Bookshelf (March/April 2002)

New books from and about the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

Collected Poems 1937-1989

A. J. Seymour, ed. Ian McDonald & J. de Weever (Blue Parrot Press 2000, 303pp)

Small birds came singing at morning and they fled

When night approached.

Men in the ships took heart

Watching each feathered snatch of song and paid

Eagerest heed. But morning’s eyelids parted

On miles of ocean meadow, golden weed

spotted with berries . . . 

At last. We’ve had to wait too long for a major edition of A. J. Seymour’s poems, and the chance it gives us to reconsider this greatly undervalued writer. But even the slightly mysterious history of this edition demonstrates the vague machinery of neglect that has swallowed Seymour’s reputation: in print nearly two years without attracting any significant attention, at least outside Guyana, the sturdy volume apparently enjoys no benefit of an ISBN.

With Walcott, Brathwaite and Martin Carter, Seymour was a founding father of West Indian poetry, and the first of the four to be published. Today, he is remembered (when he is remembered) less as a poet than as an editor and publisher, founder of the influential journal Kyk-Over-Al, in his heyday a sort of éminence grise of West Indian letters. Yet in poems like “Over Guiana, Clouds” and “The Legend of Kaieteur”, he essentially established the poetry of Guyana, creating minor epics for a people who till then had no literary tradition to call their own. And just as characteristic are his smaller poems of introspection, when he determined to see at his fingertips what T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world”.

In fact, there’s a delightful (and, one hopes, true) story of Eliot, sitting in Faber’s office in London, hearing one of Seymour’s poems recited and remarking that he would have been proud to have written it. Like Eliot, Seymour was an overtly religious poet, but he belonged to the quieter tradition of Hardy and Edward Thomas. He preferred a gentle and measured unfolding to the pyrotechnics of the avant garde. In the beauty of the world, as he observed it in landscapes internal and external, Seymour apprehended the real presence of God, and the goodness of being which gives order to things:

He gave it too the privilege to choose

To take the glory of the rainbow’s hues

To wear at morning, and for changed delight

The marvellous sunsets of the tropic night.

The concept of grace is as familiar to poets as it is to divines, though poets may call it inspiration. It is the favour of God, or the favour of the Muse, which sometimes allows humans to transcend, however briefly, their mortality. The light of grace, in both senses, flickers softly through Seymour’s poems. He would have called it his gift from above. It is also his gift to us. (NL)

 

HISTORY

Grenada: Fortitude and the Human Condition

George Brizan (Paria Publishing 2001, 138pp, ISBN 976-8173-56-4)

A social history of 19th and 20th century Grenada, told through a collection of photographs belonging to George Brizan, former prime minister of the Spice Island — the kind of pictorial panorama Paria is known for. A couple of historical summaries open the book, but skip directly to the photos, arranged roughly into thematic groups. The range is pleasingly eclectic: scenes from turn-of-the-century St Georges, official portraits of governors, family groups, cricket teams, school outings. Historians will appreciate the documentary value, and some Grenadians will enjoy the thrill of recognising a family resemblance in the face of a great-grandparent. For the rest of us, there’s the unexplainable but unmistakable satisfaction of peering into an old photo album to find a gaggle of startled Edwardian siblings clutching tennis racquets, or a fine display of stylish swimwear circa 1954 in a snapshot of an office beach party. (NL)

 

Rag-tags, Scum, Riff-raff, and Commies: the US Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965-66

Eric Thomas Chester (Monthly Review Press 2001, 354pp, ISBN 1-58367-032-7)

Does Washington care any more about its Caribbean “backyard”? It certainly did in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson sent more than 30,000 US troops —  more than were in Vietnam at the time — to quell a popular uprising in the Dominican Republic. Johnson said he wanted to stop “another Cuba”, and claimed that the insurrection in favour of ex-President Juan Bosch, who had previously been ousted by the military, was communist-inspired. But Eric Thomas Chester suspects plain old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy in this huge operation, and suggests the Americans manipulated Dominican politics to get the outcome they wanted. The revolt was duly quashed, and “managed” elections followed. Radical in outlook but meticulously researched, this book engages in the best sort of conspiracy theory: one based on the truth. (JF)

 

POETRY

Midland

Kwame Dawes (Goose Lane Editions 2001, 93pp, ISBN 0-86492-299-x)

Like other poets with Caribbean roots who have made international careers, Kwame Dawes worries about the problems of displacement, of longing and belonging, sifting the histories of the countries he belongs to for nuggets of unalloyed truth:

gathering the relics of a broken threnody,

lisping psalms.

