What’s fun and fresh in the Caribbean this month

Books: memories of a lost Havana childhood, the secret of Shaggy’s success, serious and not-so-serious guides to the language of Jamaica, and much much more

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Another life

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy Carlos Eire (Free Press, ISBN 0-7432-1965-1)

Growing up in a wealthy Havana suburb, Carlos and his friends fiendishly hunt lizards (which they loathe), are enthralled by firecrackers (the bigger and deadlier the better), wage monumental breadfruit battles, and rampage through a neighbour’s private backyard zoo. Their childish concerns and pleasures play out in a world of radiant heat and crisp shadows, tangerine sunsets and brilliant blue waves splashing against the Malecon. The monks at his school tell him Cuba is a paradise, maybe even the original Paradise, the garden of Eden. “For anyone who wasn’t poor, life could be beautiful, even if it was all balanced on a razor’s edge. As beautiful as a giant turquoise wave poised right over your head.”

Then, in January 1959, the wave crashes down and shatters everything. Castro and his rebel army in the eastern hills take Havana; the brutal Batista regime ends overnight, replaced by the brutal regime of the Revolution. Bombs go off across the city. A cousin is arrested and tortured; another relative executed by firing squad. So many of the things that have made Carlos’s childhood joyful -chewing gum, movies, Christmas -suddenly disappear. His parents -his father the judge, obsessed with his antique collection, convinced he was Louis XVI of France in a former life, and his mother, certain she was never Marie Antoinette -are divided over what to do with their sons. Eventually Carlos, just 11 years old, leaves for the United States, one of 14,000 Cuban children sent by their terrified parents into what would turn out to be permanent exile.

Forty years later, now a professor at Yale, Carlos Eire set out to recreate in this gorgeous, exuberant, genuinely heartbreaking memoir the lost world of his childhood, a time and place made magically unreal by the events of history. The lady in the painting on the wall appears in his dreams, abusing him in the foulest possible language; sharks circle at the bottom of a swimming-pool; innumerable lizards wait calmly in the garden. “The insects, the parties, the candles, the bombs. All connected.” His relentlessly jaunty tone is a semi-transparent mask over the face of Eire’s grief and bewilderment, still bitterly keen. But he refuses to see his story as a tragedy. Leaving Cuba, he says, he “died for the first time”, but there have been other deaths since then: “In the wink of an eye . . . you pass through the burning silence, and you emerge in exactly the same spot, in the very same body, gloriously transformed, a glowing blank slate.” Eire’s memoir is as much about those miraculous rebirths as it is about what is lost. “Dying can be beautiful. And waking up is even more beautiful. Even when the world has changed. Especially when the world has changed.”

Nicholas Laughlin

Cool island soul

It’s May again, and there’s no better place to be than front-lawn at Pigeon Island for the 12th annual St Lucia Jazz Festival. With soft daylong sunshine, and the Caribbean Sea as stunning backdrop, the main stage has become a favourite with performers and spectators alike.

Originally intended to boost tourist arrivals during the notorious slow season, the festival has long outgrown such sentiments to become one of the most distinctive jazz events in the world. The audience grows and grows each year, but what makes the festival extra-special is the intimacy it manages to preserve between musicians and patrons.

On stage, expect a vibrant mix of acoustic, fusion, and new age jazz, R&B performers, and the more-than-occasional Motown medley. Last year’s headliners included India.Arie, Smokey Robinson, and a melancholic Lauren Hill, whose focus was so intense she caused the rain to fall -or so it seemed! This year the line-up is equally impressive. Earth, Wind & Fire are perhaps top of a pile that includes Boyz II Men, Yolanda Adams, the Unwrapped All Stars, and Incognito.

To keep you busy away from the main stage, a series of musical happenings, art and craft displays, fashion shows, culinary events, and street theatre make up an official fringe festival played out at venues across the island. But you won’t get far before the music draws you back to that cool, grassy arena. Experience this just once, and you’ll go again. Promise.

Dylan Kerrigan

Understanding Shaggy

Shaggy: Dogamuffin Style Micah Locilento (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-120-2)

Who is Shaggy, and why do we need a book about him?

We all know Shaggy: Mr Boombastic, Mr Lover-Lover, Mr Ro-ro-mantic. He’s the Jamaican-born, US-based toaster and Gulf War veteran who entered pop consciousness through a series of crossover hits.

Oh yeah, the tall, curly-haired guy with the deep voice. Does this book collect the Shag-meister’s bedroom secrets and glorify his fame? Does Shaggy give us pointers on how to pull?

