A Light Song of Light

A Light Song of Light

by Kei Miller

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Exploring the relationship between poetry and song, the pieces in this collection work to define the elemental human struggles of good versus evil and light against darkness. The poems take different shapes—newly forged dictionary definitions; praise-songs celebrating the Singerman in a Jamaican road gang; and simple narratives of ghosts, bandits, and

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Exploring the relationship between poetry and song, the pieces in this collection work to define the elemental human struggles of good versus evil and light against darkness. The poems take different shapes—newly forged dictionary definitions; praise-songs celebrating the Singerman in a Jamaican road gang; and simple narratives of ghosts, bandits, and other night creatures—and present an accomplished and progressive voice from a new generation of Caribbean writers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A strong new presence in poetry . . . Kei Miller's is a voice we will hear much more of, for it speaks and sings with rare confidence and authority.”  —Lorna Goodison, author, Goldengrove

Product Details

Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

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A Light Song of Light

By Kei Miller

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Kei Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-924-3


Day Time

    Twelve Notes for a Light Song of Light

    i A light song of light is not sung
        in the light; what would be the point?
        A light song of light swells up in dark
        times, in wolf time and knife time,
        in knuckle and blood times; it hums
        a small tune in daytime, but saves
        its full voice for the midnight.

    ii A light song of light spits from its mouth
        the things that occasionally gather:
        the dull taste of morning and cobwebs
        (you would not believe their thickness),
        and the strangest word – caranapa
        so much larger than its letters, a Maroon
        of a word and a word so silent
        it is the opposite of song.

    iii A light song of light occasionally stutters.
        This is par for the course.
        There is no need for concern
        no need for bed-rest or vitamins
        no need to take your song in
        to the song specialist for treatment.

    iv But were you to take your light song in
        for a thorough checking-up, a blood screening,
        you might discover your song has cancer,
        HIV, diabetes, is going blind in its left eye.
        You may not have strength to sing
        your song for this season or the next.
        But a light song of light cannot be
        held back. It cannot wait on health
        or its perfect occasion.

    v A light song of light meditates in the morning,
        does yoga once a week, accepts the law
        of karma. It may not worship in a synagogue
        it may not worship in a balmyard
        but still it believes in a clean heart
        in righteous living and the general
        avoidance of pork. It would like to touch
        your feet, pronounce a blessing
        before you go:
          Jah guide and protect always.

    vi A light song of light will summon daffodils,
        bluebells and strawberries, humming birds;
        will summon silver, the shine of sequins,
        the gold of rings – and the dreadful luminosity
        of everything we had been told to close
        our eyes to (because they had no sharp
        edges, because they could not be wielded
        against our enemies) will be called back into service –
        retired weapons that have no memory of war,
        or that they could fight, or that they could win.

    vii A light song of light is not reggae,
        not calypso, not mento or zouk,
        not a common song from a common island,
        not a song whose trail you have followed for umpteen years,
        a song trembled from the single tooth of
        the Singerman – the Singerman who had beat his tune
        out from a sheet of zinc
        and how it surprised you, the thin bellies
        from which music could be drawn.
        You did not know then that his song came
        at the price of history and cane
        and the terrible breadth of oceans: a price
        which, even now, you cannot fully consider.

    viii A light song of light don't talk
        the way I talk most days.
        To tell the truth I never know at first
        what this country was going do me –
        how I would start hearing myself
        through the ears of others,
        how I would start putting words on a scale
        and exchange the ones I think in
        for the ones I think you will understand,
        till it become natural, this slow careful way
        of talking, this talk like the walk of a man
        who find himself on a street he never born to,
        who trying hard to look like nothing
        not bothering him. And maybe nothing wrong
        with a false talk like that, but that
        is no way to sing.

    ix A light song of light is not understood completely
        not in the moment it is sung
        and maybe not for months after.
        But it sings with a faith common
        in those who never lost their accents
        who talk their talk knowing, tssst
        you may not catch everything but chu –
        you will catch enough.
        And if you don't catch nothing
        then something wrong with your ears –
        they been tuned to de wrong frequency.

