Penny Cole reviews the poems of James Berry
These “Windrush Songs” are sung by those who, like James Berry, left their homes in Jamaica to settle in England in the 1950s. Berry himself arrived on the next ship after the Windrush. His poems tell the story of why people left, what they left behind, what they missed and what they found on arrival.
Berry’s ability to bring multifarious humanity vibrantly alive, plus a lyric tenderness and a mature and generous spirit, make this collection very special.
His ability to adopt many voices, and write in each authentically without a slip in word or tone, offers a gateway into a colourful market place of characters and landscape.
Men and women explain in gripping story-telling style, why they are leaving the Caribbean - to escape the kind of poverty that “ketch you and hol you”, that devours like pests on the crop; the back-breaking “work that conntrol me fadda like a mule”.
A woman wants to escape the sun, to get some snow experience, away from the stifling trap of family, love, children, to acquire that cool and distant thing, an education.
People contemplate what their arrival will be and prepare for it, inwardly rehearsing an English voice, that will flow easily “like water from a rock”. A man saves to buy a white suit, shirt, shoes and prepares to offer gleaming smiles to all he meets.
Another aims to get just enough to return home to buy a piece:
of five acre lan, to cultivate
and keep me livestock, like say:
just six cow them, six goat, six pig.
And clean, clean, I forget ol Englan,
America, Canada, or anywhere else.
I tell you, I wahn be around
the dizzy hummin bird
a-flutta in the red hibiscus.
But it won’t be easy because the pound is shy, especially of a black man: “standoffish, hard to meet”, much like the people of England. Not like the yankee dollar that flaunts itself prolifically “a swanky spreeboy”, “yet, is the ol L-S-D I know”.
For “despite the aftermath of slavery”, Berry says in his introduction, “there was still a respect, a sense of belonging” for England. After the war people in Jamaica had seen you could travel and change your life, Berry says. And at the same time, there were few prospects even for the brightest to escape hand-to-mouth farms and get an education. It was a poor country, with a low level government offering little to the aspiring young.
Berry had gone to the US to work in the war years, but left because: “America was not a free place for black people; there were too many restrictions on them. That insulted me as a human being and made me see Americans as a nation of small-minded, self-loving white people.”
For Jamaican migrants to England, however, there was a sense of arriving not only to something new, but also to something known. In “Wanting to Hear Big Ben” a man speaks of passing a radio in a shop and hearing the chime “how it did echo round the Whole Worl”, and he says:
Now - when I get to Landan
I jus wahn to stan-up
unda that striking Big Ben
an man, just test out
how that vibration work - inside-a-me.
Later, we hear of the things people miss about home - fine women, landscape and flavourful fishy food. Berry himself was born in a small village by the sea, and four beautiful sea lyrics are dotted through the collection, full of longing, desire, the need to move, and the chance to wash away the past.
Seawash of travel
Expose new layers of skin
Come on calm voice of sea
Come and settle on land
Sea’s tumble wash
Change our rags for riches
Come on - tumble wash of sea
Clear away the bloody waters
Clear away the bloody waters
The arrival of the immigrants offers England an opportunity too, to wash away slavery’s evil past, to atone and to be enriched by the arrival in their midst of new black citizens travelling by boat, not chained now, but still nervously wondering what their welcome will be.
The first time when ancesta-them did travel
them did a-travel to lose tongue, name
and pay. This time, descendant-them
a-travel by choice, with hope, and with
resolution for fulfillment
There is a political voice seeking reparation and fair shares. In the poem How the Weak Manufactured Power for the Strong the poet explains people want to be in “Englan, the place where all we prosperity end up”:
Days washed my generations
like showers of rain that sunk,
vanished in drought,
and we were like rocks.
Rooted in stones and flaming sunlight
the weak worked, and made power for the strong.
Now I go to live with people I helped -
with users of painful power.
I go to live with the unfeeling eaters
who digested the proceeds of my ancestors.
I go driven to fulfil sharing.
I go with bright smiles and awkward speech,
the tree feller, land digger, planter -
Awakened of new knowing in the knower
I go to live with faces of elegance and pride -
I who look as if
rooted in stones in sunlight
The villains in Berry’s poems are “self-love” and “wildness”, which together personify a kind of primitive, inward-looking, uneducated narrowness, that excludes the possibility of being enriched through interaction with others. In A Greater Oneness he writes:
Man, I goin Englan to speed up
what Empire start - that scorn, self-love and pride, I will
put together with humility.
I believe daylight and night-time are partners.
Night covers the day with arms like wings
to leave earth to gestate.
Man I believe daylight and night-time married
and do proliferate Nature’s children -
Man, I see it that all faces of difference
will come together with one face -
walking with multifarious faces,
with love, with peace, with essential growing.
Man, from where this world has come
we cannot be chance-experiment.
We are willing learners and givers
from provisions given.
Man, cruelty is our early wildness
to be more and more tamed
into the untarnished glow of lovingness.
Man - I goin to Englan
to help speed up Englan
into a greater oneness
with an ever growing humanity.
In his poem, In the Land and Sea-Culture crossed, Berry “calls to the hearts of indifference” for widening boundaries, expansion beyond self-love, beyond identification with a single culture in a world so small that simply “in gesturing, we touch the different other”:
There is madness in self-love
we will change it to sanity.
We will release change in each other.
What this collection offers is a mature and generous multiculturalism, very different from the banal and bureaucratic version generally on offer. It is a concept so much finer than Gordon Brown’s lowest-common denominator “union jacks on the lawn” concept of national identity, that it might come from a different planet, never mind another country. Berry proposes the real thing:
Windrush Songs by James Berry. Bloodaxe Books £7.95 paperback
As the ground catches the rotten fruit
for its centre to grow again, and
as only our negative selves are hurt by cleansing
for the expansion of self essence,
oh, let us more and more know.
Let us strive for
a coming together of allness in the self,
as, at peace with our centre
inhabiting all faces
inhabiting the core of all centres
being at home with allness
we strive to become habitation of allness.