It happens in the country.
It happens in the city, too, but many city people will tell you it only happens in the bush. Out there, in the land of outhouse and rumshop, of police post and chicken coop, the law is a wavering scavenger, picking at flesh and faith to survive. The truth is that it happens everywhere, but when you think of the grandmother in this poem packing homemade pepper sauce into her granddaughter’s vagina, tell me you don’t think of it happening behind God back.
“Pepper Sauce” is the first poem I heard Malika Booker read aloud, and I can only hear it in her voice. It is Booker’s most potent offspring from Pepper Seed, its most unforgiving and brutal. It reminds me of the impossibility of decency: that word, when we use it, is so often a white flag waving against the crimes we’ve already committed. Decency doesn’t come into it, really. Someone out there is being eaten, and someone’s already picking their teeth.
Look at the principal colour contrast in “Pepper Sauce”: the vermillion — implied but never stated — of the peppers, ground to a threat in their white enamel bowl. The poet, not once, pushes the red down your throat. She waits for the colour to burn into you, enacting a dread and baleful synaesthesia. You smell the red. You feel it sting, cut and rip into your skin. You taste it with your other, lower mouth. You know the pepper is red. What else could it be? What lesser colour would deliver the law of rule?
The poem makes the narrator complicit: amidst all the bawling, hoarse-sobbing, skin-welting, no one helps poor Anne. The neighbours are horrified, but they stay indoors. Pepper burns, mouth or cunt: it happens everywhere you can imagine.
Read “Pepper Sauce” here.
Malika Booker’s “Nine Nights” was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2017.
This is the 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’.