    x A light song of light tells knock-knock jokes
        and tells them in order
        to illustrate the most heartbreaking points.
        It is not that the song
        does not know the weight of sadness;
        it is not that the song
        does not take things seriously;
        it is not that the song
        needs to write one hundred times on a chalkboard –
        I will be heavy,
        I will be heavy, I will be heavy, I will be heavy ...

    xi A light song of light is distant cousin
        to songs we sing in bath tubs,
        is related then, by accident, to water
        and to soap and to square white tiles
        that bounce sound one from another,
        is related also to rain and to blankets
        and to the little things we say
        to get us through the hurricane.

  xii A light song of light says thank you
        to the paper it is written on –
        this most solid evidence of its existence
        however thin. Sometimes though,
        a light song of light wishes it were written
        on material even thinner, the shaft of morning
        that slides through a shut window.
        A light song of light believes nothing
        is so substantial as light, and
        that light is unstoppable,
        and that light is all.

    This Zinc Roof

    This rectangle of sea; this portion
    Of ripple; this conductor of midday heat;
    This that the cat steps delicately on;

    This that the poor of the world look up to
    On humid nights, as if it were a crumpled
    Heaven they could be lifted into.

    God's mansion is made of many-coloured zinc,
    Like a balmyard I once went to, Peace
    And Love
written across its breadth.

    This clanging of feet and boots,
    Men running from Babylon whose guns
    Are drawn against the small measure

    Of their lives; this galvanized sheet; this
    Corrugated iron. The road to hell is fenced
    On each side with zinc –

    Just see Dawn Scott's installation,
    A Cultural Object, its circles of zinc
    Like the flight path of johncrows.

    The American penny is made from zinc,
    Coated with copper, but still enough zinc
    That a man who swallowed 425 coins died.

    This that poisons us; this that holds
    Its nails like a crucified Christ, but only
    For a little while. It rises with the hurricane,

    Sails in the wind, a flying guillotine.
    This, a plate for our severed heads;
    This that sprinkles rust

    over our sleep like obeah;
    This that covers us; this that chokes us;
    This, the only roof we could afford.

Some Definitions for Song

for Richard and Natalie

— the speech of birds, as in birdsong, but with exceptions. Pigeons do not sing. Vultures do not sing. A bargain, or a very small sum, as in 'he bought it for a song'. Think what we could purchase with songs, thrown across the counter and landing more softly than coins. Perhaps then, the origin of the expression, to sing for your supper. The troubled sound that escapes from a woman's mouth while she dreams of fire, also any sound that escapes, also anything that escapes; a passage out, the fling up of hands. A prison break is a song. The parting of the Red Sea was a song. In Israel there are many songs, but there should have been six million more. Across the Atlantic, there are many songs, but we needed ten million more. Sòng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was a state during the Eastern Zhou Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC). Its capital was Shangqiu. Anything that climbs is a song; vines are a song; my father, seventy years old, at the top of the ackee tree is a song; all planes are songs. Song was a low-cost airline operated by Delta. Tourists were flown by Song to Florida. Song's last flight was on 30 April 2006. All that pleases the heart. All that pleases the ear. The final measure of joy. When we have lost song, we have lost everything. A common surname in Korea, often transliterated as Soong. What would it mean if your name was Song? Song is the third and final album of Lullaby for the Working Class. It was released 19 October 1999. Songs often refer to songs, as in 'He shall encompass me with a song'; 'Sing unto the Lord a new song'; 'Sing a song of sixpence'. Sing a song. Sing a song.

    Until you too have journeyed

    Until you too have journeyed through caves,
    through miles of damp and bats, the cool
    of all that is not living; until your one torch
    has flickered out and you have found yourself
    in a dark so dark you forget your eyes
    or if they are opened; until you've had to find
    a way, inch by careful inch, stopping to invent
    an arrow out of wind; until you discover
    how the feel and sound of stone or pebble
    can exist without an image, the very thought
    of colour competing for the air; until you too
    have lost the day and the day has lost you
    and it dawns on you, how foolish to have come
    willingly to where the dead are put – until then
    do not scoff at what has become our common
    language for tomorrow and hope, this bright opening,
    this end of dark, this light at the end of the tunnel.

