Articulating cohesion in the geopolitical space that is the Caribbean has long been a preoccupation of scholars of literature. Instead of charting unity between island nations, some scholars make the case for separation between languages and Caribbean cultures.
British, French, Spanish, and Dutch forcibly enslaved and indentured people from the African continent, China, Java, South Asia, and Europe to work on their plantations in the Antillean archipelago. So it’s little wonder that a case can be made for the linking of these disparate languages and cultures to one another, a weaving into a basket. Ask any Caribbean poet and they will say, the fissures make us beautiful. Imagine Walcott. Imagine the beach. Imagine a paradise that is also the site of your slavery.
Yet the cohesion is difficult without adopting a comparative, postcolonial understanding of linkages by colonial history. But in the words of the poet, activist, and scholar Kamau Brathwaite, “the connection is sub-marine.” The disparate Caribbean nations and cultures have another connection — a second and third diasporic home in the United States. This is a series of mini reviews of recent and forthcoming books of poetry that show the rhizomatic connections, the conversations, and the fissures between nations as they meet and inform each other on the American continent.
I have chosen to review three books published in 2016 that illustrate the diversity of experience in the Caribbean diaspora. What binds them together is their treatment of a colonial history, the mediating of a North American present and diasporic dislocations, and poetry as the vessel that carries their bodies across seas. Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press), Danielle Legros Georges’ The Near Remote Nearness of You (Barrow Street Press), and Faizal Deen’s The Greatest Films (Mawenzi House) serve as an entry into this vital conversation.
by Safiya Sinclair
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
126 pages. $17.95 (paperback)
Scorching the sea of postcolonial poetry, this award-winning collection comes to eat you. Or at least to eat what you know about the figure at the center of colonial maligning: the woman of African descent. Drawing from a rich archive of sources to fuel her critique of colonial power that extends from her home in Jamaica to the United States, Sinclair reads humanity into Blackness. Through figures of the slave, the woman as daughter, the mermaid, and the cannibal, Sinclair rewrites agency and subscribes a voice of fire to the subaltern.
Sinclair, in conversation with Shakespeare, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite, sings her lyrics with the force of hurricane gales. In her poem “Mermaid,” the poet shows the layers of a postcolonial identity where history, Caribbean poetry and criticism, mythology, and personal experience burn into each other and become inseparable. She writes:
Every red ant from Negril to Frenchman’s Cove came to burrow and suckle at his vein, where his leg was honeyed with a diabetic rot, and when he caught my grandmother in his wide fishing net, he served her up cold to his wild-eyed son: “Mermaid on the deck.” (Sinclair 14)
Here the reader is immersed in the realities of the speaker’s intersections: the poisoning of Black blood by diabetes — a colonial fallout of working the British sugar plantations, the narrative of escape in Black literature, of jumping ship to escape the abjection of slavery, alcoholism, and the treatment of women from the speaker’s grandmother’s generation whose agency differs from the speaker’s and indeed the poet’s own.
Yet despite this, in an act of resistance and survival, the speaker laughs into the beginning of the poem as if to prove that “Caribbean thyme is ten times stronger than the English variety,” as stated in the poem’s opening. Here the Caribbean woman’s survival is incomparable to any other.
Yet the speaker deals with a hyphenated identity in which her new diasporic home has a similar and related history of the denigration of Black folks by the unjust white American settler colonial system. In the poems “One Hundred Amazing Facts About Negros, With Complete Proof I, II, III” and “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Sinclair brings the conversation of Caribbean Blackness into a North American context where the abject historical dehumanization of Black folks at the hands of white Americans has been written into law and pulp. In this way Sinclair’s own national identifications straddle the Antillean archipelago and the continental United States.
Drawing inter-textual connections with Toni Morrison, Stuart Hall, Aimée Césaire, Brathwaite, James Baldwin, W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black People, and 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: With Complete Proof (circa 1934), Sinclair appropriates the objectifying texture of the language of J. A. Rogers to place herself into her new context. Sinclair succinctly sums these complexities in her poem “Notes on the State of Virginia, II” by writing:
February, I am an open wound — woman discarded
and woman emerging. Scars devising scars.