The texture of his poems is rich, complex, yet translucent. Apprehensions gleam through deep layers of memory and metaphor, like symbols scratched on a table visible under many coats of lacquer. One is struck by the repeated echoes of Walcott, echoes not just of theme but of style and sound. When Dawes says

a gull surveys

the island, stitches loops through the sea and sky

the identical image from Walcott’s poetry leaps to mind. The elder poet’s influence, conscious or unconscious, is a constant presence. Is it a strength or a weakness that, at his best, Dawes sounds most like his precursor?

I carry the weight of your shadow always,

while I pick through your things for the concordance

of your invented icons for this archipelago. (NL)

 

NATURAL HISTORY

The Waterfalls of Jamaica: Sublime and Beautiful Objects

Brian J. Hudson (UWI Press 2001, 150pp, ISBN 976-8125-62-4)

The reader may hope for a cultural history along the lines of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, but Waterfalls of Jamaica isn’t that sort of book. Nor is it a reference book, nor a field guide. It’s difficult, actually, to say just what sort of book this is. It starts with a geological survey, then attempts an analysis of landscape aesthetics, before turning to the economics of tourism. Hudson, a geographer and regional planner, seems uncertain of his footing when tackling the 18th century concepts of the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque. He comes into his own when he describes the successful development of Jamaica’s best known waterfalls into tourist attractions, and discusses the environmental dangers posed by this very success. Dunn’s River Falls, the most famous of all, now receives 2,000 visitors each day, destroying by their numbers the very natural beauty they seek. The solution to this dilemma? Hudson suggests the construction of an artificial waterfall, a sort of theme park, to satisfy the tourists’ desire for wet, wild fun. (NL)

 

 

LITERARY CRITICISM

C. L. R. James and Creolization: Circles of Influence

Nicole King (University Press of Mississippi 2001, 168pp, ISBN 1-57806-364-7)

Throughout its modern history, the Caribbean has been a place where civilisations collide, sometimes happily, often violently, creating energetic new cultures that combine the best and worst characteristics of their ancestors. Scholars call this process creolisation, the dominant force in the evolution of Caribbean societies. (Of course, creative hybridisation has been a recurring, almost defining, feature of the history of western civilisation; creolisation in the Caribbean has been a particularly vital node.) Nicole King believes an “aesthetics of creolisation” is crucial to the thought of C. L. R. James, the Caribbean’s leading 20th century intellectual. By this she means James’s amalgamation of genres and methodologies in his lifelong study of the individual and his place in society. King uses this concept to chart intersections and interactions — formal, political, philosophical — in some of James’s key works, attempting a more intricate understanding of his achievement. Her study gives depth to our picture of “a writer made more compelling and more human because of his complicated allegiances.” (NL)

 

 

INTERIOR DESIGN

Architecture & Design in Barbados

David Button & Keith Miller, with photography by Mike Toy (Wordsmith International 2001, 271pp, ISBN 976-8078-93-6)

A magisterial title, but Architecture & Design in Barbados is not a scholarly work. It is instead a series of photo-spreads of 24 exceedingly posh residences, of the sort familiar to Architectural Digest subscribers. Studied luxury is the note throughout. The photography is lushly composed; the book itself, from its vanilla-scented pages to its glossy slip case, is an enticing object; and the houses it depicts are the products of great effort and greater expense. (One wishes editorial matters had enjoyed half as much care: the bits of text sprinkled through the photos teem with typographical infelicities.) But the reader may not feel entirely at ease. These grand mansions seem to float in a dislocated landscape. The brilliant blue sea and blossom-laden shrubbery could belong to any tropical tourist colony, curiously depopulated — not a single person is pictured. Barbados, in these pages, seems intended as paradise property for the expatriate rich. And Architecture & Design in Barbados will find its natural home with the other bibelots atop the antique coffee-tables of the houses apotheosised in its pages. (NL)

 

 

ALSO RECEIVED

 

The Balm of Dusk Lilies 

Frances Coke (2001, 57pp, ISBN 976-610-380-1) and 

Freeing Her Hands to Clap

Delores Gauntlett (2001, 70 pp, ISBN 976-610-379-8) 

Two volumes of poetry from the Jamaica Observer Literary Series, edited by Wayne Brown

A History of Antigua: The Unsuspected Isle

Brian Dyde (Macmillan 2000, 320pp, ISBN 0-333-75169-8), “the first comprehensive history of Antigua to be written since the middle of the 19th century”

Belinda

Clinton U. Benjamin (Pentland Press 2000, 9pp, ISBN 1-57197-243-9), a novel about an Antiguan girl’s troubled childhood and adolescence

 

Reviews by: James Ferguson and Nicholas Laughlin.

Nooks editor: Nicholas Laughlin