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Karaoke King

Dai George
ISBN-13: 
9781781726280
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 21, 2021
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£9.99

This confident second collection by Dai George addresses the contentious nature of the times. Always deeply thoughtful but also alternately ebullient, angry, curious, ashamed, the poet moves through urban and digital spaces feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. As with the Auden of the inter-war period, there is a feeling of history shifting, as a younger generation confronts its ethical obligations, its sense of complicity and disappointment. Ecological crisis hovers in the background, glimpsed in the ‘Fooled Evening’ of a world whose seasonal rhythms have fallen out of joint. Karaoke King also contains numerous reflections on popular culture, culminating in ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, a sequence at the heart of the volume speaking to urgent contemporary questions of ownership and privilege, pain and celebration. 
 
“Dai George's verse is marvelously restive: one poem, mentioning ‘a split and democratic sky’, returns to the important word to harry and query it: “I mean democratic / as an argument that neither side can win.” These poems, many about music, are both thoughtful and melodic: George's ear is precise, rueful, sanative. His images can amaze, yet through each poem journeys a voice we always want to know better, capable even in the tightest situations of the sort of thought you wish you’d had.” – Vidyan Ravinthiran
 
“Against a background of ominously skewed weather, these poems search out ‘the structure of the new sky’, asking insistent questions of the world in all its unpredictability. Always sharp-eared, with a soundtrack that ranges from reggae to the most ephemeral jingle, they bring a sparkling attention to dailiness while sounding out a politics entwined with love, hope and subtle humour.” – Zoë Skoulding
 
“Dai George writes with a syntactical and lexical precision that is staggering. On this second collection he turns his hand to uncovering the minutiae of being in the world; noticing the passage of time; chronicling the sweeps and turns of the political climate; attending to the intimacies of shared experience. In his 'History of Jamaican Music', George adds in poetry to what Carolyn Cooper and David Katz have advanced in prose: extending a conversation on the singular contribution of a small Caribbean island to global music culture.”
 – Kayo Chingonyi

REVIEWS

Review by Isobel Roach, Wales Arts Review

Monday, September 20, 2021

'A millennial-focused poetry collection which traverses the personal and the political.'

In a claustrophobic forest brimming with anxiety and self-reflection, a young boy ‘whose dream last night was of a concert / and his frozen voice’ finds himself at a crossroads. So begins Dai George’s second collection, Karaoke King; a lyrical exploration of all things millennial, at turns tragic and triumphant but always intensely readable. Its opening poem, ‘Doxology’, acts as an overture of sorts, providing a grim and enticing glimpse into the poet’s troubled — yet ultimately hopeful — mind. It’s clear from the get go that this is an incredibly timely collection. George is effortlessly quotable, warning his readers of a ‘split and democratic sky […] “democratic” / as an argument neither side can win’.

George’s intentions in Karaoke King lie in the complicated intersection of what is political and personal. Like many others of his generation, George finds himself compelled to look within in an effort to improve and understand the world outside — both natural and material. The collection’s politics begins with a discerning autobiographical focus, particularly palpable in its climactic poetic sequence, ‘A History of Jamaican Music’. Sonically and rhythmically exciting, the poems in this sequence show George at his very best as he navigates his own white privilege as a lifelong fan of reggae. A love affair with Jamaican music comes face to face with the author’s whiteness in an exploration of conscience (‘History entrenches, like a garrison, round the speaker, / and never with its lines straight, or its ethics’). This poetic soul-searching extends to masculinity and the treatment of women (turn to ‘Real Rain’ for a scathing take-down of misogyny) and pays special attention to the climate crisis. Nature permeates the poems of Karaoke King, creeping into the indoor realm and acting as a fatal, prophetic symbol of the world to come; ‘My anger may never meet the air / but lies in wait, flesh under wax / in fruit that’s yet to perish, or to sell’.

