Archive for Poetry

For Mike Brown: The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent.

The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent.

Rogue states have been watching America with interest,
Where it seems that a young Black man can be weaponised
Just by walking home.
The black boy is so terrifying to America,
That now all of its enemies want one.
North Korea has just put in an order,
Offering twenty thousand black boys and their families
Free schooling, room and board,
In return for their promise that, when America next threaten sanctions,
They will march to the centre of Pyongyang, put on their hoodies,
Look into CNN’s quivering cameras, and scowl.
The black boy is the new nuclear warhead.
He is so dangerous that American police will try anything to stop him going off,
Every time he steps outside.
To stop him, these brave, brave policemen,
Working deep under the cover of anonymity,
Will leave no bullet unfired,
And after he has been defused
No grieving parent will be left unharassed,
No community left unteargassed.
The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent:
Nuke is the new black.
Now black women are becoming a threat too:
Each womb of theirs, an undeclared arsenal.
Iran are sending cheques to African-American mothers pregnant with sons,
Along with notes saying that, “look, when the boy grows up,
Come with him to us, we’ll never need to set off another bomb again.
We’ll give you a nice villa in Tehran,
And every day the overhead US drones
Will quake at the sight of him merely falling in love, or shooting hoops.”
So black boys can relax, since their deaths are not in vain;
For at least they’re now a weapon
Their own suburbs can’t contain.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspired by Israel-Palestine, 1948: The Sailor and The Farmer.

Having read about Israel and Palestine a great deal of late, I thought I would post this piece, “The Sailor and The Farmer”.  If of interest, please share.

———–

The sailor, stunned, started to shake;
By Fate’s grace, he had just escaped
From a scene of matchless horror
Since he had acted upon a
Hunch and forced some friends to board
His vessel, whilst some who’d ignored
Warnings that they were in danger
Were condemned to taste death’s flavour,
Gas and ash, in sombre chamber…

They’d all been rounded into herds,
The sailor’s friends, and then one-third
Of them had disappeared within
That tomb – but two-thirds came with him…
Previously, they’d lived happily
With people they now had to flee;
That’s why the sailor was struck dumb
That those that they’d once lived among
Could turn on them: but he had dreamt
Of such a day; yes, it was meant
To end like this – or start like this;
That, heartlessly, they’d be dismissed
And, as survivors, set adrift
To find another, safer part
Of Earth. And so, this sailor’s ark
Set sail. The waters were rocky
The crew’s members murmured softly
In a circle, heads bowed, hoping
They’d find homes across the ocean…
Yet this vessel’s journey was hard;
Their flesh was burned by sun, they starved
Halfway to death, and they implored
Their Lord that he’d reward their faith –
The sailor, praying for this grace
Looked out across the shoreless sea
And pleaded: “Please, there ought to be
Some land where we can rest our souls –
Our soles…” The sailor’s forlorn thought
Was that he’d never known a port
Where he’d been welcome: throughout time
There’d been suspicion of his kind –
The script, timeless, had never changed:
They’d come ashore, and they’d remain
There for a while, put down some roots;
They’d swap their sailor’s clothes for suits
Of good, land-bound professionals,
Then some would have exceptional
Careers, leading to jealous hosts
Who’d chase them from their lands, their coasts;
Or worse. The sailor knew of friends
Whose entire bloodlines had been cleansed,
Whose family trees had the sap
Ripped from their veins; he’d seen all that,
The sailor. Coping with this nomad’s
Life was often difficult,
Yet easier than getting caught,
Stranded on dry land at the hands
Of angry clans…yet as he made
His slow progress across the waves
He vowed, both wary and weary:
“My people’s eyes will be tear-free
One day; I will turn the servant
To the served; yes, I’m determined
That the next place where my anchor’s
Shade cascades, will see us anxious
No more; there will be an ending
To the terror we’ve been feeling…”
Then, as if the wind was heeding
Him, it gave wings to his craft,
Which harnessed the storm; came at last
To harbour on a continent
Most of whose folk were competent
At working all day in the fields…
As they landed, a plan revealed
Itself to this smart sailor, who
Barked some sharp orders to his crew.
The first order was “Burn the boat”:
The sailor intended – not hoped –
To stay here, and would not be swayed
By fear; he would cower in shade
No more. The sailor ordered, secondly –
As result of the heavenly
Instructions he’d received in dreams –
That all vacant homes should be seized:
See, there were plenty of empty
Homes, since they were owned by farmers –
All of whom – kids, mothers, fathers –
Toiled between the dawn and dusk
In deep soil that adorned Earth’s crust.
Thirdly, he told them all to strip.
When some refused, the sailor ripped
Their garments from them, shredded them;
Told them they had ahead of them
A future where they wouldn’t need
Sea-gypsies’ clothes. A chilly breeze
Then struck them, left them shivering;
Although they were still listening
To what their leader had to say
They weren’t keen on this naked state;
They felt exposed, humiliated.

