Sean O'Brien (review date 7-13 July 1989)

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SOURCE: “Towards a Revelation,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 7-13, 1989, p. 737.

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[In the following review, O'Brien concludes that Airy Hall is a mixture of “disappointment” and “refreshing ambition.”]

The title sequence of Fred D'Aguiar's second collection, Airy Hall, consists of eighteen poems about the Guyanan village where his boyhood was spent. It expands and enriches the prose account D'Aguiar gave in Poetry Review (Volume 75, Number 2, August 1985), and emphasizes his gifts in handling the evidence of the senses. Dry washing is heard “chattering” on a line; leaves “describe a slowed, / ziggurat fall”; a whole section of “Airy Hall at Night” brilliantly evokes the horrible toadness of a trodden-on toad. According to D'Aguiar, Airy Hall is a place you could drive or sprint through without noticing it, and he convincingly re-creates its remoteness, its heat, its stillness, its seemingly uneventful secrecy. At a barely explicit level, though, he seems to want to push the poems further, towards a revelation for which the speaking picture is inadequate.

Exactly how this squares with the observation in “Airy Hall Barrier” that “Many deny what we see / Has anything to do with anything” is not made clear in the sequence, but at times the effort to signify afflicts the verse with hyperaesthesia, and the result is cramped and overwritten. The most striking example is “Airy Hall's Feathered Glories.” Describing the capture of songbirds, it staggers towards its conclusion under the burden of its set-piece role:

After an absence hard to string
A sentence in, ambition itself,
Nursed from crawl, to walk, to run,
Enters the brashest of suns, cages
Held high as lamps, mirrors or trophies
Brimming a tongue-tied, granite dark.

Faced with such grammatical discomfort and insistent symbolism the unsympathetic reader might be put in mind of 1940s Apocalyptic impatience with clarity: “a tongue-tied, granite dark”? Come again? Yet while these lines deflect rather than convince, D'Aguiar is surely right to keep hammering away at the effort to fuse private imaginings with cultural and political realities.

In this context, “Frontline Chronicle,” from the book's second section, takes on special importance. It records, first D'Aguiar's quarrel (at the time of the Brixton insurrection?) with a man who insisted that writing must be bare and direct—a view the poet could neither share nor, at the time, effectively dispute—and second his opponent's violent death, apparently in police custody. It is a “direct” and painful poem, but part of its point is that D'Aguiar has sacrificed none of his attachment to art to achieve it. The very fact that he remains unconverted to populism may account for the deforming strain and uncertain progress of some of the poems, for his methods remain based in English traditions which have rarely been called on to serve the purposes he has in mind. “Only the President's Eggs Are Yellow” applies satire with surreal affiliations to a stalled Third World economy but ends up infected by the mixture of inertia and febrility it records, while “El Dorado Update,” the most nearly oral poem in the book, similarly amasses detail without acquiring momentum.

If the suspicion grows that D'Aguiar has yet to satisfy himself as to his technical intentions—his cadences veer from memorable to inaudible—he proves willing to take this and other matters on in the lengthy closing poem “The Kitchen Bitch.” Narrating an ill-starred journey through mountain and jungle, seemingly from the viewpoint of a former guerrilla, it is a work whose Gordian unfriendliness is likely to gain it more acknowledgements than readers. The combination of disappointment with refreshing ambition is typical of the book: better this, perhaps, than some easier successes.

Maya Jaggi (review date 19 April 1991)

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SOURCE: “Four Rum Jamaicans,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 19, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following review of A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death, Jaggi commends the play's powerful symbolism and humor, though finds shortcomings in its uneven pacing and underdeveloped contemporary parallels.]

The title of Fred D'Aguiar's play sounds an echo of W. B. Yeats's poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Through an episodic, exuberant juxtaposition of dialogue, verse and song, D'Aguiar transfers the poem's ambivalence about fighting another country's battles to the experience of a Jamaican airman in the Second World War.

Set initially in Jamaica in the 1940s, the play satirizes the cynical appeal made to the dominions, to fight for King and country. Kojo, an eccentric creole seer, parodies Churchill's broadcasts with scatological relish, while mocking the gullibility of the young, rum-soaked Jamaicans who enthusiastically queue to join up. D'Aguiar humorously reveals the mixed motives of a naive foursome (played with engaging fervour by Clarence Smith, Sidney Cole, Maynard Eziashi and Fraser James) who enlist more in a spirit of fortune-hunting and sexual bravado than of patriotism. Yet it also exposes their illusions about the metropolitan power (“Britain is the father, Jamaica mother to me”, the boys chant), which others warn against.

As the scene shifts to an airbase in Scotland, disillusionment sets in, with the Jamaican recruits relegated to menial tasks: one cleans the toilets, “flushing out the enemy” in “germ warfare”; others end up in the canteen or the barber-shop. Meanwhile, the locals’ idea of hospitality is to ambush Clarence Smith's Alvin, “to see if he has a tail.” Only Alvin's rescue at the hands of a Yeats-quoting Scottish lass helps thaw the coldness of the welcome. But Alvin, a rear-gunner of prowess, is grounded for accidentally shooting down an Allied plane. In a twist to the title, the Jamaican airman succumbs not to extinction, but to the slower death of insanity, after being labelled a murderer, and dishonourably discharged.

The poet D'Aguiar's gift for metaphor, and the affective power of his language, combine with a quirkily wry humour to propel a drama which sometimes threatens to lose sight of its narrative threads. Through metaphors of flight, or drowning, the play powerfully captures the hopes, bewilderment, vulnerability and blindness of the young volunteers.

Hettie Macdonald's adventurously informal promenade production lends itself to the play's oscillations of mood. Though a little chaotic at the outset, and tending at times to lose paces it settles into an exciting unpredictability, as the roving audience (offered rum punch and peanuts at the door) literally pursues the action into the various corners of the theatre. The only drawback to the production is its resolute rootedness in the Second World War years, which muffles resonances for the present. Neither simply about the war years, nor about racial bias within the armed forces, the play also serves to dramatize the hopes and disillusionment of all those who have been lured to the metropolis. Urgent parallels with the present are hinted at in Alvin's fateful encounter with British justice which condemns him not for his actions but for his colour. His consequent decline into mental illness also mirrors a grim sociological reality.

D'Aguiar's play sparks important issues which he has the demonstrable talent to develop further and more boldly. In this production, energetic and engaging as it is, they run the risk of being comfortingly relegated to a distant past.

Paula Burnett (review date 12 November 1993)

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SOURCE: “Thames Barriers,” in New Statesman & Society, November 12, 1993, pp. 37-8.

[In the following excerpt, Burnett offers a generally positive assessment of British Subjects, though she notes that some of poems in the volume “do not earn their place.”]

The peculiarly British ambivalence about black cultural expression is well summed up by topical events. On the one hand, the South Bank Centre and the Arts Council are staging Out of the Margins, a celebration of British black and Asian writing. On the other, the government has announced that it is to close down the Commonwealth Institute by turning off the funding tap from 1996. With funds already reduced to little more than a trickle, the Foreign Office policy has starved all areas of the institute's work over the past decade. Yet that work has heroically continued to nurture the cultural climate in which such events as the South Bank festival can blossom.

So many of the black and Asian writers taking part have been fostered by the institute's encouragement. So many British citizens, both black and white, children and adults, have begun to appreciate a multicultural society through visits to the galleries and its special events. So many writers and students have been able to share the literature of the Commonwealth through the library, unique in this country. If all that goes, Britain will be the poorer, and the coming generations of writers may never materialise.

E A Markham and Fred D'Aguiar are examples of writers who are, at the moment, British. They engage creatively with their experience of living here, but the riches they offer are very much shaped by their identity as black citizens of the Commonwealth. We lose either the institute, or them, at our peril ….

There are coruscating moments, too, in Fred D'Aguiar's third collection of poems, British Subjects. The title signals a digging into British identity for a young writer born in Britain of Caribbean parentage, then raised in Guyana, and until recently resident in Britain. His earlier work was more firmly placed in Guyanese life and language, particularly the first book, Mama Dot. Now his Guyanese sense of a water-bound landscape is naturalised to the tidal reaches of the Thames. A night flight over London and “my neck of the woods” reveals “The Thames ribbed and corseted / by traffic despite its peregrinations / in a black wetsuit.”

Later the river is “sanskrit in black ink / scribbling away into the dark.” Building on his conjuring of Columbus as a Triton figure rising from the river in “1492,” he now imagines that Bob Marley's locks break the plaited tide. The Thames Barrier becomes a grand metaphor of racial exclusion.

Guyana is now a place with museums to be visited like a tourist, although he is accompanied by his mentor—the novelist Wilson Harris—who expounds their shared history. D'Aguiar is of the next generation after Harris, but needs to guard against assuming an august mantle too easily. Some of the poems here do not earn their place. His editors at Bloodaxe should have been sterner, helping him to complete the shift from a promising narrative skill to a richer metaphoric texture while retaining his ear.

That said, there are some strikingly original poems here; particularly fables such as “A Gift of a Rose,” in which relationships between the black community and the police are poignantly allegorised. D'Aguiar has begun to speak authoritatively of a British experience, but he is now in the US. Britain risks losing him and other talents such as Caryl Phillips.