A relationship with space and place is at the heart of George’s work. As a Cardiff-born poet, his writing sketches out an intimate portrait of the urban South Wales landscape from his youth. Just as important as the physical architecture of his birth city are the faces, voices, and personalities of family and friends that breathe life into memory. Particularly touching is ‘Shopping with Mam’ — a beautiful coming together of mundane and biblical acts of love in a Cardiff shopping centre. 

Sharing a title with the collection, ‘Karaoke King’ is a stand-out poem — an explosion of musical and literary intertextuality relaid by a speaker that is both tragic and comic in his drunken state. George brings the high art of Wales’ poetic past to the mundane setting of a bar, interjecting his observations with a lyric from the nineteenth-century Welsh song ‘Myfanwy’. The song’s eponymous heroine appears as a background character who ‘staggers to her station […] beneath the gin’ as the Karaoke King ‘brings the house down to an empty bar’. This is a brief and passionate catharsis, an articulation of the speaker’s anxiety that goes unheard by his contemporaries, but is instead understood and accompanied by a ghostly ‘toxic male voice pageant […] belting out unchappelled hymns’. George’s finale to this poem incorporates lines from Dylan Thomas and the Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt, reworked into a twenty-first-century setting as he calls back to those who came before him.

‘Karaoke King’ is an exciting read — the cherry on top of an already powerful collection that speaks to all disenfranchised but resiliently hopeful millennials, as well as young people carving out an identity for themselves in a brave new world. The poems of Karaoke King serve as a reminder that there is goodness to be found in the aftermath of disappointment. As George writes in the final poem of the collection, one day ‘the door will open to a different garden’.

Review by Kate Ashton, London Grip Poetry Review

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Anyone else who failed to follow up on a sometime passion for Bob Marley should get tuned back in to reggae, starting with Gregory Isaacs whose vocal tone has been somewhere described as one of ‘pained purity’. Dai George is a fan. He must have a good ear for a sibling soul.

The poems of George’s new collection, Karaoke King, are nothing less than transcendent. No tricksy stuff here. Just lucidity and formal grace; the words and the music. Their ability to move us to tears, to laughter, or contemplation of the mess we make of the world, and its extraordinary capacity for forgiveness, offering fresh opportunities for redemption.

Permeating the work is a profound preoccupation with love, embracing all colours, persuasions and proximities and patterned on the sacred. Extending from this is an exploration of lack, exile and exclusion: the plight of the outsider. And then comes the narrative of learning love, the trajectory from childhood towards some level of maturity… ‘when the Buldingsroman flops/exhausted on the other side of innocence’ (“Party Time”).

The opening poem of the book’s first section, “Doxology”, modelled on a prayer of thanks, describes the healing response to natural beauty constantly impinged upon and distorted by human anxiety: ‘Blessings flow, but trouble finds me/in the impasse after rain.’ How short is our attention span! How perversely we reject consolation, distract ourselves from quietude and gratitude by

            The parliament still warring

                 through its agonies of choice,
            the hustle never ending
                 nor the trouble        nor the joy.

A politician’s voice harries the poet, damning his lack of productivity while he wanders through “The Park in the Afternoon”:

          I see his point. Diverse and splendid
          things have brought us here, we heathens
          in the Christendom to come. The drunk.
          the retired, the roistering lads
          bunking off early with blazer sleeves
          riding up their arms – each of us
          truant and gentle for an hour,

          our output no more than
          what we can make
          of the angle of
          hurried daylight before
          a shower.

And ominous, omnipresent, there is an awareness of climate change,

         The weather’s been a ruined party now for years.
         It mugs and flatters, grinding through its old
         routine while drifting out of key

         …. It’s warmer now, but sicklier and wearied.
                                                               [“Fooled Evening”]

There’s a horrified recoil from present reality. ‘I have only ever lived among pollution. Tell me it is not the sky I look at but an irradiated blanket’, (“Universal Access”). George’s childhood world of ‘invented tribes…kaleidoscopic cultures’ has given way to ‘the promise of a never spent or perfected flux… ‘which keeps the poet tethered to the city. He feels the moorings slip; he must become a man, and in the world as it is now, “Far Enough Away”:

         You mistake me for flesh: for the honest captain
         who can follow where the cruising stars have signalled,
         glittering and keen. My body isn’t like that.
         It remembers water, remembers it too well
         when you come near, but returns each night
         to settled pastures, indentured groves, the landlocked
         love that doesn’t think to guard or name its territories.

