“I am the Archipelago”: Eric Roach and Black Identity
By Andre Bagoo
THOSE who know Eric Roach, know how the story ends. This year marks the centenary of the Trinidadian poet who was born in 1915 at Mount Pleasant, Tobago. He worked as a schoolteacher, civil servant and journalist, among other things. Along the way, he published in periodicals regularly. But in 1974, he wrote the poem ‘Finis’, drank insecticide, then swam out to sea at Quinam Bay. The first-ever collected edition of his poetry only appeared two decades after his death. In it, Ian McDonald describes Roach as, “one of the major West Indian poets”. He places Roach alongside Claude McKay, Derek Walcott, Louise Bennett, Martin Carter and Edward Kamau Brathwaite.
Too often is the discourse on Roach coloured by his story’s ending. We cannot ignore the facts of what occurred at Quinam Bay, yes, but sometimes they distract from the poet’s genuine achievements. Notwithstanding the emerging consensus on his stature, he is still best known for his ill-fated death. Yet the journey is sometimes more important than the destination.
In an introduction to the same collected edition of Roach’s poems published by Peepal Tree Press in 1992, critic Kenneth Ramchand states: “in the English-speaking Caribbean, is there anyone who had written as passionately about slavery and its devastations before ‘I am the Archipelago’ (1957) hit our colonised eardrums?” Ramchand notes that Roach was, “committed, as selflessly and as passionately as one can be, to the idea of a unique Caribbean civilisation taking shape out of the implosion of cultures and peoples in the region.” For Ramchand, “the ultimate justification of [Roach’s] art would be that it contributed to the making and understanding of this new, cross-cultural civilisation.” That cross-cultural civilisation is the one Walcott speaks of when he remarks:
Break a vase, and the love which reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole….This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles….Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.
This is really a call for the new breed of Caribbean poets, the breed that reverses colonialisation’s history of plunder. Just as our colonial overlords of the past have done, poets, now, are free to pillage from whichever continent they choose. This is not a process of retribution, but rather the restoration of the resilience of the human spirit itself amid the sea of history. It also asserts the reality of the fact that we are as much a part of world culture as anyone else and cannot be marginalised from it.
Roach – sometimes called the “Black Yeats”– was one in a long line of poets for whom imitation and allusion are, in fact, blatant acts of rebellion. He also saw himself as key to the process of forming a West Indian Federation, a political union which he felt required a new poetry. Though that union never came to pass, Roach’s work still serves to engage key aspects of Caribbean identity.
The narrative of Black identity, whatever that may be, has to some extent played on the idea of separate black and white races. It has also called for a rejection of “white” ideas and a return to African ideas. But these are uneasy dichotomies which paper over the realities of history over time, the mixing of races and the idea that race itself is an invention. At the same time, these categories ignore the complexity of colonisation. That process of colonisation saw states and peoples being exploited for economic resources and then, in the mid-20th century, abandoned by colonial motherlands under the pretence of liberation – even as strong economic subservience remains in place to this very day.
And this is why Roach remains relevant: he not only asserts that the English language is as much ours as theirs, but also sings of the true implications of history, a history sometimes obscured by neat narratives of “independence” and “emancipation”. This is why Roach is still alive.
. . .
I AM THE ARCHIPELAGO
I am the archipelago hope
Would mould into dominion; each hot green island
Buffeted, broken by the press of tides
And all the tales come mocking me
Out of the slave plantations where I grubbed
Yam and cane; where heat and hate sprawled down
Among the cane – my sister sired without
Love or law. In that gross bed was bred
The third estate of colour. And now
My language, history and my names are dead
And buried with my tribal soul. And now
I drown in the groundswell of poverty
No love will quell. I am the shanty town,
Banana, sugarcane and cotton man;
Economies are soldered with my sweat
Here, everywhere; in hate’s dominion;
In Congo, Kenya, in free, unfree America.
I herd in my divided skin
Under a monomaniac sullen sun
Disnomia deep in artery and marrow.
I burn the tropic texture from my hair;
Marry the mongrel woman or the white;
Let my black spinster sisters tend the church,
Earn meagre wages, mate illegally,
Breed secret bastards, murder them in womb;
Their fate is written in unwritten law,
The vogue of colour hardened into custom
In the tradition of the slave plantation.
The cock, the totem of his craft, his luck,
The obeahman infects me to my heart
Although I wear my Jesus on my breast
And burn a holy candle for my saint.
