“I seek freedom in the indefinable”: Five Poems by Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming

Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming

(born 1960, Trinidad and Tobago)

The Om


My Tanty used to sing/pray

evening ragas to the Earth Goddess

morning oblations to the Sun God


Now my Aunty prays

that I find salvation in the cross

in the church that has freed her

from indenture, from coolieness


Yet I seek freedom

in the indefinable

the OM

the puja breath that expands

my rib cage

with blessed pitchpine smoke

into an oval

large as the cosmic egg


The sea breath


That echoes

In the conch shell

Blowing across the Caroni

Infinite like green plains

Of sugarcane

Or a milky river veiling

The face of the goddess


.     .     .


The Broken Key



Half left in the keyhole

Bright bronze blocking

Locking the door


Only a tiny drill

Can turn into powder

The hardened one

Reopen the door

Allow a human being

To become the way

For grace to come through



Half broken off

Round with jagged edge

As if the full moon

Had been gnawed by some

Celestial beast

Gnawed like the ropes

That bind us together

One tug away from



The sound of a key breaking

In the keyhole of our door

How can we reopen the door?

How can we ever let grace

Come through again?

.     .     .



A quartet of ospreys calls

Kee-uk kee-uk cheep cheep

Kee-uk kee-uk cheep cheep

Riding on air currents

Beneath a periwinkle sky

Decibelled by steelpan carols


A sailboat chips along

Over cobalt blue near the horizon

As David Rudder’s voice solos

From the CD-player


A soulful Go Tell It on The Mountain


A white and orange tabby saunters

Along the boardwalk

Sasses Meow

Without stopping to marvel

At the ingenuity

Of Zanda and Hadeed’s

Playful panjazz fusion


The Mighty Shadow melodies

Greetings in a lover’s kaiso

While at the foot of the dune

Sixty feet down

The sea swashes in threes

A soft wetsandsmooth

Rake and Scrape response

Submerged voices of ghost Tainos


.     .     .


Beneath the Trees


These round roots encircle me

Like tubes

In a hospital bed but here there is no

Antiseptic scent

No sterile handwashing


Here the earth smells like wet moss

And when I bite into these roots

They taste of peppery pine

And green fruit: sugar apple maybe


Beneath these trees

I need no clothes to feel clothed

These gnarled roots with their humus

Coating warm my nakedness

In a cocoon soft like corn silk


The phloem and xylem passages

That carry messages

Between the sun and these roots

Water and feed my muscles

Giving them a turgidity

Like the fullness of youth


These roots do not just encase me

They cradle me

Like a mother’s arms


My heartbeat echoes

Through these roots

This earth

And I know

I have become

an incarnation

of Sita

Returning to her mother

Bhumi Devi: the great Earth Mother

Beneath these trees


.     .     .


Alphabet of Memory


I took with me seeds

Tiny dots of bhandhania

Flat, almost round disks of pimento pepper

And oval, plump legumes of seim

That I planted

With varying degrees of success

Wanting to feel at home

Where I have traveled to


Then I found

In a cobwebby closet

The alphabet of memory

I had brought with me

Some letters sharp as a tropical noonday

Others hazy

As a smoky dry season dusk


Letters which I shuffled

And then played a game of scrabble

Until I had used them all up

To create words

Then poems

To make me feel at home


.     .     .


Poet’s glossary:

Coolieness: East Indian Indentured Labourers who were brought to the West Indies, and their descendents are sometimes called ‘coolie’, as an insult. In my poem, ‘Coolieness’ refers to the East Indian culture that still exists in Trinidad and Tobago.


Puja (Bhojpuri Hindi): A personal, familial, or public Hindu prayer service or worship.


Caroni: A river in Trinidad and Tobago. The river plains, called the Caroni Plains were once used for sugar cane farming.


David Rudder: A calypsonian from Trinidad and Tobago.


Zanda: Clive Alexander, aka Zanda, or Clive Zanda Alexander, is a jazz pianist from Trinidad and Tobago.


