Peter Howarth

 

Letter to Patience by John Haynes

Seren, 79pp., 7.99, 2006, 978 1 85411 412 9

 

By coincidence, I first read Letter to Patience in a mud-walled bar a few hundred miles away from the mud-walled bar near Zaria, in northern Nigeria, where the poem is set. It opens with an evocative drift through the peppery air of the evening marketplace, past the stalls of stock cubes and mosquito coils, the smells of fried yam and charcoal fires, toward the coloured lights of Patience’ Parlour:

 

the drain wrinkly with rainbows, the car

sunk to its rusted wheel hubs in the dust,

door jamb, handbills for Double Crown and Star,

 

Thin slits of light, reggae, voices, a gust

Of laughter. (12)

 

It could have been where I was sitting – same reggae, same oily sewers, same beers – were it not for the car. Letter to Patience is set in 1993 during the violence preceding the dictator Babangida’s annulment of Moshood Abiola’s democratic victory, and the tyreless wreck is a token of the recent rioting by local muslim mobs that tried to torch the bar, their petrol supplied by unknown fixers in a ‘dim Mercedes’. As a footnote explains, the Mercedes in Nigeria is a ‘talismanic’ symbol of local Big Men, who had been organising ‘spontaneous riots’ (71) to distract public anger away from the misrule of the military elite. Outside my bar, by contrast, stood two shiny white Nissan pick-ups with xenon headlamp racks and oversized alloy wheels. At first I thought they were aid workers’ trucks, but NGOs demand strictly spartan trim levels, and the loud laughter in this bar was coming from men in still louder suits on mobile phones. In 2007 local elites are, it seems, swapping their Mercedes for new, utilitarian NGO-chic, lightly pimped but still in regulation UN white. Such taste-making power is a sign of the new wealth and prestige of global charity in West Africa, as aid agencies replace civil government in the wake of Structural Adjustment Programmes. It’s a sign, too, of just how difficult it is for the most down-to-earth NGO to avoid becoming exactly the Big Men whose local empires they are trying to by-pass. Letter to Patience is an earnest, angry poem about the problem both cars symbolise, the way that post-independence corruption and international aid reproduce structures of colonial domination exactly as they promise to replace them. But the poem’s kick really comes from its suspicion that the author himself is doing the same thing.

 

Although it’s called a letter, it’s rather more an autobiography, cast in 52 cantos of terza rima to the missing Patience, whose bar was a centre for radicals from Ahmadu Bello University where Haynes once taught. She has now vanished in the wake of the continued harrassment:

 

                                    The door splits open. “Fuck

you all, you Nazarenes!” There’s Sa’idu,

 

your bar-boy, twelve years old, whose name means luck.

From where you’re hiding underneath the bed

you watch him pick the oil lamp up to chuck. (24)

 

That time Patience was rescued by the muslim owner of the compound next door, anxious the rioters might destroy his property too. The following day Sai’du returned to work:

 

                                    “Madam, we get pickin

I beg: forgive me now”, and kneels. “Today

I tink I go wok well-well for kitchen

 

again, madam? Clean all, madam? Okay,

madam? Okay? Okay?” Who has done this?

you think, and looking at him, cannot say. (24)

 

This is the question which resonates for the whole poem. Sai’du has betrayed his employer because local, uneducated muslims have been manipulated by Babangida’s cronies, keen to stir up inter-ethnic hatred to legitimise perpetual military government and private oil revenues. This endlessly-postponed democracy unconsciously apes Lord Lugard, Governor-General of Nigeria, whose Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (1922) justified Britain’s continuing suzerainty by promising ever greater self-government when Nigerian client kings could learn a sufficient sense of fair play from their masters, while cementing hostility by dividing political roles among ethnic and religious lines, as Mahmood Mamdani has argued in these pages). But Sai’du sweeping up after himself is also a grotesque version of the author’s own situation as a white radical in West Africa, trying to repair the damage his compatriots have caused there. At one point, he thinks back to his own attempts to build democratic resistance to the elite through literacy classes, in the manner of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

 

A tree

a rag, a blackboard in the village. Loot,

spell it, spell loot, spell looter, feel them, see

 

the shape of them, the words, the rhymes, spell shoot,

like Gizo-gizo making loops unreel

out of his body. Write it: rifle, boot,

 

relocation. What else? It’s you, the real.

It comes of saying it out loud. You are,

it is, they’re doing this, say it, they steal,

 

the dam makers, oilmen, Barclays: com-pra-

dor. Write it down. (34-35)

 

Freire believed literacy would help the politically mute ‘eject the oppressor within’ and discover themselves as free subjects, as Gizo-gizo the trickster spider spun out tales to ensnare his powerful enemies. But the tone of the passage is quite different: the teacher’s italics sound like some interrogator demanding a forced confession, and the insistent ‘write it down’ puts the villagers, again, in the position of being dictated to. ‘Mistah John – he black!’ (34) grins a fellow-radical in Patience’s bar, as if to confirm the lingering figure of Mr Kurtz that every would-be white liberator must evade. As Freire knew all too well, revolutions stall when ‘the oppressor is ‘housed’ within the people’ and they obey revolutionary leaders as slavishly as their former oppressors. Ruefully, the canto’s opening suggests that the oppressor may be housed within the very terms of freedom themselves:

 

Black Consciousness. The Whiteman’s soul is black.

