and i am the man / laughing: “Connel, Morning”

Image: Port of Spain, Trinidad, posted at Flickr by Georgia Popplewell under a Creative Commons License.

If you have spent any time at all in Port of Spain, you will know — like this poem knows — that it is worth writing about.

“Connel, Morning” comes from the section of You Have You Father Hard Head that focuses on travel: international to inside your backyard, these poems call on their travellers to remark on what is both remarkable and fascinatingly mundane, from flies to skyscrapers, doubles vendors to the devil in the details. Here is a poem that holds it all in the size of a postage stamp calling you into the nation’s capital.

The speaker of the poem has been summoned into town to retrieve “a lost belonging / years of sensitive data”… a laptop, maybe, filled with private correspondences and splendid assignations? The poem doesn’t say, because its speaker is far more entranced with the sights, smells, sounds, and every other possible sensory configuration of Port of Spain waking up in front of him. It’s a wildly imaginative poem, not because it traces for most Trinbagonians an imaginary space: no, the space is as real as you reading this, or me writing. The bravery of the poem, and the innovation, is in giving us a space we know well and saying, with loving audacity, here, hold this. Look at we place, again, closer. Look and listen to this gridwork of dirty streets, doubles vendors, metal-grille shopfront, government plazas, all near to dubious, reclaimed waterfront, and tell me you eh love this place bad, as much as you cuss it.

“the stream of collared workers emptying
from the mileslong procession of redbanded maxis
as far as the eye can see

the sun has risen in my face
the hint of bagasse still wafting
and this is home”

Maybe you’ve made that journey into town from Arima, from Chaguanas, from Vessigny or Basse Terre, day in day out, Mondays to Fridays, dreading that fold-out seat in the scrunched-up small maxi, or the big ones with the lump where your feet should fit neatly. Maybe Port of Spain is nothing but day wuk and slog and tedium to you; if so the poem’s strength is that it doesn’t preach to you in an attempt to force beauty where there is only, mostly rigour. It is the speaker’s rigour, here, to bring tenderness to the urban, rank, unwashed places of their capital, searching hard for love, surprised and something like elated to find it — to paraphrase another great poet, much like a hibiscus sprouting from concrete.

This is the fifth of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing: “I Have No Name for my Father”

Image: Black Boy Booty, posted at Flickr by nathanmac87 under a Creative Commons License.

We are who we are because of those who made us, or so we’ve been told. We model our lives in the shadows and the halos of our parents, and their parents before them: it’s part of what makes us get through the hard, hard grift of living, sometimes — this notion that we’re acting for our legacy, and in defense of the legacy left for us. Be the kind of woman your mother would be proud to call daughter, or, he’s every bit his father’s son, and that’s a good goddamned thing.

“I Have No Name for my Father”, a poem from the section of You Have You Father Hard Head that also bears that name. The phrase “You have you father hard head” is further embedded in this poem, in a line from a mother to her son as she stresses over the unruliness of her child’s hair. The mother figure is a passive speaker here, in that she does not address the reader of the poem, but there is nothing docile or minimal about her impact. Her frustration at the gone father, the one nameless in both her “disappointed woman’s pain”, and the son’s immersion into the deep lake of that teaching, is written everywhere in the poem’s overt and quiet spaces. The mother’s fraying wig is a tactile symbol of more bedrock fissuring. The boy’s indoctrination into self-loathing, sole male pitted against/cradled within three generations of women who teach him feminism and also introduce him to pervasive self-hatred, permeates to every physical part of him that is fatherless. His body lacks the image and measure of a man named father, as much as he intellectually, emotionally mourns the loss of that figure, that man who might never have been there at the beginning.

The name of the missing and vanished man is known, the poem’s speaker tells us in the poem’s opening lines. Yet there is a great distance between knowing a name, and having it. Having implies possession, implies ease or certainty of ownership. There is no having of this father, though the knowledge of his name permeated the speaker’s childhood, was with him as he sat between his mother’s frustrated knees under the bitter tutelage of her fine-toothed comb.

“You have you father hard head”. It’s worth it to pay attention to the echo and reverb of these words, so significant to the poem, this movement of poems, this collection entire. Linguistically it catches the subject in a vise not of their own making: the you have indicts the speaker into an uneasy, almost unsanctioned ownership, saying “You may know nothing about this man; he may have had nothing to do with you, but in your hair and his there is an unbreakable bond. It’s up to you to live with that.” We add to this the knowledge that “hard head” speaks not only of hair, but of an emotional language so many of these poems’ speakers falter and fight to finesse on their journeys: tenacity; ownwayness; vexation; obdurate ire; stubborn troubling of the waters; ignorance — but the Trini definition, allyuh.

We move through this brief poem as though it is much longer than it is — a skill of the poet, compressing an entire life’s searching, questioning for fatherhood in short, taut verses that do not only occupy the page, but trouble it. Towards the poem’s end, poised once more on a platform that can provide no easy answers, no graceful names:

“A grown man now has no names to own
the blankness that I feel
to silence the longing
What is the name for father I can
sound into the darkness for rescue”

What about you, adult and immaculately poised on the balcony of your own life? This feels strongly like an invitation from the poem, not only to focus on this speaker’s pain, but to taste the unnameable borders of our own. What name do we hold in our soft viscera, hoping to mewl it into the night? What name do we want to wave hard, like a flag?

