Socially conscious writers of color can find themselves in a quandary. How can they wax poetic about stopping by woods on snowy evenings when Amadou Diallo caught 41 bullets and nary a white cop did a bid? But there is an equally insidious dilemma: How do you make societal inequities poetry and bid them sing? As writer Honi Jeffers asserted, charged subject matter does not guarantee the powerful poem.
In his fourth book, Too Black, Too Strong, Jamaican dub poetaster Benjamin Zephaniah wrestles with these political and artistic urges. Regrettably, his verse frequently reads like a tsunami of essentialist, immigrant posturing. Because mass media can underrepresent the “community’s” grievances does not give a poet license to pen political Hallmark cards.
Zephaniah was short-listed to be England’s poet laureate. But in the words of Flava-Flav, Public Enemy’s Eshu-incarnate: Don’t believe the hype! Zephaniah’s holier-than-I-and-thou target practice (sellout black poets, white wannabe reggae musicians; Israel, as a U.S.-sanctioned terrorist state) reads like juvenilia. In the individualist excoriation, “To Do Wid Me,” his self-aggrandizing endnote “For a long time I insisted that it should never be . . . published. . . . I received so many requests I was forced to change my mind” leaves him open to sucker punches. Zephaniah suffers from the obverse of the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. In “Naked,” he claims to be clad in his birthday suit. But he can’t see that he’s actually sharply dressed in his ideological pomposity.
His lyricism, however, can be infectious. His commoner’s voice melds King’s English and patois. The allegorical menageries “We People Too” and “Anti-Slavery Movements” are strategic ambrosia. In “The Men From Jamaica Are Settling Down,” Zephaniah’s strident tone blends formalist yardman Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” with Sterling Brown’s “Strong Men.”
Fellow bredren Kwame Dawes’s poem “Roosting” explores the racial tinderbox of U.S. church burnings. But he enchants the reader with interiority. Zephaniah renders injustice with a detached newspaper obit spin. From Ricky Reel to Akhtar Ali Baig, he writes about a litany of victims of police brutality. These are miscarriages of justice, but Zephaniah’s words failed to make me care or delve deeper. They make me doze off. Night John Boy.