To live here we know precisely how to be haunted. (42)
In a time when the #BlackLivesMatter movement needs to be in the foreground, this collection of poems stakes a claim that the struggles of Black lives have been challenged for a long time, from the original moment where Black folks were turned unmercifully into commodity — and how this kind of denigration and murder by the legal systems still goes unchecked. Sinclair shows the connections of patriarchal oppression to racism in her collection’s final poem “Crania Americana” while allowing for connections of experience of Black folks across the postcolonial world. She writes through this and leads the reader into light:
Vexed skinfolk. Unfossiled, hence.
What a brittle world is man.
Self inflammable, I abjure you.
And wear your gabble like a diadem,
this flecked crown of dictions,
this bioluminescence. (109)
by Danielle Legros Georges
New York, NY: Barrow Street Press, 2016.
62 pages. $16.95
Danielle Legros Georges is the Haitian American who is poet laureate of Boston. This is her second volume of poetry.
The title borrows from the song “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael, Ned Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, placing its poetic in the Gulf Stream current that flows from the Caribbean Sea to the North Atlantic — both shaded in blues: the sea and music. The beginning poem “If Blues, Then” begins a crescendo to the title poem “The Dear Remote Nearness of You” which draws from the shades of blue that both Fitzgerald and Armstrong perfect. Georges scores her poem with tender personal reflection that happens both in English and Kreyòl. Georges, preserving the rhyme and cadence of jazz and blues, sings:
Since the last I held you fast En chair et en os, one
Joint against the next … (Georges 43)
Appearing second in the collection, Georges breaks out in a rara, a type of Hatitian Easter song that usually contains political lyrics, paraded thought the pages of Blackness under threat in both the USA and Haïti. Here the poet mediates the connections between the two national spaces through music. Almost as a statement of poetics, the speaker challenges socio-economic disparities by saying:
… Let the rara beat it all purple. Let them be reborn to the beautify of unblinking good fortune, to the accidents of riches,
to the deep crimes of wealth. Let the rara bear witness to new life (7)
The poet sustains this parallel throughout the collection. She uses place names to show the physical and national locations of the speaker to illustrate the ways in which the Black woman’s coloniality is read in various places and contexts. The above poem happens in Port-Au-Prince.
The bi-national location of the speaker is executed through lexicon and poetic form, borrowing words and phrases, forms and musicality that locate the speaker as both a United States national and Haitian. This kind of structural move illustrates the consciousness of the speaker as understanding herself in various contexts simultaneously; inalienable to the speaker are the poetic influences of Kreyòl and American English. The speaker’s identity as a Black woman is integral to the poetic she wagers, evidenced in the poem “Poem from the Real World.” This poem’s backdrop is Boston, Massachusetts, when on Dorchester Avenue the speaker hears the word “nigger” and bears witness:
… I am
recording this to remind myself that this did indeed happen
on September 28, 2004, in Boston, Massachusetts, the
U. S. of A. (11)
The irony that Geroges employs enlivens the contrast between national histories where on one end is Haïti, the first Black Caribbean nation to receive independence from their colonizers in 1804, and on the other is the United States that nominally gave African Americans equal rights in 1965 — though black lives are still threatened daily by the national infrastructure. By using this American word in her poem, Georges places the Haitian immigrant in a Black American racial discourse that doesn't necessarily resonate with Haïti, as the speaker maintains clear distinctions between what happens where, yet allows slippage of the resonances of the two separate places.
In Haïti — where the postcolonial infrastructure is under threat of natural disaster as well as death from the diseases that plague the postcolonial world: diabetes and heart disease — the poem “Why Lalane Did Not Go To Haiti in 2006” encapsulates perfectly the diasporic person unable to return home due to the body being altered. She connects the traumas mapped on the Black body by an inheritance of colonization to the ills and insecurities of the Caribbean nation:
Cholesterol, high blood pressure, glaucoma,
two laser surgeries. In October: cataracts.
Complications, complications, I tell you ….
… Et les kidnappings!
These days, the place is finished. Finished
mes amis. (28)
Underneath it all. To the
beauty of letters on blue paper. And when there is no paper,
to that beauty too. (58)
by Faizal Deen
Toronto: ON: Mawenzi House 2016.
