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A Time Before Whiteness


In June 2017, a public housing tower block in West London went up in flames, the blaze exacerbated by the building’s cost-saving flammable insulation (“The cladding went up like a matchstick,” recalled one resident). As many activists pointed out in the aftermath, most of the more than 70 people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire were immigrants of color. That fire still rages in “Another Burning,” the final poem of British-Jamaican poet D. S. Marriott’s Before Whiteness:

this paper is on fire
and the earth is a room
inside the flames
		incinerare
			breathed
		like a rope of air
		where we took
		our final, faltering steps
			down smoke-filled stairs,
				down narrow corridors
			a roaring in our ears
		openmouthed, blindsided,
			our mouths already burning
				from the portrayal.

That descent down the smoke-filled stairs of the tower block parallels Marriott’s descent through language and history — the history of slavery, of immigration, and of the movement of refugees. A central question underlying Before Whiteness is whether language itself can provide a path to survival, even liberation, or whether the poem simply erects a temporary monument against time and forgetting:

						for you and I
descent meant rescue, 
			but there was black smoke
all around us,
		and our mistake was in thinking
that language meant
			expectancy or survival—
and not something endlessly abandoned,
					evacuated.
a word petrified, then cracked,
			a void endlessly imprinted,
				shaped into concrete.

One form of remembering is the elegy, and Before Whiteness is punctuated with a series of them to other writers. Marriott’s elegiac remembering has a global reach: the Black American poets Stephen Jonas (“Jonas Runs the Voodoo Down”) and Bob Kaufman (“Blue in Bandoe”), the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera (“Clash City Poets”), and the British anarchist Sean Bonney (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”). This last poem perfectly captures Bonney’s incandescent rage, as well as his love of language and his insistence on the necessity for street-level activism:

someone beckons

           & reminds you
	   that each gathering
	           is a celebration
                     of the already-dead

and
   each word
         matters
less than
   it should,
          (the hard facts
               fluttering
                     like banners
                          over bloodsoaked pavements)

Marriott is an impassioned but subtle poet, thoughtful and challenging. While his poetry sometimes evokes the incantatory and jazz-inflected tones of American Beat poets (and even, in “Murking,” the British rapper Stormzy), he has deep affinities with such postwar British avant-gardists as J. H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier, and John Wilkinson. The poems of Before Whiteness present a host of questions about contemporary race and class relations, personal and historical memory, in a complex and oblique idiom, aware always that poetic language itself is (in T. S. Eliot’s words from East Coker) “a raid on the inarticulate, / With shabby equipment always deteriorating.” There are no easy answers, no simple solutions.

The very title Before Whiteness is intentionally ambiguous: does “before” mean coming earlier or “facing”? Some of Marriott’s poems seem to reach toward the roots of the Black/White dichotomy. “Hoernejongetje” (a Dutch word, meaning “boy whore”) examines a “ledger,” “its leather sweat-soaked / in its clinkered cubicle”; is this the record book of a slave ship, as referenced in the earlier poem “The Dream, Called Lubek”?

The writ should not be black from the sentence.
Loose the flaps but not your tongue.
Release the words from their trap,

but don’t forget to nuance the meaning.
This is where true ownership begins.
A hand scratching worth from zero.

Those last two lines are key: is this the beginning of the master/enslaved relationship, the slaver inscribing the name of the enslaved person, thereby rendering them something of financial “worth”? Or is this (more hopefully) a scene of self-creation through writing, the Black poet rewriting “paper already dirtied” and asserting self-ownership? 

This scene of writing and literacy recalls Before Whiteness’s first poem, “The Ghost of Averages,” which begins with an allusion to Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery:

The French grammar
	lies open on a table
smeared with grease, oil,—
	unfettered by the chains
opening the mind begins its flight

The practical-minded Washington had called the sight of a young Black man studying French grammar “with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden” one of the “saddest” things he had seen; for Marriott, it is “proof the ancient memories lie unredeemed” — unredeemed, but available for conquest and learning.

Far less hopeful is the intense (and in places stomach-churning) “The Rest Unfinished: In Dedication to the Young Negress, Kara E. Walker.” Much of this longish poem is a phantasmagoria on the artist Walker’s silhouettes of antebellum America: scenes of rape, incest, coprophilia, and mutilation. “Tableaux of pain and perversity,” Marriott calls them, but tableaux in which something liberatory, violent, but ultimately abortive, can be perceived:

The imagined,
suckled big with our black milk,
swollen like a creek, all the tributaries
incessant, held captive from mouth to slave,
weighed down, anchor-like
in the Tallahatchie river,
is something unaccountable—
a sword, a broom,
a row of urns, axes, and pumpkins,
and a runaway caught on the roadway.

Marriott’s poems are not easygoing, not merely due to their generally grim outlook and occasionally violent imagery, but because they refuse to follow linear lines of discourse, description, or argument; they dart from subject to subject, voice to voice, carrying the reader along by the force of inventive language and relentless surprise. Often, however, as in the title poem’s “Coda” (which reads, for all its references to Martin Buber and The Little Prince, as a kind of fantasy autobiography), Marriott rises to a magnificent oratorical pitch:

Through crowded trains
in which I cry and am
but an isolated fury,

listening 
to several voices,
as day comes up out of dirtied windows,

I write of this shame
so as to possess it,
and to idolize its pride, its black nobility.

This and many other passages in Before Whiteness constitute their own monuments of memory among the smoke and welter of history and contemporaneity.

Before Whiteness by D. S. Marriott (2022) is published by City Lights Books and is available online and in bookstores.

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