It was at the Commonwealth Institute that a remarkable epic poem, written in London by the Jamaican Jean Binta Breeze, recently had its first reading. A national commitment to such writers and the institute is vital if the English language—enriched for centuries by different cultures—is to continue to thrive.

Ian Sansom (review date 7 January 1994)

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SOURCE: “Sincere Despair,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1994, p. 18.

[In the following review, Sansom offers an unfavorable evaluation of British Subjects.]

The astonishing output of Bloodaxe Books over the past fifteen years is a testament to editor Neil Astley's enthusiasm and hard work. Unfortunately, Astley has worked so hard that he now sometimes seems to be asleep on the job—this, at least, would help to explain why British Subjects, Fred D'Aguiar's third collection, and his first from Bloodaxe, is not as good as it should be.

For D'Aguiar excites high expectations. His short but brilliant first collection, Mama Dot, was published in 1985, when he was twenty-five years old. In 1988, he was joint editor of the ground-breaking Paladin anthology, The New British Poetry, and 1989 saw his second collection, Airy Hall, win the Guyana Prize for Poetry. Since then he has written plays, held the prestigious Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge University and now teaches at Amherst College, Massachusetts. E. A. Markham included him as the youngest poet in Hinterland, the excellent (Bloodaxe) anthology of Caribbean poetry, where D'Aguiar's tough, fluent poems with their distinctive conceits (in “Mama Dot's Treatise” mosquitoes “suck our blood / From the cradle / And flaunt it / Like a fat wallet”) did not look out of place alongside work by stalwarts like Edward Kamau Brathwaite and James Berry. It is D'Aguiar's obvious talent that makes British Subjects such a disappointment and makes one wish for some severe editorial blue-pencilling.

British Subjects is true to its title—apart from two short poem-sequences set in Guyana and Germany, the collection concerns itself with life in Britain's cities and towns, from Whitley Bay to Greenwich. D'Aguiar's focus is sharp but the poetry is sluggish: in the poems dealing directly with issues of race and racism his usual gusto is replaced by a laboured sincerity. When, in “A Gift of a Rose,” for example, two policemen “stopped me and gave me a bunch of red, red roses” the immediate effect is dizzying, provoking, but over the next four stanzas the image collapses under its own weight. “Colour,” on the other hand, in which the narrator's colour seeps away, is intriguing but half-baked.

Some of D'Aguiar's old interests and skills are still apparent. His earlier collections explored and celebrated the geography of people's lives in Guyana; the new British-based poems are still fascinated by the complex interaction between individuals and their environment, though now the observations are voiced with an eloquent despair, as in the opening to “Inner City”:

The way a man lets his dog
strip the bark off a young tree
and the children of that man
break branch after branch
till the naked trunk of the thing
stands, a dead stump.

There are occasional flashes, too, of D'Aguiar's highly wrought intelligence, in “Honest Souls,” and of his smart-arse wit in the gnomic obscenities of “Thirteen Views of a Penis”:

A Buddhist demonstration of faith:
how much drinking water (uncarbonated)
can a monk draw up his untumid penis.

But there has undoubtedly been a diminishing and a slackening in his style. Where he once drew widely on effects of repetition and dialect to produce his linguistic melodies, his tunes are now cheap and cheerless, as in the opening poem “Ballad of the Throwaway People”: “we are the throwaway people / The problem that won't go away / people.” And where his imagination once thrived in the luxuriant atmosphere of the poem sequence (the Mama Dot and Airy Hall poems, the long, magnificent “The Kitchen Bitch”), the sequences in British Subjects are shorter and seem half-hearted—most of the poems in the sequence “The Body in Question,” for example, are weightless, brittle, rather silly: “Buttocks are a source of worry for those who look over / their shoulder at a full-length mirror.”

Fred D'Aguiar is a good poet, but this is a poor collection. It makes one wonder, despairingly, whether in fact the insufficiencies of British Subjects have something to do with the insufficiencies of its British subjects.

Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 15 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “Resisting Ignorance,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following review, Gurnah offers a positive assessment of The Longest Memory.]

In the mythology of defiance to racial slavery in the United States, no act has quite the resonance as that of learning to read and write. There were practical reasons for the prohibition of literacy by the slave-holders, but among them was also a desire to have their assumption of the African's degraded humanity fulfilled. For the slave, overcoming the prohibition was a form of resistance to this assumption and a step towards liberation. In The Longest Memory, it is insurgent acts like these which indicate to the overseer that Chapel is bound to run one day.

The events in the novel take place on a Virginia plantation owned by Mr Whitechapel about the turn of the nineteenth century. An old slave, called Whitechapel after his master, betrays the route of his son's escape to the planter. The son is also called Whitechapel, shortened to Chapel to distinguish him from his father. Whitechapel's betrayal leads to Chapel's capture, horrific whipping and death. This is the central memory of the novel, but through it are revealed other memories which construct the degraded world of the slave plantation. “Remembering” is the novel's method, as different voices take up the narrative at various points. Fred D'Aguiar makes good use of Whitechapel, an Uncle Tom figure who personifies the debate about what is a responsible act under slavery. He is the oldest man on the plantation, the only one born in Africa, father and grandfather and great-grandfather to nearly two-thirds of the slaves. He has acquired some credit from the planter and the overseer because he has accommodated himself to slavery but, above all, he has survived. He betrays not because he is abject, but to teach his son that resistance is useless, to school him “in the idea of obedience.”

Chapel is not really his son. He is the son of Saunders the former overseer, who was the father of the current overseer, also called Saunders. He had raped Chapel's mother a few days before she married Whitechapel. The overseer and Chapel are half-brothers, though neither knows it. It is because Whitechapel thinks Saunders knows that he does not expect him to whip his half-brother to death. That is the “prodigious carpet” of intimate interweavings which display the finer cruelties of slavery. Chapel's immediate reason for running away is Lydia, the planter's daughter. It is she who teaches Chapel to read—his mother is the cook at the big house and he hangs around while Lydia is reading to herself. When they are discovered, long after Chapel has mastered the skill, it is Romeo and Juliet they are found reading together. Their own story has some parallels with the star-crossed lovers. Their love is a secret. They are young; Lydia is sixteen and Chapel is thirteen. The secret conversations they hold on clear nights are reminiscent of the anguished dialogue of the young lovers. Their plan to run away together ends in tragedy and misunderstanding. The Romeo and Juliet motif, and Chapel's absorbing interest in English classical texts—Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne—figure his desire to be a poet as well the tradition he belongs to. It is, then, as someone who belongs to that tradition that he makes his bid for freedom and happiness.

The Longest Memory is written in a form which is both fluid and complex, using language of some intensity. The “memories” are given to different participants—Whitechapel, Mr Whitechapel, Lydia, Cook, and so on—and this results in some unevenness of both voice and pace. The pace slackens when the different voices go over events that we already know about without adding anything; Mr Whitechapel's visit to the club is an example of this, as are Cook's two sentimental monologues. These sections stand out in an otherwise tense and tightly constructed narrative. Whitechapel, though, is wonderfully effective, bewildered and heroic, overcome by his action yet stoical in his acceptance of ostracism by his children and grandchildren. In his figure, The Longest Memory effectively demonstrates the inevitable intimacies between oppressor and oppressed.

Paula Burnett (review date 2 September 1994)

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SOURCE: “Ocean Views,” in New Statesman & Society, September 2, 1994, pp. 36-7.

[In the following excerpt, Burnett offers a positive assessment of The Longest Memory.]

Two years on from the 1492 quincentenary, the Euro-American past still haunts British minds. Not only has the infant 23rd in line for the throne improbably been named Columbus, but London publishing has delivered four new novels addressing the shared transatlantic experience. Three of them have voyages at their heart. All revisit the guilt and suffering of the past, and all hold up to the light the racial encounters and moral conflicts of Atlantic history. …

Liberalism is taken apart in the poet Fred D'Aguiar's first novel, The Longest Memory. D'Aguiar, a British-born Guyanese, tackles the myth of the benign slave owner with a cleverly constructed tale set on a Virginia plantation, which exposes liberalism as self-interested and skin-deep. It tells the history of an Uncle Tom's betrayal of his runaway son, because he trusts his liberal master. The enigmatic story is unfolded through a series of separate narrations spoken by those involved, beginning with the disillusioned father, now ostracised as guilty by his own community, although he was the betrayed.

As speaker after speaker uses the same neutral language—eloquent, rational, ethical, low-key—impatience sets in, until it dawns that the apartheid of the fragmented narrations is cunningly transcended by this common idiom. The separate testimonies unravel, in all its tragic poignancy, a story of interracial rape in one generation balanced by doomed interracial love in the next. The black father's misplaced faith in liberalism is inverted in his son's resistance.

This deceptively simple book resonates long after it is finished; it addresses not only the dilemmas of the past but also today's generation gap in racial attitudes. D'Aguiar brings off the difficult feat of embracing, sincerely, both black militancy and a forgiving pluralism. “Memory is pain trying to resurrect itself,” concludes his old man. …

Andrew Salkey (review date Autumn 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of British Subjects, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 864-5.

