Caribbean Bookshelf – January/February 2006

Classic poetry by Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Martiniquan Édouard Glissant, and new novels by Jamaican Marlon James and Trinidadian Rabindranath Maharaj

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Freedom poems

Yoruba from Cuba: Selected Poems – Nicolás Guillén, translated by Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-97-X, 208 pp)

The Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén broke new ground by singing the Afro-Cuban theme and beat, and this selection of poems is informed by that consideration. Guillén’s poetry embodies the idea that Africa is a defining factor in Caribbean culture, and celebrates the idea of a Cuban nation that includes white and black on equal terms:

We’ve come together from far away,
young ones and old,
Blacks and Whites, moving together . . .
Come out Mulatto,
walk on free,
tell the whiteman he can’t leave . . .
Nobody breaks away from here.

But Guillén’s vision of a harmonious, Africa-sourced Cuba does not gloss over the oppression and brutality of plantation slavery or its lingering blight. And he is also the poet of black resistance.

His achievement in tapping the African roots of Cuban poetry is very much a matter of sound, style, and mode. He introduced into Cuban poetry the sound of son, the popular Afro-Cuban dance music drawing on the call-and-response structure of traditional African song. These factors, combining with simple syntax and a plain, down-to-earth vocabulary imaginatively deployed, produce a people-based poetry. It is a poetry of incantation, exhortation, lament, harking back to ritualistic African modes.

The poems in Yoruba from Cuba speak for the working class and reflect Guillén’s identification with the Cuban Revolution, but they are by no means the work of a propagandist or ideologue. They are poems of humanity, which should speak for any self-respecting person. Guillén’s foundational cause is the cause of the so-called common person and the simple things of life, the cause of life itself, the freedom to breathe the air that cannot be bought or sold, “the air (not all of it) which stirs / flower after flower in your garden . . .”

Edward Baugh

Murder of crows

John Crow’s Devil – Marlon James (Akashic Books, ISBN 1-888451-82-3, 225 pp)

John Crow’s Devil, the debut novel of 35-year-old Jamaican Marlon James, is a genuinely gothic piece complete with spooky house on the hill and a good-versus-evil battle in a church. The “devil” of the title is a demonic force that comes to a Gibbeah, a small Jamaican backwater in the late 1950s. He’s a human evil, a preacher calling himself the Apostle York, but there are other supernatural forces at play, not the least of which is a horny obeah woman named Lucinda. The village seems ordinary enough at first. People eat, drink, have sex, go to church and cinema, gossip, turn a blind eye to things they can in no way affect, in spite of the contempt in which they hold those things. So when a woman goes mad and cuts off her father’s penis after he has made her pregnant, she is dismissed as cursed, her story given as one short aside that is more about how shamefully the drunken village preacher behaves than about the terrible injustice of her suffering. These people are ordinary people. In the end, the novel’s morality judges them all harshly, and they are made to pay in a bloody denouement.

After starting at “The End”, James works through the story from the founding of the village to the tale’s true conclusion. He is methodical in constructing character, doling out information slowly through flashback, dialogue, action, with almost textbook precision. Early on, we meet the drunken pastor, the Rum Preacher, as he’s called, a teetering thing passing out half-naked on the side of the road. The plot drags the preacher to his lowest ebb as a man before resurrecting him to battle the devil that has come to take hold of the village. Then the preacher becomes the sacrificial lamb for the village, though they spurn his efforts to save them. It’s the novel’s pseudo-religious bias that gives it much of its power as a gothic work. It touches your superstitious core. The same part of you that worries about things that go bump in the night is glad to know that there’s someone who has your back when nightmares become real.

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Naipaul country

A Perfect Pledge – Rabindranath Maharaj (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, ISBN 0-676-97647-6, 407 pp)

The tiny Hindu village in south Trinidad. The irascible cane-cutter father with a head full of dreams, the exasperated wife, the three daughters and one son coming of age. The smallness and the desperate tedium of village life. Reading Rabindranath Maharaj’s new novel, the reader may feel as if he’s fallen into a time warp. One expects to run into Mr Biswas or Ganesh Ramsumair at any moment. This is a world of entrapment and isolation, defined by gossip, envy, quarrelling, and brutality. The author looks on with mocking amusement and a strictly limited amount of sympathy. He allows his characters only one choice: escape or endure.

The book begins with the birth of Jeevan — a.k.a Jeeves — in the mid 1950s, and ends a generation later. His father Narpat is a domestic tyrant, a man of extraordinary stubbornness. Disinherited by a cheating uncle, he has managed to acquire a small piece of land for himself, which he will protect at all costs (“even if I have to die in this field, no one will take it from me”). His life is a futile quest to impose order on chaos. But he winds up a reclusive and embittered old man, raging against the world like a Lear of the canefields. For, unhappily and inexplicably, the world resists improvement: “decay and instability were its natural states. By the end, Narpat has become an almost tragic figure in his rage and impotence. But otherwise there is little in the way of action, growth, or evolution. Perhaps this is the point. From the first chapter, it is clear that Narpat’s struggle is going to be futile, that stoicism is fatal, and that there is no escape without fragmentation. No real surprises can ensue.

Jeremy Taylor

“Land born from itself”

There is an Indies which finishes when reality brushes its arduous hair; a land of dream.
It accepts what comes, suffering or joy, which is multiplicitous on the clay,
(Halfway between each of the races, mixing them).
From the dream described there, a high ground has come forth, which must be described,
Its richness is to name every ferment and every ear of corn and wheat.
Land born from itself, rain of the Indies they adopted.

– From The Indies

The Martiniquan poet and novelist Édouard Glissant is one of the most influential figures in contemporary French literature. A new edition of his Collected Poems, translated by Jeff Humphries with Melissa Manolas (University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0-8166-4194-3, 257 pp), brings together for the first time his entire poetic oeuvre translated into English. Elusive, dreamlike, intensely lyrical, these poems tell a discontinuous story of a restless wanderer’s journey across the world and through time, to the “Rugged calm of the horizon amid an uproar of currents, / And the eternal fixity of days and tears.

Further reading

• Born to Slow Horses by Kamau Brathwaite (Wesleyan University Press, ISBN 0-8195-6745-0, 143 pp) continues the Barbadian elder poet’s career-long exploration of personal and cultural identity, history, and language in his dynamic, unmistakable “sycorax video style”.

• A Silent Life by Ryhaan Shah (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-002-7, 186 pp), a lyrical semi-autobiographical novel by the president of the Guyana Indian Heritage Association, tells the story of four generations of a Guyanese Muslim family making their way in the new world.

• The Angel Horn: Collected Poems 1927–1997 by Shake Keane (House of Nehesi, ISBN 0-913441-66-X, 184 pp) assembles the best work of the late Vincentian jazzman and poet — irreverent, witty, angry, and always moving to a syncopated rhythm.

• Stories from Yard by Alecia McKenzie (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-62-7, 151 pp), a collection of unsentimental tales of life in Jamaica — tough, hardscrabble, wearying — and life away from Jamaica, where emigrants do their “diaspora dance” in the big, cold cities of North America and Europe.