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News & Features » November 2015 » Kwame Dawes’s Preface to Coming Up Hot

Kwame Dawes’s Preface to Coming Up Hot

To celebrate the release of Coming Up Hot: Eight New Poets from the Caribbean, today we’re pleased to give you a look at the book’s preface, written by Kwame Dawes.

ComingUpHotPreface
by Kwame Dawes

The gathering of eight “new” poets from the Caribbean is inevitably a challenging one since there is quite a lot of poetry being written in the Caribbean today. And by “in the Caribbean” I mean by poets who regard themselves as Caribbean poets wherever they reside. And yet, even as one is tempted to make little of the business of where poets live as they write, it is somewhat foolish to do so. After all, it would mean something if all the poets who appear to be publishing work as Caribbean poets did not reside in the Caribbean, but had to travel away to write and be published. Further, it would mean something if those who travelled away were not interested in writing about the Caribbean. In generation after generation of Caribbean poetry, travel, departure, and return have been as central to our body of work as any other theme. It is important and admirable that this gathering of poets allows us to explore the meaning of these ideas of home. A significant number of these poets reside in the Caribbean, and their inclusion here speaks to the practical value of this publishing venture’s commitment to giving attention to poets who are writing in the region. For that reason, a number of important unpublished new poets residing outside of the Caribbean, as either students or as migrants, are not included here. But then there are also poets living in the Caribbean whose work makes a strong case for inclusion. It is also worth pointing out that this anthology is entirely Anglophone, and while the old name “West Indian” used to do the job of distinguishing Anglophone Caribbean writing from the literature of the other language groups in the region, we have now come, wisely I believe, to embrace the term “Caribbean.” But doing so, we need to state explicitly that this is a collection of new Caribbean poetry written in English.

I had the good fortune of not being the one who had to make the inevitably difficult decisions about what poets would be included here, but am happy to be the one who, having read the work of these poets with interest and excitement, was invited to introduce their work to the reader. My hand is light here, choosing to identify some of the striking themes and intriguing patterns that mark the work of these poets.

*

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné’s poems reveal a preoccupation with the idea and fact of haunting, the persistence of ghosts, spirits, and other apparitions that assume an existence defined by a strange osmosis between the spirit world and the temporal world. Indeed, this manner of characterization belies her point, which is that such binaries and dichotomies are inadequate to her cosmology. The poems are peopled with great-grandmothers, dead fathers, dead mothers, haunting boys, and men who love, and are loved as ghosts and spirits are loved. Her poems explore a kind of madness, not as a condition of mental illness, but as a leap into self, a profound engagement with a spiritual sense of self. Her landscape is alive, constantly encroaching on the security of walls—trees, animals, and mountains come through windows and doors—and the speaker of her poems is in perpetual flux, a chameleon, at once assured and confident, vulnerable and uncertain. It is this fluidity of self in relation to memory and history that allows Boodoo-Fortuné to write elegant poems of sensuality, desire, and longing:

The man who loves you
is a ghost to be washed
from the temple of your heart.
(“The Haunting of his Name,” p. 34)

There is nothing unreal about this man-ghost who will fall victim to the hammer given to the speaker to manage or enact love with. As she recalls her great-grandmother, who is half-Carib, and certainly closer to a Carib identity than the speaker is, it is clear that the speaker enters history through a conversation with the spirit world. At night, in the house of this woman, who died long before the speaker existed, she meets the woman, meets her spirit, and finds an affinity with her.

