Like an eagle-eyed newspaper sub-editor, Jamaican poet Kei Miller is concerned with nuance, with detail and with linguistic grey areas, and in his latest collection the former Forward Prize winner is constantly probing the subtle ambiguities of words. His new book begins with two quotes. One is from Jamaican blogger Paul Tomlinson, who suggests that if criminals in newspaper reports forever seem to be “escaping in nearby bushes” then the police should “go inna the bush and catch them.” The other is from professor Anthony Harriott, director of the Institute of Criminal Justice and Security at Uwi Manor, Jamaica, who makes a distinction between “in the nearby bushes” and “the nearby bushes.” The former expression, Harriott says, “equals concealment, danger” whereas the latter equals “a place of opportunity to do what one wishes to be hidden from others.” Such wafer-thin distinctions are dotted throughout this collection, sometimes to facilitate a change in direction, sometimes to make a point, sometimes both.
In “Here Where Blossoms the Night,” for example, Miller is trying to convey the sense that language is often an inadequate tool with which to describe his homeland: “Here that cannot be held / by the small arms of language. / Here that cannot be held / by the small arms of English. / Here that cannot be held by the English. / But how they tried!” In just a few short lines, by playing with the various meanings of “small arms” and “held” he vaults nimbly from the limitations of language in general to the limitations of English in particular to the legacy of colonialism – not least its linguistic legacy, which then loops us right back the start of his thought process. This poem, like many others in the book, derives its momentum both from passages of irresistible wordplay like the one above, and from subtle repetitions of words and phrases which give it the otherworldly aura of an incantation.
In Nearby Bushes is divided into three sections. The first, Here, focuses largely on Jamaica – not the white sand beaches of the tourist brochures, but the things tourists don’t typically get to hear about. “Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica?” Miller writes in “The Understory,” a poem at the beginning of the section, “Well here are the stories underneath.”
Among these stories are the secret lives of the island’s gay men, told in staccato bullet points in “Psalm for the Gay Boys,” and the unlikely tale of Jamaica’s now 6,000-strong population of reindeer, descendants of six creatures which were brought to the island for a show in 1988 and which escaped during a storm.
In the collection’s second section, Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places, Miller once again drills down into the meanings of words, excavating the etymology of the West Indies, New Zealand, and the city of Dunedin, with its linguistic links to Edinburgh. And, again, the long shadow of colonialism is never far away. In the poem “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places,” he writes: “New York, as if York was not enough; / New Orleans, As if Orleans was not enough; / New England, as if England was not enough.”
If parts of the collection’s first section looked at “nearby bushes”
as a place of opportunistic concealment, the third and final section, In Nearby Bushes, looks at them exclusively as a place of potential danger. In these poems, the bushes are an ever-present alternative world of threat and violence, into which anyone could be dragged at any time. Miller makes extensive use of Jamaican newspaper reports of people who have been attacked, raped and killed – always “in nearby bushes” – reproducing the same piece of text again and again but with different words highlighted each time, in order to draw out different meanings.
This is a book that offers a wise, colourful and unflinching look at contemporary Jamaica – good and bad – and anyone who loves language will find it utterly intoxicating. Roger Cox
In Nearby Bushes, by Kei Miller, Carcanet, 76pp, £9.99