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Review of A Light Song of Light - Sue Hubbard, Poetry London, Spring 2011
The title poem of A Light Song of Light, Kei Miller's third poetry colelction begins:Previous review of 'A Light Song of Light'... To the 'A Light Song of Light' page...
A light song of light is not sung
In the light; what would be the point?
a light song of light swells up in dark
times, in wolf time and knife time,
in knuckle and blood times;
it hums a small tune in daytime, but saves
its full voice for the midnight.
It resonates with cadences both literary and oral and the influence of writers such as Lorna Goodison, Earl Lovelace, W S Merwin and Emily Dickenson, as well as the voices of the Pentecostal preachers amnd female storytellers whose tales of superstition and myth he absorbed as a child in Jamaica. Plundering prayers and hymns of praise, along with dictionary definitions, to chart the links getween poetry, the voice and song. A Light Song of Light is split into two halves: 'Day Time' and 'Night Time'. Here Miller confronts the metaphors of light and dark. After all you might 'discover your song has cancer / HIV, diabetes, is going blind in its left eye'. Yet, he makes clear that song is also analogous to the poetic impulse:
... a light song of light cannot be
held back. It cannot wait on health
or its perfect occasion
Like some magical incantation it has the power to 'summon silver, the shine of sequins'.
After a difficult year in which his mother died and the recession began to bite, Miller found himself asking what 'a song of light' might sound like and how a contemporary poet could write intelligent, rigorous poetry that dared to be optimistic without being undercut by irony. His conclusion is suggested in the lines:
A light song tells knock-knock jokes
and tells them in order
to illustrate the most heartbreaking points.
Written in received English and Jamaican patois, these new poems borrow from folk tales and ritual. In 'Abracadabra', he creates a spell through the slow aggregation of the magical word's letters at the beggining of each line. Elsewhere the almost shamanic Singerman, who sang the songs and provided the rhythm for the Jamaica's road gangs in the 1930s as they broke up stones, makes an appearance. In 'A Short Biography of the Singerman' we see him set against a virgin landscape where 'the hills / rose up like a flock of green / parrots', 'paid half shilling a week' digging trenches and filling pits, while in 'The Singerman's Other Job', he 'can be found / at dead yard, pointing songs at the moon'.
Terrors lurk in Miller's darkness. It is 'full of bread and salt' and the lid is 'lifted from the pot; the goat's head risen; / the teeth of the goat as white as the teeth of your dead mother'. Yet the dark also provides a cover for tenderness as he and his gay lover 'fall asleep in the tangle of fingers; and 'sometimes dream a single dream'. 'Unsung', written 'for a man who does not sing / himself - how has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair every morning', who 'has refused to pass down shame to his boy' for being gay, is a tender poem to his father. Here Miller celebrates the light that emanates from an ordinary, 'unsung' life. 'There should be a song for my father', he writes. Indeed, and by implication for all those who live lives of quiet dignity. In this moving collection the song of the indomitable human spirit flickers in the darkness like a flame.
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