“Finally”, ordered the sailor,
“You must all assume behaviour
Of people who are entitled
To live here; this is your tribal
Stomping crowd from here on in.”
They thought that they weren’t hearing him
Correctly; some of them had doubts;
They were guests; was it right to pounce
Upon houses of those who’d left
For work, to leave them dispossessed?
Though, in breasts, they felt uncertain
They felt, in same place, a surge of
Pride – they’d claimed the upper hand,
They’d made their mark upon these sands…

The farmers trod their routes home.
Keen to enjoy fruits of their stoves,
They drove their toothless mules down roads
Towards their towns, streets far from smooth
Beaten anew by horses’ hooves;
The adults, in their sweaty droves
The children in scuffed, dusty clothes,
Shuffled to their front doors, and stopped
In shock: since their front doors were locked.

To start with, each of the fathers
Thought that this was just a harmless
Prank. They never locked their doors.
They laughed. There was even applause:
Then, of course, they slowly took note
Of fact that this was not a joke.

“Open up!” they cried in despair.

“I will not. I live in this lair
Now,” the sailor said. “Who are you?”
Asked the farmers. “We’ve not harmed you.
Why have you chased us from our homes?”

The sailor’s people, in abodes
That they’d chosen, felt pangs of shame;
But they were anxious to remain
Inside, because if they now moved
Then they would be seen in the nude:
So they blocked all entrances,
Imposed on themselves sentences
Of long confinement. Now and then,
For food, they’d sneak out, grab a hen
And run back in before the stones
Were thrown by angry farmers whose
Returns to homes were overdue.

The sailor grew older, and died:
But storm he’d caused did not subside;
Some of his descendants, restless,
Charged out as if with a deathwish,
Went to live among the farmers
Naked, but clad in the armour
Of faith that was absolute:
Some sailors, though they at the root
Of themselves knew they’d crossed a line
Pretended all was fine, and slept
Uneasily, whilst farmers stepped
Slyly past their guards by night
So that, in vengeance, they might strike;
Most farmers camped out in the fields,
Becoming deaf to all appeals
For peace by sailors, and increased
In rage with each passing decade
Until once-succulent olives
Of that land’s trees tasted horrid,
Watered as they had been by the
Sour tears of those inside the
Farmers’ homes, those trapped outside…
Even now, you’ll hear the outcry
Of both tribes: cries of the sailors,
Who for years were homeless, aimless,
Who are now landlords, with tenants
Of extraordinary menace;
And you’ll hear cries of the farmers,
Wandering through their vast pastures,
Scared they’ll find no place to rest:
Feelings the sailors once knew best.

An ode to the World Cup, for the BBC World Service: “Rio”.

