A Time Before Whiteness


In June 2017, a public housing tower block in West London went up in flames, the blaze exacerbated via the development’s cost-saving flammable insulation (“The cladding went up like a matchstick,” recalled one resident). As many activists identified within the aftermath, many of the greater than 70 individuals who died within the Grenfell Tower hearth had been immigrants of colour. That fireplace nonetheless rages in “Any other Burning,” the general poem of British-Jamaican poet D. S. Marriott’s Sooner than Whiteness:

this paper is on hearth
and the earth is a room
within the flames
		like a rope of air
		the place we took
		our ultimate, faltering steps
			down smoke-filled stairs,
				down slender corridors
			a roaring in our ears
		openmouthed, blindsided,
			our mouths already burning
				from the portrayal.

That descent down the smoke-filled stairs of the tower block parallels Marriott’s descent thru language and historical past — the historical past of slavery, of immigration, and of the motion of refugees. A central query underlying Sooner than Whiteness is whether or not language itself may give a trail to survival, even liberation, or whether or not the poem merely erects a brief monument in opposition to time and forgetting:

						for you and I
descent intended rescue, 
			however there used to be black smoke
throughout us,
		and our mistake used to be in considering
that language intended
			expectancy or survival—
and now not one thing ceaselessly deserted,
a phrase petrified, then cracked,
			a void ceaselessly imprinted,
				formed into concrete.

One type of remembering is the elegy, and Sooner than Whiteness is punctuated with a sequence of them to different writers. Marriott’s elegiac remembering has an international succeed in: the Black American poets Stephen Jonas (“Jonas Runs the Voodoo Down”) and Bob Kaufman (“Blue in Bandoe”), the Zimbabwean creator Dambudzo Marechera (“Conflict Town Poets”), and the British anarchist Sean Bonney (“Good-bye Beef Pie Hat”). This remaining poem completely captures Bonney’s incandescent rage, in addition to his love of language and his insistence at the necessity for street-level activism:

any individual beckons

           & reminds you
	   that each and every accumulating
	           is a party
                     of the already-dead

   each and every phrase
not up to
   it will have to,
          (the arduous information
                     like banners
                          over bloodsoaked pavements)

Marriott is an impassioned however delicate poet, considerate and difficult. Whilst his poetry now and again inspires the incantatory and jazz-inflected tones of American Beat poets (or even, in “Murking,” the British rapper Stormzy), he has deep affinities with such postwar British avant-gardists as J. H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier, and John Wilkinson. The poems of Sooner than Whiteness provide a number of questions on fresh race and sophistication members of the family, private and historic reminiscence, in a posh and indirect idiom, mindful all the time that poetic language itself is (in T. S. Eliot’s phrases from East Coker) “a raid at the inarticulate, / With shabby apparatus all the time deteriorating.” There aren't any simple solutions, no easy answers.

The very name Sooner than Whiteness is deliberately ambiguous: does “earlier than” imply coming previous or “going through”? A few of Marriott’s poems appear to succeed in towards the roots of the Black/White dichotomy. “Hoernejongetje” (a Dutch phrase, which means “boy whore”) examines a “ledger,” “its leather-based sweat-soaked / in its clinkered cubicle”; is that this the report ebook of a slave send, as referenced within the previous poem “The Dream, Referred to as Lubek”?

The writ will have to now not be black from the sentence.
Unfastened the flaps however now not your tongue.
Liberate the phrases from their entice,

however don’t overlook to nuance the which means.
That is the place true possession starts.
A hand scratching price from 0.

The ones remaining two strains are key: is that this the start of the grasp/enslaved courting, the slaver inscribing the title of the enslaved individual, thereby rendering them one thing of monetary “price”? Or is that this (extra optimistically) a scene of self-creation thru writing, the Black poet rewriting “paper already dirtied” and announcing self-ownership? 

This scene of writing and literacy recollects Sooner than Whiteness’s first poem, “The Ghost of Averages,” which starts with an allusion to Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery:

The French grammar
	lies open on a desk
smeared with grease, oil,—
	unfettered via the chains
opening the thoughts starts its flight

The sensible-minded Washington had known as the sight of a tender Black guy learning French grammar “with grease on his clothes, grime throughout him, and weeds within the backyard and lawn” some of the “saddest” issues he had noticed; for Marriott, it's “evidence the traditional reminiscences lie unredeemed” — unredeemed, however to be had for conquest and studying.

A ways much less hopeful is the serious (and in puts stomach-churning) “The Leisure Unfinished: In Willpower to the Younger Negress, Kara E. Walker.” A lot of this longish poem is a phantasmagoria at the artist Walker’s silhouettes of antebellum The us: scenes of rape, incest, coprophilia, and mutilation. “Tableaux of ache and perversity,” Marriott calls them, however tableaux by which one thing liberatory, violent, however in the long run abortive, will also be perceived:

The imagined,
suckled giant with our black milk,
swollen like a creek, all of the tributaries
incessant, held captive from mouth to slave,
weighed down, anchor-like
within the Tallahatchie river,
is one thing unaccountable—
a sword, a brush,
a row of urns, axes, and pumpkins,
and a runaway stuck at the roadway.

Marriott’s poems don't seem to be easygoing, now not simply because of their in most cases grim outlook and every so often violent imagery, however as a result of they decline to practice linear strains of discourse, description, or argument; they dart from matter to matter, voice to voice, sporting the reader alongside via the drive of creative language and incessant wonder. Regularly, then again, as within the name poem’s “Coda” (which reads, for all its references to Martin Buber and The Little Prince, as one of those delusion autobiography), Marriott rises to an impressive oratorical pitch:

Thru crowded trains
by which I cry and am
however an remoted fury,

to a number of voices,
as day comes up out of dirtied home windows,

I write of this disgrace
to be able to possess it,
and to idolize its satisfaction, its black the Aristocracy.

This and plenty of different passages in Sooner than Whiteness represent their very own monuments of reminiscence a few of the smoke and welter of historical past and contemporaneity.

Sooner than Whiteness via D. S. Marriott (2022) is printed via Town Lighting Books and is to be had on-line and in bookstores.