AQA B English Pre-Release Summer 2004
Poems from Different Cultures and Traditions -

Hungry Ghost

The title gives expectations of horror: Who is the hungry ghost? What is it hungering for? Who is being haunted?

By contrast the opening line is mundane: the subject matter – “shopping with my father”- is trivial and the tone is conversational. This tone is achieved by the everyday vocabulary and the use of enjambment, the technique whereby the sentence runs on beyond the end of the line.

The poet recreates a sense of her naïve and innocent childhood self enjoying the simple excitements of the market in the company of “Grandfather”. She uses the senses to evoke the experience –

“smelling the spicy scents
drinking the sights and mingling with the shouts"

The voice telling the story now is adult, able to reflect on her past self and create an evocative and sophisticated simile – “like a restless spirit, hungry for life”- to explain the attitude of her child self. It is in this line that the significance of the title becomes apparent and loses its threat.

The 2nd verse depicts, by contrast, the experience of the mature adult who perceives the market in a more pragmatic, political and less romantic way. She now recognises the impact of globalisation on this little corner of the world, which was once her whole world. There is a deep sense of loss in this verse, as the innocence of the child has been sacrificed to brutal reality –

I understand
about money and, alas, its bondage
of buyers and sellers.”

The final sentence expresses a wish to regain the lost innocence of youth and the literal bazaar described thus far becomes a metaphor for the wider world which the poet now has to inhabit. We sense that she wishes that she could bring the same innocence and expectation to the world that she did to the bazaar of her childhood.


The title of this poem is both profound and ironic. It sets up expectations of vengeance and violence which it wholly and deliberately fails to fulfil.

The poet has lived in a country in which human rights have been flagrantly and consistently violated. By looking at the “revenge” he plans, you can see what the crimes against him and his countrymen have been; he plans to do the exact opposite of what has been done to him and his fellows. The repeated my/you contrast reinforces this.

The reference to the “you” of the poem seeing “the goodness in my people’s eyes” demonstrates the alienation of the “you” from the poet and his people; maybe this is another part of the poet’s revenge – that the “you” should experience the consequence of his actions and be self-excluded from the paradise described in this poem. The idea that the time will come

“When you, the torturer
daren’t lift your head”

reinforces this.
I feel, though, that the poet would like the “you” to reach a point of self awareness which would allow him to become part of “my people”, since the poet wishes to reach out to the “you” with hands “with all their tenderness intact”.

The poet plans to be revenged through forgiveness, which he sees as being the real victory. The triumph is that what has been will no longer be, so the former victims get to win.

All world leaders should be compelled to read this poem once a week, especially the leaders of Israel, Palestine and every Balkan state there is – not to mention the various parties in Northern Ireland. This is from the horse’s mouth – forgiveness is the only way forward.

The Heat of Summer

I like this poem immensely. The use of the present tense creates a sense of immediacy which, together with the use of the senses – “barely light”, “shrieking”- transports me straight to the poet’s world.

Words such as “shrieking” and “absolutely” and phrases such as “high assurance” and “live at the heart of their days” demonstrate the confidence and at-homeness (made up word) of the cicadas. The poet admires their total appropriateness to and comfort in their world, which she expresses thorough the innovative metaphor

“wearing the weather, the daylight
and dark, right up close to the skin”

The first three and a half verses celebrate the cicadas and their approach to life. The next one and a half introduce the contrast between them and the poet. The vocabulary used becomes heavy – “shame”, “drably”, “clumsy and ill-fitting”- in contrast with what has gone before. The poet does not feel at home in her life as the cicadas do in theirs and she feels shamed by them.

From “Soon…” to “…grow old and die.” The poet seems to take a negative view of life; human life is full of quarrels, joy is lost and even cicadas die. This is short lived, however, as optimism reasserts itself and the poet determines to live in the moment –

“it’s now, they’re out doing their marvellous
rhythmic hysteria, and I hear them. Hallelujah.”

The last word – “Hallelujah”- brings a spiritual quality to the poem, as though the cicadas are a gift of God, a divine thing to be rejoiced in, so this morning experience of hearing cicadas becomes invested with religious significance.

This poem reminds me of “A Living” by D H Lawrence which we studied last year. It has that same sense of humbly learning from nature.

The Four Knives of Freeman the Canecutter

It’s really hard to see, at first, (and at second, actually) what to say about this poem. But… Freeman is a free man, and this is the point. Once his people were slaves but now they’re not any more, and his 4th knife symbolises that.

His knives seem to me (maybe) to represent aspects of himself. The 1st knife could be seen to represent the forceful subjugation of nature;

“that red-veined bone was the
stamping foot of a black mare once,
pared and shaped and polished with chisel and rough steel file.”

With this knife Freeman exacts revenge and metes out punishment on those whom he sees as having wronged him.

The 2nd knife seems more harmonious; the components of wood, vinegar, ivory and leather seem less cruelly robbed of life than the black mare. This may be really fanciful, but maybe this knife represents the “exquisite balance” in which a man may live with nature and the world around him.

