By Roger Bonair-Agard
Peepal Tree Press
Using the Master’s Tools to Dismantle: A Review of Roger Bonair-Agard’s Gully
by Randall Horton
The first thing evident in Roger Bonair Agard’s Gully is his intention to broaden the reader’s worldview through the British game of cricket. Bonair-Agard’s aim is a challenge at the onset considering the average American reader’s familiarity with the nuances of the sport, let alone, accomplishing this ambitious goal through the medium of poetry. The poet asks his reader to take two imaginary leaps: to trust his wordplay and metaphorical language, and to acknowledge that American sports, such as football, basketball and baseball, is not the epitome of world sports (much like the world does not spin on an axis called Europe). If the reader obliges, then he or she will not only learn cricket, but will also understand that growing up Black in Trinidad in the 1970s was not much different than growing up Black in America during the same era in terms of identity and cultural shaping.
There are cultural lessons in Gully rooted in the transnational poetics of Britain, Trinidad, and the USA: three nations which share in the hybridity of Bonair-Agard’s poetics. In the introduction Bonair-Agard writes, “Wherefore does a people forever subjugated derive its identity, and how does it then learn to take that identity – hybrid and culled from the various though it might be – and wear it like a badge.” The poet first uses gully, in its denotative sense, which describes the way a cricket player (fielder) positions himself, which then extends into a connotative meaning further demonstrating how the speaker positions himself between his cultural experiences in both Trinidad and the United States. The reader can juxtapose the cultural significance of such U.S. sports figures as Vida Blue or Willie Mays to that of “Viv Richards or Gordon Greenidge/or…Clive “The big Cat” Lloyd…,” who helped instill Black national pride by dominating the sport of Cricket during the 1970s. The reader sees through the eyes of the young narrator and begins to make cultural investments through a language that is muscular, visceral, and committed to image and wordplay.
Gully is more that a poetry collection; it is a discourse on how oppositional poetics can be used like a scalpel in the dissection of empirical forces that bind and create borders. For instance, through mere semantics, the poem “boundary” hints at hegemony and bordering, real and imagined, as faced in the sport of cricket and in life. The national significance of these borders and the breaking of them by Trinidadian cricket players is made clear as the narrator proclaims, “because the West Indies can beat any team in the world/and it matters most when you can beat the English/with their clipped accents and their steadfast traditions.” The narrator also references Viv Richards again when he writes, “Viv taught us how to walk/shoulders drawn back and always/smiling like he knew the secret/meaning of a song everyone/was humming.” Here there is national pride in reordering the ontology of the supposed, that the narrator’s human condition feeds from breaking teleological principles in defiance. Here oppositional poetics intersects with transnational poetics as the second sections shifts to the United States.
In the second section of Gully, the narrator gets gully in the negotiation of a new way of living in a new country. Through a transnational and culturally pluralistic lens, Bonair-Agard reminds the reader that “gully is also that deepest and most necessary of Black American mindsets – the need to stay in the cut, to get down and grimy in order to survive because how else would one survive being of color in this time and place.” In order to be in the cut the narrator must push against the dominant narrative, much like jazz musicians jump into the break of a repeating chord to create their own narrative, which can be funky and low down, echoing the blues. The reader begins to experience the narrator’s blues or the shaping of the human condition in “The Gospel According to Trinity Street” as he writes, “I was already my own lament/growing calluses and scars into/one large allegory the surf could not unravel.” Although the poem is about a relationship with a woman, the thesis centers on how gully the environment has made him. Section two of the manuscript continues the historical and political thread through poems about Lil Wayne and Andrew Jackson to name a few. There is also the personal thread of gully and its metaphorical capabilities to “be agile, fast, creative…have a good eye, and great reflexes.”
Roger Bonair-Agard displays a range of form and control with ghazals and villanelles, and he also makes great use of the caesura in terms of spacing. Bonair-Agard is one of the rare poets, like Patricia Smith, Tara Betts and Tyehimba Jess to name a few, who has successfully negotiated the page with the stage. As Thomas Sayers Ellis would say, the poet seems to know they are both made of wood and respects them both. Bonair-Agard leaves the reader with a transnational thought toward the end of the book, “There is something absolutely fearless/about leaving your house in the world/and going abroad when you are black.”