This is the fourth of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing: “The Plural of Me”

Image: Red Gift, posted at Flickr by Eric Martin under a Creative Commons License.

If we are lucky within our sorrow, those who die before us tell us exactly how they wish to be mourned.

You can take “The Plural of Me” in this spirit. For me, right now at least, it’s difficult to read this poem without wondering if this precisely is how Colin the human being would like to be remembered, would choose his loved ones to live with him. In the poem, the speaker makes a simple exhortation of their future mourners, gathered casketside to send them to a respectful and well-appointed grave. “leave no funereal instructions / to coffin my mourners”, the speaker asks their audience, and it is a deliberate gesture on the poem’s part that we do not know to whom the speaker speaks: will this listener, or group of faithful beloveds, be in attendance at the future funeral, too? Is the subject of the funeral a hazy, too-many-rum-punches-over-brunch hypothetical, or is it ensnared in the specific; is a calendar date assigned to the hour of passing?

These are not questions for which there are ready answers. So it is, with what death leaves us and what we are left to take, two-handed and bewildered, from her sovereign wake. It’s as if we are resident within a poem where the speaker already knows this to be true, already knows there will be an “inventing memory from desire for my / respectability achievement bodyparts worthiness”. Faced with this certainty that they will be misremembered, unevenly allocated, imprecisely configured in the minds and testimonies of those left to mourn them, the speaker issues a simple addendum to this necessary pageant.

Box me up in little packages, they say. Let the people of my life and now my afterlife live with me as they may.

Ahh, this shifts the goalpost, or the procession standard, of the terms of the death-deal, doesn’t it? The speaker allows the expected rituals of congregation and varying reports of their stature, but also insists, “if public health allow” (a swiping unintended brutality of the poem, written years before anyone knew our public health crisis of 2021 would make gathered mourning a heavily curtailed transaction), that these mourners must also literally take their beloved home. It matters, the poem tells us gently and sternly, not only how we wail and rend and pulpitize on the day of mourning, but how we live with the departed beloved after there are no guestbooks left to sign, when it is only you and your grief and your remembering: only you you must hold to account for well or ill you served as friend, as ally.

“parcel my cremains like wedding cake
small ribbon-tied boxes
for everyone to travel home with
stamp and spit and pee on as they curse
or smear themselves to rapture”

The poem understands, and waits patiently for us to understand too, that the many stations of death have their own allotted times: that there is the public-facing death, and the several that fewer and fewer know about, til you are distilled to the one death you can hold in your hands, can scoop into your mouth or lay on your tongue like ashes.

It is impossible, and I will not try, to say I can read this poem and not miss Colin. I miss my ally. There is a void and an aching that this writing about his work creates, and I would not wish it otherwise. I want to curse, and smear my ash.

This is the third of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing: “Waiting for your Gun”

Image: Jump, posted at Flickr by Scott McLean under a Creative Commons License.

We never know when we’ll be called on to dive.

Robinson’s erotic poems have long been footsoldiers in the frontlines of my heart’s reaching for meaning. If I am ever unsure I’ll find it in living, I know I’ll feel it in poems like “Waiting for your Gun”, which poises a speaker on the slippery edge of a diving board, holding them there in self-censuring shame over the roundness of their gut, the enormity of their appetites. Our speaker begins by telling us they are awaiting permission: the work of the unravelling poem that follows is to claim that wanting out loud, without a by-your-leave. In effect, the body of the poem splits off from the head, hunger doing backflips and handstands under the water, while the unspoken wanting and waiting treads calmly on the surface of this narrative. Everything you want you can find, this poem tells us — you just hadda go deeper.

I want Colin Robinson’s poems of wanting in my life forever because they do exactly this: show us the entanglements and delectable agonies of wanting, in a world where nothing is as simple or as uncomplicated as a man desiring another man. You will notice in “Waiting for your Gun” that there are no sweeping pronouncements of desire for/of an entire community. There is only this springboard of hunger, the speaker contemplating the directions given by the object of their need, the preparation of that active flame that vaults the reader through positions of athletic poise. We move from springboard to racer’s starting tracks in a tautness of diction that is both anticipatory and avid:

“i was all ready in the starting blocks
not wanting to jump your gun
risk disqualification
you were ripe
and sweeter and bigger and closer
than i had imagined”

The wanting becomes so acute that it transmogrifies into Christmas, that ultimate crucible of desires unwrapped. In those final movements of the poem, the speaker feels childlike again with spitwet fingers peeling ever closer to the epicentre of discovery. Regarding a tree ornament in the hand of a two year old takes on a crystalline urgency, a sense that, in the poem’s last line, “call me i’d hold fast tug and the globe would shatter”. There is no precious holding or handling here. The world of the poem runs on ferality, wrapped in a round belly rippling with its secret stresses of ardour, strong calves tensed to dive, a man the object of desire, just about ready to peel and scarf completely.

The poem asks us, what do we do when we get to the brink of our potbellied, penis-throbbing want? What would you do? Can you declaim it in lines as hot, and holy, and activated in sweat and sulphur, as these?

