“The Three Degrees” by Umit Singh Dhuga

Umit Singh Dhuga


i.m. Dalian Atkinson (1968-2016)

He’ll cross that bridge before he gets to it.
Cole finds Dozzell in acres of space.
Dozzell serves the ball up on a plate

for Atkinson whose blistering pace
leaves the polyester-short-shorted halfback
stranded. Atkinson chips the keeper, races

to the corner-flag (where the stewards are slack
at their stewardship over the Greene King Stand).
And bows. How do you feel about him being black?

Ipswich puts this question—this is England—
to Mrs Crawford, whose one solemn decree
is that you don’t take the biscuits, understand?

You don’t take. You ask. So “The Three Degrees”
were formed about three miles from Ipswich.
From the 1992-to-’93

season, this: In his own half of the pitch
with a one-touch trap from a lofted ball
(he’s done well there!) that forthwith lets him ditch

his marker he ignores Dean Saunders’ call
on the right flank and skips past two more
Wimbledon players and slows to a crawl

and you had to have known then that he’d score
because before he’s anywhere near
the edge of the eighteen-yard-box the last four

defenders stop running and Peter Fear
(of all players) looks back to Perry Digweed
(who’s minding net) and that’s when Atkinson spears

the lower half of the ball with the speed
of a toe-stub against a kitchen table’s
leg. The goalkeeper (the papers will read)

was on-rushing. He wasn’t. He’s able
to steady himself for the arched chip’s flounce
and leap with his left arm at full stretch. Rob Earle

watches as the ball finds the time to bounce
once in the six-yard-box before it ends
up in the back of the net. 3-2’s a trounce

when you lose to a goal like that, when you defend
their counter-attack of your counter-attack
in the nineties in a country called England.

So how do you feel about him being black?

from Poets Respond
November 10, 2019


Umit Singh Dhuga: “A police officer has been charged with murder, after three years of painful procedural wrangling, in the death of Dalian Atkinson. Atkinson was tasered to death in the early hours of August 15, 2016. He was a celebrated black English football player who was part of the famed attacking trio known, when I was growing up in England in the 1980s, as ‘The Three Degrees’—you will note that the press was not exactly politically correct back then (or now). I found that the terza rima form suited the subject of three black athletes who connected so beautifully on and off the sports field and who inspired so many of us ‘coloured’ boys in England to persevere in sports despite racist abuse. It was thought to be ‘cute’ and ‘clever’ to call Cole, Dozzell, and Atkinson ‘The Three Degrees’ because they were black, played with flair, and wore stylish clothes. But we know now, and we should have known then, that this is racist. The fact that the Crown Prosecutor has—this week—laid charges against the rather taser-happy police in West Mercia, England, marks a milestone in the turbid British history of race relations. This poem celebrates Atkinson’s astonishing achievements as an athlete, but also points up the painful question which his first employer—Ipswich Town Football Club—had famously asked when Atkinson moved to Ipswich from Newcastle: ‘How do you feel about him being black?’” (web)

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