Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 2005)

The new books that are reflecting the region right now

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The isles are full of noises

The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse  ed. Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt (Oxford, ISBN 0-19-280332-8, 405 pp)

Few anthologies of Caribbean writing make a wholehearted attempt to grapple with the region’s linguistic diversity — with the fact that four major languages and any number of dialects and creoles are spoken and written here. Like its predecessor, the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories (2001), the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse faces up to this multilingualness with enthusiasm. Though the editors, Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt (both of them poets as well as scholars), focus on the poetry of the Anglophone Caribbean, “the distinctive flavour of the anthology derives from the inclusion of poems from across the ‘wider Caribbean’”. In practice this means that every major poet and many minor poets of the English-speaking territories are represented here, along with a narrow but strong selection of poets from the Spanish-, French-, and Dutch-speaking territories (all in translation).

There are over 150 poets in the OBCV, more than any other anthology of Caribbean poetry can boast; the assembly is as diverse as anyone could wish. The sheer number means that even the heaviest of the heavyweights is represented by a half dozen poems at most — Walcott, for instance by “The Schooner Flight” alone — but the truth is, anyone interested enough in Caribbean poetry to pick up this volume will likely already own editions of Walcott, Brathwaite, Guillen, and Cesaire (and, if not, a good bookshop will supply them at short notice). It is obscure writers who benefit most from inclusion, the uncollected and the out-of-print, the Vera Bells and Harold Telemaques, and it is by their presence (or absence) that an anthology should properly be judged. No doubt one could ransack the reference books or the library shelves and find a few writers Brown and McWatt did not include, but none come immediately to mind, except some younger poets who are yet to publish books, or whose work perhaps has appeared too recently for the editors to consider.

In their introduction, Brown and McWatt mention the influence on Caribbean poets of oral traditions like calypso and other musical forms, but they don’t include any actual song lyrics. Whether these oral forms should be considered poetry is an ongoing debate among Caribbean academics. I’d certainly argue that there are songs by the Mighty Sparrow, Bob Marley, and David Rudder whose lyrics are better — and better-known — examples of Caribbean verse than some of the poems in the OBCV. (Brown collaborated with Mervyn Morris and Gordon Rohlehr in 1989 in editing Voiceprint: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean; and Paula Burnett’s Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, newly reprinted, includes folk songs and calypso and reggae lyrics.) Nevertheless, all the key themes and ideas are here: landscape, history, identity, language, power, love. Here are poets of every conceivable philosophy, politics, mood, and style. In fact, the lesson of an anthology that opens with Saint-John Perse apostrophising the islands on behalf of Robinson Crusoe and ends with the Haitian Mirlande Jean-Gilles dancing metaphorically on the head of Bill Clinton can only be that Caribbean poetry is as various as the islands of the archipelago, “as many islands as the stars at night”, as Derek Walcott puts it in these very pages.

Philip Sander

Tomorrow people

Finding Mañana  Mirta Ojito (Penguin Press, ISBN 1-59420-041-6, 304 pp)

Mirta Ojito’s family were among the 125,000 “social misfits” who joined the 1980 Mariel exodus from Cuba. She was 16. Her father had wanted to leave since the early days of the revolution, and had waited 15 years for the necessary exit visas to come through. “The police came on May 7 when I was about to have lunch,” Ojito begins. The family had to leave immediately, taking only an overnight bag each.

Ojito is now a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, reporting for the New York Times from Miami. In 1998 she covered the Papal visit to Cuba, revisiting her old family apartment. She felt a need to document what Mariel had really meant for the many people swept up in it. What were Castro’s and Carter’s motives in allowing so many Cubans to ride across the Florida Straits in yachts and fishing boats and trawlers? What had other escapees’ experiences been like?

In Finding Mañana she tries to take Mariel “beyond the realm of politics and into the intimate spaces of private lives”. There is little recognition in Ojito’s book of the larger realities influencing the individual hurts: the trade embargo, Castro’s economic blunders, the culpability of Batista, the logistics of social change. But the larger questions are not her main focus: she sketches only enough background to support the stories she wants to tell, human stories which she carefully interweaves with her own. They form a compelling narrative. Ojito’s account is solidly researched, and anchored in human detail. That is the book’s strength. This is surely the definitive account of Mariel at the human level, of the world of exile where “one must always walk alone, at one’s own pace, and only after burying a part of one’s soul”.