With the World Cup drawing to a close, the BBC World Service asked me to write a poem about the time that I had spent in Rio during the tournament. You can hear it at 24:32 of the following link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0224gvd

The text is below:

“Rio: an ode to the World Cup”

It makes sense that the heart of this World Cup,
Of this country, is Rio,
Because this city might just be
The most beautiful team the world has seen:
Each of its areas, beaches and bays
Sounds like it bears the name
Of an elegant Brazilian footballer;
Reading a map of Rio
Sounds like a list of squad members
Selected by God:
Gloria, Urca, Lapa, Leblon,
Santa Teresa, Laranjeiras,
Ipanema, Copacabana,
Flamengo, Maracana;
Long before football arrived in Brazil,
This country knew it was coming;
It made sure the sand was soft long in advance,
So that feet could dribble across it all day:
Brazil made sure that its cliffs, fields and forests
Were more spectacular than any goal that might ever be scored,
So that even if Neymar or Messi summoned up glorious deeds
Their surroundings would inspire them
To even greater feats.
Or perhaps Rio is a dressing-room
Through which, each day, parade millions;
Through the stench of steak and sweat and salt
As workmen’s tools clatter like studs against tiles
And buses disappear off into the night,
Like dreams;
And high above the door
Is Christ the Redeemer,
Standing on his mountain mantelpiece,
With the best view of each of us –
Of the beach, and, of course, of the football;
And he waves us all welcome, bem-vindos,
Welcome.

My poem, “Merely David Moyes”, for the BBC World Service.

David Moyes, as you all know by now, was sacked by Manchester United this week, and I was asked by the BBC World Service to write something to mark the occasion.  I think that the main reason that Moyes failed at Old Trafford was that, beyond his tactical shortcomings, he was overawed by the challenge ahead of him, and I have tried to capture that here.  If you enjoy it at all, please share; thank you very much for reading and/or listening.

“Merely David Moyes”

He was Fergie;
You are merely David Moyes.
How can you follow an act like that?
As Fergie leaves the stage to the grandest of applause
You’re standing anxious, nearby in the darkened corridor.
And now the crowd waits for you:
Up the tunnel you go;
Your stadium’s not just any stage, it’s the Theatre of Dreams
But how can you match what Scottish gods have long since achieved?
All football managers are actors,
But you’re afraid you won’t convince;
You’re scared you are the penalty-taker
Who is doomed to miss.
It is over from the first day that you walk through the door
And sit on Fergie’s throne
To find your feet don’t touch the floor.
Every day in training you are greeted by your fear
And the eyes of Fergie’s soldiers, asking:
“Why have you come here?”
Rival armies, sensing weakness, gather at your gates;
Your crowd cheers through its horror as your teams are left in flames.
The worst thing is, that while you’re sinking at Usain Bolt’s pace
You see a gleeful Liverpool
Rising to take your place.
Your back four was a fortress, and now it’s yielding goals
And your players, who were stallions once
Stumble like newborn foals.
You are a good, good man, and you work daily at your lines
But you’ve not worked under such bright lights,
And they bite you like knives.
When the end comes, there will be those who say it was wrong
That you ever took this role, that you never belonged:
And maybe you believe them –
That only special ones should claim this seat –
Yet as you leave, beneath your pain,
You may feel some relief.

 

On floods, and rising sea levels: “The Creep”.

I wrote this poem a while back about floods, climate change and rising sea levels, and thought I’d share it now, as it seems relevant.  If you find it of interest, please share.

———————————–

The creep.  I spent a sleepless eve

Beneath creased bedsheets, and I breathed

An anxious breeze, a worried wind:

I panted – my thoughts, hurried – things

Were inching closer, so it seemed:

The moon glinted; it had once beamed

Benignly at me; sign of what

I did not know; I closed window

Despite the night-time’s stifling heat,

Hiding from moon: just like a fleet

Of clouds might hide the sun from us,

My curtains hid me from the dusk

And thus I lay in darkness –

In room humid as closed casket:

But, in here, I felt no safer;

My room’s walls were thin as wafers,

And, through them, I heard in distance

Some small sound, growing, insistent

With each piston of my heartbeat,

Creeping towards me, my parched sheets;

I had heard this creep for weeks, for months –

At work, I’d talked about it once

But all I received was colleagues’

Jibes that I needed a life:

That didn’t stop me hearing it

Or fearing it.  And here it came:

Tapping my eardrums like first rain-

Drops on a nervous pane of glass

That knows the storm’s approaching fast…

I could not just wait there for it

Nor could I ignore it; so I,

Throwing on my overcoat,

Went to front door, opened it, closed

It behind me hard, with a slam

To drown that sound, and then I ran

Up to the broken traffic lights

Which lit the crossroads; flashing bright

Green, amber, red in rapid strobe,

They winked at cars, who never slowed

Down to return these urgent flirts;

And as I stood there, with the church

Across from me and the vibrant

Neon sign of some off-licence,

I heard something – no, that’s a lie:

You won’t believe me, but I’ll try

To tell you what I heard: my mind

Had amplified, well, every sound

Across the world.  In every town,

Be it Lisbon, Brisbane, Beirut,

I heard each noise: I could hear troops

Marching in the Congo, groups

Of French teens smoking bongs, those suits

In Swiss board meetings, with their knives

Sharpened, to backs to be applied…

Why did my ears offer me

This cacophony, that deafened

Me like blast from weapon?

I heard private sorrows, sobs, tears –

It was like I’d borrowed God’s ears…

Wait – there was more that I could hear:

I heard atoms in Korea

Splitting savagely in some test

To create some man-made sunsets;

Somewhere, polar bears were drowning;

Urban roads were overcrowding –

Whether on weekdays, or Sabbaths –

With hordes of metallic mammoths;

I heard jet planes farting carbon,

Arson’s roar in forest fires,

Heard the laughs of arms suppliers

As they sold death without bias

To either side of a conflict;

Heard the anguish of a conscript

In some war-torn Middle Eastern

State, who’d just killed without reason…

But, in midst of all this din,

I heard that sound, tiny, yet grim –

The creep of each tide up each shore

Higher than it had crept before –

Each creep up each beach was either

Just one or two millimetres;

Whilst we engaged in wars of words

Or worse, this creep went unobserved:

What was causing it?  I focused

My ears, so that I could know this –

Fixed my hearing on a target

In far corner of the Arctic,

And I found source of this creeping:

I heard one huge iceberg, weeping,

Shedding itself in grief’s gallons

Into sea for no apparent

Reason; then I listened more

And all became a little more

Haunting, as these teardrops echoed

Around this deserted ghetto…

It seemed that the sun had kidnapped

Icebergs that it would not give back –

So this iceberg mourned its siblings.

With tears’ torrents, it was shifting

Tides towards us, and our coasts

So soon the coasts would be as close

As our front doorsteps; but the creep

Went unheard by the people.  Meek,

Made humble by this distant threat,

I did what these seas did – I crept

To my room, that tomb,

And I slept.

“Helpless”, about climate change

Climate change is consistently claiming the headlines these days.  Many people are not convinced that the recent extreme weather events are anything to do with our pollution of the environment; many others are convinced, but I suspect are feeling helplessness and resignation about a problem that feels too big to address.  I wrote this, “Helpless”, in the hope that it might resonate with some of them.

————

It’s hard not to be selfish
If you feel helpless
If you know the ice shelf’s melting;
Have to look elsewhere, stare at the twelve-inch;
Quick, give me sports statistics to delve in…
Bring it to my doorstep,
Grinning from the tabloids’ foreheads,
Morbid – more wars – more deaths –
I will ignore it, as forceful as storms get;
I will not witness the torment….
Pardon: I can’t watch what I can’t stop,
And I can’t put the oil back, refreeze the seas,
Or uneat the meat,
Or unburn the coal,
Or unfly the planes,
Or unbirth the souls;
So:
I’m not about to halt what I can;
No, I’m off to grab hold of and gulp what I can;
Some will bet that I could have done better
But can’t say I never made an effort;
See, I’ve called on those above us, but none replied
So now all I do is cover eyes:
Now all I do is cover eyes

The First Law of Privilege

I have been thinking a lot about privilege recently.  Privilege, I think, is not inherently a problem.  The problem comes only when people who have no experience of a particular prejudice – racism, classism, sexism, and so on – act in a way which belittles the predicaments of those who are directly affected by it.  These acts are often unconscious, but that doesn’t make their effects any less dangerous.  I wrote the piece below in response to the fact that Parliament has only just had its first debate on the disproportionate deaths of black and ethnic minority people in custody, despite this topic being the subject of tireless campaigns for years.  I suspect that the exercise of privilege, be it conscious or subconscious, is a primary reason why it has taken so long for this debate to come before our country’s politicians.

