Category Archives: Book Reviews

Using the Master’s Tools to Dismantle: A Review of Roger Bonair-Agard’s Gully by Randall Horton

Gully

By Roger Bonair-Agard

Peepal Tree Press

ISBN: 9781845231583

 

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.”

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HeLalujah: A Review of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Melanie Henderson

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot

Crown Publisher 2010

Non-Fiction, Hardback, 368 pages

$26.00, ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2

 

HeLalujah: A Review of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Melanie Henderson

   

    Tobacco. Polio Vaccine. Prison. Sharecropper. Nuremberg Code. Red Nail Polish. Biopsy. Hoodoo. One reads the preceding list of words and wonders what any of them have to do with each other. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, makes them seamless in their connection.

       The inspiration for Skloot’s book began in a biology class when she was an unsuspecting college student. Her experiences in that context led her to the story of Henrietta Lacks, the person, the woman, and the mother of what is known as HeLa cells. A HeLa cell is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. The cell line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, who eventually died from cancer on October 4, 1951.

      These singular cells are the source of many major 20th century scientific and medical advancements. The development of the polio vaccine, procedures for cell culturing, and gene mapping are some notable breakthroughs. In addition, the invaluable cells were the source of huge profits, each penny of which has escaped Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

      An eye-opener to many, Skloot’s account is both disturbing and miraculous. With the suspenseful energy of a major fictional drama, and all the integrity expected in the craft of non-fiction, Skloot’s literary debut is impressive for its literary qualities. Though fragmented, the story moves along coherently through decades of the Lacks’ family history, and through the family’s daily reckoning with half-truths. Skloot does not spare the important details. She makes it clear that many landmark medical advancements were made possible only because of Lacks’ cervical cancer, and one scientist’s determined (and arguably self-serving) efforts to grow an immortal cell.

         Skloot’s story, which is comparable to the discoveries of unethical human experimentation in Nazi Germany on Jewish people, and the U.S. Tuskegee Syphilis Studies on African American men, seems to defy genre placement. Her account is painterly, portraying scenery, people, and specific time periods with every sensory device, including the ethereal sixth sense. She relays a time in Henrietta Lacks’ youth when she, along with siblings, cousins, and her Grandpa Tommy, rode into South Boston with horses lugging the tobacco they would sell:

The auctioneer rattled off numbers that echoed through the huge open room, its ceiling nearly thirty feet high and covered with skylights blackened by years of dirt. As Tommy Lacks stood by his crop praying for a good price, Henrietta and the cousins ran around the tobacco piles, talking in a fast gibberish to sound like the auctioneer. At night they’d help Tommy haul any unsold tobacco down to the basement, where he’d turn the leaves into a bed for the children. White farmers slept upstairs in lofts and private rooms; black farmers slept in the dark underbelly of the warehouse with the horses, mules, and dogs, on a dusty dirt floor lined with rows of wooden stalls for livestock, and mountains of empty liquor bottles piled almost to the ceiling.

Night at the warehouse was a time of booze, gambling, prostitution, and occasional murders as farmers burned through their season’s earnings. From their bed of leaves, the Lacks children would stare at ceiling beams the size of trees as they drifted off to the sound of laughter and clanking bottles, and the smell of dried tobacco [21].

      The almost poetic artfulness of Skloot’s prose does not undermine the honesty bound within the pages of her book. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks begins with a quote from one of Henrietta’s relatives, “If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest. It’s taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves (ix).” Perhaps Skloot is inspired by Emily Dickinson to tell all the truth but tell is slant. Yet, it is more likely she is compelled to tell a real human story to her readers in honor of Henrietta Lacks. The integrity of Skloot’s research speaks to this point. The Lacks family has fought fiercely to preserve and protect the memory of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot does the same as she tells the story of Lacks with accuracy, candor and power.

      By the book’s end, the invaluable HeLa cell line is no longer a faceless specimen. It is rightfully reunited with the person, the descendant of slaves and slave owners, the mother, the wife, the someone somebody loved. The specimen a dreaming scientist in a Johns Hopkins lab made off with has indeed changed the face of science and medicine; Skloot, however, has changed the way people will think of routine doctors’ visits, medical ethics, and health care access for years to come.

      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings into mainstream consciousness important names in scientific practice and pedagogy, such as George Gey, Leonard Hayflick, Stanley Gartler, Harald van Hausen, and Roland Pattillo, noting their important contributions in those discplines. Even so, the book deals with far more than simple science and medicine; it brazenly raises issue with medical ethics, health care access, mental illness, incest, infidelity, ideals of femininity, long-term effects of STVs/STDs, poverty, and much more without ever sacrificing the overall cohesiveness of the story. It seems Skloot’s book may become required reading in universities in several areas of study–especially in science, medicine, journalism, and English. Additionally, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is likely to provide insight to the person beginning the exhausting process of genealogical research.

      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the best books of non-fiction I have read and is well worth the $26.00 shelf price it boasts.