I am a shaker and a shouter and a myal man;
My voodoo passion swings sweet chariots low.
My manhood died on the imperial wheels
That bound and ground too many generations;
From pain and terror and ignominy
I cower in the island of my skin,
The hot unhappy jungle of my spirit
Broken by my haunting foe my fear,
The jackal after centuries of subjection.
But now the intellect must outrun time
Out of my lost, through all man’s future years,
Challenging Atalanta for my life,
To die or live a man in history,
My totem also on the human earth.
O drummers, fall to silence in my blood
You thrum against the moon; break up the rhetoric
Of these poems I must speak. O seas,
O Trades, drive wrath from destinations.
. . .
Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and journalist, born in 1983. His second book of poems, BURN, is published by Shearsman Books. To read more ZP features by Andre Bagoo, click on his name under “Guest Editors” in the right-hand column.
. . . . .
And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love.
Dylan Thomas, ‘This Side of the Truth’
WE ARE in the strangest town in Wales.
It is a Sunday afternoon and we walk through the lych-gate and up the long asphalt path leading to the church. Where is his grave?
The path forks. To the left, a graveyard and St Martin’s. To the right, another graveyard, added more recently. The sun is setting.
St Martin’s Church has a service every Sunday at 6 pm. We hesitate at the entrance. Is a service going on? Will we interrupt the worshippers inside? From behind the thick 13th century walls, we can hear the faint sound of an organ. Are those voices? The wind.
We walk in. A small group of old ladies—and one or two men—are huddled together in the sacristy at the far end. There are shields and flags and statues. The stained glass makes everything a kaleidoscope. On one wall near the back (where we stay, looking on respectfully) is a plaque in honour of him, bearing two of his verses: “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”. The light seems dazzled by these words, throwing long shadows on the rough stone walls.
Everyone in the church is kind, weirdly so.
“What took you so long? You should have come inside sooner,” one lady says.
“Here for Dylan Thomas, are you?” the rector adds, greeting us after the service and shaking our hands warmly.
Outside, we search among the graves and give up trying. It is quiet, the light is dying. We are tired after travelling for half a day. We will come again, we say, later in the week.
. . .
In the bar of Brown’s—the guesthouse/pub where Dylan Thomas spent most of his time drinking—the young bartender struggles to explain it. A sign on the wall advertises Laugharne as “the strangest town in Wales”.
“You’ll understand after a while,” he says, pouring a pint. “People here are really, really nice.” He says we are lucky the town is dead, because hundreds – if not thousands – of tourists will come for the Dylan Thomas centenary later this year. Our bartender is the youngest man we see all week.
A couple from a rival guesthouse a few blocks down on King Street stop in for drinks. They stare at us.
“You’re both so beautiful,” Janet says, eyeing my hamburger. Her husband, Peter, whispers into my ears that he has a hearing problem. She tells us a story about how she met Peter, who is her second husband. After her first marriage she was single for 17 years, she says, proudly. Then, she met Peter through an advertisement in the newspapers. She gives us a card for their inn, and says they have better rates. She never mentions her first husband’s name.
“She could get away with murder,” Peter jokes before they leave. I take a picture of them – just in case. That night in bed, I think of the town’s famous clock tower, standing black and white against the sky, just two blocks away.
Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea one hundred years ago, in 1914. He worked briefly as a reporter before his first published poem (‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’) appeared in 1933. He skyrocketed. His stentorian voice and beautiful language made him particularly popular over the wireless; his most famous work – Under Milk Wood – was, in fact, written for radio.
Thomas spent two major periods of his relatively brief life at Laugharne. He lived there when he first married. Then, after living in several different places (London, Oxfordshire, Iran) he returned, settling with his family in a boathouse overlooking the estuary at the mouth of the River Tâf. Near the end of his life, he developed a routine at Laugharne, right up until his trip to New York in October 1953. (It was there, after a night of heavy drinking, that he died at St Vincent’s Hospital.) He made his third, and final, voyage to Laugharne, where he was buried at St Martin’s graveyard. Thomas was 39.
Today, the grave looks fresh, covered with yellow, red and purple flowers. A simple white cross marks the spot where the poet who was once Wales’ most famous son is buried. “In Memory of Dylan Thomas,” it says. His wife Caitlin, who had a tempestuous relationship with him and who had not been with him in New York, would, years later, have the last word. She was buried in the same plot, and the other side of the slender white cross carries her name. There is no poetry at the grave.
