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Poem of the week: Outsider by James Berry


Contending with others' misperceptions and his own isolation, the narrator of these verses reaches a hard-won integration

Outsider, by the Jamaican-born poet James Berry, first appeared in his 1979 debut collection, Fractured Circles. Re-published in A Story I am In: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe 2011), it reads as freshly as if written just the other day. Almost prophetically, it connects with his most recent work, Windrush Songs (2007) – a fine, late collection by a poet now in his 80s, and well-represented by the new book.

Berry emigrated first to the USA in the early 1940s and, later, to Britain. He confronts racial prejudice directly in such poems as In-a Brixtan Markit, a protest against the use of random "Stop and Search" which is illuminatingly read alongside Outsider. He also explores the bittersweet dilemmas of homecoming. Through a vibrant range of voices, settings and moods, over a lifetime's work, Berry has found in poetry, as he says, both "a form of cultural assessment" and a way "to disentangle things and understand them… "

His two languages work together in Outsider, where although standard English predominates, there's a strong, speech-based, minimally punctuated syntax underlying it, with just a hint of the "call and response" structure of oral tradition.

Each stanza addresses the reader directly, always with the same opening phrase in the conditional mood ("If you see me… "). The indicative statements which follow are first negative, denials concerned with correcting misunderstanding ("I'm not… "), and then gently assertive ("It's that… "). The tone is questing and confiding, the structure reassuringly symmetrical. But the descriptive material it brings and holds together is mysterious. Surreal images, or realistic images held in surreal connection, occupy the circles of its narrative. The antitheses presented are not always clear-cut. We sense that, by announcing what he's not, the speaker's aware of exposing further facets of himself.

In the first stanza, his positive qualities, the "dazzle" and "sun-stain of skin", disintegrate in a sophisticated joke against himself (his not-self wittily exposed as a naked figure in shades). The Outsider faces a kind of spiritual drought: "barren ground has no oasis" and he is "cracked up by extremes". In the next stanza, too, the wilderness ("neglected/ woods") is located inside as well as outside. Others ludicrously suspect him of being a thief planning to rob the trees of their "stability". But he admits to being possessed by ungovernable voices, "firmer than skills", and de-humanised by "hurts" which emerge like "wild dogs", angry beyond control. "Stability" in fact would save his life.

Each stanza finds the Outsider "lost" in different locations, perhaps reflecting the different, miserable stages of attempted integration: "busy streets", "neglected woods", "forbidding wastelands", "long footpaths", "sparse room". Except for the first ("busy streets") there's a line-break between adjective and noun, which seems to emphasise the the speaker's isolation and dislocation. Those adjectives cast long shadows. The situations that unfurl in their shade are strange and dreamlike (or nightmarish), yet they seem more than symbolic. Outsiders and immigrants do work where insiders fear to tread. They may literally end up "on forbidding wastelands", "scraping a tunnel/ in mountain rocks".

The short fourth stanza confirms the Outsider's powerlessness. He explains his disconnection to local systems of knowledge and ownership. Instead, he must feel his way like a water diviner, using up nature, exhausting his own resources and those of the trees. This stanza may mark an upward turn, however, in that it brings a non-exploitative access to land and tradition.

After so much restless movement, the "sparse room" of the last stanza seems not only to immobilise and imprison the Outsider but to take him inside himself towards crucial insight. He now knows he needs to be wary of claiming insider knowledge, or making judgments about another society's hypocrisies. Reflected in the complexity of those ideas about prisons and prisoners, this wariness contrasts with the certainty and openness of the last three lines. Their concise and powerful ideogram, the "circle" salvaged from "ruins", represents personal as well as cultural coherence. Stanza by stanza, the poem has enumerated the psychological cost of an exile's self-restoration, working from the external self, and the false, imposed image, to the inner reality, truly communicated. The trajectory as the speaker tries to define what he is and isn't, how he's viewed and how he views himself, gradually forms a coherence built on exchange. Those insiders who were blind to his reality are also salvaged. The circle is re-made.


If you see me lost on busy streets,
my dazzle is sun-stain of skin,
I'm not naked with dark glasses on
saying barren ground has no oasis:
it's that cracked up by extremes
I must hold self
together with extreme pride.

If you see me lost in neglected
woods, I'm no thief eyeing trees
to plunder their stability
or a moaner shouting at air:
it's that voices in me rule
firmer than my skills, and sometimes
among men my stubborn hurts
leave me like wild dogs.

If you see me lost on forbidding
wastelands, watching dry flowers
nod, or scraping a tunnel
in mountain rocks, I don't open
a trail back into time:
it's that a monotony
like the Sahara seals my enchantment.

If you see me lost on long
footpaths, I don't set traps
or map out arable acres:
it's that I must exhaust twigs
like limbs with water divining.

If you see me lost in my sparse
room, I don't ruminate
on prisoners and falsify
their jokes, and go on about
prisons having been perfected
like a common smokescreen of mind:
it's that I moved
my circle from ruins
and I search to remake it whole.

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