Haunting also takes place in present moments, moments in which she finds an affinity with people met in daily life through the recognition of spirit connections. As a result, her characters are imbued with symbolic possibilities. The boy she encounters as she walks in a village manages, by his mere existence, to position her as part of a community located in history:

We pass without speaking,
ghosts in each other’s history.
(“The Blue House,” p. 42)

It is in this sense that she reminds us of a writer like Wilson Harris, less for the edifice of narrative that he constructs, but for the haunting moments we find in stretches of his prose, which arrive as if sent by a complex of forces located in memory, in the spirit world, and in the landscape. For Boodoo-Fortuné, this source finds its meaning and place in what Walcott calls “the sea as history”:

Nothing lasts here
but the murmur of the sea.
(“The Blue House”)

What lasts for us in Boodoo-Fortuné’s poetry is what lasts for us in the intimate moments of some of Lorna Goodison’s earlier work and in the splendidly florid and ritualized music of the late Guyanese poet Mahadai Das, who, while writing poems grounded in postcolonial contestations, also wrote with a lyric fascination with bones and the music they made—a quality also present in Boodoo-Fortuné’s verse.

Boodoo-Fortuné writes with precision and insight into the disquiet of living in a society full of contradictions and the looming contagion of violence. She recognizes that this violence has imposed itself on her body through the creation of fear, but cannot silence the spirit of rebellion lurking beneath it all. Her poetry maintains what Brathwaite calls the taut surface of things:

It is late now, and I am tired
of the same streets and the same
strangers, mute as bottles.

I am tired of walking home
with a throat full of noise and glass,
my body clutched, trembling
and closed.

I am weary of the pinned smile
and bound breasts, the silent women
with eyes like rainstorms, nursing
buttoned-up hurricane hearts.
(“A Poem on the World’s Last Night,” p. 46)

*

Danielle Jennings’s facility with Jamaican English is enviable. It allows her to navigate a range of poetic styles that she embodies with a distinctive personal voice, even as the poems retain the stylistic peculiarities of their genres. These styles range from the surreal, to elliptical poems that skip from image to image, to poems of terse minimalism—poems in the style of Mervyn Morris, but with a fragmentary quality that echoes Tony McNeill’s verse. I am not suggesting that these poets are her models—though they very well might be. What I am suggesting is that in poems that explore the complex of violence, poverty, and social uncertainty she sees around her, Jennings is willing to stretch her formal interests. Her language is especially fascinating. In “Pearl,” she writes in Jamaican, the syntax spot on, and the voice, not attempting character, but achieving an owned and lived internal sensibility. In “Parade,” she code-switches, simulating a Jamaican that comfortably merges patois with “standard English”—the effect gives a quality of credibility that is moving at times:

Noisy, dirty, and stifling,
teefs, coke heads, and mad men
abound. People with
no teet or gold teet
laugh at the sun’s spearing rays
and me. They all saw
how I couldn’t hide from the glare
of the kiss, the soft brown eyes.
(“Pearl’s Funeral,” p. 68)

Like Boodoo-Fortuné, Jennings is preoccupied with the complexities of relationships. Her sexuality is playful, from a market romance to the pun-flecked fascination with the seductiveness of a musician. Where she is not looking at the dynamics of such relationships, her own and those of others, she is engaged by the history of her family and the position of women and men in that narrative. The fathers who recur in these poems die, leave, abuse, and provoke anger, as in the daughter who has:

Only the dull, constant thought of clubbing
my father with my fists.
(“Daughter, Mother,” p. 63)

Like Boodoo-Fortuné, Jennings also recognizes permeable space between the temporality of death and the continuance of the spirit presence:

The morning eased on. I drove slowly,
wanting to see them for the rest of the day.
Reaching my palm out the window, my skin sidled
up to breathe your mist.
(“Breathing Grandma,” p. 56)

*

If death is a haunting presence and the source of spiritual dialogue with a nontemporal world for several of these poets, for Ruel Johnson, death and the prospect of it are a palpably temporal reality, a thing that happens, and usually violently. Death becomes something of a monstrous presence that must be confronted through the manner of living, as in his mock confessional poem, “Nearing Thirty,” where he professes an almost gleeful preference for a death in his forties, complete with fantasies of being missed as a great artist, in comparison to an old poet’s fading-away death after long sitting on his laurels. There is witty bravado here, but Johnson is never entirely joking.

