poetics as sweet as saltfish

October 2022

David Bradford, Dream of No One but Myself (Kingston: Brick, 2021); 112 pages; ISBN: 978-1771315609 (paperback)

Marvin Thompson, Road Trip (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2020); 68 pages; ISBN: 978-1845234607 (paperback)

To read David Bradford’s Dream of No One but Myself and Marvin Thompson’s Road Trip together means being ushered into a world of disorienting incantations, carefully curated exhibitions of haunted and haunting personas, fragmented memory, and enthralling—though challenging—formal innovations. Both poets emerge from different nodes in the Black Atlantic, and their poetry expands and frustrates several questions central to Black diasporic life: primarily, what can Blackness—perpetually indexed as a site of historical trauma and the fatalistic tragedy of modernity—make im/possible when structured as a personal and collective inheritance? Thompson, a poet and secondary schoolteacher born to Jamaican parents, animates this question from empire—specifically, Wales—where his Blackness is a novelty, though it is the very quality that makes empire possible. Conversely, Bradford, a poet and editor based in Montréal, reminds us of Canada’s importance as a site of fraught intimacies. Both collections offer urgent contemporaneously resonant interrogations of Black masculinities, fatherhood, gender-based violence, mixed race subjectivities, childhood, and intergenerational inheritances that allow readers to sit with, and find complicity in, troubling and disenchanting honesties regarding the failures of language, the discomforting politics of imagination, and anguished relationalities.

Thompson’s Road Trip is populated by imagined personas. Even when moments seem autobiographical, they are upended by the fantastical magic-realist images, moments that implicate you as the reader in their ethical queries. Across all four sections are poetic sequences that provide glimpses into the imagined life of Thompson’s father, Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson, a British Army veteran; fictionalized versions of Thompson and his children; a man struggling to hold himself accountable for a sexual assault; and other figures whose voices form gripping narratives of modern Black British life. Traversing various temporalities, Thompson asserts a self-conscious voice through intertextual references and allusions to popular culture. The opening reference to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) signals to readers that “The Many Incarnations of Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson”—a long poem wherein a fictional version of the poet’s father signals the exploits of the British Empire—should be read considering Rushdie’s magic-realist influence. The poem raises ethical questions about the nature of complicity among colonial subjects as Thompson probes his family history alongside British imperialism, questioning how he can reconcile his “Black dad [who followed] / the British military’s / bloodiest orders / with a stiff mouth” (14) with his “version of him” (22).

In the section “The One in Which . . . ,” Thompson alludes to the episode titles of the television series Friends, all of which begin with the phrase “The One.” His reasoning behind this allusion is not overt, outside of the poems themselves being signaled as episodic. Indeed, the four poems are vignettes fictionalizing Thompson’s children and the persona’s uncertainty about what cultural inheritances he owes his mixed race children. In “The one in which my children discuss jazz while we set out to watch The Lego Batman Movie in Blackwood,” the persona marvels at his children listening to “Joe Harriot’s abstract jazz” and the fact that his “Mixed Race children are listening / to something [he] want[s] them to love” (27). This rhetorical “want[s] them to love” is curious and self-conscious, as in the line that follows, in which the persona interrogates his own motivations for familiarizing his children with Black aesthetics: “they haven’t asked to learn a history of defiance / or the blues’ dark beauty. Is this upbringing // or brainwashing?” (27).

Road Trip is riddled with disquieting moments of the persona questioning his disappointment that his children cannot be Black in the same way he is. This self-interrogation is revealing, since it problematizes the poet’s unconscious assertion that to be familiar with Black aesthetics is to legitimize oneself as Black. These moments reflect a difficult reality the persona struggles to accept—namely, that his children’s relationship with race will differ from his, and that their mixed race subjectivities do not constitute a disavowal of Blackness. Ironically, despite the early self-asserted posturing (and gatekeeping) of Blackness, later poems reveal a more complicated relationship with race and cultural inheritance for the persona himself:

my confusion:

born in London,
was I English

like school’s
niggers out  

Did my parents 

make me Jamaican?
Or was I, 

by ancestry,

(“Cwmcarn,” 35–36)

These self-interrogations reveal how Blackness is mutable, even as it is often essentialized and made subject to exclusionary politics targeting mixed race people.

