I have previously blogged about how my book group makes the occasional foray into poetry alongside reading novels. This month we’ve been considering The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus.
We began our discussions by looking at Dementia (p81) and noticing how different it was from the usual portrayals of the impact of dementia. In Antrobus’s work it becomes a ‘tender syndrome’ which ‘simplified a complicated man’. This published version of the poem has been edited and simplified from the spoken word which you can see on youtube. His father appears in a number of poems in the collection.
My introduction to his work was at the Newcastle Poetry Festival in 2018 at which he electrified the audience. He got us to chant a response of British at appropriate moments while he read Jamaican British (p25), a poem which deals playfully with questions of identity.
With the poetry reading group we considered his response to Ted Hughes ‘After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi River’ (p41) and thought he had created a fine poem out of an out-dated and patronising view of deaf children. The collision of two worlds, the deaf and the hearing world is mirrored in fourth stanza in which the French colonisers write down names and the natives laugh at their arrogant maps ‘conquering wind and marking mist’.
We all liked the title poem The Perseverance (p29) and discussed how the form of the sestina fitted so well with his situation of waiting for his father. We spent time puzzling over the meaning of the sixth stanza about eating yams with his father before ‘overstanding our heat and perseverance’. A member of the group had looked up overstanding, which assisted our understanding of the poem. One of the great things about reading a poetry collection as a group, is the chance to discuss phrases that might not be clear at first sight and, unlike the experience at school where you had to get the answers right, we enjoy the debate. It certainly makes me engage more deeply with the poems I’ve been reading.
We then turned to Dear Hearing World (p36) which is a response to Danez Smith’s prose poem dear-white-america. This led to much discussion of sign language and how useful it would be if it was more widely used. One of the teacher members of the group related the experience of working in an infant school at which most of the children hearing and deaf children, could sign because it was used throughout the school. In essence this poem sums up what Antrobus is doing with the whole collection which is to make those of us who take hearing for granted much more aware of what it is like not being able to hear. Thank you Raymond for making us think. We felt as if we’d been in conversation with you.
Thanks also to Tom Chivers of Penned in the Margins for facilitating a group purchase of the books. I’d thoroughly recommend the Perseverance if your book group is considering reading poetry.