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Bury My Clothes

Posted on Apr 25, 2014

Image by Haymarket Books

By Lisa Pasold

To see long excerpts from “Bury My Clothes” at Google Books, click here.

“Bury My Clothes”
A book by Roger Bonair-Agard

“The poet knows all sorts of things. Right now,
he is convinced he is inside the belly of his greatest
work ever. Rum will do that.”

“Bury My Clothes,” a new book of poetry by accomplished performance poet Roger Bonair-Agard (and on the longlist for the 2013 National Book Award for poetry), is a volume of old stories made fresh through language and passion. These pages involve us as we read them and demand to be spoken and sang. The title comes from lyrics sang by the great 1930s calypso singer Growling Tiger: “When ah dead, bury meh clothes/ah doh want no sweet man to wear meh clothes.” Growling Tiger was a boxer-turned-singer whose political and social passions are an apt reference to kick off this new collection.

“I’m trying to tell you what I know of poetry:
how I learned to talk, and how there was
always a stage involved… If I tell
you this is a language only translatable
as drum, you will say you have heard this before…”

The poems offer clear challenges and vibrant personal stories, resonant as any steel pan instrument. Beginning in Trinidad, the book evolves into a complete meditation on identity, place and race. Bonair-Agard doesn’t shy away from the violence of being black in America:

“Your body is a constant negotiation
amongst power’s several microagressions”

The first pages of the book, unfortunately, are weighed down with an unnecessary foreword by Brooklyn poet Patrick Rosal. I recommend skipping ahead and hitting the meat of the matter. Bonair-Agard divides the book into seven sections bookended by two wonderful prose memories, starting with “Two bottles of rum and the Roaring Lion.” The drumbeat in these pages is clear and hard as a heart must be. One unfortunate detail: The section titles themselves generally lack originality (“HEART/break” is just one lamentable example), despite the uniquely forged poems in each segment.

“... The next
day the sun rose and I know
little by little love leaks
out of us all through the mouths
of prophets.”

Throughout “Bury My Clothes,” Bonair-Agard examines the perilous quest for identity, executing an elegant balance between beauty and threat, highlighted in poems such as “Ode to my Brooklyn fitted.” The “Odes” section, lyric addresses to various people and objects, might have benefited from being spread throughout the book, rather than having a single clump of “Odes” in one somewhat heavy-handed section. But overall, the book works as a well-orchestrated piece of music—much like an album, riffing on ideas and memories, constructing story through leaps and repeating melodic themes rather than strictly chronological narrative.

The music and poetry of Trinidad—pan, drums, song-masters—throb through the book. But the work is also thoroughly anchored in America, pulling in references to hip hop artists such as the much-regretted Biggie Smalls. Bonair-Agard is adept at connective leaps from the artists of another time and place to today’s voices. For rapper Lil Wayne, for example, the poet writes:

“you tattoo Billie’s collapsed
veins on your throat”

The collection’s opening and closing prose chapters of memoir create the perfect dust jacket for the poems within. These memories conjure a Trinidad that has slipped out of our time and out of the poet’s hands: Despite his steadfast connection to place, Bonair-Agard recognizes that he is a man without a home.

“To go home
and not be recognized. To go home
and recognize nothing…” 

Being an immigrant offers no solution to the dilemma of personal place:

“Brooklyn is a reluctant lighthouse,
an unwelcoming harbor…
...To come from is to belong nowhere”

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