“Near Historical Swoon” holds intimations of immortality extraordinarily deeply felt:

                                                        Watching from afar,
         thought that spring would hold, and save me from the man

         I was: a homebound drifter shuffling laps around the park,
         his government embroiled in vested sleaze, all hopes for what
         he’d come to be not far removed from what would pass,
         but far enough the deficit will make him swoon.

But he’s firmly on the road to redemption. Dylan Thomas boogies his way through “Karaoke King” and George takes up the baton and the beat from his wild Welsh forerunner: ‘Iambic I am,/real dolorous and rusty, and my chanson/brings the house down to an empty bar…

                                                      Here they are,
         the ruddy legends – all yr butties dressed in tuxes on the
         pitchside of yr dreams. Belting out unchappelled hymns
         with boiled-ham patriotic breath, their brigadier goat.
         Bethesda and Moriah, I have known thy deacons! I lay
         down beneath their corrugated roofs and raged

         raged raged against the dying of the greener grass.

Magical!

The threshold’s crossed in the collection’s second section, “From a History of Jamaican Music”; there are choices to be made on the way to manhood, nerves overcome, a voice to be found and heard…‘Songwriters will understand – the void/before a melody arrives, when breath/can’t seem to shape it’, (“Referendum Calypso”). But then he’s off, quoting Lloyd Bradley’s words from Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King… ‘the sound system had been created by and for Jamaica’s dispossessed’, and the poet declares ‘Which is where I first come in/feeling dispossessed somehow/at 18.’

Epiphany arrives on the “Bus to Skaville”… ‘An idiot weekend, balanced on my boyhood’s edge/like a pint of squash atop a mantelpiece.’ He’s upstairs on a northbound number 23 from town, nursing ‘a bootless thought for Ellie Glynn’ while downstairs it’s all ‘Dai caps, canes,/shopping for the week and summer coats’, and he plugs in his earbuds to blot it all out, tuning in to his newest acquisition… ‘Till now all songs have jangled through the unrequited treble’, but this disc, its burgundy box

         sporting a horse with a Trojan plume –
         goes chick-a-boom and canters through my mind
         as if the cover pic were being whipped...

and

         a heat comes down; a newly gifted knack
         for walking with a naughty strut...

Time’s up for Ellie and her kin, “People Rocksteady”:

         Better get ready girl, your boy
         is coming and he’s learned the way
         to syncopate and shake his head –
         he isn’t saying no. Though born
         a loser, he scrubs up fine – his
         steps have cooled to gladness.

From here the collection opens out into the wide world; poems pulsing with a universal sense of injury and injustice for the wounds we cause and bear, especially for victims of tyranny – the poor, the oppressed, those with the ‘wrong’ colour skin. In the measured prose poem “Soon Forward” – taking its title from a song by Gregory Isaacs – George describes his Welsh background and upbringing embracing close family and community ties, socialism and Amnesty International. It tells how his father helped a Kurdish asylum-seeker to fill in his claim form, but the application failed and they never heard from him again… Another Isaacs song gives George the words he needs: ‘You could say that home was as open as a door – a door you could nudge and step inside, if you knew it wasn’t locked.’

The formally fragmented “Or, A Windrush Interlude” is an agonised protest against white romanticism of Black ‘cool’: the excruciating demand that a ‘character’ in beanie and fingerless mittens on Blackstock Road provide a rendering of No Woman No Cry, when the only thing he’s received from woman that week is a ‘no’ to his citizenship claim.

