A Light Song of Light – Review by Kayo Chingonyi

While it is clear that the poetic mode is suited to the exploration of sonic affect, what has become unclear in recent decades, perhaps because of the fragmentation of poetry into separate genres, is the place of narrative affect in poetry. While it is difficult to conceive of language acts that don’t, in some way, lend themselves to a narrative, we seldom buy books of poems on the basis of the story alone. After reading a poetry collection it is sometimes difficult to say what the book is ‘about’ in the way we would a novel. Though poems can depict events they can also be events in themselves. This presents poets with the difficult task of trying to create a cohesive whole from parts that might be worlds apart. Kei Miller is suitably qualified to tackle this difficulty since he moves between prose and poetry continually, managing in the process to infuse his poetry books with a novelist’s eye for narrative and his prose works with a heightened appreciation for the sound of words.

Miller Jacket

A Light Song of Light is split between ‘Day Time’ and ‘Night Time’ but in these two sections there are further sub-sections of poems that share structural conceits or titling conventions. The title poem, for example, uses its twelve part structure to set out the book’s stall as well as to muse on the symbolic importance of light:

A light song of light swells up in dark

times, in wolf time and knife time

(‘Twelve Notes for a Light Song of Light’)

This is a wonderful use of the opening poem in the book since the poem is the song it describes even as that description introduces the book as a whole. This shows a keen awareness of the way linear ordering and reading affects the reader’s sense of narrative cohesion in the work. In this first section there are also a number of poems taking the form of definitions that return us to the ideas of light and song which are threaded throughout the book. These poems have their own power as individual poems, but they also take us back to the central concern of the book. The most masterly aspects of this structure are in the variation since this lends the book a subtlety that means that, while the poems return to certain themes, the book never feels repetitive.

The focus on song and story also informs the poems in the book’s latter half. Here the Singerman, introduced earlier in the book, returns alongside a number of poems that rest on the notion that a poem is a space for the telling of a story. So we have a ‘Prologue’ and ‘Epilogue’ and a number of poems entitled ‘De true story of…’ that serve to emphasise the role of language in bringing things to light and, in so doing, leavening the burdensome things of life. This power is perhaps best illustrated by a poem written in response to a news story about a man murdered in Jamaica after his sexuality was called into question:

                        The article said he was a softer boy than most. Long eyelashes.

                        And he wanted to go to art school. He had moved in with his big

                        brother and this is what made the neighbours frown. They said

                        ‘Two man cannot live in the same house. It is against the laws of

                        morality. […]

(‘A Smaller Song’)

This poem poses an important question about the role of art (here figured as ‘song’) in response to such injustices. It is a question that the structure of the book helps to answer by returning us to the title poem and those ‘wolf’ and ‘knife’ times when songs are most important in spite of their seeming ‘smallness’.

Kayo Chingonyi is a poet, editor, events producer and educator. His pamphlet, Some Bright Elegance, was published by Salt in 2012. Follow @KayoChingonyi

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