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Review of New Caribbean Poetry - Vahni Capildeo, the Caribbean Review of Books, May 2008
Vahni Capildeo on New Caribbean Poetry, ed. Kei Miller; American Fall, by Raymond Ramcharitar; and There Is an Anger that Moves, by Kei MillerTo the 'New Caribbean Poetry' page...
How to organise an anthology? Let us sample a few. The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005) is like a thick index to a timeline. By proceeding according to the poets’ birthdates, it shows neither the times when individual poets arrived at creating, nor how makers may be grouped, but their emergence strictly according to when the clock starts ticking on the body that will write. The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English (1986) juxtaposes 'The Oral Tradition' with 'The Literary Tradition,' then skips happily over the divide, helpfully remarking on poetic reputation or self-definition, how page and performance interact. Breaklight, Andrew Salkey’s 1971 selection, sticks one scarlet-sleeved fist up at folk who insist that the poetic and the political should not trespass into each other’s territory (one thinks of that wavering line in the sea across which the Venezuelan and Trinidad coast guards have their shooting parties, but that is by the bye . . .). Breaklight groups poems by author, within five sections: 'The Concealed Spark,' 'The Heat of Identity,' 'The Blaze of the Struggle,' and 'Breaklight.' Two poems by Kamau Brathwaite form the epilogue. A little earlier, O.R. Dathorne’s Caribbean Verse (1967) has an implicitly politicised aesthetic, taking it as progress when landscape becomes an “instrument for change,” no longer “the passive object of the poet’s ecstasies”. Dathorne’s overt concern is for the authenticity of an indigenous “pastoral,” non-industrial, tradition. His Latin epigraph is from the eighteenth-century Jamaican poet and Cambridge-educated son of freed slaves, Francis Williams. Melanthika: An Anthology of Pan-Caribbean Writing, edited by Nick Toczek, Philip Nanton, and Yann Lovelock (1977) is of different scope. It is multiform, presenting prose fiction, essays, peer reviews, plus a survey of 'Caribbean Literary Magazines and Periodicals.' Its Caribbean is polyglot: 'English Language Writers,' 'Spanish Language Writers,' 'French Language Writers', and 'Dutch Language Writers.'
Remarkable about Melanthika is the number of direct appeals it launches. Throughout its pre-Internet pages the editors ask authors who have not been included to make themselves known; readers to send information about Caribbean print sources. These invitations — repeated till frustration or desperation edge the courtesy and hope — stand published. Melanthika’s editors encourage random word-freaks to chase them down. How things have changed since 1977.
How have they changed? There are personal notes regarding the production of two of the books under review. Raymond Ramcharitar, in American Fall, acknowledges both Wayne Brown and Derek Walcott’s kindness and guidance during and after his attendance at their workshops, then gainsays this, if only a little, in Young Poet, where the narrator recounts a Walcott-like figure’s slur:
. . . But he can’t resist a lick
in parting: “You Indians and your ambition. Black
people know how to relax, look at me.”
'Lick' could have its Caribbean meaning: a lash, a blow; or the senior poet could be using his rough bear-tongue finally to lick the cub-poet into shape. Either way, the savour is not sweet. Kei Miller, introducing New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology, drops a sentence that chills my blood into hereditary uncharitableness: 'At a dinner one evening in Manchester, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet asked who were the exciting new poets in the Caribbean.' There swam to mind all my acquaintance who might be qualified to name 'exciting new poets in the Caribbean.' This vision emptied out as I considered how few might happen to find themselves (a) in Manchester and (b) at dinner with the not-powerless Michael Schmidt (poet, founder of Carcanet Press, and editor of Poetry Nation Review). Thank goodness, I thought, that the time of one air-letter per week and the boat home after five years is past — that this is the time of carbon footprints and instant communication — that a poet of Miller’s calibre is on the spot when a defining decision about
'New Caribbean Poetry' is taken around a table of cronies in the ex-colonial, manufacturing North . . .
Miller runs up a bright and modest banner for his 150-page selection. He presents the whole book as a transnational conversational venture, an answer to a friendly greeting:
It was also in New York that when old friends from back home kept asking, “Kei, what’s good?”, I could respond with the optimism they demanded: “Have you ever heard of Tanya Shirley? Jennifer Rahim? Christian Campbell? Ian Strachan? Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell? Loretta Collins Klobah? Delores Gauntlett? Shara McCallum?”
