Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 2016) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks

Bridges of Trinidad and TobagoChanBermudan Folk RemediesProvidentialThe Protector’s Pledge

Bridges of Trinidad and Tobago, by Danielle Delon (Cassique Publications, 142 pp, ISBN 9789769541528)

Rickety, nail-rusted planks thrown over a precarious culvert, or steel-anchored structures arching gracefully over merging traffic: it’s easy to overlook a bridge’s timeless functions. Historian Danielle Delon uses Bridges of Trinidad and Tobago not only to praise the functionality of these ancient linkages, but to examine the very beauty in their local beginnings. In a series of interlinked rambles that span the length and breadth of the republic, Delon investigates overpasses and walkways from Moruga to Matelot, reaching into the sleepiest of hamlets to unearth the origin stories of T&T’s oldest bridges.

Fusing anecdotal and chronological histories, Bridges is a walking or driving tour in seeing past the architectural commonplace. From Delon’s vantage point, the Caroni Bridge is far more than an incidental link between North and South; it conjures “remnants of the closed sugar factory . . . rusting machinery . . . a windmill generated pump.” The bridge itself has acquired a decades-old character, one that “stood sentinel as funeral pyres burnt and heard the call of soulful songs from the east, a new music which was to be absorbed by the land.” Delon deploys the same wistful poetic reminiscence in her approach to Grande Riviere’s “Big Bridge,” which “still basks in rustic seclusion,” the origins of its construction rooted in an almost supernatural soil.

Whether your wayfaring has a practical, purposeful bent, or whether you cling to trails of fancy wherever you roam, Bridges presents a stopping point for every traveller. In these vignettes, the narration is colourful, the viewpoints tested through textbook and tall tales alike, and the destinations as never-ending as the rivers over which these bridges live their pronged, platformed lives.

 

Chan, by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe Books, 80 pp, ISBN 9781780372839)

The poems in this second collection from Hannah Lowe spin on a card table of conjecture and clever gamble. They broaden the scope of Chick, Lowe’s debut book of poems, which focused on the poet’s Chinese-Jamaican emigrant father. In Chan, games of chance aren’t solely reserved for the gambling halls: each figure within, whether migrant or musician, takes leaps of faith. One movement of the book chronicles the maritime longings of the SS Ormonde’s passengers, bound for Liverpool from Jamaica in 1947. The uncertainty of this sea voyage is mirrored by the relentless caprice of Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott’s life, which marks another movement of Chan. Heady plumes of clove-scented smoke waft over these poems, which Lowe makes rich with remembrance and regret. Gamblers, good folk, and almost anyone who’s rolled an emotional pair of dice will recognise some of the chanteys sung in Chan.

 

Bermudian Folk Remedies, by Kuni Frith-Black (Government of Bermuda, 144 pp, ISBN 9781927750421)

Sweetened by Bermudan honey, an infusion of lemongrass, apple mint, and fresh ginger-root tea could be the balm for your workday blues. Even if you’re wary of garden-harvested healing for the rattles, wheezes, and hiccoughs of your everyday life, Bermudian Folk Remedies is far more than a plant primer. Kuni Frith-Black’s passion — not only for the roots, shoots, and vines of Bermuda, but for the history and cultural repository laced into each stem and seed — makes this compendium an archival joy. Flanked by glowing tributes to Bermudan conservationists and natural historians, the alphabetic database of plants herein includes both scientific assessments and spirited word-of-mouth from hardy septuagenarians. In this way, Bermudian Folk Remedies is a time-honoured, lemongrass-layered love note to the world from real Bermudans themselves, one that soothes aches and channels yesteryears in every compress, carafe, and curative cup.

 

Providential, by Colin Channer (Peepal Tree Press/Akashic Books, 96 pp, ISBN 9781845232481)

In movements punctuated by chevron stripes, Jamaica-born, US-based Colin Channer uses his first book of poems to tread water in the hostility of the protective services. Herein are pepper-tongued anti-odes to a cruel cop father-figure, offset by softer exhortations to a young son whose tenderheartedness wells convincingly in vulnerable verses. Longlisted for the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize, Providential tugs the militia into the mainstream, sparing no scrutiny of either aggressive truncheon-wielders or their intended civilian flock. These poems contend shrewdly with the rule of law, darting both playfully and seriously into the grey spaces where officials both uphold and dismantle their rightful offices. “Watch me as I walk through screens of ganja blissment, hiding anger, sudden drops, hot feelings and dog mess,” the speaker of “Porter’s Prayer” invokes, summoning a panorama shot through with sirens and other sounds of alarm. Fear stalks everyone, police and pursued, and Channer’s poems arrest us to that truth in syncopated, shocking fevers.

 

The Protector’s Pledge, by Danielle Y.C. McClean (CreateSpace, 223 pp, ISBN 9781502958457)

In The Protector’s Pledge, third-place winner of the 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, the sylvan pathways within the sleepy enclave of Alcavere are Trinidadian forest-routes in all but name. Trinidad-born, US-based McClean brings us remote village life and melds it to the hoof beat, serpent hiss, and jumbie bird screeching of folkloric goings-on. To JV, the intrepid schoolboy explorer who contends with the thickets of the Oscuros Forest, the woods’ secrets are by turns frightful and frolicsome. JV’s quest to preserve what’s most precious to the village of Alcavere, and to himself, takes him deeper into Oscuros’ threatening, tantalising maw. McClean plots his journey with all the daring and page-turning intrigue of a hair-raising romp, embellishing the chase with plants, place names, and portents that all signal to a proudly positioned island home.