Contemporary poets: 6 Fred D'Aguiar

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Born in London in 1960, Fred D'Aguiar moved to Guyana as a child, then returned to this country in his teens. He has published two books of poems with Chatto, Mama Dot (1985) and Airy Hall (1989), and has a third, British Subjects, ready for publication next year. His play A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death was produced at the Royal Court last year, and he is shortly to take up a Creative Writing post at Amherst College, Massachussets. Moving between two worlds, childhood and adulthood, British and West Indian, black and white, his poetry has a post-colonial preoccupation with redefining Britishness. This poem, dedicated to the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, was inspired by a visit to Henbury Parish Church, near Bristol, where the gravestone of an 18th-century servant includes couplets in praise of his unflagging devotion but fails to give his name.

AT THE GRAVE OF THE UNKNOWN AFRICAN

TWO round, cocoa faces, carved on whitewashed headstone,

protect your grave against hellfire and brimstone.

Those cherubs with puffed cheeks, as if chewing gum,

signal how you got here and where you came from.

More than two and a half centuries after your death,

the barefaced fact that you're unnamed feels like defeat.

I got here via White Ladies' Road and Black Boy's Hill,

clues lost in these lopsided stones that Henbury's vandal

helps to the ground and Henbury's conservationist

tries to rectify, cleaning the vandal's pissy love-nest.

African slave without a name, I'd call this home

by now. Would you? Your unknown soldier's tomb

stands for shipload after shipload that docked,

unloaded, watered, scrubbed, exercised and restocked

thousands more souls for sale in Bristol's port.

Cab-drivers speak of it all with yesterday's hurt.

The good conservationist calls it her 300-year war;

Those raids, deals, deceits and capture (a sore still raw).

St Paul's, Toxteth, Brixton, Tiger Bay and Handsworth:

petrol bombs flower in the middle of roads, a sudden growth

at the feet of police lines longer than any cricket pitch.

African slave, your namelessness is the wick and petrol mix.

Each generation catches the one fever love can't appease,

nor molotov cocktails, nor when they embrace in a peace

far from that three-named, two-bit vandal and conservationist

binning beer cans, condoms and headstones in big puzzle-pieces.

II-

Stop there black Englishman before you tell a bigger lie.

You mean me well by what you say but I can't stand idly by.

The vandal who keeps coming and does what he calls fucks

on the cool gravestones also pillages and wrecks.

If he knew not so much my name but what happened to Africans,

he'd maybe put in an hour or two collecting his Heinekens;

like the good old conservationist, who's earned her column

inch, who you knock, who I love without knowing her name.

The dead can't write, nor can we sing (nor can most living).

Our ears (if you can call them ears) make no good listening.

Say what happened to me and countless like me, all anon.

Say it urgently. Mean times may bring back the water cannon.

I died young, but to age as a slave would have been worse.

What can you call me? Mohammed. Homer. Hannibal. Jesus.

Would it be too much to have them all? What are couples up to

when one reclines on the stones and is ridden by the other?

Will our talk excite the vandal? He woz ere, like you are now,

armed with a knife. I could see trouble on his creased brow,

love trouble, not for some girl but for this village.

I share his love and would have let him spoil my image,

if it wasn't for his blade in the shadow of the church wall

taking me back to my capture and long sail to Bristol,

then my sale on Black Boy's Hill and disease ending my days:

I sent a rumble up to his sole; he scooted, shocked and dazed.

Here the sentence is the wait and the weight is the sentence.

I've had enough of a parish where the congregation can't sing.

Take me where the hymns sound like a fountain-washed canary,

and the beer-swilling, condom-wielding vandal of Henbury

reclines on the stones and the conservationist mounts him,

and in my crumbly ears there's only the sound of them sinning.

(Photograph omitted)

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