Sense of detachment from the modern world

Fred D’Aguiar’s surreal poems like “Mama Dot” and “Air Hall Iconography” stir up imagery of the African homeland and convey a sense of detachment from the modern world. This detachment is not apathetic, but rather, D’Aguiar poignantly portrays the plight of colonized Africans. The poet chooses to focus on the archetypal African matriarch in “Mama Dot.” Like a creation story, Fred D’Aguiar’s “Mama Dot” outlines the evolution of the titular Mama Dot by progressing through a seven-day week. Each symbolic day represents possible decades or centuries in historical, linear time. D’Aguiar’s talent in “Mama Dot” is revealed through his ability to create a time-transcendent, abstract recreation of the tragedies of slavery and the sense of “otherness” that the descendents of slaves feel long after their ancestors were captured and sold.

Born on a Sunday / in the kingdom of Ashante,” (lines 1-2) Mama Dot’s beginnings feel regal, as the poet refers to her specific West African tribe. Whereas she belonged in the home of her ancestors, she is thrust into subjugation and a sense of “otherness” when she is “sold on Monday / into slavery,” (3-4). Like the millions of children torn from their families during the African slave trade, Mama Dot was torn from her land and ripped from her heritage; she is a stranger on foreign soil. Although Mama Dot was “born free,” (6) she is caught and severely punished when she attempts escape. Her foot wasn’t the worst of Mama Dot’s losses; as Part II of the poem indicates, her entire sense of self and cultural identity was washed away. D’Aguiar changes his tone and diction in Part II to reflect the otherness of modern Africans living on European or North American turf. The poet chooses patois over plain English to represent the singular experience of blacks who live in a predominantly white society. D’Aguiar paints a picture of “Old Mama Dot” squatting, “full o de nat-tral goodness dat / grow in de lann,” (27-9). Her rural roots are contrasted with the artifice of the “vat-igan,” (35-6). Ironically, given the allusion to Genesis in Part I, “Mama Dot” closes with a stab at the Catholic Church. A sense of otherness is felt through the plight of Mama Dot’s captivity and removal from her roots, as she and her progeny are forced to conform to their captor’s customs and religions.

Removal from the motherland is indicated with the unique vegetation, herbs, fruits, and spices depicted in “Airy Hall Iconography.” Personification of the tamarind, the mango, the guava, and the sour-sop underscores their symbolic value. This might also infer that the white, dominant culture perceives blacks and other outsiders as lower life forms. In any case, items like guinep and paw-paw are “other” on the white man’s continent. They are exotic fruits, and when consumed away from their place of origin become estranged from their native soil. Likewise, the descendents of slaves are antipodal, perceived as opposite to everything familiar.

Diction in “Airy Hall Iconography” is as evocative as the guava’s “fleshy juice,” (8). “The Mango traps the sun by degrees,” (3) while “the Stinking-toe might be lopped off a stale foot,” (11). Describing these African fruits and spices to the Western reader is an exercise in translation for D’Aguiar. As if he interprets the native tongue of his grandmother, the poet chooses words and phrases that evoke the essential nature of these faraway fruit. Instead of simplistic descriptions of color, size, and shape, D’Aguiar brings these “other” plants to life, thereby bestowing familiarity. The poet bridges gaps between that which is indigenous to the tropics and that which is indigenous to the temperate zones of his audience. While “Airy Hall Iconography” is decidedly less bitter than “Mama Dot,” the poet is just as conscious of his unique identity and a sense of otherness within his community. “Airy Hall Iconography” uses the vehicle of fruit and herbs to symbolize cultural alienation.

Tom Leonard, whether he confesses his struggle with self-identity in “100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose,” or his disgust with discrimination in “The Evidence,” describes otherness. Poetry is other to the written arts as blacks are other to a white society. “100 Differences” does not contain the promised number of differentiations between poetry and prose, but the poem does allude to the fringe nature of poetry. Compared to the familiarity and accessibility of prose, poetry is an exotic art. Poetry is marginalized writing, just as its verses stop “before the end of the margin,” (line 1). Pun intended or not, the reference to marginality refers to the “otherness” of poetry. Poetry belongs neither to the world of art nor to the world of writing; it lingers in the nebulous “subliminal history of linguistic shape,” (7) a phrase which Leonard mocks by his clarifying “ahem,” (8). Leonard admits the arbitrariness of his chosen art form and makes fun of the throwaway term “poetic license,” (6). Whereas prose represents conformity and law, poetry rebels and shocks: it is “the world’s oldest cock and fanny story,” (11). Prose therefore symbolizes the mainstream, while poetry symbolizes the fringe. Much like an ethnic or cultural minority group may be feared and mistrusted, so is an unfamiliar expression of language.

Leonard also reveals through “100 Differences” his own identity as a poet. Although ranking with the likes of Vergil (sic), Leonard is one of the “unacknowledged thingwaybobs” (16) existing on the outskirts of the writing world. The poet is as alien to his or her culture as poetry is to prose. Poets and poetry are special; they exist apart from the “scchhpludd” (23) of plain prose. Scottish bookseller John Menzies “doesn’t stock poetry,” (4) so foreign are its “anapaestic dimeters,” (12).

100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose” is a lighthearted celebration of difference, counterpoint, and otherness, in stark contrast to “The Evidence.” An acrimonious poetic tale of racial injustice, “The Evidence” illustrates the darker side of being different. Unlike the quirkiness of poetry’s otherness, Mr. Anwar’s skin color leads to a degrading and dangerous run-in with the law. Simply by illegally posting bills, the black appellant attracts the wrath of the white cop. His activities would not attract nearly as much scorn if the appellant was white. Because he is tagged as “other” in relation to the cop, Mr. Anwar is singled out as a dangerous criminal and beaten by the sheriff.

