AQA B English Pre-Release Summer 2009

Poems from Different Cultures and Traditions - Notes

Aunt Julia

This free verse poem in 5 irregular verses (not stanzas, because stanzas use rhyme) deals with the poet’s memories of his long dead, Gaelic speaking Aunt Julia. Gaelic is the Scots language. It is not commonly spoken now, so the fact that she speaks it, (and, I get the feeling, speaks it exclusively) already marks her out as different. I sense a feeling of helplessness in the poet who “could not answer her…could not understand her.” Despite this, the succeeding verses demonstrate a growing understanding and admiration of this eccentric woman which overcomes the language barrier.

This sense of differentness or eccentricity is reinforced in the second verse in which she is presented wearing men’s boots when not showing her peat stained bare feet. A tremendous sense of power is conveyed in this verse, in her “strong” foot in its manly footwear. At the same time, she is admirable;

“her right hand drew yarn/marvellously out of the air.”

In the third verse we are presented with the poet’s sense of wonderment that he feels utterly safe and secure despite the darkness and the primitive accommodation: “hers was the only house…

The “absolute darkness” contrasts strongly and surprisingly with the crickets “being friendly”.

Verse 4 lists the things with which he associates her in a series of metaphors. At least 3 of these, the water, the wind and the eggs, are strongly connected with nature. The other descriptions are more homely and relate to her clothing and habits of economy. (This last is not a metaphor). For the poet, Aunt Julia seems to combine the strength of nature and the security of domesticity.

The final verse of the poem begins by repeating the opening. It is almost as if we are back, with the poet, to the beginning of their relationship before understanding developed. He laments the fact the she died before he could speak any of her language, yet her death is presented in quite comforting terms; the “absolute black” of her grave replicates the “absolute darkness” of the box bed in which he felt so safe. Furthermore, the fact that he still hears her in the “seagull’s voice” is comforting; even in death she is communicating in a foreign language, still intimately connected with the forces of nature. I almost feel that Aunt Julia IS a force of nature, to the poet.

Grammatically speaking it is Aunt Julia who is “getting angry, getting angry” because of the lack of communication at the end of the poem. Maybe she was frustrated by his lack of her language. Maybe this is also a transferred epithet type thing, and he is also getting angry at the unanswered questions. I do get the feeling, though, that what she WAS, ultimately was enough for him.

I like this poem. Didn’t think I was going to.

Working Late

I like this one, too. Am I mellowing in my old age, or are the new poems better?

This is a free verse poem in 6 irregular verses. It shifts between tenses, using the present tense in the 1st 2 verses for a relived memory, past tense in verse 3 for a recollected memory and present tense in verses 4,5 & 6 for the here and now of the poem. It’s very visual throughout.

The 1st verse brings us into a very warm, shared moment of intimacy between father and son. The picture of them silently

“looking at the harbour lights
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs”

is idyllic.

The 2nd verse shows us the admiration the poet has for his father’s methodology and empiricism (by which I mean the fact that he is governed by fact and evidence). There is some entertaining irony in the fact that the exclamation mark indicates that the poet feels passionately about his father’s lack of passion (if you see what I mean). I also like the harvest metaphor that the poet uses; winnowing means sifting grain from chaff (waste). I enjoy the way that the poet has described the quest for a very hard, factual truth by using a beautiful figure of speech, by definition NOT literally true. (Maybe I’m just weird!)

This admiration of his father’s methodology extends into verse 3 as the poet recalls an episode from his childhood. The father seems to have got forensic ideas pre CSI. Reason seems to be supreme in this verse, with the father’s experiment showing “where the murderer must have stood”. The admiration is still there, but the 2nd half of the verse reveals the price the child pays for the father’s search for truth. This fear is not reasonable, but very real to the child.

Now we move into the present tense, the here and now of the poem. Reason, which seemed so invincible, is defeated by nature:

“All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.”

