“Deux Lapins” – Nicholas Laughlin

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Image: ABD_2573–Anaglyph Photo/3D, posted at Flickr by relaxednow under a Creative Commons License.

We come, startled and thirsty, to the rim of the world.

Where that is depends on where you’ve journeyed. In “Deux Lapins” by Nicholas Laughlin, two rabbits are travelling together. What more plot might you need?

This poem isn’t a brocade. Think a deception of embroidery. The images the poet perforates in us are many, but they do not choke, or teem, or even spill. They glint in the gloaming. They rustle in the highveldt. They have chipped their ankles on the jaws of the Andes, and set the empty spaces with clusters of Sar-e-Sang lapis lazuli. How else to explain it, the unsick fever of reading this poem, the need to reach for a rabbit and climb right out of your life, into the unease of another?

If “Deux Lapins” were part of a feast, it’d be the blood-dotted cloth napkin you’ve held up to hide the ortolan hunger. Unfold the napkin and let the marks show you a map, both old and unquestionably certain to get you lost. Get lost, which I mean in the best sense. Take a hike, with your pockets weeping, dangerous gems falling from you to mark the way back to where you haven’t yet started.

“O copper, jade, enamel, little saints, / roses for the rabbits of the mountains, purses of blood, / spendthrift travellers”, announces the poem, by way of inscrutable direction. Yet what need for clarity, when you have a mouthful of indigo, a bruise-basket of pebbles, a silence of roses for either ransom or dowry? Every image in this poem is its own codex. Every announcement of the poem is its own open door, alerting you, sojourner, to a path.

It isn’t safe. Take a rabbit or two, as you ascend the Andes, as you swim to the true marine.

Read “Deux Lapins” here.
Nicholas Laughlin’s first book of poems, The Strange Years of My Lifewas published by Peepal Tree Press in 2015.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the thirtieth and final installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

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“Di Great Insohreckshan” – Linton Kwesi Johnson

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Image: Linton Kwesi Johnson, posted at Flickr by Bryan Ledgard under a Creative Commons License.

What does Babylon fear more than a raised black fist?

Black intelligence, perhaps. Black formation. “Di Great Insohreckshan” by Linton Kwesi Johnson gives no quarter, takes no prisoners, because this is war. Never mind that it happened in 1981 in Brixton — it’s been happening ever since, and since ever before. Sometimes black people fight it with words in dockets, with homilys and manifestos read from the safety of a high wall. Sometimes, black war means burning tyres, shattering windows, and running policemen ragged with their own batons. If you’re not in the mood for a pair of raised fists, then back back from all now. Johnson’s putting nothing in reserve: this is a praisesong, a battle-chant, of black exhilaration.

The 1981 Brixton Riots brought white Britons’ animosity toward black Caribbean migrants roaring to the foreground. It didn’t invent that racism. That racism was always there. It’s there right now. “Di Great Insohreckshan” roars back, meeting violence with violence, reporting the facts as they happened, then crowing of them on the mountaintop of stacked, smoking car parts.

In short lines, drawn bowstring-taut, Johnson delivers each word like a note, pealed brassy and sharp. The poem drives itself to an uproarious conclusion: an ending that is a promise, a bloodied vow, a harbinger of what happens “wen wi run riat all owevah Brixtan / wen wi mash-up plent police van / wen wi mash up di wicked wan plan”.

The narrator of the poem freely admits he wasn’t there, but longs to be. What a day, he tells us, writ large in the black capacity for staying right here. For standing up and saying no. What happens when you gather ammunition against ‘stop and search’? You need no Lord to tell you you’re royal. You proclaim it with rhetoric and riot.

Read “Di Great Insohreckshan” here.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Selected Poems was published by Penguin in 2006.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-ninth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“Letter after Dionne Brand” – John Robert Lee

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Image: poetry in transit, Dionne Brand, posted at Flickr by Pearl Pirie under a Creative Commons License.

Revolutions of generosity will sustain us.

This is true of any community, and feels especially true of artists working across all media: those who trade daily in unknowable risk, who face down familial censure and public scorn, those who are never far from peril or vertigo, but who do the work because they must. In John Robert Lee‘s “Letter after Dionne Brand”, the poet uses the 15th century Spanish “glosa”, a form that begins by quoting a beloved quatrain of another poem. It then builds itself on that basis, incorporating each line of the quatrain as the last line of every new stanza. If it sounds complex, Lee’s use smooths it with love, polishes it with care. Many poems are salutary, seeking the approval of other writers. Few step into such an unabashed, glowing appreciation for their subject’s verse, and inextricably, their fellow poet’s life.

