The African Origins of UFOs by Anthony Joseph
Salt Publishing, 2006
One of the great challenges facing artists from post-colonial and/or ethnic minority backgrounds is meeting the demands of two potentially conflicting ideals. As surrogate – and often unwilling – cultural ambassadors, such artists are required to be 'responsible' and represent the reality of their communities/ethnicities for a mainstream Western audience; but as artists they need to be adequately 'irresponsible' in order to produce provocative new works that do not merely replicate but (as Russian Formalists would have it) violate reality. In the new book by Trinidadian-born English poet Anthony Joseph, however, these seemingly contradictory forces have been reconciled and combined to produce stunning results.
I must acknowledge from the outset of this commentary that I was initially unsure about reviewing Joseph since he and I share the same publisher. But, after having reread his The African Origins of UFOs, I have decided to forgo my reservations vis-a-vis a potential conflict of interest because his book is unlike anything else I have read in a very long time and I believe it demands to be noted and discussed in Cordite for its arrival on the contemporary Anglophone poetry scene.
To begin with, Joseph does not shirk his creative duty as a new member of a very prestigious post-colonial African literary lineage. One of the three interweaving sections of his non-linear and loose narrative, for example, is titled 'Journal of a Return to a Floating Island' – a clear allusion to perhaps the most seminal text of modern Black European poetry, Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.
There are also many Césaire-eque neologisms in Joseph's language, such as 'pissfunk' or 'badniggermantra', which bring to mind some of Césaire's own coined terms and phrases e.g. 'verrition', 'l'odeur-du-négre' and, most famously, 'négritude'. It can be said that such mutations of the word 'négre'/ 'nigger', as evidenced in the younger poet and the old master's works, convey the Creolised/hybrid nature of a localised take on an imperial language; highlight the effect of racism in the formulation of post-colonial African identities and literary tropes; and hence place both authors in roughly the same artistic milieu.
Further connecting Joseph's text to those of earlier post-colonial Caribbean poets are devices and characterisations that – intentionally or otherwise – echo past works. The depiction of the speaker's grandmother in Edward Kamau Brathwaite's 1969 poem 'Ancestors' ('All that I have of her is voices-'), for example, is brought to mind by the haunting eulogy for the narrator's mother towards the end of Joseph's book:
i searched through dark wounds, dim lit and hollow tombs
to find her but only a resonance remains.
the sprinkling of her in steep pine crevices,
behind wardrobes for her laughter.
she walks through dim lit rooms, utters
a phrase or two, her face
i merely glimpse. so profound, but in hindsight
i could not
Kamau Braithwaite's own endorsement on the back of The African Origins of UFOs announces Joseph as a 'second generation Caribbean' poet. Such a title seems apt not only due to Joseph's participation in discernable African poetic styles and imagery, but also due to the content of his book, and its inclusion of what can be seen as something of a 'tale of the tribe'. References to recognisable and defining motifs of African history can be found throughout the third section of the book's discontinuous narrative, 'The Genetic Memory of Ancient Ïeré'. In one of the segments of this section, for example, one of the narrator's childhood friends dives into the sea and comes face to face with – as Joseph himself would have it – a 'Caribbean gothic' manifestation of Africa's past:
Now when I jump from that raft was sea snake an' catfish that guide me
to Olokun kingdom neat the bottom of the sea. And I see
my people swim free,
who were bound for slave terror but dove over like me, to escape
by suicide – but did not die – they came here and were fed and healed.
and now dey 'fraid to swim back
Thus far my review has focused on Joseph's book as an inspired and imaginative continuation of a certain post-colonial literary heritage. What makes The African Origins of UFOs groundbreaking, however, is the poet's palpable desire to transcend the limits of such an adherence by subverting the rules and idioms of contemporary narrative and/or poetry at any given opportunity and coming close to redefining the very genres of free verse poetry and narrative verse. It is the text's energetic inventiveness and relentless individuality that are most likely to impress, and at times confront, those readers unfamiliar with the sources of Joseph's historical and literary allusions.
In fact The African Origins of UFOs is so vastly and thoroughly experimental and structurally eccentric that it would be futile to attempt to summarise its formal qualities in this brief review. It should suffice to say that the text comprises three interweaving, and interconnected, sections each with its own distinguishable style, set of characters and narrative momentum. The first of these sections, titled 'Kunu Supia', can best be described as a Sci-Fi 'gangsta rap' narrative written in an infectiously rhythmic prose:
Al green stutter then screech to a stop. I see Kunu people scamper manic in pleats and brogues, see woman hold they breasts and run. And more rush down from up to peep what gore. Joe Sam worked his blade within blinks/his cutlass sharp was laser bladed/it chop don't heal – and when it flashed it left one Abobo man pierced neat the gizzard and one back slice. Cancel all bets.
Due to its use of poetic tropes and a peculiar syntax and punctuation, the book's prose sections may strike some readers as challenging, perhaps even alienating. But the style of these sections goes beyond aesthetical parameters by problematising the very divide between poetry and prose. Joseph's prose can be seen as the inversion of what some opponents of free verse poetry have termed 'cut-up prose': the prose of The African Origins of UFOs is 'glued-up poetry'; it is condensed poetry, or poetry disguised as prose. The following, for example, whilst a paragraph in one of the prose sections of the book, can also be adequately described as a self-contained prose poem:
the first time i saw her grave she was less than a week buried. i sat silently at the earth of her bones as the midday sun lit scents of cow dung and frangipani. she had always said – 'when i dead put plenty flowers on my grave.' and that day hers' was a mound of soft bouquets, wilted heliconia and rotting white roses-
The book's formal quirks and innovations – including comics-style ink drawings and adequately strange poetic endnotes – complement its discursive and thematic playfulness and complexities. Its general argumentative drive traverses the imaginary domains between a historical past and a fictional future. Towards the concluding sections these domains overlap and produce a philosophical contemplation on the themes of belonging and identity, culminating in the iconography of the UFO as a symbol of dislocation; of being 'lost in space, drifting from place to place, still trying find where they come from'.
The African Origins of UFOs conflates a culturally aware attitude towards a collective literary identity with an adamantly individualistic pursuit of – artistic and stylistic – freedom. Its author is both a faithful heir and an agnostic rebel; a Black poet haunted by Africa's past as well as a bilingual post-modernist amused by the possibilities of the future. Contemporary literature doesn't come a lot more sophisticated and intriguing than this.