Some Definitions for Light (I)

— [etymology] photo, root word for light, hence photology – the study of light. Photometer – the measurement of light. Photophilia, the love of light; the photophilic are drawn helpless, like sunflowers whose round faces travel across the day like the hand of a clock, like Agatha who insisted on dying even though she was well. Photomania, an obsession with light – in 1974 a man was found sweating in his small room, surrounded by a congregation of lamps, 137 bulbs burning, even during the day he was trying to create. Photophobia, the fear of light. Photophobics hide in shadows; their eyes hurt. The photophobic cannot read this; they are at risk of going blind. Blindness could be called photominimus or photomaximus. It is, at once, the absence and the great excess of light – the belly of a cave and its opening. Photogenic – concerning the basic helix strands of light, and also the ability to birth light. A photographer is one who writes about it; a photograph is writing composed of it – of brilliant, brilliant light. Look. Look closely – this is a photograph.

    If this short poem stretches

    If this short poem stretches beyond
    its first line, then already, already,
    it has failed, become something else,
    something its author did not intend
    for it to become, a misbehaving,
    rambunctious, own-way thing,
    its circuitous journey a secret known
    only to itself, its tongue its own.
    The author is destined, I am afraid,
    to write poems that escape him.
    This, for instance, was to be just one
    line long, or even one long line,
    dedicated to Mervyn Morris and his love
    of brevity, but it has become something else
    entirely. The poem sings its own song,
    reaches its own end in its own time.

    Notice to the Public, Please Observe

    a found poem

    I am available Tuesdays–Thursdays, 10 a.m.
    Tickets will be issued and you will be dealt with
    at that time. After that I am paralyzzz, blinddd
    defff and dummm. If you have a hard luck story,
    don't come. If I don't know you, don't come.
    If my friend is the one who know you, don't come.
    If you need to renew a missing passport
    in a hurry, don't come. If you need to be
    recommended to an embassy, don't come.
    If you need a firearm licence, don't come.
    If you need to bail someone and you don't bring
    a Form 2 from the officer in charge, don't come.
    If you are a soldier or police who feel him is as large
    as the law and bigger than God, don't come.
    If you have things to do that you should do
    and you don't do them yet, don't come.
    If you can read and understand this then
    you won't waste your time and come.

Found on the gate of the residence of a Justice of the Peace, Portmore, Jamaica. March 2009.

Some Definitions for Light (II)

[noun] The lungs of butchered animals are called lights. I have sometimes wondered if they pray – if, before the blade falls, cows and sheep and ducks fill their lungs with the weight of their dying, the nothingness to come, if their final sounds are light calling out to light.

    The Longest Song

John Cage's composition 'As Slow As Possible' began being played in St Burchardi's Church, Germany in 2001 and is scheduled to end in the year 2640.

    The longest song begins like a comma, a rest
    that lasts for eighteen months. Long enough
    that when the first chord is heard, surprising

    as an extinct bird come back to life, many
    cannot stop their tears. And one man
    has told his wife he plans to weep

    until the music has reached its next rest.
    I suspect were we to pilgrim towards this
    hymn, were we to sit in the hard pews

    and only listen, patient through its months
    of silence, our lives would be held
    like a story my father tells me is true:

    a man with a noose round his neck is allowed
    one final song. He stands on the stage
    and with a voice rivalling Franco Corelli, begins

    ten billion green bottles standing on the wall.
    And though this man has never lost count
    of his bottles, all have lost count

    of the years that have passed since,
    the world outside the world of the song.
    A hundred years at least they have stood still:

    a man, his executioner, and the small crowd
    of witnesses, all held as we too could be held
    in a single room, our lives echoing

    beyond their natural years, stretched
    between clef and final fall, crescendo
    and diminuendo, of one incredible song.

    A Short Biography of the Singerman

    The Singerman, born in 1903, has lived
    in Spaulding, in Lime Tree Grove,
    in a village called Rim – wherever
    there were no roads, wherever the hills
    rose up like a flock of green
    parrots, you would find him.
    Singerman, paid half shilling a week,
    dug trenches, filled the pits with mortar
    and bits of broken stone.
    But Singerman's most crucial job
    was to lift up mentos, time chichi-bud-o
    to the swing of a workman's hammer;
    and no one knew if it was the hammer
    or if it was the song
    but no rock was so strong
    to resist the fourth accented beat –
    that huh – in the Singerman's song.


