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Three openings of an Odyssey:

Keith Jarrett

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.