I lived in the Southern region of the United States .. back when I was hanging at the Golden Rose after-hours members-only jazz club in the lowland swamps of South Carolina ..

I took on the role of a composite character developed from the various groups I associated with at that time, and throwing myself into the dialect and costume of the dramatis personae of the piece I tried to bring to life the history and culture of the people ..

The poem is divided into 3 separate narratives: the first offers the tragic personal story of two young lovers taken from Africa to America to serve on the plantation .. the second part is a time-skipping story that takes us on a winding route through the South from the days of abolition to the New Orleans flood ..

The final act is a contemporary reading of capitalism and it’s slave roots; the way trade, multinational corporate financial exchange, whether traffic in people, electronics, food or weapons, is gradually eroding freedom through consumer gentrification and using the ultimate cataclysm of terror as threat ..

The 3 sections were accompanied by music and large screen video. The music moved from simple drumming to a syncopated rhythm reminiscent of early 20th century bands to the electronic hum of rockets and radios. The video began as a huge projected stone circle reminiscent of Stonehenge, which through the piece transformed into mirrored skyscrapers. For the first segment I sat cross-legged on the stage enveloped in the aura of an orange light, for what is the campfire but the stage around which the narrative of life has been played out through eternity? The tale is told and we listen and participate in the story. Through the second section I rambled across the stage as a traveller seeking identity within the newly achieved freedom to roam. In the final act I was still and contemplative in anger as one seeking justice, an active agent employed in the inter-relation of progress and devastation of identity through cultural and social disintegration. I enjoyed being the creative behind the selection of images and composition .. though naturally I'd like to thank Thomas Hall for the video art and Mark Melville for the audio.

I titled my contribution ..

Trade Passages

Living in the past
Or the present day
Time is but a narrative of trade

Travelling hand in hand and eye to eye
Chained one to each other
A history shared also collides


Uhuru was a youthful poet, African princely born
A tall dark warrior, His true name it means freedom
Torkwase was his bride, a life about to start
She sailed with Uhuru from an oasis in the desert

They were on a slave ship going to the new world
Taken from their rightful kingdom
About them the mighty grey Atlantic swirled
They were just commodity
Another man’s immoral income

Red white and blue flags on the ship unfurled
The slave trade and their emblem
Every day in fear their lives imperilled
Hoping on a slow train
Coming for their freedom

Uhuru ran from the plantation
Liberty deep within his soul
Legacy of his free will
Laying low and makin’ north

He lay behind a chicken coop
After three days in deep mud
His feet thickly blistered
His eyes red with blood

Torkwase had been living
Under a master’s dirty ways
Her fingers still remember sand
Her eye recalls Uhuru’s gaze

A memory of her tribute a shamanic presence gave
She walks amongst the shadows, servant to the slaves

Night fell as Uhuru scratched notches in the wood
Tonight he’d kill a chicken, the waiting needed food

With baptised tears Torkwase crept toward the shed
In a sacred dance round midnight the cockerel would be bled

A fateful chance encounter as the full moon shone
Torkwase screamed so loudly others heard it too
Recognising within Uhuru’s eyes the passion of remembrance
A separation by the slave ship crew

They held each other tightly with distant hound dogs barking
Uhuru and Torkwase reunited caring not for all lost time
In minutes it was over everyone had come
But in the night the hangmen committed a dark crime

"Your people they were free, your father was a king"
Torkwase to the newborn babe, one day she would sing

It takes two to tango
Two make a narrative of trade
Travelling hand in hand and eye to eye
From the cradle to the grave


Moors to Maroons Morocco or Mali
Black or white Latvian Asian or Mexicali
Put out your hand
The road to freedom
Is through another’s land

The Underground Railway still exists
In my mind
Passages of lives
And the ties that bind
History following the tracks of my tears
Lazy Southern river flows all through the years
Leads to the levee that bartered the town
Barbeque sauce and banjos till dawn
Ain’t no one caring
Now the hurricane is gone

Spit roasted swine skewered and soaked in lime
Carrying the memories of Creole and slaves, that lost time
Flood done come to Orleans down Louisiana way
Coloured man does suffer, women bear the pain

Ain’t gonna be no harvest this year
Ain’t gonna do nothin’ but rain
Poor child barefoot in the old town
Family washed away
The wind it is a howlin' wolf at the door
House of sticks and straw
Sun won’t shine here no more

He’s the black and tan minstrel
Roamin’ from town to town
Ain’t no white man’s burden
Gonna weigh him down
Dropped him in the river
Rolled away the stone
Plays guitar like lickin’ fat
From a chicken bone
Music be the devil
Gonna make the kingdom come
Sing no more of misery
Take him back down home

"Gonna head on up to Memphis
Seek some shelter from the state
Leave the lowland bayou humid night
Ride the freedom train .."

