Alan Morrison on
Preface and Notes by Chris Searle
(Smokestack Books, 106 pp; 2013)
This volume of a relatively unknown Caribbean poet, Peter Blackman, whom Chris Searle, in the Preface, believes to be a ‘major’ one, more than demonstrates the latter claim. Searle’s vastly informative and incisive Preface comments, interestingly, that Blackman was ‘a poet who was [not] intellectually or politically introverted, or trapped within the individualised consciousness – a condition that has often been the predicament of the postmodern poet’. Footprints will undoubtedly put Blackman’s fairly obscure oeuvre –the poet never had a collection published in his lifetime (1909-1993)– on a firm footing for posterity.
Searle’s Preface is deeply erudite, albeit lengthily expansive, which is, however, justified in introducing a book which seeks to re-establish a neglected poet’s reputation, and contextualise it, and the reasons for its neglect (many of these being down to disrespect and censorship on the basis of Blackman’s race and Far Left politics). For these reasons, rather than paraphrasing, I excerpt below what I feel are the most salient parts of said Preface –which also includes a very detailed biography of Blackman:
There is an assumption that British Caribbean poetry is almost entirely a post-Windrush phenomenon. Yet Blackman’s poetry emerged from his London-exile during and just after the Second World War, with a sense of optimism, hope and internationalism following the defeat of Nazism. All this gleaned by a powerfully (colonially) educated black man nonetheless working manually in a wartime aircraft factory building Wellington bombers and, postwar, as an engineer in a London railway repair depot. Not the traditional venues of eminent poets.
The post-1945 migrations of West Indian people to Britain (prefigured a generation and a half earlier by Blackman) transported a generation of arrivant writers like George Lamming and Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Barbadians); Sam Selvon (Trinidadian); Andrew Salkey and John Hearne (Jamaicans); and Jan Carew and Roy Heath (Guyanese). In this, they provoked major literary works focused either on life and conditions in their Caribbean homelands or on the experiences of West Indian communities in Britain. Other writers, like the Guyanese poet Martin Carter stayed in their home nations, hitching their words to domestic anti-colonial struggles.
Blackman was an exception. As a black communist in London, he drew his patterns of reference much more widely, defying race, geography and national origins. He wrote defiantly about racism and the struggle against it in sections of his 1948 poem, ‘London’. But rather than restrict his focus to the colonial racism in his country of birth and boyhood, he wrote about it too in the American South, as in his poem ‘Joseph’ – a land where he had never lived but where, imaginatively, he was at one with American blacks’ pursuit of their own struggle, faraway, for racial justice. From the centre of empire, he wrote out of an exiled Caribbean consciousness, as part of an international communist movement, as a low-paid industrial worker.
In these senses, he was an outsider, neither integral to the mass migration northwards of the postwar years or part of an anti-colonial process in his country of birth. His situation was that of a Caribbean revolutionary who was only partially accepted as a member of the mainly white London Left. The black British communist Trevor Carter wrote in Shattering Illusions about the wastage by the British Left of his own postwar generation of West Indian migrants whose enormous…
In the same way that Blackman’s political capacities were left unutilised by the Left, so his poetic capacities developed at variance with the trends prevailing among his postwar contemporaries. He had passed through/been steeped in the extremely effective imperial enterprises of the exclusive colonial elite school and the church. He became a master of the language of both; his command of and ability to speak and write Standard English was effectively heightened by his years as a theology student at the prestigious, collegiate Durham University in the north of England.
Searle then explains in detail some of the cultural and aesthetic reasons for Blackman’s poetic obscurity:
…in the post-Windrush years, when his worth as a poet should have been recognised and celebrated, Caribbean writing took a divergent path from the language that was Blackman’s medium. Ironically, the languages of the ‘ordinary’ working people of the Caribbean, the Creole vernaculars – different in each island – took strength through, for example, the Trinidadian and London Caribbean novels of Selvon and the poetry of Louise Bennett and later Michael Smith of Jamaica, finding their apogee in the achievement of Blackman’s Barbadian compatriot, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Blackman’s accomplished use of Standard English was deemed outmoded and even reactionary by the next generation of Caribbean writers. For they were earnest to discover and express themselves in the authenticity and beauty of their ‘nation language’, described, exemplified and discussed with brilliance in Brathwaite’s epochal essay History of the Voice. This was a poetry which, when allied with music, as with the rampant, figurative and rhythmically political words of Jamaican Londoner Linton Kwesi Johnson, defied categories, spoke to millions and glorified the truly popular tongue. But all this was a long way from Blackman’s English.
Then we’re given a more personal portrait of Blackman the man (as well as poet):
And, finally, there was the man and the poet’s own modest and retiring personal and literary demeanour. Despite his personal affability and friendliness, and even in the context of his remarkable life experiences and intelligence (he possessed what C. L. R. James referred to as ‘great West Indian brains’), he was a deeply self-effacing and diffident man. …He rarely agreed to speak at meetings or read his poetry publicly…. like a golden thread through it all, ran his moving mastery of the English language, inflected as it was by the King James Bible, Milton, Blake and Whitman – all of which had been his life’s inspiration….
Peter Blackman was born in 1909 in St. John’s Parish, one of the poorer parts of Barbados. His father (who died when he was two) was a stonemason and his mother a laundress. He had three sisters, much older than him, who were illiterate, and the family lived on Anglican Church grounds. Perhaps this was why Peter’s intelligence and potential were noted by one of the local priests, who tutored him and prepared him for entry to Harrison College, one the island’s elite schools. Here he was granted a scholarship through the church, which saw him as a future ‘native’ recruit for the priesthood. …
In order to succeed Blackman became soon persuaded that within a British Caribbean colony ‘England was the norm, to be stamped ‘Made in England’ was the hallmark of excellence’. This even more so in the island that was known beyond all others as ‘Little England’, where, through all colonial institutions, particularly church and school, ‘English canons of beauty are taught and accepted even at points where they are hostile to the self-respect of most West Indians.’ Blackman experienced this colonial assault on black selfhood amid acute family poverty. In 1942 while taking part in a BBC radio discussion entitled ‘Home and Family Life in the West Indies’, he described the home conditions of a young boy who, as well as his school work, labours in the cane fields ‘in order to supplement the family income… Then the child goes home from school. He may be a bright boy and he’s got a certain amount of homework to do, and he’s got a tiny little lamp, ‘snuff bottles’ we used to call them at home. Well, imagine a boy working towards a scholarship or improving his mind, so to speak, in a little hut, say ten by fifteen feet perhaps, with a tiny partition in which his father and mother and three or four other children are living. You talk of fuel rationing here, but for us it’s always limited. The boy had a very, very limited amount of kerosene – or paraffin, as you call it, by which to do his homework, or perhaps wants to work for two or three hours after dark, and his mother is thinking very much of how much longer that pint or half-pint of paraffin has got to last.
Blackman proved a successful student at Harrison College. He was particularly adept at languages and studied French and German as well as Latin and Greek, which prepared him well for the degree he took in Theology at the University of Durham, to which he won a scholarship, again through the intervention of the Anglican Church. He became a priest himself and, in 1935, was sent to Gambia for missionary duties, but once he had arrived and settled into his post he discovered the stipend differentials between white and black clergy. Black missionaries were paid less and ranked lower than white. After unsuccessfully challenging the authorities over this racism, he resigned as a priest and returned to Barbados, only to emigrate again to Britain in 1937. Here he settled in London, throwing himself into West Indian politics-in-exile, joining the socialist-inclined Negro Welfare Association and eventually becoming its Chair and a regular speaker. He became, too, an activist in the League of Coloured Peoples, was elected to its Executive Committee and, in 1938, became the editor of its journal, The Keys, writing powerful editorials on a wide range of political issues. … It was during this period that Blackman joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, then the sole UK party that called for independence for the colonies. Here he became an unpaid helper at the Party’s London offices in Covent Garden, working on the Colonial Information Bulletin.
Although he remained an active member before, through and after the 1939–45 war, he later asserted that it was because he was a black Communist that he had been excluded from any of the powerful committees and influential forums in the party; nor, despite his crucial and prominent roles in the broad spectrum of West Indian political organisations, did he have access to the CP leadership. …Throughout the war, though, he broadcast regularly on the BBC to the West Indies, while spending those years working on the assembly of Wellington bombers, eventually becoming a factory floor manager.
Afterwards, Blackman was virtually banned from the BBC because of the cold war. (Invaluable research by Joe Martin has revealed that his ‘BBC File’, which ended in 1954, was marked on its cover as ‘politically suspect’ and that all reference to the file must be taken to the ‘CSA’, whatever that was.) But despite this labelling Blackman occasionally managed to achieve airtime, and get small amounts of pay for it too as a means of earning ‘other oddments by way of funding a livelihood’. In 1942 he had given a talk ‘Negro Writers’, including James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes that was transmitted in the Caribbean Voices programme on the Colonial Service in May 1954. Yet in October of the same year a talk that he submitted about the African origins of Barbadian speech was rejected.
The attitudes of the BBC programme organisers to him were often hypocritical and hostile in their internal memos. One Godfrey James, who was responsible for book programmes, remarked that he felt that British listeners did not want to be ‘howled at by those in distress’ with material that was ‘patently propaganda’ or concerned itself with the ‘colour bar’. Blackman’s efforts to get his material accepted for BBC airtime were commented upon by a Mrs Horton of the Home Service: ‘Poor P. Blackman. He keeps turning up and never quite enough, though nearly.’ Such remarks exemplified the attitudes which Blackman and his Caribbean contemporaries lived through and struggled against during their decades in London.