80 pages. $19.95 CND
Essential in this exploration of Caribbean American poetry is the voice of the often-unseen Indo-Caribbean poet. Far displaced from any Naipaul-esque praise of metropole, Faizal Deen’s poetic experimentations deal with a personal history made public, adopting a technique that queers the telling of a flat or linear trajectory of time and imagination. Rather, in Deen’s work, there is no singular timeline that the reader encounters that neatly separates national experiences from one another — itself a metaphor for the currents across epic swaths of seas from the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and East Sea.
In his second book Deen adopts an experimental methodology to heighten the experience of cultural hybridity through writing a long poem that cycles and crashes like waves drawn to shore from the horizon. His approach hearkens to the cultural hybridity and transformation that is Creolization, as the speaker travels through Canada, Guyana, India, and Korea. Here the speaker’s cultural hybridity is context specific. The poet draws from outside source material, various films and songs, to weave in personal history through a stylized collage that lays bare the psyche of the diasporic speaker. The effect is of tension, drama, and turbulence, where the speaker sheds his clothes and parades his naked, queer scars up and down the streets of “Foreign.”
The opening section dynamically jars the reader with its queering language at the sentence level while setting up racial and ethnic expectations mapped on the speaker’s mother. Deen writes in the section titled “MOM & BOB: Matinees”:
when Liberty opens in Old Spice, Mom & Bob in balcony
all alone no chaperone & no Asha Bhosle
flickers let’s misbehave
Brando & pits erupts “scunt!” bottles flung
at the screen: poomb! (Deen 1)
Here the arrangement and layering of pop cultures is apparent: from “Asha Bhosle” the great Bollywood playback singer to the American “Let’s Misbehave” by Cole Porter, and to the Creole curse “scunt” and reference to alcohol (“bottle”), the layers clearly illustrate the speaker’s context as an Indo-Caribbean person in North America.
Yet the reader, aware of this method, does not need to trace every single reference in order to understand the internal music, the internal hurricane of the lines. Rather, following the flow of the poem as it unfolds produces a kind of familiarity as themes, places, and words cycle back into view, as is the experience of the Caribbean American queer.
The reader learns that the speaker has studied the colonial classics with references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a common device in Caribbean poetry. The speaker muses on his connections with things colonial in the poem “MUSEUM: Drive-in”:
my father was a Fullahman. (14-15)
He concludes with the word “Fullahman” which means “Muslim” in Guyana. The use of this word shows a connection to the South Asian heritage of the speaker and the distance from the colonial overlords as experienced throughout his life. India is very present throughout this collection — a ghost that appears as if to indicate dis/belonging and nostalgic longings.
India, the imaginary homeland of the Indo-Caribbean, and in the case of The Greatest Films, the Indo-Guyanese, is referred to in a state of nostalgia which the speaker cannot quite place. With the sense of ebb and flow of tide the reader is rooted by the constant return of the phrase “Canada izzan island” or “Guyana izzan island,” a vague notion of place. The quality of sound as relates to space echoes Kamau Braithwaite’s “tidalectics” that allows for consideration of sound, space, ocean, and history.
In the section “Boyhood Thinks: Jihaji Bhai,” the speaker considers his connections to India as tenuous, and instead locates the transoceanic crossing as a new creation story where Indian sensibilities morph to fit the landscape. He writes:
Latchmee marries a Muslim doctor
there is no God except Allah
coolies on the Hesperus
for Demerara. (32-33)
Indeed, the woman named for the Hindu goddess of hearth and wealth marries a Muslim doctor, the transportation of coolies on the S.S. Hesperus in 1838 from Kolkata to Guyana, and the introduction of Demerara — synonymous with sugar industry work — in tandem illustrate the new conditions of diaspora. The title of this section, “Jihaji Bhai,” refers to the “brotherhood of the boat” — how the transoceanic ills suffered was a great equalizer for people who broke strictures of caste and religious communities to come to Guyana.
Against this backdrop of colonial inheritances the speaker sucks dick and participates in bathhouse and glory hole culture with jubilation. A queer Muslim Indo-Caribbean North American in a sequence of belongings and dis-belongings, identifications and disidentifications, uses the space of poetry to show just how impossible he is as a joyful subject.
Deen concludes by describing his speaker in queer Caribbean triumph:
about the author
bleu nuit train
hole knees (62-63)