When you travel, nothing is as it seems. Everything has something of the air of the unreal. Each city, town, inhabitant, each landscape – becomes a mirage. But to the persons who live there, you are the one who is out of place. You are the apparition.
It seems every single thing in Laugharne is connected to Dylan Thomas. Or if it is not, it fast becomes so. The entire town is a memorial to him; a living and breathing tomb. It is a monument comprising: pubs, book-shops, a clock-tower, ruins of a gothic castle, and St John’s Hill.
And all of this can be found in Thomas’ poetry.
But how much of a poet’s life and circumstance do we need to know? Do we need the back-story in order to enjoy each poem? Is it not better the less we know? Must we see the writing-shed, learn of the love affairs in New York, visit the favourite drinking haunts, the neighbours, the aunties? Of poetry Thomas once said:
All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem.
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.
I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paranomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and in the twistings and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.
With Thomas, there is a focus on what is not in focus: on crafting effects and experiences within the poem which hint at deeper ebbs. In addition to the devices he lists, there is also careful attention to form and an overriding sense of rhythm which propels the poetry, giving it a zealous, almost evangelical energy.
Many of his poems reflect these qualities, including some of his best-known, such as: ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, ‘Poem in October’, ‘Fern Hill’, and ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. A good example is also his poem ‘Twenty-four years’:
Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance for as long as forever is.
Thomas deploys rhyme, alliteration, paragram, memorable and unexpected imagery (“meat-eating sun”; “red veins full of money”) all to commemorate a moment; a feeling. The opening line startles, inverting the normal cause and effect relationship we associate with the provocation of tears – it bathes the poem in ambiguity. The poem is, for me, an act of grief, and seeks to point to a life force able to overcome it (“bury the dead for fear that they walk”). Ultimately, this is a snapshot as meaningful or as meaningless as life itself, grieved for or celebrated.
But if for Thomas poetry’s enjoyment is conditional upon a kind of cultivated mystery to the text, how useful is it to scour over the biographical details of Thomas’ undoubtedly tumultuous life? While Laugharne was central to his persona, is Laugharne central to the poetry? The whole point of poetry, according to Thomas, was its experience. Would he advocate that school of thought which states the reader need not get distracted or bogged down by the details of the poet’s personal life?
The Dylan Thomas Walk is approximately two miles in length and takes you uphill around the shoulder of St John’s Hill, which overlooks Laugharne. Along the walk, we see views of the marshy Tâf estuary, which fans open like a sponge at low-tide; of Thomas’ boathouse; the Gower; north Devon; Caldey Island and Tenby. If you’re keen you can download an app specially made for the walk (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/dylan-thomas-100-birthday/id571021072?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D4).
This “walk” was opened in 1856 by the Laugharne Corporation to enable cocklers to access by foot the valuable cockle beds on the upper and lower estuary marshes, when the dangerous high tides below would prevent access along the old cart road. Today, the path has been turned into a walk commemorating Thomas’s poem, ‘Poem in October’, which is ostensibly an occasional poem written by Thomas to mark what was his 30th birthday on October 24, 1944.
Reading ‘Poem in October’ today it remains as vital and alive as it must have been in 1944. Thomas was writing during World War II and perhaps this context alone gives the poem a certain charge. His retreat to the Laugharne landscape allows a perspective and distance. The marsh environment comes to mirror the processes not only of war, but of economy and society generally. But reading the poem on the page is nothing like reading the poem along the specially-designed walk which now exists. At several spots, stations have been made bearing sections of the poem relating to the landscape, as well as old, faded maps and drawings of the view. Only by taking the Dylan Thomas Walk can you fully appreciate what he meant when he wrote:
My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke….
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
Away but the weather turned around.
If we admit the landscape is in the poem, is the life not there too? Is the poem – even when stony, mysterious, obscure – not an artifact of a life, however shrouded in mystery? And if the life is there, can learning about the poet enrich our appreciation of what he sets out? For me, ‘Poem in October’ is a richer experience having been to Laugharne. Reading a poem is like reading a poet and, in turn, everything that has touched him. In this way, the reader and poet converge and something universal sparks between them. This is not to say this is compulsory to the enjoyment of a poem, or to advocate the limited readings so often lazily slapped onto poems when people find out about the lives of the poet, but rather to acknowledge that sometimes more information can reveal and deepen mystery simultaneously. Sometimes, the more you know, the less you know. And the more we know of a poet, the more possibilities are inherent in the text the poet leaves behind, even if the poem, like the poet, remains unknowable.