Thankfully not! Dogamuffin Style is a serious attempt to explain the context of Shaggy’s international success. Locilento reminds us that Shaggy comes from the dancehall circuit, that he’s essentially a dancehall performer who achieved stardom by drawing on a wide range of styles. The book explores dancehall as part of reggae’s grand progression, and explains why it’s ridiculous for the American media to continually compare Shaggy to Bob Marley.

So, what exactly is a Dogamuffin? Some Shaggy-endorsed fast-food breakfast dish?

The title refers to Shaggy’s hardcore early days, when he was known as the “Original Doberman“.

Is this another stuffy book by a disconnected reggae academic?

Au contraire, Locilento raises important conceptual points, but always keeps the text accessible.

You make it sound Shag-tastically flawless.

Not quite. This is not a biography of Shaggy, so there’s little about his life. Most of the interview quotes are taken from other sources, resulting in 143 footnotes, and the book would probably have benefited from fresh interviews conducted by the author. But it’s a thought-provoking read -check it.

David Katz

Burning up

The Best of Sizzla: The Story Unfolds  Sizzla (VP Records, VPCD 1644)
Da Real Thing  Sizzla (VP Records, VPCD 1649)

Greeted with monumental fanfare on his debut back in 1995, Sizzla has emerged as one of the most significant roots reggae artists of the past decade -not to mention one of the most prolific. For the handsomely packaged double-CD compilation The Story Unfolds, VP Records culled 30 of the best numbers from his 14 (!) albums, though the bulk are taken from the three largely recognised as his best: Black Woman & Child, Praise Ye Jah, and Reggae Max. Fans will also be pleased to learn that Sizzla’s latest outing represents a serious return to form. On Da Real Thing, the artist also known as Kalonji rediscovers his melodic beginnings, performing in the style on which he originally built his reputation and fan base. Thanks are due to legendary producer Bobby “Digital” Dixon, with whom he recorded Black Woman & Child and Good Ways, and who again manages to temper Sizzla’s righteous messages of black upliftment with an accessible sound based on classic Studio One riddims and the like.

Georgia Popplewell

Ready like Preddie

The Man Who Never Ever Worried

The Great Honourable Lord Pretender (Rituals Music, CMG0303)

This remastered reissue of 12 classic songs by Trinidad’s Lord Pretender is a fitting tribute to the man who, when he passed away in early 2002 -ending a 71-year career -was the world’s oldest living calypsonian. Renowned for his fidelity to the traditional calypso structure, Pretender continued to use the old-time eight-line verse and four-line chorus throughout his career, keeping alive this important aspect of the art form. He was also a master of the art of extempo, and a prime exponent of the calypso as social commentary, using the form to lament social injustice with a high seriousness. The album’s title is taken from Preddie’s most famous song, which rings as true and as fresh today as it did back in 1961, and which appears in both a solo version and a rapso-style duet with Brother Resistance. Vintage kaiso fans will appreciate not only the content but the good sound quality on these songs, which were restored and remastered largely from radio station tapes.

Georgia Popplewell

Yo-ho-ho and quiet on the set

Beverly Akcayli is a 33-year-old Vincentian mother and hotelier -and, recently, an 18th-century lady, in which role she was required to wait around for hours in heavy costume and tons of makeup, then scream her lungs out as cannon and other assorted firearms were fired at her from all directions.

Pirates of the Caribbean, the new Disney movie extravaganza which premieres on July 9, was filmed partly on location in St Vincent earlier this year. Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom play two adventurers who team up to rescue the daughter of the island’s governor, kidnapped by bloodthirsty pirates. Hundreds of Vincentians answered the call for scruffy, toothless, bearded extras. “They didn’t want no-teeth women,” laughs Beverly, “but I thought, why not? This could be great fun.” Then it turned into a family affair: Beverly’s husband, nine-year-old son, and sister all got parts as extras.

First Beverly played a prim townswoman in a pink silk dress, complete with bonnet, parasol, corset, and petticoat. “At about take number 15, I made a mistake which meant we had to shoot again. There were huge fans making it look like a squall had hit, and I lost control of my pink parasol, which went flying off somewhere. In another scene I’m a peasant screaming and pretending to be scared as pirates shoot their guns and pandemonium breaks out. Women everywhere are thrown over their shoulders and carted off the set.”

She didn’t meet any of the big stars, but Beverly says it was brilliant being behind the scenes with the expert crew. “It’s been one of the most exciting experiences of my life,” she beams. “It’s so cool to see how it all happens! The set is spectacular -the entire thing is so fake, but fantastic.”

