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Turner: New and Selected Poems by David…
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Turner: New and Selected Poems

by David Dabydeen

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The main work in Turner is an extended poem written in reaction to J.M.W. Turner's painting "Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on" (1840), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Slave_Ship). Dabydeen sadly doesn't pick up the comment attributed by Mark Twain to a Boston reporter, that the painting resembles "a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes", but instead lets himself be provoked by Ruskin's famously ecstatic comments, which completely ignored the painting's political message and treated it as though it were an abstract composition.

In Dabydeen's version, the long-overlooked drowning African slave in the foreground of the picture (whom the poet calls "Turner") becomes the narrator of the poem. After many years in the water he is trying, unsuccessfully, to reconnect with his past. Things are complicated by various other characters in the poem also called "Turner", including the captain of the slave-ship and a stillborn child. As the poem moves around unpredictably in time and place between Africa, Guyana, and India, and the slave-Turner and the captain-Turner both keep shifting ages and genders (and even numbers), this isn't a poem to read if you want to keep a close grip on what's happening and why. There's a lot in the poem to enjoy in terms of language and images, but in the end I'm not sure if we are really any further than agreeing with Dabydeen that slavery was cruel and evil. And an impression that somewhere a tortoiseshell cat has been at the tomatoes...

I found some of the other poems in this collection, where Dabydeen plays around with Guyanan creole, more interesting.
Tie me haan up.
Juk out me eye.
Haal me teet out
So me na go bite.
(from "Slave song") ( )
  thorold | Jan 24, 2016 |
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