Others of Johnson’s poems selected here are peopled by family, neighbors, and ancestors, and this gives them a remarkable capacity to chart the lives of a community. It is striking that the characters in some of the poems seem quite familiar, recognizably like the characters who have peopled the work of David and Cyril Dabydeen, Wilson Harris and Jan Carew. Yet they are wholly contemporary and the legacy of poverty and violence they have to deal with remains effectively present in the apparently casual manner of his art.

With Johnson, the achievement is in his line. There is a command of syntax and metaphor that is admirable its seeming effortlessness and clear efficiency. We see his craft most clearly in the sophisticated architecture of his multisectional long poems, where his use of unifying echoes in sentiment and language, as well as his allusions to the work of other writers, Caribbean and outside, are never pretentious or gratuitous, but necessary features of poems that offer a lyric wrestling with faith and memory, as well as a communal wrestling with a society’s sense of identity and history. Indeed, allusiveness seems an essential part of Johnson’s meaning, in making references that are both self-lacerating and consoling. They point to the consoling knowledge that a world exists where the crafting of words is concerned with discovering truth and the desire to make something be the best that it can be. But that world of literary craft also points to the pain of being part of a society where words are corrupted by politicians’ lies.

Indeed, Johnson has little patience with politicians; they are almost always “stick” characters—they and priests dismissed in swaths of abuse. But his patience for the “ordinary” people stands in calculated contrast—it arrives as empathy, in the way he embodies them, raises them into figures of mythic weight. In the remarkable long poem “Sugar,” the idea of memory and its unreliability is beautifully combined with the idea of naming, which characterizes the complex processes of childhood discovery. When the speaker and his friends encounter an itinerant sugarcane vendor, something quite improbable happens:

one day a bold friend of mine
grew bolder still and asked his name
to hear him say, matter-of-fact,
me dun fugget am, lang time back

we simply thereafter
called him “Sugar”
(“Sugar,” p. 86)

The symbolic weight of this anomie, and the tall-tale feel of the telling, dance in and out of the poem until it is clear that invention and amnesia are parts of the same creative impulse for these people of diaspora and colonialism.

*

Monica Minott’s host of witnesses are women who are collectively grounded in ritual and spiritual understanding, practical, sensible—though, like all of us, flawed in their humanity. Her poems draw on the enduring cult/culture of Jamaican womanhood in the sites that they command and in which they are empowered. This is not a context of gender separation. The sensuality and sexuality of her poems operate in zones where the male force is not to be excluded, but recognized as a presence, even when negative or oppositional, that helps to define female energy and power. When she writes about a girl faced with an unexpected pregnancy, where the father has absconded in the cliché of male irresponsibility, rather than fixate on this failure, Minott offers, instead, a narrative of female solidarity and wisdom. The grandmother reprimands, but then uses this pregnancy to sing a song of survival and ultimate triumph. The action of bearing down in the face of pain becomes a metaphorical song about pressure as the means of creating something that owes everything to women’s strength.

In Minott’s poetry, sex is sweet, sex is to be welcomed, though men are expected to be sensitive readers of women if they are to be allowed in. Some men, though, are seen to be discombobulated by the sexual power of women whose sensuality is earthy and grounded in the landscape they inhabit.

That landscape is one in which sensuality and the sacred share space. Minott’s poetic persona finds her strength in the physicality of the dances and rituals of African spirituality. The poem notes honestly that while this is a legacy passed down mainly by women, women have also been complicit agents in the Christian and colonial hostility to those traditions:

That my step is your step,
that the movement in me is not
one to keep, but to pass on,
that Bongo is a sweet word
although mother used
it as a reprimand,
that when my bare feet
meet earth, the current
travelling up uplifts me
and I forget the part of me
schooled in containment
and I dance the dance
of Ma Minott, I skip over
generations of pastors,
teachers, seamstresses
keeping me in, holding me back,
I cross over the ocean with her
back to Zaire.
(“Kumina Queen,” p. 112)

Tellingly, the male figures who carry wisdom are those grounded in the rituals and practices in which women hold authority. They are “duppy discerners” and dancers, choreographers, and shamans like Rex Nettleford, to whom she pays homage in a beautiful lyric, “Easter Sunday Morning” (p. 103).