Lee meanders us with a dulcet-toned precision through the creative inroads Brand conjures for him, with her reading: “ossuaries, yes, of failed states and their politricks / babies broken on beaches, Mediterranean / drowned in overladen caravels / our islands’ doomed alleys mocking / my sodden eyelashes and the like —“. We see here how comfortably, with the careful efforts of devotion, the poet settles his lines against Brand’s, not cannibalizing her language nor curtailing it, but seeking — and finding — a companionship in verse.

Make no mistake: this is a poem of overjoy, of incantatory wonderment. It speaks, obviously, to Lee’s generosity, but eclipsing even this, his hewing of form and meaning to meet the glosa’s ebullient, reflective needs. How much we gain, when we openly chant each other up the pew-lines of our affinity, in this way, and in others. How much we multiply our hearts’ reserves, by throwing open the gates.

Read “Letter after Dionne Brand” here.
John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015 was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2017.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-eighth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“ossuary VIII” – Dionne Brand

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Image: 2013-02-01, posted at Flickr by Guillaume Baviere under a Creative Commons License.

You can slip into a place like a lover, like a memory.

“ossuary VIII” by Dionne Brand is one phalange-trail from the poet’s Ossuariesa book-length poem that moves to the rhythm and percussion of bonework. I confess rapture: it is not possible to ‘read’ Ossuaries. Rather, it happens that you wake up with the book enacting you, in the middle of the night, sorting your vertebrae, cording your ribs with vines, gold-wiring your mandible. To take one bone for scrutiny from this great skeleton is a kind of unfairness, but also a key of its own composition. You unlock the ossuary of yourself with your own relic, or with nothing.

Yasmine arrives in Havana. She tastes, without knowing, the language. She maps the orbit of her room in a perfection of forty-four steps, “a room so redolent with brightness / cut in half by a fibrous bed, / made patient by the sometimish stove, / the reluctant taps, the smell of things filled with salt water”. The palabra she sifts for herself is compañera. It tells us something of how Yasmine walks through La Habana, of how the city enacts itself upon her as she opens herself to its oiled air, its wrecked avenidas, its “great sea wall / of lovers and thieves”.

No rough end-stopped lines here, only the smoothness of selective commas to flow the poem: each stanza is an immersion, tugging you into the bright, cheerful heat, washing you in Spanish you don’t quite understand, shining on your orange dress, spittling you with sea spray, saying: are you sure you haven’t lived here, your entire life? Are you so wholly certain you might ever leave, compañera? 

What does the transient call home? What language does the sea speak when it asks you, por favor, to stay?

Read “ossuary VIII” here.
Dionne Brand won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize for her collection, Ossuaries.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-seventh installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

 

“To My Lover’s Partner, Upon Their Separation” – Lauren Alleyne

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Image: Beasts, posted at Flickr by G.e.o.r.g.e under a Creative Commons License.

It might be true that we hunger most for what we least deserve.

Lauren Alleyne’s “To My Lover’s Partner, Upon Their Separation” is a lovers’ poem. It is also a sorrowing, a clearing in a field where abandon has sprung, where wine has been licked from the mouth of another, where we who love, and lose that love, have fallen to our knees. The poem assembles a trinity — yes, an unholy one. A threesome of people who should never share an elevator, but who’ve among themselves triangulated bodily fluid, betrayal, and drunken scrolls of three am s/t/exts. Lose my number, bitch jostling for inbox space alongside Wear what you wore the first time, when you come for me again. 

Even the happiest of polygamists will tell you that multiples mean you increase your math. What arithmetic, then, do the byproducts of longing — those who didn’t consent to each other’s chemistry in their lives — what math do they perform? Apologies, perhaps. Refusals, certainly. The narrator of the poem offers not an act of contrition, but a statement of defense: “I wanted nothing / but to sip at your river / and slip away. / Instead, I swallowed the beast. / Sometimes it howls in your voice.”

Alleyne’s poem is a contortionist, arcing backward to expose the ravaged throat, the hipbone-stars of every ragged desire we feel for each other. The limbs of the poem move around us, four movements like four human stems watered by our secrecies, our small chapbooks of greed and need. We are, as the poem says, all fodder. This is true whether we’re sinning, or the ones sinned against: look how we all tremble, in our gingerbread houses waiting for the bears to batter down the candied doors. Look how we’re beast and fugitive.

Read “To My Lover’s Partner, Upon Their Separation” here.
Lauren Alleyne‘s Honeyfish won the 2018 Green Rose Prize, and will be published in 2019 by New Issues Press.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-sixth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“Calabash” – Colin Robinson

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Image: View from Mount Edge Guesthouse, posted at Flickr by Kent MacElwee under a Creative Commons License.