. . . . .
Andre Bagoo (poeta y periodista, Trinidad y Tobago)
“En Los Bosques, Cielos Salvajes”
Douen, mírame a la cara. Dentro de ti
Eres una cara. Tan silencioso. Caen sobre mi
La sombra de la tumba en los pliegues de la madera que se encrespa,
Una tumba con suave aroma, astillados por el sol.
Florecemos atonalmente: años después de conocernos
Atraídos aquí a la ternura del algodón.
El castillo de Moloch llena con nosotros.
Ahora, dedos no tratan de huir
Pero acaricia las vainas que contienen nuestras almas
Y crecen como las ramas sexuadas por el sol.
Que ya no se molestan en advertir al mundo
Que la hendidura de un corazón es tan grande como la de un árbol
Que el corazón de un corazón es tan grande como el tiempo.
Douen, una cara dentro de mi.
. . .
Traducción del inglés al español: Luis Vasquez La Roche
Nacido en Caracas, Venezuela, en 1983, ahora Sr. Vasquez La Roche – un artista multimedia – es trinitense, y vive en la ciudad de Couva, Trinidad y Tobago.
Aquí: un video del poema
. . . . .
Ship of Theseus
I have to see your face
if am not going to stare.
How do we know for sure
a dead body is really there?
Call all you wed by my surname
so that when I die, we breathe
in your body, in your new lover
and then, later, his new lover
his and his. In this way
our marriage lasts forever.
Father of the Nation
My life should grow longer
With each moment you live
We, strange twins, each
Through reversed ends
Assuming I will live tomorrow
I can time my midlife crisis
My life chained to yours
Our wrong-footed estimates
Leave one set of footprints
. . .
I will put my bucket down
Over my head
And turn it into straw, spin
Bark into gold.
Our ways always hold.
We cup love with tightness.
We know enough of currency
When you see me
You always say,
“Excuse me, you from China?”
You’ve nearly understood.
Our ways are old
Our bodies, our own.
We don’t take back
What we never gave.
. . .
These poems are taken from Douen Islands, a poetry e-book produced in collaboration by poet Andre Bagoo, graphic designer Kriston Chen, artists Brianna McCarthy and Rodell Warner, and sitarist Sharda Patasar.
Read more here: douenislands.tumblr.com
And get involved here: firstname.lastname@example.org
. . . . .
Afropan, Toronto’s longest-running steel orchestra, was founded in 1973. They have won the “Panorama”/Pan Alive competition more than two dozen times over the years. Currently under the leadership of Earl La Pierre, Jr., Afropan has mentored many young pannists and its player-membership includes a large number of female musicians.
Today – Simcoe Day Holiday Monday – is the “last lap lime” for Toronto Caribbean Carnival 2013 – more commonly known as Caribana – after two weeks of special events that included a Junior Carnival, King and Queen Competition, Calypso Monarch Finals, The Grand Parade or “Jump Up” – plus Pan Alive.
Pan Alive brings together, through the Ontario Steelpan Association, a dozen or more homegrown steel-pan orchestras from Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. These perform original compositions or arrangements before pan aficionados and a table of judges. The 2013 winners were Pan Fantasy, under the leadership of Wendy Jones (with arranger Al “Allos” Foster), playing SuperBlue’s “Fantastic Friday”.
Other competing orchestras at Pan Alive 2013 were: Afropan, Pan Masters, Golden Harps, Panatics, Salah Steelpan Academy, Silhouettes, Hamilton Youth Steel Orchestra, New Dimension, Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton, St.Jamestown Youth Centre, JK Vibrations and Metrotones.
Our Guest Editor – Trinidadian poet, Andre Bagoo – here takes a look at poetry inspired by the steel-pan in the following selection he has put together for Zócalo Poets.
. . .
