Letter to Patience
Seren Books 2007 £7.99
By Michael Murray
Letter to Patience won the 2007 Costa Poetry Award.
And yet Letter to Patience could not find a publisher amongst all the major publishing houses. Only the Welsh Seren Books took it on. Ah yes, we think, it is as we suspected: the major publishing houses have blinkered themselves to works of a very narrow range, of a distinctly London, that is provincial, type.
Or was it the size of the piece? Letter to Patience is a booklet of 69 pages (excluding notes). Written exclusively in terza rima, it comes in at 52 cantos of varying length.
Letter to Patience opens a major Bahktian dialogue (yawn) between language and the subject matter, between the lived experience of teaching in Nigeria, and the use of a post-colonial language system and methodology.
The poem is in real time, from the early hours of the morning back in England, until sunup. In this period we encounter autobiographical fragments, family memories, historical facts and lived experiences; the narrative is based on the author’s experiences in a small, majorly Muslim, Nigerian village. It takes in a lot of the region’s immediate history, and its relationship to the Biafran War.
Patience herself, we discover, was a Politics lecturer at the university, until the Nigerian junta made it clear to her it would be a mistake to continue.
The down side of using extended terza rima is that the rhyme scheme can warp the poem into strange indeterminate phrasings at times.
But when it works it works wonderfully:
‘It’s 1917. He stands there, chin
out, feet set wide apart, and leaning back
as short men do. Grandad Bartle: from tin
Camborne to this, the profile of his black
chauffeur posed at the Studebaker wheel
his wife and children turned to the smart kodak.’
All the elements work together here to the one image: the short, clipped phrasing and end stops, the self sufficient descriptions: ‘chin/out, feet set wide apart’, the monosyllables, even the impoverished colour-scheme, all combine to create this static effect of a small black and white snapshot.
John Haynes takes on the challenge of the colonial heritage full-faced: the black-face minstrel performance of his father, the enforced ‘dem’ and ‘dis’ of American singers so loved by white audiences, the grid-pattern layout of the village. All are looked at for what they are, with both the ignorance and naivety as well as the far more sinister intentions behind them.
The experience of Slavery follows him everywhere: he uses the same routes and boat landing stages on his journey there.
The Tarzan story appears as a colonial myth, where the white noble savage carries within him inherent virtues. Stanza XLVI and the Notes tackle this idea: Tarzan, Mowgli, even Peter Pan: no feral child, he notes, has ever learned to speak once (re)captured. Rousseau’s work ‘Emile’ is referenced; Rousseau’s own progeny spent their innocent years in orphanages.
So far we have looked at the poem as a narrative. What of the poetry? The poetry is in the happy meeting of form, tone, effect, incidental and overall intent, and narrative. Of these there are many instances. An extended poem in terza rima must needs have parabolas of related incidents and narratives as well as the through tone. The book abounds with these.
It is worth asking why the major publishers would not take the book on. It may be that the implications of this are quite serious, that we are being sold short, where range of work, styles of work, intentions of work, are not being made available to us.
It also needs to be said that is another triumph for Seren Books. It would seem Welsh publishing is in a healthier state than London.