[In the following review, Salkey compares British Subjects to the verse of W. H. Auden and Phillip Larkin.]

The primary thematic thrusts of Fred D'Aguiar's spirited verse [in British Subjects] support subjects that readily yield themselves up to satire and irony. Of course, this is not to say that he writes down to levels of sarcasm, cynicism, or ridicule. Indeed, he does the very opposite; he achieves peaks of exuberant phrase-making, punning, humor, paraphrase, and fancy.

In one of D'Aguiar's most ironically layered narrative poems, the persona, an authentic citizen of Britain and the Commonwealth, lands at Heathrow, approaches Customs, and gives himself over “to the usual inquisition”; but he discovers after handing over his passport “the stamp, British Citizen, not bold enough / for my liking and too much for theirs” (from “Home”). Then there is the Cockney cab driver “who won't steer clear of race, / so rounds on Asians. I lock eyes with him / in the rearview when I say I live with one.” And now, see how the poet resolves that confrontation, with the wryest of witty strophes: “I have legal tender burning in my pocket / to move on, like a cross in Transylvania.”

One example of D'Aguiar's splendid, irreverent wit, aptly imagized, is his debunking of the young, angelic faces on the headstone over the grave of an unknown African slave, in Bristol, described as “Those cherubs with puffed cheeks, as if chewing gum” (from “At the Grave of the Unknown African”). Quiet wordplay, fused with accurately patterned, figurative phrasing, resulted in this piquant, panoramic vista as seen at night three thousand feet above the lights of London: “The pearl necklaces of traffic / break, trying to get round / my neck of the woods” (from “Domestic Flight”).

Fred D'Aguiar certainly might regard the following comparison with scant favor, but I am inclined to seize on it and so close my comments, in spite of the opposition it will be met with from the poet himself and from his many admirers throughout the Caribbean: his barbed, clever and playful manner reminds me of W. H. Auden's and even Philip Larkin's. The following six-line stanza from “Notting Hill” is, I think, a fair corroboration of that remark:

Never mind street names, they're postal
conveniences. Life is a honeycomb
made to eat; just sort out the sting
from the honey and the choreography
comes with ease, grace, so rock on,
but mind that island in the road!

Angelyn Mitchell (review date 13 August 1995)

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SOURCE: “Black Family Matters,” in Washington Post Book World, August 13, 1995, p. 8.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell offers a positive assessment of The Longest Memory.]

Many contemporary black writers exhibit a preoccupation with history—both public and personal—in their work. Because blacks have not always had the opportunity to engage in self-representation, they understand the importance of being able to tell one's own story. Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson and Maryse Conde have situated their most critically acclaimed novels—Beloved, Middle Passage, and I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, respectively—within the historical context of American slavery. By presenting slavery from the slaves’ perspective they not only record and preserve the slaves history and culture but also provide a look at the interior lives of black men and women. Younger black writers such as A. J. Verdelle, Fred D'Aguiar and Lionel Newton also situate their recently released novels within a particular historical context in order to illuminate the interior lives of black people. …

In The Longest Memory, his first novel, Guyanese writer Fred D'Aguiar examines the legacies of American slavery. D'Aguiar uses the memories of his characters to tell his story by means of various techniques and mediums: first-person narrations, stream of consciousness, shifting narrative voices, newspapers, diaries, and poetry. He also explores a multitude of themes, including miscegenation and fatherhood.

In his meditation on memory and history, D'Aguiar also examines the familial and romantic relations between blacks and whites. Set in 19th-century Virginia, the narrative centers on the plight of an elderly slave father who tries to save his escaped son's life by revealing his whereabouts. After he is returned to the plantation, the son is whipped to death by his half-brother, the overseer. In this ironic situation, D'Aguiar juxtaposes the contrasting beliefs of the father, who believes in the “safety” of slavocracy's status quo, and the son, who is educated and in love with the master's daughter and wants to emancipate himself from slavery. The father then is left feeling responsible for his only son's death. Of his selfish act, he concludes, “I killed my son because I wanted him next to me when I died.”

D'Aguiar creates “the longest memory” through a mosaic of events that allows all of the characters to recount their respective recollections of the events. This is primarily a story of fathers and sons; the women of this novel are flat characters who serve only to help define the male characters. Overall, the novel's strengths are in its illumination of slavery's devastating psychological effects on all of its participants, black and white, and of the often unexamined psychology of the slave community. …

A. L. McLeod (review date Autumn 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Longest Memory, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 851-2.

[In the following review, McLeod offers an unfavorable assessment of The Longest Memory.]

Although the publisher describes The Longest Memory as a novel, it is at best a novella; and if we subscribe to Poe's view that a story is a work than can be read conveniently at one sitting, then this work (under 25,000 words) belongs to the shortest of the genres of prose fiction. But is not merely length that allows this categorization: there is no substantial development of character, no complexity of interaction among characters, no feeling that a major statement about life (or any of its aspects) has been explored adequately. As a result, Fred D'Aguiar (whose poetry has been acclaimed) cannot be said to have created, in this his first fiction, a work comparable to any of the fictions of his celebrated Guyanese countrymen such as Wilson Harris, Jan Carew, or Edgar Mittelholtzer. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in his choice of subject and location.

The story presents in several forms (newspaper editorials, confessionals, reminiscences, conversations, even rhymed couplets) the recollections of a group of plantation family members, neighbors, and slaves, of the death by whipping of a young slave, the product of miscegenation, and the ramifications of the established mores and morality of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Virginia slaveholding society. However, because of the brevity of the story, the author has not been able to develop any persuasive case on issues such as cruelty, ameliorative administration, Southern policy, Abolition, or interpersonal relationships. Cases are stated and abandoned; people mouth platitudes and commonplaces; even Sourface, the patriarch and centenarian central character, who suddenly decides that he has no name, remains little more than a cipher. (The other characters hardly become individuals at all.)

While the subject matter might have been appealing to the author, one wonders whether he fully realized the difficulties of trying to replicate the spoken and written style of Tidewater Virginia: it seems that he has been influenced by other writers’ attempts at antebellum speech and language—or else by film versions. “North, here we come!” seems a most improbable exclamation from a Great House teenager of the era. And one wonders whether a longtime resident of Virginia would observe in his diary for 2 May that he is “late for the cotton harvest.” Those who have read recent works on slavery (especially in Virginia) and discipline in the Royal Navy circa 1800—or even in Australia, a penal colony, at the same time—will not be as shocked as the author apparently is about such matters.

It would seem that D'Aguiar could have produced a far more affective and effective work had he written at greater length, in greater detail, and with tighter focus on one or two characters or incidents only. Further, had the style of the several narrators been reflective of their educational and social levels, greater realism would have produced more differentiation of characters.

Paula Burnett (review date 22 March 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Nightmare Republic,” in New Statesman & Society, March 22, 1996, pp. 39-40.

[In the following review, Burnett offers a positive assessment of Dear Future.]

A megalomaniac leader whose dentist has planted a micro-transmitter in his rotten tooth to broadcast his secrets to the opposition takes an early-morning canter on the beach with his bodyguard. He ends up shooting the horse because the animal shies at the high-frequency noise. The country is recognisable as Guyana, where Fred D'Aguiar grew up, but it could be any state where politics has degenerated into a game of naked power.

Reminding us that he was a poet before he was a novelist, and that magic realism is as much at home in the Anglophone world as in the Latin countries, D'Aguiar is playing with the figure of the Guyanese bone flute. He updates it with a macabre humour that permeates this new book [Dear Future]. His first novel was about slavery; this one traces the fortunes of a contemporary Caribbean “sea-split family” (to use a phrase of Andrew Salkey's).

The story becomes a song of innocence and experience. The harmless family at its centre—which manifests the Guyanese ideal of cultural and racial pluralism, symbolised by the colour red—is sucked into the vortex of degeneracy that passes for public life. It is a world where “progress”, as seen in the replacing of the old red sand road with the creeping black ribbon of tarmac, is heavily ironised.

D'Aguiar creates a powerful sense of the vulnerability of innocence, right from the opening scene in which a child is accidently struck on the head by a good-natured wood-chopping uncle. It is this boy, Red Head, whose consciousness dominates the book. He and his brother, part of an extended family in rural Guyana, dream of the return of their mother, who lives in London with three younger sons.

Doing her bit to oust the corrupt leader, she falsifies postal voters’ lists and struggles to survive in a mixed immigrant community rife with the double rip-off of capitalism and patriarchy. But at least the sons growing up in the sordid city (which she longs to clean) are left with a future. Time runs out for those in Guyana, in a memorable scene at the book's centre.

Political power-play is examined through the magnifying glass of trivial pursuits—the games ordinary people play. There are sports and small-town contests here, children's amusements and friendly rivalries. They give the book a foreground intricately embroidered with small figures at recreation, as in a Breughel marketplace. It is ingeniously constructed around the dynamic of the contest, with the domestic version placed in ever more urgent counterpoint with the wider power struggle. As it provokes questions about the power of the powerless, the novel's last hope is the sensitivity and imagination of ordinary folk.