The dramatic monologues comprising the remainder of the collection are formally enticing, as evinced in the thoughtful caesura and enjambment in the six-part “Rochelle”; the well-crafted revelatory sonnets and innovative rhymes in the seven-part “An Interview with Comedy Genius Oliver Welsh”; and the subtle narrative development in the three-part “The Baboon Chronicles.” However, despite the formal achievement of these long poems, they do not prove to be as engaging in content when compared with other poems in the collection. The most shocking and ethically questionable poem in Road Trip is undoubtedly the two-part prose-poem “The Weight of the Night.” The first part, “After the Stag Do,” focuses on an unnamed man’s admission to his fiancé that he raped his ex-girlfriend, or as he phrases it, “had sex without proper consent.’” His fiancé, Lisa, closes the poem with a demand: “‘Message her. I need to know that she forgives you’” (47).

This poem is distressing in how it implicates the reader as witness to this casual admission of rape. Moreover, the use of the second person throughout both parts of the poem—such as “‘I did something bad,’ you tell Lisa” (47)—is troubling because one can read it as Thompson’s attempt to de-center the man’s voice in this narrative. However, the extent to which that de-centering is successful is questionable, since the second-person perspective nonetheless focalizes the man and invites the reader to, if not sympathize with him, at the very least consider his redeeming qualities. In the second part, “Pendine Beach,” the male persona reaches out to his victim, Sara, who declares, “‘Do you know what I see when I look at our old selfies? Me with a rapist.’” Sara demands that he “walk into the nearest police station and confess”: “‘Go to the police or I will’” (48). The poem raises an ethical question—namely, can Black men truly be held accountable for their harmful and violent actions in a carceral system that is inherently anti-Black? But despite the posing of this question—one crucial to the imagining of abolitionist futures—the poem does not fully account for the women’s trauma and experiences, since it prioritizes the man’s affective state over those of his victim and fiancé.

As a negotiation of modern Black British cultural dis/inheritances and subjectivities, Road Trip, though imperfect in its implications, is fascinating. Thompson is a poet of promise whose questioning poetics has the potential to refine the important questions facing Black diasporic peoples. Throughout Road Trip, drizzle is a recurring motif, and though its meaning is never fully explicated, I consider it a resonant metaphor for Thompson’s writing of Black British life as muddled, and perpetually inclement. While Thompson’s poetics dampens the solidity of reality and surfaces the unexpected, David Bradford’s poetics is committed to confronting and precipitating erasure. Across prose-, visual, and erasure poems; collaged family photos; and narrative, confessional, and lyric poems, Dream of No One but Myself offers a challenging yet engrossing assemblage of frustrated inquiries into childhood trauma, mixed race subjectivity, and fraught relationality.

Many of Bradford’s poems detail his father’s abuse in the form of erasure, a formal attempt to demonstrate the impossibility of fully exorcizing past trauma, showing all that lingers—the language that can never recuperate or bring about healing—even when one has learned to cope with traumatic inheritances. In the earliest erasure, Bradford “writes-through” recollections of the abuse inflicted on him by his father, whom the poet refers to only as “him,” a distant disassociated figure.1 Sometimes Bradford complicates this image of his father’s abuse through footnotes, not to redeem him but to suggest the tragic irony of intergenerational trauma: “The man who cried at The Cider House Rules. And Hook. The crook in his voice” (“The Choosing,” 13n2). The poet’s tone is far more a melancholic mourning of what abuse has brought to his family than a righteous indictment of the abuse itself. In many poems, the visual spacing between words—either automatically created by justified margins, or intentionally measured and placed—intimates breathing, the poet pacing himself in his gestures of empathy toward his father.

