Poem of the week: Reformation by Fred D’Aguiar

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

Reformation

All things
polished

prismatic

creatures
caged

or free range

all things
cracked

turned dingy

history
ours

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.

Contributor

Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Poem of the week: New Order by Fred Johnston
A cancer scare provides a strange and agonised source of inspiration

Carol Rumens

10, Jun, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Boy Soldier by Fred D'Aguiar
This shocking portrait of a child locked into a brutal cycle of war restrains its language, but its outrage is palpable

Carol Rumens

27, May, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Old Poem by Anonymous, translated by Arthur Waley
The bare scene that greets an old soldier returning from long service is understated but deeply affecting

Carol Rumens

07, May, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Cob by Fiona Sampson
These flowing, musical verses evoke both a deep past and a very modern sense of spirituality

Carol Rumens

12, Jun, 2017 @9:04 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Wedding by Alice Oswald
Skilfully moving through changing similes, this outstanding modern sonnet pays tribute to the balancing act of love

Carol Rumens

22, May, 2017 @11:24 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Ifs by Caroline Norton
A wry, pastoral fantasy aimed at romantic types, this all-but forgotten poem irresistibly recalls one of the most famous. And arguably outdoes it

Carol Rumens

08, Aug, 2016 @10:56 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Tourists by Ruth Bidgood
A warm pastiche of an 18th-century travelogue, this is a touching portrait of the tourist’s comical but sincere search for exaltation in Wales

Carol Rumens

20, Jun, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Manhattan by Lola Ridge
An intensely dynamic vision of New York City in the early 20th century raises questions about its gilded allure

Carol Rumens

15, Oct, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Jasper by Tony Conran
A wedding gift in verse, this is a warm celebration of art and craft, friendship and Welshness

Carol Rumens

25, Apr, 2016 @11:02 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Yangtze by Sarah Howe
An elliptical account of a journey down the Chinese river subtly registers the impact of massive environmental damage

Carol Rumens

02, May, 2016 @10:00 AM