Rack Press ever impresses – Poetry Review
The consistently reliable Rack PressTimes Literary Supplement
I have come to hope that a Rack Press pamphlet may be a tiny gift-box of unusually good poems – Alison Brackenbury, PN Review
Rack Press has the courage to be brief and elegant – The Rialto

Thursday, 17 July 2008

High Praise for David Wheatley

Writing in the current issue of the Dublin Review of Books, Maria Johnston, in a long evaluative essay on his work, singles out David Wheatley's 2008 Rack Press pamphlet, Lament for Ali Farka Touré, for especial praise:

"Wheatley’s most recent publication, his dazzlingly evocative Lament for Ali Farka Touré, was published by Rack Press in 2008 in a limited edition and it is his most innovative and imaginative publication to date. There is something appropriate about its small-scale publication as a single poem. That it was not made part of a larger collection lends the work a poignant integrity and sets it apart. In this lament for the famous and world-renowned “king of African blues”, Wheatley brings us on a journey through the heartland of Mali, Ali Farka Touré’s landscape, the landscape that is the source of the music itself, as Touré himself made clear in an interview: “Mali is first and foremost a library of the history of African music. It is also the sharing of history, legend, biography of Africa – that’s Mali.” Touré’s final album, Savane, was released posthumously and Wheatley quotes lines from the opening track, “Erdi”,in the penultimate stanza of his poem as a tribute to the never-ending gift of Touré’s music: “First son who has never been matched, thank you for what never ends, yes!” Indeed, Joe Tangari’s description of Savane as an album that “flows like a river, at times, tumultuous, at others placid, but always full of life and movement” and “conjures an elemental thrum” perfectly encapsulates Wheatley’s own “Lament”. Wheatley clearly sought to capture the whole, vast panorama of the landscape of Touré’s music in his poem and the “Lament” opens by invoking the almost mythical creatures of Niger with a touching, and playfully childlike inquiry:

Hippo baby hippo
at the waterhole

where the crocodile’s
narrowed eyes stare

from the pool,
o thirsty hippo

what will you do?

“In my tongue Mali / means “hippo” and Bamako / “place of crocodiles”,” we later learn, and the variety of languages and expressive forms in Mali is emphasised throughout; Touré himself spoke eleven languages. As well as being a figure on the world music stage, best known perhaps for his famous collaboration with Ry Cooder, he was also mayor of his town of Niafunké, and so it is that his spirit embodies both the universal and the local, containing multitudes. Jean-Marie Gibbal, in his 1994 study Genii of the River Niger, writes that in Farka’s copious music “the conversation roams from the most modern sound recording techniques and the process of making a record with a multiple-track mixing board in some faraway European studio to the world of the river”. It is this world of the river that Wheatley is so attentive to, where we find, as Gibbal explains: “the crocodile who ‘only fights with his teeth’ and who’s so sad he could be mistaken for a shangtan; the hippopotamus, who is so heavy he ‘digs tombs’ as he moves over the solid earth”. Moreover, Farka, Touré’s given nickname, means “donkey” and Wheatley’s lament ends appropriately with a man whistling “a tune whose name / means happiness” and “slapping the rump / of the first donkey he passes”. Gibbal’s study provides insight into the significance of these creatures and Touré’s deep connection with the land and the river. As he explains, these animals are associated with the Ghimbala genii or djinn, the spirits of the place whose presence Touré sensed every day as he had been in communion with them from an early age. Touré himself described his heritage as a vital, creative source, “a well that never grows dry”. It was the spirits who led Touré to his music and Wheatley’s “Lament” recounts Touré’s initiation into music through the spirits while also portraying an invigorating, contemporary musical community:

When the child spies a snake
at the edge of the fields

the spirits attack.
Bind him, take him away!

“What is that tune
you are playing, djinn?”

Bassekou sings. “I am
a griot and you must tell me.”

“I call it Ba La Bolo,”
the djinn answers,

“The Branch of the River.”
For a year the boy and the spirits

do battle. He returns
with a tune on his lips:

all praise to Jimbala!
Ancestral and river spirits,

Pepsi and Sicilian-style spirits
join us this evening

where Bassekou sings
Ba La Bolo in Chez Thierry

and we dine on the best
pizza in Bamako.

In this way Touré is a child of the river – he has professed the importance of “roots”, of “home” – while also being a far-sighted, cosmopolitan figure. All is possible for Touré, as his music in its range and breadth of styles testifies to. As Gibbal has recognised, Touré manages in his repertoire to “synthesise the culture of the rock-music generation with the genii culture in which he was raised”. Wheatley’s poem captures something of the whole expansive weave, the richness and complexity of Touré’s landscape, its deep history, culture, languages, religions, mythology, all bound up in Touré’s music, giving a full sense of its very life and breath, its boundless reach. This is a reality, a whole world, that is far from the culture of Western Europe and so it deepens the readers’ understanding of the world and the processes of civilisation:

The Manding empire,
the Songhai empire.

Colonial wars, tribal wars.
Nomad uprisings,

desertification. Abandonment
of migration routes

and slaughter of livestock.

The reader becomes the traveller, journeying through the unknown and down the river Niger in a pirogue. The traveller’s assumptions and ideals are tested at every turn as new sights and sensations present themselves and other perspectives are revealed:

The river rises, sun-baked
and hardened, to give thanks

for itself in the mud
mosque sweating under

its ostrich-egg caps
and awaiting the women

to come sponge it down.
A goat’s capsized reflection

shakes a silent bell
under the tide that rocks

the pirogue. We bring
you millet and salt

from the outlying villages
and desert mines.

The world has opened up in this way, a “capsized reflection”. As the blues maestro himself said in an interview:

For some people, when you say Timbuktu it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world.

“That sense of the genius loci, that phrase, of inhabiting the place, I get a very strong charge out of that I must say,” Wheatley has said, and in his “Lament for Ali Farka Touré” he has carried us to Timbuktu, down the Niger where Touré himself once steered his course, to a place that is both at the end of the world and right at its heart, a place that we didn’t even know truly existed as the quasi-mythical, far-off land of Timbuktu is the stuff of fantasy. August Kleinzahler has described Roy Fisher’s poem “The Thing About Joe Sullivan” as “one of the very few first-rate poems about jazz”. One thinks too of Larkin’s “For Sidney Bechet” as another deserving tribute. Wheatley, in his vibrant, moving paean to Touré’s spirit, has done the same for the African blues musician and there is a palpable warmth throughout this poem that has not been in evidence in Wheatley’s poetry thus far. There is a fresh imaginative engagement at work here and the sense of further possibility thereby seems limitless; it is a poetry that, as it develops and explores, opens up new and larger ways of encountering the world in all its multiplicity, and there’s more, much more, to come.