This is the second of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing — “I Want to Bite”

Image: moonwall, posted at Flickr by stuartanthony under a Creative Commons License.

The poem is telling us about shapeshifting.

One of the earliest poems in Colin Robinson’s You Have You Father Hard Head, “I Want to Bite” is a spare, enigmatic offering, showing the reader vignettes in eight movements. I am fortunate enough to be a nameless stagehand at these scenes, not remotely pivotal to them in any way, but a certain kind of present, a particular sense in which I was both there and not there. The actions of the poem all occur at the 2010 Cropper Foundation’s Residential Workshop, a three-week long creative writing intensive at which I met Colin, along with several other writers whose work, like Colin’s, is as valuable to me as any vital currency.

If you were there, as I was, some of the instances the poem rethreads seem and feel familiar: they hearken to events that happened, as the poem describes them, in 2010: there are tableaux of accusatory linens flapping in the Toco breeze; undersalted food served at a broad table; a visit from a poet who speaks of an intense attachment to lagahoos. There is some satisfaction in the being there, and especially there is a kind of aching elation at not being pinned to any of these scenes: a kind of richness begins to unravel, red and soaked in memory, from seeing the space as Colin the person and poet remembered it, the events that happened in that strange, wild, transformative time when writers gathered as strangers to each other to write and tell each other in kind and unkind terms what they thought of each others’ writing. There is pleasure in seeing the poet transmogrify on the page that which was experience, lived and actual, into the matter of poetry, which needs to express no full fidelity to fact or fiction.

Perhaps one of the greatest powers of the poem is that each of its eight movements, set interspersed at opposite alignments on the page (i starts on the left hand, ii on the right, and so forth) is that you, the reader, do not need to have been there to feel that the world of this place is real: that biting and transforming are crucial to its strange, unheimlich manifestations. In the first verse, both soycouyant and la diablesse are summoned entirely without speculative fanfare, but as simple declarations. Brown blood wells in the second movement, the action of the speaker dislocating their scabs; we move from one brownness to another in movement three, with the advent of a small brown insect visitor, unwelcome and leggy on the speaker’s bed.

Held in suspension from each other, these movements might resemble a disjointed quarrying of the mind over days spent in one place. Yet when the poet tells us, in movement seven,

a poet
hung a lagahoo’s picture
over his bedhead
to seduce verse”

and we turn the page of the book to read the poem’s conclusion:

we should not be ashamed
shift form”

we must acknowledge that this is no idle quarry; this is a rich and unsentimental hoard: eight steps through brown blood, soiled linen, lagahoo energy and too little salt to say a heraldic suck your mudda to shame. That it has no place in these motions of writerly living, though so much writerly living is embedded in shame, the secret, the unaddressed. In so few lines, Robinson addresses so much of it, allowing us to partake in these recollections made poetry, these observances of how life has passed through the poet in a specific place, how the poet, like any good and watchful poet, has taken those memories into the mas of the poem. And what we have, as you can, see — oh, how it transforms us.

This is the first of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

39. Daughters of Empire by Lakshmi Persaud

Published in 2012 by Peepal Tree Press.

Amira Vidhur, an educated, upper-class Indo-Trinidadian, migrates with her husband and three daughters to Mill Hill, London, in the 1970s. Life in this charming suburb is far from unassuming, and Amira must adapt quickly to the vast differences in culture and expectation. Striving to be a dutiful wife, wise mother, friendly neighbor, accomplished gardener and, in the midst of all this, a self-sufficient woman, Amira’s journey is often met by challenges. She seeks the counsel of her bossy elder sister Ishani, a Trinidad-based businesswoman who has remained home to run the family store. Despite Ishani’s often comically-phrased advice, Amira learns that she must chart her own path, in uncertain territory, with lessons she’s learned while on Trinidadian soil.

Readers often expect that stories strongly populated by female characters will be rooted, for better or worse, in domestic issues and an excess of emotion. Though the concerns of home and family play a vital part in Lakshmi Persaud’s newest novel, Daughters of Empire, they cannot be said to rule it, either. Amira is the predominant narrator, yet space is made for the perspectives of other women to shine through: not just Ishani’s voice is heard, but also the voices of Amira’s three daughters, Anjali, Satisha and Vidya. Dedicating itself to the span of generations, Persaud’s tale traces the journeys of these women, and others, as they do battle with society’s demands. Injustices are experienced on a minor and massive scale; these heroines are betrayed, scarred and manipulated, but it is their own sense of community and personal strength that encourages them to persist. The blueprint of Amira’s resilience becomes a mantle taken up by each of her daughters in distinct ways. It is especially intriguing to see how the three Vidhur children hold fast to their parents’ ideals, and how they create their own mottos for survival, too.

Written in a sweetly engaging style, Daughters of Empire shies away from the gritty, harsh narrative structure that defines so much of contemporary fiction. Persaud could be partially likened to a Caribbean Jane Austen, underscoring the deepest of issues with a light, graceful hand. If the novel sometimes reads like a giddy comedy of errors, it is worth noting that it confronts questions of race, class, gender, xenophobia and spirituality, from a series of outlooks. The reader will find her assumptions challenged on even the simplest of matters, finding out in the process that sometimes the least refined arguments are the ones most worth having.