Here they are. Enjoy.
Naturally, anthologisers make claims for their creations — a thoughtful compiler is a creator. Pride and tradition, hard-won, prepared the way for Miller’s companionability and ease. Salkey (in 'Breaklight'), Shelleyan/Yeatsian, sends forth his poems/poets as an “unsung vanguard.” He hopes to say, “Yes. This is where I am . . . I am, indeed, at a point of departure . . . there is, now, not so much a corporate Caribbean ‘voice’ as differing voices from the Caribbean,” voices with implications for all humanity. This sounds brave, heroic, universal, and lonely. The Melanthika anthologists admit that their 'sampler' or 'cross-section' under-represents, for example, small islands, women, and 'smaller language and racial groups' because 'the problems of contact and communication alone made our task difficult enough.' Reading perversely, 'communication alone' might describe what a writer sometimes feels s/he does. May a Caribbean diaspora poet have a special sense of assurance that somewhere out there must be a likeminded reader or writer? Are we perhaps trained to cast a wide imaginative net — to feel that obstacles are superable, as the blue and green sea is readily cross-hatched with comings and goings, inventions, shocks, and remembrances? Would such a feeling suffice to power worthwhile writing? The formal teaching of 'creative writing' has its critics. Still, there is a notable enrichment of the habitat in which the new generation — Miller, Ramcharitar, and Miller’s writers — create, from shared attendance of workshops and events. Real contact and proximity, where two or three or more people are physically gathered together at moments that are chosen and by movement of their choice, not cold or forced migrations, not the sense of being salted into a historico-geographical barrel — this makes the difference: community of creation at a personal level. There is, too, another community of creation evident in this new writing — a spiritual community, quite unlike the revolutionary inflections of earlier work.
The anthologiser’s creation, the anthology, speaks for itself freely, and differently from how it is spoken about in its own introduction. There is fresh evidence in Miller’s New Caribbean Poetry of what Dathorne once found cause to praise Derek Walcott and Eric Roach for: a 'complete imaginative re-ordering.' These poets, if still, like their predecessors, haunted by the nameless bones beneath the ocean or sometimes moved by anger to an explicit rhetorical stance, inherit the world’s literature — rather, in embracing that potential inheritance, they create it.
The reader of an anthology, like the anthologist, is necessarily subjective. Here are a few points about each of the poets. Please encounter their work for yourselves.
Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s Sanctuary opens the collection, establishing the book as a hallowed conversational space. A reverberation runs from 'your hands a fragrant, needful folly' to Jennifer Rahim’s 'rose in the fragrance of heaven' (The Mango), four poems from the end. Phipps-Kettlewell resembles the American poet Denise Levertov, creating lyrics where exact, external vision and spiritual interiority fuse. Description and abstraction interpenetrate each other. Poetic artifice can be likened to a garment. Phipps-Kettlewell heals that separability. Readers of her poems momentarily inhabit their way of being, like a sacral investiture. Invitation and wonder speak: 'If it could be done, would you want / to be made into a frog?' (Frog); 'If I were to follow the only star on earth' (The Christ is Born); 'Come visit this life and enter' (Come Visit). The affiliation of the human and the natural, sentience and sentiments, is revealed even at the level of image: a lobster’s 'naked centre' is 'coiled pink like a heart prepped for Valentine' (Lobsters). This anthology’s poems answer each other. Hear cries out like St John of the Cross:
If so, come! Disarticulate me whole!
I want to feel your loving form,
to be pulled open and fall into a night that blackens all,
and throws me, vanquished, into your luminous desire.
Once there, I want to hear your Word, I want to know
who you are.
But also like the ardour of Delores Gauntlett’s The fever with which she danced; this passion could be of many kinds. The poems look beyond themselves, too. The adjective 'patriarchal' is quietly reclaimed (May You Live). Blue Eyes, with its god, fish, birds, face, ocean, sky, and memory, equally quietly re-engages with the anger of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and perhaps the elementality of Miller’s Granna’s Eyes sequence (from Kingdom of Empty Bellies, his first book of poems), to accentuate the positive:
It is in the eyes that
love rests and remains.