Jeremy Taylor

So they stay

Thank God It’s Friday: A Collection of Some of the Best Columns  B.C. Pires (Maverick Marketing, ISBN 976-8194-48-0, 321 pp)

On the first Friday after Carnival 1988 — as the NAR government fell apart and the populace reeled from the blows of the recent budget and speculated about currency devaluation — readers of the Trinidad Express were jolted by the appearance on the op-ed pages of a new column called “Thank God It’s Friday”, written by a young attorney-turned-journalist, B.C. Pires. Here was a man who hadn’t learned there were some things you just didn’t say in the daily press. To call him “irreverent” is too reverent; Pires was just plain rude, mocking the pretensions and lambasting the hypocrisies of politicians, priests, and the populace at large.

He won’t last long at that game, some of those early readers must have thought, but “Thank God It’s Friday” ran with few interruptions, in three different newspapers, for 15 years — half a generation, as Pires puts it, and it’s no exaggeration to say (as his back-cover blurb does) that the column “changed journalism in Trinidad and Tobago permanently”. What made Pires required reading, even for those he most scandalised, was his outspoken humour. It’s not just that Pires wrote what everyone else was too prudent to write; it’s that he crafted a style both blunt and swift (like a badjohn’s bois) that could swoop without pause from the most delicate irony to the silliest punch-line in the time it takes the average person to scratch his head.

And he was never short of material. Trinidad and Tobago in the NAR years and beyond was a satirist’s land of Cockaigne: the renaissance of racial politics, the 1990 “coup” and its long aftermath, the politicians’ increasingly frantic antics, and the monster “dose of salts” of our second energy boom. The country was in a bad way, people said at the time the column first appeared. It seems that the more things change, the more is so they stay. (In “Claiming Your Steak”, written about a decade ago, Pires visits the supermarket and encounters boxes of frozen beef “direct from Miami” on “special” for $60, and muses that “$60 is a full week’s grocery budget for some people”. Well, Port of Spain’s newest upscale restaurant, on the ground floor of the waterfront headquarters of a foreign energy company, has $1,000 steaks on its menu. How’s that for inflation? Or should that be “provokation”?)

In 2004, after two million tirelessly stinging words and every kind of backlash short of actual blows, “Thank God It’s Friday” came to an end. No newspaper wanted it; maybe the Trini sense of humour had finally worn thin. Undaunted, Pires has collected 97 of his pieces in this volume, fronted by a Warhol-esque montage of portraits of the author ranging from hungry novice to grizzled veteran. Thank God It’s Friday has some trouble with typos, and the section titles, borrowed from famous books, are unexpectedly twee, but my biggest complaint is that the individual columns are undated and arranged thematically, with no hint of chronology. It makes it impossible to properly appreciate the evolution one of contemporary Trinidad’s iconic literary inventions. For, if pontificator Pound was right and “literature is news that stays news”, then at their very best the TGIF columns are literature, descendents of a line that goes back at least as far as Addison, Steele, and Johnson. And the most enduring creation of the writer Basil Pires may be the character B.C. Pires: tatler, rambler, and idler rolled into one, with the wit of a calypsonian, the assurance of a boy from Saints, and an anger fed by a genuine sense of decency.

This B.C. makes you laugh out loud at inconvenient moments, sometimes makes your blood boil; and at blessed moments he can even bring you to tears, when he looks without sentimentality at this madness called Trinidad and sees the maverick joy that, if anything can, might be our salvation. At the end of a piece about the legacy of 1990, he writes, “remember: Andre plays Cascadia tonight / so we must be doing something right”. This is a man who is nowhere near giving up. B.C. could only have come from a place like Trinidad. Thank God for that, and thank God for him.

PS

Further reading

• Decades to Ama  Marina Omowale Maxwell (Peepal Tree, ISBN 1-84523-017-5, 213 pp) and Loving the Skin I’m In  Eintou Pearl Springer (Lexicon, ISBN 976-631-037-8, 224 pp), two vigorous collections of poems, both spanning thirty years, by celebrated Trinidadian performance poets. In the tradition of Kamau Brathwaite, but with a strong feminist twist, they trace the Caribbean’s African roots as they manifest themselves in Orisha, Carnival, and calypso, and explore ideas about love and freedom.

From This Bridge I See (National Cultural Foundation, ISBN 976-8081-39-2, 172 pp) is the fourth annual anthology collecting the 26 winners of literary prizes in Barbados’ National Independence Festival of Creative Arts. These poems, short stories, and excerpts from plays make a variegated portrait of the contemporary Bajan literary scene.

Lamplight Teller  Berkley W. Semple (WD Books, ISBN 0-9723593-9-7, 103 pp), winner of a 2004 Guyana Prize for Literature, is the first collection of poems by New York–based Semple, combining memories of Guyana with observations of life in North America, charting an immigrant’s physical journey, but also the quest “down our dark passages / To the dispersed fractions / In words, signs, and self”.