*

Debra Providence’s construction of the figure “un-woman” echoes in some ways the possibilities that Anthony McNeill opened up in his poetry around the notion of “un-god.” But there is also a way in which Providence is complicating ideas about gender by exploring both the processes of its making and un-making through this coinage. In this sense, her poems, which in many ways continue a pattern among several of the poets collected here, are embarked upon the important and necessary theoretical work of establishing a discourse of female sensibility and creative power through poems of self-discovery, coming of age, and sexuality. One can read the poems as setting the foundations for a body of work in which gender is foregrounded in a self-conscious act of resisting erasure through silence or negativity. In her imagining, the female is constantly in the process of reconstructing herself and thus challenging the social limits of gender. That said, the poems go beyond resistance to being a celebration of the feminized sensibility—a sensibility that is marked by women finding strength in their capacity to rise above the sometimes suffocating or destructive force of masculine presence in their lives. In “Phoenix Rising” (p. 121) she reworks a familiar trope to describe a woman’s movement from her wounds and from being caged to a splendidly destructive regeneration:

She,
once burned,
rises to
sear
a stale, flat
and wicked
Earth.

The wickedness of the world is a theme that marks a few of Providence’s poems. It seems part of a strategy to find cosmic and historical resonances beyond the contemporary politics of relationships between men and women, which is where her reflections start. In several poems, Providence writes about men whom she can’t save (“Ghepetto Rap”) and men she tries to change or hopes will change (“Opheliad”). In the end, the speaker counsels herself—awareness is everything—and it is an awareness of a gendered sense of the world:

Me,
wishing this
hindsight
was foresight
with the 20/20,
wishing I coulda
staved
this blight
that colours
current attempts
at happy-
ness,
’cause the hearts
of women
want what they want,
and sometimes
they want to forget.
(“Opheliad,” p. 123)

In her poems about the un-woman, what she is chronicling is a symbolic awakening, a rebirth, a fiery forging of a new self that escapes the confines of a “house” into a garden of new possibilities in which her blossoming is metaphorized as the emergence of vegetation. It is a kind of re-entry into Eden:

The loam shudders and heaves
as she sinks her toes deep;
seedlings uncurl and
bare their emerald shoots
for the liquid touch
of her fingertips.

Pomegranate and
plum-rose trees bow
to yield her
their ripest.

She takes and inhales
their intoxicating
readiness and smiles.
(p. 137)

And yet this awakening is constantly threatened by a looming, watching presence that has the capacity to transform her from a blossoming plant to a withered and pained creature, gradually growing scales over her wounds—a hardening that is part of her “unbecoming.” The “un-woman’s” end, it would seem, is a pessimistic one, one of hardening and decay. But it is in this state of withdrawal that she realizes she is not responsible for this horror, that “she had no hand in this,” and that even as the un-woman, she still has the capacity to act and find shelter in a world that is hostile to her. The sequence of poems, indeed, ends with a moment that suggests a hint of optimism, one that Caribbeanizes the Edenic myth of a fruit that represents desire and knowledge, suggesting that the whole process can be seen, in a humanistic rereading of Milton, as a “fortunate Fall.” Providence’s “golden apple” is a Caribbean fruit, also called June plum in Jamaica, with its prickly core, its sour-sweet taste, and its juiciness. When the un-woman bites into its sweetness and spiky sources of pain, she encounters the necessary balance of hope and caution, and it is through this that she arrives at something like wholeness:

She licks the sweet
from her fingers
and she remembers love
while the sea swallows
the sun.
(“The Un-woman Remembers Love,” p. 139)

