Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Jean Binta Breeze – The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market

Posted on | March 16, 2017 | No Comments

There are two performances taking place in this video. The first is from the dub poet Jean Binta Breeze, recited towards the tiny black hole of the camera lens, constructed from many separate takes. The second performance is from the market itself.

Breeze adopts the persona of a Caribbean take on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. In the words of Tom Waits, she’s been married so much she’s got rice marks all over her face. The viewer that she pictures on the other side of the lens must be a relative stranger (otherwise they would know about her many marriages). At the same time, she is comfortable enough around this stranger to freely express her sexuality. The poem is funny and provocative.

Brixton Market, filmed in 2006, bustles about her. At one moment, she clasps her bosom and exclaims “What I do with my body is my own business!” – causing a woman to stop in her tracks and glare back in disbelief. Kids, kept close to their mothers’ sides, can’t help but to look back and smile. A bare chested gentleman double takes with genuine puzzlement at what is going on.

Others see her as a momentary obstacle – a young man with a bag over his shoulder storms past, clipping the poet’s elbow. Breeze shrugs it off without missing a beat. Most continue among their day to day affairs. Over the years, the market has seen far more perverse and boisterous public outbursts than this. If anything it is not Breeze’s performance that draws the odd glare, but the presence of the camera that she confides with.

In Live Poetry, An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (a book that heavily informs my attitudes and teaching), Julia Novak defines this kind of setting as a borrowed space. A borrowed space is simply a setting that normally has another function, distinct from poetry performances. It could be a football pitch, an oil rig, a cave or a call centre.

There is something about the Brixton Market of ten years ago that makes me think that, as a space, it could not be borrowed. It was never a surprise back then to see someone singing, dancing, ranting or telling everybody that they were going to hell. Energy never stayed pent up for very long.

The tension between the market itself and Breeze’s performance is due to her not sharing her energy with the space. She is sharing it with us and all the other viewers distributed across space and time. From our vantage point, the market is the backdrop that frames Breeze’s generous and brave performance. From the vantage point of the market, she is sharing her energy with the camera and the camera is a gateway to countless outsiders. Perhaps this disconnect is intensified because Breeze’s dialect is one of the most recognisable of the many languages that were spoken at the market at the time.

Most performers would get the jitters performing in any kind of borrowed space but Breeze shines. We only get a sense of nerves at the end when she lets out a laugh that seems to exclaim “What the f*** did I just do?”

Today, Brixton market, at least one side of it, has become a haven for gentrifiers. As the old cash and carries and old school butchers and fishmongers were priced out by rising market rents; single origin coffee bars, organic delis, even champagne and cheese emporiums have coloured the area affluent and much, much whiter.

So goes the dialectic of displacement – rough becomes edgy, edgy becomes vibrant, vibrant becomes desirable.

Maybe the time is ripe for someone to call Jean Binta Breeze’s agent and get her back down to recite this poem amongst the hipsters, yummy mummies and creative freelancers?

Would their mouths gape open? Would they remain as aloof as they normally are to the old locals? Would they call the Police? Or would they raise up their phone camera – a clutch of little black holes peering blankly and blamelessly at each other?

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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  • insta-haiku (hover over picture to see the poem)