Gauntlett’s dry wit and intellect, expressed in pleasurable language, are a delight. The formal shapes of her stanzas enable the reader, not to face or endure, but truly to contemplate and confront, what might familiarly be called the unspeakable:
You’re a lucky man, they told him.
His eyes said not.
(Interview with a Centenarian)
There is something reminiscent of Mervyn Morris in her art. Morris-like is the eeriness with which Gauntlett figures, via tragic narrative, poetry’s own existence as a recurrent vanishing act of consciousness, as when
the stories clamber back, of the Kendal Ghost
emerging from the stricken stream . . .
(“Kendal Crash — 1957)
Like others in the 'new' generation, Gauntlett brings Caribbean men into poetry as they have not been before, and into richly domestic places which in poetic tradition have been gendered as feminine, but where in life men do belong. She writes 'probing,' like the subject of her Doctorbird poem, 'in the corner of my father’s garden.' The ease in handling tradition, in contrast to the strifeful utterances in earlier, pathbreaking anthologies, is again evidenced. In 'A Song for My Father', the reader enjoys a purely local Romantic expression of the moment of poetry as the surfacing of a yam that the narrator’s father suddenly digs up. The art of this poem is how it unfolds while a nightingale sings in the garden’s 'yam-vine quiet,' and is over, in one rapture of epiphanic synaesthesia, as soon as birdsong, dew, pimento scent are 'gone.' Much more could be said. Gauntlett is a poet to live with and re-read.
Christian Campbell’s poetry is, at first glance, more experimental than the previous two poets. Longer, slimmer stanzas go from page to page, unreeling dramatic monologues that have more novelistic, conversational room for humour and detritus observed with what remains a sense of beauty. One could name-check American poets, and Campbell himself re-writes Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt’s England speech, but there are grand Caribbean precedents for this poetry that tempts readers to read it aloud, perhaps break into self-forgetful and self-remembering solitary laughter in the airport lounge or library, giving the home accent to the 'who' for possessive 'whose':
. . . We always
have to pray every morning assembly
Our father who art in heaven
Harold be thy name and I ask you
why Harold so mean never to show
me his art? And the grin how you
answer is keep me glad for days.
(Shells for Sonia Sanchez)
This poem, with its child’s-eye detail, cuts to pathos and what, on a larger scale, is an outrageous truth. The island speaker has a too-late impulse to give his little all, 'shells and soldier crabs,' to the emigrant, because New York is 'far-far like the moon.' Generosity would send the island’s treasures away from it. 'On Listening to Shabba While Reading Césaire' uses the page like a performance space. Columns of words, words run together, ampersands, italics, capitals, make a shimmer of sound for the eye. Sound — whether church-style chorused responses or
How a New York cab could take me home to sun,
to Nassau, kweyol-pebbles beneath the tongue.
— is an unusually strong motive force in Campbell.
This is picked up in the next poet, Loretta Collins Klobah: 'It’s like there’s a soundtrack to this poem' (Going Up, Going Down). Trying to lyricise love between men, the poem finds it has to envisage the physical brutality of the homophobic Caribbean, so speaking outside this anthology to a major concern of Kei Miller’s new book, There Is an Anger that Moves. Collins Klobah’s poems are laced with Spanish language and social anger. She simultaneously mourns and celebrates the child killed by a stray bullet. Her evocation of powerful or divine female figures and incantatory use of language feel distinctively 'Spanish' as well as Caribbean. Indeed, the myth-driven Chicana lesbian feminist poet Gloria Anzaldúa may spring to mind as one reads Collins Klobah’s charged and magical sequence, 'Novena a La Reina María Lionza', with its serpents, jaguars, and damaging real-world storms. These poems present riddles. Do the 'cornflower blue dress' (a protective colour against obeah) and the 'Pennyroyale' (a herb that induces abortion) (The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman on Top of Marla’s Exotik Pleasure Palace Speaks of Papayas, Hurricanes, and Wakes) encode a figure like Delores Gauntlett’s 'Ms Tasmina, / the childless healer woman' (The Balmyard)? The untranslated, unannotated Spanish of the Novena’s Noche octava, describing a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the rootball of 'a tree of green hearts,' is itself the other-language depth from which these poems grow.