He continued to work as a skilled engineer for almost three decades. An engine fitter at Willesden Works, he was described by his wife as ‘a nursemaid to steam engines’. An activist within the National Union of Railwaymen, he prided himself on being the only mechanic who knew both Latin and Greek, and he was strongly respected as a workmate who would help his companions with writing and literacy problems, frequently acting as a voluntary scribe and letter-writer. During this period he wrote for Le Monde, regularly travelling between London and Paris, as well as for the ground-breaking, negritude-influenced journal Présence Africaine. He was blacklisted and Special Branch security files were opened on his activities….
During the postwar sojourns that Paul Robeson – loved and admired by ordinary people across the country – made in Britain, Blackman became his close companion. Blackman, who had become Robeson’s friend before the war, organised Robeson’s 1949 tour of Britain and travelled with him around Europe, including to Warsaw. And, with Robeson, he attended the World Peace Congress of 1949 in Paris, where he met W. E. B. DuBois. …
By the summer of 1979, Blackman, now a septuagenarian, had agreed to speak at a poetry reading organised at the Half Moon Theatre, Stepney, East London, by Art Against Racism and Fascism. He was delighted to be there, in the old ex-synagogue, and in the unexpected company of his old contemporaries like the dockers’ leader Jack Dash, who also read some of his poems, and the composer Alan Bush, who had put some of the lines of My Song is for All Men together with extracts from Milton and Blake to music in his cantata ‘Voices of the Prophets’ in 1952. Then, in April 1980, at the AARF meeting mentioned earlier, at which Blackman spoke of the events (including the visit to the Ghetto) that had prompted him to write My Song is for All Men, he read his poem ‘Stalingrad’. The audience was deeply affected. One of those present was the singer and ex-drummer of the jazz-rock band Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, who was so moved that in the days after the reading he asked Blackman if he could record his rendition of ‘Stalingrad’ and allow him to put it on the flipside of his next single record, a revival of the wartime anti-Nazi song ‘Stalin Wasn’t Stalin’. The record was subsequently released in 1980, causing surprise, delight and some consternation despite Blackman’s repudiation of Stalin and his brutal deformities (acknowledging, that during the decades since he had written ‘Stalingrad’ and My Song is for All Men, ‘Stalin’ had become ‘a dirty word’)….
The final section of Searle’s Preface focuses critically on the quality of Blackman’s poetic output:
What is it that makes Peter Blackman’s poems so special, these works from a man from an illiterate small island family in the Eastern Caribbean? First, and above all, it is his huge grasp and knowledge of English, of Standard English – the language of his colonisers, which he saw as his one and only language. …And this despite his keen interest in the African origins of the Creole Barbadian language spoken by his peers which was his own mother tongue, the theme of that rejected talk submitted to the BBC Third Programme series A Question of Language in October 1954. This was the language which Blackman’s compatriot of the next generation, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, was to bring to poetic glory in his ‘New World Trilogy’ of The Arrivants in 1967-69. Blackman’s virtual adoption by the Anglican Church, his tutelage in an exclusive colonial school (like that of his Trinidadian contemporary, C.L.R. James) and his constant exposure to the King James Bible through his early years as his fundamental learning and literary text, pitched him inside a language context which, despite its reactionary history, he seized with imagination and brilliance. …
With this he carried a quasi-religious idea of secular sainthood, which he invoked most strongly in My Song is for All Men in his descriptions of figures like his American friend Robeson, the Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet or, most starkly, the Czech anti-fascist and martyr murdered by the Nazis, Julius Fucik. …
My Song is for All Men [was] published as a pamphlet in both London and New York in 1952 by the Communist Party publishers Lawrence and Wishart, during the zenith of the Cold War. This was, in particular the period of conflict in Korea…
In this later part of the Preface which serves as literary criticism of Blackman’s oeuvre, Searle comments on the aforementioned poem:
The poem’s climax and portraiture of the world’s children –German, African, Kamchatchuan, Georgian and Japanese – held together by the poet’s love, is close to a vision of Blake. …
I have often wondered whether the long narrative poem ‘Joseph’ is in fact unfinished, although when Blackman gave it to me, it was offered as a completed work. I believe that it was written at some time during the late 1950s as a deliberate act of literary solidarity with the US Civil Rights movement and its brave resistance to established racism in the states of Mississippi and Alabama. The poem’s final ironic line: ‘THESE THINGS OF COURSE COULD NOT HAPPEN IN ENGLAND’ seems strangely at odds with some of the poem’s standout English archaisms…
This collection’s final poem is a tribute to the life, work and dreams of Claudia Jones. A comrade to Blackman of the aspiring Caribbean nation, she was born in Trinidad in 1915, and in 1922 she moved to New York with her three sisters to join her mother, a garment worker, and her father (a former newspaper editor in his home country) who was an apartment superintendent. Claudia, inspired by the Communist Party’s work in campaigning for the freedom of the Scottsboro’ Boys, joined the Young Communist League in 1936 and became an associate editor of its journal, the Weekly Review and, during the war, editor of its monthly Spotlight. Because of her work and postwar agitation for the CPUSA, particularly her organising against the war in Korea she was regularly harassed and arrested, and by the early 1950s had begun to suffer serious heart disease. In 1955 she was deported to Britain.
Her comrade, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, wrote a farewell poem for her, anticipating Blackman’s tribute…
The non-stop activism of Claudia’s decade in London, which included founding and editing the pioneering black journal West Indian Gazette, her oppositional work against the racist overtones of the 1962 Immigration Act, her building of solidarity for anti-colonial movements in Asia, Africa and her own Caribbean nation, her involvement in struggles against fascist and racist violence in London’s Notting Hill neighbourhood and her part in creating the Notting Hill Carnival, ended with her penniless death in a freezing North London flat on Christmas Eve, 1964. …
Finally, Searle elucidates the book’s title and the task of putting the collection together:
After months of thought, decisions, counter-decisions and text-searching I decided to call this brief collection Footprints. Blackman, midway through My Song is for All Men, declares that the black man’s and woman’s ‘footprints are nowhere in history’, a statement which must now be read with irony. I also had fast in my mind the tune composed by the great American jazz tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, included first on his 1966 classic Blue Note album, Adam’s Apple, with pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Joe Chambers, like Blackman, four black humans making their indelible marks on the future….
These few surviving poems of Blackman are enough to profile him as a major Caribbean poet. Their uniqueness, beauty and human vision surge from the midst of the struggles and injustices of the era within which he lived as statements of brave literary, social and political resistance. My abiding hope is that the rest of his works, more of his poetry, history and commentary will also be recovered and published one day, so that future generations, black and white, will read and know his powerful revolutionary testimony, from the Caribbean, through Africa to London and beyond.’
Now that we have excerpted much of the epic proem –to the poems themselves.
‘Stalingrad’ is a Whitmanesque tour de force of long sing-song lines that gallop along the epic sweep of their subject –here are some choicest excerpts:
Hushed was the world and o dark agony that suspense
shook upon us
While hate came flooding o’er your wide savannahs
Plunging pestilence against you all that stood to state
That where men meet there meets one human race
Old men told of Stalingrad
The gauchos caught the pampas whisper
Wind swept hope of Stalingrad
And in the far Canadian north
Trappers left their baiting for the latest out of
In the factories and coalfields each shift waited
What last had come from Stalingrad
While statesmen searched the dispatch boxes
What they brought of Stalingrad
Here one sees the almost incantatory quality of this poem in its repetition of the titular city, and much alliterative play is made of the name ‘Stalingrad’ on which all hinges, especially with ‘g’-sounds:
Stalingrad o star of glory
Star of hope o star of flame
O what a midwife for this glory
Take for the pattern Pavlov and his men
They spoke peace to their neighbours at tilling
For in peace they would eat their bread
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Ukrainians, Russians,
Who ringed forests wide round Arctic
Brought sands to blossom tundras dressed for spring
These kept faith in Stalin’s town
We may not weep for those who silent now rest here
Garland these graves
These lives have garlanded
All our remaining days with hope
Stalingrad o star of glory
Star of hope here spread your flame
Now when news broke
That Stalingrad still lived upon the banks of Volga
That Stalingrad was still a Soviet town
Then the turner flung his lathe light as a bird
And the gaucho spread his riot in the pampas
For this news of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat wild madness when the elders
These tidings out of Stalingrad
The English housewife stopped her housework held
her child close
And cried aloud now all men will be free
And from Good Hope black miners answered
This will help us to be free
In the prison camps of Belsen sick men routed
from their guards…
The poem closes on something of a valediction:
Then Red star spread your flame upon me
For in your flame is earnest of my freedom
Now may I rendezvous with the world
Now may I joy in man’s wide-flung diversity
For Stalingrad is still a Soviet town.
Blackman sustains this fairly long and consciously rhetorical, occasionally recapitulative poem through a formidable combination of galloping rhythm and passionate expression. Indeed, like Walt Whitman again, there’s the sense that this poem could –and in a sense is– a song, something to be spoken or sung aloud. Blackman’s accomplishment in such an engrossing polemical composition is considerable.
‘London’, another long poem –such a form being Blackman’s métier– is composed in much shorter, more staccato lines; it has some echoes of Hart Crane:
Stand here and watch
The tidal waves of human lives
From every shore;
Sour as water stagnant
In a Fenland,
Never moved to laughter
Save at others’ hurt;
The deep repulsion of strange vivid strengths recoiling
From the shock of meeting;
Out of this turmoil I was born.
That last trope is particularly significant in that, if we presume this is the poet himself narrating, it implies Blackman felt that he was somehow ‘born out of’ the ‘turmoil’ that is London, his new home as an émigré; perhaps he is affirming that ‘Blackman’ ‘the poet’ was ‘born’ in London. This interpretation is reinforced with the next stanza’s bold statement: ‘I am London’ –which goes on, in gutsy use of language, often quite biblically phrased, as in the term ‘beget’:
These fashion me
As I am;
Beget upon me
The lone mirages
of outraged virginity
These are my children.