*

Shivanee Ramlochan’s poems shares a certain affinity with those of Providence, since both poets thrive on the construction of myth. Ramlochan takes the reader through a series of imaginative narratives that are at once emotionally familiar and compelling, even as the characters evoked and the happenings they describe are heavily symbolic. Her poems reference the language and structural patterns of the genres of fantasy or speculative fiction, though with her own distinctive features, including the presence of such folkloric Trinidadian figures as the Duenne, those wandering lost spirits whose feet point backward. Her characters are variously described as “soldier,” “thaumaturge,” “surgeon,” and much else, and her speakers live in a world that is located somewhere between the fantastic and the ordinary, everyday world of school buses, home chores, and domesticity. In “To Live in the New Year” the speaker has both a husband and an “old wife,” and a feminine persona appears without announcement and enacts a complex of magical acts that engage the speaker.

In these poems, a woman is invariably the protagonist and Ramlochan is eloquent in her exploration of the ways in which gender has to be negotiated. In her arresting poem “The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares her Love” (p. 146), the speaker’s grandmother observes:

That is the trouble with our trade, she said.
When men aspire to terrible jobs, we offer them hushed
respect,
the blushing necks of virgins.

Women wearing the same gloves, sorting the same
straight-backed pins between the prayers of their teeth,
are taught to deserve nothing more than an acreage of
sorrow.

The woman, though, will take that sorrow and “wrangle greater things than men can fathom.” Of course, the creation of the unfathomable is not the same as thriving. Instead, what the woman is left with is the same kind of despair that we have seen described so vividly in Providence’s “un-woman” poems:

Here is the church. It lies close to the land that they gave us.
Come see the land of my grandmother, and her mother, and
hers.
Come walk on the borders of my mother’s land, where no
trees grow.

These are hard borders that hem in the woman, that keep her tethered to a space inside which she cries out in protest at the containment. The speaker, who one assumes to be the “abortionist’s daughter,” who is herself an abortionist, is engaged in a trade that is both found necessary and socially condemned, and for her the act of performing an abortion or even attempting to perform one has profoundly destructive physical and spiritual consequences. In “The Abortionist’s Daughter Gives Cold Comfort,” the death of a girl at the hands of the abortionist is all in “another day’s work.”

Ramlochan’s poems constantly challenge the stereotypes of the female. In “Materna” (p. 149) the refrain by the person who is clearly the mother is, “I am not your mother.” She describes the ways in which the mother has died, or disappeared, or been undone by the fact of being the mother. Gradually, we realize that the speaker is separating herself from the daughter—the one whom she has been warned she cannot mother. In a complex and brilliant poem that works at a number of levels, one of the things that Ramlochan achieves is an acute reflection on the act of separation, a perception that what the mother does offers liberation to the daughter, by allowing the daughter to see herself as separate, as her own self. It is a separation at once violent but capable of securing comfort and a kind of mothering on new terms:

I am not your mother,
but in my womb, there is the knowing of you.
The dome of my head is shorn close till it hints of
marrow.
These years and years of hair
carpet your dreams.

The female force that Ramlochan explores in her poems is creative and destructive, vulnerable and untameable. Even when men enter the poems, as does the husband in “Fire, Fire” and “The Abortionist’s Granddaughter Gives Blood,” he is defined by his connection to his grandmother, whose poems he reads to his wife. And when it is clear to the wife that she, the speaker, must rescue him, she does so by feeding him blood and holding him with the fire of herself and the blood practices she has inherited from her grandmother, the abortionist with her “surgical guilt.” In poem after poem, the female assumes the elemental roles of both savior and devil. As in Providence’s un-woman poems, there is a revision of the role of Eve and the gendering of a Blakean challenge to the false division between God and Satan, most famously realized in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Here, Ramlochan finds great mythical possibilities in the figure of Lilith, a familiar feminist trope. Ramlochan’s Lilith is at home in the Caribbean, and she enacts her powers within the context of the Caribbean spiritual realm. What is not referenced in the poems, but which one senses is part of their universe, is the Hindu world of undivided gods and goddesses, such as the creator/destroyer Kali.

