“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’.

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“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’.

“Portrait of a Diasporican Friend” – Ana Portnoy Brimmer

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Image: boricua pride, posted at Flickr by riduh under a Creative Commons License.

You know how souls track each other.

In Trinidad, we say, my blood take him. I’ve always felt this to be vampiric, an unhinging of the jaw to signal familiarity, a patina-piercing, a rich, ruby drinking. Come closer, we say by our blood. I know you. I would know you anywhere, even in a foreign land.

Ana Portnoy Brimmer‘s “Portrait of a Diasporican Friend” teems with comfortable, sensual familiarity. The poem peals, “see him in the distance like / his father and climbing for mangoes and / Santurce brawls and jincho Seattle and hope so fragile like / spanish in old boxes”. This sweet, hot undulation of personality transcends a glib approximation of height, or weight. What colour are his eyes? Boricua. What do you hear, when he opens his mouth? Boricua. How about the weight of his palm on the dancing chameleon of your spine? Boricua, también.

Brimmer’s poema blushes with lifeblood in the cheeks, picks up its skirts and clatters onto tables, raises its fists in the alleyways. You could say it’s all for love, but love is only the curtain, billowing to let recognition sliding in like the thief you will give everything to, because he knows all your secret names. Of such musicality is the poem composed, that you will feel it in your bones, activating your pulse, sugaring your waistline, lifting your gaze to the box-windows where a thousand small flags of your patria fly.

Can a man be an island? “Portrait of a Diasporican Friend” doesn’t present an answer to this, but it takes the blood of familiarity, and rhythms it into la clave. Listen to the stroke-count. Simmer in the syncopation. Take the hand of the man next to you, that hand of plantains and congas and flags. Plant yourself in Puerto Rico.

Read “Portrait of a Diasporican Friend” here.
Ana Portnoy Brimmer is a Master’s Student in Literature at the Department of English of the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twentieth 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’.

“Why Whales Are Back in New York City” – Rajiv Mohabir

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Image: Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), posted at Flickr by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith under a Creative Commons License.

There will be whalesong at the end of the world. It will be the beginning of a new one.

Rajiv Mohabir‘s “Why Whales Are Back in New York City” feels at once fabulist and utterly real. Which is not to say that fables aren’t some of the most potent realities we learn, as children, then spend our adult lives trying to drown out. Whales, whether fantastic or corporeal, don’t drown often. One thing that can cause it is persecution.

ICE raids and whales might not, at first contemplation, have much in common, but Mohabir’s creative imaginarium, which makes room for both risk and miracle, weaves natural science and human defiance to make a drumsong. A song that peals out, “They won’t keep us out / though they send us back. / Our songs will pierce the dark / fathoms.” The whales will remind us that it’s possible to swim through chemical danger to return where no one, no governing menace, can truly tell you not to be.

Nor is Mohabir’s poem a halcyon idyll. Whales are, in fact, returning to New York. What did I tell you about fables, and for that matter, origin stories, being real? Cetaceans say fuck you, to borders. Fuck you, human persecution. We’ll swim and sing where we are.

The sole human of the poem is deeply conscious of multitudes: of the we who cannot be effaced, the immigrant we, the brown othered we, who can be carted off, handcuffed, border-threatened, but not scrubbed. Not effaced. That ‘we’ is no less than a royal we, rippling with the legacy of labour, of industry, of survival.

It took whales a hundred years to decide New York waters were safe again. They didn’t stop singing in all that time. Neither will we. Our defiance chants underwater bhajans.

Read “Why Whales Are Back in New York City” here.
Rajiv Mohabir is Assistant Professor of Poetry in the Department of English at Auburn University.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the nineteenth 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’.

“Ghazal of Guyana” – Richard Georges

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Image: Ganesh, posted at Flickr by stateofplace under a Creative Commons License.

In Make Us All IslandsRichard Georges’ debut collection of poems, the sea is witness. Not only that, but birds, submerged ships, the historic scroll of ransomed black bodies, and navigating it all, the poet’s tender, remembering hand. Georges is a poet who leads by listening. His rhythms are that elusive thing: gentle, and alert.

“Ghazal of Guyana” rocks in us with the same calm majesty of so many of Georges’ poems. We begin by seeing that “bones of stars are falling, / crashing to the earth like trees, like greyed spears”. We are transported out of ourselves, as the poem bards us in matters celestial and terrestrial. A narrator who consults the leylines of “ritual sweat”, of “muddy rows of cane”, who summons the image of his sister, roasting baigan, carries us through the water of this world, through its dust and quiet and yes, its ocean.