Past and present, England and Trinidad, rural country roads and commercial city centres: this is a novel of polarities, of opposite ends finding unexpected meeting places. Persaud’s storytelling is more sophisticated than mere comparison, though; it also considers this: how do we live ‘abroad’, when these foreign landscapes are swiftly becoming our homes? When her happiness is threatened, Amira wonders, “She was living at the close of the twentieth century and still following her mother’s way. But how could you stop the past walking beside you?”

There is, admittedly, a way in which the Vidhur clan loves, admires and respects its members that seems a little too perfectly… satisfyingAt certain sections of the novel’s progress, one is forced to consider whether or not this dynamic, self-sufficient band of brilliant and multi-talented individuals can’t weather every obstacle that life slings in their direction. Amends are made frequently in Persaud’s narrative, with seemingly effortless elan, scripted with the most cloying of diplomacies. If this is not how people reconcile in reality, the reader may well conclude, then, by Shiva’s trident, they damned well should.

Natural beauty is everywhere in Daughters of Empire, often unearthed in the most unlikely of places. The persistence of Nature and the constant rhythms of the seasons act in contrast to the unstable currents of human interaction, a reminder that the world continues to revolve while we ponder its mysteries. In the fragrant, delicious meals that Amira prepares, there is a richness of flavour and texture that woos even her most reluctant of neighbours to her London dinner table. Similarly, Amira’s old teachers who run a cookery school in rural Trinidad channel this knowledge, passing it on to their students: that an appreciation for the art of cooking can influence one’s entire life positively.

“They learned about the fibres, textures and flavours of vegetables, meats, fish and spices… the structure of the fibres, the strength of the raw materials’ natural flavours influenced the choice of spices as well as the methods of cooking… they began to transfer this training to their lives and their dealings with those they encountered. Methods of cooking became the methods of communicating with others, how to speak to bring understanding […] They had been laying the foundations for them to reinvent themselves as well as recipes.”

The earth is filled with this untapped splendour, Persaud’s novel seems to suggest, and it remains the reward of those who seek beauty with unfailing honesty and appreciation, asking nothing in return. In this way, Amira, who once described herself as “still in the infant class on how to live a good life”, and the other remarkable women she loves, are able to navigate their own courses confidently, reminding themselves that there is goodness at the heart of most, if not all things.

A marginally shorter version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on October 7th, 2012, entitled ‘Caribbean Jane Austen’ novel tackles hard questions.

The three books of my 26th birthday.

I turned twenty-six on August 18th. Part of these celebrations involved the merry claiming of Novel Niche’s very own, spiffy domain! That’s right… instead of holding to that handy ‘dot wordpress dot com’ suffix, I took the plunge, and now Novel Niche lives at ‘dot net dot com’. Apart from the ability to fit the blog’s name more handily and elegantly upon business cards, and the thrill of its triple alliteration, nothing else has changed. I haven’t gone corporate, I’ve just… embraced the delights of a new address.

I cannot recall a single birthday where my mother hasn’t gifted me a book, or several. This year it was one, and I am glad it came unaccompanied. There’s something to be said for the single title in your hands, the way it demands your attention, especially if it’s worthy. My mother never gifts me books that won’t, sooner or later, inhabit precious space in my interior weather.

Library Journal describes This Strange Land, (Alice James Books, 2011) the third full-length poetry collection of Jamaican poet Shara McCallum, as “poems of ruin and rebirth, … a marvellous collection filled with a lovely and evocative music.” Even more entrancing than this is fellow Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison’s assessment:

“Jean Rhys could be the presiding spirit of this moving collection, which mines deep veins of loss and displacement. The personal and the political converge in new ways in these finely crafted poems, and readers should be prepared for unexpected turns and genuine surprises.”

A collection governed by that particular Jean Rhys-ian sentiment and spirit will win me over, I know, in ways I may find difficult to articulate, in the aftermath of my experiences with the work. I wasn’t exaggerating when I called Wide Sargasso Sea my Everything Book, back when I recommended six Caribbean novels for summer/long vacation/life reading. I am just as eager to discover just how Rhys “presides”, as Goodison suggests, in these poems, as I am to find out how McCallum speaks, hearing the shape and weight of her poetic concerns as articulated in her own voice. (The collection is beautifully accompanied by a CD of the poet reading several of her pieces.)

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Shara McCallum read her work before, at a 2012 Bocas reading with Guyanese poet, Fred D’AguiarThis Strange Land was longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. When I heard McCallum read, I knew I would need to acquire her work, vitally and through urgent means, so it made the best kind of sense to be surprised with it on my birthday, by my mother. That language of essential, literary knowingness, can be so tenuous, so impossible to script convincingly between two souls. I am infinitely lucky to have that with my mum.

My uncle and I have this tradition: no matter how busy our lives get, he takes me book-shopping on my birthdays. Last year, he bought me The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj (at whose 2012 Bocas reading I was present, and on which I shared my thoughts), and Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love. This year, I chose two titles firmly rooted in Caribbean terra firma.