The bastard brood
For their delight.
Come, I will show them,
Each to his thought,
His speech each to his power.
But this interpretation is all to presume that this poem isn’t simply in fact a personification of London, the capital itself as narrator –if this is the case, which seems more likely, than it makes for an even more intriguing read, and a distinctly Blakean one, its rather downbeat drab imageries reminiscent of Blake’s poem ‘London’. But either way the hermeneutics swing here, one might argue the poem can be read more ambiguously, or as having two alternative meanings/interpretations.
Nevertheless, the final stanza of the first section does seem to confirm that this is indeed a personification of London:
At the strangeness of my creations,
Many men have ploughed upon my field,
All paid and stayed
The while they could,
None wooed for long.
It was not that I loved them,
It was not that pleasure with them
I could either take or give;
They served, and in their strength
I grew to majesty.
But, with the opening of the second section, interpretations are disorientated again, where it seems as if the poet himself is the narrator after all, or is perhaps interpolating following the first section’s London monologue:
Came a maid
Of wondrous beauty,
Formed as of quivering bronze.
Her kinship owed
Of several bloods;
She passed, and passed thus brooding:
This is beautifully wrought poetry, almost classical in phrase and cadence, reminiscent of the Ancient Greek and Roman poets, and employing pseudo-mythical imagery. We next have the phrase ‘All men revile me,/ All deny me’, which in part echoes the earlier ‘The bastard brood/ Defile me’, while the ‘deny me’ can’t help but evoke Christ’s prophetic ‘before the cock crows three times you will disown (deny) me’ aphorism. Next comes a quite visceral depiction of either the poet’s or London’s conception:
Hate sits in my bones,
The vengeful hate of conquest
Was rudely uttered
In the caresses of my father
When he begat me.
Bruised and broken
Frenzied by his embraces
When she conceived me,
Delight in every tendon,
Hatred in her heart.
The next stanza is distinctly biblical in its use of the language of origins and the splintered allusion to the ‘whore of Babylon’:
I am a woman of sorrows
And acquainted with grief,
The Painted Whore.
Nor modern counterpart of each –
Paris, New York, or London,
But flesh and blood
Daughter of man’s strength,
Usufruct of marriage
Named a child,
Yvonne, Juliette, or Maude.
The Bitch within the skin
Some call me,
These last are they
Whose God cohabits virginwards
Leaving to lesser loins
The summing of the Zone’s now broken total;
A wider choice from censure free
Below the salt.
Yet these and those alike
A thousand hells have harboured in my loins,
Have used, devoured, and scorned,
And cooled a thousand red-hot passions in the floods
Of my physical consenting.
The bitter tear thrust inward
Like a pearl;
The flesh all faulted,
Born to brilliance
Out of agony.
As one can appreciate here, Blackman’s poetry is nothing if not dripped in aphorisms, sometimes from line to line. The geographic personifications and the generally elegantly lounging use of free verse, replete with capitalised sentence case, is strongly reminiscent of T.S. Eliot, particularly certain passages of The Waste Land. But again, as well as the Biblical feel to these lines, there’s also an equally tangible commingling of Greco-Roman mythological language and image. The curious and evocative word ‘Usufruct’, which I confess I’ve not come upon before, is apparently a Latin-derived legal term meaning when someone, say, a civil partner or spouse, has rights to the other’s property, or profits thereof.
The third section of the poem appears to personify London as a monolithic Moloch, the Canaanite god associated with human sacrifice: an apt metaphor for the world capital of capitalism. What’s striking in this stanza is the repetition of certain lines/phrases –‘Mile upon mile of grey girders,/ Telegraph poles/ Swift with wind murmurs’– acting like refrains, giving a push-and-pull, almost tidal effect to the verse:
Steel upon steel,
Mile upon mile of grey girders,
Swift with wind murmurs –
The Colossus spans the world,
Clay for the feet,
Gold for the heart and the head,
The new Moloch
Seeking with passionate hate
For the pulse of the life-flow;
The soul, the heart and the bones
Of men to bestride.
Clanging steel upon steel,
Mile upon mile of grey girders,
Swift with wind murmurs,
Gold for the heart and the head,
And clay for the feet.
The fourth section begins with a masterfully phrased trope:
How like a morsel harried forth of hell
The tenement stands
In grim abandon of ruinous dance with death.
Then we get the first of three prayer-like uses of the phrase ‘Death steps here, but not with dignity’. This section continues with a brilliant use of poetic language ringing with unobtrusive but highly effective alliteration:
Still runs the tale of Empire red with blood.
Rear the mausoleum,
Trail the hearse
Hung o’er with tasselled guilt of many another life.
Death steps here, but not with dignity.
Frustrated rage, vicarious, deadly,
Passions embattled in grim deed undone
Crave blood for atonement.
Death steps here, but not with dignity.
Flesh must weep, where flesh is broken.
Then flood the waters,
Cut deep the sabre-edge of Hate,
The pattern wrest e’en from the body’s roots,
Nor let shrewd afterthought of love save Noah from death
To recreate this form
In other worlds of life.
Here Death steps.
The fifth section begins with a trope still sadly fitting for the nature of our modern capital of capitalism:
I have seen a people cursed,
Cursed by its own too much desire,
Life made a tangle of strange meannesses
Then Blackman hurls us into London as a Dantean vision of Hell:
Grey masks in the dusk
Their leprous faces front me darkling,
Full of hate.
Spawn of hot-headed rivalry,
Kindred in meannesses.
Millions, so many;
Bodies sprawling earthwards,
Million bodies soon fragmented into dust,
Bodies mating deathly with steel splinters.
God, contemplating these despaired of Hell.
Blackman then expresses what seems a type of anomie, dissociation and, hence, near-impossibility to pity the bustling city multitudes –still of course a common sensation in today’s London, particularly for uninitiated visitors:
I stand amid the blood, fear, and confusion,
I feel not for these bodies,
I cannot mourn these bodies.
Blackman then appears to reassert himself as a narrator in a brilliantly alliterative vignette on his expecting wife, and the subsequent birth:
This one had peddled all her love to a little Chinese dog,
Had fed him tid-bits while little children starved,
This one, the one who sent my wife in tearful humiliation
from her door.
My wife was big with child;
Bigger the tears this hurt brought to her eyes.
This one, the one who lodged the little Chinese dog,
Could find no lodgement from the madness round
For a woman and her unborn child,
Since both were black.
Here the depiction of a young black couple –and at the time of composition, signs reading ‘NO COLOUREDS’ in B&B windows were pretty common– the woman ‘big with child’, being turned away from lodgings due to their colour, almost reads like a black version of the Nativity. This sense of rejection for life’s fundamentals based purely on skin colour results in an understandable bitterness on Blackman’s part, as expressed in the following verses:
Now she too lies in tid-bits
Spurned even by the little Chinese dog.
I feel not for these bodies,
I cannot love these bodies,
I mourn not these bodies.
In other days I might have mourned
That I shared breathing with them.
In other years I feared to share
The Resurrection with them.
Now fears are fled;
The wide world with them.
Here I shall gain a standing for my manhood,
With them, or despite them;
Shall always beat down those who still would parley with
The sixth section starts in almost Lawrentian tone with its images of fertility, and is also a masterful flourish of assonance, alliteration and sibilance, quite apart from its striking aphorismic qualities:
The tumult and the shouting rise
To mad crescendo.
Priapus stalks abroad
The phallus humorous.
Damsels inventive stand
Whom shall we have for unsung hero
On the eleventh day of the next eleventh month?
In his eleventh year, this child?
The bombs drop, the thrushes pipe their praise
In still, small voice,
(Priapus was the Greek god of fertility). The use of the phrase ‘still, small voice’ is of course biblical (Kings 19:11-13) –but here, significantly, it remains ‘Unheard’. The next stanza is intoned like a prophet, an almost Moses-like declamation:
I came to my people,
My people wept
And found no comfort
Throughout long joyless days and nights of sudden terror.
Ye prophets and ye lying ones,
When will ye speak a language understanded of the people?
I brought her daffodils, white daffodils.
She said, ‘Bring no more daffodils, white daffodils;
Their odour is too much of death for these days.’
Flowers, withering under threat of dissolution,
All creeds are outmoded. There is no stay.
The phraseology ‘understanded’ has a distinctly archaic quality to it. Indeed, there is a slightly archaic quality to Blackman’s verses here (and elsewhere), which lends it a frequent classical or biblical quality –as again at the beginning of the seventh section:
Weep not beloved,
Or, if weep you must,
And ’suage the soaring passion of your heart,
The torment rend you
And leave you less than man.
It’s unusual for a poet to opt to abbreviate a word, in this case ‘assuage’ with ‘’suage’, when he is not restricting himself to formal metrical lines; the choice in this instance, therefore, appears to be to deliberately evoke the archaic, the classical. And the biblical imagery comes again, thicker and faster:
Not with Pilate
Lies the need on you
To proffer clean-washed hands
To emphasize your separateness from guilt,
That Rachel weeping for her children
Will not find them here.
Next we’re transported to that most anti-Christian of Roman Emperors, Nero, as a personification of not just megalomania, but egomania, amid ruin and chaos:
Friends then with Nero fiddled while Rome burned;
They watched the human sink beneath the symbol,
Bade women rot and stalwart men decay,
Children still unseeded in them.
Now Nero stands
Amid his stagnant puddle
Frantic in passion, mocked by skies that will not give him ear,
And so to stoop
More than one half patched and palsied
To gather fragments of a broken life.