Interestingly, Leonard chooses the sheriff as narrator to provide perspective, even adding a note after the title to suggest that the following poem is an excerpt from court proceedings. The appellant, who is actually the victim in this case, is pitted against a room full of hostile faces. The testimony delivered by the sheriff is used not to charge the latter with police brutality but to prosecute a man for illegally posting bills. The court’s time is taken up by this minor offense, while the public turns a blind eye to the physical suffering of “others.” Thus, Leonard makes strong social commentary.

Racism is central to “The Evidence,” and telling the story from the point-of-view of the white sheriff adds to the mood of oppression. The lies that the sheriff tells, when cloaked in his pretense, seem creepier than they would, had Anwar shared his version of the tale:

That witness was lying who said I stood over Mr. Anwar and kicked him where he lay;

nor did I tell the appellant:

This is what happens to black boys with big mouths. (19-24)

The reader immediately knows that the narrator is distorting the truth and remains horribly unaware of his racism. If Anwar pled his case, it would seem as if he were playing up his race and capitalizing on the situation. Leonard evokes more outrage from his audience by demonstrating the problems with racism, especially as it relates to police brutality. “The Evidence” is a sobering change of pace from the lighthearted “100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose,” even though both poems portray types of alienation.

Blatant exposes on race, Grace Nichols’ “Black” and “White” illuminate the differences between black and white psyches and experiences. As polar opposite poems, “Black” and “White” evoke the yin and yang of skin color. Both poems contain undercurrents of bitterness, as the poet conveys the paradoxical otherness of being black. The value of blackness depends on context. In “Black,” Nichols describes the versatility and power of a “little black dress,” (line 3) which is a “wardrobe saviour,” (7). It proffers power to its wearer: add a few key accessories and the dress can be adapted to either funeral or wedding. As a dress, Black is integral, not other; necessary, not alien. Nichols elevates black to a position of power, even in relation to the white-robed oppressors who would ignite bonfires in celebration of white dominance. But Nichols points out that no woman would surrender a black dress for a white robe; the former possesses far more power than the latter, despite the metaphorical and ironic coincidence.

The victims of the white-robed clan were black; their presence offended those who donned the hoods. Contemplating death in light of race-related murders, Nichols notes that black and white commingle at funerals. “The dead / beside the white candles / will not be offended,” (13-15). What attracts scorn and hatred from the community as skin color becomes a requisite article of clothing. Black on fabric does not offend. Yet as skin color, black is a detriment, a drawback, an insult. It is far from being “the number in which she comes into her own power,” (8-10). Quite the opposite: black skin indicates a total lack of power, even a lack of life. Black skin weakens whoever wears it; black skin adorned with “amber earrings” or a “scarf of pink” does not rise to any occasion as the black dress does (16-17). While the little black dress imparts prestige and wardrobe success, the same shade of skin denotes degradation. As long as it is not skin, black becomes associated with respect, tradition, and conformity. When black is race, it connotes otherness. Nichols’ references are both straightforward and metaphoric, but in “Black” the poet hints at the seriousness of black’s plight. Invoking the Klu Klux Klan highlights the physical reality of racism, contrasted with abstract poetic prejudice. It’s not just about the merits of black clothes vs. white.

The Klan’s white robes were wielded as weapons of oppression; their whiteness signified power. Beneath the cloth, white skin gleamed proudly as it murdered black flesh. Black, therefore, symbolizes death. It is the other side of life, the lack of respect and light. Black does not reflect light, it “absorbs everything,” (20). Black skinned people absorb cruelty, torture, and suffering. Nichols notes that although a black dress at a party acts as “sensual catalyst,” possessing black skin will garner “those sudden inexplicable hostile glances,” (23; 26). Black is absolute other, as night is to day.

In “White,” Nichols provides the other side’s story. White signifies light, dawn, day, and color. In contrast to the obliteration of blackness, white reflect life over death, wakefulness over sleep. Yet Nichols refers to somnambulism in a subtle stab at white’s inherent weakness: “a sleepwalker,” (9). White, though proud reflector of consciousness, conveniently forgets “the memories of ancestors, / all that blackness / against whiteness,” (13-15). White-washed “walls of vanilla,” those “great solid slabs” are metaphors for the sturdy dominant culture, which was built on the blood of blacks (10-11). False justifications for social and political oppression are “starched religiousness”: racism cloaked in white robes (16). Nichols’ imagery pits black against white, depicting the symbolic otherness of race through the world of physical objects. Her two poems “Black” and “White” overtly demonstrate the difference between these opposites in concrete and metaphorical manners.


D’Aguiar, Fred. “Mama Dot.” Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Ed. Caddel, Richard and Quartermain. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 45.

D’Aguiar, Fred. “Airy Hall Iconography.” Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Ed. Caddel, Richard and Quartermain. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 48.

Leonard, Tom. “100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose.” Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Ed. Caddel, Richard and Quartermain. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 129.

Leonard, Tom. “The Evidence.” Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Ed. Caddel, Richard and Quartermain. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 130.

Nichols, Grace. “Black.” Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Ed. Caddel, Richard and Quartermain. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 168.

Nichols, Grace. “White.” Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Ed. Caddel, Richard and Quartermain. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 169.

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