The Poetry Society Annual Lecture Series however, right up to Zong!, has existed in the shadow, perhaps a better word is shade, of those early poems and they are haunted by the ideas and issues I began exploring then and which still engage me today.
The poems in Yesterdays… brought me to my knees in two senses: one as in the sacred; in naming the large poems liturgies, I was locating them in the sacred, in some sort of ritual. The other sense in which they brought me to my knees was that they became too big for me to manage. I had been pushing the line length of the long poems to its maximum before it collapsed; formally I wanted the lines to carry as much weight and freight of the troubled history as was possible before the line break. Lyric in intent, the poems began to grow and I felt the need to engage with geology, anthropology, archaeology and astronomy. Over time they grew too large and unwieldy for me – I had to lay them aside, I had to give up.
The “failure” of these poems, however, taught me how to take up space on a page and how to use the page as a canvas. So while Yesterdays… was a “failure”, it was a failure that turned me towards something else and yielded many gift s. When I laid these poems aside, I would turn to the poems that would become She Tries Her Tongue, and later still Looking for Livingstone, the poem which, in its engagement with travel across wide landscapes, is most clearly in debt to the legacy of Perse in Anabasis. These two works would, in turn, lay the groundwork for Zong!.
Along with Perse there were Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Les Murray, H.D., Hugh MacDiarmid, Seamus Heaney and many, many others – but it was the work of Perse that reoriented me imaginatively towards the Caribbean and eventually to what I call the poetics of the fragment.
While I remained interested in history and engaged with the long connected poem, there was a shift from the outer canvas of history to the canvas of language, which became fundamental to me: before I could engage with the History of the Caribbean, I had to understand the language in which that History had or hadn’t happened. And how was I to make myself at home in a language, English, that was so foreign to me although it was the only language I knew? My mother tongue. Thus it was that She Tries Her Tongue would confront language and its role in empire and colonialism: “English / is my mother tongue / […] is / my father tongue. / […] english / is a foreign anguish”. Looking
52 The Poetry Review