*

At the heart of Colin Robinson’s poetry is a quiet unearthing of the complications of affection and love. “Bodily Fluids” is a love story and the elegy of a gay man for his lover. The intimacies are evoked through the beautifully precise images he creates throughout the piece—they arrive without fanfare and they read with a certain inevitable quality. Describing the aftereffects of an embarrassing moment when the lover pees the bed after a night of lovemaking, the speaker is not sure whether it is the marking or the desecration of territory. The ambivalence is elegantly offered, complicating the nature of affection. And yet, in the end, the image that secures the contradictory meaning of the moment is classic Robinson—efficient and illuminating:

we strip the linen off your shame
to bleach your scent away
your stain is permanent
but there is nothing to forgive
or say sorry for
only my fearful knowledge like a secret
that a boundary was broken as we slept and
we awoke on the other side of some river
together
(“Bodily Fluids,” p. 165)

The dates and places that mark this piece give the reader no assurance that they are in possession of a simple chronology. What we do know is that the markers of the relationship—whether they are traumatic like the cycling accident that opens the piece, or the funeral that closes it; or the most ordinary ones, like the contemplation of a moment of desire and affection on the road march at Carnival, or a reflection on the way to celebrate anniversaries—are granted equal emotional weight and complexity by the poet. His attention to the details of what is seen, felt, and imagined is what grants the poem its poignancy and allows him to resist sentimentality, even while engaging with sentiment. “Bodily Fluids” is a beautiful poem, and a poem that should be unremarkable for the fact that it is exploring homoerotic love. And yet, in the context of Caribbean poetry, it is breaking ground in important ways.

It is also important to recognize that Robinson’s achievement is his capacity to find ways to write about the world he sees in a distinctively individual way. In “NY Citizen” there is a busy dismantling of stereotypes, without losing sight of his complicity in the peculiar dance of race and identity in New York City, where he writes with excruciating detail and honesty about a man, well dressed and black, who is lying on the floor of the train, unaided by the witnessing passengers, including the poet himself. And the poem does not end there, it does not end with this observation, but becomes a strangely comical and tragic drama that ends with more questions than answers. The policemen who take the man off the train are of the type “who kill black men,” but are caught in a tableau of tenderness, cradling the head of the fallen man on the platform of the station while the rest of the passengers continue on their journey. The passengers are neither good nor bad, and the speaker, who has the honesty to record that he saw the lying man as “sexy,” though he tries to do something, does not exaggerate his role or his humanity. He, too, is flawed. In this way, the poem speaks about city life, about race, about immigration, about fear, about class, about gender, and, tellingly, about nothing at all.

It is this quality of carefully unveiling contradictory emotions through the gesture of what some would call “confession”—but that I would rather call a relentless desire to find emotional truth—that makes poems like “My Father’s Watch” and “Manhood at the Oval” (in which Robinson is writing variations on a theme summed up in the line “I have never felt safe in manhood”) works of power and great importance in their study of masculinity. One of the other qualities that Robinson shares with other poets in this volume is the ability to write with honesty and sensitivity about family relationships. He writes, for instance, with affection and irritation over his irritation at his mother’s provinciality and his father’s abandonment, and yet in this kind of honesty, he manages to write a touching portrait of his mother and his complex relationship with her.

*

Almost as an inverse of Robinson, who charts a process of coming “home” from “away,” Sassy Ross is acutely aware of the fact that she left the Caribbean and that she writes from the position of one who is looking back not merely to retrieve memory, but to retrieve a sense of home and a geography that she has left behind and yet retained in herself. In the conversation poem between a brother and sister, we see her managing the other critical element of displacement, which is language. The brother speaks in what one assumes is a St. Lucian dialect (it is perhaps intentionally closer to a pan-Caribbean dialect than to anything sharply and identifiably national) and the sister in a register that is closer to standard English. For the sister, who is travelling to the Caribbean to collect the brother and take him with her to the United States, memory of the Caribbean is in his voice, his body, his presence, whereas for him, all he remembers is the defiance and urgency of her leaving.

