Poetry as an expression of life

Tarnish, a book of poetry written by Roger Anthony Bonair-Agard, is a rich, lyrical mastery of how his migration from Trinidad to the United States has shaped him and his life experiences.

In addition to the printed book, there is a recorded version with Agard reading his poetry to background music and sounds.

The book is specific to his life and his relationship to calypso and Carnival, and the audience cannot help but feel the energy and excitement in his expression. It is divided into five sections, like a traditional tragedy, with 32 poems in total. These poems are hauntingly personal, using metaphors and repetition to create images in Trinidad, Brooklyn, Washington Heights, and Texas. His memories in each place are further communicated in his lack of punctuation throughout the book, displaying how his experiences in each place flow together, inviting us into his mind, where his own thoughts don’t seem to have a beginning, middle, or end.

Some of his poems recall his youth, times when he was surrounded by friends, always trying to impress whomever with whatever. He introduces nature as a subject, exploring the weather and his environment with rain sounds on the second track that first introduces how he stimulates all the senses in his poems. This book is about Agard’s life, transitioning from boy to man, from his original home to his new one, and growing, learning, and teaching along the way. With a fertile and lush account, Agard allows us to see who and what he is through his commanding performance of personal poems revolving around contemporary culture and life.

“Bullet points” is the first mention of a recurring theme throughout the piece — “A is for Africa, B is for Black, C is for Culture and that’s where it’s at.” Beginning with such a rudimentary concept as the alphabet, it illustrates the fundamental lessons he learned from his mother and grandmother, who provided him not only with their perspectives and perceptions, but an anchor on which to reference the rest of his life. From them, he learned quickly about resistance and revolution, discussing contemporary events and changing times communicated through tales of exploitation, celebrities, and the nuances of the news. After immigrating to America, he continues his bold criticism of familial and societal injustices, all spoken on the recording to the backbeat of a steel drum.

“Bird Watching” describes a literal scene of a drunk pilot flying a crop duster over fields where families of Mexican pickers work and have only “30 seconds to get to the huts.” This poem is spoken over a haunting backbeat, a tune of constant trepidation, matching the apprehension the pickers must have throughout the day, always on edge, keeping eyes toward the sky, ready to run from the plane. He speaks in Spanish throughout, translating the words of the workers to illuminate the dynamics and duties within this crop community, which gives a voice to intricate characters. This shows readers what some people are subject to in certain parts of America working to carve out a better life for themselves, and still ending up suppressed in a new way.

“The sadness of migration” has the calmest tone on the recording. His tone of resignation and complacency is a melancholy mix of memories of his old home, as well as adjusting and assimilating to this new place. He does an excellent job of describing how the rift is growing between himself and his culture, between this new place and “everything he holds dear.” His helpless tone further illustrates how he cannot grab and hold onto those memories any tighter if he were to have one more photograph, or letter, or poem about home. As this transition matures, the poem explores a longing for home that might never leave him.

“Blue Sex Prodigy” is a poem about lust. In describing his prowess in bed, he states he is more than capable and competent, purely “talented” as a means to communicate the passion and desire present in these intimate moments with a woman who can feel him at her feet and mouth simultaneously. The drumbeat behind the poem in addition to the gentle chimes are reminiscent of actual intercourse. He describes other objects that are blue, indigo, night, sea, and sky, comparing himself to such enormous things that could suggest something about his “growing ... compass to immortality.” The rapture this revolving art reflects, in the rhyme scheme in stanzas that create a scene for the reader, not only lauds the woman he shares his bed with, but also describes what he can do to her and the feelings he can elicit while “his seventh tongue [is] humming.”