The Forward prize-winning collection mingles grammatically correct English with patois to emphasise the different ways in which a place can be known, Carrie Etter writes in this review of Kei Miller’s award-winning book for London’s Guardian.
Kei Miller’s superb Forward prize-winning collection puts two different types of knowledge – represented by the figures of the western cartographer and the Jamaican rastaman – in conversation with each other. Where the cartographer assumes that he can approach his work without bias, the rastaman expounds the inextricability of Jamaican history, place and people, an argument that the cartographer eventually concedes. The struggle is also one between the world as it exists in the form of the corrupt and corrupted Babylon, and the idea of a fairer, kinder place in Zion.
While not minimising the racial aspects of this division, Miller’s structuring of the book, and allowance for the cartographer’s growth, puts broader issues before relations between races or nations. The link between knowledge and language, native land and native tongue, emerges in the interchange of the cartographer’s grammatically correct English and the rastaman’s mix of Rastafarianism and patois, with some of the book’s most potent passages mingling languages, as in the sixth of the title poem’s 28 sections:
And the ras says
it’s all a Babylon conspiracy
de bloodclawt immappancy of dis world—
maps which throughout time have
gripped like girdles
to make his people smaller than
Interleaved in this conversation is a second series of 10 prose poems, each beginning “Place Name”. These offer the story behind the people’s name for a place (as opposed to its official and seemingly more arbitrary designation), names that keep alive otherwise suppressed histories of inequality and violence. Such names and memories can create sympathy, a powerful tool against the repetition of such events. At the end of “Place Name: Flog Man”, for instance, the site of an exceptionally severe beating, “now people walk by and cringe as memory curl like S and lash them owna skin.”
Another 18 poems, independent of these series, enrich the collection by striking different notes, from appreciation of Jamaica’s flora and fauna (beavers, goats, lizards and birds each have their own poems) and of the roles of women as both actors and witnesses. In “The Blood Cloths,” women cornered in cane fields take out their menstrual cloths to chase off men, while in “What River Mumma Knows,” the Jamaican folklore figure of River Mumma’s knowledge comprises not only the whole of river life and legend, but also “not all things ought to be known. / Not all places ought to be found.”
This sentiment paves the way for the final two poems, in which reaching Zion proves not a matter of locating a place on a map, but inhabiting the sensibility of “heartbless” and “upfullness”.
should the day wring
your heart out like the chamois
towels of streetboys,
then out of it would spring this
of upfullness, and so anointed by
your own storage,
you would be able to face the
road which is forever
The book closes with the rastaman’s benediction to the reader, ending a weighty discourse with a light touch. The entire collection possesses that ease, its subject matter, wit and lyricism masterfully balanced to render a compelling whole and a rare accomplishment.
For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/10/cartographer-tries-to-map-his-way-to-zion-kei-miller-review