Mechanically Separated Chicken.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

From the mouth of the Congo To the Mountains of the Moon.

Sometimes, when I'm walking home or waiting by myself at a tram stop, I recite poems. The sound of words escaping into the air is comforting when alone, and if the morning is cold and the poem turns to steam, then so much the better.

There aren't many poems I remember by heart, to be honest. Aside from my own, the ones lodged in my head are from childhood; the first poems I ever committed to memory. Scrape my brains out with a spoon and stuck to the inside of my skull you'll find some Coleridge, a little Shelley and a smattering of Pam Ayres.

My favourite, though, is the beginning of a poem called The Congo, by Vachel Linsday. It's a poem filled with blood-lust and voodoo and skulls. As I child, I loved it. Mr Pansini, my fourth grade teacher, taught me this poem.

I loved Mr Pansini in the way that children love people who can produce coins from behind their ears. Mr Pansini would bring Aboriginal message sticks to class and tell us stories of the Dreamtime. Mr Pansini would hold Sudden Death Maths Challenges on Friday afternoons during which we would face each other like gunslingers and fire numbers at one other, and encouraged us to grunt 'Uh uh uh, and another one bites the dust...' whenever a reigning champion was felled by a challenger's superior arithmetic. Mr Pansini held my bloody face when (falling off my bicycle for the millionth time) I smashed my chin against the bitumen of the netball court. Mr Pansini, my mother assured me years later, was a real dish.

But. The Congo. I'll never know what possessed Mr Pansini to teach us a poem about cannibals. Why did he choose a poem so obviously controversial, if not downright racist? Years later I found the poem in a book of my father's and realised that, read in its entirety, it's a dangerous poem; a poem full of gunpowder. The full title is, in fact, The Congo (A Study of the Negro Race) and begins 'Part One: Their Basic Savagery.' I did not know this at the time, and he only gave us the first portion, which is a little tamer than the rest. How then, to take such a poem? Vachel defended himself (and indeed distanced himself from the the piece) but it seems to me that there is no absolute judgement to be made: perhaps it is both beautiful and offensive.

Mr Pansini taught us this poem using the choral suggestions in the original piece and added elements of his own, transforming the class into a three-part rhythm section. He did a marvellous job and even now, I recite it using the same inflections that he himself demonstrated. He would have us stand up, hoot and beat our chests as necessary as we chanted:

Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.

It's in my head even as I write this, and as tempting as it is to pound the table and shout along, I can't because I'm in a library. Sometimes I do it in the shower and this poem lives for me - despite its problematic race connotations - because of its music. Also, and perhaps most importantly, it's wonderfully transgressive. Imagine, as an eight or nine-year-old, shouting:

Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle!
Harry the uplands!
Steal all the cattle!

Poetry seemed then, as now, an exhortation to do mischief. To break the rules. To steal cattle and bang gongs with human thigh-bones. Thanks, Mr Pansini.