Poems as vehicles for change

Poems as vehicles for change


Written by: Bianca Brigitte Bonomi

Lightning of Your Eyes, an exciting anthology of new and selected poems by committed writer and educationalist Chris Searle, has just been published.

Chris Searle’s poetry is about words. It is words, he believes, that challenge the status quo, words which educate across geographical boundaries and words which can ultimately act as catalysts for change. His own turbulent and exciting past bears testament to his belief in the ability of language to motivate and heal. He was sacked from Stepney School for publishing a volume of his pupil’s poetry, aptly entitled Stepney Words. The children subsequently went on strike, marching in the city and writing words of support for Searle throughout the school and he was re-instated as their teacher, illustrating on the local scale that words can result in positive change.

This period in his life leads to a selection of poems which capture the power of words and their uses, including the beautifully poignant ‘Lil and Bill’, in which Searle recollects the elderly cleaner at the school, who refused ‘to rub off the words’ from the blackboards, and her husband, who made him tea in the mornings on his way to school and shared his life experiences with him. Lil the cleaner is not a creator of words, she is a keeper of them, and by leaving the chalk-written words on the blackboards she enables the continued transmission of the children’s message of rebellion

Words can do more than metaphorically permeate the soul and heart of man; they can literally educate in order to facilitate the extension of practical necessity. In ‘Food of Words’, written in Ethiopia, the speaker looks up from ‘his well-thumbed book’ and tells the audience that ‘These words are food’. The consumer of words becomes a consumer of food by responding to didactic language, highlighting the relationship between education and the continuation of life. The words move from one generation to the next, shaping the future and providing hope, so that the act of reading in the present at the opening of the poem becomes a gift of fertilised land and seed to future humankind:

‘A clutch of words/a prize of food/all this I have read/and I have taken out words/and given back wheat/to my children.’

In ‘Passage’, Searle again reinforces the many functions served by words. He explains that he does not want words to merely describe, but to do, to facilitate change and to nurture:

‘I want to see our words/vaccinating ill people/stopping their shuddering/giving them health.’

This idea is extended in ‘A Sloop called Success‘, in which the speaker suggests that humankind is dependent on words; that one cannot love without words and that the poetic imagination must be subservient to the greater authority of words which can motivate and alter. Addressing the ‘Comrade Poets’, the speaker relates:

‘If we are to love like humans/what we must make/are words to change the world -/for nothing else was language conceived/and for nothing else/will a human poet use it!’

The spread of such words is presented as an organic, natural process, with words ‘growing like bluebells/over the graves of hatred’ (16-17). As the speaker in ‘A Sloop called Success‘, had shown that humankind cannot love without words, in ‘Passage’, words not only create love, but banish its antithesis, so that whilst the buried matter of hatred is left to decompose, the living beauty of words flourishing like bluebells are left to spread their message of hope.

Elsewhere, Searle’s poetry seeks to unify and to redress universal social and political inequalities. The enormity of land mass covered in the anthology reflects the poet’s own travels: he has taught in Canada, Tobago, Mozambique, Grenada, London and Sheffield and this worldly appreciation has imbued Searle’s writing with a global outlook. In ‘A Son’s Geography’, the poet charts the progress of his child’s life, from conception ‘in the sun’ of Africa, to his birth in Mile End. He explains to his son that his birth and life has been made possible by a Caribbean mother, a Welsh great-grandfather and nurses ‘From the wards of all the world’. The output of this international input is ‘a human of the world.’

The title of the anthology, taken from the poem ‘Carriacou Lullaby’, itself reinforces the message of unification imbedded in Searle’s text. The phrase reflects the passion for life and thirst for knowledge of the speaker’s new-born baby, entering the world with vision. It also transposes itself onto those individuals who championed revolution, those who possessed that same infantile thirst for knowledge, for words, for change. That same ‘lightning’ finds itself in the ‘beaming jewel’ of Blair Peach, in the name of Victor Jara ‘cut/sharp as love/ through the cruelty of the darkness’, in the ‘glowing eye’ of Des Warren and in the crowds chanting at the Africa Liberation Day Rally in Grenada. In contrast, those who use words to distort, to compose the ‘History books’ that deny truth, possess only the ‘blind eyes of settling offspring’ (‘Light of Africa’); destined to see only darkness and relegated from the ‘brilliant sun’ of the African plains.

Searle’s poetry is characterised by a passionate political drive and a celebration of revolution that scans the continents of the world. Lightning of Your Eyes balances the energy and strident desire for change with poignant and personal recollections. Through Searle’s belief that by investing words with meaning, they become more than ink on a page, his poems themselves become vehicles for change.

Related links

Smoke Stack Books

Read about Lightning of Your Eyes

Lightning of Your Eyes: new and selected poems, by Chris Searle (Middlesbrough, Smoke Stack Books, 2006) 123pp.paper, £6.99.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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