15 July 2016

poetry friday: general prologue, remixed.

When I was thinking through what to share this Friday, I realized that I had several pretty great options. This week I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay's elegant heartbreaker "Spring"—which will definitely come up here again—and Denise Levertov's "The Secret"—which made me cry tears of poetry. But my best discovery was last night, when I came across some work by a poet I'd never heard of: Patience Agbabi. She's a British poet who does among other things lots of spoken word and slam, and her most recent book—2014's Telling Tales—was a contemporary rewrite of The Canterbury Tales.

If you've been reading this blog with any care, you might have picked up that I've been reading Chaucer's original. It was a project for this summer, reading it (them?) aloud with my dad in Middle English. I'd read a few of the tales in English classes, but I wanted the full experience. See, I loved what I'd read of the Tales, and now that I've read more of them I can say even more confidently that I love them with my whole heart, from the Man of Law’s Tale, which I would describe as only moderately racist, to the Squire's Tale which features a robot horse, to the interminable Tale of Melibee, which is short on plot but long on quotations from Ecclesiasticus. It’s also long on feminism, sort of. (“Feminism, sort of”: the Geoffrey Chaucer story.) And we're nearly finished: we're partway through the last Tale, the Parson's, which is a long prose sermon and if I'm honest a bit of a chore.

And so when I came across Agbabi's revision of the General Prologue, I was delighted. It's funny and fast, intricate and reference-dense while also being completely modern, true to Chaucer's chaotic vernacular beauty while still being accessible to people who aren't terrible terrible nerds. You can watch her perform it here—embedding is disabled, but I recommend going over there and checking it out—and below you'll find the text, nabbed from Poetry International Rotterdam. Try reading it out loud to yourself, even, 'cos it's as fun to read aloud as Chaucer is.

I haven't read the book yet, obviously, but I very much want to. Research has also turned up the fact that my main girl Alisoun is reimagined as a Nigerian, Mrs. Alice Ebi Bafa—you can read that here. If you already knew about this and you didn't tell me, you're fired.
When my April showers me with kisses
I could make her my missus or my mistress
but I’m happily hitched—sorry home girls—
said my vows to the sound of the Bow Bells
yet her breath is as fresh as the west wind,
when I breathe her, I know we’re predestined
to make music; my muse, she inspires me,
though my mind’s overtaxed, April fires me,
how she pierces my heart to the fond root
till I bleed sweet cherry blossom en route
to our bliss trip; there’s days she goes off me,
April loves me not; April loves me
with a passion, dear doctor, I’m wordsick
and I got the itch like I’m allergic
but it could be my shirt’s on the cheap side;
serenade overnight with my peeps wide,
nothing like her, liqueur, an elixir,
overproof that she serves as my sick cure,
she’s as strong as a ram, she is Aries,
see my jaw-dropping jeans, she could wear these,
see my jaw dropping neat Anglo-Saxon,
I got ink in my veins more than Caxton
and it flows hand to mouth, here’s a mouthfeast
verbal feats from the streets of the South-East
but my April, she blooms every shire’s end,
fit or vint, rich or skint, she inspires them
from the grime to the clean-cut iambic,
rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam kick
on this Routemaster bus: get cerebral
Tabard Inn to Canterbury Cathedral,
poet pilgrims competing for free picks,
Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix
from below-the-belt base to the topnotch;
I won’t stop all the clocks with a stopwatch
when the tales overrun, run offensive,
or run clean out of steam, they’re authentic
cos we’re keeping it real, reminisce this:
Chaucer's Tales were an unfinished business.
May the best poet lose, as the saying goes.
May the best poet muse be mainstaying those
on the stage, on the page, on their subject:
me and April, we’re The Rhyming Couplet
I’m The Host for tonight, Harry Bailey,
if I’m tongue-tied, April will bail me,
I’m MC but the M is for mistress
when my April shows me what a kiss is . . .
The roundup is here, and here's one of my own Chaucer remixes.