As the persona witnesses his mother’s abuse at the hand of his father, he further mourns moments from childhood in a matter-of-fact tone: “My father, his poor choices, her straining stuckness. And his son . . . now on the other side of the table with a triple-hitting bat. And stopping him” (“Lifted,” 36).2 This diction holds his father accountable (“his poor choices”), yet still gives room to consider how his father becomes abusive. Elsewhere Bradford provides a generous and nuanced cognition of trauma while offering an inventory of the father’s own experiences of abuse by the persona’s paternal grandmother:

One   way  to   think   of
my   father’s  mother  is
she  made what we  got. 

              . . .    lined   up
a cotton-hot iron to heat
the bedroom  doorknob,

  . . .  locking    him    on
the   other   side  . . . 

Or     just     beat     him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I      saw      the     scars

(“The Sandwich,” 61)

The line “I saw the scars” furthers our understanding of Bradford’s witnessing poetics. He endures not only his own abuse and the witnessing of his mother’s but also a childhood marked by a witnessing of the physical memorial of his father’s abuse; in fact, at another moment in the collection, he refers to himself as “The abused son of the abused father” (“Attention,” 91). In “The Sight” he describes his father as “[t]he kind of man who talks every other man on the street into building our deck: A man beloved, at least for a while, by everybody. But always the few good breaths away from showing himself. . . . [S]o charming that no one would ever believe either of us. The wispy mother and son. // Until they saw it” (51). The poet inhabits the position of outsider bystander to his and his mother’s abuse and in turn implicates readers, asking us to consider, What abuses do we tend to overlook?

Bradford’s relationship with his father is characterized not only by physical abuse but also by emotional abuse that centers on masculinity and race. He recollects his father’s condescension toward his masculinity:

You  can  walk  like  a  nigga  all
you   want,  he’d   say,  but   you
ain’t   talking   like   one. . . . . . . 

(“The Sight,” 52)

This questioning of the son’s masculinity is also doubly a critique of the boy’s relationship to Blackness as a mixed race person. Bradford conveys the questioning he endured as a child, questions that scrutinized his physical features for signs of monoracial coherence: “Always asking her whose child I was. . . . Even amidst the many, many shopkeepers and their unabashed marvelling. Such a loaf-golden boy. Such a freckled, hook-nosed white woman. Whose I was. No matter what. Her very own” (“Strangers,” 71; italics in original). His assertion of being “her very own” is not a disavowal of his Blackness; rather, it is an invitation to readers to consider the interrogative violences faced by mixed race people. Even so, amid the collection’s atmosphere of trauma, there are glimpses of endurance, intimacy, and survival, of a mother who loves her child and a son grateful for being loved. The final poem, “Cute Bear,” responds to a photo of Bradford as a baby with his mother, a photo that depicts, at last, an intimate respite from all that is yet to be faced by them both:

Your thumb on my lip
      so done with me
            for the night

      and sweet as salt fish (108)

Ultimately, both collections leave readers with longings for a different world, one wherein accountability need not disregard relationality but rather engender an aspiration for a sociality made to measure more than what we can currently imagine.


Cornel Bogle is a scholar of Black, Caribbean, and Canadian literatures and is Sessional Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities at York University. His scholarship has been published in Canadian Literature, Studies in Canadian Literature, and Topia, and his poetry has appeared in Pree, Moko, and Arc Poetry Magazine.

[1] Typically, erasure poetry obscures a large portion of a text. However, Bradford’s source text—his own reflections—remains visible, albeit slightly faded. I employ Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s term “writing-through” to describe this form of erasure. See Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, introduction to “Jen Bervin, from Nets,” in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 110.

[2] In the original, the section quoted here appears as regular text within “erased” (but visible) text; we have rendered this as bold text within roman.


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