Haitian writer Myriam J. A. Chancy’s The Loneliness of Angels (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and is hailed on the Bocas blog as “steeped in Haitian history, charting human connections across gulfs of time and space.” Told from multiple narrative voices, spanning generations, borders, languages and communities, the novel hints, even from its blurb, at a transformation (or else a confirmation) of how Haiti is perceived. It feels that it will be a necessary read, if not an easy one. Spiritual matters are said to bind the novel’s numerous threads, and I am, I confess, almost singularly concerned in seeing how this is borne out.

Chancy read from The Loneliness of Angels at this year’s Bocas festival, too, but with the program as delightfully stuffed as it was, I couldn’t make it. When next she reads here, I will endeavour to be in attendance, my well-read copy in hand.

Another writer whose Bocas reading I missed was that of Indian author Rahul Bhattacharya. His novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011) was the winner of this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and generated quite a bit of buzz at Bocas, too. It is annoying to consider that Kirkus Reviews touts the book as “occasionally rippling with pidgin English and yet always sparkling with literary insights”, as though the presence of the former could automatically be thought of as a detractor to the latter. Kirkus goes on to say that the narrative is set “within the landscape of a forgotten corner of South America…an exotic locale”, compounding my issues with its nonetheless glowing write-up. I’m much happier quoting the dust jacket’s other critic, Sam Lipsyte:

“What a voice, what a startling, funny, charming, provocative voice! Rahul Bhattacharya’s narrator is a true wanderer and a gifted poet of description. The journey he takes us on, through Guyana, through histories and selves, is a wonder.”

Perhaps the reality of having grown up/continuing to grow up in a former colony, of inhabiting a place that others feel comfortable breezily grouping as “oh, the islands“, perhaps that has led me to think of “exotic” as pejorative rather than laudatory. No islands are created equal; there is nothing in Trinidadian history that ought compel one to think it is synonymous with Guyanese history, a reality that writers like Bhattacharya doubtless know. I love reading novels about Guyana, not because it is an exotic place, but because the novels are about Guyana. That an Indian native has written what’s been called the quintessential Guyanese novel is not a deterrent. It hints to the possibility of more access to seeing, and to the abundant richness of discovery — both of which can lead to the finest writing.

I’d meant to close this post with thoughts on the book I ordered for myself, in recognition of twenty-six bibliophilic years. I’ve wanted it for so long, and been quietly enthralled with its writer for even longer. I will speak of it, and her, another time, when my order is delivered, and I’m holding that much-anticipated volume in my grateful, hungry hands.

34. The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman by Loretta Collins Klobah

Published in 2011 by Peepal Tree Press.

Winner of the Poetry Category Prize, OCM Bocas 2012.

Shortlisted for the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature 2012.

Shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, 2012.

We lead complex, beautiful, many-dimensioned relationships with the Caribbean islands we inhabit. They require different masks, evolving responses to unpredictable seasons: whether we luxuriate in the heated thrust of Carnival, or mourn our murderous headlines, we, people of these particular islands, contain multitudes. This is one of the many gracefully-articulated messages woven into the fabric of Loretta Collins Klobah’s poems. At their forefront gleams the titular persona, the twelve foot neon woman, a resistance heroine, a glorious Madonna for the 21st century. She resonates with passion as much as she snarls in discontent, this unabashed Puertorriqueña, and in so doing she provides both anchor and platform for Klobah’s wondrously sung pieces.

Indeed, it is singing that comes first to mind as one allows this collection to simmer in the blood, registering the finely-wrought heat of its movements, the attention paid to dance and the rhythms many claim as indigenous to our shared shorelines. In “The BBC Does Bomba”, barrio children set themselves free to the persistent, encouraging tattoos pounded out on Modesto Cepeda’s barrel-drum, becoming receptacles of kinetic splendour.

“Girls raise the ruffled circle-skirt
to salute the drum, flick wrists
con fuerza until the butterfly skirts snap
por la derecha, por la izquierda,
the flower-print cotton
faldas swinging like machetes
over the harvest.”

Wrapped up in the flowing undulations of dances like these, the poet reminds us, are examinations that pierce, conducted by both foreign and local eyes. The question of perceptions, of how Puerto Rico and the wider Caribbean sees itself, how we are seen by others, runs through several of the poems, keenly felt in pieces such as “Googling the Caribbean Suburbs”. Here, the narrator conducts a search that zooms in on satellite images of her home from space, the rows of houses making up, in impersonal relief, the neighbourhood whose inhabitants she knows intimately, having shared her life in close communion with their own. “Google Earth makes us out as small, blurred spaces,” the penultimate line of the poem reports, closing with, “That’s how we look, from out there.”

Embedded in this discussion of how we see ourselves are uncompromising, angry refrains against the criminal violence exploding through Puerto Rican and all Caribbean streets. Klobah’s voice rings out against the censorship of police brutality, gang warfare, injustices against children. These poems do the opposite of presenting a unified touristic front: they impel in language that abjures the severity of academia for the warmth of the pueblo, for the anxious concerns of living, working, struggling Caribbean people. “We have created a new world where the indiscriminate gun is always at our backs,” laments the narrator, in “El Velorio, The Wake (1893)”, a poem that paints in vivid and excruciating detail the preparations for the funeral of a child killed by a stray bullet.  Unforgettable images of sorrow in the wake of destruction accompany many of these examinings, in the shape of a halo of flies around a child’s head; of corpses that “lie in little beds of straw in the war zones”; of five young bodies tumbling off a fortress wall, “their surprised appendages flailing like starfish legs, turning like pinwheels.”