Natalie Williams

“The way they do things at the ‘big schools'”

At Combermere . . . we sat at individual desses [desks] and marked our initials “on the desses of time”, as one bright boy said; and gouged secret coded declarations of love for girls . . .

The master at Combermere enters the classroom. He sits at his elevated dess, below the large blackboard nailed into the wall. And he opens his book to the lesson.

“What’s the lesson for today?” he asks.

The monitor stands and says, “Axe, chapter one, sir?”

The previous time he had told us to study chapter one in the Acts of the Apostles; but this is the way they do things at the “big schools”.

He would then ask each one of us, sitting in the order of the alphabet or in the order of our academic achievement, to recite a line; or if he was in a bad mood, two, three, four sentences.

Even the way he is dressed and the clothes he wears seem strange to me. At the elementary school the teachers (they were not called “masters”) wore long-sleeved shirts and ties, and baggy long trousers. Their shirts were sometimes discoloured and “high” from sweating. And at the end of the day when they put on their jackets and jumped on their bicycles, the perspiration could be seen on their jackets too, for it had eaten through the underarms. But these were brave, honest men who studied hard at night and put themselves on a higher plane of learning, and acquired, after many years, external degrees from the University of London. They were beautiful black men.

At Combermere the masters (they were not “teachers”) wore khaki shorts and clean white sweet-smelling shirts. Some of them wore suits.

A classic memoir of colonial West Indian childhood, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, by Barbados-born, Canada-based Austin Clarke, has just been republished for a new generation of readers. Clarke’s latest novel, The Polished Hoe, won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize for 2002, as well as the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Caribbean and Canada.

(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-108-3)

Point-and-click bacchanal

Caribbean people like to party. Few experiences can match the fevered, full-bodied excitement of a good island fete. But not even the most energetic of us has the physical stamina to bump and grind through every single party on the entertainment calendar. The good thing is that these days it seems everything finds its way online eventually, and if you happen to miss what turns out to be the event of the year, there’s usually a website to fill you in on the juicy details: who wore what, which songs got the crowd going, who got up and danced on the stage after a fifth rum-and-Coke.

Bright young Trinidadians rely on the perambulating TriniScene crew, who can be spotted at all the popular haunts around town. Check their indispensable monthly calendar for a preview of upcoming events, or post an invite to your own party, free of charge (www.triniscene.com). Or try the hugely popular Island Events, for breaking entertainment news, hot gossip, advice on what to wear, and the inside story on T&T’s biggest, boldest bashes (www.islandevents.com).

Jamaica’s Whaddat is the creation of three vivaciously well-connected ladies -Tru Honey, Fyah Wire, and Mic Chick -with the real low-down on Kingston’s party circuit. This e-zine doesn’t just tell you which clubs to be seen at -it also offers detailed coverage of Jamaica’s entertainment business, including behind-the-scenes information on international artists like Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Bounty Killer. Scores of wonderful photos snapped by the Whaddat crew help visitors jam down vicariously (www.whaddat.com). Their strongest competition is probably the high-tech Watever: lots more party pix, a bevy of “Jamaican beauties” (but why no fellas? Don’t the ladies also deserve something to ogle?), and an auto section featuring glamour shots of some seriously souped-up vehicles -because everyone knows you have to arrive at the party in style (www.watever.com).

Fun-loving Bajans rely on the Scandal INstitute (“SIN”), a rough-and-ready guide to “fete/lime/time-to-get-drunk activities” maintained by the exuberant Jason Corbin. When it comes to Barbados nightlife, Corbin clearly know what he’s talking about, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind, for example, on the subject of cover charges (“pure madness”) -and there are probably a few shots tucked away in his online photo album capable of generating genuine scandals (www.zanz.com).

So, going by the online evidence, who has the hottest, most hedonistic party scene, worth an entire intercontinental plane ride? Maybe it’s just patriotic bias talking, but -Trinidad of course! When it comes to getting down and jumping up, nobody outdoes a Trini.

Tracey-Anne Gill and Philip Sander

“Yuh ketch cow by im awn, but man by his wud”

Translation: watch your words, for they may come back to haunt you! If the words you’re trying to watch are coming from a Jamaican mouth, and you’re not terribly fluent in that island’s colourful, capacious dialect, you may be glad for the help of two little volumes in the LMH dictionary series: the LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Words and Proverbs (LMH Publishing, ISBN 976-8184-30-2) and the LMH Official Dictionary of Popular Jamaican Phrases (LMH Publishing, ISBN 976-8184-29-9). With a healthy emphasis on the bawdy, these pocket-size guides provide nuff lyrics for even the most labba labba mout-a massy.