The idea of the personified moon’s far flung geographical journey seems to me to unite the world in time and space. It brings a sense of continuity and cohesiveness to the poem. The biographical note at the top of the page tells us that the poet has a mix of ethnic roots. The moon brings all this together, uniting contrasts, as she turns “away / from land to the open sea.” Simpson confirms this unity:

“nothing in nature changes, from that day to this...
And the light that used to shine
At night in my father’s study
Now shines as late in mine.”

The poet is aware that he is his father’s son, continuing a tradition, united under the moon. As Wordsworth would have it, “The child is father to the man.

After the Deluge

The title refers to a saying by Louis XV of France “Apres moi le deluge”, intimating that he was all that was holding back chaos. He enjoyed an extravagant and decadent life style and it was in the reign of the Louis after him, Louis XVl, that the French Revolution brought the chaos earlier predicted. In this poem an un-named dictator, perhaps un-named because he is representative of a type, is shown living a similarly extravagant lifestyle which provokes a political “deluge”. In this poem, however, we see what happens to the dictator in consequence of the catastrophe he precipitated – “after the deluge”. This deluge is a flood, but not of water; this flood is of the disorder that washed away money and success.

Whoever this dictator is, he enjoyed a lifestyle of obscenely conspicuous consumption, as described in the first stanza. The careless, defiant waste of resources here described should be set against what is known of the poverty of Nigeria and the Nigerian people. Despite the straightforward narration of the facts, the poet communicates a sense of disgust at this excess.

Stanza two introduces us to the financial and political corruption of this dictator and there is a certain ambivalence here; whilst admiring the skill with which he manipulates money, conveying this admiration through an acrobatic metaphor –

Leap from Tokyo to Buenos Aires,
Turn somersaults through Brussels”

- the poet can clearly see the damaging global political consequences of theses actions:

“It cracked the bullion market open wide.
Governments fell, coalitions cracked
Insurrection raised its bloody flag
From North to South.”

Note the emphatic alliteration in “coalitions cracked” and the personification of insurrection.

Despite all of his wealth, even in his glory days there is a sense that he is a prisoner in a cage of his own making; Stanza three suggests that he is trapped, isolated, held at a distance from his native land with which he does not engage firsthand but through technology:

“He knew his native land through iron gates,
His sight was radar bowls, his hearing
Electronic beams. For flesh and blood,
Kept company with a brace of Dobermans.”

There is almost a sense of pity here for the man who has sacrificed real human contact for money and power. Almost.

The reference to the widow’s mite is biblical; Jesus watched rich people coming to the temple and making a huge show of giving their alms. Then he saw a poor widow come and furtively give a tiny coin, as if she were ashamed of how small the amount was. Jesus said that, because she had virtually nothing, what she had given was far more valuable than the larger amounts the rich had given out of their excess. You’ll find the story in Luke 21: 1-4. (It might remind you of that bit in Pygmalion when Higgins and Pickering discuss what Eliza’s suggested fee is really worth.).

Anyhow, the reference is a bit problematic; he’s hardly giving his all, as she did. I think the suggestion is that he only gives a small amount, a mite, like she did, despite the huge resources he has available to him. He certainly makes a big deal of what he gives. Note the oxymoronic nature of “discreetly publicised.”

In stanza four we find out what happens to him “after the deluge” and learn that “He escaped the lynch days. He survives.

The contrast between the extravagance of stanza 1 and the bare survival of stanza four is telling. In the poet’s dream the dictator is forced to engage with the reality he had previously kept at bay-

“I dreamt I saw him on a village
Water line, a parched land where
Water is a god
That doles its favours by the drop
And waiting is a way of life.”

Even so, maybe believing that there is a way back to his affluence, the dictator refuses to give up-

“Rebellion gleamed yet faintly in his eye
Traversing chrome-and-platinum retreats”

-despite his obvious irrelevance-

“Hubs of commerce smoothly turn without
His bidding, and cities where he lately roosted
Have forgotten him, the preying bird
Of passage.”