Red Head narrates the final section. He addresses his future in spare language that makes the more decorative style of the rest (which has seemed irritatingly lax at times) resonate in retrospect with the pace of old-fashioned courtesies. D'Aguiar is shaping into a crafty storyteller who challenges his reader to think. His bone flute plays a haunting tune.

Sean O'Brien (review date 6 June 1996)

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SOURCE: “A Necessary Gospel,” in London Review of Books, June 6, 1996, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, O'Brien offers a generally positive evaluation of Dear Future, but concludes that the novel contains unresolved underlying concerns.]

It was as a poet that Fred D'Aguiar first won recognition, with his 1985 collection Mama Dot, set in the Guyanese village where the English-born D'Aguiar was sent to be educated. The place is dominated by Mama Dot, the archetypal grandmother, source of wisdom, comfort and discipline, a woman so important that when she falls ill nature itself goes to pieces.

Bees abandon their queens to red ants and bury
Their stings in every moving thing: and the sun
Sticks like the hands of a clock at noon.
Drying the very milk in coconuts to powder.

This vivid, funny, uncluttered work, moving between standard and Nation language, was immediately attractive. D'Aguiar, however, had other subjects and formal challenges in mind. Apart from its title sequence, his second book, Airy Hall (1989), was a much more troublesome affair, showing the pressure of a more discursive and politically complex area of his imagination, at some cost to clarity and impetus. “The Kitchen Bitch,” an ambitious but clotted narrative, seemed strongly influenced by the Guyanese novels of Wilson Harris, whose hallucinatory, half-abstract, outrageously bejewelled manner is as dangerous in its idiosyncrasy as that of Hopkins or Dylan Thomas. Problems persisted into D'Aguiar's most recent collection, British Subjects (1993), and it comes as no surprise that he should recently have turned to fiction: the loose baggy monster offers more room than poetry for certain kinds of manoeuvre. What is interesting, though, is that with his second novel, Dear Future, D'Aguiar has once more put village life in the foreground: the author's disclaimer notwithstanding, for the Co-Operative Village of Ariel read Airy Hall.

In a brief, charming, slightly mysterious Preface to a selection of his poems in E. A. Markham's anthology Hinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies and Britain (1989), D'Aguiar wrote:

As children we used to try and catch fireflies by locking onto their zigzag, lights-on, lights-off flight in the dark, the same zigzag uncles told us to run if chased by an alligator. When the light of a firefly came on we dashed to it, in the brief dark that followed we slowed then stood still, momentarily, lost in directionless night, left only with an afterglow. Then it would spark again forming an imaginary necklace of light that folded on itself.

Both the alligator and the zigzag path recur in Dear Future, as does the tale, recounted later in the essay, of an uncle stepping onto a log to cross a trench, only to find it sprouting legs and teeth. The pursuit of the firefly seems to speak for the blend of persistence and luck needed for writing to happen, while the delicacy of the quarry suggests the unencumbered naturalness the writer wants to attain—a condition D'Aguiar remembers from his earliest poems, where ‘the images felt as much as meant something; meaning and feeling occupied the same space.’ In his imaginative return to Airy Hall/Ariel in Dear Future, D'Aguiar achieves, in the idyllic opening from which the novel gradually darkens, a lightness and élan capable of supporting a substantial shipment of personal and social history.

The Longest Memory (1994), D'Aguiar's fictional debut, moved deliberately away from home ground. It was a tentative but at times effectively lyrical novella set in Virginia in the early 19th century. It told of the murder by flogging of a young slave, Whitechapel. Having fallen in love with the plantation-owner's daughter during forbidden meetings in the library (literacy here is the instrument of a gentle eroticism), Whitechapel plans an escape and elopement. He is betrayed by his father Old Whitechapel, a pragmatic survivor who believes he is acting for the best and that the young man will be punished but not killed; the son's executioner is, we learn, his white half-brother. Diaries, newspaper editorials, monologues and Whitechapel's own rhyming couplets are woven together to create the sense of a communal tragedy. The book's themes—race, family division, memory, loss, betrayal and power—recur in a transfigured form and to much greater effect in Dear Future.

The precocious Red Head, aged nine, is accidentally smashed in the forehead with an axe by his uncle Beanstalk while chopping wood. In his stunned condition he is visited by dreams: one of playing draughts with the President while on horseback; another of a man crippled by polio riding a bicycle off the end of the pier; a third involving a strangely decorated kite (an image harking back to Mama Dot). During this bravura passage, an imp of prophecy also appears, insisting that there were four dreams, not three, and leaving the sinister refrain, ‘There will be red, then there will be black.’ Although some of the dream-elements are encountered later in the book, D'Aguiar's use of visions and prophecies has less to do with narrative outcomes than with the description of feelings and states of mind. The initial patterning is allowed to unravel: the fulfilment of one part of the dream-prophecy prevents the fulfilment of another, so that Red Head's future belongs to the realm of might or should-have-been. At the same time, his unusually adult intelligence is assured of its innocence by the limited experience to which he can apply it. The portents, meanwhile, are offset by the sudden introduction of Red Head's vast extended family—26 relatives, including his magnificent grandparents, Bash Man Goady (his older, more matter-of-fact brother)—and his Asian girlfriend Sten, all of whom D'Aguiar is able to animate in a comedy of ordinary happiness where there appears to be all the time in the world. In Ariel nothing may have quite happened yet, but no aspiration seems implausible, whether it is Uncle Wheels's ambition to win a national bike race, or Red Head's to be a draughts champion. In Wheels's case the family have already decided that he's the victor, while Red Head's success is a foregone conclusion. Somewhere in Red Head is a feeling that everything—including the absence of his parents—will come to make sense. Confined to bed by his grandmother after the axe accident he asks when he can get up:

‘All I want is to know.’

‘Soon, soon.’

His mother had gone abroad with his three younger brothers and left him in Ariel … she too had told him soon. She would return soon. That was six months ago. He missed her. She was bony but her skin was soft. She was sweeter than any fruit or flower, whereas Granny carried the odour of soap, and, when she'd just brought clothes in off the line, of the sun. At his age every desire was soon. And his father had gone away. Just like that, he'd dived into the hot afternoon, his eyes hidden with a nod just in time to avoid the sun. The last time Red Head had talked with Bash Man Goady about missing their mother, father and brothers, they were having a walk-race to school. His brother was breathless but he'd paused to draw hard on the air and had spoken as if they had been swinging in the hammock at the bottom of the house.

‘If you don't think about it, it won't hurt.’

He had taken his brother's advice as a necessary gospel. So far it seemed to work when he was awake.

If Ariel is a fragile enclave, it is also a richly mixed society (hence Red Head's hair). Red Head and his family keep faith with this complexity, and D'Aguiar allows Ariel its brief utopian moment. ‘Grandad spoke of men who'd married women they'd fallen in love with regardless of race and who had themselves been the products of various unions between the races. He pointed to the fact that he was Portuguese, his wife African, one daughter-in-law half-Amer/indian, another Indian. Let them try and separate us. Let them try.’

But the politics of the big city, in which Red Head's parents are implicated, begin to press in on Red Head and the rest of the family. With the approach of elections, the party of government, bent and in hock to the IMF, seizes on a national tour by the great wrestler Singh to represent its own prowess and symbolise its forthcoming triumph at the polls. Singh, wooed away from the Opposition, has never been known to lose: indeed his attraction lies in the fact that his victory is only ever a formality, as the Government wishes its own to be. The distribution of blank election leaflets, the President remarks, ‘was an act of genius … if what was meant by it was that the people should write their own campaign promises since their wish was the Government's command.’ As for Singh, the Government and its fixers have reckoned without the intervention of Red Head's family, which naturally boasts a wrestling uncle, Bounce. Cunningly trained by Grandad in the psychology of the ring, Bounce wins with a combination of kidology and a strategic headbutt. The transition from comedy to catastrophe is effected with great skill, leaving Red Head's family and Sten barricaded in the house, besieged by a murderous crowd.

The following section is less successful. Satirising the venal ‘them’ who rule the wholehearted ‘us’ of Ariel, it opens with an evocation of one of Red Head's dreams, as a civil servant, Brukup, ‘the capital's best known polio victim', rides his bike off the end of a pier. He is killing two birds with one stone, disposing of some papers bearing evidence of vote-rigging, while also emptying his bowels. On emerging from the water, he proceeds along the half-made roads of the capital for a relaxing visit to the brothel. D'Aguiar handles this perfectly efficiently, but like his grotesquely fat and sweaty colleague and rival Gamediser, Brukup has no secrets for the reader to uncover. These figures of Jonsonian appetite only half-engage D'Aguiar's interest—and ours. Others in this grim episode of city comedy, such as the President's secretary-cum-whore, or the dentist paid by the Opposition to bug the President's teeth, seem to have been recruited from a Tom Sharpe novel. The President himself is vain enough, a nasty piece of work, posing on horseback, threatening his staff with knocking their false teeth out, but that's all there is to him.

