I spent most of 2010 featuring and reviewing works by women writers from the Caribbean. During that time, male writers from the Caribbean were consistently producing and publishing good work. So I thought it appropriate to end this year's posts with a spotlight on three of those men and their works, with more to come in 2011.
I have chosen writers and works based on my personal tastes and on the writers' successful efforts at garnering attention for their work via the internet (facebook, twitter, blogs, online journals). It's a trend I hope to see more of in 2011.
Dubwise, by Geoffrey Philp (Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2010, 72 pp).
Of the 42 poems in Dubwise, all of which I found enjoyable for various reasons, the one I couldn't resist poking a pen at up close was "Summer Storm." It begins with a portentous, two-line condition:
After thunderstorms have cleared the city,
after the homeless have abandoned their cardboard palaces,
Whether it's a condition of abandonment or erasure, or a fresh start, what appears next is a fog, which acts in a manner worthy of pause:
fog older than Tequesta circles, Seminole arrowheads
and Spanish jars, dulls the sawgrass’s razor,
turns away from charted rivers,
slithers over the boulevard I could not cross
when the names Lozano and McDuffie rhymed
with necklaces of burning tires, and away
from churches with broken steeples that grow
more vacant each Sunday because their faithful
folded their arms while balseros floundered, boriquas
drowned, and neg joined their sisters and brothers
on the ocean bed. Yet something like music
rises from the sound of gull’s wings beating a path
over Calle Ocho, Little Haiti, La Sawacera, like bells
that echo over the Freedom Tower, bright as the final
burst of the sunset against billboards, gilding the sea
grapes’ leaves washed clean by evening rain.
The old fog that appears in this post-storm condition of renewal and/or abandonment seems selective about where it goes and how it behaves. It "dulls," "turns away from," "slithers over," and seems to pass judgement on old and new problems associated with racism and apathy. And if there is judgement in the fog's action, then the "yet something like music" in the 7th stanza suggests redemption of sorts at the end of the poem. In these verses, fog, which we might typically expect to cover over things, leaves them exposed for condemnation (one might suppose). But the poem ends on a positive note of hope. It is a poem occupied with place--from Tequesta circle to Freedom Tower and all in between--very neatly and sparingly packaged in each two-line stanza. It may be the only plausible way of fitting large historical and contemporary geographical place into a small space, one might add.
This next verse--the second of three--also struck a chord with me, but it was mood that seduced this time, not necessarily the desire to poke at its lines. The speaker finds a certain time of day and/or frame of mind in which he or she can empathize with a woman who desires escape.
There are evenings like this
when I understand why she slipped
from this life, desiring neither hell
nor heaven, no longer wanting to carry
the burden of becoming someone else’s lover,
wife, mistress, to just fall asleep
and let dreams analyse
her choices: the bad ones
that in time would look like wisdom;
the good ones that led to the bedroom
pillow, the stifled screams.
The verse is a compact, evenly punctuated sentence and has a controlled, urbane look and feel, which may fit the speaker's reflective kind of evening setting. But that control is in contrast with the woman (the subject of the speaker's reflection) whose life seems to have unravelled, spun out of control. Yet there is an overall sense of peace in the lines that defies the unravelled life, and even the terror or surprise in the last phrase.
The final verse I've chosen from Dubwise for this particular spotlight is the first one from "Calabash Poem." Its lines are prose-like in length with end rhymes which give it a light-hearted feel as it pokes fun at literary rivalries, literary challenges and paradigms.
It began innocently when Kwame, Colin and me was to read;
smady shout out, “Oonu cyaan write! Oonu mus a smoke weed!”
Then, a next one, “Do you know Latin or Greek? I doubt if you can even spell.”
We was on JBC-TV, so we couldn’t say, “Man, fuck off. Go to hell!”
Still, we couldn’t take it like that; we had honour, we had to save face.
I said, “We know we’re the best! Meet us on the field, any time, any place!
A week from now, a duel of scrimmage, three man to a side,
to prove the best writers in JA, or make it better, world wide!”
For nowadays you can’t judge a writer’s worth just by the size
of royalties, NEA fellowships or even the Pulitzer prize.
Nobody reads any more, and everything depends
on your agent or if you’re sleeping with your editor’s best friend.
A Light Song of Light, by Kei Miller (Carcanet Press Ltd, 2010, 80 pp).
Since this isn't an essay, I don't have to find an appropriate transition to the next man in my line-up here. I'll just jump right into the 8th verse of Kei Miller's "Twelve Notes for a Light Song of Light," from his collection titled, A Light Song of Light.
It's a verse about transformation, and suggests that transformation is full of loss, full of uncertainty, and restrictive. On one hand the idea of a "light song" is in contrast with the heaviness of change, the idea being that transformation from one language to another, from one tongue or way of speaking to another, undermines one's ability to sing, or at least presents problems with fluency.
On the other hand, you can hear the "sound" of a talk or tongue that the speaker is obviously comfortable with--a native tongue--and the speaker moves quite effortlessly back and forth between that native tongue and a more standardized English. The verse bemoans a problem that the speaker has found a way to resolve, at least for the moment.
A light song of light don’t talk
the way I talk most days.
To tell the truth I never know at first
what this country was going do me --
how I would start hearing myself
through the ears of others,
how I would start putting words on a scale
and exchange the ones I think in
for the ones I think you will understand,
till it become natural, this slow careful way
of talking, this talk like the walk of a man
who find himself on a street he never born to,
who trying hard to look like nothing
not bothering him. And maybe nothing wrong
with a false talk like that, but that
is no way to sing.
