Evanston, IL: Northwestern Press.
88 pages. $16.95 (paperback)
In Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s fourth collection, Arrival, (her first three collections are titled Raw Air, Night When Moon Follows, and Convincing the Body) readers hear the voice of a Trinidadian poet firmly establishing her poetic through an elegiac journey. Aptly titled, the arrivals in this book begin with departure: leaving Trinidad for the United States, the deaths of a father, a daughter, and eventually a son. The immigrant travails of the Caribbean postcolonial subject realize themselves through this brutal and joyful volume.
The reader arrives and rearrives to a freshness of language, written in both Trinidadian English Creole and Standard English, there is a true sense of journey. Here the speaker is haunted by a past where a village thrummed in the Caribbean Sea with color and vibrancy of the tropics — both celebrated and lamented.
The haunting and layering of meaning works like this. In several of the poems mangoes recur and scintillate. The mangoes complicate the easy “ethnic” Other in that the poet shows a layering of nostalgia and inheritance directly into the fruit. in “Sugar” the speaker is hospitalized,
from insulin shock to
the thud of ripe mangoes falling in thick mud (“Sugar” 6) (13)
The speaker focuses on the sound of mangoes, not the taste. The sound is specific, distinctive, and acts as a reflection of the sweetness of life as well as a poison. The speaker connects this with the father who grew mangoes, and was spectral in her home growing up. Boyce-Taylor writes of her childhood experiences of her father and of mangoes,
once my father brought his first crop of mangoes to my first grade class
they were crimson and delicious as my father’s kiss (“Limes for the Journey” 26)
The sweet memory of childhood seems innocuous but, like the ill effects of sugar on the diabetic body, lends its darkness to the poems and ultimately leads to destruction. In the collection the father eventually dies. The mother of the speaker dies. The children of the speaker die. The sweet of mangoes haunts.
Boyce-Taylor teaches the reader the nuances and layers of meaning that the speaker maps onto the mango. By the final mango image of the collection in the poem “Moonflower” where the speaker addresses her departed mother, the reader is haunted by her postcolonial migration, queer desire, the familial connection with her father and his language, death of a mother, a sense of displacement from a homeland, disease and diabetes, and nostalgia for a home that no longer exists as an island. The mango is sweet and it is not sweet; it is tropical as well as New Yorker.
Indeed, the return and arrivals in this collection shine in the ordering of Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s third collection. The declarative, perfectly Trini poems “I Name Gyal” (1-4) sing in their language and gouge the heart in their distilling of alienation in image. The sequence, spread throughout the collection, begins assuredly, child-like,
I name gyal
I know who I am
braided gyal drinking coco tea (“I Name Gyal” 5)
But the speaker undergoes linguistic shame in the final two lines of “I Name Gyal 2” which is set in New York City and not Arima, Trinidad, echoing the complication of the Caribbean immigrant to the United States and the economic and cultural hegemony it uses to colonize people from the Global South.
I name gyal, she beams
the chiren laugh loud at she accent (“I Name Gyal 2” 28)
By the arrival of the fourth part, “I Name Gyal 4” the speaker has transformed into a whole person at one with the complexity of belonging to a syncretic Creole culture which extends Caribbean space into diaspora with a marked queer experience of love. The poem sequence ends with an adult speaker echoing the words of her child-self,
I am my own midwife, I birth myself
the daughter I always wanted
I am my best self braided gyal
drinking cocoa tea.
Arrival marks an important time for speaking out against the current xenophobic government. The speaker is joyful in self-assertion, embracing her languages and her African and Indian descent. Boyce-Taylor’s voice illuminates her immigrant worlds, she speaks despite all attempts at silencing. In Arrival readers will be rewarded with amalgamative wonder: that the poems lead and build into complexity, into the everyday and astonishing life of the speaker.
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