The Death of Joy Gardner and the Power of Language

From Propa Propaganda by Benjamin Zephaniah

They put a leather belt around her
13 feet of tape and bound her
Handcuffs to secure her
And only God knows what else,
She’s illegal, so deport her
Said the Empire that brought her
She died,
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself.
It is our job to make her
Return to Jamaica
Said the Alien Deporters
Who deports people like me,
It was said she had a warning
That the officers were calling
On that deadly July morning
As her young son watched TV.


I first read this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah when I took a course on literature of the African diaspora. Zephaniah is a British-Jamaican artist who has written a number of poems that explore what it means to be black and British in a culture that includes systematized racism.  Although his collection of poems Propa Propaganda was written about 20 years ago, I feel as though it’s content is still highly relevant today. The above section from “The Death of Joy Gardner” is one such example; the full text can be found here if you are interested.

Joy Gardner was an undocumented Jamaican living in London at the time of her death. Police came to her home and, in their attempt to restrain and arrest her, accidentally suffocated her when she resisted. She suffered severe brain damage and was placed on life support, but died a few days later from cardiac arrest. The police officers were acquitted from all charges.

I just want to stop here and point out the language I used in my above description of Joy Gardner. When you Google Joy Gardner, that is the first result that comes up in relation to her death. However, when I originally was trying to write a description of her death, bearing in mind Zephaniah’s poem, it went something like this:

Joy Gardner was a migrant Jamaican woman living in London when she was killed by police officers in a raid. They restrained her with handcuffs, leather straps and 13 feet of duct tape. She suffered severe brain damage from the attack and died four days later in the hospital while on life support. The police offers were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted on all counts.

While I’m personally more of the opinion detailed in description 2, it’s still interesting to me to see how many accounts there can be of a single experience. Think of your Facebook feed, and how two different friends can share different new articles about the same remark made by presidential candidate. You might only read 1 of the 2 articles, and now your opinion is unconsciously shaped in some way.

Of course when you want someone to see things a certain way, you’re going to adjust your language accordingly, as Zephaniah does in his poem. Clearly he wants us to see that Joy Gardner’s death was no doubt consequential of her alien-status in England at the time. However, I can’t help but think about the alternate account of this poem, as told by say, a police officer who was there or the person who makes laws concerning deportation of immigrants. Especially concerning a real event in history, I’m always curious to see what the other side has to say. While I don’t necessarily want to be swayed by the other side, I think it’s interesting to think about how we use language to do precisely that. No one wants to read a poem or listen to a speech that isn’t trying to get some point across. But, I think it’s important to at least consider the opposition.



Fever Dreams and Robert Lowell

I’ve been interested by one of the two modes of poetry that is brought up in class.  That of Robert Lowell: why not tell what happened.   I think mostly because in my poetry, I struggle to tell what happened— too often getting lost in an blind attempt to create beauty through cerebral language and fancy romantic predictable style.

It should be noted, however, that my essays often get bogged down by spending too much time telling what happened.  But when a poem can convey a precision in story or scene, there’s a lot more room to play with language.  One of my favorite poems of all time is “Skunk Hour” if you haven’t read it recommend it.    In the spirit of not unintentionally violating copyright law, I’ll examine three non-sequential stanzas.

The season’s ill–
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.


One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.


only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.


Okay! The first stanza is the poem’s third and seems to establish the first few pangs of anguish that crescendo toward the middle before we are left with the revoltingly dignified image of a mother skunk and her flock of kittens.   We know it’s the dead of fall, signified by the loss of the summer millionaire and red fox hill.  The poem weaves a nautical thread throughout, a nine-knot yawl, is a boat capable of traveling nine-knots , not a particularly fast boat.

He manages in our second stanza to revert the observant narrator who notices things like missing millionaires into a voyeuristic creep.  But look how beautiful the language is.  It’s something like make out point that shelves the town, it is  nautical and naughty, exactly how it happened and deeply confessional.  That confession points to a sickness that subverts the narrators authority, but Lowell’s mode of telling what happened ensures that we don’t doubt the exactitude of it all.

The last stanza I’ve included includes one of the best phrases to read in poetry (in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth) read everything after the colon in one breath and just about as quickly as possible. The phonetics at play are almost too pretty to talk about with clunky metaphors.  Just read them and tell me that’s not good poetry at play.  And, the keen observer coming home after a late night in Geneseo can catch a skunks marching along to the beat of all our trash. Hammering home telling what happened.


Go read the whole poem.

Picking the Right Words

A few moments from our workshop have stayed with me and I have come to notice that they all speak to the same idea: poetry is a matter of picking the right words.

Well, obviously, but what intrigues me further is how we go about doing this once, and then again, and again, and again, ideally. The first moment worth considering is our sestina word gathering exercise. We all have words that float closer to the surface of our thoughts, words that we need to express our ideas, and this exercise helped us scratch the surface and gather a morsel of our lexical materials. So, first, I encourage this exercise along with other generative writings. Make a list of words that resonant, gather 10 new words from the dictionary, write a letter to someone and circle words that repeat or extract ideas (don’t plan on sending the letter, just write!)

An example from class has become a laughable phrase, but actually teaches a useful lesson about diction and syntax. In reference to Rachel C.’s “cosmic latte,” Lytton said: “There is a coffee in your poem.” The point is that each word stands alone as much as it stands together, and some words are more willing to coalesce than others. In this example, we found that “cosmic” and “latte” met with friction. Perhaps our goal is having every word be in conversation with every other word in our poems.