The metaphor here is of a bird of prey. The point being made is that, despite his earlier pretensions, he is ephemeral, of no lasting significance. It’s a bit like Ozymandias by Shelley. Look it up. Really, do!

The closing stanza, stanza five, suggests that his continued existence is more of a punishment than a mercy:

“They let him live, but not from pity
Or human sufferance. He scratches life
From earth, no worse a mortal than the rest.”

That phrase, “no worse…” is interesting; is the poet suggesting that everyone would behave as the dictator did, given the opportunity?

Back in the dictator’s past life, of which he can only now dream, his luxurious home is colonised by the forces of nature and decay. This is SO much like Ozymandias, and you’re not going to look it up, are you, so…


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works. Ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Enough said.

The Washerwomen

I don’t much like this but I shall try to be positive and enthusiastic.

This poem is about women washing clothes in the river and how much this activity has become a part of the fabric of their lives.

In the first stanza the river is personified and given a sense of intent:

“the river beats itself against the stones
And washes them”

It is as though the river chooses this behaviour, identifying itself with the washerwomen. The picture painted uses both aural and visual detail: “clouds of frothy spray” and “the thousand tones / Of an orchestra”, bringing a sense of immediacy to the writing. The alliterative f sounds in “Or foaming fumbles” intensify the stress on those words, enhancing the rhythmic pattern being created in these early lines. Try reading it out loud to see if you can hear what I mean; I think the rhythm being created is of the stones being washed by the water, as the clothes are washed by the women.

Like the river, the women are also washing. Their humming equates to the orchestral sounds of the river; we can see a strong sense of identification between the river and the women. As the women wash, “families of bubbles” are created and destroyed. These are a metaphor for the community of which the women are a part; their transience reflects the ephemeral nature of life:

“To be destroyed
Like all the baffled hopes that had their little suns
Tossed on the furious drifts of disappointments.”

Yet their tenacity in the face of the powerful waters represents the indomitability of the human spirit:

“But all the tide
Cradles these clinging bubbles ever still, alike
The friendly little hopes that never leave the heart.”

Stanza two, a much shorter stanza, makes much use of assonance and onomatopoeia. All of those “s” and “sh” sound echo the whooshing of the river, again creating a sense of immediacy and presence. The washing rhythm is re-established, so that though the “slender shoulders” of the women contrast with the “big hall of rushing waters”, we nevertheless have the sense that they are part of a whole. The rhyming of “shoulders” and “boulders” adds to this impression, as women and nature are connected. The women seem powerless, with their “slender” shoulders and their “rags”, but still they are “stubborn” and their heaving is “steady”. I feel that the poet admires their determination and persistence. The women seem to be plugging themselves in to the power of nature (I may be going a bit nuts at this point) as “They keep a sort of time/With their thoughts.” These thoughts are described as being in tune with the river:

“These were unchanging
Like the persistent music here
Of swirling waters.”

Furthermore, the activity of washing is linked to the activity of nature:

“The crash of wet clothes beaten on the stones,
The sound of wind in leaves,
Or frog croaks after dusk, and the low moan
Of the big sea fighting to the river’s mouth.”

In the final stanza this sense of unity becomes rather oppressive and despairing; we read that the women have “resigned themselves to day long swishing”. Even the natural world seems oppressed: “wet cloth chafing the very stone”; the foliage is isolated:

clumps of tall stems standing alone,/Apart, like band leaders or sentinels”. In this final stanza the imagery of music changes to that of war; “band leaders” are transformed into “sentinels”; the “hum” of the women becomes the hum of insects, likened in a simile to the sound of war planes - “bombers on a plotted course”.

Look at the repetition of the word “must” in the phrase “They must hear”. It suggests that the women have no options in their lives, that the continuance of the status quo is inevitable.

The poem ends in negativity
“As dead ones flutter down like living things
Until the shadows come.”

