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by John Agard

I had serious doubts about the wisdom of attempting to review this collection of John Agard's poetry. It wasn't so much the fact that most of it is written in patois as the fact that Mr Agard is a performance poet. It seemed unlikely that his work would have the same effect written down as it does on stage.

Almost as soon as I began reading, I realised that my fears had been unfounded. Not only is John Agard a terrific poet, but his poetry stands on its merit, even with an audience of one. Although it is clearly intended to be read aloud, it suffers no more from appearing in book form than that of, say, T S Eliot. It does, however, have more overall coherence than most books of poetry. Mr Agard's themes are drawn from his ethnic heritage. In Come Down Nansi, the new work which is presented here in a single volume together with two earlier collections (Limbo Dancer in Dark Glasses from 1983 and Man to Pan from 1982), he employs the voice of Anansi, a spider god whose web encompasses all aspects of human life.

Not many writers, even poets, are capable of using the English language so imaginatively and so lyrically as this man whose origins are in Guyana:

"and her song to my ears was more beautiful than flybuzz

and her dance was mathematics defied beyond daring."

Come Down Nansi is a kind of history of the world as seen through the eyes of Anansi: a topsy-turvy and at the same time a very sensible world. Many of the poems are fables: How Anansi Won Who-Is-Oldest Contest, for example, and How Aunty Nancy Converts the Intruder. Others simply offer us an alternative view of everyday things: When Anansi Goes Walkies with Eight Dogs.

The other two parts of the "trilogy" are not, as far as I can see, closely linked with the newest work. The "Pan" of Man to Pan is the steel drum, whilst the limbo dancer is yet another symbol of the poet's roots. It would be wrong to say that there is no sign of developments in style having taken place in the intervening years, but all three groups of poems display similar degrees of humour and inventiveness. Something in me nevertheless rebels at the idea that Come Down Nansi was written as a natural sequel to the other two, which were written such a long time before. It stands on its own, and I think it's more likely to have been a neat opportunity for Bloodaxe Books to revive John Agard's earlier work, which presumably (though it doesn't say so on the fly-leaf) was originally published by someone else.

In terms of presentation, this is a more attractive volume than many I've seen previously, with a cover image that really says something about the content. On the other hand, for 9.95, one expects nothing less. If you are a devotee of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, or simply an admirer of poetry, Weblines represents good value - a book for you to buy and savour at your leisure.


ISBN 1 85224 480 1
Published by Bloodaxe Books, 2000
175pp, paperback
Retail price 9.95

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