The 3rd knife is full of artistry and delicacy. With it, Freeman does constructive or beautiful things. Just look at the vocabulary and contrast “rose-coloured”, “golden pebbles of wood”, “thin as a leaf and glazed with silver” and “infinite, infinite artistry” with “stamping” and “chisel and rough steel file”.
It is hard to believe that the Freeman of knives 1 and 3 are the same man. The 4th knife is a sacred,

“consecrated” knife imbued with tradition and race memories:
“there gathers in it from a long-
remembered history a separate value.
From generation to generation the faith of men has entered into
The long blade and the shell handle.”

What this knife represents is the freedom of its people. It represents their salvation. The language surrounding it is rich with religious significance: “consecrated”, “like a holy cross”, “the saving hills”.
This knife had been the property of a white slave overseer but was taken by one of the 1st freed slaves. The fact that this European made knife is used by a free black man to cut “the emerald ancestral cane” in freedom, as his ancestors used to do in slavery, is like a slap in the face for the one time enslavers. He is turning the old tools of slavery against them to create a new future of freedom in which his work and the work of his people is for himself and his people.

Of course, this may all be a load of rubbish, but it seems to make some kind of sense. Perhaps!

A Cowboy’s Version

This is a cowboy’s meditation on the beauty of creation and the origin of it all. In terms of rhyme and metre it’s like a country and western song. I bet we could find a tune for it if we tried hard enough!

The language is an odd mix of culturally specific vocabulary, as indicated by the italics, dialect speech patterns –“ridin’”, “shinin’”, “’Cuz”, “them colors”, “Wa’n’t”, “builded”-and religious terminology –“an All-Wise creator”, “mortal hand”, “the Creator’s plan”, “the good Lord’s own behest” (how often do you catch John Wayne using the word behest?)

The metaphor of heaven as a ranch and God as the Boss is used. (Bet God doesn’t wear high heeled boots to assert His authority!)

It’s quite sweet, I suppose, but a bit twee.


This is about the everyday magic of motherhood. Nicholls is remembering with affection the ways in which her mother made everyday or unpleasant activities seem magical – stories like spells to take the children’s minds off having to take their medicine; understanding illness and labour pains and knowing just what to do when a child got a split pea stuck up her nose. To Nicholls, both as child and as adult it seems, this knowledge of how to be a mother is the supreme magic, so she is able to declare

“My mother had more magic
in her thumb
than the length and breadth
of any magician.”

The ordinary, conversational language and layout of the poem underlines the fact that magic can lie in the ordinary.

Very little punctuation is used but the verse structure dictates a pattern of meaning.

My Village

The initial picture created of the village is a very romanticised one,

“Swaying at the border of the moonlit night
In the midst of endless natural beauty.”

The makana leaf and the karmi vines are mentioned in this 1st romanticised verse.

In the 2nd verse a hint that the romanticism might be eroded arises in the line “I sing in the midst of struggle”, and this is reinforced in later verses with “huddled up in winter” and “squabbling and bickering”. I have no idea what she means by describing her village as “Turning over on its side”. However on the whole an idealistic picture is painted with phrases like “honeyed dream” and “Like the golden jasmine of my dreams”.

The suggestion that this idealised, romanticised picture is a fantasy and a dream is underlined by the fact that in the last verse we return to the makana leaf and the karmi leaves only to find them being despoiled by the snake. If I were sure of the religious background of this poem I would feel more confident about talking about the iconic significance of the snake as the despoiler of innocence. As I’m not confident, I’ll draw your attention to the vocabulary used – “biting” and “slithering” suggest an attack even without serpent in Eden imagery.

I think that the poet realises that the picture she has of her village is in fact a false, idealised memory which has only ever existed in “honeyed dream”.

Grandma Mariana

Don’t ask me! I’ll do my best, though.

OK, so she’s never been a slave herself, but there are slaves in her ancestry and her life seems a lot like slavery still,

“sat outside the slave quarter’s door

washing, washing,”

She seems to be running away from something in her past that she wants to forget, an “inglorious story” that happened “on a sinister day”. To escape this she goes

“to the distant island
where the hard labour
erased the memory”.

Whatever this is, she won’t talk about it but maintains “a wall of silence”.

Someone, to whom she refers as “silly boy”, suggest she should go home, but this idea is rejected because “Mad old woman does not have land anymore”.

The poet seems as frustrated as we are by the fact that Grandma Mariana won’t tell her “story” or of her “destiny”, feeling that all Mariana does is “vegetate”. Her reasons are a mystery, as is this poem.

There is no rhyme or regular metre. This is the best I can do. Sorry!


Maybe I’m imagining it or maybe there really is an innocence and experience feel about this collection. Those of you familiar with William Blake will get that allusion. Otherwise, aren’t these poems about a beautiful ideal, sometimes contrasted with its loss? No? Maybe it’s just me, then.

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