Blackman next appears to depict the working multitudes of a contemporary soulless London as bread-winning functionaries on automatic-pilot:
Still they pass by,
Compounded all of air,
So they earn wages,
Token of the life to come.
Bread is to-morrow.
Or the grave.
Then Blackman would seem to criticise the agnostic or atheistic thinkers and philosophers of post-Darwin secular-scientific society, whose nihilism denies humankind its consolation of aspiring to something spiritual, transcendent over and above a bleakly material existence –though which would be considered its own kind of humanistic ‘salvation’ in Marxist dialectical materialist thought, with which, no doubt, Blackman in part sympathises:
Let us now praise famous men,
Those who forbid us thought of resurrection.
There is no vision,
Here the people perish.
The opening to the final eight section of this long poem is a kind of declamatory protest of the spirit at the moral futility of a purely material existence, which would seem to show much less faith in humanistic optimism or Marxism than it evidently does in the moral need for a spiritual imperative in humankind:
Here is no place for cryptic phrasing,
Here is not time for hidden meaning,
The word must shape its senses plainly or we die.
When simian madness shatters all foundations
Men must tame brutes.
The final line, however, implies a recourse to humanism as a –albeit arguably flimsy–moral substitute for religion, in terms of maintaining civilisation over barbarism. The following stanza is hortatory, and presumably is intended by Blackman as ironically rhetorical, a ventriloquism from his inspirited perspective through the mouth of an atheist (and it’s interesting how the words ‘cowards’ and ‘traitor’ remind us of the final trope of ‘The Red Flag’: ‘Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer’):
Let cowards shrink,
Let traitor phantoms cry How long Lord!
Who will stand by
All sicklied o’er with fear,
Those let the deluge take,
Such we can spare.
Doubts infantine, hesitation,
Can here find no place.
Now must our passion be translated
Into the idiom of force.
The men we hate will choose our living,
Or we forestall them.
If this had been penned by late Victorian poet John Davidson, say, as a passage in his blank verse epic tirade, The Triumph of Mammon, it would not have been meant ironically but purely rhetorically; but through the pen of Blackman we can safely assume these sentiments are antithetical to his own. Next we have a verse which very much takes on a tidal effect through use of refrains and is extremely effective for it –replete as it is with archaic turn-of-phrase for rhetorical effect:
The peoples rise, like seas, tumultuous;
Come, ride the flood!
The peoples rise, like seas, tumultuous,
Come, ride the flood,
Ere ‘twixt high tide and ebb the power dies.
There is an almost hypnotic circularity to the following lines, powerfully reminiscent of so many aphorisms of the New Testament, and the deployment of alliteration is masterly:
Comes the accounting.
Will you then say that others wrought this shame?
Of you and your strength is this murder all compounded,
From you and your strength only comes its end.
This powerful poem then ends on what seems an emphatic denouncement of purely material existence, and of a society thus constructed, lightly regulated morally, while there appears to be some sense of deep distrust of human nature if it is permitted to grasp as fact that there is only this earth and nothing else beyond it, least of all any eternal bureaucracy of moral retribution:
The peoples rise, like seas, tumultuous.
No runic charm will incantate this flood,
Here no mystery, here no gods,
These are men
Of bodies, parts, and passions
To clear purpose welded.
Let those who say that ‘we are gods’
Beware the madness of the people.
That final line is particularly potent, almost misanthropic in its pessimism, and also certainly serves as a dire warning against the ironic inescapability that in the absence of a true –though invisible– ‘God’ above us, variously megalomaniacal human personalities will irrationally set themselves up/metaphorically apotheosise themselves as god-substitutes, despots of superior powers, philosopher-‘gods’ or ‘Supermen’ in a world in which, to paraphrase Nietzsche, ‘God is dead…’; and one only has to think of names such as Mussolini (though more a new Caesar), Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein et al to see how ostensibly materialistic mentalities, given sufficient earthly power, cannot resist depicting themselves as tantamount to mortal ‘gods’.
Blackman’s ‘London’ is a compelling and powerful poem which encompasses so many fundamental themes of the human condition, the spiritual traumatisation of a Darwinian/ Nietzschean materialist secular society barely held afloat by tenuous humanistic principles rooted, in any case, as is much socialism, in essentially Christian ethics; it also tackles racism, alienation, anomie, misogyny; while segueing together imageries from biblical and mythological texts. The sense of inner-conflict, or contradiction, of a demonstrably Marxist-oriented poet who nonetheless still holds to some Christian or spiritual beliefs, is also compelling, and reminds me in these respects of the similarly figurative, incantatory and urban-based lyricism of (the also late) poet Harold Mingham, whose oeuvre is formed from an oxymoronic ‘numinous Marxism’. ‘London’ is a masterstroke of a poem, hugely ambitious for its relatively modest length, Blakean in its biblically-oriented aphorismic cadence, and in some senses prefigures the sweeping lyricism of Saint Lucian-Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott.
Now we come to Blackman’s most celebrated long poem, the declamatory, Whitmanesque ‘This Song is for All Men’. I say ‘Whitmanesque’ for a number of reasons: this long poem is, like ‘London’, very much a ‘song’, a cadent declamation in randomly half-rhyming free verse with occasional sprung rhythm and a use of long, lounging, rangy lines. The poem is strongly reminiscent of Whitman, particularly his very similarly composed famous long poem, ‘Song of Myself’; indeed, Blackman even appears to partly imitate that title in his own, although the focus in the latter’s poem is very much on others and ‘otherness’ (specifically, multi-cultural and multi-racial –and hymn to universality almost), as opposed to Whitman’s consciously self-focused poem (albeit one which was, I seem to recall, originally published by the poet, at his own expense, in his anonymous debut volume Leaves of Grass, 1855 –which, however, I believe had the author’s name added in its second edition the following year). That such a Whitmanesque compositional approach serves Blackman’s purposes so effectively almost a century on (1952) from when ‘Song of Myself’ was published, shows just how uncannily ahead-of-its-time Whitman’s sprawling and highly expressive verses actually were (and which, quite apart from their inestimable influence on subsequent American poetics, also in many respects prefigured the work of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas).
But back to Blackman: the poet eschews much formal punctuation, particularly commas, as if to reinforce the song-like, almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of the poem, which begins:
My song is for all men Jew Greek Russian
Communist pagan Christian Hindu Muslim Pole Parsee
And since my song is for all men
More than most I must state a case for the black man.
Here Blackman (and one can’t help but pause for thought on the emphasis of his actual surname) makes plain that his chief calling here is to make a statement on behalf of his own immediate kin, ‘the black man’; albeit after first emphasising his sense of universal solidarity with all races. Blackman first takes us through a brief tour of Europe, from the perspective of black immigrant –the tone is fairly effusive, even consciously naïve, and the use of image and colour quite startling:
I have wandered with the Men of Devon over the Devon hills
Conned thought with Milton where low voices drift
through time buoying music over death and forgetfulness
I have wandered beyond to distant Caucasia
Skirting my wonder of blood wined in the beauty
Of green mountains hemmed by blue waters on Georgia’s coast
I have listened to debate in London and Moscow
Prague Paris and many another town
I have heard statement confused or insistent
patient or fretted facing a claim
And ever the claim was the same
“This is my own” the voices repeated “my hands have built it.
It is my very own. Show us your fruiting.”…
That last trope seems to imply the territoriality of the white Europeans Blackman has encountered –so next to his own ethno-polemical response to this encountered frostiness:
Let me then bring mine own
This is mine own. I state a claim for the black man
There ensues a series of depictions of native black people of various countries, continents and colonies, beautifully evocative, and it’s here the lines grow rangier, and the Whitmanesque first person singular, ‘I am’, is repeated with hypnotic effect:
I am the black man
I hide with pigmies in the hot depth of the forest that is Africa’s
I am the Zulu striding hot storm over the brown whispering
that rides in my blood like a battle
I am the Ashanti I fold my strength in the beaten gold
of a stool shaped for immortals
I am the Nilotic standing one-legged for my rest
I am the Hyskos escaped out of Egypt and become king of Ruandi
I am the miner baring the wealth of South Africa
I hold the fate of the world in my hands in the uranium pits of
I am no more the man of Zambesi than I am the man of Limpopo
I am no less the man from the mountains of Kavirondo than I am
the warrior bred of the Masai
I am as much Ibo as I am Yoruba
I am all that is Africa I reach out to embrace those who have
I dig cane-holes in hot West Indian islands
Then the scenarios turn to those of the post-Windrush Jamaican immigrant population and their new-found employment –to fill up the surplus– in the UK, a line particularly evocative and alliteratively effective:
I run donkeyman on trampships plying from Cardiff
Then across the Atlantic:
I wear a red cap on all North American railroad stations
Blackman’s use of language grows more sinuous and brilliantly alliterative:
I bring rough hands calloused in the tumult of weariness
Strong-boned not given to prayer force strained to hard bruising
Bearing rough burdens to enrich men in England America
France Holland Brazil. I work for my bread.