What waits for us, when we clear customs?

Colin Robinson’s “Calabash” is a poem that barely spans a page, but contains in its brief, mysterious body the fluid magic of lives, and bodies, intersecting. The poem’s narrator, lamenting his loss of a main piece of luggage, is shown a kindness by the Tourist Board representative of Jamaica’s Sangster International Airport. The poet opens the swinging double doors of our associations of Caribbean tourism, so often a colourful, overwhelming spectacle, and suggests we pay attention to the smaller moments: hands touching over the same valise at Baggage Claim; a ticket stub falling to the floor; a litany of curses when a seat assignment goes terribly wrong; subpar cups of coffee fortified with granulated Demerara sugar.

How we move through the world often undergoes a shift, when we enter and exit airports. We become our more efficient selves, or our more panicked, jittery selves, or else we stifle the edges of our aeronautical necessity with Ambien or miniature vodka. “Calabash” suggests the surprise of ease, on the other side, hints at a gentle landing when you least expect it, a comfort after the giddying turbulence.

The poet achieves this through a combination of short, taut lines, and sinuous, winding ones: witness the latter, where the narrator tells us, “I noticed the beauty all over the momentary closeness of him / lamented packing-‌all-‌my-‌clothes-‌in-‌the-‌one-‌lost-‌bag-‌and-‌nothing-‌but-‌‌books / in the one that had come with me / on the flight”. Of winks and easeful suggestion are corridors of this poem composed: the dance of understanding between traveller and welcomer makes room for anticipation, for appreciation, for the dances we do with other humans without ever filling in a card — or waiting for a stamp of approval. Open your heart’s itinerary, and check it for soft spaces.

Read “Calabash” here.
Colin Robinson’s first book of poems, You Have You Father Hard Head, was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2016.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-fifth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“Birdshooting Season” – Olive Senior

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Image: Flying, posted at Flickr by Chris-Håvard Berge under a Creative Commons License.

What rustles in the topiary of dawn? What leaps after it, rifle issuing smoke?

Olive Senior‘s “Birdshooting Season” was published a year before I was born. It feels, and reads, as immediate and present as if I’ve stumbled out of the forest, palms bleeding, to cup it like water. The narrative thread of the poem is clear and sharp: men go hunting, women cook and wait in their wake. Out of this, Senior brings a thousand branches of signification, layering and weaving, giving us a nest in which to feel we are anything but safe. Don’t be lulled into thinking this an innocuous poem. It asks you to read into its unassuming territory, its quiet rooms where women pour tea, its boisterous fields where men trample, ready to gun down something they cannot otherwise reach.

The generational cycles of longing and foreboding are laced deep in this poem, lianas of warning curled around every image. Girls long for birds to soar, while boys dream themselves into the hunters’ boots of their fathers and brothers, uncles and others who call themselves men: Senior presents us so subtly with a world, and its rules, that have existed since we dreamed up gender, and how it moves our everyday.

Nor does Senior hold us at omniscient remove: the ‘I’ of the poem is a little one (we imagine her a girl, but he could, with equal imagination, be a boy) who keeps vigil in this night that precedes husband-sport and wife-enduring, a child who says, “My father’s house turns macho / as from far the hunters gather”.

No poems of Olive Senior drag me anywhere. I never feel forced, rushed, stressed into a too ornately, or too grossly-tinctured system of beliefs. They reveal themselves, with all the cleverness, and instinct, of soaring birds.

Read “Birdshooting Season” here.
Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree won the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-fourth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“A Letter from Paradise” – Sonia Farmer

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Image: White hibiscus, posted at Flickr by Susie Blackmon under a Creative Commons License.

Walk vigilant in the garden.

Sonia Farmer‘s “A Letter from Paradise” doesn’t meddle with symbolic flora. It presents a white hibiscus, carmine-centred, in the palm of your hand, promising intoxication and ruin. Mind how you tread, the poem warns. What you think is most comely can yet be your unravelling. Farmer plants the poem’s cares with minute touches that persist in our hothouse imaginations, flowering for us a visual palate of spilled cream, “white fists opening to whiter palms, / to blood-red centers.” The absence of colour is still an undoing, still singes the narrator’s retina, summons a brilliant burning that, Lady Macbethian, does not out.

Petalled in the horticultural and the spiritual, “A Letter from Paradise” gives me what I yearn for in brief, tantalizing poetry: a tableau that is a seeming innocence, but chokes, thicketed with interpretation, with portents of ravage, baleful enchantments dripping from every vine. You can take the poem’s word for it: “The evening does not bring a closing. / No, we will know / what we have lost. Each corolla drops / to the evening ground.” Before you can bend to salvage the hibiscus, the poem shutters its windows.

