Rain Dance: Black British Poetry of Weather and Seasons

Today in Newcastle, a cloud has come to call—which I much prefer to yesterday, when I had to peel my clothes off when I came in from the rain, they were so wet. It got me thinking about how easy it is now to find out the weather anywhere in the world (in Buffalo, where I normally live, summer has already arrived, or so my phone tells me). This has not always been the case and I wonder if the focus on the weather now and everywhere (this hour, this day, this city, your time zone, your location) will change the way we generalize, and nationalize, things like weather, climate, and seasons. Many children in the former British colonies received a very British education, and this included reading poetry of the seasons and weather—not of their own homeland, but of England. The most often-cited poem that people who grew up before the 1970s recall is Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”. The poem highlighted two gaps between English and Caribbean/African schoolchildren: most obviously the yellow flowers, quite common to an English (and European and North American) spring but unknown in more tropical climates; but also the entire concept of spring. The Caribbean (and many other parts of the world) has two seasons, not four: rainy and dry.

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The world is sweet and made sweeter by icing sugar frost.

Black British poets, especially those born in the Caribbean who received a colonial education, have an interesting take on the weather and seasons because of this. Sometimes they hone in on a particular feature of British weather, as Valerie Bloom does in the poem “Frost” from The World is Sweet (Bloomsbury 2000). The two faces of frost have been most famously described in James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” a poem about the joys of autumn in North America and in Christina Rossetti’s nativity poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which describes a very non-Bethlehem climate where “frosty wind made moan/ Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”. Frost can also appear in the spring, as anyone in the north of England (or the northern part of the US and Canada) can tell you, but only Bloom’s frost poem can serve any season of frost. She describes frost as being distributed, not by the mischievous figure Jack Frost (an Anglo-Saxon or possibly Norse creation), but by a giant spilling icing sugar on the ground. The poem, perhaps surprisingly, does not dwell on the coldness of frost; instead, it links to a different one of the five senses, concluding, “in the morning when we woke, the world around was sweet” (3).

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From half-caste to overcast, British weather can sometimes dominate the lives of Caribbean-born poets.

John Agard, in his poem “Half-Caste” also uses the weather in an unusual way—to talk about racist terminology. The phrase Half-Caste is used, not to describe a person, but to describe the way (among other things) “light an shadow/ mix in de sky”; Agard goes on to point out that “england weather/ nearly always half-caste/ in fact some o dem cloud/ half-caste till dem overcast”. Agard uses the constantly shifting English weather (weather reports in the country tend to forecast “rain with some showery spells then sun with a freshening breeze”) to reclaim and revision the meaning of a perjorative term (or at least to reclaim and revision the people to whom that term refers).

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Into even Caribbean lives, some rain must fall!

It is the rain, however, that got me thinking about this blog in the first place, as I just received John Lyons’ Dancing in the Rain from Peepal Tree Press. When I heard about this collection from the Trinidad-born, Ely-based poet, which has just been shortlisted for the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), I was interested to see how the poems would be framed. The judges described the book as a “breath of fresh air” and I wondered if that meant that all the poems would be about the poet’s Trinidadian childhood (as the Guardian article, http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/gallery/2016/may/12/clpe-childrens-poetry-award-shortlist-2016, suggested it might). Many of the poems, including the title poem, are set in the Caribbean, but some of them seem to be from the perspective of Lyons’ Black British grandchildren. It is interesting to contrast the two weather poems in the collection, because they point out the differences in perception of the Caribbean that return to some similar issues to those raised by Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”. The poem set in the Caribbean, “Dancing in the Rain,” celebrates the very weather that the poem set in England, “Monica’s Winter,” denies for the Caribbean. The North American and European image of the Caribbean is of islands forever sunny, but anyone who has ever been to, say, Trinidad in October—or even anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of crop production—would know that you can’t have a lush tropical island without rain. Like Valerie Bloom’s description of frost as something sweet, Lyons’ description of rain is celebratory: “squealing, we pull off clothes;/ and there we are again;/ we love dancing in the rain” (11). But in the poem, “Monica’s Winter,” it is clear that believing in the eternal sun of the Caribbean is a British, and not just a white person, fault. The speaker of the poem begs for the sun’s return in the middle of England’s winter, asking the sun “Please don’t stay in the Caribbean/ where Grandad comes from” (36).

Climate change, which seems in British Caribbean poetry to be often mixed up with the migration of people, suggests one final poem. Though not originally written for children, Grace Nichols’ “Hurricane hits England” is now on the GCSE poetry list, and there are dozens of websites and worksheets to help teachers introduce it to students. It was written in response to Nichols’ experience of a real (and highly unusual) hurricane on the English coast in 1987, but like other poems I write about here, it explores themes of migration. For me, the most powerful lines have the speaker asking why the hurricane has come: “What is the meaning/ Of old tongues/ Reaping havoc/ In new places?” And, I would add, will we ever understand that meaning if we just check our phones and stay inside, rather than dancing in the rain?

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