Again, one notes the omission of commas between the names of countries, almost as if they merge into one composite geo-economic place: that of capitalist exploitation of black immigrant labour. The next trope is brimming with assonance and alliteration throughout its stunning imagery; and the almost rapturous tone again recalls Whitman, and much similarly expressive American verse:
A woman comes with me long-limbed high-bosomed proud of
She walks abroad her presence dressed
Fluent of Earth and love
Sweet as the fresh-rained corn at early morning
This almost gushing eulogy to the beauty and nobility of the black woman goes into full throttle in the closing stanzas of this first section, gloriously image-dripped, with a wonderful deployment of sense impression (particularly gustatory and olfactory):
Eyes soft as mountain lakes deep-shaded
O’er shot of sunshine truant midst the reeds
At hide and seek with laughter supply flung
The music of her motion
Sweeter is this purple grape
Than Pompadour’s wild roses
Wide-eddied leaps life’s promise
In the rivers of her keeping
The Black woman brings her beauty
I shall sing it
Bid every nation know
And worship it
With her at my side I measure all things
She is the source of my pride from her stem all my creations
Here particularly this poem simply drips itself down the page in a painterly cascade of hypnotic images –this is, in many respects, poetry at its purest, its most ‘poetic’. There’s something of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ alliterative exuberance and sprung rhythm in the trope: ‘Sweeter is this purple grape/ Than Pompadour’s wild roses/ Wide-eddied leaps life’s promise’.
The second section of the poem turns more accusatory and justly so –one notes, too, the more prosaic use of language for these verses:
And since there are those who pretend to estimate the peoples
Sum and divide them to suit the needs of their policy
That for this class, this for that superior nation,
Shaped and assessed on the rate of their own order in merit
There are some things I must say to them
And oh men of Europe Asia America and all the sea islands
Come near and look at these faces
For this also concerns you
And you men of Africa especially scan them well and remember
You will find them to-day
In London Paris New York Buenos Aires Madrid and Berlin
One and all for themselves very superior persons
Blackman then turns to fascism, or more specifically, Nazism, and arguably the darkest moment of racial cleansing in history:
The Bitch of Belsen too was a very superior person
She was for herself a fine humanist held a peculiar conception
Of art, she loved dogs had a taste highly refined above others for
The skin of a painter musician a giant tattooed
Some poet greater than these to sing the strength of the peoples
Alone could suffice her for lampshades
She too shared our shape
The distinct omission of commas throughout these lines is of note, particularly in the line ‘The skin of a painter musician a giant tattooed’ –this is a curious quirk of Blackman’s poetry but something I suspect is partly done in order to obviate the sense of listing things, as well as imbue the lines with more flowing, musical emphasis. The above passage depicts a fairly well-known and distinctly macabre episode in the prolific atrocities and barbarisms of the Nazis, namely, the using of human skin to make lampshades, most specifically for Hitler’s bunker. Although, if one is to go by Vincent Tilsley’s excellently written but not uncontroversial 1973 television play The Death of Adolf Hitler (with the late Frank Finlay startling in the title role), the Fuhrer himself was not necessarily aware of the more grisly ergonomic uses to which the remains of millions of gassed Jews were put: in one particular scene, when one of his morbid subordinates is explaining the Fuhrer’s own bunker lampshade made from human skin, the latter promptly hurls himself into his bathroom and wretches into the sink.
Some –particularly more ‘politically correct’/post-modernist readers today– might possibly view Blackman’s tone here, in spite of the depravity of the ‘Bitch of Belsen’’s fetish for lampshade pelts, as verging on misogynist, especially in how it continues from this horrific episode:
She knew her man carnally kissed him caressed him longed for
him utterly when the need was upon her
As would a bitch for her dog? no she was at every point woman
And around herself and her living she wove a beastly deception
There are many like her in our world let us never forget them
Let us examine them
Swear with me here on oath that these will no longer govern
But the fact that Blackman just happens to be speaking about a ‘she’ here as one of many personifications of ‘evil’ (most others being men), would seem to be purely a casualty of using the particular case of a female barbarian, and not by any means a polemic on some biblical notion of the intrinsic perniciousness of ‘woman’ and ‘her’ singular, Eve-derived propensity at tempting and corrupting ‘morally superior’ ‘man’.
Indeed, Blackman next emphasises male perpetrators of racial prejudice and in a passage which is all the more profound in its subject for having been written by a black man:
These are the men who find my presence constraining in Alabama
Barbados London Texas and similar places
They teach their children to turn their faces away when they see
They say my features are coarse and repulsive
Too like the ape for man. Against these I have always to argue
It is fitting and politic that it is a black poet who deconstructs that quite specific racial prejudice which is targeted at black people and the key trope here is: ‘They say my features are coarse and repulsive/ Too like the ape for man’. This touches on the most contentious aspect to racial prejudice aimed at black people, or, more specifically, what one feels instinctively wrong in terming ‘negro’, and the highlighting of which, especially if by a white person, can be so easily misinterpreted as some sort of part-justification, which it emphatically isn’t. But here, just as one can say that only Jewish comedians such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen can ‘get away’ with making jokes about the Jews, so too only a black man, or black poet in this particular case, can singularly point to the other perceived ‘reason’ why black people/ ‘negroes’ (and, indeed, the native Aborigines of Australia), have been perennially depicted by white people as somehow anthropologically ‘inferior’ or more ‘primitive’: and this ‘reason’, if it can be called one, is what Blackman states: ‘Too like the ape for man’. This is, indeed, the particular aspect to black-specific racism which belies the oft-trotted-out cliché that it’s ‘simply based on the colour of one’s skin’.
Horrible though it is to have to comment on this, but much of the reason many Afrikaanas of the Apartheid period in South Africa, and the Deep South rednecks still today in America cite as the main reason for their prejudice against ‘the negro’, is not so much the darker skin colour as the physiognomic difference, which white racists perceive as more exaggerated than their own, specifically in terms of the broader flared noses and thicker lips; and, in turn, such features are associated, whether consciously or unconsciously, with humanity’s simian origins (even, presumably, this was the case, at least unconsciously, pre-Darwin). So there’s a deep-seated anthropological prejudice at work, even if a specious one. Blackman, a black man, in saying this, lets the ‘whites’ off the hook, as it were; it would be impossible to imagine even some of the more reactionary and right-wing white poets of his time –and certainly of today’s– ever stating something like this in a poem; even the likes of imperialistic paternalist Rudyard Kipling, fascist-sympathising Wyndham Lewis or Francoist Roy Campbell (also a white South African) would no doubt have balked at the task.
I personally think that it’s actually pretty important to confront and thereby combat the physiognomic aspect to racial prejudice against black people, every bit as much as the more superficial matter of skin pigment, in order to deconstruct and obliterate such specious discriminations once and for all. Blackman hits directly on the ‘elephant in the room’ of racial prejudice against ‘negroes’ in that one trope, even if he couches it in simply repeating the kind of thing that has been said to himself, rather than making it as a statement of his own, the implication is that part of him can see the deeply unpleasant anthropological ‘hang up’ underpinning much prejudice against black people. In spite of his being himself a black man, it is still a very brave thing to put into a poem.
This racial dialectic forms the crux of this polemical poem, and a series of images and allusions ensue charting the historical enslavement of black people by white European colonial powers:
My part to obey and to serve hew wood and draw water
I am expected to stand respectfully bared while this kind talk
Crawl cringe and dance like a poodle trained to beg crusts or a
bone for amusement
Blackman then depicts the phony impeachment and kangaroo-court sentencing of a black man in the US –the precise period is not cited– and makes for more drama by personifying himself as said victim of racial injustice:
At Martinsville in the United States of America they hanged me
on the word of a white prostitute hot from the stews
Where all night long she fretted her pennies
Prone till the morning taught her lost virtue
The source of its pride when she saw me
No one could prove my guilt there was none to be proven
The judge simply stated my death would have a wholesome effect
on the community
So they burnt me at Richmond in the name of Christ and
To smother the fears that shook them as they played at a race
of the masters.
There follows an indictment of white imperialism:
To all my wide continent I welcomed these they came to Africa
seized all they could lay hands upon
Took the best lands for their tilling to build them white houses
I pass them each day cool deep-shaded in green
Their dwelling places wanton in lovelinesses
Spread for their senses by sky river and sea
And Blackman then goes full tilt into some bravura alliteratively bristling (‘c’ sounds in particular) verses:
I shelter my weariness in old packing cases
Cast of their luxury offscourings of cardboard and tin
Scraped of their surfeit too mean to cover their dog
My nakedness is whipped from sleep by rain pouring
at midnight to strip me in torment the last space
Earth pledged safe from their craving
To these I have something to say
These you claim are only my just deservings
Rags and old packing cases fair receivings
For beasts such as I am so you say
Crabbed you would tent me manacled as madmen
Once crouched beneath your palaces
I am unlearned in philosophies of government
I may not govern myself children must learn of their elders
till they are elders themselves
Again, the distinct omission of commas throughout lends a stream-of-consciousness to this outpouring. Blackman next opts for what initially appears to be an ironic tone in the following tropes:
I know nothing of science never created a great civilisation
Poetry song music sculpture are alike foreign to my conceiving
I have never built a monument higher than a mudhut
Nor woven a covering for my body other than the passing leaves
of the grass
I am the subman
My footprints are nowhere in history
But then Blackman places emphasis on the fact that this is rhetorical parroting and certainly not how he himself sees the cultural history of his race:
This is your statement, remember, this your assessment
I merely repeat you
Remember this too, I do not ask you to pity me
Remember this always you cannot condescend to me
It is around this point that ‘My Song is of all Men’ really picks up into a supremely pitched poetic polemic of racial self-empowerment, the dialectic is watertight, the alliterative and assonantal use of language, masterly and hugely effective, with some striking images and associations throughout:
There are many other things I remember and would have you
remember as well
I smelted iron in Nubia when your generations still ploughed
I cast in bronze at Benin when London was marshland
I built Timbuctoo and made it a refuge for learning
When in the choirs of Oxford unlettered monks shivered
I think the above verse is evidence enough of Blackman’s supreme poetic capacity; this is verse lifted to the heights of anthem. For rhetorical effect, Blackman then begins mentioning names of historically significant black figures:
My faith in the living mounts like a flame in my story
I am Khama the Great
I helped Bolivar enfranchise the Americas
I am Omar and his thousands who brought Spain in the light of the
I stood with my spear among the ranks of the Prempehs
And drove you far from Kumasi for more than a century
I kept you out of my coasts and not the mosquitoes
I have won many bitter battles against you and shall win them
I am Toussaint who taught France there was no limit to liberty
I am Harriet Tubman flouting your torture to assert my faith in
I am Nat Turner whose daring and strength always defied you
I have my yesterdays and shall open the future widely before me
I am Paul Robeson
I send out my voice and fold peoples warmly to my bosom
I sow courage in myriad bleak places where it is grown worn
My song kept this fire alight in the fjords of Norway under the Nazis
for my power is never diminished
I pile volcanoes in the minds of Mississippi sharecroppers
I engage continents
Beyond all bars you set I shall reach out
To tear life’s glory down I shall reach out
To set life’s crown upon mine own head with mine own hand
Shall reach out and never forget the reckoning
I confess I’ve not heard of many of the figures cited in these passages –which is probably part of the point being made here, since some of these are important figures of black history, which has over the centuries been obscured by white dominance of the world’s historical narratives. But some brief research reveals that Khama the Great (or Good; 1837-1923) was a reforming chief of Bamangwato people of Bechuanland (now Botswana) who turned his nation into a British protectorate against incursions by the Boers (Dutch settlers of South Africa); Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War; and Nat Turner (1800-31) was an African-American slave who led a slave rebellion in 1831, after which he was captured and executed.