Linguists of a more serious bent may choose instead to consult Cassidy and Le Page’s venerable Dictionary of Jamaican English (University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 976-640-127-6), at last available in an inexpensive paperback edition. A pioneering work in Caribbean linguistics, the dictionary uses the quotation method of the Oxford English Dictionary to illustrate the development of Jamaica’s distinctive creole, with detailed notes on pronunciation and on similarities with the dialects of other Caribbean territories. It also functions as an admirable encyclopaedia of Jamaican culture, defining objects and phenomena ranging from aachi to zuzu wapp.

Philip Sander

Rhythm roundup

  • Notable recent releases include Denyse Plummer’s Lovin’ Up (JW Productions, JW-DP-004), the several-time calypso queen’s offering for the 2003 Carnival, which continues her exploration of 70s-style soca and steelband calypso, plus a remake of her long-time hit Woman Is Boss.
  • Trinidadian opera singer Anne Fridal’s self-produced The Art of the Dramatic Soprano: From Opera to Kitchener forges an ambitious hybrid of steelpan and opera, including an epic rendition of Kitchener’s masterwork Symphony In G.
  • Trinidadian singer Gillian Moor’s Moon Madness is another self-produced effort, comprising five atmospheric tracks in the trip-hop mode.
  • With a roster including the likes of Sean Paul, Bounty Killer, Capleton, Buju Banton, Baby Cham, Sizzla, Capleton, Glen Washington, and a host of other reggae luminaries, you probably can’t go wrong with VP Records’s two reggae compilations Strictly The Best 29 & 30 (VP Records, VPCD1659 & VPCD1660).
  • VP’s soca compilation D’ Soca Zone (VP Records, VPCD 1655) also includes some of the hotter tracks of the 2003 Trinidad Carnival season, including Wanskie’s unnecessary but controversial More Gyal, Iwer George’s Time to Unite, Rupee’s That’s Where I’ll Be, and KMC’s Rough Wine.
  • Striking a more sober note is Love Bomb, a quality anti-war offering from Sheldon Blackman and the Love Circle, comprising three original tracks in their trademark jamoo style, plus a jungle remix of the title track by Paul Draper.
  • Rituals Music celebrates the 2003 season with The Best of Carnival Party Rhythms (Rituals Music, CMG0203), which gathers the most notable tracks from their successful compilation series, including Militant’s Hot & Groovy, Talk Yuh Talk and Blue by 3 Canal, General Grant’s Sticks & Stones, Andre Tanker’s Ben Lion, Sonny Mann’s Lota La, and a host of other hits.

Georgia Popplewell

Redemption style

Catch a Fire, of course, is the classic first album released by Bob Marley and the Wailers back in 1971. When Marley’s eldest daughter Cedella launched her own line of clothing and accessories, she borrowed the famous name -and her casual, chic, slightly retro, entirely contemporary look has been burning up the catwalks from Kingston to Manhattan ever since. The family connection doesn’t stop at the name: many of Marley’s designs feature her father’s iconic likeness, or lyrics from one of his touchstone songs. And for all their denim-and-leather urban flair, there’s something refreshingly Caribbean about her jackets, ruffled shirts, and hip-hugging skirts. Maybe it’s their easy flamboyance; maybe it’s that they’d be equally at home at an all-night fete and at the beach the following dawn. Marley’s definitely caught the fashion world’s eye -her clothes have been featured in magazines as diverse as Vogue and Vibe, and on the backs of celebrities like Angela Basset and the ultra-trendy Gwen Stefani. Her full-service online boutique, though it offers shipping only within the United States, may well be the decisive step towards making Catch a Fire Clothing into a household name.

(www.catchafireclothing.com)

Philip Sander

Island reading

Western Isles of Trinidad  Anthony de Verteuil, C.S.Sp. (Litho Press, ISBN 976-95008-5-2)

This latest encyclopaedic volume from one of the Caribbean’s most endearing popular historians is a geographical, historical, cultural, and zoological guide to the handful of small islands scattered off Trinidad’s north west peninsula. To almost all Trinis, the phrase “down the islands” has the balmiest of associations, conjuring images of rustic beach houses and long, lazy vacations. But their history has not always been so laid-back. Some of these islands once supported slave plantations; at different times, others have housed a leper colony, an Alcatraz-like high-security prison, a wartime internment camp; they have witnessed naval battles, shipwrecks, and acts of derring-do.