    Avoid the three-lane highways;
    drive on the Singerman's roads.
    Your journey, even when bumpy,
    will be sweet, the ascents lifting you
    as in a chorus, the sharp corners
    turning you like a force of melody.
    There is a back road that sings
    its off-beat way up Stony Hill –
    built of course by the Singerman;
    and the slim road to Mount Pleasant –
    also built by the Singerman;
    and yes, it was the Singerman
    who orchestrated the long road
    to Portland, made it full of waterfalls
    so that a man and his mule
    traversing the miles could forget,
    for a while, the solemnity of their loads.
    Please, when you visit Jamaica, drive
    on the Singerman's roads.

    What Can Be Accommodated

    The Singerman's road can accommodate Benzes
    and bicycles, Hondas and handcarts, your own
    two feet, and the slow, complaining traffic of goats.
    Colour blind cows have even been known
    to read signs by their octagonal shapes
    and stop. All God's creatures are welcome.
    So long as you are heading somewhere,
    the Singerman's road will take you there.

    The Singerman's Papa

    The Singerman's Papa was a Singerman
        He was always a-singing, o-ho
    The Singerman's Papa went to Panama
        He went a-sailing, o-ho

    The Singerman's Papa lost his song
        He went a-searching, o-ho
    Went searching the dust that filled his lungs
        It was lost inside him, o-ho

    The Singerman's Papa died in Panama
        He died a-digging, o-ho
    But his song died long before he did
        It is buried inside him, o-ho.

    The Colour of the Singerman's Songs

    If the Singerman had gone to America
    he woulda sung the blues
    he woulda sung the blues
    with a voice like John the Baptist
    with a tongue covered in sand
    and his blues woulda been that kinda blues
    that is fed on locust and honey,
    blues like a cry that cometh
    from the wilderness, blues
    like the sound of warthogs alarmed at the sky.
    And the Singerman woulda sung it
    from his field in Arkansas, straight
    to Harold Arlen's sitting room
    and Arlen woulda gone to the keys
    to write a song more sad than 'Blues
    in the Night'. But the Singerman did not go
    to America. He stayed right here;
    so bless up to him and his song and all music
    that is sad in its own colour;
    bless up to the notes that fall like flakes
    of rust; bless up to every song that makes
    its own way out of dungle, a path straight through
    ghettoes; bless up to the mento which becomes ska
    which becomes rubadub which becomes legend;
    bless up all the red-gold songs, the weary evening time songs,
    songs given to us by the Singerman.

    In Defence of Obeah

[If there shall be found in the possession of any slave any poisonous drugs, pounded glass, parrots' beaks, or other materials notoriously used in the practice of Obeah or witchcraft, such slave upon conviction, shall be liable to suffer transportation from the island.

Obeah Law, 1816

    was not just cat bones,
    parrot beaks, the teeth
    of alligators some would pat
    our pockets in search of;
    was not just poison brewed with shells;
    was not just a way towards hell;

    was not just a lock-up
    of shadows in bottles
    knowing man will surely dead
    if his most basic shape is no longer
    cast on ground; was not
    just a duppy gather-round;

    was not just a sundown
    of candles, the wicks only
    so long as the life of Massa;
    was not just the slow
    backward recital of verses;
    was not just belly knotting curses;

    it was all of that, but also
    it was an anti-drowning
    and it was all of that, but also
    it was an anti-breaking
    and it was all of that, but also
    it was a knowledge
    and it was all of that
    and all of that
    and it was


Excerpted from A Light Song of Light by Kei Miller. Copyright © 2010 Kei Miller. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Kei Miller is a creative writing instructor and an author. His work has appeared in Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Writer, Obsydian III, and Snow Monkey. He is the author of the award-winning The Fear of Stones and Kingdom of Empty Bellies, The Same Earth, and There is an Anger That Moves. He is the editor of New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology and is a visiting writer at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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