But I have of course heard of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the hugely influential black singer and actor who came to prominence in American theatre and film during the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, remembered for his booming bass voice –epitomised perhaps in his top-billed and singing role as Umbopa, native African guide to white hunter Allan Quatermain in the 1937 film adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines– and his political activism at the inception of the Civil Rights Movement and as a committed Communist and anti-fascist campaigner during the Spanish Civil War. Robeson was later blacklisted under the McCarthyite regime. As Searle relates in the Introduction, Robeson was a friend of Blackman’s.
Closing this exceptional section of Blackman’s poem comes a purgative verse which seems to almost echo the xenophobic and racist attitude that Blackman has been responding to throughout:
But first I must separate myself from your every particular
I must touch you at no point
I must shun your very fringes
And in all my living I shall never be alone
The third and shortest section of the poem begins with what seems to be an address to ‘evil’ or the ‘spirit of racism’ or ‘prejudice’:
I know you of old your hatred of men
How you sour the earth with this hate
How you trap men and twist them, plant fear like a plague
The hatred you turn against me I have seen repeated in savagery
Ten thousand times in ten thousand different places
A whole world rises against you a whole world whose living
Warped in your footsteps can only be safe at your death
Let us then dress the bill of your crimes let us examine them
The next stanza is very powerful, beautifully phrased in spite of its grim message as to the soullessness, decadence and degradation of modern living in a corrupt secular capitalist society where all human exchanges, even, in this case, sex, are reduced to a sterile trading or transaction:
A young man stands at the street corner in Paris
Stripping life’s need in the pitiless reach of a prostitute
Tenting love’s flower in a rough waste of deception
All life’s power maimed in a snare of francs pennies and dimes
you spread for him
The last line of course has a double meaning. Blackman next turns his attention to war zones:
The Malayan father gathers his dead from a thicket
A child of ten years disfigured and charred by flame-throwers
The soldier who stifled his laughter bartered his hunger at the
rate of two shillings a day
For God justice and fatherland lies you crudely exchanged for
The dead still stand in the Valleys of Korea old men and women
burnt alive with the harvest by napalm
A child hides his loneliness stark in a blanket of snow by the
roadside at Seoul
I sit with the Negro bomb-aimer who set them alight
I hear his heart weep blind in an anguish of torment as he set
His mind bright with the thought of the cotton in Georgia
Red as the napalm drenched with the blood of his father
Burnt the same day he was drafted
Blackman’s depiction of a ‘Negro bomb-aimer’ is significant in its emphasis on some of the ‘dirtiest work’ being deferred to black US soldiers. The almost tautological phrase ‘anguish of torment’ appears slightly clumsy, though one should give the benefit of the doubt to a poet of Blackman’s stature and assume it is a deliberate over-emphasis. There’s a wonderfully assonantal trope that comes up next:
I was thrown a live bomb into the sea around Madagascar
My scream echoed the child’s which outtopped the flames
roaring at Oradour
The following verse is a powerful lyrical flourish, which wouldn’t look out of place in a similarly themed poem by John Berger:
In Auschwitz Belsen and Buchenwald
Your fury put off its disguise
Here you stood plain as a murderer
You prided yourself in your trade
Again we get the emphasis here on ‘trade’, in this case, a particularly pernicious type of transaction. Next Blackman evokes nuclear devastation, the ultimate manifestation of materialist evil:
You school your pride in the fruits of other men’s labour
Pile stone upon stone monumented a thousand feet skyward
Trace swifter than Puck a girdle for earth
And in Hiroshima drive the blistering sands anguished in last
For human eyes rained liquid in the dust at your compelling
But Blackman closes this third section in a spirit of defiance, vitality and the spirit of moral retribution:
I am all that is human
I raise my voice million-headed in the market places
Where I wrestle the sun to my living
I serve you due notice
I shall not enter death’s overmastering silence
A slave at your bidding
I bring my might to forestall you
I write this pledge with my blood thus of my heart’s core
Strong in the assurance of my own reality
I shall keep faith with the living
My case is not framed for plaintive complaining
Strong anger is knotted to my every desire
Bathing my limbs and refreshing the promises
Made for the reckoning
You will remember the reckoning
I shall forget nothing
I lay it all to your account
I shall forgive nothing
I shall not mime with withered fingers
In the days not far off when we measure our strength
The trope ‘My case is not framed for plaintive complaining’ is a wonderfully alliterative and assonantal flourish.
In the fourth and final section of this poem, Blackman appears to assume the identity of a Czech resistance fighter against Nazi occupation, citing ‘Julius Fucik/ Last heard of in Pankrats in Prague’, Fučík (1903-43) having been the Czech journalist who was at the forefront of the country’s anti-Nazi resistance, and who was ultimately imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Nazis. The lines gush on captivatingly:
I fear only one death that in my pain my class be betrayed
So let me hold fast to my class let its million strengths strengthen
I live while my class lives at my death it continues
Then Nazis know you can never destroy me
Tomorrow my flesh will be dust your hangmen’s hands are well
fashioned to kill me
But my fight will be lived again in lands I have never seen
Argentine Nigeria southmost down earth to Tierra del Fuego
Far past Good Hope in West Indies China Korea among the
Deep in my own Czechoslovakia
But is that last line the assumption of a Czech identity as this section’s narrator, or is it meant as a transnational metaphor for ‘Czechoslovakia’ as a figurative ‘country’ or ‘place’ which is occupied by foreign powers, like a colony –does Blackman mean his own psychical Czechoslovakia? If the latter, it makes for a fascinating concept. A few lines on there’s a particularly well-phrased trope which makes excellent use of consonantal alliteration to express its point:
They will take account of your kind they will root them out
But then it becomes clear to me on reading further that these lines are actually meant to be the words of Fučík himself, presumably either paraphrased as verse or imagined by Blackman –this is one of the casualties of reviewing in ‘real time’, as it were, commentating while reading the source material (though it can pick up some serendipities in the process). Fučík’s defiant ‘speech’ concludes in a spirit of –posthumous?– defiance:
Today you are absolute I do not accept you
Now hack me in pieces I shall not whisper
Uproot my tongue my silence defeats you
And oh men remember remember I loved you
The good men the true men the strong men the working men
You whose sweat is your daily bread
Whose strength is your class
Together we shall keep faith with the living.’
There follows an aphorismic trope:
Over the years a strong voice rises
An eagle swoops in the sun
Next Blackman takes in Turkish poet, playwright and ‘romantic communist’, Nâzım Hikmet Ran (1902-63), who spent much of his adult life imprisoned for his political beliefs:
The sunlight flecks the gold of his crest and song carries on
I too Julius I know your sorrow and the tale of your glory
I am Nazim Hikmet I stand astride Europe and Asia I judge
I look toward Africa I hold the world in the palm of my hand
I walk with the lowliest I speak for them
For this the men who misgovern my country put me in prison
Many things come to me here in my cell many things
Love most and the warmth of my fellows
My courage thrusts far beyond Anatolia to all the wide earth
Time is a friend which brings millions to speak with me
I listen I have had long to listen
There then comes one of Blackman’s most beautifully phrased tropes, unobtrusively but hypnotically alliterative (m-sounds) and assonantal (o-sounds):
By twilight at noon while moonlight crept my only companion
soft to my pillow
We’re then taken on another geographical sweep of man’s inhumanity to man:
Sometimes all night I kept vigil with men stripped of their flesh
by pitiless hunger in the prison camps of the Nazis
I had heard this hunger sobbing before in the wide weary eyes
In Oldham West Indies Africa London wreathing dead skins
round high harvest
In Ireland India China
That those who despise our humanity should add ten more per
cent to their dividends
But Blackman emphasises that these brutalities are not only perpetrated at times of war but also so-called ‘peace time’ in capitalism where exploitation, poverty and hunger are the weapons of the powers that be:
These things happened then not behind the curtain of war
But in the times they name peace in the streets on the farms
Among the sharecroppers white and black in Virginia
Glad to fill their bellies with earth when the factor had stolen
their maize and their cotton
Among the poor whites and the Zulus coloureds and Hottentots
who live at the Cape
Among the sun-browned fields of Missouri where they ploughed
back the corn
The next line is a supreme framing of the innate injustice and absurdity of capitalism, underconsumption amidst overproduction, the labourer deprived of sufficient wage to afford what he/she produces (hence the invention of ‘credit’, yet another capitalist swindling of the common person, as with pawnbrokers):
Because those who planted it had no money to buy it
Indeed, here Blackman is also touching on that core Marxian concept of entfremdung, alienation or estrangement from one’s Gattungswesen (“species-essence”), though more specifically in this and the Marxist case, alienation from one’s own labour and what it produces, the sense of being reduced to an automatic functionary with no inherent sense of worth, interest or individual investment in the work one does (a still glaring feature of today’s ‘Poundshop capitalism’ where workers are even alienated from their own contractual rights through “zero hours contracts” –the final straw of capitalist depersonalisation).
