is so substantial as light, and
that light is unstoppable,
and that light is all.'
It started with the death of his mother, which Kei Miller felt as both a personal sadness and a test to his beliefs about the utilitarianism of poetry. Could it - the act of writing, the act of reading - help him sing his way out of sadness? And if not, what was the point? A Light Song of Light is a bold response to that challenge, a demonstration of the healing, enabling power of words, and a delightful treat for every reader, whether you read poetry regularly or not.
Miller has a feel for the interrelationship between light and dark, their mutual dependency: the darkness that confers significance on the light, the light that creates shadows through it’s very existence. A Light Song of Light is yin and yang, day time and night time, Jamaica and the UK. It explores a range of subjects through the prism of the personal, including Jamaican history, colonialism, immigration, family, and experiences of homosexuality. At its heart lies the Singerman, a member of Jamaica's road construction gangs in the 1930s, whose job it was to sing while others broke stones. He weaves in and out of the action, an emblematic response to Miller's central questions: how can song be useful? Will we sing for those who cannot sing themselves? And who will sing for us when we need it most?
'When we have lost song,' Miller writes with conviction, 'we have lost everything.' Throughout the collection, form is fluid yet always free, redolent with Miller's broad and expressive Jamaican accent. A Light Song of Light is poetry as song, poetry as aural experience, poetry that wears its heart on its sleeve and asks the same from the reader. If these are wonderful on paper, they are even more so when read aloud. They have the feeling of intimate confession, of smiling while crying, of everything that is important in life but that we relegate to the sidelines most of the time.
There is political significance to everyday lives. In 'Unsung' Miller sings a thank you to his father, a song for the 'man whose life has not been the stuff of ballads / but has lived each day in incredible and untrumpeted ways.' It is one of the standouts of the collection, a simple thank you from a son to a father and one of a handful of poems that brought a tear to my eye.
Miller's personal circles are not limited to his family. As everyday lives are significant, so too are they personal, whether the individual in question is known or not. 'Questions for Martin Carter' considers the life of Guyanese poet Martin Carter who was under such surveillance that some of his work survives only from pictures government spies took of the fence on which he wrote many of his poems. And it cannot be forgotten that the Singerman’s song, for all its utilitarianism, came 'at the price of history...which, even now, you cannot fully consider.'
In the prose poem, 'A Smaller Song', Miller responds to a news article about a young man killed for cohabiting with his older brother. Its one of many poems that explore the experience of homosexuality, documenting discrimination and hate in a deeply superstitious society, but also, at other times, tenderness and love. 'A Short History of Beds We Have Slept in Together' carries with it an almost fairy tale vision of love built despite the odds:
'If we are amazed at anything let it be this:
not that we have fallen from love,
but that we were always resurrected
into it, like children who climb sweetly
back to bed.'
I first read A Light Song of Light in the cloisters of Toledo Cathedral, just outside Madrid. It was a timeless blue sky sort of day, pockets of light drifting between the branches of four orange trees, the patter of tourists around me. There I sat in the shade with my back against a cold stone wall and read. It was one of those rare and wonderful occasions when the atmosphere and content of a book perfectly matches the surroundings in which it is being read. I will long remember that wonderful afternoon. But the book is worth more than that single experience. I have reread it a number of times since, sitting in the first sun of a long overdue spring, and with rain pouring down outside. Each time it moved me as it did that first time. Almost every line of the title sequence, 'Twelve Notes for a Light Song of Light', produces something inside me. It is almost a manifesto for what poetry can be, and I come away wishing there were a place to sign up at the end.
Similarly, in ‘A Creed’, Miller unites all those for whom the dark has become all too familiar, a lightness of shared experience takes over.
‘when you are done with the news
because it no longer beaks your heart,
and you now know sand
where there once was river in your inner parts;
when you are ready
to say - I have done terrible things,
and there is a room somewhere that holds
this evidence, a thumbprint
made in blood;
then this creed is for you.
We belong to a single country,
and this is our sad anthem.’
A Light Song of Light invites the reader to share all of these emotions, to empathise with experiences of loss, living between cultures, discrimination. In it, Kei Miller celebrates our incredible and abundant lives, facing the darkness head on yet constructing around it a light and inspiring song of light. A Light Song of Light sings a defiant, fragile song, a 'brave and terrible song', a song of love, and compassion, and acceptance, and gratitude, and anger because the world isn't always as we might hope. It is everything poetry can and should be, a clear argument for poetry that communicates with the directness and universality of a song, and carries a similar emotional resonance. I love it. And if you need some persuading to give poetry a go, take Miller's last words as a guide:
'...turn these pages slowly
push the sun down, down, down the horizon - and a story will
come to steal your breath.’
A Light Song of Light was published by Carcanet Press in 2010. ISBN: 9781847771032, 69pp
To hear Kei read his poetry, including 'Unsung' and 'Twelve Notes on a Light Song of Light' click here.