At the epicentre of all this, the soul’s purely decadent delight with its own rhythms is allowed to unfurl. Poems like “The First Day of Hurricane Season” possess this self-ownership without apology or shame, as its narrator, a woman in the full glow of her maturity, savours the taste of her life as it is now.

“I brew fresh ginger tea with coarse brown cane sugar,
cut a papaya, and watch the sun bead its juices.
No one ever taught me to expect that a phase of life
spent without a lover could be as happy, simple, and rich
as this.”

There is a way, too, that Nature reaches out to graze its fingertips against the wetness of human experience in the poet’s verse. The veil between what we fabricate for convenience, and what the land offers us for survival: this seems thinnest and most porous in pieces such as “Night Wash”, wherein a woman, post-washtub-rinsing, hears night beckoning her. “When one frog sings alone,” she listens, “it sounds like someone weeping, or hiccuping after the kind of hot-eyed, bottomless weeping that I have not had for a very long time.” Even amidst the uncertainty of violence, about which nothing is definite other than its eventuality, these poems are sheathed in sylvan hope. They can show you the way back to your own open heart,  gently, with the grace of forests, bamboo cathedrals, singing frogs.

If we run the risk of becoming inured to daily senselessness, then Klobah’s poems pull us back from the brink of ennui, reminding us what fiery solace can live in raised arms of protest. There is a balance here of old worlds meeting new, of the slavery barracks colliding with street art, of our ancestors melding into the patterns of fierce pop and rap songs.

The twelve-foot woman herself, she who can claim many names in daylight or in darkness, holds this cultural syncretism proudly in the cradle of her belly. In the lushly-titled “The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman on Top of María’s Exotik Pleasure Palace Speaks of Papayas, Hurricanes, and Wakes”, she sways in her hard-won confidence. She has wrestled her autonomy from the clutches of slave owners and abusive lovers, from history’s cruelties and a nation’s difficult congress with itself. She channels “Oya, orisha of whirlwinds and cemeteries”, making no apologies for her pain, no reparations for her sweet, Boricua music, intent on “writing my son and daughter all my love songs,” a woman warrioress we both need and recognize triumphantly.

A marginally shorter version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on August 19th, 2012. You can view it here.

Andre Bagoo interviews Loretta Collins Klobah in the September/October issue of Caribbean Beat, here.

33. Near Open Water by Keith Jardim

Published in 2011 by Peepal Tree Press.

Longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

You should never underestimate good short fiction, I thought, dragging the back of my hand across my stinging eyes. I had just read the first story, called “In The Atlantic Field” of Keith Jardim’s collection, and already, just like that, the serenity of my day had been stolen. I put the book down, took decisive steps away from it. I walked around the house, and when I returned to the book, it was with mild resentment (the good kind), mixed with greater parts curiosity and the salted wound of unscripted emotional response. I read on.

The twelve stories in Near Open Water invite our considerations (and yes, our tears, too) on loss and excess, each one set or linked closely to a vast body of water. In “In The Atlantic Field”, a young boy and his mother go for a longer-than-usual drive along the north coast road. Nicolas meets a beautiful young woman and learns both less, and more, than he wants to know in “The Marches of Blue.” “The Visitors” who come to Trevor’s father’s house are intent on finding something to satisfy their motivations. In “The White People Maid”, Cynthia meets a legendary figure after witnessing a gruesome pharmacy robbery. A man and a woman play with dangerous intimacies before a wild beast’s enclosure, in “In the Cage.” Complacent Gene and frustrated Anna travel to Georgetown by Essequibian boat in “A Landscape Far From Home.” “Caribbean Honeymoon” tells the story of quite a different couple on quite a different, crueller journey. Nello, the narrator of “Fire in the City”, muses on the directions his own life has taken. A man takes a drive whose destination seems both grim and unclear, in “Kanaima, Late Afternoon”. Roy and Fiona visit the zoo’s most regal occupant, learning more about its origins from an eccentric source in “The Jaguar”. “Night Rain” tells a seemingly-bare story of a man who visits a woman in bed. The collection concludes with its titular piece, “Near Open Water”, in which a journal is kept, a dream is had, and more than one frightful thing is embedded into a consciousness, for good (or not so good).

Perhaps some of these descriptions strike one as would blurry, indistinct landscape art, the sort that adorns dental waiting rooms. If there is vagueness in the detailing here, it is because detail can linger where you least expect it in Jardim’s work. Neither the reader nor the narrator can be guaranteed of any answers that will illuminate. In “The Marches of Blue”, after a string of seemingly-unconnected encounters with other islanders, Nicolas turns to his severe grandmother for the mapping-lines that will make sense of their stories, receiving further uncertainty for his pains. What she does share is coloured in with a kind of resigned, tranquil bitterness.

