“..and only they, children, excellent students of their own self worth, do know the value of their lives - from 'Outside St Dominic's Priory. Snapshot, July 2015'”
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About Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett is a former UK Poetry Slam Champion and FLUPP International Poetry Slam Winner from London. He rose to prominence on the city’s performance poetry scene and was one of the first writers to study on the groundbreaking Spoken Word Educators programme at Goldsmiths University, along with Raymond Antrobus and Dean Atta.
His first poetry show, Identity Mix-Up, interrogated the use of racialised labels and markers; it debuted at Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 and received five-star reviews. His debut pamphlet, I Speak Home, was published by Eyewear in 2015. This was followed by the collection Selah (Burning Eye, 2017), and a play, Safest Spot in Town, performed at the Old Vic and on BBC Four. That year, Jarrett was also named by London’s Writer Development Agency Spread the Word as an LGBT Hero.
In 2019, one of Jarrett’s poems was projected onto the façade of St. Paul’s Cathedral and broadcast as a commemorative art installation, Where Light Falls. This is emblematic of two major themes Jarret has returned to throughout his work: London and religion. Jarrett recently received his PhD from the University of London exploring Caribbean Pentecostal culture in the city. The poems shared here are also rooted in place and raise questions of cultural inheritance; they speak to a wider colonial history and draw power from a sense of inquiry.
In 'Hostile Environment' Jarrett leads the listener through fragments of the past, present, and future of British national identity, testing how a collective sense of togetherness is shaped and distorted by the singular vision of a state-approved historical narrative. At the centre of the poem is Jarrett’s repeated use of the word ‘us’, a word that widens and narrows its reach throughout the poem like a tide: moving back and forth between the seemingly frictionless vision of ‘us Brits’ to another ‘us’ that at anytime could be declared ‘alien, unhomed / at the home office's choosing'.
To root this sense of a big ‘us’ that risks becoming abstract in its scale, Jarrett pivots the perspective to the level of a family: a mother singing the national anthem ‘with more conviction / than I have ever done’; a father 'polishing his figurines, / his uncynical pride shining'. However, there is a conscious performativity at play here, a performativity reflected in Jarrett’s rhythmic and quietly ironic reading, as the assimilation and hope of one generation is contrasted by the more uneasy awareness of another – a son who knows he’s wearing a costume, as if national identity itself were a form of drag:
Steam rises from my helmet,
my shield rises
to protect my neck.
Here, clad in the iconography of chivalry, duty, and Britishness, Jarett’s speaker experiences hostility not only from without but within, reflecting the parasitical way a racist society conditions its citizens to internally police their sense of togetherness and thus very existence.
In ‘Outside St Dominic’s Priory. Snapshot, July’ we experience a similar creeping effect of a toxic environment on the mind: images appear to float from one another to reflect a dissolving community, where ‘two corpses, / one called Brother and Son’ try to reassert their need for witness, pierce through the fog of amnesia. The effect is dissociation:
A sharp voice conducts a maroon Volvo’s U-turn from the
fifth floor. My phone dings. Rebecca added #alllivesmatter.
The motive behind this pollution, this traffic and clutter of new meanings gentrifying the old? Silence. And at the the end of the section we are left with another image of a body forced to turn against itself: ‘I bite my tongue and inhale black fumes, funeral flowers…
Recordings made on 1st October 2021 at Spiritland Studio, North London. Photograph by Naomi Woddis.