Cheery little piece, isn’t it? But this is my personal response. Maybe you like it; Convert me, please! I have a funny feeling about this one, that it might show up on the higher tier paper.

Wedding in the Flood

This free verse poem tells the story of a wedding in the flood season, focussing on the small visual details as seen through the eyes of the people involved although, as the pre release intro suggests, "it is the monsoon rain which is the real protagonist of this story". The present tense is used throughout, giving a sense of immediacy.

The first voice we hear is that of the girls' mother, grieving over the loss of her daughter and worrying about her prospects. The reference to the "whine" of the clarinet, playing what should be celebratory wedding music, reflects the mother's "sobs".

The narratorial voice then takes over, filling in with exposition. We see the specific cultural identity of the poem coming through in the, at this stage, quaint reference to the Pakistani proverb about rain being caused by girls who lick pots in the kitchen. The nature of the dowry - "a cot, a looking glass, a tin trunk"- is described, at this stage in positive terms - "beautifully painted in grey and blue".

Verse 2 is given over mainly to the voice of the bridegroom, who is presented negatively through the use of the word "gloats" and through his appearance based, mercenary, blaming attitude;

"If only her face matches her hands,
and she gives me no mother-in-law problems,
I'll forgive her the cot and the trunk
and looking glass. Will the rain never stop?
It was my luck to get a pot licking wench."

It is interesting to see that the references to the proverb and the dowry are less positive in this verse; plainly this is not the dowry the bridegroom wanted, and he takes the proverb seriously rather that seeing it as quaint.

It is not until verse 3 that we hear from the bride. The main sense used here is that of touch; she is in the dark, with wet feet, feeling cold and scared. Her fear and insecurity is revealed by her anxiety about the now choric reference to the cot, trunk and looking glass, though her submerged but more major concern is "What sort of a man is my husband?" Because the structure of the poem has already introduced us to him, in no complimentary fashion, we are unable to anticipate a happy answer for her.

At this point the danger presented by the "swollen river" is reintroduced via the slipping feet of the palankeen bearers. A link seems to be being made between the risks offered by the river and by the marriage.

In verse 4 we meet the bridegroom's father, and are immediately able to see the source of the son's undesirable attitudes; the father's mercenary and condemning approach is brought into focus by reference, again, to the proverb and the dowry, which is deemed of low value because the items are "all the things that she will use!"

It is made clear that he had been expecting more personal advantage, in the form of cattle. Once again we are reminded of the danger of the journey, because "The light is poor, and the paths treacherous," and of the overwhelming river, which is associated with "fear".

The final verse belongs exclusively to the narratorial voice. The mercenary element persists with the reference to the fact that "a wedding party always pays extra" and the dowry makes its final, by this time devalued and trivialised appearance.

Metaphor, arguably personification, is used to describe both the "angry" river and the ferry which "disgorges" its load; I feel that the image of the ferry, at least, is more that of a monster spewing out its victims, Charybdis like, than of a person. Either way, both river and ferry cease to be inanimate and gain definite identities. The ferryman is reminiscent of Charon, who carried the dead over the river Styx to Hades.

The final 6 1/2 lines, if I am reading them correctly, seem squalidly comic, in a "Carry On" film kind of way; The reference to the clarinet filling with water can be seen as a sexual image, particularly when juxtaposed with the line "Oh what a consumation is here" and the information that

"in an eddy, among the willows downstream,
The coy bride is truly wedded at last."

OK. Further discussion with Mr Sheehan and Mrs Partridge (who are ganging up against me!) leads me to review my position on this. I have been convinced that this is about death, the ultimate consumation; Hamlet described death as "a consumation / Devoutly to be wish'd" so there are very respectable literary precedents. Further, the palankeen can be seen as a coffin, carried as it is by "bearers". In this reading, then, the whole wedding party dies as a result of the flood. The sexual imagery is still there - sex and death have always been linked in literature - but it is representative of death rather than being an end in itself.