“His grandmother said: “The sweetness of the very young, to think that. But age dries up things in you, even poetry, like this damned island. Damned because everything that has ever happened here over the last five hundred years was never meant to happen, was a mistake, wrong. […] I’m an old woman now, and I don’t want to drag up the past. It’s too tiresome. I want to tend my garden and die in peace.”

With uncertain provenance, guided by ambitious and destructive historical sculptors, how can any path we reasonably take in Caribbean waters seem straightforward? In this way, the stories interrogate a time that perhaps has always been marred by fracture, split on more fault lines than lends comfort.

There is a certain savagery to unchecked human appetite, to the places it can lead. In these stories, personal pleasures are pursued recklessly, consequence a distant island blurring out of focus. “Total madness” is the way Nello describes a club scene in “Fire in the City”, adding “like people only want to dance their life away. Not just the night, eh. Their whole fockin’ life. And to hell with the damn island.” Some characters are barely bemused by the curious, inelegant politics that govern survival. Roy explains to Fiona, when she presses him for a detail he is either unwilling or unable to provide, that “The rumours are there. This place is loaded with them. It’s a way of life here. How can people not make assumptions? It’s how the island amuses itself…”. For others, like the young writer in “Near Open Water”, the pursuit of a contemplative interior life, set against a vivid natural backdrop, can mask the fear of things committed towards violent ends, things guessed at and unknown. He tries to keep a journal against such thoughts, but a voice  both cautionary and seductive encroaches on his pages, with dire warnings that hint at his fate.

“This matter of fate, and the uneasy part of yourself – you leave it abruptly. No reflection whatever; you told me that’s dangerous, that’s what’s wrong with the world – the neglect of history, and of selves, even. And here you are, guilty of it, refusing to take your own advice. Or is it the melancholy the sea brings to most of us? […] It seems an act of destruction has begun…”

In spite of this questionable interpersonal canvas, the land and water offer, if not outright solutions, then a measure of solace, of feeling oneself linked to something other than a daily gamble with rigged odds. Jardim’s prose reveals the places we inhabit in stunning, achingly grateful ways. The young boy who frolicks on the north coast littoral in “In The Atlantic Field” experiences a suspended moment of raw glory.

“He’s in the haze, happy in the light. The wet rocks are dark and glinting. He throws the spear at them; it breaks in two and falls into the bright surf. Among the rocks there is one with a smooth, triangular slate surface angling at him. He finds a quartz-crystal stone and begins writing the words: I am the first person here.”

Unfettered love for the land and its non-bipedal citizens grants us access to people who cherish existence differently, operating off the grid in quirkily reassuring ways. The itinerant, multi-wristwatched Dr. Edric Traboulay, who favours Roy and Fiona with smatterings of his wit, vast knowledge and naturist’s sympathies, reminds us that the truest names for jaguars, even caged ones, aren’t the cutesy handles affixed to official signposts. The verdant thickets indigenous to islands; the mangrove’s mystery; the sea’s brutal, tender refrain: all are suggestions on how we might live, or alter our living. The dearth of characters like Traboulay suggests that we are immune, or too far removed, to hear or respond authentically.

This is the thing about painful literature: it hurts. Revelations in print rest uneasily, many of them because they are less revelations and more revolving doors smacking us in the face with more truth than we like. It makes reading Jardim essential, rewardingly thorny: here are vistas framed by separate seas, converging. For those willing to explore, there are reminders of beauty, even levity, in the muck: rambling zoologists; feisty domestic workers resisting kleptomanic labels; bliss, at finding the perfect north coast road to unmoor what remains of a distant, faintly shimmering life.

16. Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

Published in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press.

“God, that’s sexy as hell.”

This is what I thought as I sat in the audience of the Paper Based bookshop at the Hotel Normandie, a fortnight shy of one year ago, listening to Anton Nimblett read from the titular offering of his short story collection, in which the narrator shares a highly unusual post-haircut pleasure at his stand-in barber’s basement. I know the oft-deceptive spell that a writer who reads his work well can cast, though, so I purposed to find out whether or not, frankly, the sex was sustained as convincingly on paper as it was in person. I was not disappointed.

There are eleven stories in Sections of an Orange, some of which are connected by the same characters, telling different sides of the same, or different, tales.  In “Visiting Soldiers”, we confront the peculiarities of a quietly devastating loss, as we learn exactly what one bereaved mother carries in her purse. We nod in agreement at the description of the busybody neighbour in “Into My Parlour”, who feeds on gossip and forces doubt, with one well-timed suggestion. “On the Side” swerves between dual expositions: a gory car accident and the bonds of food and familiarity that link the two men entangled in it. “Time and Tide” traces the retreat of one of those men to Trinidad, where he allows himself to trade past hurt for the present of easy talk on Maracas beach, and the very definition of one pleasant surprise. In “Just Now”, we learn that there’s more to that pleasant surprise than a body that blesses a crisp white shirt with a bit extra beauty—we meet his wife, and the everyday voodoo love that anchors him happily to her side. We attempt not to cry at the miracle that dwells in the simple gift of “Marjory’s Meal”. “How Far, How Long” has us shake hands with Ray, and his man… and his other man, and how they’re all simultaneously incredible, but not quite enough. “Sections of an Orange” juxtaposes snippets of a hit-and-run news brief with one of the most tantalizing trips to the barber ever recorded. That barber, a misunderstood creative close to implosion, seals his fate with a trip to Van Cleef and Arpels, in “Ring Games”. In case we’d forgotten, we’re reminded  of the soothing balm avoidance can bestow, when we read what one good woman does for love in “Mr. Parker’s Behaviour”. The collection closes with the heart-thudding narrative of a man who’s best recognized for everyone, and everything, he isn’t, in “One, Two, Three – Push”.

