Written by Hazel Burke


Could Be Verse

Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? This December, our poetry doctor* Hazel Burke’s celebrating the magic of technology with Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. *She’s not a real doctor.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze

We opened our presents
on the verandah
having just arrived back
from Christmas morning carol service
and set the breadfruits to roast
for breakfast

My daughter hands me a package
which is obviously a bottle
and I am full of depression
no, not a bottle of rum
or some other spirit
Didn’t I tell them what the doctor said?
but I must look cheerful
so, I smiled and opened it
It is ginger wine
well at least it is weak enough
to finish in one day

As I say a big thank you
she slides a box across the table
and says
Mum, open that for me
I do as she asks
no longer interested in presents

It is a phone

Switch it on, she says
Her husband smiles beside her
and in that one touch
they have moved me into the 21st century

the technophobe
no computer
no internet
no Facebook page
one little cheap plastic phone
just learnt to send a text

Yes, I switched it on
on the screen
is a picture of my three children
Just touch it once
she says
I do
and opened up a world
of internet
and Skype
and Whatsapp

I opened up a world
across the world
of continuous conversations
conducted from my verandah
across the Atlantic
the Pacific
I watch my grandchildren play
half way across the world
at a touch of a screen
My daughter has set up everything I need
at a touch
I never knew it could be so easy

It is a smartphone, Mum
she says
Just touch
don’t be afraid to touch

I quite enjoy collecting other people’s Christmas traditions because even at a time of year that comes bundled with a ton of ritual and expectation, somehow everybody has their own take. Most people have very firm ideas about what you should eat, what counts as an acceptable gift, and how you should behave.

You might find themes: overeating and presents are fairly typical, but the specifics are always different and fascinating. Some people must open presents before dinner, others afterwards. Some will eat one ritual sprout. Some will have pasta instead of a turkey dinner. My Christmas often involves a lot of fancy dress, and swapping unusual ornaments from charity shops as gifts. You see? Everybody has their own take, but the thing is that everybody has a take.

In Presents, Breeze is on a verandah in the Jamaican countryside, just back from church, the smell of roasting breadfruit wafting past. I can almost guarantee that my Christmas in Manchester will involve no verandahs, no church and no breadfruit. And yet, one of my favourite things about this poem is how it feels instantly recognisable. Just as Breeze says of her phone, the poem itself reaches out from a Jamaican verandah and around the world.

“The poem zooms out from her verandah to take in the whole of the world, then zooms in to her grandchildren in their own home.”

The first two paragraphs set the scene. The family is on the verandah, smelling the food cooking, swapping presents. But a close look at the ginger wine section is really interesting for all the tiny little touches that – I think – are universal. We’re watching the scene from inside Breeze’s head as her daughter passes over an underwhelming, bottle-shaped present. And surely, the only possible reaction in the whole world to a bottle of ginger wine is “well at least it is weak enough / to finish in one day”.

We’re inside Breeze’s head, hearing her thoughts, so we see more of the scene than her daughter and son-in-law. (“Didn’t I tell them what the doctor said?” she sighs, to the readers but not out loud.) But she also tells us that she still smiles and says thank you despite feeling fed up.

This, and other touches, like the way her son-in-law is smiling because he knows that her next present is more exciting than she expects, make this poem, from “half way across the world” feel really familiar. I’ve been in this scene, even if it wasn’t on a verandah.

When Breeze opens her ‘real’ present, she is immediately seduced. The word ‘touch’ crops up six times in this last part of the poem, reinforcing how utterly irresistible the new smartphone is and how easy it is to use. And then Breeze discovers all the possibilities that are now a touch away:

I opened up a world
across the world
of continuous conversations
conducted from my verandah

It is a Christmas miracle for her, connecting her with the people she loves even if they are in other countries. Honestly, if Apple doesn’t snap Presents up for their next campaign then they are missing a trick.

For me, it gives the poem a bit of a Google Earth feel. It zooms out from her verandah, “across the Atlantic / the Pacific” to take in the whole of the world, then zooms in to her grandchildren in their own home. It’s a reminder of the possibilities and the sheer magic of technology. “Just touch”, her daughter says, “don’t be afraid to touch”.

With thanks to Bloodaxe Books, for permission to reprint Presents, from The Verandah Poems by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze (Bloodaxe Books, 2016).

Read all of Hazel’s previous poetry columns here.


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Written by Hazel Burke

Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking