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The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English.

The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English. By JAHAN RAMAZANI. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 2001. x + 223 pp. $17.50; 11.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN: 0-226-70343-6.

Jahan Ramazani asks at the beginning of The Hybrid Muse why postcolonial poetry is so much less visible than fiction or drama. This is a pertinent question, puzzling to anyone who reads, and perhaps teaches, the dazzling range of poetry in English that engages with the complex legacy of colonialism. Ramazani gestures towards the spectrum of choice of writers, and then narrows his study to the work of five poets, from Ireland, St Lucia, India, Jamaica, and Uganda. A comparative focus can blur the political particularity of a poet's work but Ramazani's subtly nuanced readings always prioritize the poet's location in time and place. This was a book that cried out to be written, and Ramazani meets the need with acuity and imagination.

Political and cultural specificity are constantly related to aesthetic innovation in Ramazani's analysis. In the chapter on Walcott's Omeros he focuses on what Walcott describes in 'The Schooner, Flight' as 'the pain of history words contain' by considering, with a developing density of allusion, the wound inflicted on the victims of suffering and cruelty which is inseparable from the damage experienced by the victimizer. The discussion of Okot p'Bitek's poetry centres on anthropology, and the destabilizing ambivalences of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. Lawino both ethnographically constructs her culture and mocks not only the discourse of western anthropology but also of the missionary project, with its inept translation and insistence on monotheism. The poems are read as part of the Acoli and of the western world, in that there is always a comparative trajectory; they are both dramatic monologues and part of an oral tradition.

The choice of the other two poets is particularly interesting. Louise Bennett is celebrated in Jamaica but, perhaps because she writes in what Kamau Brathwaite calls nation language, her work has had little recognition outside the West Indies. Ramazani theorizes her distinctive position by seeing it as the poetics of Anancy, the African trickster figure who is reconfigured in diasporic subversions of colonial and neo-colonial power. The verbal dexterity of Bennett's irony is investigated, exploding the myth that 'dialect' poetry is a naive form, and revealing the slippery wit of the poems in which no one is sure of immunity from attack. Ramuzani makes a persuasive case for reading the poetry of A. K. Ramanujan, whose work is less well known than that of the other poets studied, by concentrating on his use of metaphor as crucial to postcoloniality: '"The meeting of two distant realities" is how one poet, as if writing about the postcolonial experience, describes the foundation of metaphor' (p. 74). Ramanujan investigates the hazards as well as the revelations of metaphor; gaps in time and place can be too easily erased by persuasive comparisons.

One such leap, though it does not involve metaphor, seems to this reader the inclusion of Yeats as a postcolonial poet. The chapter on his work refers as much to his essays as to his poetry, and focuses too much on the justifications for including him. The other poets whose work is addressed in the book all come from cultures in which a missionary insistence on the superiority of monotheism came abrasively into conflict with radically different conceptions of religion, as the revealing account in the book of the Acoli encounter with Christianity shows. The attempt to equate this in some way with Irish experience seems misplaced. It is also a pity that such a scholarly and well-researched study includes no bibliography.

This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of postcolonial poetry. A comparable volume focusing on the work of younger authors, and possibly on poets for whom postcoloniality is an aspiration, such as Aboriginal Australian writers, would be welcome, especially if Jahan Ramazani were to undertake it.


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Author:Smith, Angela
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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