John Agard has been broadening the limits of British poetry for the past 40 years. His ninth Bloodaxe collection, Border Zone, explores a far-reaching canvas of British/Caribbean transatlantic connections, sweeping across centuries and continents. It’s a diverse collection in which the thought-provokingly mischievous, bawdy, elegiac and satirical rub shoulders with the sequence The Plants Are Staying Put – about becoming an overnight lockdown gardener – together with a frequent sprinkling of calypso poems. The two poems below are from the central section, ‘Navigating Continents’.

 

Flag Speaks

1

I’ve come a long way
from ribbons
on spears
and garlands
of feathers
heading a fanfare
of tribal others.
Now nations march
to the grammar
of my squares
and rectangles
(not to mention
the odd triangle).
On grand parades
you’ll see me displayed
to the height of my glory.
The centre of ritual attention.
But I stay calm and carry on
as any flag
worth its weight
in cloth would do

2

up a pole
down a pole
ever playing
my starring role
in the fabric
of a nation’s unfolding
of what’s known
as Independence.
How I have danced
in the neutral breeze
for monarchs overseas
and seen the colours
of myself reshuffled
for the long shackled
about to step
into their own stride

3

Guyana flag at Caribana parade, Toronto. ‘Loozrboy’/Wikimedia Commons

for I too have heard of that feeling
called national pride
from the well-informed lips
of the transatlantic winds
that keep me flapping
as well as up-to-date
on history’s shifting weight,
those winds that bring me tidings
of risings and uprisings,
of timely severings
from a mother country’s
absentee apron strings,
a people defined
by Empire’s still visible spectre
rebirthing into their own mirror.
And so at midnight’s chime
I become a banner
for a milestone beginning
hoisted skywards
as a fluttering monument
to the future.
And when freedom tolls
see how I lord it
up my stately pole
to trumpet and drum roll
And in the reckoning hour
when old rages grow mute
I command
a multitude’s salute
and a speechless minute
falls across the land

4

oh what would
the United Nations
the Commonwealth
the Latin American Confederation
the Arab Emirates
(in short the globe)
do without the likes of me
and all my colourful kin?
We whose silent tongue
is flaunted in the wind.
Therefore unravel
what hidden meaning you will
from my flying
geometry of colours.

5

full-mast
I am an emblem
of protocol and celebration.
Half-mast
I am the drooping shroud
of mass lamentation.
To you who wave me
from the bonded crowd
what words can a flag offer
beyond the fervour
of slogans
that shadow my rainbow?
Yet since a flag also knows
how it feels to be thrown
to the fury of flames
(and I shall call no names)
on behalf of every flag
I ask of all who wave me to order:
am I the mere cloth you brandish
to a marching creed
basking in the vanquished?
Or am I a nation’s handkerchief
flown from a flagstaff of justice?
As democratic as sun and moon.

 

Wall Speaks

Algodones Sand Dunes, California. Department of Homeland Security, United States Border Patrol/Wikimedia Commons

I’m there to keep insiders in, outsiders out.
My silence speaks volumes on behalf of border
between nation and nation, other and other.

The dividing god line that says US–Mexico,
Iraq–Iran, Palestine–Israel, Austria–Slovenia,
China–North Korea, North Korea–South Korea…

But should I, Wall, carry on with this litany
that spells out the meaning of us and them?
And to which do I owe my loyalty?

I simply stay mute. Play my humble part.
Be the guard dog that does not wag or bark.
Uncomplaining. Just there. Standing my ground.

But the winds of history have taken their toll.
The centuries creep into my every crevice.
Even my barbed-wired head has seen better days.

For too long I’ve given stalwart service.
Been there to stop the barbarians in their tracks.
Now brick by crumbling brick, I await what next.

© John Agard 2022. Reproduced by permission of the author and Bloodaxe Books

 

John Agard is a poet, performer and anthologist born in Guyana who came to Britain in 1977. He publishes four books in 2022, the other three being Inspector Dreadlock Holmes & Other Stories (Small Axes), a collection of children’s poetry, Follow that Word (Hachette), and a children’s picture book Windrush Child (Walker Books, illustrated by Sophie Bass). He was awarded The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for 2012, and in 2021 became the first poet to win the Book Trust’s Lifetime Achievement Award in children’s literature. He lives with the poet Grace Nichols and family in Sussex; together they received the CLPE Poetry Award 2003 for their children’s anthology Under the Moon and Over the Sea (Walker Books). Border Zone is published in paperback by Bloodaxe Books.
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Author photo: Sara Roque Peres

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