“Birdshooting Season” – Olive Senior

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’.

The 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest – A Blogger’s Logbook [Day Two]

Those who weren’t involved in the second day of Bocas activities this year, but were in Port of Spain as afternoon dripped into evening, will likely remember it as “that time it rained semi-profusely, and Town flooded”. (My friend and colleague Kevin Hosein blogged briefly about Bocas, and more indepthly about the extreme floodiness of the day, over at his Tumblog, Little Jumbie.) Admittedly, the gushing grey rivers of drainwater looping around the traffic-clogged roads prompted minor alterations to the Bocas schedule’s last few events of the day, since a handful of scheduled panelists were trapped within their hotels, unable to reach the National Library for neither love nor pirogue access.

Despite this, Day Two of #bocas2013 was as engaging and imaginatively challenging as Day One. The Bocas team donned their (mostly metaphorical) galoshes and steered the festival participants and attendees through the evening’s dampness — if you were already at the Library by the time the rains hit, I’ll wager it was one of the few places in Town where the spirits were enthusiastically treading water and clamouring for more words.

Here’s my Blogger’s Logbook, Day Two. Click on the summary titles in bold to go to the full posts on the official Bocas website!

One on One – Marina Warner

Marina Warner responds to a question from the audience, during her panel.
Marina Warner responds to a question from the audience, during her panel.

Writer and mythographer, Marina Warner, in conversation with novelist Lawrence Scott (author of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize longlisted Light Falling on Bamboo.) Warner spoke principally of her seminal, recently reissued work, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, as well as her 2011 book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights.

New Talent Showcase – Sonia Farmer

Sonia Farmer, with Loretta Collins Klobah's 2012 OCM Bocas Poetry prizewinning collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman.
Sonia Farmer, with Loretta Collins Klobah’s 2012 OCM Bocas Poetry prizewinning collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman.

The second of this year’s New Talent Showcase readers, Bahamian poet and publisher Sonia Farmer shared selections of her writing. She also displayed stunning handcrafted and letterpressed titles released by her small press, Poinciana Paper Press.

One on One with Olive Senior

Olive Senior addresses her rapt audience during her One on One session.
Olive Senior addresses her rapt audience during her One on One session.

The veteran Jamaican writer held court — if you were there, and witnessed not a solitary free seat to be acquired, you know what I mean! — on her poetry; on the experience of writing a novel later on in her life; on inspiration and advice for young writers, and many other gems, in conversation with Michael Bucknor.

One on One – Irvine Welsh

Scottish author Irvine Welsh, engaging with a question at the Bocas Lit Fest.
Scottish author Irvine Welsh, engaging with a question at the Bocas Lit Fest.

The author of Trainspotting; Skagboys and several other novels; short fiction collections and plays, talked with BC Pires about the “spectacularity” of failure and the ways in which the publishing world has evolved — not necessarily wholly for the better. (Also, kudos were given to Margaret Thatcher.)

Next up – Day Three of the Blogger’s Logbook!

Previous entries:
Blogger’s Logbook, Day One.

All photographs by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.

Shakirah Bourne’s Thoughts on Summer Lightning, by Olive Senior

Published in 1986 by Longman Books.

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, 1987.

A good piece of literary fiction focuses on style, psychological depth and deep, powerful characters. It often tackles important issues that are usually controversial and complex, and the writing not only entertains the reader, but allows for some introspection on society, and perception of self. Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning and Other Stories encompasses all of the aforementioned elements, highlighting several social issues in Jamaica, through the eyes of naive and engaging characters.

Olive Senior’s writing style is very simple and conversational, although it addresses deep issues. It is entertaining, with sharp details, often ironic and filled with humorous dialogue. For instance, when a protagonist Beccka innocently asks the Archdeacon “Please Sir, do angels wear brassieres?” or when Beccka is told to pray for her Aunt Mary and responds, “No. Not praying for nobody that tek weh mi best glassy eye marble”. One of the more outstanding qualities of her work is Senior’s ability to combine dialect and Standard English, reflecting the rhythmic language and slang of Jamaica without the general reader losing any understandability of the plot and story. For example, a quote from the story “Real Old Time T’ing”,

“Nuh the one-eye Doris he still have a look after him and she so busy dropping pickney year after year that what she know bout keeping house could write on postage stamp.”

Without the use of dialect, some of the words would be less impactful on the reader. Moreover, her use of dialect and Standard English not only differentiates characters, setting natives and foreigners apart, but symbolizes themes such as social class and acceptance/rejection of culture. This is seen in the story, “Ascot”, where the narrator and Ascot grew up in the same village. The narrator stayed in the village and continued to speak Jamaican English and Patois, as opposed to Ascot who left for America to improve his life, which meant disregarding Jamaican Creole and speaking in Standard English with an American accent.

Style and language are just a few ways Olive Senior illustrate themes in her stories, enriching their psychological depth. One seemingly simple narrative is filled with multilayered issues with societal contradictions and social perceptions. The story “Summer Lightning” tells of a young boy living with his aunt and uncle, who is given a small garden room to play in. It is his secret and private room until an old man who stays with his family a few weeks every year “for nerves” arrives, and as the story evolves we learn that the old man has vulgar intentions for the boy. This simple story explores religion; the perception of Rastafarianism in particular, as the aunt both feared and respected one of the characters, Bro. Justice. Bro. Justice approached the boy’s aunt out of concern for the boy’s safety and she “took it as an occasion to lecture him about his appearance, his manners, his attitude…and heard nothing of his mutterings of “Sodom” and “sin”. Bro. Justice’s warnings could have also been ignored because the old man was probably a wealthy, white man, thus exploring the theme of status, and how injustices are ignored depending on a person’s colour, wealth and class. Senior uses a powerful use of symbolism in this story; the only character that has a name, Bro. Justice is used as a representation of Rastafarian culture, as well as justice.

Senior also makes good use of symbolism in “The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream” where the ice cream represented the loss of an object. Throughout the entire story Benjy’s aching love for ice cream, which he had never tasted, was described in vivid detail, “you didn’t chew it, but if you held it in your tongue long enough it vanished, leaving an after-trace that lingered and lingered like a beautiful dream”. Alas, with such beautiful description, the reader empathized with the Benjy’s thirst for the unknown, and is devastated when his dream to taste ice cream is tragically destroyed because of the suspicious and jealous nature of his father:

Benjy is crying Papa Papa and everything is happening so quickly he doesn’t know the point at which he loses the ice cream…and he cannot understand why Papa has let go of his hand and shouting and why Mama isn’t laughing with the man anymore…”.

Senior illustrates the theme of relationships through Benjy’s eyes, allowing the message to be so much more powerful, as it is a clear glimpse of the society, seeing all the irrationalities and inequalities without bias. All of her characters are unique, and the reader becomes easily attached, cheering when they are victorious and sharing in every loss and pain.

Overall, Senior’s work is the full Caribbean package; full of life and excitement, explores many societal issues and themes, history, and culture, all the while being simple to read and humourous. For these reasons, I believe that it is an excellent portrayal of an example of valuable literary fiction.

Shakirah Bourne is an award winning short story writer from Barbados who is not afraid to voice what others try to keep secret.

As a fellow participant in The Cropper Writers’ Residential Workshop for 2010, I was honoured and pleased to interact with Shakirah and her distinctive writing style! Check out her Twitter and Facebook Fan Page, both dedicated to providing resources and advice for struggling up-and-coming writers.