Loot, Looter, Looted
- Letter to Patience by John Haynes
Seren, 79 pp, £7.99, April 2006, ISBN 1 85411 412 3
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 John Haynes’s poem is set. It opens with an evocative drift through the peppery air of the evening marketplace, past the stalls selling stock cubes and mosquito coils, and the smells of fried yam and charcoal fires, towards the coloured lights of Patience’s 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
It could have been where I was sitting – same reggae, same oily sewers, same varieties of beer – were it not for the car. Letter to Patience is set in 1993 during the violence preceding the annulment by the military dictator Ibrahim Babangida of Moshood Abiola’s election victory, and the tyreless wreck is a relic of rioting by Muslim mobs who had tried to torch the bar, their petrol supplied by unknown fixers in a ‘dim Mercedes’. As a footnote explains, in Nigeria the Mercedes is a ‘talismanic’ symbol of local Big Men. In 1993 these men were busy organising ‘spontaneous riots’ – against Abiola’s supporters, non-Muslims, opponents of all kinds – to distract public anger 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 spartan trim, and the laughter in this bar was coming from men wearing suits and talking on mobile phones. It seems that the local elite have swapped their Mercedes for utilitarian NGO-chic, lightly pimped but still in regulation UN white. This is a sign of the new wealth and prestige of global charity in West Africa, now that aid agencies are coming close to replacing civil government in the wake of Structural Adjustment Programmes. It’s a sign, too, of how difficult it is for even the most down-to-earth, unglamorous NGOs to avoid becoming like the big men whose local empires they are trying to bypass. Letter to Patience is an earnest, angry poem about the problem symbolised by both kinds of car: the way that post-independence corruption and international aid reproduce structures of colonialism even as they try to replace them. But the poem’s kick really comes from Haynes’s suspicion that he himself is part of the problem.
Although it’s called a letter, it’s more of an autobiography, cast in 52 cantos of terza rima, and addressed to the missing Patience, whose bar was a centre for radicals from Ahmadu Bello University, where Haynes once taught. Before she vanished, Patience was the victim of continual harassment:
The door splits open. ‘Fuck
you all, you Nazarenes!’ There’s Sa’idu,
your bar-boy, 12 years old, whose name means luck.
From where you’re hiding underneath the bed
you watch him pick the oil lamp up to chuck.
At this point Patience was rescued by the Muslim owner of the compound next door, worried that the rioters might destroy his property too. The following day Sa’idu came back 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.
It’s a question which resonates throughout the poem. Sa’idu has betrayed his employer because uneducated Muslims like him are being manipulated by Babangida’s cronies, keen to stir up inter-ethnic hatred to legitimise perpetual military government and maintain private oil revenues. This mimics the endlessly postponed democracy put forward by Lord Lugard, governor-general of Nigeria, in his Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (1922), which promised ever greater self-government once Nigerian client-rulers had learned a sufficient sense of fair play from their masters. But Sa’idu’s offer to sweep up the damage he has caused is also a grotesque version of the author’s own situation as a white radical in West Africa. At one point, Haynes thinks back to his own attempts to build democratic resistance to the elite by holding literacy classes, in the manner proposed in Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
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.
Freire believed that literacy would help the politically mute ‘eject the oppressor within’ and discover themselves as free subjects, just as Gizo-gizo the trickster spider spun tales to ensnare his powerful enemies. But the tone of the passage is quite different: the teacher sounds like an interrogator forcing a confession, and his insistent ‘write it down’ puts the villagers, again, in the position of being dictated to. ‘Mistah John – he black!’ grins a fellow radical in Patience’s bar, as if to invoke the lingering figure of Mr Kurtz that every white would-be 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 they did their former oppressors; indeed, the canto’s opening suggests that the oppressor may be housed even within the very terms of freedom:
Black Consciousness. The Whiteman’s soul is black.
The shadow of his body is more native
to the Earth than he is.
This, an adaptation of Steve Biko’s taunt to well-meaning white liberals who thought they could be ‘black souls in white skins’, sounds at first like an accusation made by one of Haynes’s fellow rebels, that he, the public-school-educated white lecturer, can’t help channelling colonial power in his attempt to assert solidarity with the poor. But ‘The Whiteman’s soul is black’ simultaneously echoes 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. One can’t be sure whose version of ‘blackness’ is ironising whose. A similarly vexed politics lay behind Black Consciousness itself – an authentic self-awareness, or an idea of collective ‘blackness’ already defined by white apartheid thinking? – and the poem skilfully uses such phrases to baffle any simple rhetoric of liberation.
Compressed allusions like this are 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, polyvocalism here becomes an endless chain of collusion, as 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 blackface minstrel shows, or musicals rewriting 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.
The song she sings is ‘I’ve Got You under My Skin’, and by using it Haynes drops strong Freudian hints that his erotic attraction to 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 this analysis may itself 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
Freud’s nib is later echoed by Lugard’s ‘gold nib’, which he uses to write the Dual Mandate, not to mention the South African gold mines in which the writer’s grandfather turns out to have been a prospector – and so the chain goes on. Back home in Hampshire, it can be found in his daughter’s homework on the Roman villa at Fishbourne, with its murals of Cogidubnus, the client king installed to ensure the smooth functioning of the Roman Empire’s trade interests (here nicknamed ‘Compradorius’), and equally in ‘the here/and now of orange juice and bedtime cocoa’. It appears more viciously in the media apparatus behind Comic Relief, whose cameras get their close-ups of the dying like a big-game hunter lining up his shot:
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.
Haynes is always keen to see empire at work. 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’; the airline schedules that use it are compared to the imperial town planner:
That same platonic grid of square on square
marks out the shanty town, 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.
Haynes seems to be casting his net too wide here – can’t Africans fly without betraying their culture? – but the poem never fails to turn all these accusations back on him. Its montage of voices and memories ‘shrinks everything into its own empire’,
in timeless now. Exactly now, Patience,
I too want to make all Africa narrow
to a mud-walled bar. There’s arrogance.
Not arrogance so much as guilt. It’s hard to straighten out the poem’s tangle of colonial inference into the prose of causes and agents without destroying its preternatural alertness. Yet the 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. And where Dante used this verse scheme’s endlessness for his voyage into the eternal, here, as the next verse is generated in the middle of the previous one for an unbroken 58 pages, the terza rima works to underline colonialism’s unstoppable chain of consequences:
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.
Depending on how optimistic you are about African development, this is either deeply disillusioned, or a realistic 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’.
One consequence the poem could not control was its unexpected, deserved victory in the 2006 Costa book awards. Costa is currently using a small proportion of its large profits to renovate two schools in south-west Uganda for the children of its growers; the schools currently have no clean water and 150 children to a class. Although coffee is indigenous to the region, cultivation only really began after southern Uganda was annexed by the British East Africa Company in 1890, thanks to the pioneering use of the machine-gun by the very same Frederick Lugard, then an idealistic young officer, whose subsequent business plan, The Rise of Our East African Empire (1893), notes how suitable the area would be for coffee plantations.