STEEL-PAN is everywhere in the Caribbean, so much so that some people cannot help but define us by it. We’ve produced Nobel laureates in the arts, economics and sciences; great athletes; contributed so much all over the planet – yet ask the average foreigner about the Caribbean and chances are the first thing they will talk about is steel-pan. But the region has a complex relationship with pan. For us, pan music is not just fun. It is a ritual: an invocation of the pulse of history within our veins; a defiant assertion of individuality against larger global forces; an example of how one man’s trash can become treasure – a sublime subversion of power, economics and art. Trinidad and Tobago, inventor of the pan, prides itself in being the race that created what is said to be the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. Yet, Trinidadian poets, and Caribbean poets generally, have a sophisticated relationship with the instrument. Its hard, silver and lyrical contours are not mere tourist ornament, but loaded symbol. Often, as in my poem ‘Carnival’ (http://www.bostonreview.net/bagoo-carnival), instead of being a symbol of pleasure, the pan becomes a hollow, opposite thing – creating an irony because of our pleasurable expectations.
Roger Robinson’s ‘Texaco Oil Storage Tanks’ is ostensibly a poem about the materials used to make pans: oil barrels. But he finds the forces of history, power and economics inside them. While the oil storage tanks are large structures, the poem arguably evokes the images of smaller steel pans. Derek Walcott strikingly uses the image of the pan as a kind of psychogeographic tool in the opening of ‘Laventille’, whose first lines invite us to imagine that hill-top region as the arch of a pan. It’s also a device pregnant with meaning since Laventille is regarded as the birthplace of the instrument. In Kamau Brathwaithe’s great poem ‘Calypso’, pan makes an overt appearance but is, in fact, really all over the poem: its rhythm, its materials, its colour. I’ve included David Blackman’s poem ‘Bassman’ because of how far it veers from our romantic associations with that figure. And Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Steelpan in Miami’ is the final, fitting irony: pan exported, becoming a kind of prison of nostalgia, only made possible by migration away from the Caribbean basin.
– Andre Bagoo
. . .
Roger Robinson: “Texaco Oil Storage Tanks”
(Trinidad, Pointe-à-Pierre, 1978)
You silver gods, with viscous black innards,
skin of iron plates and bones of steel rivets,
your Cyclopean eye is a bright red star.
At each entrance stands an armed, khakied guard;
they check our passes, though we’ve known them for years,
for though we work here, we don’t belong.
A new shift begins, our brown workboots trudge
and the unemployed beg and plead out front
in full view, with burning sun on their shame,
but it’s not worse than their child’s hunger pains.
Our fingernails are full of tar and dust:
you came for the oil, and left with our blood.
. . .
Derek Walcott: From “Laventille”
[for V.S. Naipaul]
To find the Western Path
Through the Gates of Wrath
It huddled there
steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,
tempered in violence, like Rio’s Favelas,
with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as
its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall
from its miraculous hilltop
down the impossible drop
to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St Clair
like peddlers’ tin trinkets in the sun.
From a harsh
shower, its gutters growled and gargled wash
past the Youth Centre, past the water catchment,
a rigid children’s carousel of cement;
We climbed where lank electric
lines and tension cables linked its raw brick
hovels like a complex feud,
where the inheritors of the middle passage stewed,
five to a room, still camped below their hatch,
breeding like felonies,
whose lived revolve round prison, graveyard, church.
Below bent breadfruit trees
in the flat, coloured city, class
escalated into structures still,
merchant, middleman, magistrate, knight. To go downhill
from here was to ascend.
. . .
Kamau Brathwaite: “Calypso”
from The Arrivants
The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands:
Cuba and San Domingo
Jamaica and Puerto Rico
Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire
curved stone hissed into reef
wave teeth fanged into clay
white splash flashed into spray
Bathsheba Montego Bay
bloom of the arcing summers…
The islands roared into green plantations
ruled by silver sugar cane
sweat and profit
islands ruled by sugar cane
And of course it was a wonderful time
a profitable hospitable well-worth-you-time
when captains carried receipts for rices
letters spices wigs
opera glasses swaggering asses
debtors vices pigs
O it was a wonderful time
an elegant benevolent redolent time–
and young Mrs. P.’s quick irrelevant crine
at four o’clock in the morning…
But what of black Sam
with the big splayed toes
and the shoe black shiny skin?
He carries bucketfulls of water
’cause his Ma’s just had another daughter.
And what of John with the European name
who went to school and dreamt of fame
his boss one day called him a fool
and the boss hadn’t even been to school…
Steel drum steel drum
hit the hot calypso dancing
hot rum hot rum
who goin’ stop this bacchanalling?
