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August 4, 2011

“Our Flag is a union of Black and Blue” – Daljit Nagra’s Black History

by quaesitor
reflections-on-the-thames,-westminster,-1880

Any walk along the Thames Embankment or the South Bank is bound to conjure up memories and evocations. This ancient river is observed/guarded/ignored by countless buildings created at different moments in British history: the proceeds of empire and the fates of peoples are all reflected in their facades. I came across this wonderful poem by Daljit Nagra in the last New Yorker of July. And it captures it all perfectly, far more articulately than we non-poetically-gifted mortals could manage.

As the son of Indian immigrants, Nagra seems to have an understandably ambiguous view of British Imperial history. He walks from Shakespeare’s Globe, and muses on the history play he’s just seen. Was it perhaps Henry V? That is a great patriotic cry that makes one proud to be English (not British, note). And it can have a more jingoistic feel if read without nuance. Look what the genius of Olivier did with the play in his brilliant wartime propaganda film  – and then compare it with the darker, grittier and more ambiguous Branagh version.

But the poem ranges far wider than the play. He embraces the history of the Globe theatre itself, the empire that Shakespeare’s generation could barely dream of, the decline of British global sway (with characters like Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi playing their parts) and the protests that have ensued (note Churchill’s Mohican). It is all is beautifully captured here, and I just I love his juxtapositions, and verbal twists and turns. (From The New Yorker, 25th July 2011). A tea treat

A BLACK HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH- SPEAKING PEOPLES

I

A king’s invocations at the Globe Theatre
spin me from my stand to a time when boyish
bravado and cannonade
and plunder were enough to woo the regal seat.

That the stuff of Elizabethan art and a nation
of walled gardens in a local one-upmanship
would tame the four-cornered
world for Empire’s dominion seems inconceivable.

Between the birth and the fire and rebirth of the Globe
the visions of Albion led to a Rule Britannia
of trade-winds-and-Gulf-Stream
all-conquering fleets that aroused theatres

for lectures on Hottentots and craniology,
whilst Eden was paraded in Kew.
Between Mayflower and Windrush
(with each necessary murder) the celebrated

embeddings of imperial gusto where jungles
were surmounted so the light of teaming be spread
to help sobbing suttees
give up the ghost of a husband’s flaming pyre.

II

So much for yesterday, but today’s time-honoured
televised clashes repeat the flag of a book bumming
and May Day’s Mohican
Churchill and all that shock and awe

that brings me back to Mr. Wanamaker’s Globe.
An American’s thatched throwback to the king
of the canon! I watch the actor
as king, from the cast of masterful Robeson.

The crowd, too, seems a hotchpotch from the pacts
and, sects of our ebb and flow. My forebears played
their part for the Empire’s quid
pro quo by assisting the rule and divide of their ilk.

Did such relations bear me to this stage?
Especially with Macaulay in mind, who claimed the passing
of the imperial sceptre would highlight
the imperishable empire of our arts…

So does the red of Macaulay’s map run through
my blood? Am I a noble scruff who hopes a proud
academy might canonize
his poems for their faith in canonical allusions?

Is my voice phoney over these oft-heard beats?
Well if my voice feels vexatious, what can I but pray
that it reign Bolshie
through puppetry and hypocrisy full of gung-ho fury!

III

The heyday Globe incited brave new verse
modelled on the past, where time’s frictions
Courted Shakespeare’s corruptions
for tongue’s mastery of the pageant subject. Perhaps

the Globe should be my muse! I’m happy digging
for my England’s good garden to bear again.
My garden’s only a state
of mind, where it’s easy aligning myself with a ‘turncoat’

T. E. Lawrence and a half-naked fakir and always
the groundling. Perhaps to aid the succession
of this language of the world,
for the poet weeding the roots, for the debate

in ourselves, now we’re bound to the wheels
of global power, we should tend the manorial
slime – that legacy
offending the outcasts who fringe our circles.

IV

Who believes a bleached yarn? Would we openly
admit the Livingstone spirit turned Kurtz, our flag
is a union of black and blue
flapping in the anthems of haunted rain… ?

Coming clean would surely give us greater distance
than this king at the Globe, whose head seems cluttered
with golden-age bumph,
whose suffering ends him agog at the stars.

V

I applaud and stroll toward Westminster,
yet softly tonight the waters of Britannia bobble
with flotillas of tea and white gold
cotton and sugar and the sweetness-and-light

bloodlettings and ultimately red-faced Suez.
And how swiftly the tide removes from the scene
the bagpipe clamouring
garrisons with the field-wide scarlet soldiery

and the martyr’s cry: Every man die at his post!
Till what’s ahead are the upbeat lovers who gaze
from the London Eye
at multinationals lying along the sanitized Thames.

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