Mr Sheehan argues that Taufiq Rafat sees the flood as sweeping away the old way of doing things, such as the arranged marriage described here, to make way for the new.

Maybe I'm responding to this poem in too much of a European feminist way, but I feel that the poet is presenting the attitudes expressed by the male characters in it as patriarchal and chauvinist. The sequence of events described is comic but the overall feel of the poem, especially in terms of the potential of happiness for the bride, strikes me as negative and hopeless.

Beginning in a City, 1948

Again, a very specific time – (make sure you read the biographical note at the top of the poem.) – and a very personal account, full of 1st person singular pronouns. There is no regular metre or rhyme (free verse) but it feels lyrical. As the title suggests, the poem is about a new beginning, which would suggest hope, but this is quickly undercut by the reality which confronts the narrator. There is tremendous dignity in “Stirred by restlessness, pushed by history”, a line which shows personal and political influences combining to make him almost a puppet, so that he says “I found myself in the centre of Empire”, almost as if he doesn’t quite know how he got there. Back then he just responded to the immediacy of the situation, but now he is reflecting on it –

“Those first few hours, with those packed impressions
I never looked at in all these years.”

It is almost as if we are seeing a time capsule opened here, and though the past tense is used, the experience is still very present. I like the balance of “few hours” and “packed impressions”.

Verse 2 gives us repetition of negativity and uncertainty:

“I knew no room. I knew no Londoner.
I searched without knowing.”

The staccato sentences reinforce this sense of confusion, creating the sense of a rapid turning from place to place.

In verse 3 we encounter vocabulary of cold, darkness and defeat – “dim-lit”, “war-tired”, “slowly”, “dark-coated”, “cold winds”, “frosty fields”. This is both literal – we know what England can be like in November, and he is just off the boat from the Caribbean- and metaphorical, as the country is still experiencing the after effects of WW2. He uses as simile – “like dark-coated bears in a snowy region”- perhaps to create a sense of threat and danger, and maybe of people not quite knowing how to fit in; do dark coated bears usually inhabit snowy regions? Two metaphors follow:

“I in my Caribbean gear
was a half finished shack in the cold winds”

suggests his unpreparedness and inadequacy in the face of this new reality, but also maybe refers to his intention to build a new life.

The town was a frosty field” perhaps suggests the unwelcoming featurelessness of London to his unaccustomed eye.

The whole experience seems unreal to him, like fantasy:

“I walked fantastic stone streets in a dream.”

Verse 4 contrasts his expectations with the reality he experiences, showing the huge divide between them. “Inflated with happiness” already suggests an excessive response, and in the lines which follow, with their highly adjectival description of actuality, we see his balloon burst; “all the comfort I had paid for” is painfully ironic, revealing the extent to which he has been cheated. Can we extend this beyond the immediate to a more general feeling that the whole journey from the Caribbean to England has been based on false premises? Reading this certainly doesn’t make me feel proud to be English – so it’s just as well I’m Cornish, I suppose!

Vocabulary and imagery of cold pervades verse 5, revealing how overwhelming this part of the experience was for him.

The sense chosen changes in verse 6, as the smells of the boarding house are described in very negative, even hostile language. The narrator claims :

“A rage of combined smells attacked me,
clogging my nostrils
and new charges of other smells merely
increased the stench. I was alone.
I alone was nauseated and choked in deadly air.”

There is so much going on here! “rage” is used as a concrete noun when it is technically an abstract noun; it is as if the emotion becomes concrete and personified to launch an assault on him, choking and nauseating him. Furthermore, he feels as if he is the sole target of this attack. This sense of isolation comes over clearly in the repeated and inverted "I was alone” and “I alone was…”.

I almost forgot to mention that the use of “inmates” makes the boarding house sound more like an institution - a prison or a mental hospital – than any form of hotel. His value seems to have been diminished by the fact of his being placed there.

