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Trinidad and Tobago

Photo by Peter Dressel
Roger Bonair-Agard is a native of Trinidad and Tobago and a Cave Canem fellow. He is the author of two collections of poetry; tarnish and masquerade (Cypher Books 2006) and GULLY (Cypher Books 2010). He is co- author of a third collection, Burning Down the House (Soft Skull Press 2000).

A two-time National Poetry Slam Champion, Roger is also co-founder and Artistic Director of the LouderARTS Project. He is poet-in-residence with VisionIntoArt, an inter-disciplinary ensemble, for whom his work is regularly commissioned and with whom he’s toured several universities nationally, as well as the Mt. Aetna Jazz Festival (Catania, Italy) and music festivals in Milan, Italy and Belgrade, Serbia. He is recipient of a Vox Ferus writer’s residency and winner of a louderARTS Project fellowship 2009-10. He is also writer and performer of the critically acclaimed one-man show MASQUERADE: calypso and home, produced by Terranova collective. Roger teaches and performs throughout the world. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Chicago.

Read more about Roger Bonair-Agard at:


allegory of the black man at work in a synagogue
English version

allegory of the black man at work in a synagogue

My name is Roger Anthony Bonair-Agard
My name is a myth of its own creation
its syllables conjured by fear
My name is given me by an anxious history
The meat of it is always about loss
and return always loss and return
I was born between two rivers
in a valley of a shadow of blackness

My name means Famous Spear It is old
German It is the purview of warriors
My name means Priceless It is old
Latin It is the purview of kings
My name means Beautiful One It is old
French I wear it like a sixth finger

When I was 23 I managed the records
of membership and death Membership
and death bear their own names
They keep mine locked in the safe
of their own mythology The old man says
Fuck You I say My name means free
to go about my own business

They came to me with solemn voices
to purchase plots
to give them seats in the temple
They did not recognize my name
or sometimes they did Are you French
Are you a Jew Are you Black
May I speak to someone white

They came to me with celebration
This is my son David
This is my daughter Rebecca
This is their child Noah
Rosenbaum Miller Tisch Mandel
They brought me their tithings
of laughter history wine hubris hate
I gathered them onto me
to make myself new armor

My name is the first born son
of a single mother She is always
a basket on a river She is named
after a beautiful boy We cup the irony
like a river Her name is the purview
of gods She holds onto me like a promise
She gave me literature and the love
of all things holy And rum is holy
and dominoes are holy and the smell
of night-blooming jasmine is holy
She adorns her walls with the crawl
of bougainvillea and these too are holy

During the High Holy days they come
to me for seats in the temple They come
to me without knowing my name They come
to me without knowing the meanings
of likeness and image But they offer me
bottles of wine and good legal advice
They offer me tickets to the Knicks and the Rangers
They do not speak to me if I do not
have a name tag They do not
look long enough to see the name tag
My name means invisible It does not belong
to me My name means holder of seats
which are closest to God My name means
holder of land which is closest to death
I am 23 years old I am a litany
of violence I am moon
on a dancefloor I am drunken
promise behind the wheel of a car
They advise me like their own
son They urge me back to school
they urge me back into the carapace
of my own mind My name means
Guardian It is old Norman French
It is the purview of Lords My name
means elaborate caskets and endowments
for the temple

I am 26 years old I do not know
my name I am untethered as a cloud
They come to me with new ways
to talk about race They come to me
with words and new literatures
My mother's name means music
means builder of things She gave
me fists and a fencer's tongue
My name means builder of things
They come to me with poetry
It is the purview of the lost Thank God
they have come My name means
hunger My body means Hunger
I am a litany of Hunger
This new poem means Hunger
English version


for Sean Thomas Dougherty

Dear Sean:

This morning at 8:30 on a crowded uptown 4 train, stuck in a tunnel because of a sick passenger up ahead (there is always a sick passenger up ahead), a woman gets interested in the cover of your book and asks, “what are you reading?” I say poetry. She says, “Read me one” and other passengers look at her funny, this done-up, corporate -type black woman who wants a poem on a crowded train on her way to work. I'm not sure what to do Sean. I don't want to disturb the other passengers, but then I think, these motherfuckers are fine when crackheads sing songs and beg them for change. I'm just reading a poem to a woman across the crowd. So I start with Your Voice after Desnos, and I get to the end and she says “That's it?!” I say “Yeah...” She says, “Read me another...” and the rest of the train is type uncomfortable, Sean. There are a couple smiles, some white women looking at her and frowning, a couple awkward away glances, but now there are also a couple folks taking out their iPod buds to check out the commotion, so I think, we have a good long stretch on a slow-ass uptown 4 train between 42nd and 125th, so I read The Dark Soul of the Accordion.

I start slow. Your first line is breathtaking, Sean. My grandfather does not sleep among the roots... and immediately everybody is hooked, everyone is in, the tattooed man whose name I imagine to be Gus, the elderly Phillipino men in the neat threadbare suits and dirty shoes, the Catholic school girl who's folded down the band of her skirt-waist so it can ride up over her thighs and this black woman with the corporate suit and satchel and muted red nail polish and immaculate hair – all of them are in, Sean and she is smiling like she won the lottery, and I'm reading your poem on the 4 train like it's mine, because I've already read it aloud to myself three times over the past two days, and the train, impossibly crowded; but I'm holding onto the center pole and dancing.

My friend Rupa, once told me I was kinetic, Sean; that I couldn't talk, let alone read a poem without the words pushing my most fervent prayers away from my ribcage, without looking like I was about to get up and run, and your poem is one I wish I could have written, so I'm reading it almost shouting now. I've got me some room around the center pole and I'm digging into the words, those taut lines like trenches: my grandfather's eyes are rain across countless countries, you say.

