The Shearsman Review

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Fred D'Aguiar – The Rose of Toulouse

(Carcanet Press: Manchester, 2013. Paperback, 80pp, £9.95) 
Reviewed by John Muckle
Fred D’Aguiar’s journey has been one of the strangest in British West Indian poetry. His themes of conflicted identity, displacement by slavery, colonialism, outsiderdom, migration and racism seem to have been accepted by him from without, as an inherited territory from previous generations of Caribbean writers, and yet he has mostly approached them with the calm, poised implacability of a modernist-inflected mainstream English verse that seems, at first blush, to be at odds with the implied violence of the social and historical torsions of this subject-matter. Despite his training as a psychiatric nurse he is not a haunted, acerbic anatomist of the mental landscapes of the colonised other, not an outsider-insider like Naipaul, not particularly a lyrical documentarist of West Indian histories like Brathwaite, nor is he a Shakespearean or Homeric grandee like Walcott. And did he approach his subjects, or did they find him? Like the Jamaican airman who forsees his own death in his early play, D’Aguiar seems to have taken it all in with a synoptic glance, only to be confronted by real tragedies no-one could possibly have foreseen. He has reworked slave narratives, for example, but also written about the Jonestown massacre in his native Guyana; in Bloodlines he composed a novel in beautifully handled verse about a man who decides to live until friendship breaks out between the races, a story which spans centuries, hopefully to heal the ageless violence of relationships between Europe and Africa; only to be awoken by yet another new massacre, that of students in his institution, Virginia Tech, which he distilled into a book of pained, memorialising lyrics in his last collection, Continental Shelf
This new book, The Rose of Toulouse, finds him at a lull in middle-age, and able to meditate again on his own sense of identity. His childhood has no address any more, he scarcely recognises his passport photo, and nor do we particularly recognise the places he describes: they could be anywhere, many of these configurations of sea, land and sky against which this stateless shadow-being stands, and the family situations he writes of (with an affecting head-on sincerity) could indeed be shared by anyone–but violent histories and their continuation in a disturbing political present recur with the quiet, insistent order of remembered fables:
Stop me before I run away with myself
To join an army of beaks and feathers
A light brigade pouring over the horizon
A dark enemy driven into the eaves
      (‘Wartime Aubade’)
D’Aguiar is acutely aware of these paradoxes, but he persuades us to glance past them by the sheer gossamer tone of delicate poems in which the immediate perceptual world, of physical movement as well as consciousness, is lingered over again and again, as the only and temporary beauty we have. 
I met D’Aguiar around a quarter of a century ago when he had only published one book: a shy but seemingly confident young man, a few years younger than me, who nevertheless couldn’t quite believe his luck, and was forever interrogating and doubting the quality of his own work. I’d invited him to participate in an anthology called The New British Poetry, to which he was to contribute—and did—a selection of ‘Black-British’ poets and a short introduction to their work. His modesty was such that he left himself out of the selection, but his acuity as an editor meant that he managed to thereby launch the careers of a number of younger poets who soon became well known. I must admit that I am still quite pleased by this. And I see the same quality of playful high seriousness and painstaking intelligence in these middle-aged poems of his—somehow he manages to hold these sharp lyrics in trembling equilibrium:
War on Terror
Lasts for as long as nightmares
paint behind the eyelids
long as a measure of cord
cut from a navel remains buried
under a tamarind tree
not long after the eyes wash away
last night’s paint
no longer than a piece of string
tied at a navel
15 March 2014