Shara McCallum’s pieces include an eleven-section sequence (with imagined guitar), a prose poem/personal essay, and an extract from an Anancy story where again the layout of text as well as patterning of language make the page a performance space. Themes of female exile and metamorphosis are refracted through fairytale copper, silver, gold, and mermaid-skin. By its title, Dove might be about Noah’s peace-signifier, Venus’s amorous bird, or those humble brown creatures that persist in walking, rather than flying, across the road if or when Caribbean motorists stop for them. None of the above, it proves. Like love or peace or flight that obsess those who cannot attain them, the word infects the world, making it a rhyming monotone. Here is the wise and disquieting obliquity learnt from fairytales:
If one morning you woke and had to say dove,
not love, and mean it. If this went on
all through the day and night and into the early dawn —
this calling of the world and all its parts
a single word . . .
Is this replicant word the duppy of the poem the poet cannot write? Is it the fear of assimilation into sameness, replacing earlier poets’ dread of annihilation into nameless bones? Need the magic be resolved?
She Who Sleeps With Bones shows Tanya Shirley haunted like her poet-ancestors. In his introduction, Miller signals that Shirley is the most 'narrative' of his poets. I cannot quite agree. Shirley uses techniques and themes that, to anyone reading this anthology sequentially, will have become familiar: the wit, the dialogue, the monologue, folktale, music, prose . . . Shirley’s is the art that conceals art. Her apparent effortlessness makes her a slippery poet to assess; the strength and variety of her stories make the reader go along smilingly, forgetting to count or check how they work. I would like to highlight one reworking of the image of the female. In Inheritance, 'the curse' is revealed to be 'prophecy.' Still, 'the curse' is a well-known euphemism for menstruation. The black-dressed stranger who walks down the household’s driveway in search of the daughter 'way past the hour of visiting' curiously resembles the subject of visitor or stranger in women’s dreams as a harbinger of menstruation, as the Cornwall-based poets Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove recorded, believing that women at their bleeding time can choose to harness or thwart creative energies (see their book The Wise Wound, published in 1978). To speculate about this is not to belittle a narrative of transgression or inspiration, but to fuse these interior, mental processes with an aspect of female bodily interiority. Shirley’s narrator claims her mother fears dreaming how her no-longer-virgin daughter may be
in acrobatic splendour, suspended
by the tip of a tongue, a curious finger.
Sexual knowing could equally figure the writer’s sensory and linguistic loving engagement with the world. Considering Shirley’s woman, though: for her to be loved is no passive yielding. It is her skilled display and exhilaration.
Ian Strachan reinforces the spiritual community of making with which this anthology opens. His first poem, gods and spirits are summoned through the portal divine, deploys alinguistic representations of drum and celebration sounds and typographical devices such as the stepped line, in a poem that makes itself heard and felt until it is 'gone, like shadows' in one of the self-aware vanishing acts at which the poems in this book excel, signalling their wish to exist as an experience of poetry, not a poetic object. Yet this work, much as it makes the reader want to hear it in performance, is satisfying to read. 'Mae Hanna, Grandmother' arguably offers a more slick and complex interplay of meaning when the shifts in voice and meaning between 'yes, taday,' 'yester / day,' and 'yes, today' can be seen. Strachan’s Miles Davis poem sings of 'this uncommon sound,' 'precisely, precisely,' 'creation’s melody.' Once invoked, the quality of Davis’s playing — natural yet technically finished, introspective yet inevitable, delicate yet sure as infinity — floats its hopeful possibilities over and around the salt-flagellated consciousness of the 'Haitian Worker, Monday Morning', whose toil could be slavery’s or today’s, and the women of whose characteristic lives Strachan brings an outraged yet tenderly inward understanding.
At the close of the anthology, it is with tremendous relief that I find Hindu goddesses in Jennifer Rahim’s work. By this point, the reader has encountered a spirituality, or a concern with sacred space, animating poets’ scenarios and diction, the power of their images and the shape of their stanzas. I say relief, not because 'my' constituency is represented (personal religion is not under discussion here), but because the ethereal force that has built up across the anthologised poems made me want to urge the Indo-Caribbean tradition into play, rather as you might invite someone who enjoys dancing and swimming to try windsurfing too. Rahim’s 'Lady Lazarus in the Sun' writes back to Sylvia Plath, but also alludes to a local divinity maudite, Jean Rhys (“Smile please lady / forget the bitter taste of cane”), and ends in a dark blaze of Kali-concentration that outdoes Plath’s phoenix rising from its ashes, in outfacing all that sun and blackness have come to mean. It is not the final poem in New Caribbean Poetry, but let us take its fifth and final section as a fit meditation with which to close:
I do this rising business
like I wash my body
sun my history
air my wounds in the wind
take off my death again
my dress again
stand the fierce heat of visibility
without mushroom umbrella
stare straight in the face
of golden brightness
becoming my Kali self
learning to stand
on the chest of my enemy —
take back my sun again
becoming the dark past brown again
the woman no longer under
I will love my darkness well
Kei Miller has found the word made flesh in eight poets. Put this review aside. Go and read them.
