Poem of the week: Reformation by Fred D’Aguiar

A compact glimpse of an exploited, despoiled world, this small work offers very large resonances


All things



or free range

all things

turned dingy


made them small.

Reformation provides a moment of rest from the array of richly imagined “profiles” and narratives that make up Fred D’Aguiar’s latest collection of poems, Translations from Memory. The distinctive economy of the writing here may be intended to illustrate the poem’s ecological and historical concerns. But there is nothing cramped about the vision. While inculpating “history” in general, if not the specific historical reformation of the Christian church in Europe, the poem conducts its survey from the future’s edge. The minimalist, sometimes one-word construction of the lines suggests a contraction of vastness. It slows the tempo, and heightens the alliterative echoes. The spacing creates an effect of two six-lined sections, with a slightly expanded stanza break between the two. It looks a little like an opened book.

Readers of a certain age might pick up an ironic echo of the lingeringly popular Victorian children’s hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful. The hymn is notorious for its reference to “the rich man in his castle” and “the poor man at his gate”, implying that all’s right with the world, because God made everything in it, including injustice and inequality, and is indeed its Lord.

In the poem, “polished” and “prismatic” are terms that suggest merchandise. The beautiful objects may have been torn from the earth, from birds and animals, and from people. They may in fact be people. “Prismatic” is emphasised, a tiny, one-word stanza in which the colours seem to have room to coruscate. “Polished” tends more, perhaps, to suggest cultural resonance; ideas and skills as well as skins and minerals have been brought to a perfect shine.

These associations connect, of course, to the subsequent reference to “creatures / caged // or free range”. The most fundamental of the broad, inclusive gestures of the poem, it connects with the major theme and continuous sub-theme of the whole collection: slavery. For the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the caged bird symbolised the chained slave. (It was a line from one of Dunbar’s poems, Sympathy, that provided Maya Angelou with the title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) The irony of “free range” is that, for the bird reared in such conditions, freedom is fairly illusory. In the poem, the “caged” and “free range” both participate in the list of the depleted.

The second half of the poem shows the negative reformation in simple, visual terms: “cracked // turned dingy” – again, suggesting spoiled goods, and, by implication, people traded as goods. The last line of the poem might “reform” that triumphal line of the hymn, which says: “The Lord God made them all.” The “translation” is aphoristically sharp and despairing: “history / ours // made them small.”

D’Aguiar is not generally concerned with textual translation in this collection: he applies the word in a broader sense. Poets, philosophers, political radicals and others lend their names to many of the poems. Their ideas and/or their personal stories are variously satirised, domesticated, celebrated.

D’Aguiar produces some intriguing translations of lives into metaphor. Socrates, for example, “walked into a mountaintop mine with the disposition / of a canary on the up and up, whistle stop”. Pushkin is offered an additional life, in honour of his African ancestry, Dante’s circles of hell are redrawn as squares in sand. Among D’Aguiar’s mentor-poets, Derek Walcott (“DW”) and Kamau Brathwaite (“KB”) are celebrated joyously.

The gallery of political and intellectual heroes includes Malcolm, MLK, Mandela, WEB DuBois and “Our King James” (CLR). These abbreviations seem part of the serious trans-cultural game, inviting recognition, but also making the outsider notice the limits and exclusions their own education has entailed. Whether the planet’s human creatures might coexist without radically mistranslating each other is one of the vigorously posed questions.

Reformation is a quick, searing glimpse of a scenario of exploitation and despoliation. But its anger might persuade us that not all the “prismatic” and “polished” have been lost.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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