1) Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
2) The hero of the tale which I beg the Muse to help me is that resourceful man who roamed the wild world after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy
3) Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end…
1998. Halfway through Erick Sermon’s verse
In Def Squad’s ‘Full Cooperation’, its release
still impressed clearly on my memory,
he boasts: I add tragedy, to your Odyssey.
I learnt this line before knowing anything
of the epic poem, re-interpreted over centuries
and now made inconspicuous in a hip-hop song.
I tell this small story like a trestle table
on the sixth floor of a concrete building
overlooking a meandering grey-brown River Thames
tells a story, tying tomes together – tying poems together
which tell bigger stories of exile, translation, everyday
heroes, hospitals, home and orality.
I tell it like Keith Murray raps at the track’s outset
with lines I proudly reappropriated into my lines
in my teens, his name my name and his authority
my authority, his authorly conjuring becoming mine,
us both the resourceful hero of our tales:
‘Well, first, but not least, you will respect Keith’.
I tell this in the way, for instance, Alastair Crowley
and Cesar Vallejo sit, improbably, side by side
in surreal profanity, across continents on the tabletop,
how the latter interrupts to say:
Y todos saben que vivo, que soy malo
Y nací un día que Dios estuvo enfermo
I tell this untranslated, as a provocation against translation.
And what is provocation if not a sermon against the normative?
And what are stories if not translations
of emotions, new creation myths, new configurations
of this old tale of trying to return home?
And what are translations, if not imperfect?
And what are homes, if not inhabited?
And what are myths if not sacred narratives?
And what is narrative without deviation?
And what is deviation if not a song wandering, unruly,
from the placeholder of notation, gap between known notes?
Tell me about a complicated man
is how the last in a long line of imperfections starts.
In 1990, I tell Ms Davies I can count to 100 in below 5 seconds.
Unimpressed, pressed lips, No you can’t – Yes I can –
No, you can’t – dance of near-retired overtired teacher
schooled in schooling youthful smartypants
versus my six years of energetic shine still unscuffed,
& my know-it-allness: No – yes I can! And yes, I will snap
your patience. I tell her: 1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100.
And though I am still standing under the shadow
of Ms Davies’ snarl, another twenty-eight years on
I still dwell in the skip-a-few realm of this Babylon
(where, for instance, one murdered Saudi journalist
can stand in for 96 murdered
or one ship standing inside ‘Windrush generation’
can then stand in for thousands of migrations
or for hundreds of needless deportations
or for infinite hostility
or for any number of preoccupations
contained inside this parenthetic hole)
battling to capture the whole of one’s mind.
I dwell in poemhood, where one metaphor
stretches across scores of absences
and where one poem can explore the unvoiced
journeys I have never ended.
But in 1990, I am not a complicated boy
and thus I am easier to translate.
In 1990, Barking is far from a holy town
and I am nothing
If not Odysseus, trying to find
the swift way home.
And when we speak of narration,
we speak of muses.
And when we speak of muses,
we speak of mediation.
And when we speak of mediation,
we find refraction, reflection.
And when we speak of refraction,
we begin to queer the light.
And when we speak of light,
we question our eyes.
And when we speak of eyes,
these islands vanish:
the broken-boned landscape
of our fathers speaking through us;
the mapped-out anger we have
folded over, that we have pocketed
as birth-right, that we have made
repeat in our blood.
Commissioned for National Poetry Library's Open Day 2018 on the theme of 'Odysseys'. Part of London Literature Festival.