To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus
Published by Outspoken Press, London, 2017
To Sweeten Bitter, Raymond Antrobus’ third pamphlet, is a deeply moving and important collection. Within these twenty-one poems, Antrobus deftly interweaves personal grief and the individual struggle to reclaim a sense of identity after his father’s death with postcolonial grief and the continued struggle for a sense of identity among persons of dual heritage living in a postcolonial world.
‘In the Supermarket’ describes the poet attempting to reclaim his deceased father by purchasing ‘everything [he] used to see in his house’. In this poem, inanimate objects are deployed to simultaneously conjure up the character of the deceased father, the character of the bereaved son, and the nature of grief itself.
I would be holding
on too hard
to my humming father
who is wind and mirror
and West Indian Hot Pepper Sauce
In another poem, simply called ‘Dementia’, the speaker describes through poignant images (‘his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue, / wet with babbling’) the effects of the syndrome on his father, and the speaker’s struggle to deal with his own emotions as he slowly loses his father to the illness.
if you must,
do your gentle magic,
but make me unafraid
of what is
Interwoven among these poems of grief for a dying or deceased father are poems that grapple with a past that is more than just personal – poems that attempt to make sense of the colonial and postcolonial histories of Britain, Jamaica, and Africa. In this pamphlet, Antrobus joins the growing number of BAME poets who are writing the experience of what it means to be a person of mixed racial heritage living in Britain today (Hannah Lowe, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Sarah Howe, etc.).
One of the most powerful poems of the collection is ‘Jamaican British’ in which the poet describes the experience of being both Jamaican and British as one where he is perpetually torn, never truly belonging to one identity or the other. The poem begins with a description of the reaction of some members of the black community to the speaker who ‘deny’ that the speaker is ‘Jamaican British’.
They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the English boys at school made me choose Jamaican, British?
The poem continues by describing the various ways in which being both Jamaican and British are seemingly incompatible and irreconcilable (race, food, language: ‘dem Jamaicans’, history)
Eat callaloo, plantain, jerk chicken – I’m Jamaican.
British don’t know how to serve our dishes, they enslaved us.
However, the poem ends with an image that joins both nationalities – that of ‘knowing how to war’. This similarity is unfortunately one that keeps the cultures at odds, warring against each other, instead of joining them, as the poem suggests. Nevertheless, as this is the final image of the poem, there is room for the reader to imagine just how fruitful the combination could be if both Jamaicans and British chose to join forces, or if a person of dual heritage were allowed to accept both parts of themselves instead of being continually forced to choose between the two.
Plantation lineage, World War service, how do I serve Jamaican British?
When knowing how to war is Jamaican / British.
The rhythms and repetitions in ‘Jamaican British’ are reminiscent of the oral poetry of Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett, and lend the poem a deceptively simple and jocular tone. However, beneath the surface, lies postcolonial discontent. The poem recalls John Agard’s ‘Half-caste’ (which is obliquely referred to in the third stanza) and suggests that, in 2017, we still live in a world that prefers to classify people as ‘Ours’ or ‘Other’.
Another of the collection’s gems is ‘Miami Airport’, a poem that describes the experience of being questioned by a security guard in an airport in Miami. The formally innovative poem consists of a barrage of questions, which are laid out on the page in a haphazard stream reminiscent of bullets. The aggression of the poem is clear from the tone and relentlessness of the questions, as well as their content (‘you know how loud these things are on my waist?’ ‘you think you’re going / to go free?’). The challenges of dual heritage re-emerge when the security guard struggles to identify the speaker as English (‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’), as do racist stereotypes (‘why don’t you look like a teacher?’ ‘would you believe / what I’ve seen in the bags of people like you?’).
To Sweeten Bitter is an important work that documents, through poems alive with rhythm and vibrant visual imagery, the enduring legacies of colonialism – its effects upon people of dual heritage, and upon us all.
Click here to see Raymond Antrobus performing some of his work, including ‘Jamaican British’.