To describe a woman’s writing as sentimental, or as filled with intense feeling (a bad comb-over for sentimental), may still be fighting words in some circles. But though it has been a word used to describe women’s writings (and men’s at times) in a belittling manner, the word sentimental has seen its fair share of credible reevaluation, one of the most discussed being feminist Jane Tompkins’s view of it as the “cultural work” of women (see reference below). But even as I acknowledge the worth of reevaluating a belittling term, I’m rather wary of attempts (good or bad) to make writing gender-specific. Nationalistic writing can make as clear a case as any that sentimentalism is not gender-specific. Both men and women writers from the Caribbean have documented with intense emotion their experiences with the fervor for nationalism, followed by anger and exodus, or quiet disillusionment at home--all part of the history and contemporary condition of many Caribbean countries.
Das came of age in the 1970s while she was a student at the University of Guyana and a member of the Guyana National Service, and her first collection of poems, I Want to be a Poetess of My People (1977), is filled with the excitement and promise of the period and with awe for Forbes Burnham.
From “He Leads The People”:
In the era of the people
I stand astride the excitement of reconstruction.
Eagerness is a sparkling ray in my eye
The blood races through my veins.
. . . .
In the era of the people
The horizon beckons the vision to rise like the morning sun
In the sky.
And in the forefront of battle
He leads the people
Tall, his vision communing with the light on the horizon.
From “Untitled III”:
Birds break through the wall of heaven
and everywhere angels
are chained to darkness.
Now that the Prince’s sceptre has rusted
and the legs of his gilded chair totter --
even now the heavy clank of chains
is heard in his cellars.
But the day to come crouches, holding
in the shadows.
The sun comes up in a coup
for the golden day.
Awaken my love.
In the distance, conches
Let us rise, gathering our skirts
about our knees.
With a song we will plait our hair.
The sun’s rays shall be our morning bangles.
These delicate wrists of morning light shall sustain us.
Let us sling our pails
upon our arms’ strong rods
and dance to the well.
Our men will still be sleeping
while we stoke the fire. The coals
will leap like joy in our hearts,
to flame. Our lords will wake
to hot curries and fresh-baked
And while it is yet dark, they,
will make their way to the fields.
The title poem in Bones, begins with the line “Grotesque jewels, they hang” and I’ve singled it out here, because it almost begs for a comparison with the “bangles” in “Untitled VIII.” From the delicate and strong (pretty-sounding) images of bangles, we move (by way of comparison) to the contrasting images of grotesque jewels and petticoats that “jangle” continuously. The poem’s most striking images are of noisy, plaintive decay and abandonment, which fits its idea of skeletons in the closet (stories) clamouring to come out. But in the last few lines, the mood of the poem changes from plaintive to something more upbeat and buoyant.
Grotesque jewels, they hang
in my closet beside prom dresses
and red pumps.
When petticoats are sleeping,
they continue to jangle.
They make a strange noise.
Moonlight shadows their gauntness.
Pumps and brogues are blind to their squeals.
Veils thin to a fringe on their bony blades
They could tell a tale.
They want a say, without doubt.
Long ago, they were supply fleshed,
But then, all meat fell away
from the bone. Some teeth
and hair remained.
Someone should examine their story.
After all, it’s not that they dwindled
into dust altogether. Besides,
these bones could make more than music.
They’re a fire-tried instrument.
They have no wish to stay in the attic.
They want to be part of the world.
Oh they are hungry for wind to sing
through their tissue, so hungry.
They wait for the earth at the plough.
After winter’s fallowness
and all its severity,
when earth is torn up
by the diligent farmers,
when golden seedlings
love to their heavens,
they wait without praise or reprimand.
So when these white flutes
send a note out -- a golden apple
from the Mexican border -- it takes to air,
Full shape climbing,
helium balloon forever.
--Enotes.com [Essay] : “American History Through Literature.” -- Joyce W. Warren highlights Jane Tompkins’s contribution to a revised view of mid-nineteenth-century sentimentalism in her book, Sensational Designs (1985).
--Trinidad Express [News article, October 2011]: “Dreaming of Change: Tribute to Martin Carter.”