The shadow of his body is more native

to the Earth than he is. (33)

 

Adapting Steve Biko’s taunt to well-meaning white liberals who thought they could be ‘black souls in white skins’, this sounds at first like a mocking accusation from one of Haynes’s fellow-rebels, that he, the public school-educated white lecturer, cannot help channelling colonial power in his attempt to assert solidarity with the poor. But by phrasing it as ‘The Whiteman’s soul is black’, the line is simultaneously echoing Blake’s ‘Little Black Boy’, who cries, ‘And I am black, but O! my soul is white’, and promises to protect the little white boy with his shadow, so that one can’t be sure whose version of ‘blackness’ is ironising whose. This was the vexed politics behind ‘Black Consciousness’ itself – an authentic self-awareness, or an idea of collective ‘blackness’ already defined by white apartheid thinking? – and the poem skilfully bounces such phrases round its echo-chamber to baffle any simple rhetoric of liberation.

 

Multilayered quotation like this was originally a hallmark of modernist poetry’s attacks on the self-made man, and in an interview Haynes has criticised the Western tendency ‘to think of ourselves as an individual with a line drawn round us’. But rather than celebrate a more communal, African ethic, the poem turns its many voices into a tangle of collusion, in which the writer’s deepest loves turn out to be inseparable from the colonial apparatus he has come to hate. His parents were music-hall entertainers, and he remembers listening enraptured as they sang in black-face minstrel shows, or musicals adapting the blues:

 

As homely as a tune     

with imitation tom-toms in the beat

and Dad’s hands on the keys. Under its moon,

 

under its stage-set sun, with steel-tipped feet

Uncle Ernie dances (straw hat, blacked face)

and Mum sings lyrics I can still repeat

 

and repeat in my head across that space

of dark, mouthing the words with her on stage

closer than any possible embrace. (56)

 

The song here is ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, whose title drops strong Freudian hints that his later desire for Patience had been prepared for by his mother’s stage world of ‘anthropoid / and can-can dancer’ which borrowed its fleshy glamour from colonial stereotypes. But then, this analysis itself may be based on colonial stereotypes:

 

“Woman – is a Dark Continent”, his hand

guiding a golden nib, wrote Sigmund Freud,

professor of the soul: that hinterland

 

you have to penetrate and find your void

to people with desire (20)

 

Freud’s nib is later picked up by Lugard’s own ‘gold nib’ (38) writing the Dual Mandate, not to mention the South African mines in which the writer’s own grandfather turns out to have been a prospector, and so the chain goes on. Back home in Hampshire, it reappears in his daughter’s homework on Fishbourne palace, with its Roman murals of Cogidubnus, the British client king installed to ensure the smooth functioning of the Empire’s trade interests (here nicknamed ‘Compradorius’), and hence in ‘the here / and now of orange juice and bedtime cocoa’ (55). It appears more viciously in the media apparatus behind Comic Relief, whose cameras get their close-up shots of the dying like a big-game hunter:

 

Now it’s clown’s noses on,

and bring the damned relief, and camera holes

 

right through the middles of their eyes. No non-

sense practicality, no nonsense food,

not conquest now. The conquerors have gone.

 

Into the very map’s exactitude. (27)

 

Haynes is keen to see empire at work in all such Western rational management. Unlike social ‘African time’, clock time is ‘a net / of pure Pythagorean lines’ drawn by strangers across the globe ‘to claim / time as their own’ (21); the airline schedules that use it are linked to the imperial town planner:

 

That same platonic grid of square on square

marks out the shantytown, the roofs of rust

that passengers can point at from the air

 

since they are white, and punctual, and trust

in calendars and charts, since they can fly. (22)

 

But if Haynes is casting his net far and wide here – can’t Africans fly without betraying their culture? – the poem never fails to turn all these accusations back on him, for its instant montage of voices and memories  is equally a ‘now which ‘shrinks everything into its own empire’ (21), like imperial airline schedules or international time zones:

 

a timeless now. Exactly now, Patience,

I too want to make all Africa narrow

to a mud walled bar. There’s arrogance. (15)

 

Not arrogance so much as guilt, I fear. It’s hard to straighten out the poem’s cats-cradle of colonial inference into the prose of causes and agents without destroying its preternatural alertness. Yet the instant, electric connections of metaphor and cross-reference that light up the poetry also elide degrees of responsibility, putting the slightest link on a par with the most obvious crime. Where, then, does it all end? Certainly not with the bravura rhymes, whose aba, bcb, etc generates the next verse in the middle of the previous one for an unbroken 58 pages. Dante used its endlessness for his voyage into the eternal, but here it seems more about colonialism’s unstoppable chain of consequences:

 

You see

how words grow solid? In a child? And link

 

all this up into bones and blood and lovely

flesh – all this, yes, crime, from which, no sense

of it, or speaking’s, going to set us free. (67)

 

Depending on how upbeat you are about African development, this is either deeply disillusioned, or a realistic and humane starting-point: the hope of Letter to Patience is that there might be ‘something shared in spite of skin / colour, and Lugard’s maxim gun, or through / just those, is it?’ (17)

 

One consequence the poem definitely could not control was its unexpected, deserved prize in the 2006 Costa Book Awards. As well as promoting good poetry, you may be glad to know that Costa is currently using its profits to renovate two schools in the south-west of Uganda for the children of its growers, who currently have no clean water and 150 children to the class. Although coffee is indigenous to the area, cultivation only really began after southern Uganda was annexed by British East Africa Company in 1892, thanks to the pioneering use of the machine gun by an idealistic young officer called Frederick Lugard, whose subsequent business plan, Our East African Empire (1893), notes how suitable the area would be for coffee plantations. Many client rulers and unforeseen consequences later, coffee is now helping its growers in a way that Lugard’s gun couldn’t, although if you have the hypersensitivity of this book, you might still feel a distant ricochet.

 

London Review of Books

 

 

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