Blackman then further depicts the full Grand Guignol of the brutalising absurdity of capitalist production:
In Grimsby where they gave the night’s catch back to the sea
For men may not eat fish when they have no money to buy it
In Brazil where they fed the coffee as fuel to engines
In Argentine as they slaughtered the cattle since millions in China
Shall not eat flesh because they have no money to buy it
In Belsen Auschwitz Buchenwald the murder was somewhat
Vastness was all, gas but the sign of a superior civilisation
Blackman makes brilliant use of the assonance (the a-sounds) in the phrase ‘Vastness was all, gas…’. The poet then turns his sights to the perpetrators of human misery, both in times of war and peace, the capitalists, those who exploit workers in ‘peace time’ and push the poor and unemployed into deepening poverty, and those, arms manufacturers in particular, who profit during times of war:
These men feed on our flesh like a cancer
War is but the end of their logic
Let us then dress the bill of our claims let us examine them
Certainly ‘cancer’ is as an apt a metaphor as any for capitalism’s creeping destructiveness of the social tissue.
There’s a figurative flourish with much emphasis on the symbolism of the colour red, both as that of the Left and of labour movements throughout the world, and, of course, not accidentally, as the colour of human blood, or lifeblood, thus symbolic of the human sacrifice to merciless economic power structures that capitalism involves:
My flesh winced as the rough horse-hide stripped Zoya naked
The rude sjambok tearing a Zulu in Orange Free State
Still wakes my sleep in a nightmare
On my heart is a rose a red rose a whole land scarleted courage
For the roses are red in Korea all the earth is a rose staunched
in the blood of its people
Red as the star that shall sit in the triumph this people will win
A ‘sjambok’ (or ‘litupa’) is a heavy leather whip –hence the whip-handed capitalist exploiter of wage-slaves; but, more specifically, Blackman uses this South African idiom instead of just saying ‘whip’, since he is also alluding to the name of the whips used by Apartheid-era white policemen against black citizens. And in this depiction, the name ‘Orange Free State’ has particular ironic resonance.
Blackman next hurls us headlong into various proletarian revolutions across the globe:
Crying triumph at Stalingrad
A fury of anger floods madly through China sweeping corruption
swift to the sea
All round me thunder the peasants loud throated greeting the
They have come a long march all the days of the year over high
To bring us this peace
Their feet are bright on the hillside bivouacking the morning
While there’s a sense of slight ideological naivety to this radicalised catharsis, one can’t help but feel swept along with it, especially given the previous graphic depictions of capitalist and imperialist brutalities. Something of a rupture of emancipation or salvation then gushes forth:
From Paris Morocco Alaska Calcutta the echoes come back to
batter the door of my prison
Brown hands black hands white hands yellow hands
Flatten the walls of my cell
Now I go into the daylight to continue my song
Then we have the aphorism:
Over the years strong voices rise
from the springtime of our living
Following this, Blackman returns to his position as first person narrator, emphasising his transnational and transhistorical solidarity with the poor and oppressed of all races in a triumphant statement of what might be termed ‘communism of the heart’ or of the ‘soul’ (and throughout this declamatory poem one is strongly reminded of the poet Jack Lindsay’s works, previously reviewed on this site):
And I the black poet I answer these voices
For these voices are mine
I may not forget these though oceans divide us
For their sorrow is child of my sorrow my pain is their pain
My joy theirs to rejoice in, their song my remembrancer
I sing as I bind the stoops in the cane fields of Cuba
Where I hew out the gold at the Cape or the coal in Virginia
See the morning is bright our strength opens the gate of
Blackman peppers the ensuing lines with more significant radical figures:
Rising a chorus comes with them Jan Drda spent like a fountain
Emi Siao lending soft kindness to all who come near him
Pablo Neruda vast as the Andes bordering every horizon
Jan Drda (1915-70), was a Czech writer and playwright and communist; Emi Siao, Xiao San (1896-1983) was a Chinese poet and biographer of Mao Zedong; and Pablo Neruda is of course the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet and politician (1904-73). Blackman continues this sort of secular hagiography by next acknowledging the moral debts to the religions of the world:
With them also I remember with praise
All who alike individually and in thought banded together share
my hope in the human
I remember the Christian if in peace he will walk as my
I remember the Muslim strong at my side as a brother
I welcome the learned and all who can spell me ways and
methods of doing
I remember John Brown, for his courage and manhood still march
on in America
Christianity, indeed, it is so often forgotten, was originally and still is implicitly the religion of slaves and oppressed people. John Brown (1800-59), cited by Blackman, certainly thought so as late as the 19th century, a radical white abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was justified in ridding the United States of slavery.
But Blackman’s hagiography is primarily secular, as invoked emphatically in the ensuing lines:
Highest above all let me praise Marx Lenin and Stalin
Marx for he taught us our power the strength we enfolded
Stripped bare the false mysteries our enemies clogged in our
Perhaps here Blackman is referring to religion, or Marx’s ‘opium of the masses’, with the phrase ‘false mysteries’; or, alternately, the ‘false mysteries’ of the capitalist altar. But here it is easy with historical hindsight to criticise Blackman’s seeming blind faith –or wilful blindness– when it comes to the next two historical figures he raises to the heights of ideological icons:
Lenin who made this truth clean clear as a fountain our common
Lenin man’s best of men touching bright as a summer sun
The heart unspoilt by hate of its fellows
Stalin who labours that in each this truth shall root in its glory
While Lenin can be to some extent forgiven for his ruthlessness in that he was at least working a lifetime to finally overthrow a disgustingly ruthless and repressive Tsarist hierarchy, Stalin is –by any humane and rational standards– an irredeemable tyrant whose rule wiped out millions of peasants and refuseniks, and, indeed, whose ideological crime was the ultimate evisceration of the true compassionate message of Communism into something merely resembling it in symbolism. But at the time of composing this long poem, Blackman would not have been aware of the full horrors of Stalinism which would only really came to light posthumously.
There is a spirit of racial reconciliation in the following lines:
I grasp this hand wherever I find it in Perth Paris Prague New
York Buenos Aires Peking
This hand piled flowers in my praise red roses in Prague
All the earth’s blooms gathered in Moscow
I hold with particular tenderness the hand of a German woman
Fled from the Nazis because she saw herself demeaned in their
thinking about me
Look this is a white hand it is my hand I am the black man.
Blackman’s communistic universality extends its hand far and wide in the following singing lines; once more, from a technical viewpoint, Blackman displays deft craftsmanship with unobtrusive but bristling alliteration and assonance, providing some beautifully phrased lines:
I hear strong voices calling me brother from the rough horse-hair
tents of Mongolia
In Korea the rivers and mountains leap with the cry of their
My heart sings in the lilt of the tear-twisted caress from the
mountains and far lands of China
I gather like greeting from the red roughened hands of the
steelmen of Sheffield
My smile is the smile of the miner descending the coalpits of
I am by the side of the stevedore heaving bales in the
shipyards of Antwerp
I reach around earth to embrace the Australian docker
For his handclasp assures me victory over subtly plotted
Then comes the almost prayer-like aphorismic aside:
These are my strength my force their varied conceivings
My calm that in them my living may never decay
Blackman continues in this vein with his much-used allusion to ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ from the Lord’s Prayer:
The good men the true men the strong men the working men
Whose sweat is their daily bread whose strength is their class
Then Blackman becomes a kind of twentieth century black Blake (if not tautological, since Blake means ‘dark’) in the following hortatory passage which reads in the spirit of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, though encompasses the whole world:
Scientists craftsmen teachers painters poets philosophers come
We shall work till our power invested together create a new
Till there be no longer famine in India
Till the Yangtse flood no more
Till we plant gardens in Gobi
Till we gather each year the harvest of the Sahara
Till our force bright as the atom blasts the evil oppression which
cripples all our creations
This long majestic poem then reaches its quite gentle yet defiant climax, a kind of invocation of humanity’s future salvation through its children:
And so, I rest the little blond German child gently against me
I trace the years with him
I rest the little black African child gently against me
He and the German boy trace the years with me
I rest the little Kamchatchuan child gently against me
I rest the little Georgian child gently against me
She and the little Japanese boy trace the years with me
Let our love hold them till bright as the atom together
Their power blasts the evil oppression which cripples all our
Till man cover the earth with his glory as the waters cover the
That last phrase seems a little odd: ‘as the waters cover the sea’…? Surely the ‘waters’ are ‘the sea’…? They ‘cover’ the sea-bed, but not the sea itself, since both are water. It’s a peculiar oddity to end such an accomplished long poem on. There’s also a fine line being trodden by Blackman between idealism or humanistic optimism, and a kind of rapturous naivety, which sits oddly against the empirical cynicism of many passages of this poem (and others in his works) that sometimes hint at some sort of deep-seated misanthropy.