The action moves to Britain for the penultimate section, which recovers the strength of the opening. With three of her sons, Red Head's mother is in London on behalf of the Government, in theory to mobilise, but in fact to invent, the overseas vote in the forthcoming general election. She is a believer in the President's work, ripe for exploitation and gradual abandonment by her political masters. When the money runs out, she is forced to move to a grim bedsit and takes on sewing work for Mr Ahmad, who becomes her lover as well as her employer: ‘The children called out one night, thinking perhaps the two adults they adored were choking in the fine dust shed by the fabrics which had taken over the room.’ Ahmad already has a wife, although this is only revealed when Red Head's mother and the three boys have converted to Islam. As the boys recover from circumcision, Ahmad arrives with a box of Swiss chocolates and announces: ‘You can be wife number two.’ The end of the relationship is a good example of D'Aguiar's readiness to include mess and complication, to have his characters follow the zigzag path which leaves this courageous woman even further away from home. The tone of the writing reflects her own determined calm, so that when she is beaten up while using a telephone box, the random horror of this (not wholly unpredictable) incident must be juxtaposed with the boys’ outing on their new bikes (gifts from the still-hopeful Ahmad) over the landscaped hills of a rubbish dump. When Ahmad's eldest son Shaheen falls off and breaks his arm, one of the boys remarks:

‘You fell off your bike, not a tower block.’

This was a new word in his vocabulary, acquired when he accompanied his mother to view a flat the council had allocated to her, on the 12th floor of an estate made up entirely of several towers. She wanted to take the flat for all the rooms it offered, but when she looked down from the window at the people below, she said they resembled ants and made her feel dirty, since she couldn't grab a broom and sweep them out of sight.

The London episodes lead back to the theme of time, felt in the whole section as an inescapable inertia, an exile that has still not been admitted. The bedsit itself is a ‘clock', for whose smooth running she is endlessly responsible; she is also the time-keeper of her own loss, acknowledged in her recognition and accommodation of a monotonous suffering. She thinks of her two sons ‘with such regularity it was more like an occupation, so that the instances when she felt nothing were rare’. The section ends with her lying sleepless at dawn in grey and white London: ‘Soon she would force herself to get up and attack those cuffs and collars, breaking her meticulous stitch in two places and pulling the entire thread clear of the cloth like a bird pulling a worm from a lawn.’

The final section back in Ariel, from which the book takes its title, is a series of letters addressed to the future by Red Head from an imaginative Limbo-state, the simplified landscape of soil and vegetation where he and Bash Man Goady are learning to die:

Dear Future,

I am considering calling off this whole arrangement on account of your stubborn silence. Don't imagine that I am not aware that this may be a test of my stoicism. I am not a fool. I was hit with the back of an axe and death stepped up to carry me away and I fought him off single-handed.

Life took my mother and three brothers from me and I put up with what I had left, my elder brother, and lived that life. You should know, dear future, that I laboured on in the belief that I would see them again.

The reader may well feel manipulated by Red Head's speculations and enquiries and by his general reasonableness as he comes to realise that this is where things end, that he and Bash Man Goady will never see the family again, that his future cannot exist because he doesn't. These doubts about the ending of the novel give rise to other questions about the construction of Dear Future. There is a suspicion that the tale may have taken over from the teller, which may account for the feeling that this bold, funny and sensuous book is shadowed at several points (notably in the city-political passages) by a larger, as yet unwritten and probably more conventionally realistic work.

Michael Upchurch (review date 17 November 1996)

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SOURCE: “Risky Business: Fred D'Aguiar Continues to Take Chances in His Second Novel,” in Chicago Tribune Books, November 17, 1996, p. 4.

[In the following review, Upchurch offers a favorable assessment of Dear Future.]

When Guyana-born poet Fred D'Aguiar turned to fiction last year with his debut novel, The Longest Memory, he proved to be a writer who likes taking chances on both topic and technique.

His subject: the fatal whipping of a runaway slave on the plantation of a “liberal” but absentee Virginia slave-owner. His approach: a nimble inhabiting of all the parties involved, giving each protagonist—black, white and shades in between—a vivid voice and presence on the page.

Though the book's central incident was horrific, D'Aguiar's explorations of the background prejudices, desires, appeasements and rationalizations leading up to it were so subtle and precise that the book felt less like a history lesson than a canny illumination of a distant era. His control of his volatile subject matter, too, was so dexterous that at times it resembled a kind of steely, rueful wit.

In his second novel, Dear Future, a gentler but still rueful wit is at work, and although the book is set closer to home—in a South American country much like D'Aguiar's native Guyana—it takes as many technical risks as The Longest Memory.

The initial focus of Dear Future is a young boy named Red Head, not for the color of his hair, but for an accidental blow delivered to him on the forehead with the back of an axe. This prompts him literally to see red: “Red in the earth and clouds and sky, a red dye making visible the air he could only feel until now. …”

In other words, he bleeds profusely before passing out. When he comes to, he finds himself blessed (or cursed?) with visionary powers in the form of an impish voice that won't leave him alone. Its constant refrain—“There will be red, then there will be black”—makes little sense to him. Could it refer to the dusty red road of his village, soon to be paved? Or does it foretell bloodshed with the approaching presidential election in the unstable Cooperative Republic where Red Head lives?

The four sections of the novel unveil the meaning of the prophecy from the vantage points of village life, palace life, exile and—talk about risks!—the afterlife.

The opening section—a picaresque account of Red Head's family activities—appears at first to be meandering. But a closer look reveals that its loose, anecdotal feel disguises some careful groundwork. Besides, the family portrait is enjoyable in itself as it gathers together a clamorous crew of multiethnic grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, all with various talents.

Red Head's particular talent is for draughts (the British word for the game of checkers), and he dreams of winning the National Draughts Championships. But his uncle's entry in a government-sponsored wrestling tournament comes up first, and it has perilous consequences for D'Aguiar's young hero.

The book's second section follows a difficult day in the life of a comically dictatorial president whose connection with Red Head's family is unclear at first. Again the tone is picaresque, though with menacing undercurrents.

In the two closing sections, the rest of the story falls cleverly into place, including the fate of Red Head's mother, who had to abandon her two eldest sons (their dad disappeared long ago) in order to earn a living overseas. All of it is as unpredictable and strange as life itself—and not just because of D'Aguiar's fondness for magic-realist flourishes.

What is most surprising about Dear Future is its lightness of touch, given that its topics are family diaspora, government tyranny and crushed human potential. One senses that D'Aguiar unconditionally admires an adventurous spirit—especially when that spirit knowingly takes on merciless odds.

D'Aguiar's gift with language is generous as well, even if his echoes of other writers—Ben Okri, Henry Green—suggest he hasn't entirely settled into his own style. Still, there are numerous details to delight here, such as his description of Red Head wading into a village pond: “A cool stocking rode up his legs.”

Throughout the book, D'Aguiar is a deft juxtaposer of unlikely sights and sounds, sometimes poignant and sometimes humorous. Red Head's mother's romance with a devout Muslim, for instance, has nervous-making ramifications for her three young sons who accompany her into exile: “Over crisps, popcorn, Smarties and Pepsi, Uncle Ahmad explained circumcision.”

Filled with surprising story twists and rich with visions that span fantasy and reality, Dear Future is good news indeed from a writer whose own future couldn't look brighter.

Bruce King (review date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Dear Future, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 206.

[In the following review of Dear Future, King faults the novel's complexity, lack of narrative development, and weak conclusion.]

I have followed Fred D'Aguiar's work with interest ever since I read Mama Dot, his first volume of poetry, and attended the Royal Court production of A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death. The success of The Longest Memory, a novel in which the prose has the sensitivity of verse, confirmed D'Aguiar's ability to treat black history with complexity. Each work contributed to a new canon of literature written by West Indians born or long resident in England. Dear Future, however, may be his first book without such a future. The curse of magic realism has infected a highly poetical yet realistic writer; the new novel is difficult to get into, the technical complexity is greater than the story, its narrative movement fragments rather than builds, and the conclusion is thin and sentimental.

The novel shows how politics and exile can destroy family; themes include the role of the West Indian woman as family head, the fragmentation of family as a result of the West Indian diaspora, and the creation of the “black” Briton from a variety of nationalities, religions, skin shades, and cultures. As in the novels of Wilson Harris, who appears the model for D'Aguiar's version of magic realism, history is retold in new forms and fantastic stories to permit renewal and avoid the burden of the past. The corruption, racial divisions, and violence that characterized Guyanese politics are neutralized by fantasy, humor, and grotesque caricatures. But this remains a story of people damaged by history, hope, poverty, and politics. The mother in the story is herself a true believer of the nationalist leader; to survive, she becomes corrupt and a victim of his tyranny. Her husband, a diamond prospector, hides in England with the money of others. Raymond, a dentist for whom she worked in Guyana, fears for his life after having placed a transistor pickup in the filling of the dictator's teeth. The mother earlier left Raymond to become a government agent, as he had no future. Her current man in London is a Moslem who tricks her Hindu-Indian Portuguese children into being circumcised by a Jewish rabbi, a trick to which she consents as she hopes to marry, until she learns that the Pakistani is already married and wants her as a second wife. She does not even love him but needs the sex and companionship.