So much of Farmer’s work is like this, corresponding to needlepoint, to embroidery, to those fine, domestic arts which are misrepresented as docile, biddable. Don’t you know a needle can puncture a viscous eye, break the webbing between the fingers of a cavalier hand? So it is with “A Letter from Paradise”. Look for the flower-stitches of meaning in the spaces the poem weaves: subtle, precious, not casually discerned. Soak in the tropic afternoon of high heat, greenhouse hibiscus bouquets pressed to your cheeks. Drink the spilling cream. Douse your palms with the centres of beckoning red, and wait for paradise to reveal herself, flowering.

Read “A Letter from Paradise” here.
Sonia Farmer’s Infidelities was longlisted for the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-third installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“Tjenbwa: Devil’s Bridge, Morne Lezard” – Vladimir Lucien

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Image: tin roof shed cd, posted at Flickr by Christine Davis under a Creative Commons License.

Some say poems are not made to comfort us.

To which I say: comfort, like love, can assume many forms. There can be comfort in rank incivility, clemency in outrage, repose in a burning bush. Comfort, for instance, in the galvanize roof of a hut Vladimir Lucien signals as waypoint, in “Tjenbwa: Devil’s Bridge, Morne Lezard”.

If you have read Lucien’s Sounding Groundyou’ll be familiar with his suite of Tjenbwa poems. You might call Tjenbwa voodoo. Or Santería. Both definitions suffer from the unavoidable mistranslation that arises from calling a thing outside of its uncolonized, natal tongue, but you grasp the spirit, if not the bois, of what Lucien is mapping. You clear your table for the visitation.

“Tjenbwa: Devil’s Bridge, Morne Lezard” is my favourite poem in Sounding Ground. It roots me in comfort, via the aqueduct of unsettlement. It assuages me with uprootedness, with a roving, shamanic wisdom that predates Jeep and machete and even compass. In careful, steadfast diction, not an adjective rustling out of place in the undergrowth, Lucien gives us “boundaries / too thin to police until a map starts to grow / from the seeds in its soil, and trees and places / push past their Christian names, / and an island discovers its wet, riverine spine.”

“An island discovers its wet, riverine spine.” I have long grafted those words into my base alchemy. They have become part of how I bring myself to poetry, to all poetry, peering into the bedrock, nails greedy to untap its wild rudeness, its audacity, its exposed heart.

The world is filled with Devil’s Bridges. Perhaps each of them has its own Tjenbwa, animating its passage. But I linger here, on the bridge Lucien builds, feeling the vines take my ankles, feeling my cutlass fall away, clattering.

Read “Tjenbwa: Devil’s Bridge, Morne Lezard” here.
Vladimir Lucien’s Sounding Ground won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, making him the youngest recipient of the award.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-second installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

“Nina” – Roger Bonair-Agard

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Image: Mural|Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, posted at Flickr by Timothy Krause under a Creative Commons License.

Our ghosts are maps. Sometimes the most reliable ones.

In Roger Bonair-Agard‘s “Nina”, see the map of what-was Brooklyn unfurl, ravaged by gentrification, by the persistent erasure of empire, by the rising prices of real estate and rent and daily bread. Addressing Nina, the narrator holds a smouldering borough in the palm of his hand, peers into bodegas and brownstones, sushi bars and the silhouettes of the greatest black rappers, laying beats on street corners before their names exploded into catherine wheels of fame.

The resonance of repetition percusses in this poem like a spirit drum circle, teaching you your own footsteps through djembe and tambour. Listen to yourself stalk these streets of what-weres, see yourself through the narrator’s eyes by tithes of evanescence and stubborn refusal to be assimilated. Hipster accoutrements cannot outweigh wizened old men, sitting on stoops and placing their two-dollar bets, cannot efface barber shops or cheap, hot, greasy food, swallowed too-quick in the rooms black men used to be able to afford. This poem will not kiss the hand that gentrifies it; it turns its teeth into the trust-fund wrist, its blades of spite and sorrow into the spine of social eradication.

Will the Nina of “Nina” grow up in Brooklyn? When she tells Tito or Xiomara or LaShaun of the Brooklyns she used to know, from which points in history will her own maps originate? The poem tells us, tells her, “They used to be / sorry for us that we had to live here. It was a look like / pity, like scorn. It looked like this corner and these bricks and this stoop. / Brooklyn was what they left when they ran.” Nina, too, may become an archivist who breathes her Brooklyn, who runs back into it, every time, to save love.

Read “Nina” here.
Roger Bonair-Agard’s fourth book of poems, Where Brooklyn At?, was published in 2016 by Willow Books/Aquarius Press.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-first installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.