“The First Law of Privilege”

They make you ashamed of your rage.
They call you the angry black man,
The hysterical woman,
The paranoid Jew.
They make you stand in fire,
Then complain when you yell about the heat.
They say:
“What are you playing the race card for?” –
But I have never known a membership card
That has closed so many doors.
They cause or prolong your pain,
Then tell you how it should be expressed;
If you don’t do so politely,
Then your case will be dismissed –
They talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you –
Then get surprised when you shout.
They don’t think:
“We ignored them,
So they had to scream it out.”
For this is what The First Law of Privilege dictates:
That what to you is daily strife
Is, to them, mere debate.

My Ode to Football, commissioned for the FA’s 150th anniversary.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned by the Football Association to write a poem to mark their 150th anniversary.  We shot the poem, “An Ode to Football”, at Wembley and in south-west London, and it features guest appearances from several prominent figures in the football world, including Steven Gerrard, Arsene Wenger, Eniola Aluko, Gabby Logan and Theo Walcott. There are also several celebrity football fans who deliver lines of the poem, the best thing about which is that I can now say I have collaborated with Dizzee Rascal and Wretch 32. (Yes, it’s a bit tenuous, but hey, what the hell.)  The text of the poem is below, the video is at this link, and I hope you enjoy it; if so, please share.

“An Ode to Football”

This is football:

Yes, jumpers for goalposts in your local park

With the lamp-posts as your floodlights,

And no-one watching but the stars:

This is football –

Where the groundstaff cut grass with a barber’s care

Where the terraces forever sing hymns to their favourite players:

This is football –

Hot coffee in the stands on midweek nights

This is players squaring up

But never actually starting fights

This is football

Each battle lasts an hour-and-a-half

It’s that war of rival scarves

You can fight fair, or plunge to grass –

This is football

Imitating that voice that reads Final Score

This is transfer-window shopping,

It’s Deadline Day on Sky Sports

This is football

Last in that half-time queue for the loo then food:

This is Sir Geoff Hurst on Wembley’s turf in destiny’s pursuit

This is football

Humming Match of the Day’s theme tune as it starts:

Keeping your head down from thirty yards, and shivering crossbars:

This is football

This is panic,

Your defenders scrambling back

When they realised the other team sitting deep

Was just a trap

This is football, this is football

Cracked shinpads and all

It’s the innocent protest –

It’s the “I barely touched him, ref!”

This is football

This is not just 4-4-2 or 4-3-3

This is what you do when you go one player down, and then concede

This is football

This is that banter you get at away grounds

Which when you score that last-minute winning goal

Is not so loud

This is football

Cup tie:

You’ve gone to penalties to sever the knot

But your guts are all you’ve got

And sudden death now marks the spot:

This is football

Not prawn sandwiches

You can find it in all languages

It’s your spilled pint in the pub

When your team goes one-nil up:

This is football

This is that fanzine which calls it harsh but fair

This is catching coaches, planes and trains since your club needs you there

This is football

Practised against the wall, and in the hall

It’s those concrete playground moves

That have ruined all your shoes:

This is football

Lugging your team’s laundry home from Sunday league

This is playing online tournaments until sleep intervenes

This is football:

It’s a very big deal,

You can ask Bill Shankly

It’s that click-clack of the turnstile,

It’s that Gazza-needs-a-hanky

This is football

Brought to you by the Football Association

Formed in the Tavern of Freemasons

One-fifty years in the making

This is football:

Of all the sports, this is our nation’s favourite

And we speak to celebrate it

So if you have a drink, please raise it

Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel.