A familiarity of place, persona and situation abounds in these tales of Trinidad and New York, but I have found that it takes more than mere recognition in fiction to make the writing sizzle. Thankfully, the familiarity in Sections of an Orange is partnered with both subtle and audacious (but never mawkish) wit and whimsy. I could not imagine saying to Nimblett, “You, sir, are out of touch.” Nimblett knows. He writes with the voice of a writer who sees, who spends a lot of time, maybe all the time, looking. Listening. Feeding off the vibe of strangers and best-beloveds alike—and if that sounds malicious, then it ought to be asserted that eavesdropping, observation and a good old Trini maco are the polished trade-tools with which the hottest literature is churned out.

I like the unpredictability of this collection, the way that the oeuvre defies pigeonholing with no mean spirit. You might watch the cover of the novel and instantly formulate your best-intentioned prejudices, but the writing will smack you on the cheek, whisper archly, “So yuh thought I was a book of gay stories, eh? Well, yuh damn wrong…”, but even this revelation is not cruel in the way it caresses your senses. Yes, within these pages are the travails and the merriments, the hassle and hustle and delight of men who love men, but to say that this encapsulates the work Nimblett has done is poor praise, if it can be called that. Yes, the work provides a fresh, relevant point of access to disenfranchised gay Trinidadian and Caribbean men. It also treats with grieving mothers, with the weight of suspicion surrounding non-heteronormative behaviour both home and away. It peers into the isolation experience, the journeys of Trinidadians to the United States, the sense of community away from the island hearth, and the voices of remarkable people as they plot their place in a society that does not share their several secret languages. There would be no shame, I think, if Sections of an Orange were a book devoted solely to the queer masculine perspective of the Trinidadian-American citizen, but the wealth of its multivalent concerns pre-empts that, soundly.

Readers, I am hunting for a quote from these pages, from any of these eleven productions in loss, longing, hunger, and the cry of the fettered Self, and yet… I find that I want to present entire pages of prose, instead. The passage that describes the magicked yet terrestrially gritty encounter between barber Glen and our unnamed narrator, who is given the honorific of “Chocolate Man” by the former, is lip-bitingly potent.

The two men succumb to the allure of fresh fruit in their pageantry of lovemaking:

“This time he grabs a section of the orange, holds it six inches in front of my face, and steadying himself with one hand right next to me, he squeezes with the other hand. Juice falls through the air, hitting my chest, pooling at the centre and trickling down my belly. He waves his hand around, still squeezing, so that juice hits my face and shoulders, collecting in the hollow at my collarbone and forming a liquid necklace at my throat. His eyes follow the movement of his hand, a hand that seems to follow the orange, tracing some deliberate pattern that only he knows. His fingers, smooth dark peninsulas that end in crowns of perfect pink nail, are wet now, and I want him to touch me.”

(from “Sections of an Orange”)

Landscape is just as vividly rendered—we feel that we are walking with the tormented Push as he struggles towards claiming his identity, as he paces the city streets.

“A thin breeze greets Push in the Brooklyn night — cooler than earlier. Red Hook buildings carve skeletons against an indigo sky, like dinosaur exhibits in a museum after hours. Telephone wires sag from wood poles, recalling yesterdays. Uneven cobblestone patches poke history through asphalt streets.”

(from “One, Two, Three – Push”)

When landscape and character meld so seamlessly, finessed with the talent of subtle strokes, we can read lines like these, wherein a man surrenders himself to the grief of an inevitable loss, in the midst of preparing a tribute that rivals coffers of precious metals.

“The tears came drop by drop, pooling until they flowed, and flowing more and more until they bloomed into sound — one low, deep sob and then another and another, until his body was shaking. Then he had to set the knife down as he crumbled from his middle, folding at the gut and catching his head in his hands. There, with the breeze still gently stirring the leaves, with the birds still singing sweetly and the waves still lapping on the shore, he cried alone.”

(from “Marjory’s Meal”)

You could shelve this book with your queer literature anthologies, sure, but I daresay your hand would hesitate. You’d look across at your trove of Caribbean lit., of course, and glance meaningfully at your American contemporary fiction, almost as if in reflex motion. Let’s not even think about that cross-section of diaspora writing you’ve accumulated over the years, or your favourite social commentary-related writing… or, in fact, let’s. Perhaps, in the end, you’ll  file Sections of an Orange with the books that best remind you of home, the books by which, if you have allowed yourself to live, you can shake your head at your own damn foolishness, swallow a lump of pride at your better intentions, smile and remember all the inventions of mind and heart you pioneered, for love.

The author discusses his work, influences and his indebtedness to a sense of community in the article Anton Nimblett Responds, at The Signifyin’ Woman’s review site, here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.