Hadeed: Annise Hadeed is a steel pan soloist and composer from Trinidad and Tobago.


The Mighty Shadow: A calypsonian from Trinidad and Tobago.


Kaiso (Trinidad and Tobago Creole): Calypso


phloem and xylem: The primary components of the vascular tissues in plants, which transport the fluid and nutrients throughout the plant.


Sita: (Sanskrit: meaning “furrow”) is the wife of Lord Rama and one of the principal figures of the Ramayana, the epic Hindu scripture. As the devoted wife of Lord Rama, Sita is regarded as the most esteemed exemplar of womanly elegance and wifely virtue in Hinduism.


Bhandhania: The Hindi name for the herb, used in cooking, otherwise known as wild coriander or culantro.


Seim: The Hindi name for the Hyacinth bean, the green pods of which are used as a vegetable.


.     .     .     .     .

Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming is an engineer, poet and fiction writer.  She won the David Hough Literary Prize (2001) and the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize (2009) from The Caribbean Writer Literary Journal; and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association 2001 Short Story Competition. She is the author of two poetry collections: Curry Flavour, published by Peepal Tree Press (2000) and Immortelle and Bhandaaraa Poems, published by Proverse Hong Kong (2011).


Zócalo Poets wishes to thank guest-editor Andre Bagoo

for introducing us to the poetry of Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming.

Five Poets from Trinidad and Tobago – with an introduction by Andre Bagoo

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.

Andre Bagoo




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.

Mervyn Taylor: The Mentor

Mervyn Taylor

The Mentor



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

mischievous meaning,

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,

advertised under

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

four-by-four refrain.




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?


.     .     .


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.

Vahni Capildeo: Water / Ice Cream in Hyde Park with Nikki

Vahni Capildeo



I. Cold Hands

There is a moment when

the water seems as if it might be warm.


wash your face

in the illusion


II. The Atlantic.  Like

Putting a handspan square of glass

flat on the sea, thinking I see

something. That’s the sky.

Calling the colour roaring grey

heard in December, when the tide

discourages. That’s a lie


III. Opalescent, Crystalline, Amethyst. And Dark

The sea is.

In my mind I never left you.

The sea


Place-holder, holder of a place:

The sea

Who can hold to this? A causeway.


Essential ground for memory.

Twig-runes dust the shore with bird-tracks.

And the wind


IV. Changes

Swans and rain and swans in rain

Swans and rain

Swans again


.     .     .


Ice Cream In Hyde Park With Nikki

Time flies / she’s a dancer / seagulls & eagles
we’re watching walkers’ & cyclists’ ankles
straight up & down as posts! / larks & starlings
they ain’t / that’s Time / stopping & starting
singlescoop chocolatemint slipup
delicious / xylophonic strip / perfume-smelling forearms
vintage gardenia topnote soprano orangeblossom
she swoops / she sings / Time high-steppng
to her Lambretta scooter!

New York, hold your sidewalk breath


[From Utter (completed 2011; revised 2012. Forthcoming.

‘Water’ is taken from ‘December’, in the 14-month ‘Winter to Winter’ calendar,

Undraining Sea (Norwich: Egg Box, 2009)]

.     .     .


Vahni Capildeo (b. Trinidad, 1973) went to the UK as a student in 1991, completing her BA (Hons) (First Class) in English Language and Literature in 1995 at Christ Church, University of Oxford.  A Rhodes Scholarship (1996-99) enabled her to pursue a doctorate in Old Norse at the same institution.  After a Research Fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge, Capildeo worked for the Oxford English Dictionary on Etymology and quotational research.

Capildeo’s three poetry collections are: Dark & Unaccustomed Words (2012); Undraining Sea(Egg Box, 2009); and No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003).  Her poetry and prose have been widely anthologized, most recently in The Best British Poetry 2012 (Salt, forthcoming).  She has been Highly Commended for the Forward Prize (individual poem category, 2009); shortlisted for the Guyana International Prize for Literature (2011).