With copious reference to documents of varying obscurity, and with the assistance of his characteristic illustrated marginal notes, Fr de Verteuil elaborates our knowledge of Gasparee, Monos, Huevos, Chacachacare, the two Diego Islands, and the six tiny Five Islands (so tiny their collective name overlooks one of them), as well as the Bocas del Dragon, or Dragon’s Mouths -the sea channels separating the islands between Trinidad and Venezuela. He tells us about the “Terror of Point Rouge”, a murderous five-ton sailfish harpooned in 1908; about Eric Williams’s secret wedding on Caledonia; and that Noel Coward composed The Road to Mandalay while staying on Gasparee. Occasionally eccentric, always amusing, and crammed with anecdotes, Western Isles is exactly the kind of book you want close at hand as you swing in the old hammock on your verandah overlooking the Bocas.

Nicholas Laughlin

 

“She of course considers herself a connection of ours”

10th March, 1802

The road to-day was bad and intricate, so that we were obliged to have a guide to Golden Grove. After fording Sulphur and the Devil’s River, we arrived safe there . . . As I found I could get no rest, and was uncommonly well after bathing this morning, I dressed, and walked about the house till dinner time. A little mulatto girl was sent into the drawing-room to amuse me. She was a sickly delicate child, with straight light-brown hair, and very black eyes. Mr T appeared very anxious for me to dismiss her, and in the evening, the housekeeper told me she was his own daughter, and that he had a numerous family, some almost on every one of his estates. The housekeeper’s name was Nelly Nugent. She told me that her father was a Mr Nugent, from Ireland . . . She of course considers herself a connection of ours, and we were consequently well acquainted in a short time.

First published in 1907 (a private edition for family circulation had been printed in 1839), Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805 is the personal diary of the wife of General George Nugent, governor of Jamaica during the era of the Napoleonic Wars. For scholars, Lady Nugent’s Journal -at last reprinted in a convenient paperback edition -is an irreplaceable historical document, “an utterly inimitable and imperishable picture of planter society”. For ordinary readers, this volume offers the sly pleasure of Maria Nugent’s sharp eye and sharper pen, her vivacious dissection of the manners and mannerisms of Jamaica’s slave-owning gentry.

(Ed. Philip Wright, with an introduction by Verene A. Shepherd; University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 976-640-128-4)

Ragga massive

The Black Spaniard  Bunji Garlin (IP Music International)

Technology is partly to blame for the tendency among young soca artists to max out their CDs with throwaway tracks: there was just so much material you could squeeze on to a 12-inch vinyl disc, but a standard CD will hold 80 minutes of the stuff, and sampling, the whole riddim racket, and the rise of the computer as a musical instrument have made record production an entirely easier proposition than it used to be. Not that I’m knocking the new toys, but I’d have settled happily for half the number of tracks (i.e. 10, as opposed to 20) on The Black Spaniard, if Bunji Garlin, undisputable talent that he is, had agreed to devote some more time and thought to the production. The ideas are very much in evidence, but the packaging often lags way behind.

Yet while none of Spaniard’s tracks comes anywhere close to the originality of last year’s incisive anthem In the Ghetto, Bunji’s giant-size presence and masterful wordplay do carry us through a good number of them. It must also be said that the three selections which ruled the dance floor during the 2003 Carnival season in Trinidad -the ultra-infectious Snake Oil, the Shammi Salickram collaboration Soca Bhangra, and the Godfather Massive number By D Bar –seriously deserved the space and time they got.

Bunji, along with Treason and KMC, is one of the truly original young ragga-soca talents to emerge in Trinidad in recent years, and his music and his themes are very much in tune with the times, running the gamut from slack to accountable, from sense to nonsense, fusing together the idioms currently trafficked by Caribbean youth to create a fresh, urban Caribbean sound.

Georgia Popplewell

Online ball-by-ball

Whether the team is winning brilliantly or losing desperately, the pace of the discussion never flags at Caribbean Cricket.com, the ultimate West Indies cricket fan-site. Updated several times a day, it provides useful links to articles and commentaries published in the regional press and elsewhere, thoroughly archived. Highly opinionated regulars use the chatroom to sound off on the latest victory or defeat, and rely on the e-mail alert feature to keep absolutely up-to-date with Windies affairs. (You can even have the latest updates downloaded to your mobile phone or PalmPilot!) New York-based journalist Ryan Naraine, Caribbean Cricket’s mastermind, also maintains a related weblog, offering more links, spiced with his own analysis not just of events on the field but of how they’re reported in the press. A year and a half after it went live, web-savvy cricket fans seem to find the site indispensable in greater and greater numbers: in February 2003, Caribbean Cricket for the first time racked up more than a million hits in one month.