...Kei Miller’s There Is an Anger that Moves appears in Carcanet’s Caribbean writing series, in the company of Lorna Goodison, E.A. Markham, Mervyn Morris, and his own anthology. It consists of six sequences: 'In This New Country', 'The Broken (I)', 'Tongues and Prophecies', 'The Broken (II)', 'Testament', and the title sequence, 'There Is an Anger that Moves'. The new Caribbean creative community is present: 'The Broken (I)', which poses the question of the poet’s emerging voice and what it might mean for him to claim his story, begins with an epigraph from the poet Tanya Shirley: 'Kei, I’ve noticed in your work the constant absence of an I.' Homophobia is rife in the Caribbean — I remember a Trinidadian medical student in the 1980s realising that in Kingston he would have to discard his fashionable pink shirts: men who did not look macho could be shot. Miller does not conceal his 'I.' Nor is he a confessional poet. His finely tuned elevation of men’s love ('But he is a hymn') bears comparison with the American poet Mark Doty, whose poem Homo Will Not Inherit asserts that 'each body' is 'the divine body' and that the physical encounter with another man is 'worshipping a while in his church.' Letting Doty speak in the same air as Miller, for a moment:
I’ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body,
pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation.
And I have been possessed of the god myself,
I have been the temporary apparition
salving another, I have been his visitation, I say it
without arrogance, I have been an angel . . .
Miller’s poems of emergence that respond to Shirley’s prompt are as much about religious ecstasy, and as much again about crafting a poetry where the poet’s interior force and faith motivate the exterior, vital signs that compose a work, eschewing inessential gesture or posture:
But faith is interior as bone;
it is the way I stand
and the way I turn my head.
It cannot be left out
(The Broken (I))
Other reviewers will remark on the church elements: the various ladies, not larger than life but with lifelike magnificence and foibles, the speaking in tongues and how that configures the poet’s voice, Miller’s astounding, open-hearted, but wryly clear-eyed complexity of viewpoint. I should like to draw closer attention to Miller’s poetic skill. By pure sound, for example, not by aggressive deployment, he recuperates the word 'nigger,' drawing it into a peal of words equally beautiful in sound and meaning and alike in their print looks: 'bright,' 'strong,' 'winged,' 'songs' ('Like how Sunday comes'). Elsewhere, the pair 'however vile' and 'her healing oil' can be voiced as a half-rhyme in some varieties of English, but voiced, say, in Jamaican or Guyanese, the two diphthongs pour into each other, a full rhyme ('the church woman visits a hospital'). In the initial section of The Broken (I), the narrator accuses himself of writing 'metaphors / that said nothing honestly.' But if poetry makes nothing happen, could this not be a boast as much as a disavowal — that, as the Taoist empty vase is not empty but holds the shape-of-a-vase, even a poetry of concealment or avoidance gives honest shape to existent voids in Caribbean life or writing? So the lullaby-reproach to God in A benediction for Bogle —
He should have hid you in invisible arms
for they say He can become nothing
and then out of nothing, become.
— enfolds the poem’s subject in a poem-blessing, words suspended in a lot of white space with more white space unreadably between the lines. To return to that half-suspicion of a faint boasting tone (winningly human, among the prickliness and humility): if Miller’s anthology is set up as a conversational venture, Miller’s own book sets out on an anti-troubadour-like adventure:
. . . how we became the pirates, dark people
raiding English from the English,
stealing poetry from the poets.
So English poetry is no longer from England.
You swear — Lady, if I start a poem
in this country
it will not be yours.
(How we became the pirates)
Kei Miller has certainly started some poems worth following. Whether moved by faith or anger, another published proof of his art will be welcome as soon as it chooses to discover itself.
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