However, I’ve always maintained that to be a human idealist, a communist or socialist –even to be a Christian– one must inevitably, and ironically, start off from a misanthropic point of view: that the state of humanity and human society is deeply unsatisfactory, often contemptible, and humanity is as innately destructive as it is innately philanthropic; thus the need to imagine and then build towards a vast moral/spiritual improvement of our human condition.
In the spirit of dialectic, this is a poem which depicts opposing systems of thought –capitalism/communism, atheism/religion etc. – and plays with the tensions between these fundamental antagonisms, finally merging into a Hegelian synthesis that seems to broadly converge on the view that human salvation comes not through revenge but through forgiveness; though, crucially, a forgiveness which however never forgets past offences –and the agent against forgetting, theoretically at least, is history. Crucially still, a history which is not just an ideological back-projection by powers-that-be superimposed over the past (as J.H. Plumb argued at length in his The Death of the Past), but in Blackman’s take, a ‘shadow’ history, that which was wilfully obscured by white aristocratic domination: in this case, ‘outsider’ history and, more pointedly, ‘black’ history, the ‘forgotten past’, if you like. Blackman reminds us of many aspects of this passionately throughout this long poem, and we remain indebted to him for this, as well as extremely grateful, not least for the supreme poetic accomplishment of the task.
Next we turn to the equally polemical poem, ‘Joseph’. Despite its torrid theme, this poem flourishes with luscious lyricism:
A skin of ivory whiteness
That companioned hair which fell
The riot of a sunset
Caught midst copper beeches
A spirit bright and gay
Blackman’s polemical modus operandi predominates, so that the figurative use of language is still subordinate to the overarching theme:
In the United States of America
Black men and women all excepted
South in these States
Plain John or Mary these
Rastus sometimes, sometimes simply Sam
It would not do to credit dignity
To dogs or negroes there
The poem sports some accomplished use of sense-impression:
Some in this case are known to cry their need aloud
Some scrabble anguished
Rough ashes from the past, dry-mouthed
Then we are introduced to the eponymous servant or slave:
Some in this case are known to cry their need aloud
Some scrabble anguished
Rough ashes from the past, dry-mouthed
In describing Joseph, Blackman’s mastery of language is at its most demonstrative:
Now Joseph was a young and bonny gaillard
Tall slim and lissom
As a fir tree sprung
Blackman’s use of alliteration and assonance appears effortless:
Till husband she made life clamourous and rude
Or take a bishop
Strictest and straightest of this set
August austere aloof he stands
Wrists bound about with crimson bands
Scarlet for blood and sin
His thin-lipped visage sour as the wine
Christ’s blistered lips refused on Golgotha
The lyricism of this poem perfectly punctuates its thorny narrative:
Knew ’twas his smile had warmed her blood
That he had lit dark corners with his laughter
Blackman has a very distinctive turn of phrase, as in ‘Malice edging their thin rages’. Blackman deploys Greek mythological allusions with his parallel to the story of Leda (which he spells Leida) and the Swan for this white ‘ambassadress of love’ and her absent black servant whom she loves:
A Leida in her dalliance
Her hair the great betrayer framing her flushed face
A Leida who for swan-time had chosen a black swan
When the white mistress and Joseph rendezvous in a secret place, their discovery by a mob of malicious white men is deemed all the more heinous for the fact that nothing untoward is actually happening –although the situation is manipulated to imply that something is:
A woman seized constrained in short a rape
They had almost hoped
It was well known all black men lived
With this one thought in mind
But to find him thus consoling her
With quiet understanding calming her
Oh! What a smile there was upon her face
This was too much
God damn the nigger!
This was pretending that he was a man
Rape called for death
This called for sudden death
They whistled up the posse to ensure their man
Blackman then brings in the New Testament story of the woman found guilty of adultery but whom Jesus ‘who some said loved sin’ refuses to judge bids leave “for I do not condemn thee”, and ‘How at this word her tears did bathe his foot’. The elderly white ‘lechers’ who have encircled the woman and her servant then go and tell the town sheriff of the fictitious scene of sexual depravity which their own lecherous imaginations have projected onto a perfectly innocent scene:
‘We found her sprawled the bitch
In the heat of the afternoon
Each nerve surrendered to a black man
Hard upon her’
The sheriff asked not where, what, when
He seized his gun cried
‘Where is the nigger?’
But the crowd philosophers in this kind
Wisely had forestalled him
It was not Joseph
He had long distanced harm
But it was another anyone would do
A man had touched forbidden fruit
’twas what they said
A man must die God has so ordered
When he set death the fee of knowledge
To Adam out of Eden
Blackman’s priestly identity in no way stands in the way of his poetic one as the following passage testifies in all its visceral descriptiveness:
Each worship has its rites
Now these rawboned rumbustious ignorant men
Worshipped the phallus
Standing stiffly conscienceless
On guard over race-purity
No one guarded women’s purity or man’s
Incest, syphilis lice gonorrhoea bastardy
Took care of this in whore-houses
And pox-marked adultery
But for a breach of race-purity
The crowd needed a living symbol
To offer to their faith
A black man any black man
Young or old would do
Such are the great occasions
The graver moments when
In high exalting passion
Young and old together
Rich and poor
Riot in worship
Babes in arms
Held high to see
What matrons in a holiday mood
May touch nor blench their anguish
Black phallus stuffed with blood
Acrid as the incense
Burnt of the holy cross
Shredded now for relic
To preserve the race
Created out of Eden man
To only man
After the conclusion of the tale of Joseph, Blackman then launches into a profound tirade against white liberal hypocrisy which argues for the emancipation of black people from slavery but falls short of countenancing miscegenation:
What did the liberals say?
The liberals were busy indicting the rights of democracy
In Hungary, Italy, Rumania, Ecuador, Chile, Peru
Outer and Inner Mongolia, anywhere outside the United
States of America
Some called on their congress from the forty-eight
States assembled to urge on their government the need
To ensure the life and liberty of Archbishop Minzenty
Some pressed love’s charted freedom as the mainstay
Of Society, urging that this was freedom inalienable from
the pursuit of happiness
For that love sexual, homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual
you will was the citizen’s right whenever need sat upon him.
Some to prove it came with their neighbours’ wives,
Some with their neighbours’ sons and when the
Alarm sounded were somewhat delayed while they
took their hands from their neighbours’ bosoms and
other parts privy to passion
But when it was rumoured that this freedom
was being exercised by Negroes they passed a
resolution denouncing communism and in their
persons forthwith rushed out to suppress it
What did the parsons say?
Some stood on the edge of the crowd and gave their
blessing, Some argued God’s law who had given the
Negro as a brother with this most agreed saying
‘We own God’s law is good we do indeed take the Negro
as our brother
But still we have a better that never shall we own a Negro
In our sister’s bed a brother-in-the-law’
What did the workers say?
The workers said nothing
What did the workers do?
The workers did little
Many were in the crowd, most stayed indoors some
wrote to the newspapers some held meetings and
advised the Negroes not to provoke their fellow
citizens to violence
But some there were who plainly denounced the acts of the mob
Who plainly said that men must be found equal
Not only in the words of the Fourteenth Amendment
But as they walked the streets of the towns where they
In the factories and fields where they worked together
In the schools where they learnt and played together
In the choice of their mates and in the books which they
They further shewed that men must be resolute if they
would find equality
To remove whatever might stand in the way
Not least the men who plotting to destroy all equality
Set black against white Pole against Irish
Russian against Jew and Jew against Christian
And in a thousand ways made men destroy themselves for
They showed further that no man would be free till this
was in the doing
For that it was Negro in America Today
Korean next day in Asia
Cuban soon after thereafter Frenchman in Europe
While this nastiness went unchecked
Now men of this mind were few
And not greatly privileged
In the United States of America
And often for the mere thinking these thoughts
Were imprisoned beaten and deprived of their rights
But still they continue and though death thin their ranks
The ranks are renewed and continue the battle
That men may be free
And for these what began as a story of violence
Shall end a salute to America
The land of Walt Whitman
Those States remade for man’s image one day
A home for the free.
THESE THINGS OF COURSE COULD NOT HAPPEN IN
The final bitter capitalised statement seems ambivalent in its message.
This final tirade really stands as the high watermark of Blackman’s oeuvre and is something of a tour de force in terms of rousing black civil rights rhetoric.
One expects the volume to naturally come to a close on this triumphant crescendo, but there is afterwards a short poem called ‘In Memory of Claudia Jones’, which closes on a beautifully judged poetic trope:
Here room is not spread for tears
Here amid the dust the heart sings
Out of the darkness a voice cries
Light answers light
Leaping from peak to peak.
Fittingly, this book concludes with a transcript of a speech made by Blackman for the Art Against Racism and Fascism event in London in 1980.
I started writing this review over a year ago and have just got back to finishing it after an incredibly long break in-between but an unavoidable one. But what poetic irony it is that due to that long gap in the middle, time has marched on, not least politically, and detrimentally so, for the so called “free world”, the duplicities of which Blackman wrote about having been shaped into a poet, protesting voice and activist by them. Most depressing is Trump’s recent ascendancy in America where now the once shadow-nation of the black American, as paid testament in Blackman’s ‘Joseph’, threatens a return.
So I started writing this review at the tail-end of the two-term rule of America’s first black president, only to conclude it at the beginning of the reign of America’s most anti-democratic, belligerently right-wing, xenophobic and racist white president whose backward dogmas and prejudices now cast a dark shadow over the legacy of the civil rights movements and black emancipation, of iconic black crusaders such as Martin Luther King, Paul Robeson, and Peter Blackman. Let’s hope Blackman’s poetic legacy is reignited by this belated unearthing of his entire oeuvre collected together here for the first time in an exceptional volume.
Alan Morrison © 2017