For we glance the banjoy
dance the limbo
grow our crops by maljo
have loose morals
father out neighbour’s quarrels
perhaps when they come
with their cameras and straw
hats: sacred pink tourists from the frozen Nawth
we should get down to those
where if we don’t wear breeches
it becomes an island dance
Some people doin’ well
while others are catchin’ hell
o the boss gave our Johnny the sack
though we beg him please
please to take ‘im back
so now the boy nigratin’ overseas…
. . .
David Jackman: “Bassman”
Now yuh hearing a pain in yuh belly,
Who go provide now?
Who giving yuh room now?
After yuh throw way the costume and
Sleep in yuh vomit from pan fever
After yuh finish consume the liquor
Playing bass in mass
Playing ass in mass
You go shadow extravaganza
trying to stretch out the fever
making a las lap
trying to get back on the map.
But the year face yuh
all yuh have to go by
is Sparrow Miss Mary until
the bass man
in yuh head
Shadow bass man eh boss man nah.
Carnival sickness is the bossman.
Shadow eating good, Sparrow eating good,
CDC eating good.
But who go provide now
Who go provide for the bass pain
in the belly? Who man tell me who?
. . .
Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming: “Steelpan in Miami”
Last night I drove
over plain Miami
far in the Southwest
to Miami Pan Symphony
Panyard not under open skies
not bounded by mountain peaks
Cierro del Aripo and El Tucuche
but swallowed in the stomach
of a boxy warehouse
Steelpan music cornered
muffled by dense
con crete pre fab walls
not ringing out over
Queen’s Park Savannah
not jingling like running water
in East Dry River
Saw the girlchild beating
six bass pans
made one afternoon
not by Spree Simon the Hammer Man
but by Mike Kernahan
Trini in Miami
Listened to the boychild
strum the cello pan
heard the manchild
on the chrome tenor pans
carrying the calypso tune
Not to Maracas Bay
with coconut fronds
and six foot waves
but to Miami Beach
with sea oats and coco plums
And when the music died
a farewell so warm like Miami heat
a Trini voice bidding
“Drive safe eh”
an incantation from the streets of
a familiar song so strange
in this multilingual
Caribbean city in the frying pan
handle of North America.
. . . . .
Roger Robinson’s ‘Texaco Oil Storage Tanks’ appears in his forthcoming collection, The Butterfly Hotel (Peepal Tree Press); the extract from Derek Walcott’s ‘Laventille’ is taken from his Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1986); Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Calypso’ is a poem from his The Arrivants; David Jackman’s ‘Bassman’ is scooped out of 100 Poems from Trinidad and Tobago (Edited by Ian Dieffenthaller & Anson Gonzalez); and Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Steelpan in Miami’ appears in her collection Curry Flavour (Peepal Tree Press, 2000).
Andre Bagoo is a poet and journalist, born in 1983, whose first book of poems, Trick Vessels, was published by Shearsman Books (UK) in 2012. His poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming at: Almost Island; Boston Review; Cincinnati Review; Caribbean Review of Books; Caribbean Writer; Draconian Switch; Exit Strata PRINT! Vol. 2; Landscapes Journal, St Petersburg Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. An e-chapbook, From the Undiscovered Country, a collaboration with the artist Luis Vasquez La Roche, was published at The Drunken Boat in 2013.
. . . . .
Five poets from Trinidad and Tobago
THE WORLD meets in Trinidad and Tobago. Here is a Caribbean country open to the possibilities of permeable boundaries, enriched by cultural diversity and charged with the energy needed to drive a special art.
Today, as the former British colony marks its 50th anniversary as an independent nation, we take a look at the work of five contemporary Trinidad-born poets in a series of posts which you will see below.
Most of these poets live in Trinidad, others divide their time between Trinidad and homes in the United Kingdom or the United States. All share a remarkable vantage point; all have been influenced by a rich Caribbean literary tradition which predates independence. Here are travellers: between time, space, dimensions, selves, journeying to and from Shakespeare’s undiscovered country. They create richly-coloured gems, sparkling like the light bouncing off the floor of a cold, golden sea, and sharp as a diamond blade.
The first post features Mervyn Taylor, the Trinidad-born poet who also lives in New York. His poem ‘The Mentor’ – which features the persona of a poet “dancing his / mischievous meaning, / tieless, sparkling with / metaphor” – seeks reason but finds the crackling of bones. The poem is an audacious distillation of the challenges facing Trinidad, which may also reflect the challenges of the poet and the individual seeking freedom.
