In London the other day, wedged up against humanity in rush hour on the tube, a poem swam into my conciousness. ‘Barter’, by Ghanaian Nii Ayikwei Parkes is one of the current selection of Poems on the Underground – each one reflecting aspects of London as seen by Londoners and visitors to London, past and present, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of London Underground. I was glad of this chance encounter, and the opportunity to read and absorb Parkes’ poem, a poignant account of a young Ghanaian immigrant, longing for human contact in the anonymous city, trying to find his way in a cold London winter, before being spewed out onto the platform at Euston.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes was born in the UK in 1974, but raised in Ghana before returning to the UK where he has built a reputation as a performance poet, writer and cultural commentator. Asked how he would describe himself, he said, ‘I am a writer. I communicate by the best means possible – by the means that serves the ideas I have the best.’
Another of his poems, ‘Tin Roof’, featured in Poems on the Underground a few years back:
Wild harmattan winds whip you
but still you stay;
they spit dust all over your gleam
and twist your sharp cutting edges.
The rains come zinging mud
with their own tapping music
yet you remain
– my pride –
my very own tin roof.
As a performer, Parkes is known for presenting his poetry in collaboration with jazz musicians. ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ is his celebration of jazz in general and Billie Holiday in particular:
Clouds gather under a blue moon,
like trouble brewing as strange fruit
continues to swing – keeping time –
while Columbia turntables refuse to spin
the song; is vinyl too black, too flash to be
sleeved in white prisons? The answer lies
like white gardenia petals on a bruise
too subtle to separate from wind; like
a trumpet caught in the ill wind of a jet’s
prejudice in the company of clouds – a
rumble in a jungle of noise, the forgotten b-
side that holds its breath. Trouble brewing.
There’s nothing random about rain;
It clears the sky’s throat for the sun’s shrill
voice; the white hanky is for black sweat.
They’ll all laugh when I say it, whisper
as though I’m making whoopee with Communist
ideals. They’ll laugh like they laughed
when Louis appeared coal-sketched on screen,
years before he lifted the smoke and called
Eisenhower a spade, said let’s call the whole
Soviet thing off, as sweetly as he sang that song
with Ella – and there’s silence where the applause
should be; because it’s OK when the needle hits
the dark flesh of wax and causes blue screams,
but when the tip hits the dark flesh of a woman
and she wails for justice; shooting off ideas
as she reloads stimulants, suddenly music is
treble trouble. And everybody knows
that the calm comes before the clouds . . .
There’s nothing random about rain; so blow
Louis, blow from cheek to cheek, blow
under a blanket of blue until you get a kick
from a laughing Ella and switch the tone
so swift // so hot // so dark
that the only bright thing will be the spotlight
of struggle illuminating a girl in Baltimore,
learning as time goes by that life isn’t a fine
romance, love, but your soul won’t desert you;
like the note can’t leave the music, like
the shadows can’t leave the darkness.
The secret is to listen; to the slow creeping
embrace of the trumpet’s protest, the percussive
defiance of the piano’s syncopation, the indrawn
breaths when the song learns the body that sings it.
Another fine poem by Nii Ayikwei Parkes is ‘So What’. On YouTube there is this off-the-cuff video, which resulted when he was given a microphone and asked to explain the poem:
Poems on the Underground is a collaboration between London Transport and the Poetry Society, and is one of Britain’s most successful public art projects. The poems, displayed on underground trains throughout the capital, are selected by a penel that includes writer Judith Chernaik, founder of the project. Last month, in a piece for The Guardian introducing the latest selection, she wrote:
Visitors, exiles, immigrants – these are among the voices we hope to offer the travelling public, along with the more familiar voices of native Londoners. I love to imagine Karl Marx, thrown out of every country in Europe, making his way from his Soho lodgings to his usual seat in the British Museum reading room, using government Blue Books to document the inevitable collapse of capitalism. His later follower, Bertolt Brecht, in flight from Nazi Germany, described his London experience in ‘The Caledonian Market’ and ‘Buying Oranges':
In yellow fog along Southampton Street
Suddenly a fruit barrow, and an old hag
Beneath a lamp, fingering a paper bag.
I stood surprised and dumb like one who sees
What he’s been after, right before his eyes.
Oranges! Always oranges, as of old!
Poems on the Underground – such a simple idea, but so perfect.