Amryl Johnson: Her Poetry Mapped the Gap Between Two Cultures
By Stewart Brown

Amryl Johnson, who has died at the age of 56, was an accomplished writer whose work, especially as a poet, was developing in original and distinctive ways. Her early death is a loss to both contemporary British poetry and for
Caribbean writing.
Born in Trinidad, she came to Britain
when she was 11. For much of her career she was primarily concerned with exploring, understanding and writing through her consciousness of operating in that liminal space between two cultures known but never fully claimed.
She went to school in London and took
a degree in English with African and Caribbean studies at the University of Kent. Although she had various stints teaching at one level and another, including for some time as a lecturer at the University of Warwick, she lived essentially as a writer, writing tutor and performer. She settled in Coventry in the late 1980s, where she was able to buy a reasonably priced house which, as she often said, gave her both the security of a base and work space and the freedom to travel as and when the inclination or opportunity took her. Although she had an ebullient performance persona and often wrote quite directly about her personal experience, off stage she was a private person, protective of her own space and the time she could devote to her writing.
Her sense of an essential identity was
formed by her Trinidad childhood, but after the move to London, where her adolescent and adult life was lived in a sometimes hostile cultural environment, she was never quite comfortable in either place. Amryl confronted that hostility to her as a black woman in Britain - and the distinctive angle on British/Caribbean history it underscored - in some plain-spoken and angry early poems which appeared in her first pamphlet collection, Shackles. This established her reputation as an original voice at a time when there were relatively few young black
voices to be heard in British
literature:

. . . I am
Black
And I am

Angry
My name is
Midnight
Without
Pity

However, her return visits to Trinidad were not always unproblematic in terms of her wish to identify with the place and its people. The sometimes unsettling reaction of many of those people to her - her blackness there signifying less than her middle-class English accent and inevitably metropolitan attitudes - caused her some anguish. That sometimes painful
re-engagement with Trinidad - and
indeed the wider Caribbean - was the subject of two collections of poems, Long Road to Nowhere (1985) and the spiritual travelogue Sequins for a Ragged Hem (1988). Sequins is a powerful and unusual book, in that it combines the familiar traveller's tales with an account of another kind of journey and process of discovery, as Johnson confronts the "ghost who was haunting herself" in order that she might come to terms with her sense of a fragmented identity. The poems in Long Road to Nowhere chart that same journey in different forms and show her experimenting with a creole voice which gave her, and her audiences, another way into the experience.
Through the 90s, Amryl became
increasingly fascinated by myth, and experimented with ways of inventing, adapting and applying myth to her contemporary multicultural experience. Her 1992 collection, Gorgons, engaged with the Greek myth of Medusa in a sequence of very powerful poems that took the twin metaphors of "the look that can kill" and of one who "looks but never sees" to an analysis of the situation of women in contemporary life. Although she was impatient with some of the exclusivities that characterise different "schools" of feminism at the beginning of the 21st century, Amryl was very much engaged in and by the women's movement. The diverse cast of women's voices in Gorgons is an expression of her commitment to that cause.
Her most recent publication, Calling,
which was launched last year, also engages with myth and the associations of the female voice in poetry. There were plans to adapt and produce Gorgons as an opera or musical. Certainly Amryl came to regard performance as being an important - if not her primary - medium of communication. She had a very powerful presence on stage, but was also able to engage and enthuse an audience, to involve them in the event that was her performance.
No one who ever saw her perform what she called her poem-song, Far and
High, was left unchallenged or unmoved.
Amryl Johnson, poet, born April 6
1944; died February 1 2001.
(Reprinted from the Guardian.)