The ghazal form is structured of couplets, and the poet heeds its form. Ghazals often invoke, and are set to, music: what music might we hear, in Georges’ formal, sensitively cultivated lines?

I hear the wind that sings bhajans as it parts the canefields of the Caroni.
I hear the chime-clatter of bangles, circling hands that roast vegetables in Hindu homes.
I hear what I hope is the hinterland.
I hear the boats at Parika, engines gunning, touts gathering humans in like sleepy chicks, bound inward.

Perhaps it’s easy to romanticize a place like Guyana. Perhaps there will never be enough ghazals. Richard Georges agrees. There are no cavalier acts of summation here, no absolutes and definitives. What you get is the movement of water, the susurration of stars, the curling of all the fingers of a place around your skull, reminding you: you can never know me. Only yourself through me.

Read “Ghazal of Guyana” here.
Richard Georges’ second collection, Giant, was published by Platypus Press in 2018.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the eighteenth 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’.

“Kaieteur Falls” – Fawzia Muradali Kane

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Image: more water than you can drink, posted at Flickr by Soren Riise under a Creative Commons License.

Murder. Flotilla. Chattering. Congress.

Multifarious are the names we give to groups of birds. In Fawzia Muradali Kane’s “Kaieteur Falls”, shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize, the birds are swifts. You might be forgiven for addressing them as a fall, given where they live, in a cave behind a waterfall. The poem observes them as they congregate, make unison of form and purpose in the air, “coalesce and split into waves, / unroll as giant arabesques that curve against / the screen of the sky.” Birds can do what we, for all our aeronautical might, never can. We haven’t got the gift of pitting our undefended bodies into the sky to become constellations or predators. We must always, far sooner than birds, contend with our gravity.

Kane’s poem is a hemmed expression of an absence of rule. The structure of the poem, tidy in two-line verses, holds itself taut and wingspan-ready, to allow a full unravelling — or if you will, a perch from which to soar. The best nature writing I’ve read so far keeps time with the essential truth of human unworthiness. We squat so inelegantly, so churlishly, on the back of a planet we’re also stifling, like a carcinogenic urchin needling its host. The human race does such a poor job of paying its bill to the earth. That, the poem reminds us, is where birds and the world’s largest single drop waterfall have us licked.

“There is nothing else to bear / while that moisture clings to our skin.” When you are taken to Kaieteur, you imagine yourself, suspended, looking down. The poet amplifies your vision, cranes you, settles you under the spray and above the vast firmament, giving you for a moment the wild impossibility of true flight. Soar upward, fall deep, winging.

Read “Kaieteur Falls” here.
Fawzia Muradali Kane’s illustrated pamphlet, Houses of the Dead, was published by Thamesis Publications in 2014.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the seventeenth 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’.

“Sea Garden” – Rosamond S. King

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Image: corals, posted at Flickr by denAsuncioner under a Creative Commons License.

Full fathom five.

Rosamond S. King divines the skeletal patterns of corals, in “Sea Garden”, a brief poem full of the rich, and strange. The poet doesn’t lean on The Tempest to populate her underwater realm. Rather, she signals the sea change within the sea itself: how sand itself can be made of coral and bone, how beneath the inky envelope of the ocean surface, life roils and teems — life, and its vibrant opposite.

The poem draws on families of coral, beginning with alcyonium digitatum, dead man’s fingers. Deceptively simple, we read of coral lineages, of the homes of fish, and these clear, vitreous images yoke us like sargasso, til we find ourselves by poem’s end on the floorbed of the sea. Such is the progression of the poem, which mounts in us like the graceful, deliberate pressure of water.

Yes, the poem concludes by telling us what we can see from the surface, but which one? It is possible to be at the top of the world from the bottom of the sea, after all. In this short terrain-unsettlement of verse, that couples bone and anemone, that considers for us the composite matter of earth, wrought by geology, engineering and mystery, we do not suffer sea changes: we are re[de]boned by them.

I tilt my chin to the port of call King’s poems provide for precisely this: a renegotiation of what I think I understand about ocean, about destabilizing complacency, about how you sing the body through tide and brine and the radiant symmetry of polyps, uniting.

Another ocean poem, you think, I’ve been there. No. Not this ocean. Not this convergence of sight, density, and conjure. Every seabed is a graveyard and a cradle. Every coral reef a natal bed, and an antechamber for the dead. Submerge.

Read “Sea Change” here.
Rosamond S. King’s debut collection of poems, Rock | Salt | Stone, is a finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the sixteenth 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’.