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Susan’s Bookshelves: Border Zone by John Agard

Of course I’ve read the occasional John Agard poem in anthologies. And one of the schools I taught in invited Grace Nichols for an author visit so I knew they were a couple: a pair of poets as it were. And I read some of her work at that time. But I had never read him seriously until his latest collection Border Zone was sent me recently by one of the magazines I review for. So this book, which I read with a lot of pleasure, is a fairly new arrival on my bookshelves.

Agard grew up in Guyana and arrived in Britain in the 1970s. He is witty, lyrical, insouciant, sometimes a bit rude and good at satire, especially about immigration.

He writes, as you would expect, in a wide range of poetic forms because he’s a fine technician.  Quizzical poems, including one purporting to be written by a potato and another by ice, sit alongside moving tributes to poet Derek Walcott and to Agard’s old English teacher back in Guyana

I giggled my way though Bowdlerising the Bard which begins: “To delete or not to delete/ that is the delicate question /But even the Bard of Avon,/We daresay can be improved on./However timeless his timely lines./I, Thomas Bowdler, and my dear sister,/ will attempt to make them more refined.”

Best of all, though are poetry sequences which begin and end this volume. The book opens with an 86 stanza (seven lines in each) narrative poem about Victor, a Windrush generation man who eventually finds love in Britain. It ends with a 40 sonnet sequence presented as Casanova’s autobiography – another immigrant and the narrator is shamelessly honest so it’s often funny.

Like all poetry Agard’s work warrants reading more than once in order to absorb the finer points and enjoy the neatness and cleverness of his technique. Nonetheless it’s pretty accessible stuff with lots and lots of talking points for, say,  a book group or an A level English class. I’d have a lot of fun sharing this if I were still teaching. How about Three Siblings of the Word which begins: “Meet three siblings of the Word,/the Bronte lasses whose quills ventured/upwards from the blank of a page/yet rooted to a hill top parsonage/among those moors which beckon surrender.” Or from Meeting Old Father Thames: “Welcome to my well-trod guide book towpath /Enjoy my shores, stranger, whoever you be. / But pray, tell me, have you travelled from afar/ just to take that selfie standing here beside me?”

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Lily by Rose Tremain


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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