Makin’ merry and livin’ mirth
Like young men do
Gonna follow that old river
Flowing water of his birth
Strollin’ under a yellow moon beneath the Southern skies
Climb aboard and ring dem bells, "headin’ North," he cries:

“I wanna sing about tomorrow’s world
‘til I got a place to call my own
A little piece o’ somethin’
Without oppression and the rain
Ain’t nobody give me nothin’
No space to lay my head
I guess I’ll keep on ramblin’ man
Freight train of freedom
Be my only friend

“I wanna sing to you
Songs of hope and freedom, no more ‘bout the cane
I wanna bang the tribal beats
No more sufferin’ whips and someone else’s chain
I wanna sing to you of soul baby, not about the bruise
Sing no more of heartache
‘Cause we’re all black .. and blue"


Nowadays ..

Bitter tears of ecstasy
As freedom comes our way
Pinkies extended mocking class without a care
Lip service afforded by the leisure of the day
Sitting sipping fair trade free trade
Cappuccino in the square
Listening to conversations
Watched by cameras everywhere
Express yourself!
And your freedom if you dare

Lock me up or lock me down
And coffee
Instant status for all
Ashes to ashes
Soil to soil
Cotton and molasses and pepper
Bubbling troublesome oil

Refineries of industries manufacturing dignity
Liberation and libation an abolition of emancipation
Another manumission of the social institution
A slave ship of integrity battling the waves of history

Batten down the hatches!
Board up all the doors
The hurricane is blowing
There’s no such thing as Civil wars

Civil liberty heresy and piracy
China to Brasil
People won’t stand still
Jealousy conspiracy
How about a little humility?

Boston beans and Indian rights
Peasant blood mixes sugar, Honey
And Champagne fizz!
The pursuit of happiness
For this privileged homecoming
On shores tainted with conquest
And cotton and sugar and maize
Slap on molasses
And gimme those old time religion ways!

Toast the victors! Toast and jam
I’m going down amongst the squalor
Beans on toast! Beans ground roast
Cash crop indulgence to the privileged
Great white wave
To mine a golden harvest of that sugar cane
Sweating through shafts of sunlight and fear
For colas and cocoa and beer!?

The dam burst through the eye of the storm
The slave ship sailed to the land of the free
With oil and napalm and power of spice
And a few phony CDs

If this here train leaves the track
I swear I’m never goin’ back
To the land of my father
To hear the plantation whip crack!


For the disease of deceit
The weary wreath of commerce
Flyin’ like a union flag over a confederate grey sea
The first to pledge allegiance will divide the nation
A copper tinge of blood mingled with remembrance
Everything we buy is paid for in the currency of migration

So sing your song and take your stance
For children baptised by Christian arms
For the silence of freedom chimes
For flooding waters in which to bathe

The heathen hymns. The evil whims.
The blackened sins of everyday things

Crimes justified
A cruel reality
Of ..
Import and Export ..
The Twin Truths of Trade.

*     *     *

Kevin Wallace 20-06-2007 Freedom Showcase


Many of us involved with the showcase have moved on to other things and developed beyond our night in the lights of the Phoenix, yet we stay in touch and meet up and work together on various projects .. and I know we were all happy to receive the opportunities associated with this successful production ..

Where poets gather ..

Friday, 11 December 2009

Metaphors, and the art of lost love ..

I’ve chosen to introduce my new Blog with a trilogy of poems sharing a leitmotif .. Lost Love and the Art of Metaphor .. okay, it may seem rather obvious - a common theme, but I like to think I've added my own spin to these three poetically just and completely true stories of romantic attraction and the heartbreak of parting ..

Let's start in the tiny village of Little Dunmow (yep, there’s a big Dunmow too ..) It's in Essex, and in the grove there is a priory where Eleanora Lovaine Douglas and her Crusader knight, William le Hardi are buried .. local legend also claims the buried remains of Maid Marian, she of Robin Hood fame .. I wrote this after visiting there with a friend ..

This poem is not solely or entirely about Robin and Marian though (uh, metaphor -get it?) .. it represents the passing of a relationship, a changing of status, a shifting of the heart’s season – like an autumn day, as trees are releasing their leaves to be carried off by the wind .. a reconciliation of hope at the pearly gates of an eternally lost love ..

In Little Dunmow Church

In Little Dunmow Church
Weeds grow in the paving
But, deep within the vaults
Where true hearts are never betrayed

It is there sweet Maid Marian lays waiting

Yet, a beauty in her tower
A gilded cage of her design
A passionless tomb should
Pride and vanity win out.