(www.caribbeancricket.com)

Philip Sander

His way in the world

When the nominees for the 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature were announced last December, one name stood out from the others: Ruel Johnson’s. He was, in the first place, nominated in two separate categories, best first collection of fiction and best first collection of poetry -in both cases, for unpublished manuscripts he submitted himself to the prize committee. And then there was the fact that, at 22, Johnson was an astonishingly young nominee for what are still the English-speaking Caribbean’s only national literary awards.

“You can class me as the underdog,” he remarked in an interview, but at the prize ceremony on February 9, 2003, Johnson was presented with the fiction prize, for a collection titled “Ariadne and Other Stories”; and “The Enormous Night”, his collection of poems, was commended for its “great promise and real engagement with the craft of poetry”. Johnson had already attracted a certain notoriety, at least in Georgetown’s literary circles, where he was considered part enfant terrible, part devil’s advocate. He has argued relentlessly -often in the correspondence columns of the daily press -that many of Guyana’s most celebrated writers produce books “increasingly unrelated to Guyanese reality, because the writers have spent most of their lives either in Europe or North America”. Johnson has been particularly vocal in his disapproval of the venerable Wilson Harris (“a vagrant’s James Joyce . . . with one hundredth the talent”). In his acceptance speech at the Guyana Prize ceremony, he acknowledged the irony of his winning an award he had previously criticised for what he sees as a bias towards writers resident abroad. “My entry . . . was more protest than anything else,” he says.

Johnson’s proposal is for “a renewed and conscious provincialism, an engagement with our landscape and society and people that is not ashamed of itself”; ” a Guyanese sensibility . . . that relates through intimacy, not one that dictates through ignorance.” This manifesto rings with a youthful sincerity, but his stories and poems ambitiously attempt to embody the ideal. They dive head-on into the unresolved issues of contemporary Guyana -ethnicity, poverty, the imperative to make of this unruly mass of land and its people a nation -but they are also deeply concerned with the anxieties of any young man: the hormone-charged vicissitudes of desire, the challenge of making a way in the world, the struggle with enemies of promise. What’s most striking is Johnson’s genuine note of assurance: here is a distinctive voice, distinctly aware of its powers, and firmly decided to make the most of them.

His poems are scrupulously crafted, inventive, intelligent. They owe a happy debt to the work of Derek Walcott, whose poem “Hic Jacet” Johnson has adopted as a sort of credo. Like the younger Walcott, Johnson’s self-appointed task is the transformation of the facts of his everyday world -“as painfully prosaic as a laundry list” -into fresh metaphors for the experience of his time and place, and ultimately into a new sensibility unafraid of life’s truly big questions. Johnson’s poem “Homage” makes this debt explicit: pulsing with echoes and allusions to Walcott’s poetry, it reveals a portrait of the artist as a young man standing knowingly in a privileged tradition, and determined to extend that tradition through the strength of his own achievement.

With the controversial prize in his pocket, Johnson admits he’s become “a sort of reluctant celebrity”. Publicly, his next step is to find a publisher for his two manuscripts; privately, it is to continue labouring over two major works-in-progress: a long poem and a short novel. “Somebody needs to sit down and start working on the Great Guyanese Novel,” he has said. It might as well be Ruel Johnson.

Nicholas Laughlin

Verandahs, where the pages of the sea . . .”,

and almost everything exfoliates

suddenly, exploding softly, as simply as

the night dissolves to dawn,

like this life dilating to another light

as easily as any heart ever opens

to its first true love

of poetry

 

In the middle of some arctic night

of my heart, I found another

life and named part of its tale my own,

staked a claim for my life’s metaphor

on the illumination of a simple flame

 

So that, across this half-century,

Anna reincarnated becomes my own

Ilona; and on this different shore,

the Vigie hospital is the AISM

at Ocean View International Hotel

where, ambitious with the age, the

novice nurse in another life,

haunted by some dead cousin’s ghost,

aspires to neurosurgery

 

Fifty-three years later, on this cleft

island of coast, GT, seen

through the charred skeleton

of Kissoon’s Furniture City

or any of its boast of ruins on

Regent Street, became another
Castries . . .

– Ruel Johnson, from “Homage”