“The show must go on,” a review by Andre Bagoo

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In “The show must go on,” published this month in the Caribbean Review of Books, Andre Bagoo reviews Jane King’s Performance Anxiety: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Pamela Mordecai’s Subversive Sonnets (TSAR Publications, 2012). Here are excerpts; I highly recommend reading this insightful and graceful review in its entirety in the link below.

[. . .] If poetry is concerned with creating experiences, perhaps this is what links it to the idea of performance. Just as actors aim to provoke emotion or convey feeling and ideas through tools such as gesture and body language, so too do poets aim to assemble feeling, albeit through the artefacts of words drizzled on a page; or text represented on a canvas-like computer screen; or type patterned onto objects; or projected, ephemerally, in a space.

Poetry, thus, becomes a kind of acting and acting a kind of poetry. On a basic level, too, the poem may be performed, especially if it is written as a monologue or a piece for voices (such as Dylan Thomas’s closet drama Under Milk Wood — or some of the poems in Pamela Mordecai’s book Subversive Sonnets). And the actor must co-opt the techniques of poetry if she is to achieve what she seeks to do with an audience. Acting is as much about what is said as unsaid; it is a choreography of silence, speech, gesture, implication, sound, and sight. Both things aim to replicate human experience and feeling in some way. Aristotle would probably say both spring from the same imitative instinct.

Yet, if poets are actors, are we not all actors too? [. . .]

Not only do the poems in Jane King’s Performance Anxiety suggest ways of looking at the poet as a performer, but they summon the idea of personality as performance. The book’s first section comprises new poems, while two other sections select from King’s previous collections, Fellow Traveller (1994) and Into the Centre (1993).

King was born in St Lucia, where she recently retired as dean of the Division of Arts, Science, and General Studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. In addition to being an award-winning poet, she has a number of acting and directing credits, and was a founding director of the Lighthouse Theatre Company. Her newest poems do not explicitly deal with theatre. Instead, they take up an ambivalent posture and attitude to the conducting of different roles relating to social and family duties, such as mother, lover, friend, poet, dean, devotee. The idea of performance is re-enforced through evocative titles such as “The Performer’s Night Terror”, “The Performer’s Love Poem”, “Performers Are Holy”, and “Performer After the Tropical Storm”. [. . .]

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The performance of roles and their subversion is one theme which also flows in Pamela Mordecai’s Subversive Sonnets. The very form of these poems embodies the complexity the poet means to convey. Some poems are sonnets, others are sonnet sequences. All pay careful attention to rhyme, metre, and rhythm, but none are restricted by them. The poems make us question the role of the sonnet in contemporary poetry, yet, in a sign of Mordecai’s achievement, do not draw attention to their form.

The Jamaican poet — who lives in Canada — is also a playwright, and these poems have a conversational air. They often function as monologues, or carry a range of voices within narratives. A strong, irreverent Jamaican voice is present, as the pieces blend lyric and storytelling. The poems seem destined to come to life as much as through recital as on the page.

Not only does the book demonstrate how poetry itself is a performance genre, but the poems sing against oversimplifications of history, race, gender, and age. In the process, Mordecai reveals the artifice implicit in most roles, and shows how these shapes shift under greater forces. Behind the show of the poems and the roles they dissect is what Dylan Thomas called “the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation.”

Mordecai draws the reader in with humour and vivid images, deploying storytelling techniques. She paints scenes of characters and domestic situations. Everyday moments come to life and are sometimes recalled with a jejune nostalgia. But often these moments link, abruptly, with the greater current of history. The reader is caught off-guard, as though the rug has been pulled out from under her feet. Banal moments dissolve, darkly, into history in the outstanding poems, such as “Litany on the Line”, “Trois hommes: un rève”, and “Lace Makers”. [. . .]

Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and journalist. He has published two books of poems, Trick Vessels (2012) and BURN (2015). He is a collaborator in the Douen Islands project.

For full article, see http://caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/crb-archive/reviews/the-show-must-go-on/

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