The Longest Memory concerned a father's brutal treatment of his son supposedly to help him survive as a slave but also to hide the father's sins. The new novel also reveals the guilt of parents, especially fathers, and the struggle to survive in a harsh world. In British Guyana different groups of the world's populations were brought together to develop a colony, then were left with one another at independence. The resulting violence was made worse by American and British interference and by ideologies. In Dear Future D'Aguiar gives imaginative form to how this history separated children from parents, how some offspring became British while others died in Guyana, and what being a British West Indian or a black Briton means beyond the simplicities of race relationships. The themes and prose are good, but not the story line or its treatment; this novel is more likely to be discussed than read with pleasure.

Gary Amdahl (review date 13-20 January 1997)

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SOURCE: “Fabulous Red Head,” The Nation, January 13-20, 1997, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review, Amdahl offers a positive evaluation of Dear Future.]

Fred D'Aguiar begins his second novel, Dear Future (the first, The Longest Memory, won the Whitbread and the Higham awards in England), with the bright violence and not-quite singsong meter of a fairy tale: “Red Head got his name and visionary capacity at age nine when he ran behind an uncle chopping wood and caught the back of the axe on his forehead. His uncle, Beanstalk, feeling the reverberations of a soft wood as it yielded to the blade he'd swung back, looked over his shoulder and saw his favourite nephew half-run, half-walk in a wobbly line, do an about-turn, then flop to the ground in a heap.” The next sentences are distinctly in the tall-tale mode, detailing Beanstalk's ability to walk upon and lasso alligators before anyone else can so much as shout the word, making the first paragraph a promise that the book will be easily and pleasantly consumable—which, fortunately, turns out not to be the case.

Set in an unnamed Caribbean country whose “Cooperative Republic Village[s],” border dispute and ties to Great Britain suggest D'Aguiar's native Guyana, and peopled with characters whose nicknames are descriptive and/or meaningful and bestowed upon them by the community (Red Head, Beanstalk, Wheels, Bounce and the melodious but faintly malevolent Bash Man Goady, for instance), Dear Future is a novel that manages to be part of the relatively new but rigorous (and vigorous) tradition of the Caribbean novel, and yet wonderfully itself.

This is no mean feat. Stories, because there are so few of them, tend to be predictable, and categories, genres, even traditions, masking the tyranny of mediocrity as necessary discipline or enjoyable convention, enhance that predictability—mainly with an eye toward assuaging the consumer's pre-purchase doubts and hesitations. If the Caribbean novel is, as George Lamming (whose In the Castle of My Skin is considered one of the principal texts in a tradition he helped articulate) has it, a work “crowded with names and people” but “rarely concerned with the prolonged exploration of an individual consciousness,” a work in which it is “the collective human substance of the Village” that “commands our attention,” it is equally true that the door is thus thrown open to cardboard functionaries. If it is true that (Lamming again) in novels where “community, and not person, is the central character. … There is often no discernible plot, no coherent line of events with a clear, causal connection,” it is also true that the narrative freedom can slight a reader's need to feel that what has happened will affect what is to happen, that characters live in an economic, political and biological web peculiar to postcolonial culture. Finally, if the postcolonial novel is perforce concerned with the wretchedness of poor people, the means by which they endure and their restoration to humanity, its writers must beware the cartoon dialectic of good guys and bad guys: rich native religions versus a corrupt and empty Christianity; authentic creoles and pidgins versus artificial English; black versus white.

There are, in other words, a number of traps that D'Aguiar skirts perilously but manages to avoid. His success must be traced almost paragraph by paragraph: The struggle against predictability, against what in the end is simple facility and “ease of use” (in the belief that “ease” promotes not satisfaction but deterioration, of language, muscle, dignity—whatever), is here, in Dear Future, as subtle as it is sweet.

To pick up where we left off, at the close of paragraph one: After fairy tale and tall tale, D'Aguiar goes deeper and stranger.

Something made the uncle stare at the boy's forehead as if he were watching a miniature screen. The ruptured screen resembled a door blown off its hinges. Out stepped a white body of fluid in one boneless move. As if surprised by the sudden recognition that it was naked, the nubile body gathered about itself a flowing red gown which ran in ceaseless yards, covering all of the boy's face in seconds.

This is prose not, perhaps, as impenetrably and surreally lush as Wilson Harris's in The Palace of the Peacock, nor as richly poetic and thorough in its recovery of detail as Lamming's, but it does require its own kind of attention. As D'Aguiar slips soundlessly from fairy to tall to strange and tells the stories that compose “Dreams from the Republic of Nightmares”—Red Head's visions; the slow and grotesque progress of a main road being paved as it approaches Ariel, Red Head's village, which does not want it; a bicycle race and the preparation of Red Head for a draughts tournament; a wrestling match between a government-backed professional touring the country as part of an election campaign and one of the uncles; and the consequences of that astounding match—it's easy to be lulled by the easygoing fabulosity of it all. There is, however, a disturbing murmur to be heard, faintly but at all times, and just when you think you've got the hang of it, the bright violence erupts again, this time growing darker and darker by the sentence, as a mob of the President's men bears down, with torches and cutlasses, on the homes of the village. Chapter and section end; we move on to “Nightmares from the Republic of Dreams.”

This simple transposition is alarming in the quiet D'Aguiarian way: What can the difference possibly mean? The subject matter is certainly different: The four stories here deal mainly with the knavery of the President's factotums, but the tone is comic, as witness this description of “the heaviest person on the presidential payroll,” named Gamediser, at a whorehouse: “She would take his little dead meat, as he called it, into her mouth, switch to milking it with both hands heavily lubricated, sit on it and rodeo until she was out of breath and bored, tie him up and beat him until he got scared and wept and eventually released the tiny, unhemmed white flag that signalled his surrender.” Another episode shows the President's dentist gone over to the opposition, implanting a bug in a presidential cavity. But suddenly the fun and games are all over, as suddenly as the tall tales were, and the President's eccentricities have turned lethal. In the light of that particular muzzle flash, one begins to see how D'Aguiar moves back and forth in time, telling a story in one place and exposing it in another, concealing terror in pleasant melodies and slapstick.

“Homing” flips the colonial coin; landing London side up, we get a whole new cast of characters and another shift in tone, to something like “dirty realism”—the story of a poor working mother and her three small boys, who turn out to be none other than Red Head and Bash Man Goady's younger brothers. Snatched up by the President from her job as a dental assistant and made a “campaign secretary” (“She's a fine campaign secretary for twenty-five and stunning-looking, but her pussy hang down to her knee from dropping pickney every year since she seventeen”), she is sent to London to fabricate a sizable overseas-absentee vote, but paid so poorly she cannot save enough money to return home (and what sentimental perversity makes her wish to? her employers implicitly ask). There's a good deal of drudgery and despair in “Homing,” but the dirt is sweet. When she's assaulted by xenophobes at a telephone booth, the longer-lasting memory is of the way her children console her, and the way she refuses to poison them with hatred and fear.

If the play of D'Aguiar's prose in these first three sections, and the reach between subtext and text, has made for a refreshing unpredictability, it fails to prepare the reader for the sorrow and the power of “Dear Future,” twenty-six very short sections in the form of letters from Red Head to an idea. He and Bash Man Goady are still boys, and the letters refer to boyish pursuits like mudballs and slingshots, but it becomes clear they are in some way terribly alone and in some place terribly strange. All the images that have been gone over lightly—Granddad's refusal to allow Gamediser into his home; the spittle dripping off the boys’ wrestling uncle, Bounce, spat from a score of angry mouths; the spittle hanging threadlike from the mother's threadbare coat, spat from the tiny pursed mouths of two or three tiny weak minds; the children huddled in a room making dolls and a toy car from a matchbox and matches while in another room a door is being battered down—these images all flash again in a much harsher light, and D'Aguiar's novel emerges as not at all the book the reader seemed to be reading, a much angrier and despairing novel than the light hand has let on, warmhearted but disturbing, straightforward but off-center, all the happiness on a slight incline that has not seemed steep until the attempt to climb back up to it is attempted. “Dear Future,” writes Red Head the visionary, “You don't know me. We won't meet.”

Bharat Tandon (review 22 August 1997)

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SOURCE: “Marine Motifs,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 22, 1997, p. 22.

[In the following review of Feeding the Ghosts, Tandon praises D'Aguiar's evocative description and plotting, but concludes that the work lacks an underlying element of coherence.]

Sea-water and wood, with their capacities simultaneously to preserve and obscure, figure strongly in Fred D'Aguiar's long historical novella. While the suggestive conjunction of natural materials in sea-stories is hardly innovative (Moby-Dick, for one, makes much of the Pequod's cannibalized shipwork), here it allows the author a base for what turns out to be an extended meditation—often harrowing, sometimes a little self-regarding—on the persistence, necessity and attendant costs of remembering. After all, one reason why ghosts are such fertile subjects for novelists is that they share with novels a particular way of combining different temporal dimensions; and Feeding the Ghosts, as its title suggests, punctuates its main narrative with flashbacks, not only as stylistic effects but as central motifs.

