Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 2015)

This month’s reading picks, from poetry to art to cricket

Sounding GroundThe Sea Grape TreeSee Me HereIndian-Caribbean Test Cricketers and the Quest for IdentityReady, Set . . . Hatch!

Sounding Ground, by Vladimir Lucien (Peepal Tree Press, 73 pp, ISBN 9781845232399)

The narrator in one of St Lucian Vladimir Lucien’s poems stoically avows, “I can close my mouth over opinions screeching like chalk. I can cut the dread talk and learn how to peck past the breadline.” We can be grateful that the poet himself swears no allegiance to these commandments — instead, the whole of Sounding Ground, Lucien’s debut collection, affirms a steady eye, and a poetic register intent on cataloguing the whole: whether it be life within an island, or the worlds within both beloved and distant figures.

It is not indebtedness that whispers in between the lines of Lucien’s symbolic mapmaking, but a sense of ancestry, a certain fealty to cultural bloodlines that have bloomed and taken root within our region. Some of these are overt and outstanding: “Black Light”, a praise and remembrance poem for Walter Rodney’s industry of resistance, is immediately followed by a meditation at the grave of C.L.R. James. Other poems declare the subjects of their twinned worship and critical focus more subtly, identifying them as intimate luminaries whose valours can be sung from the dinner table as well as on a podium. Among these are the father in “A Picture”, who “use to wear an afro in the 70s — black champagne on his head . . . his eyes averted from the dark-dark Ages, from the bad breath of History yellow pages.” Lucien breathes life into the fears and strengths of mothers who suffer lamentations for the loss of their children’s faith, who wait into the long nights for their wayward sons to strike a path back home.

What moves most about this collection is its lack of apologies over linguistic authenticity. Lucien’s poems straddle English and French Patois, delivering in well-studied turns the rhythms and realities of a St Lucia that is both proud island and a whole world unto those who know it best.

 

The Sea Grape Tree, by Gillian Royes (Atria Books, 368 pp, ISBN 9781476762388)

“You’d never think Jamaica was once British,” writes a reclusive painter, in the early chapters of Gillian Royes’s third Shadrack Meyers novel. Her email back home continues, “It has a character all its own. It’s loud, crude, beautiful, and utterly unpredictable.” In the artist’s bewildered musings lie the distilled ambitions of Royes’s entire Shad series: to portray Jamaica and its people as real, non-commercial entities, and to render the island in all its outrageous splendour. This she achieves through her central character of multiplying narrative delights, Shad himself. An unsuspecting Jamaican proletariat Sherlock, Shad’s personal woes are by turns gently humorous (witness his prolonged dread over tying the knot with Beth, already his beloved wife in all but legal decree) and reflective of society’s larger malaises. Through this plucky, resourceful everyman of a hero, the novel glows optimistically, while refusing to peer at Jamaica from the glossy pages of a travelogue.

 

See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits from the Caribbean, edited by Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown (Robert & Christopher Publishers, 224 pp, ISBN 9789769534476)

Whether an assembly of lies, or a chorus of truths transmuted onto canvas, the art of the self-portrait is revelatory, even (or perhaps especially) when it conceals. In See Me Here, twenty-five Caribbean visual artists present themselves — in stasis, in blurred kinetic motion, in full regalia and perhaps, above all, inconsistently — for their own self-perception as much as the audience’s. The vision of co-editors Archer and Brown suggests that in this inconsistency, a ledger of the body in Caribbean space is allowed to emerge. From the fabric and paint of Annalee Davis’s Creole Madonnas, to the wire, paper, and fabric of Susan Dayal’s Costumed Series, these personal embodiments evoke the provocative tussle with the polemical, and show whole worlds within an archipelago of possibility.

 

Indian-Caribbean Test Cricketers and the Quest for Identity, by Frank Birbalsingh (Hansib Publications, 250 pp, ISBN 9781906190743)

Literary scholar Frank Birbalsingh reminds us in this investigative and illuminating report that the West Indies’ best-beloved game does not exist without complication. Amid our inheritance of post-colonial divisions and exacerbated contemporary tensions, the writer seeks to shine light on the accomplishments of both extraordinary and factotum-level Indo-Caribbean cricketers. Cogent chapters are devoted to the industry’s big six, beginning with Sonny Ramadhin and closing on Ramnaresh Sarwan. The latter’s sanguine declaration that “cricket has taught me a lot about how a simple sport can unite so many West Indian people” is the study’s emotive cornerstone. At every turn, Birbalsingh strives to show cricket’s inclusiveness, its power to silence racially prompted hue and cry with a series of stunning innings, served up by our region’s multicultural sons.

 

Ready, Set . . . Hatch!, by Jeunanne Alkins (Everything Slight Pepper, 44 pp, ISBN 9789769535008)

Boasting a colour palette as bold and bright as Grande Riviere beach at midday, the story of young leatherback turtle Hatch leaps with exuberance into young seafarers’ hearts. Alkins’s tale of this precocious tiny adventurer begins with the maritime journey made by his mother across thousands of North Atlantic miles towards the welcoming harbours of Caribbean waters. Her dangerous travels in search of safe spawning grounds, and the subsequent trials of Hatch and his siblings, are interwoven into this childhood primer on teamwork and resilience. “Just put one flipper in front the other. We’re almost there,” Hatch reassures a few of his slower-footed siblings, as they race towards the sea. Gaiety and crusading mirth mark the pages of this successful juvenile introduction to the life-cycle of one of our most endangered circumglobal species.

Reviews by Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor