Poetry Reads: When I Dance by James Berry

The second-hand book market in Pune has its share of hidden treasures. All one needs to do is linger in such surroundings, engage in some scouring, back-bending, explore untouched stacks and dusty corners, and who knows what you may come across?
It was on one such lingering expedition that I happened to grab a copy of the (now puzzlingly out of print) James Berry poetry collection – When I Dance
Swinging in Caribbean rhythms of endearing broken, accented English and emanating in addictive visions of Britain’s city interiors, the poems are a celebration of the exuberance, vitality, energy, bruises, dates, bicycle rides, love, toothless grannies and the impossible, innocent fantasies that childhood conjures.


In its congregation of illustrations, meter, rhyme and celebration these are poems that cheerfully exude everything that youth is in its follies and grandeur. Extracts will tell you more, here are scraps from the title poem: 
When I dance it isn’t merely
That music absorbs my shyness 
My laughter settles in my eyes, 
My swings of arms convert my frills 
As timing tunes my feet with floor 
As if I never just looked on 
It is that when I dance 
O music expands my hearing 
And it wants no mathematics, 
It wants no thinking, no speaking, 
It only wants all my feeling
In with animation of place. 

Bear-hug cosiness is apparent in poems such as Seeing Granny. The extract follows: 
Toothless, she kisses
with fleshy lips 
rounded, like mouth
of a bottle, all wet. 
She bruises your face
almost, with two
loving tree-root hands.
Sample this perspective of a father, the criticism is not biting, it is more like a family reaction to overheard adult dialogue. The extract is from the poem Girls Can We Educate We Dads?
Listn the male chauvinist in mi dad —
a girl walkin night street mus be bad. 
He dohn sey, the world’s a free place
for a girl to keep her unmolested space.
Instead he sey — a girl is a girl. 

Finally I conclude with a paragraph that tells of a bubble-making childhood of soap lather dreams from What We Said Sitting Making Fantasies:
I want a talking dog wearing a cap
who can put on gloves 
and go to my mum when I’m playing 
and she wants a job done. 
A winner of the 1989 Signal Poetry Award, When I Dance is a 59-poem gem that is begging for a reissue. Are the people at Puffin Books listening?   

(Article by Snehith Kumbla) 

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