Taking his cue from Derek Walcott's “The Sea is History”—adapted here into “The sea is slavery”—D'Aguiar tells of a disease-ridden slave-ship returning from its dirty work in Africa. Captain Cunningham, his own motives all too manifest, strong-arms his crew into summarily dumping all the sick slaves overboard:

“We have surrendered seven good men to these waters and lost thirty-six of our holdings. I do not intend to bury another. One-twelfth of our holdings lost? With each loss our commission dwindles. These three months of hard work, sacrifice and suffering will come to nothing. We must act decisively or return to our families and friend and investors empty-handed. Which is it to be, gentlemen?”

Of 132 slaves thrown overboard, one miraculously survives: Mintah, an English-speaker, punished not for sickness but for insubordination toward Kelsal, the first mate, whom she disturbs to an extent initially unexplained. Climbing back up the side of the ship, she takes refuge with the cook's assistant, and begins to “haunt” below decks, becoming a talisman of strength for those left alive, as one who has come back from the dead (“the men touched her for some of her magic to rub off on them and to check that she wasn't an apparition”). But after an abortive rebellion leads to her recapture, a long, hallucinatory reverie uncovers her past, and specifically how she once nursed Kelsal back to health in Africa—indeed, it was she who reminded him of his name, which is all the more ironic given that it is Kelsal who is engaged in obliterating the identity of the slaves, their lives reduced to ink:

Both slaves were presented to the captain, who opened a ledger which he shielded against the light rain that had just begun and made two strokes in it.

Nor is this Mintah's last action from the past. Back in England, Cunningham's insurance claim on the slaves appears to be going smoothly until Simon, the cook's assistant, produces Mintah's written testimony in a book: a direct opposite to Cunningham's ledger in which lives are lost. The Dickensian vigour of this episode is one of the highlights of the novel, as D'Aguiar intertwines the rhetoric of litigation with more selfish concerns:

An unexceptional crowd for what should be a conventional hearing: a party of avaricious investors pitted against a parsimonious insurer. Lord Mansfield was sure he'd be out of court in time to dine at The King's Head, a cured pheasant, his favourite.

But Mintah's ghostly intercession is not enough, and she is last seen as an old freed slave in Jamaica, working in wood, having taken it on herself to become a collective memory for the dead slaves (“There are 131 of them. A veritable army”).

This is clearly a poet's novella, less interested in the sheer number of incidents than in the weight they carry; consequently, the most satisfying aspects of the story are D'Aguiar's precise observations of the resonances of language, and its capacity to transform what it describes—most chilling is the contrast between the unceremonious dumping of the nameless slaves and the burial of a member of the crew: “The plank holding the carapaced body was angled out over the side and tilted and William Pelling slid off it and the sea swallowed.” Nevertheless, there is something that doesn't quite cohere in D'Aguiar's rich prose (Lord Mansfield, with his “pleasant pheasant”, isn't the only devotee of internal rhyme in this novel). Perhaps it is to do with the novel's status as an historical reconstruction, in that it shares with other forms of restaging a way of being meticulous and disturbing, but finally lacking a degree of interiority.

Heather Hathaway (review date Fall 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Dear Future, in African-American Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 506-8.

[In the following review, Hathaway provides a positive evaluation of Dear Future.]

In a 1992 interview (Ariel 24.1 [1993]), Guyanese author and editor Frank Birbalsingh discussed with his countryman Fred D'Aguiar the relationship between art and politics in D'Aguiar's first two volumes of poetry, Mama Dot (1985) and Airy Hall (1989). Birbalsingh remarked on D'Aguiar's ability to “record the continuing suffering and deprivation of the Guyanese” people, but he was particularly struck by “the absence of any instinct to blame. Your quiet recording of the human toll of Guyanese politics suggests deep and genuine affection for the victims—a firm bond of unspoken solidarity with them. But you don't cry out.” D'Aguiar replied that, “in writing about politics, I felt I should try and step back from any emotional attempt to lay blame or responsibility. I felt there are other forms of writing where that could be done more properly.” His most recent novel, Dear Future, appears to embody that form. This prose work does indeed record the human toll of Guyanese politics as it chronicles the activities of one extended family suffering under the reign of a corrupt government, but it also “cries out” against such oppression, particularly in the final section of the novel, which consists of a series of letters addressed to “Dear Future” by the child protagonist, Red Head. Although some critics have dismissed this conclusion as trite and unconvincing, it is precisely through these letters that D'Aguiar's political commentary is most strongly, if subtly, articulated.

The novel consists of four parts, the first two of which are set in a fictional space closely resembling Guyana. (D'Aguiar's decision not to mention a specific location universalizes the plot, thus making the novel's political commentary applicable to a number of post-colonial Caribbean nations.) Part one, “Dreams from the Republic of Nightmares,” introduces the main character, Red Head, a boy who becomes clairvoyant after being accidentally struck on the head with an axe by his uncle. In the seven chapters that comprise this section, D'Aguiar paints Red Head's extended family, using intensely melodic prose that is underscored by a magical realism recalling the work of Wilson Harris or Gabriel García Marquez. These chapters reveal the source of the family's tensions with the government and describe their frightening, confrontational culmination. Both the strength and weakness of this section lie in its lyricism. While D'Aguiar's widely acclaimed first novel The Longest Memory (1994) is marked by a successful interweaving of a highly developed sense of poetic imagery with an analysis of North American slavery, Dear Future occasionally suffers from a lack of rhetorical restraint that detracts from the more biting political critique the author seeks to offer. D'Aguiar is clearly aware of this potential liability in his writing. As he explained to Birbalsingh, he considers both “nostalgia” and “an over-lyrical way of writing that romanticizes one's material” to be significant “pitfalls” to aesthetic achievement: “I try to avoid those two problems,” D'Aguiar stated in 1992, “by giving my writing a hard edge all the time. Whenever I find myself being over-lyrical, I introduce political observation, or something that is slightly harder.”

Not surprisingly, following the magical if also somewhat muting language of part one comes a section that focuses directly on the political scheming surrounding an upcoming election in the region. As suggested by its inverted title, “Nightmares from the Republic of Dreams,” part two reverses our perspective on the relationship between the ruling elite and the populace by contrasting the noble (if somewhat fantasized) peasant group depicted in part one with the ignominy of the nation's “democratically” elected officials. D'Aguiar seems to use these first two sections (which could rightfully constitute a novella in themselves) as a unit to consider the impact of political corruption on all segments of Guyanese society. Echoing some of his earlier poetry, he exposes how the transition from colonialism to independence—and the violence, class divisions, and economic crises that accompanied this passage—left many questioning the promise implicit in that move. “What people, what nation, what destiny?” D'Aguiar demands in his poem “El Dorado Update.” The cultural disunity at the heart of these questions becomes graphically personified in Dear Future by the demise of Red Head's clan at the hands of the government and its supporters.

But while D'Aguiar depicts a nation hobbled by a legacy of colonialism which has fostered greed, deception, and despair, he also implies that the potential panacea to these larger social ills may be found within the microcosm of the family. While the first part of Dear Future portrays the deep loyalty of Red Head's extended kin to one another in Guyana, part three, significantly titled “Homing,” shifts tone and location altogether to explore what happens when familial connections become strained by diasporic migrations. Revisiting a subject he probed in his third collection of poetry, British Subjects (1993), D'Aguiar considers how one small portion of the diaspora, the protagonist's mother and his two younger brothers, fare as black Caribbean immigrants in Britain. “Homing” chronicles the activities of Red Head's mother in London as she generates fake ballots for the incumbent government by creating a list of non-existent, absentee voters; in the process, it shows how the hybridizing forces of the metropole both break down and yet strengthen the ties of immigrants to the homeland. While on one level the children are detached from their native roots by the forces of urbanization, television, and intercultural contact (their mother has an affair with a Pakistani who converts the family to Islam), on another level both Red Head's siblings and his mother remain intimately linked by what D'Aguiar refers to in a different context as an “emotional map” of home, to the family and geography across the ocean.

The connection, of course, goes both ways. The final section of the novel, “Dear Future,” is comprised of multiple brief letters directed to the Future by Red Head, now living in a netherworld he describes as an “ever-present past,” where he awaits the return of his family. Just as his estranged mother in England longs for the two children she left behind, so too do Red Head and his older brother cling to memories of their mother and siblings: “I miss them because I perished missing them. My brother is the same. But he speaks as little about those things as he did when we thrived.” Red Head's quest for a reunion of his family becomes a nearly constant preoccupation, but it is greeted by the Future only with “stubborn silence.” Although this section of the novel is admittedly difficult to decipher, it becomes clear over the course of these epistles that the plight of the child is in some ways parallel to that of the fictionalized Guyana itself. “Grant me this simple thing,” Red Head pleads. “You don't even do me the honour of saying ‘No.’ Instead you do what everyone with power over me (because I love them) has done to me up to now: kept me waiting in silence. This is not me about to give up. No way. You owe me this one thing since you are a right that has been denied to me. You know that. Work this one little thing for me. Let me know that you have given my people a sign of my continued existence.” Like most colonial enterprises, British Guyana was originally settled by several different racial and ethnic groups whose descendants were positioned, upon independence, to forge a new nation in the face of internal dissension and external interference. But on the way to making a future, D'Aguiar seems to imply, the nation risked and continues to risk getting stuck in the present. Not until Guyana, like Red Head, realizes that its “present is [its] future” and that its “future is there, will always be there, to be lived” can it free itself from a state of hopeless despair rooted in an “ever-present past.” Far from being trite and unconvincing, the last section of Dear Future brings closure to the many strands that have been introduced throughout the course of this provocative novel, and links them through an abstract but important commentary on the history and prospects of a nation.

