The City of Dreadful Night
13 x 20 cm paperback 2018
The City of Dreadful Night
But which city? London? Or Port of Spain? It would not have mattered to James Thomson. Nor should it matter to us.Thomson’s poem, which first appeared in 1874, is concerned with the streets we all walk. This is not the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ of St John of the Cross, where rapture and pain couple. Nor is it the fighting rhetoric of the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Nor do we get any of the embers of Ovid’s curse poems from exile. Thomson also wrote satire, and it would be tempting to regard his poem as something of a parody, yet it does not even have the wicked energy required. It is a pallid, stony edifice where the narrator’s highest hope is to find fellow sufferers. They are the audience he envisions: “no secret can be told / To any who divined it not before”.
Yet, this is the poem I have lighted upon. I want to ask: is it possible to read a poem for the spaces between its language, its ideas? Is this not how we read all poems? And, therefore, should we not judge a poem by what it aims to do? By the world it creates, the function it fulfills? Style is an important thing, but it is just as subjective as an approach that sees the value of a poem in its penumbra.
Thomson suffered from alcoholism, insomnia, and depression. It is not hard to find the sources of his cyclical anguish: he was orphaned as a child, his younger sister died when he was five, then his first love in 1853. Early trauma stays with us, is prolonged and revived by later events. This poet’s language reveals him entirely: he seeks to build a solid world and ends up with a phantasmagoric sequence in which his loved ones irrupt the sprawling narrative and are, thereby, resurrected and memorialized. Reading the poem thus, who is not moved by ‘The City of Dreadful Night’? It is not a poem engendered by a place, but a place engendered by a poem. It is a dramatization of the power of language to make something real.
It is fitting these words are now translated into images. For in the end, what is the difference? Concrete poetry, visual poetry reminds us that writing and text are performers, acrobats, and archives all in one. Words are images: on the page and as concepts in the mind. And the body, too, is a word on the page, an image fashioned by our minds and all that we devise to clothe it. At the time of writing, a reckoning was happening in Trinidad and Tobago.
Colonial laws banning anal sex and criminalizing various forms of gay intimacy were being challenged in court. Members of the LGBTQ community staged protests in front of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament that had – decades after Independence from Great Britain – preserved the laws. The same Parliament had also added a few variations of its own: banning the entry of homosexuals from the country (Immigration Act); removing gay people from the protections of anti-discrimination law (Equal Opportunity Act); leaving gaps in the law effectively allowing hate-crimes under the guise of “provocation” (Offences Against the Person Act).
Members of various religious sects decided to march to urge the State to preserve the buggery law. In response, members of the LGBTQ community took to the streets. I took a break from writing this book to participate in protests. In the end, the court ruled the buggery law unconstitutional, but other provisions entrenching discrimination still remain. Justice Devindra Rampersad was celebrated by some, but others greeted his ruling with renewed bigotry, violence and intimidation.
The prevailing sense of dread, the fear of walking the streets, the feeling which only members of the LGBTQ community here know and endure daily—that is the same current that flows in Thomson’s poem, now translated here into visual expressions that mirror the moods and spaces between his gothic words. This is a city that could be in any country: a space where bodies are suspended by text outlawing love.
Port of Spain
23 April, 2018
Andre Bagoo is the author of: Trick Vessels (Shearsman Books, 2012), BURN (Shearsman Books, 2015) and Pitch Lake (Peepal Tree Press, 2017). He was awarded The Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize by The Caribbean Writer in 2017. His website is here
Extracts from The City of Dreadful Night have been published over at Burning House Press, thanks to guest-editor Karissa & all at BHP. You can take a look here, as well at M58, with thanks to Andrew Taylor.
Andre Bagoo: Poem Brut / Rich Mix III : March 17th 2018 A literary event celebrating of the visual, visceral, messy, handwritten and colourful in poetry with new unique commissions from writers exploring alternate ways of making literature. With thanks to SJ Folwer.