This next speaker gives us a verse with a story which purports to tell the truth about Rolling Calf. This speaker appears to be very comfortable with colloquial language as he or she reverses the roles of good and evil:
Two bwoy with nothing but de devil
inside dem, a cricket bat in their hands
knock out de young bull but not hard enough.
He wake up somewhere between de hacking
through his back leg; and then mooing a sound
that draw poor people from their beds, he escape
into de night. A farmer turn to him wife
and say, I hear like a cow asking de moon
‘Why me, why me?’ De wife nod to say
is that she hear as well. So days pass
and gangrene take over, make de bull’s back leg
useless, make him walk a walk like him was dancing
dip and fall back. Then bitterness grow like a phantom
leg; him start to wait in bamboo patches
or under bridges, just to take revenge on anything
that look human. Listen -- de true story of Rolling Calf
is not that beast evil, but that man evil,
and every buck him get -- is him who cause it.
And for final mention from Miller's Light Song of Light is the 4th graph from a prose piece titled "A Smaller Song," which is dedicated to Thomas Glave. This one needs no preamble.
Today a mother phones her son. Her mouth is sweet with gossip. She speaks of a man at the University of the West Indies who was not killed yesterday -- who was saved although, she says, he did not deserve salvation. Although his life had been made forfeit. Although the mob of angry students who chased him from a toilet where he was doing something the newspapers cannot print, made rightful demands of his heart and liver and all of his insides which were no longer his but theirs. Although the crowd reminded the guards into whose small room the man had run -- that nasty people like him must dead! And on the phone this mother agrees to her son that nasty people must dead. And in this moment, a son knows that his mother does not love him. Her words, to him, are like black pepper buried at the crossroads with his name on it. The son imagines himself, his small body delivered to the crowd of students, and then slaughtered. He imagines his mother humming over his corpse, a tune whose notes have stretched over wars and crusades, the song of crows, its melody as crisp as burnt flesh, the tune hummed by killing neighbours.
Running the Dusk, by Christian Campbell (Peepal Tree Press, 2010, 64 pp).
This first collection, published in the Summer of this year, is already storied with acclaim: shortlisted for the Forward prize for best first collection; winner of the best first collection prize at the Aldeburgh poetry festival in November of this year; and I can only imagine more to come....
The first verses I liked immediately are from "Oregon Elegy." Its informal opening lines pull you in to witty word-play and a wispy take on the adversely heavy dark subjects of race and lynching. The dark images cascade on each other almost effortlessly, ribbon-like, but are carefully measured into neat two-line stanzas, all the way to the powerful image of love at the end.
I once told a friend, who was going
to Oregon for Christmas with his girlfriend,
he’d be the only black person there
and, in fact, if you shuffle Oregon,
like a seasoned minstrel, it spells Negro
but with an extra O as if to make
a groan, nearly a shout, perhaps
a moment of fright: O Negro in Oregon!
He died laughing and told me
that’s word-lynching, and I wondered
if we could also lynch words,
string them up, sever them,
tattoo them with bullets and knives;
if we could hold a barbeque
for language swaying with the branches,
soon picked to silence by crows --
words soaked in coal oil
then set ablaze, a carnival of words
sacrificed over rivers, from bridges,
from trees, too-ripe words dangling
from branches just beyond our reach.
Like Alonzo Tucker in 1906,
shot twice, then hanged
from the Fourth Street Bridge
by two hundred men arched into one
white arm because (we wonder,
we know) a white woman said
he raped her. I want to tell my boy
blacks weren’t wanted in Oregon
at first, but what do I know, I’ve never
set foot on Nez Perce land where
exactly one hundred years after
Tucker, he could go west to one edge
of America because he loves
his woman enough to be
the very last Negro on Earth.
From The United States to Barbados, once again he gives us the inviting first-person opening line into a seductive scene:
I am here in Dover, in Christchurch, Barbados, with my woman
who is beautiful and waiting for me, who has always waited for me.
And when I return from my run, we will spend the day at Accra
Beach. Kamau Brathwaite said, “Barbados, most English
of West Indian islands, but at the same time nearest, as the slaves fly,
to Africa.” We will go from Dover to Accra with my woman’s friends,
two generations of bonda Ma Jacques pretty Dominican women
and I will tell them all that their beaches are nothing compared
to my pink coral sand and water like blue chiffon in The Bahamas,
baja mar, shallow sea. I will go the colour of molasses mixed
with bronze, the tone of a sweet, dark rum in Accra,
and we will all swallow the sun whole on Accra
Beach, near the hotel, in Little England, Little Africa,
in love with the skin on this second day of the year.
And lastly, three verses from "Goodman's Bay" (The Bahamas), one of which contains the unforgettable line: The swing creaks slow, like love in the morning. (Love it!)
We run the dusk
at dusk. Everything
is open and live
with silence. God,
there is too much
red in the sky!
You feel it when you run
the sand. All of it,
the whole of your body
in the world. The swing
creaks slow, like love
in the morning. God,
the night is so blue!
Walking back with our chests
blooming, I taste my sweat.
There are people dusting off
their feet as if dancing.
We pass a woman in a large,
damp T-shirt, nothing but salt.
We can’t see her face,
the smile or the frown, the hard
look of judgement. But the moon
is bareback and blind, and the ground
is an altar of piss and rum, and we know
somewhere on this split tongue of stone,
someone just died, just finished
As always, if you'd like to receive a free copy of any of the three works in the spotlight, let me know here in the comments or by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com.
Thanks for your readership, and I wish you all the best in 2011 and beyond!