Dear revisionists, Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.

You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive.
You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail. You will fold your hands and say the blacks have no-one to blame now but themselves.
Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mandela’s life isn’t that he spent almost thirty years jailed by well-heeled racists who tried to shatter millions of spirits through breaking his soul, but that there weren’t or aren’t nearly enough people like him.
Because that’s South Africa now, a country long ago plunged headfirst so deep into the sewage of racial hatred that, for all Mandela’s efforts, it is still retching by the side of the swamp. Just imagine if Cape Town were London.  Imagine seeing two million white people living in shacks and mud huts along the M25 as you make your way into the city, where most of the biggest houses and biggest jobs are occupied by a small, affluent to wealthy group of black people.  There are no words for the resentment that would still simmer there.
Nelson Mandela was not a god, floating elegantly above us and saving us. He was utterly, thoroughly human, and he did all he did in spite of people like you. There is no need to name you because you know who you are, we know who you are, and you know we know that too. You didn’t break him in life, and you won’t shape him in death. You will try, wherever you are, and you will fail.

UK poetry scene produces a very special Sunday night in Stratford

Something very special happened last Sunday night. Kat Francois, an excellent poet in her own right – she can point to a BBC world slam championship, as well as several headline slots at leading events and festivals – hosted the tenth anniversary celebration of her celebrated weekly poetry night, Word4Word, at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. The longevity of the night, which is free to all-comers, is remarkable enough in London’s fickle entertainment landscape. Its success is a tribute to Kat’s endless efforts and the steadfast support of her partner, the poet, photographer and DJ Rob ‘Sloetry’ Covell. Despite an evening of bracing cold, the event was welcomed by a full house, with something like a hundred people clustered around a series of tables.

The greatest beauty of Word4Word, I think, is that the poetry here is utterly unrestrained: its performers aren’t just gifted writers, but they have perhaps the greatest attribute of any artist, which is the bravery to express that which is most personal. There was no subject deemed too taboo; each topic, be it quiet heartbreak or the anger left by generations of slavery, was raised and powerfully examined, the house falling silent with shock or falling about with laughter. Francois, whose skills as a stand-up comedienne came to the fore, stitched the night together with warm, engaging and occasionally waspish asides, whilst Covell’s playlist had several people swaying in their seats, then sprinting to his DJ booth to see which sublime tune he’d just rolled out.

The format of the celebration was straightforward: each artist, be they poet, singer or rapper, was given a slot of five to ten minutes to stand up and do their thing. It was all here: from a young drama group mentored by Francois who formed a three-man spoken word chorus, telling a tale of the bitterest loss; to the souful storytelling of songwriters El Crisis, OneNess, and Dionne Reid; and the magnificent vocals of Delicia, whose imperious tones would put many an X-Factor finalist to shame.

Star poetic turns also came from the outstanding newcomer Kareem Brown, Word4Word stalwart Justice Lyric, Tshaka Campbell, Kemi Taiwo, Deanna Rodger, Lyric L (whose hilarious dramatisation of a Kat Francois poem was comedy platinum) and Mark Thompson, whose address to his wife, on the seventh anniversary of her diagnosis with cancer, was one of the night’s most moving moments. My personal highlight of the night was an astonishing piece by Yomi “G.R.E.Ed.S” Sode, an open letter to the President of Nigeria’s wife in criticism of that nation’s proposal to legalise child marriage. After his performance, which moved several to tears, Sode was himself overcome with emotion; in those few minutes, he produced as compelling a piece of live artistry as I have seen in several years.

The night was fittingly closed by AmeN Noir, whose new documentary on the UK spoken word scene is already attracting excellent reviews: it was only right that someone who has taken such care to document the genre’s past should end a night of rare commemoration and celebration. Kat Francois and her friends have created something truly special with Word4Word, and it will rightly be regarded as a cornerstone of this scene for many years to come.