A summer party, and in “Soon Forward”the poet watches someone put on the Isaacs track:

                                                                    Soon forward, come turn me on yeah

My whiteness draws nearer, tiptoeing round the garden. Nervously at first it
shows itself, or what I mean is, for the first time I can see it [...]The whiteness
you know in Berkshire, which makes you feel like you’re being watched. The
whiteness your mother calls not being served, and I presume myself above.

This last line just about the most tender, abject, shaming and memorable I’ve read on the entire subject.

“Party Time” an elegy for the Jamaican musician Slim Smith, leads most presciently into the third and final section of the book, ‘September’s Child’, where in “Sun Has Spoken”, the poet contemplates lost love. And lost innocence in “Poem in which my hairline recedes”, where Bruce Springsteen stars as the epitome of high attainment, having written Born to Run at the age of only 25…

                                          his album of awakening and fear
         at the chances hurtling past on   the irretrievable highway
         Christ  I can’t stop  staring  at those deathless gatefold shots
         where leather-jacketed he beams   and leans on Clarence
         man cleavage and   medallion   on   show
         as he sings to Mary
         and explains   how they’ve got one last chance to
         make it real

America morphs world-stoppingly in “Post-historical Teatime” from the boyhood dream engendered by a ruby lounger on the pool in TV’s ‘neighbours neighbours’ and sleek silver aluminium tins of coke ‘stocked by Ben’s mum in her fridge’, when walking back from school he and his friend’s shared headphones are yanked off by another boy who tells them ‘some nutter nuked America/while we were still in period 6’. “New York Morning, Six Years On” takes a wry look at the metropolis ‘that turns routine commutes into a high/stakes hockey match’, where MoMA spits him out, hyperventilating, overdosed on postmodernism on Fifth,

                                                      where Trump

         Tower grins through the morning. Bathed in a glancing
         plutocratic sun, I feel like I’ll never stop falling. The city swarms

         over me, crackle and dirt, a pitiless grinding signal.
         It doesn’t love me or help me up. It pulps me to beef on its griddle.

The collection’s closing pastoral, “Pink Cones”, brings us back full circle… ‘The door will open on a different garden,/air more intimate and careful in its reach’.

A surefooted homecoming.

Review by Caroline Bracken, Nation Cymru

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Karaoke King, is everything a second collection should be, surefooted, expansive and hugely entertaining. His voice is completely his own and this book deserves all the prizes it will surely be nominated for. This voice grabs the reader from the first poem ‘Doxology’

‘Blessings flow, but trouble finds me
in the impasse after rain. I mean democratic
as an argument that neither side can win’

to the last, ‘Pink Cones’

‘A leg that fell asleep, hooked under me

on the lawn, buckles as it wakes, becoming

mine again. The songs will be unbanished

in your throat, riddling clouds of midges

make their answer known.’

It is this attention to and manipulation of language that raises the poems to such a high level. Each poem is a world of its own, often worlds we recognise, the deli counter, the park. There is a varied tone in the poems, ranging from the vernacular ‘Who the hell even surfs anymore,’ (Dustin Hoffman in Biarritz) to the formal ‘This is visitation from the lost land close behind,/ the space vacated every time I take my step.’ (Near Historical Swoon) to the prayerful ‘oh let me have been born to this – forever – the visiting hour extending – as I pace the building reading certain signs – anonymous and queasy – let me count on every kindness – sidestep empty trolleys’ (Wards).

George is a master of endings ‘the river’s saying next’ (Ubi Caritas) and beginnings ‘The manhole on 53rd snorts a bower of steam’ (New York Morning, Six Years On). He is not afraid to let the reader in for example in ‘Agoraphobia’ yet doesn’t take himself too seriously ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’. Every poem in this collection has been weighed and counter-weighed, every word has been held up to the light and spoken aloud in the dark.

Bravo Dai George, Karaoke King is my poetry book of the year so far.

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