The roguish Robin
Battles truth with a fine art
His arrows are but blunted words
The fool who struggles searches brambles

The point is buried deep within his heart

Torn flesh finds a silent stone
Hiding low in the greenbrier
His endless rage a tragedy
Quelled only by love’s desire.
For what purpose serve a rose
If freedom becomes her prison
Spoken words her love betraying?
A sacred peaceful place
Wrapped in protective thorns
A romantic heart that is still aching

All brave souls her cries do tempt
His sorrow from time not exempt

A crusader in this lover’s foolish endeavour

Our valiant squire
Sheds his noble blood
That today might last forever.

In Little Dunmow Church
Under foundation stones
Beneath the legend of history
A hush is on the gathering congregation

A wilting faded feathered plume
Plucked from the wing of an angel
Droops in faded glory over tainted ruby petals

Sweet wine upon her lips
Softly whispered words speak
Time’s last hopeful breath releases a sigh
Of life together in eternal perfect grace

There within imagination
I’ll be your love someday.

*     *     *

I first performed this next poem in London some years ago - but most recently on a hot summer night with canal boat residing poetry reciting Jo Bell ..

The piece explores the theme of Lost Love in more depth - as our protaganists decide that "a clean break means a messy break" .. with travel, a funeral and the crashing surf as background, this tale is one of love's desires screaming into the wind and finding the silence of distance echoing back across the great divide ..

Bitter Sweet

I’ve just returned from San Francisco
Where on New Year’s Day in ‘08
I buried a special lover

It was a lavish affair, all violins and stars,
Tears in our eyes and promises
Of nothing, again

The first to throw dirt, and flowers.
I, victim of rumour and envy

The other woman, who was at home
Wondering who was leaving whom
She cried, as I did, six thousand miles away
In Chinatown, where love was being redesigned
As miscommunication, to ease the separation

We tore and clawed the wealth of love
Which once held our hearts

Like those fake Roman coins
We bought for a pack of cigarettes
In El Djem

Or those lucky blue charms
Bartered from Turkish street stalls
To protect us from the evil eye

Tossed blindly, intentionally
At the wounds we had opened
With loving precision

Awaiting salt the incision lay bare
Stripped of flesh like petals dropping from
The chocolate roses that melted her heart

We drove out to the Cliff House and walked through the Pacific mist
Rusted tramp steamers huddled on rocks, shattered
An ancient mariner’s toys clinging to remnants of life
Reminding us of forgotten dreams

The ocean breeze blew sand through our hair
To settle dust in the lies
She conceived

I was relieved; I was revived
Coming back to the old town
A span across the Golden Gate, a shortcut to rainbow land
A city all hills, ups and down
Enough clear water to drown

Sorrows in liquor, and laughter too real
Like the humanity of pain

Too many unsaid words, too much recalled
Now, finally, laid to rest

In the dry baked clay where once we dug for gold
Amongst the bones
The brass ring of a lover’s final embrace
Completes the circle of life
And death

At the corner of Lombard, looking out across the bay to Alcatraz
I hopped on a streetcar
And like the morning mist
In California sunshine
Faded into memories
Now, Bitter Sweet.

*     *     *

The final piece in the trilogy takes us out of the human form - whether sci-fi or children's anamorphic animistic tales, detective novels or comic books, historical romance or contemporary thriller, metaphorical narratives are simply another way of trying to offer an entertaining explanation of the human condition at any given point .. and this little experiment has it's own twist ..

So we end with a double criss-cross betrayal of love ..

Spider and Fly

I, the spider, dangled metaphors
for she, the fly in my web
sweet harmonic convergence as rippling waves of crystal
light shimmer along my spandex nerve endings
reciting a song of deceit, a prayer of love
She had walked this tightrope before
the teasing rhythm of her subtle dance
touching heartstrings, chords, as I wove
my spiral dream of sticky obsession
cooly, calmly, passively, eagerly
she stroked innermost strands in visible betrayal
fluttered and soothed
the shrill cry of a nearby dying butterfly
Sensing immanent torture
awaiting the final love bite
she, the fly, called me on with a hundred reflections
of my own beauty
stealthily savouring the ultimate conquest
I placed leg after leg after legs across
the barbed wire fortress of feasts
her spongy tongue slipped over shiny
lips in gnarled envy at my elastic palace
I closed in consumption
consummation of hungry anger
sensous and sublime desire
hope fulfilled blood lust
a trembling buzz of opaque gossamer wings
the fly turned slowly lifted from the dew drop
honey moistened quilted spider bed
she, the fly, spat a gesture of passion
onto my tightly stretched lattice-welded
bridge of fear
breaking bonds, severing arteries
releasing tension
and I, as the spider
tumbled towards
the fly’s

*     *     *