The award-winning poet's one-man show reimagines Christopher Columbusby Felicity Capon / October 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
The Royal Festival Hall’s Blue Room has gone dark. “Ladies and gentlemen!” a voice with an American accent announces. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce the admiral of the ocean sea, live and direct from the old world to the new, and the new world to the old; viceroy and governor in perpetuo; property developer by the grace of God for his exalted sponsors; Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile… God’s self-styled navigator and discoverer; please put your hands together and make some noise for Christopher Columbus!” To the sound of pre-recorded boos and cheers steps onto the stage, John Agard, one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets.
Dressed in a faded costume and a jaunty hat, Agard is performing his one-man show, “Roll Over Atlantic,” as part of the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival. Eccentric, energetic and captivating, Agard suffuses scathing observations with wit, melancholy and mischief as he reimagines Columbus’s discovery of the new world from different points of view: the explorer himself, a native shaman, a chorus of indignant mosquitoes, and the Atlantic Ocean. Agard questions our preconceptions of the historical figure: was he an intrepid explorer who bravely transformed the course of history, or a lost man who wreaked havoc on the native populations of the lands he claimed for the Spanish crown?
Agard was born in Guyana in 1949 and arrived in Britain in the mid-1970s. He has won many awards and his work is a staple of the GCSE syllabus. Along with WH Auden and Philip Larkin, he is a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry—only the second black writer to receive this honour. His most famous poetry explores identity and belonging, often with a burning sense of outrage, and sharp, satirical humour. Columbus also made an appearance in “Checking Out Me History,” published in his 2004 collection “Half-Caste and Other Poems.” Tellingly, the poem challenges the European version of events: “Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492 / but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too …Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul / but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole.” Columbus appears again in the poem “Columbus discovers himself” as a “mapless mariner.”