Once I built a rock path to maintain a hiking trail. I learned that a rock is more stable and unmovable the more surfaces it makes contact with. So, first we found the best rocks, boulders in some cases, and rolled them down the hill and into the hole we’d dug. That took a few days. Then, we arranged and rearranged the rocks to make sure they were locked in place, that they touched on at least seven surfaces. That took a couple more. When we walked the path the next day, even though I’d worked with each rock separately, I could barely tell them apart.

“and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses” (Poetry as subversive expansion)

I hate to be that guy, but ah what the hell…

Last semester I took a course on James Joyce with Dr. Doggett, and it blew my mind, since we read Ulysses. It’s impossible to quickly the form and content of the whole book, but you can pretty much understand it as Joyce’s attempt to construct an epic out of an ordinary day of ordinary in Dublin in 1904.

Ulysses shows us, among many things, that every person is infinitely complex, elusive, sensitive. The novel illustrates, criticizes, and deconstructs modernity, and ideologies like Irish nationalism, masculinity, sexuality, marriage, British imperialism, romanticism, the growth of modern capitalism, masochism and victorian pornographic novels…it’s about everything. Beyond the various complex explorations of political and ideological structures throughout the book’s 700+ pages, Ulysses also makes a beautiful and subversive political point too–that nobody can truly be categorized or understood as one thing. That point finds its expression on the formal level too, by blurring the lines between prose and poetry. The novel begins in a somewhat regular realistic fiction mode, and descends through a number of modes (parodies of newspapers, parodies of nationalist rhetoric, etc), into a forty page eight sentence stream of consciousness at the end, from one of the only female voices in the book, where the difference between poetry and prose seems to break down completely.

Here’s the end of the book (no spoilers, I promise, but sorry for the huge block quote (not really sorry though because it’s beautiful)):

…and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

So this comes after 650 or so pages of tightly controlled form, lifting off of the page from the protagonist’s (Leopold Bloom) wife’s (Molly) point of view, when she can’t sleep after he returns home from his travels around Dublin during the day. From the outside (Leo’s view) in the scene before this, she’s silent. From inside Molly’s mind, poetry breaks out of the novel’s form, and lifts off of the page in this last sentence, expanding to encompass multiple landscapes and people, ending in an affirmation of life in all its sensuous detail. Notice how image-based this is, how particular they are to this narrator (Andalusia, the seedcake, the straw hat), but how you can see the world extending out from this singular point of view, becoming almost infinite. I think this is a good goal for which to strive with poetry–expanding out to show life in its beauty and complexity.

More than anything, Ulysses changed the way I think about writing and poetry, how we can use language to illustrate our complexities, and to subvert the structures that would categorize us.

Poetry In the Moment

Activity that immerse the mind is often identified as providing an opportunity for living in the moment. This sounds ideal—of course, the only piece of time that we can absolutely influence or tangibly experience is the one happening just now. Participation in art can be cited as an opportunity to live in the moment. When I write a poem I am not devoting conscious energy to any time but the present: putting words on the page. As I read a good book I am not thinking of my past or my future. However, I would not have developed the taste and skills that allow me to be immersed in that experience without my past, and I would never have started reading the book were I not looking toward a future version of myself when I began the act of reading.

I am inclined to say that poetry does not truly allow one to “live in the moment.” Poetry comes from a writer whose art is influence by his or her personal past and future, and is influenced by that individual’s position in the trajectory of history on every level.

In the context of our conversation last week about the political nature of poetry, I find it interesting that the basic skills that make up poetry are determined by the individual’s personal position in time. If an individual has the ability to write, he or she lives in a society that records by making markings on paper, and that he or she had the opportunity to be educated to write. The socio-political climate in which an individual creates or reads poetry influences factors like vocabulary and the way that poetry is presented to the public (or not). Rather than being a way to transcend tethers to the progression of time, poetry is, in part, a reflection of a particular place in time.

Combining Forms

Recently, I have been hooked by the writings of Zadie Smith. While I would recommend any of her books, I especially would push for the reading of her 2012 novel NW. What captivated me, unlike any of the other books I have read in the past year, is the variety of form throughout the book. With each change in perspective comes a different form –one is written in typical prose chapter, one in short episodes, one a little more abstract than modern readers are accustomed to. The reason I am bringing this up on a poetry blog is because of one chapter which is initiated with a poem. But it is not an epithet. It is the essence of Smith’s creativity in this novel.

Apple tree, apple tree.
Thing that has apples on it. Apple blossom.
So symbolic.                                            Network of branches, roots. Tunneling under.
The fuller, the more fruitful.
The more the worms. The more the rats.
Apple tree, apple tree. Apple. Tree.                       Which way is forward? Tick, tock.
Three flats. One apple tree. Freehold, leasehold. Heavy with seed.
In the tree-top. When the bough breaks, the baby will
Dead man’s ashes. Round the roots, in the roots?
Hundred-year-old apple tree.
Sitting on your laurens. Under an apple                                     tree. Have a little boy?
New branches. New blossom.                                                          New apples. Same tree?
Born and bred. Same streets.
Same girl? Next step.
Trunk, bark.
Alice, dreaming.
Eve, eating.
Under which nice girls make mistakes.

(This should be in the shape of an apple tree, but editing is not allowing me to do so.)

Finding this in a novel is something I never imagined upon beginning the journey of a character’s story. What’s amazing is that it works. It doesn’t feel out of place. In fact, the entire novel is this bold, just in different manifestations. It sets a new bar that I, as a poet, strive to reach. Now, instead of writing fiction with eyes toward Tolstoy and Hardy, I have found a contemporary doing something exciting and technically innovative. I am intrigued by the incorporation of various forms within a novel; it appeals to multiple senses. It makes the reader work, but also is something universally understandable.

If anyone has recommendations for novels and writers that take advantage of variety like this, please share them in a comment!