Jamaican poet Jean "Binta" Breeze migrated to Britain in the mid-1980s and quickly earned a reputation as the godmother of the dub poetry scene here, a female counterpart to Linton Kwesi Johnson. Dub poetry first emerged in Jamaica in the 1970s as a grassroots form of protest poetry rooted in the rhythms and vernacular of reggae. Here at last was a Caribbean aesthetic that was completely its own.
This Selected Poems, accompanied by a DVD of live readings, tracks Breeze's development from Riddym Ravings (1988) through to new, hitherto unpublished work. Although she soon expanded her repertoire beyond dub, approximately half the collection is written in patois. These poems range from the rootsy, even folksy charm of simple tings: "ah hoe mi corn/ an de backache gone/ plant mi peas/ arthritis ease" to the more strident "caribbean women": "oh, man,/ oh, man,/ de Caribbean woman/ she doan fraid a de marchin beat/ she doan care how he timin sweet/ she doan care if she kill a man/ just doan mash up she plan".
Breeze writes with passion and empathy about ordinary working women, assuming multiple personae, often in celebration or lamentation. Her landscape is primarily the rural Caribbean, drawing on pastoral images of mountains and rivers, valleys and rainbows. She dips into world affairs and history, especially with her most recent poems, which do not necessarily outshine her earlier oeuvre.
She is most successful when writing concise, perfectly-pitched poems in patois, through which the voice of the narrator is insistently heard. Some of the poems in standard English, like song lyrics exposed on the page, reveal predictable rhymes and hackneyed phrases, although there are exceptions. Her "natural high" is a lovely, supple, clever paean to a mother: "my mother is a/ red/ woman/ she/ gets high/ on clean children/ grows/ common sense/ injects/ tales/ with heroines/ fumes/ over dirty habits".
The book also contains love and relationship poems, although usually barbed with betrayal, loss or poverty, as in "lovin wasn easy": "lovin wasn easy/ wen de food run out/ an de two pap chow jus cut/ de evenings of bwoil rice/ widdout salt/ an de neighbour a cuss/ bout we bedspring noise".
Any discussion of Breeze's poetry must be contextualised by its performance and original audience. Although some might take an anthropological interest and delight in the "exotic" otherness of the voice of a poet raised by peasant-farmer grandparents in rural Jamaica, one senses she has never abandoned her community. And she is part of a deeper poetic tradition that stretches back, not to Wordsworth, Auden, Eliot and Plath but to Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), Jamaica's "national poet", who began to publish "dialect verses" in the 1940s. Like her forebear, Breeze's poetry does not concern itself with adhering to traditional Western forms or wilful obfuscation. Hers is a poetry for the people written in the voice of the people. The project: to make of their lives and language an art form. In "Red Rebel Song", she declares: "is lang time/ i waan sing dis song/ sing it loud/ sing it long/ no apology/ no pun/ jus a raw fire madness/ a clinging to de green/ a sargasso sea".
Breeze has a warmth, humour and charisma in performance that stands unrivalled. The accompanying DVD needs to be watched, because her poems are transformed by a delivery that is rhapsodic, incantatory, hypnotic and always entertaining.
Bernardine Evaristo's 'Blonde Roots' is published by Penguin