The poems in this first collection, by Tanya Shirley, are divided into three compartments or themes: “Restoration,” “Waiting for Rain,” and “The Shifting Ground.” And included in each compartment of poems is a title poem. I’m still adhering to my basic philosophy that poems are cheapened by collective assessments or analyses, but one sweeping remark is worth making about Shirley’s collection, which is that in almost every instance the speaker in the poem appears to address an audience / listener with whom she shares a culture, a belief system, and /or a certain type of “outsider” experience. The speaker can be seen as a modern-day griot of sorts / entertainer / storyteller / keeper-of-culture, but that doesn’t mean the poems can’t be appreciated by those who don’t share or understand the speaker’s culture, belief system or experiences; there are, as can be found in any thoughtful, evocative writing, lots of open moments for a wider audience to come in and enjoy the poems.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the speaker assumes an audience who understands that dreams have meanings, that mothers “know” things, that children who may at first laugh at their mother’s “far-fetched visions” may one day inherit the burden of the ability to have those same types of visions. And I’m not talking here about the neoscience definition of visions that we get (more often than not) from the visitor couches of prominent talk-shows. I’m talking about something perhaps with less potential to be widely commercial... One speaker accepts this vision inheritance with bloody rue--
...I have come to know
that the people I love will always be slaughtered in my dreams.
(Can that kind of vision be packaged and sold successfully?)
Another speaker entertains with the description of a woman who may appear to be a cultural stereotype, but whose life is actually filled with complex layers of knowledge and experiences. In the poem she is a “Melba.”
...a tie-head, Clarendon woman
too busy rearing wayward goats and fowl,
cultivating stubborn crops: yam, callaloo, pumpkin;
always cooking for no less than ten children,
and her man is a rum back
. . .
The last time she saw a penis...
. . .
the thing was big like the cucumber she had sliced
that morning to use as garnish in Home Economics class
. . .
And she didn’t really want to look
but Pastor spent so long looking at it
and grinning and rubbing and panting,
she had to see the thing for herself.
. . .
She finds God’s face in the holes of the zink roof,
petitions his mercy with heaving and writhing,
. . .
Melba is only interested in the size of miracles
Filled with longing for home from afar, another speaker talks to those of us who would understand--
Here, my mouth is full but my tongue is numb.
Just for remembrance, I talk patwa to the furniture.
And, in a poem about death and dying, the speaker pulls a wider audience in with these short, blunt lines of pain which end with a twist--a pairing of opposites that may seem cruel to the speaker, but that is certainly a common fact of our existence:
It is hard to stomach
the body’s emptying--
the constant flow of faeces
the colour of tar--
when you know cancer
does not belong
in the cavern of a woman
who reared roses
A closer look...
From “Restoration” (the first stanza):
between concrete and forest
where damp rises
from a collage of leaves
black people gather
the scattered seeds
from unfurled hems
flaying in the wind
beneath the tight hold
The poem is dedicated to Cave Canem (an organization dedicated to cultivating the growth of African-American poets), and it begins by placing us somewhere between man-made constructs (concrete) and the uncultivated (forest). Among the range of possible interpretations are those of either vastness--the ideological distance--between the two, or a condition of conflict, depending on how you see it. The description continues, in the second and third lines, of a place (this vast area of conflict, perhaps) where damp (in noun form) rises from a collage of leaves. The image of damp rising, could run the gamut of unpleasant--from mildly so (a slight humidity) to something akin to a moldy, disease-spreading condition. But conversely, if it (the damp) comes from the energy created in the processing from tree, to paper, to writing, to leaves of a book, or something the eye imagines in a natural setting (a certain reflective view of the leaves of a tree, perhaps)--it could be the by product of something pleasant.
Somewhere in or between this almost perfect condition of ambivalence, according to the verse, black people gather “the scattered seeds / spread / from unfurled hems.” The alliterative scattered seeds spread is a visual sprawl from one line to another and conveys an image of abundance of both the black people gathered and of what they may be gathering from “unfurled hems.” The alliteration, the word “unfurled,” the use of “damp” as a noun, the description of a “collage of leaves,” evoke many levels of meaning and give the verse the feel of a poet at work. “Unfurled hem” also connotes an image of freedom, and this freedom may be in defiance of the “sweat-soaked pockets” (hard-earned, limited funds?) and may also be in defiance of being “beneath the tight hold / of rope.” And, the alliterative in “sweat-soaked pockets” has a stylized, romantic air to it, which might suggest a certain genre in which the poem can be placed.
“Tight hold” and “of rope,” which are separated into two lines, once again present a stretched out image in the verse. And notably, the former stretched out image of abundance contrasts with this second stretched out image of restriction.
“Purple tongues” may suggest engorgement, which is another image of fullness, abundance or plenty in the verse. Here it’s of blood; in the former, it’s of seed or people. But the line that follows, “flaying in the wind,” may suggest a kind of futility, or a directionless "wagging" tongue--an image of impotence even. And that image of impotence may be further strengthened by the tight rope image in the last two lines of the verse...
Very broadly concluding...
The idea presented of restoration in the opening verse of the poem is that it is a humongous task, but that there is abundance in number and presumably in possibilities for the act of restoration to be eventually successful, but it has to be properly harnessed in a common direction maybe. The craft in the poem itself bears testimony to the possibilities of restoring, harnessing the potency of the art of cultural poetry.
The poem is representative of one of the many styles of verse Shirley gives us in the collection. She gives us several versions of the urbane, the informal, and the downright bawdy with an adroitness that is pure pleasure to read.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading Shirley, the following line of comments ensued:
I do hope to hear her read some day, but I feel I've already been granted a special listening treat via her book.
Now hear this (from "Negotiation"):
Yes, I know,
I am beautiful.
My mother tells me so frequently.
. . .
Yes, I know,
the way I move my waist is magic.
I am from the Caribbean.
Yes, it does excite me,
that you promise to perform cunnilingus.
I hear I am sweet like mango.
But what else will you bring to the table?
. . .
Do you have a baby
you are yet to claim
because you are waiting
to see if he looks like you?
. . .
If I start crying at the sight of a full moon,
a starving child, a dead rose, a lizard
over my front door, will you appease me
And don’t think I forget,
do you have a big dick?
If you'd like to receive a free copy of She Who Sleeps With Bones, please indicate when you comment, or send me a request by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com
(Note: I only have one copy to give away).
She Who Sleeps With Bones, by Tanya Shirley (Peepal Tree Press, 2009, 80 pp).