For Ross, then, the Caribbean is not a place of tender nostalgia. She remembers conflict, separation, and trauma. In the poems that come from a sequence called “Herself, An Empire of Trees,” her childhood is marked by the need, as she says in “Fig” (p. 192), to survive:

A girl of ten, yet even then that ficus
brought to mind my father,
the columnar tree, my mother,
and I knew that to survive
them both, I would need more
than a secondary thickening,
but an inner life none could touch.

This inner life is, of course, her poetry life, but survival is not achieved without receiving significant wounds. The antagonists of her peace include the nuns of her convent school who use soursop switches to punish the ten-year-old girl. The perils of the island are ever present, whether in the mythical rituals of the various phallic armed devils in “Poinciana” or the “garçon” warned of the joys and dangers of climbing and falling in the poem “Coconut,” or the hunger of poverty described in “Breadfruit.” From poems such as these it is clear that Ross is not interested in romantic notions of her childhood. After all, her memory is shaped by the very modern scourge of the drug culture that ravaged the Caribbean in the 1980s. Her father, in the poem “The Rottweiler” (p. 199), is the drug addict that her mother and she go in search of, when he has clearly disappeared to feed his addiction. He is, she writes, “a thief who has his own set of keys.”

The same subtlety of response, of pained detachment and continuing involvement, is also found in a poem such as “The Return,” where the poet is a childhood witness of the action of her mother, who, to the astonishment of the congregation, turns up “repentant” at Mass in her short red dress and Jesus sandals. It is a transformation toward which the child can feel only skepticism, but the moment moves her to the empathy of prayer.

In some of her most complex poems, which bring together memory, the present meaning of St. Lucia and the Caribbean, and her discovery of a vocation to write about those things, Ross focuses on her father as someone she is both a part of and apart from—her addiction is to words, while his involved the addiction to first knowledge and then drugs. It is important to her that she feels extricated from him, and just as important to recognize the continuing connection, the legacy of his interest in books and in African history. There is nothing so intensely complex and revealing as this passage that ends her poem “History Shelves” (p. 206):

I have not transgressed, my voice repeated
in prayer, but when you awoke, Father,
you bent words, usurped the role of deity
to whom I pled. Your hands, still a father’s hands,
shook history’s shelves to their foundations.
I’d almost forgotten the volumes that we lost.

*

That the poets collected in this volume allow us to revisit the meaning of the Caribbean and the place of language and memory in these islands is clear evidence that what we find here is the continuing cultivation of a legacy established by the generation of West Indian/Caribbean poets who found a Caribbean voice and language in the midtwentieth century. The poets here have been liberated to find their own lyric understanding of identity and self without the burden of having to also prove the validity of a poetic rendering of this culture in their work. They can take this for granted, and then embark on their own efforts to appreciate the various musics that shape them. Each of these poets will be publishing their debut volumes of poems in the next year or so, and on the evidence of this collection there is little doubt that they will all be embarking on exciting new projects in verse.

***

Kwame DawesKWAME DAWES is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror, as well as two novels, numerous anthologies, and plays. He has won Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy, and was the 2013 awardee of the Paul Engel Prize. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. Dawes is the associate poetry editor at Peepal Tree Press, the series editor of the University of South Carolina Poetry Series, and the founding director of the African Poetry Book Fund. Dawes teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is director of the biennial Calabash International Literary Festival. He is the author of Gomer’s Song; translator of Go de Rass to Sleep; and editor of So Much Things To SayEight New-Generation African Poets, and New-Generation African Poets.

Posted: Nov 18, 2015

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