Sean, the train knows. It's picking up speed and starting to rumble past 59th and the train is more silent than every New Yorker's quiet memories of bodies flinging themselves like so many Icaruses from the center of that towering heat, all our unspoken fear, except for me; open and praying-chanting your poem now. The orchestra of the accordion's breath is my most verdant lung. I'm bobbing and weaving – me, your poem and 200 New Yorkers stuck in rush hour traffic on the uptown 4. It is the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is early Fall. I'm never up this early in the morning Sean, but I'm doing a class visit up at Fordham University, and I don't do these - early mornings - but I'm glad to be up and busy Sean, because it's work and I'm heartbroken. I hurt my girl Sean. I hurt her bad and I just want to not know how flawed I am every second of every moment, so I'm glad Sarah has offered me this visit, Sean. Sarah once recited, drunk out of her gourd, Psalm 100, to me and ten others in a bar over the jukebox which I imagine was playing Prince, but it could have been anything, and who knows if this has anything to do with this ride. I'm reading your poem past 86th, past 96th, me, the train, your grandfather's accordion - a single kinetic organism, and I've got some kinda blues Sean, because I hurt my girl and she's never coming back and I'm looking for any kind of redemption I can find, because I don't fully believe today that I'm a good man, and it's almost Kol Nidre and in your poem you ask your grandfather. “Do you still consider yourself a Jew?” and according to you, he doesn't even hesitate. He's on his deathbed. He's thought about this, and he says “What is a Jew? If a Jew is someone who follows the Torah, no. But is that what makes a Jew? And if so, what good for others. what walls...”

And it's 125th Street and there is applause and I almost forget to get off. I'm sweating and the corporate black woman is already gone and a couple folks nod, and one dude says “that was a pretty good way to spend a morning ride” and I get off and of course Sean, here's the kicker. None of this really happened, but it could Sean, it could. If I can see my way clear to read a train full of people your poem on Kol Nidre, I might be in the clear, but of course that's not exactly true either. A man can chase his own shadow for a long long time before he knows anything. Your grandfather knew this. In the end, he followed his mother's voice out of here. What irony. What poetry Sean. Your Poppa, a poet, the breath of an accordion, a socialist jester on his death bed. He is trying to free me on the 4 train. It's crowded and I'm reading silently but breathing like I'm running. I'm with you and your Poppa and I realize for a while my whole body is bending and nodding from the waist. The two schoolgirls are looking at me funny – kinetic. For a moment Sean, it feels like I'm davening.
earth and God
English version

earth and God

(for Hudley Vincent de Paul Bonair)

This is not a poem about cricket
except my grandfather was once young
and fast and black and when he was 80
I saw him wield a bat
with such fearsomeness   that we all
stopped our game and watched him
run and swing and swing again

and it's probably unimportant
that this was no game to him
chasing down the bigger boy
beating me up on the street
in the middle of the game
where my mouth had got me in trouble again

and now when I think of what else
my grandfather could have become
I do not consider his 30-odd shirt-jacs
in every pastel shade possible
lining the closet  or the way his hat
fit meticulously at that angle on his head

or even that I held a straight razor
against his throat  day after day
to shave him  I was the only one
he let do it  and after he'd run down
the stink-mouth boy who was cuffing
me in the head    and after he'd rolled
up his pants to show me how
the coffee was danced    and after years
of his turning the corner every Sunday morning
on the stroke of five past nine

lips moving silently mumbling the rosary
as he looked up to wave Sunday greetings
to Ms. Murray and Ms. Esme and Mr. Mora and
Ms. Alfonso    and though I laugh now
that had I known those shirt-jacs would be
in such fashion 20 years later   I would
have snatched them right out of the closet
with his body still warm in the ground
and fixed them about my 14year old shoulders

what I still remember    is that my grandfather
was the son of an African washerwoman and a French
land-owner    that he could have been all things
in a different world at a later time
had his skin not been so black-broiled
in the cocoa sun    what I remember is
with what ease an 80 year old man swung
the well-hewn piece of willow

when he saw threat to his male heir
and I think about his perfect arm
action as he gathered speed    barefoot
on the road that day    on the balls
of his feet and breathing hard    how he picked
up the bat on the run and swung it like
the brushing cutlass through the canestalk
like the flat machete through the sweet cocoa-pod

and though this is not cricket
I remember how he moved like all the other heroes
we were mimicking that day
Gus Logie and Joel Garner
Clive Lloyd or Collis King
I do not immediately remember
how he taught me to discern Fever Grass from
Jerry toot bush   or shadow bene from
useless weed struggling through the red dirt

I do not remember his face   quiet and unworried
as a baby's in my hand   the skin pulled taut
as my hands learned latitude and nuance
the way I learned to windmill the razor
like Viv did his bat and scrape the grey hairs
off his face and against the soft hot cloth
I do not remember first that he'd been warning
my mother and me from months before
he even got sick that the land would be
in contention and that he wanted us to be sure
to get what was ours.

Here on the scrabble-grass edges of a worrisome
habit    when the bartender pours me the fourth shot
and marvels at my still lucidity and intelligent conversation
I do not remember first that my grandfather warned
that a visitor could never take just one drink
that the second was necessary to walk out
on two feet    this even as he was signing
his name to some momentously important
document in florid turn-of-century inkpot
British script    Hudley St. Vincent de Paul Bonair

What I remember first    is my grandfather running
impossibly fast and impossibly old carrying
my safety on the razor's edge of a bat
how he might have been so much else
but beautiful and reposed his leathered face
in my hands    he was every prayer
he needed to become    a man of earth
and God    and open-throat