Impossible Flying. Kwame Dawes. Leeds, Peepal Tree Press, 2006.
Kwame Dawes’s latest collection begins by taking the reader to a Kingston of the mind, the Kingston of his youth long left behind but never forgotten. It begins with poems that are so deeply personal and familial – about his father, about his brother – that the appearance of politics, of the Kingston of 1980 and of a quotation from the Jamaica Labour Party’s campaign song of that year, comes as a visceral shock.
The themes established in the first few pages of this collection are repeated throughout the book, though the poet contemplates places other than Kingston and experiences other than those of growing up in the Jamaica of the 1970s and 1980s. Experiences that include his younger brother growing into manhood, his mother’s care, his father’s childhood in Sturge Town, St Ann, and his own efforts to create an identity for himself:
my first decision there – to change my name, not
Neville any more, not the Anglo name, the protection
of my father’s birthright, his Oxbridge imprimatur.
I read these poems, and I feel like an intruder in Dawes’s life, an observer over his shoulder in the various vignettes he sets out, which are always personal, always intimate, and yet at the same time detached so that the observer, seeing things through the poet’s eyes, still feels an observer. He explores his life and invites the reader to join with him in this exploration of his own private space.
Even in the title poem, “Impossible Flying”, which is pretty openly political, with its simultaneously engaged and detached view of Jamaica in the 1970s, we find ourselves suddenly moved from the approaching Jamaica Labour Party victory in the elections of 1980 which takes place in a public space to a private encounter between the poet and his brother as the latter tries to do the impossible and fly. It is not the first of the many surprising juxtapositions in this book. And even the political becomes personal; the socialism of 1970s Jamaica becomes an inverted snobbery, an effort to claim the mantle of poverty:
how we fought
to be poor, to be sufferers.
It is his brother and his father who populate most of these poems, though one is dedicated simply ‘for Mama’ and others deal with adult relationships outside the birth family, and the central theme is the poet’s striving for manhood in relation to both. But there is something more: “This is,” he writes, “the tale of our redemption.”
We follow Dawes through Kingston, through London, through Canada, through South Carolina, as he explores his present, his past, his family, his own body as it grows fat with age, and we feel privileged to be his traveling companions through the ordinarinesses, discomforts, joys, and epiphanies of life. Dawes was born a traveler, and he can do nothing but take his readers with him on his explorations of place, people, and self.
Mortality sits lightly on these poems, his father’s death and the inevitability of his own:
I do not want to die. So absurd
this admission, this effort to confront
the unpredictable odds of our living.
These poems are filled with regret, for lost chances, for more innocent times, for the relationships that are no more. It is that regret, the melancholy that fills these poems, “the messy/contracts we make with blood legacies” as Dawes puts it.
The blurb on the back cover declares that Dawes is “widely acknowledged as the foremost Caribbean poet of the post-Walcott generation”. That’s a bold claim, most especially because, apart from place, there is at first glance little that is Caribbean about these poems; most of them could have been written anywhere. They are about what it is to be male, how a masculine identity develops in the shadow of a father, in the presence of a brother. The history in them is personal, even at its most political. Yet it is a claim that should be weighed carefully, for Dawes is a true poet, and his work speaks to one of the most significant qualities of being human which is “the dreary cadence of regret”. And that regret is a pain that can be as political as it is personal.
Clark Atlanta University