Monthly Archives: April 2014

Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales, Southwark Cathedral

From the grime to the clean-cut iambic,

Rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam-kick

I went to hear some Chaucer the other week. It was organised by Poet in the City, which puts on a variety of spoken-word events. This one involved a couple of hours listening to extracts of Chaucer in modern and Middle English and then the poets Lavinia Greenlaw and Patience Agbabi reading their adaptations. Hearing the Middle English was a shock to the ear – slightly Scottish, slightly Danish, mildly incomprehensible, you tune in and out of meaning. Lavinia Greenlaw read from her adaptation of fragments of Troilus and Criseyde – a bonus for me, as I’ve never read the poem – but the big draw was Patience Agbabi.

I was at university with Patience a long time ago. Back then she was a relatively shy English undergraduate with a wicked taste in Northern Soul music. Now she’s a fantastically successful performance poet. Her latest project, Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014 – buy it for any English student you know) is a retelling of Chaucer’s masterpiece. The writing is sinuously allusive with a diamond-sharp attention to form and rhythm; each version of the Tales she performed that evening (Prologue, Tale of Melibee, Man of Law’s Tale, the Franklin’s Tale, the Shipman’s Tale, the Prioress’s Tale) was distinctive. She is particularly strong in the different voices she evokes – she didn’t perform The Wife of Bath that evening, but it leaps off the page in the voice of a Nigerian woman, Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa.

patience agbabi

Patience Agbabi

Telling Tales reframes the premise of Chaucer’s work; this isn’t a group of pilgrims on a pilgrimage, but an open mic night at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Each performer is  given his or her own fictional – and very amusing – biography at the back of the book. The outstandingly inventive prologue, which mixes rap and jazz rhythms with high-culture wit, is spoken by the host, Harry ‘Bells’ Bailey. Check this clip for Patience performing her version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U-ozgjZfjQ)

Each of the tales was received rapturously that evening, but the eye-opener for me was ‘Unfinished Business’, a rewriting of the Tale of Melibee, which is about a man who returns home to find that his house has been invaded, his wife attacked and his daughter probably dead. Most of the original is a long and very dry disquisition on whether to avenge violence with more violence. Patience’s take on it is considerably more succinct than Chaucer’s, and rather than replaying the formal debate, focuses on the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event.

It starts off with a quote from Jonathan Nolan saying that at a distance, cowardice and forgiveness can look like the same thing. This idea of holding two differently-inflected versions of the same episode plays out in her version of the tale, a piece of formal virtuosity. As Patience spoke, the repeated phrases initially seemed incantatory; then, the audience realised that the lines were spooling backwards and the meaning was doubling up on itself, and in doing so, shifting perspective. Absolutely dazzling. Or, as my teenage daughter whispered to me, “That was sick.”

 

UNFINISHED BUSINESS 

Conveniently, cowardice and forgiveness look identical at a certain distance. Time steals your nerve.

Jonathan Nolan, Memento Mori

 

That night, it rained so hard

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade,

spewing up so much low life.

It’s a week since they beat up my wife,

put five holes in my daughter. I know who they are.

I know why. I’m three shots away from the parked car

in a blacked-out car park. My wife cries,

Revenge too sweet attracts flies.

Even blushed with bruises she looks good. She’s lying

on the bed, next to me. Honey, I’m fine.

Tonight I caught her, hands clasped, kneeling,

still from a crime scene.

I didn’t bring my wife to Gravesend for this.

What stops me, cowardice?

None of them, even Joe, has the right to live.

How can I forgive?

 

How can I forgive

none of them? Even Joe has the right to live.

What stops me, cowardice?

I didn’t bring my wife to Gravesend for this

still from a crime scene.

Tonight I caught her, hands clasped, kneeling

on the bed next to me. Honey, I’m fine.

Even blushed with bruises she looks good. She’s lying.

Revenge too sweet attracts flies

in a blacked-out car park. My wife cries.

I know why. I’m three shots away from the parked car

put five holes in my daughter. I know who they are.

It’s a week since they beat up my wife,

spewing up so much low life

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade

that night, it rained so hard.

© 2011, Patience Agbabi

From: Poetry Review, 101:4, Winter, 2011/

From http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/23549/auto/UNFINISHED-BUSINESS

 

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