Colin Robinson: Indivisible

Colin Robinson



He’s very well rounded

Like his lover like(s) me

An engineer, I have to pry it out

He jokes, I’m 569 years old

Dog years, I ask, what to divide by

Google it’s a prime number

We are linked online

By another man

He too does not remember

We chat routinely about random things


I cam a quickie with a mewling chubby boy

Fantasy is cute in ways reality doesn’t match up to LOL

I type, I never had a good imagination, he IMs back

How Mills & Boons are a good lesson in writing

To make a kiss last four pages

I ask what tongue you grew up speaking

I had to allow my language to fall on all ears

Today we move to a higher order

Talk fetishes, we like the same things

But my numeracy gets the better of me once again

As I calculate the probability

That in any triangulation

Two times out of three

There will be a remainder

Either two or one.



*for Shadath

.     .     .


Colin Robinson is executive director of CAISO, the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation.  His poetry has appeared in many places, including Caribbean Erotic, an anthology published by Peepal Tree Press in 2010. He moves  between the West Indies and the USA.  He was NY field producer for Tongues Untied, led Studio Museum in Harlem’s first three creative responses to World AIDS Day and co-edited Other Countries: Black Gay Voices and Think Again.

Danielle Boodoo-Fortune: Morning Song for a Second Son

Danielle Boodoo-Fortune

Morning Song for a Second Son


Second son, how I fear my own singing.

Each word sounds like regret,

like the rasp of torn laughter

sputtering from the kettle

of your prodigal’s tongue.

Lord knows, I cannot bear the sound.

The house sits deep in darkness,

tarsals click against tile as

you measure the breadth

of another’s shadow.

Son, of all the things I’ve made,

you are the truest, and the one

most unknown to me.

Each tic in your jaw is an ocean

of hurt I cannot cross

How I wish I could sing for you.


.     .     .


Danielle Boodoo-Fortune is a Trinidadian poet and artist.  Her work has been featured in The Caribbean Writer, Bim: Arts for the 21st Century, Tongues of the Ocean, Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, Small Axe Literary Salon, and Poui: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing.  Her art has been featured at Trinidad’s Erotic Art Week 2011, and the WoMA (Women Make Art) exhibition, in Grenada, 2012.  Her art has also been featured in St. Somewhere Journal, Firestorm Literary Journal, Splash of Red Literary Arts Magazine, and on the cover of Blackberry: A Magazine.  She was awarded the Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize for first time publication in 2009, nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010, and shortlisted for the Small Axe Poetry Prize in 2009 and 2011.

Nicholas Laughlin: Self-Portrait in the Neotropics

Nicholas Laughlin

Self-Portrait in the Neotropics


Eleven of the strange years of my life.
Months on end I lived on tapioca,
I lived on mud and permanganate broth,
and river water red as rum,
bivouacked with rainflies
and fire ants and sundry native guides.
The parrots already knew some French.
Nous sommes les seuls français ici.
Call it sunstroke, le coup de bambou.
I came all this way with half a plan,
an extra handkerchief, and Humboldt (abridged).
Here I lack only the things I do not have.


Eleven years of untimely weather,
earthquakes and fireflies and mud.
The colonel writes his complaints to the general.
The general writes his complaints to the emperor.
The emperor writes to Jesus Christ,
who damns us all.
Nous sommes les seuls français left in the world.
I came all this bloody way
to sit in a cheap café with bandaged hands.
I translate detective novels, Dr. Janvier.
It keeps me in dinero, out of trouble.
I miss only the friends I do not have.




[From The Strange Years of My Life,

a sequence first published at Almost Island,

which you can read at:  almostisland.com (see winter 2011/poetry)]

.     .     .


Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books and the arts and travel magazine Caribbean Beat; programme director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival based in Trinidad and Tobago; and co-director of the contemporary art centre Alice Yard.