Then, as Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Jubilee year, the Oxford-based poet Vahni Capildeo takes us to London’s Hyde Park only to make us discover that we have never left the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, “Opalescent, Crystalline, Amethyst. And Dark”. By the time she is done with us we are unsure what ground we walk on and feel walking on water to be a natural state.
In another post we feature the quietly disquieting work of Danielle Boodoo-Fortune, a poet and artist who lives in Sangre Grande, a town in the north-east of Trinidad.
There are also posts by Colin Robinson, whose poetry shows us the sublime in unexpected places, and Nicholas Laughlin, the editor behind the Caribbean Review of Books, whose own work is a tour de force of mood, sound and language – dissecting ideas of alienation like an anthropologist might but with unexpected lyricism. Both are poets living in Diego Martin, the suburb nestled in the cool mountains of northwest Trinidad which was only this month ravaged by flood.
These poems are not intended as any sort of programmatic depiction of anything. They are grouped here to speak, whether in harmony or dissonance, of feelings, ideas and impressions. They are an unauthorised biography which the subject might secretly relish.
Each post is accompanied by an image from the Trinidadian graphic artist Rodell Warner (rodellwarner.com) who manages to capture a mood and tone that say things about the work, but also about Trinidad and Tobago and its vitality.
ABOUT TODAY’S GUEST EDITOR
Andre Bagoo is a poet and journalist from Trinidad. His first book of poems, Trick Vessels, was published by Shearsman Books (UK) in March 2012. His poetry has appeared in Boston Review, Caribbean Review of Books, The Caribbean Writer, tongues of the ocean and elsewhere. One of his poems, ‘Carnival Monday in Trinidad’, was featured at Zócalo Poets earlier this year. He is Zócalo Poets’ guest editor today, the 50th anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago Independence.
In this dream there were
cows in every field,
breaths rising to create
clouds floating above
an island so green,
it seemed made of gases.
And out of this arose the
poet, in a grey suit,
as spry as I’ve ever
seen him, dancing his
tieless, sparkling with
metaphor, asking his trick
question- are you going
with me, are we going
to look for reasons?
In this place I answered,
no one should ever starve,
or complain about things
other than an open gate
through which a stray might
wander lost and unmarked,
ending in dispute settled now
in such devious ways.
You might remember Lena.
In the dream she too
was present, wearing
a hat like a teakettle cover,
remarking those boys who
now live where she grew up,
tattoos marking their bodies,
and a young girl hosting
a perfume sale every Friday,
a Digicel sign and one
for computer repairs.
It is rumored this is the
house a mental outpatient
was looking for, when he
smashed the gate
at a wrong address,
took a wheelbarrow handle
and beat a bedridden
90 yr. old to death, those
who harbored the fugitive
he was seeking crouching
next door, saying
not a word, their weapons
like marshmallows in their
pockets, hands over their
ears, blocking the sound of
breaking bones, and screams.
Cows crop the grass,
brown and white backs
seen from above, the land
in undulating waves below.
Out of the few houses,
people in black follow
funerals, fathers refusing
to accept each other’s
apologies, watching their sons
lowered, earth tamped,
they remain, conversing
with the dead. Ah, the poet
smiles his ineffable smile,
those adverbs he warned
against, they shuffle up.
What will we do with them,
now that he is going, trailing
long verses, joining the islands
like cans behind a wedding,
bells pealing in chapels
whose stone walls he worked
hard to capture, inside the
host on Sunday morning,
blood in silver chalices,
the priest’s voice intoning
from memory- sunlight,
stained glass, sin, all in
This is where they’ve
chosen to reenact the story
of sacrifice, with animals,
gold and greed,
where the washing of hands
goes on every day, governors
and guards swearing
each other away, poets
in corners swearing out
long poems like warrants,
lists of charges read aloud
in a difficult language,
the one in grey asking,
are you going with me, are
we going to understand
what it is we do, and why?
. . .
ABOUT THE POET
Mervyn Taylor is a Trinidad-born poet who divides his time between Brooklyn and his native island. He has taught in the New York City public school system, at Bronx Community College and The New School, and is the author of four books of poetry, namely, An Island of His Own (1992), The Goat (1999), Gone Away (2006), and No Back Door (2010, Shearsman Books). He can be heard on an audio collection, Road Clear, accompanied by bassist David Williams.