Ervin Beck (review date Autumn 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of Feeding the Ghosts, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn, 1999, p. 796.

[In the following review of Feeding the Ghosts, Beck finds D'Aguiar's evocation of the slave trade interesting but unexceptional.]

In 1781 a fatal malady broke out on the slave ship Zong, killing seven crew members and many of the slaves. Fearing that sick slaves would lose all their value in Jamaica, Captain Cunningham commanded very ill slaves to be thrown overboard, in order to collect insurance on their deaths and to prevent the plague from spreading further on the ship. In a court trial in Liverpool, brought by the insurers against the investors, the judge sided with the investors, confirming once more the law that Africans are only “stock” to be bought and sold.

The main character in Fred D'Aguiar's latest novel is Mintah, a young African woman who had been taught English in a Danish Christian mission. When she is thrown overboard, for insubordination rather than for ill health, she almost miraculously climbs back on board, unnoticed, and, while in hiding, begins writing the story of her experience on the Zong. Based on a historical event, Feeding the Ghosts is a kind of documentary fiction, which re-creates one version of the Middle Passage. It may find its widest audience among young readers in schools, since its hero and heroine are young, its content is sensational without being salacious, and its style and structure are in the plain, straightforward mode.

Most of the book seems concerned with proving that Africans are human beings, not merely animals. The only white character who believes this is the homeless, blond cook's boy, who befriends Mintah in her hiding and presents the written account of her experience as evidence against the shipowners in the courtroom. Although the court in 1781 reaffirmed the slaves’ status as “livestock,” the book concludes with the victory of abolitionist sentiments in 1833, when the aged Mintah observes the celebrations for the end of slavery in Jamaica. Either because the story is perfunctorily told, or because such an issue is no longer high drama, this major part of the narrative is interesting but not compelling.

Part 3 builds upon the metaphor in the title, with “feeding the ghosts” referring to Mintah's attempts to keep alive and appease the spirits and memories of the 131 slaves cast overboard. She does so by helping twice that many slaves escape to freedom from Maryland to the North, by planting 131 trees, and by carving 131 figures out of wood, inspired by the African god of wood who also guided the hands of her wood-sculptor father in Africa. The novel itself both “feeds the ghosts” and, according to a universalizing voice in the epilogue, implicates all readers in the lives and deaths of the drowned slaves.

These metaphors, although apt, seem overwrought and come too late to raise the novel much above the ordinary. For the rich possibilities latent in Middle Passage narratives, one must still return to the allusive novel Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (1991; see WLT 65:4, p. 707) or to the fruitfully ambiguous long poem Turner by David Dabydeen (1994; see WLT 69:3, p. 629).

William Scammell (review date 2 September 2000)

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SOURCE: “Poetry Gets the Last Laugh,” in Spectator, September 2, 2000, pp. 34-5.

[In the following review, Scammell offers a negative assessment of Bloodlines.]

The last big poem on black history was Derek Walcott's Omeros, which mixed up Homer with the textures of Caribbean life, and probably helped him to clinch the Nobel Prize in 1992. Some people thought it wonderful; others never got past the pomp and circumstance of the opening chapters. Fred D'Aguiar's Bloodlines takes its formal inspiration not from the epic but from the verse-novels of Byron and Pushkin, or so at least the blurb assures us: ‘Read this book fast like a novel, savour every word like a poem.’

It begins with the rape of a slave, Faith, by her white owner's son, Christy. This brutal act results, paradoxically, in true love, more passionate lovemaking, and in the pair's banishment by the outraged father:

‘My son, the very thing I feared you'd do
you've gone and done. You've fallen in love
with one when all you were supposed to do
was fuck as many as you liked, not love.’
‘Father, everything you say is true,
except the dirty part. Negroes love
like us and fuss like us and wash the same
as us. That's why I'm proud to take the blame.’
‘How dare you stand in front of me and say
such things. I will not allow you to blacken
this family's name. Leave my house today
and take her with you. And never come back.’
His father turned on his heels and stormed away.
Christy's head spun, he felt faint and fell flat
on his face on a persian rug that cushioned
his fall and saved his face from being crushed.

In the first verse ‘love’ rhymes inertly with itself three times, and ‘do’ twice; in the second the rhymes are so far-flung and hopeless (‘blacken / back / flat’; ‘cushioned crushed’) that bathos hangs its head in shame, or perhaps goes bounding off in search of Pope and Swift's The Art of Sinking in Poetry.

This level of dismal ineptitude is sustained throughout 160 pages of high-flown and sententious nonsense, which is frankly an insult to the history of persecution it tries to evoke. The American civil war slides by, and a brutal boxing match, but the several characters who undergo these tragedies never come to life, nor does the dream of a paradisal state where ‘the races love one another’ and Africa is a ‘land at the rainbow's / end’. Whatever skills informed D'Aguiar's previous collections, such as Mama Dot, seem to have been overwhelmed by the enormity of his subject. ‘My train is death but the engine is my craft. / Death wins but poetry gets the last laugh.’ It does indeed.

John Greening (review date 22 December 2000)

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SOURCE: “Fast Like a Novel,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 22, 2000, p. 22.

[In the following review, Greening offers an unfavorable assessment of Bloodlines.]

The verse novel is becoming a popular genre. From Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate to Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie to Les Murray's Fredy Neptune, publishers have had to find ingenious ways of marketing what has generally been considered unmarketable—the Long Poem. Some have kept the v-word well clear of the front cover; others blazon it like a health warning. And so it is with Fred D'Aguiar's new “novel-in-verse”: we are advised to “Read this book fast like a novel, savour every word like a poem.” But by the end of Bloodlines, I had still not found a satisfactory way of reading it. D'Aguiar writes in ottava rima, which can certainly be used to tell a story, but it is a tricky form to control, makes a heavy demand on rhyme words and is most effective when the writer is as witty as Byron or Auden. D'Aguiar is not a witty writer (although he tries once or twice), nor is his subject funny.

Bloodlines is set in the American South of 1861 and narrated by the child of Faith and Christy. Faith is a slave, who after being viciously raped by the plantation owner's son, falls in love with him. They elope and are helped by a mysterious, idealistic old man, Tom, who deliberately tells them nothing of himself, but (we find out later) had once been a slave, and had “entered the history of folk-talk” by scalping his overseer. His story (and the healing power of his relationship with Stella) makes up the middle section. Tom has been taught by Stella “to ferry runaways to the next safe residence” as part of the so-called “Underground Railroad”, but during this run there is an ambush. The three are separated for ever. Faith (already pregnant) is gang-raped, but finds refuge in the service of Mrs Mason, a relatively sympathetic mistress, with whom she forges a bond. Christy makes a new life as an itinerant pugilist, dehumanized, ever searching for Faith, fighting like a demon for her sake. Tom at first appears to have drowned, but emerges to carry with Stella (“my mate, / saviour”) the slaves’ inexpressible burden through the Civil War and on into years of lyrical fantasizing about Africa. Later, Christy tracks down Mrs Mason and learns that Faith died giving birth to their son, who is himself “presumed dead, / missing at sea.” So this child, our narrator, brings the novel to a close, speaking to our own age from a kind of immortality, a permanent state of decay, a limbo of parentlessness and dislocation:

So history greeted me. I am condemned
to live an eternity, unless all the conditions
that brought me into being somehow mend:
I mean Slavery and all its ramifications
marching unfazed into the new millennium.
Everything that I see in countries and nations
tells me this is true: Slavery may be buried,
but it's not dead, its offspring, Racism, still
                                                                      breeds.

Read Bloodlines “fast like a novel”, and you follow an occasionally moving, often bold and shocking tale of slavery, involving simple archetypal characters, told in something which might have been a prose style, were it not continually wrenched aside by the wilfulness of the form: “Yes, pregnant. She doesn't know it yet, / that inside is not quite what it used to be, / though from her demeanour she suspects. / Call it female intuition and you would be / warm.” Savour every word, and we can enjoy many beautiful passages and absorbing set pieces: on the river with Tom (“The river knew, / as the keel made its cut, that it would heal …”); Faith's impassioned monologue of love and need; Christy's boxing ordeal; the evocation of Civil War battlefields. But soon we begin to wish that the poet himself had done more of the savouring: “He told them to hide under a tarpaulin: / ‘Listen all you like but do not show / your faces, no matter how appalling’. …” Such frequently painful rhymes, uneasy line-breaks and generally vague metre deaden whatever dramatic or poetic life this might have had. Bloodlines is ambitious and occasionally shimmers with a symbolic resonance, but it has neither the fascinating nightmare imagery of, say, Dave Smith's poems of the American South, nor the metrical momentum of a truly readable long poem such as John Gurney's epic War.

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