We are taken back to an awareness of how much he lacks in verse 7 by the repetition of “without”. I don’t know how far Victoria is from Brixton (Cornish, you see!), but nor did he, “without map”, so I don’t suppose it matters. As soon as he speaks to the black man in the queue the language moves from the controlled English which he is able to employ now to the pigeon English (can I call it that, or am I being horrendously un PC?) which was what he had access to then.

It is only when he finds his own that his London life begins – and politicians wonder why racial integration is such a problem!

I love this poem!

Escape Journey, 1988

The title suggests that this is a very personal account, documenting a specific escape at a specific time. There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the experience documented here. This is reinforced by the fact that the account is told in the present tense and the first person which, together with the free verse form creates a gripping sense of immediacy.

The mountains are personified in verse 1, and attributed with a feeling of hostility towards the girl – “They force you to crawl, these mountains”- over whom they assert their power and dominance in the face of her vulnerability – “only 14”. “You” involves the reader and creates identification with the narrator. The two rhetorical questions could be seen as the writer’s attempt to distance herself from the immediate pain of the journey in historical speculation.

In the second verse the girl and her family become depersonalised, a commodity carried by exhausted mules just like the other “smuggled goods”. There is also a suggestion that what they are doing is illicit and therefore dangerous, but the reader sides with the narrator rather than judging her because of the earlier identification techniques. The description of the journey is detailed and realistic, bringing the reader into the situation. “Safer” is used twice in this verse; clearly safety is a precious commodity.

In verse 3 we get a sense of how far from home the narrator is; she cannot recognise snow, seeing instead the civilised security of plaster. Maybe, though, it is a choice; perhaps she prefers the fantasy of plaster, with its connotations of civilisation, to the reality of snow, representing the forces of raw nature:

“I cannot imagine being rescued from this rough mountain
only to walk over the snow, covering the river.”

Certainly, nature is seen as threatening; the water is “rushing” past trap like holes. Am I alone in seeing a flasher analogy in “where the river exposes itself”? Maybe I’ve just got a dirty mind.

Verse 4 sees the vulnerability move on; though the narrator is “too young to complain”, her focus is on her father, “his little body” and his “difficult breathing”.

Both young and old are powerless in the face of raw nature and the political forces that drive them to confront it; The final line of the poem ,

“But then again, he’s been here before”

creates a sense of inevitability and lack of progress, as here they go again.

Island Man

The eponymous “Island Man” of the title is generic, not specific. This would go well with “The Fringe of the Sea”. Though in free verse, it has a lyrical, musical feel, like the ebb and flow of waves. The lines on the page look like that, too.

Verse 1 employs the omomatopoeic, alliterative sibilance of “sound of the surf” to effectively replicate the hiss of waves on sand. Furthermore, the rhythm of waves breaking is expressed in “the steady breaking and wombing”. I like the “wombing” metaphor; for Island Man, he is returning in his head to his origins, a place of safety and enclosure from which he has been birthed into the “grey metallic soar” (sore?) which is London. (I don’t like London, either!)

Verse 2 begins with vocabulary charged with Caribbean energy and vigour – “wild”, “pushing”, “defiantly”- but ends with the much less inspiring “groggily groggily”, reflecting Island man’s London experience. The separation on the page of these two words suggests to me his rising from memory to an actuality to which he is linked but distant as his mind re-engages with the way things now are.

Still remembering the “sands”, verse 3 brings him back to the cruel reality of London life, expressed through ugly vocabulary: “grey metallic soar”, “surge of wheels”, “dull North Circular roar”. Memory retreats into disillusion. I’m serious about the soar/sore thing. I don’t think it’s me being unreasonably cynical about urban life, though I probably am.

So verse 4 finds Island Man having to block out his memories of Caribbean happiness in order to survive “Another London day.” “heaves” is nicely onomatopoeic (to me, anyway) and suggests his unwillingness to engage with this London life. “Another” implies that it is just the next in a never ending sequence.

I like this one, too.