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100 poems from Trinidad and Tobago
It is a shame, almost universally acknowledged, that when it comes to poetry collections, the only ones who read them are poets. Ian Dieffenthaller and Anson Gonzalez’s new anthology, 100 Poems From T&T, published by Cane Arrow Press in 2012, feels like a valiant, fresh attempt to bring poetry down from the dusty back shelf, and repurpose verses for the time that lies ahead.
Perhaps the most winning feature of the anthology is its lack of reverence when it comes to ordering. This isn’t to say that the poetic big shots (including Gonzalez himself, as well as Derek Walcott, Harold Telemaque, Eric Roach and others) aren’t given their due; they are. What’s more interesting is that the collection bypasses chronology, flanking pieces from the last few years with those tinted by the sepia of decades.
Promising young voices in verse-making (Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, Muhammad Muwakil, Andre Bagoo) are commingled with the poems of veterans and literary legends. Interestingly, there are poems within these pages from writers not predominantly known for their poetry: Earl Lovelace, for one, makes a surprising but not unwelcome contribution. More than one theme unites the eclectic catalogue: proof that in converging ribbons of thought, there are several ways to identify T&T, in her landscape, her people, her politics and the beauty that transcends almost all pettiness.
Folkloric figures are touted with the respect and terror they deserve. In Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s 2000 poem, Womanish Tongue, the dread Soucouyant is described as “a woman who live by words she suck/by night from the ones/who suck her blood/by day.” The third movement of Vahni Capildeo’s 2010 piece, Into Darkness/Plus Que Noir, the soucouyant also emerges, “her stored skin poisoned by neighbours with stamped thighs/she puts on a skin that smelts her, woman of no return.” In the anthology’s opening poem, Wind, Water, Fire, Men, James Christopher Aboud channels his familiar motif of the Lagahoo, in lines that reveal that shape-shifter’s elemental mastery.
One of the densest, most complexly rewarding subjects worth unpacking in poetry is, arguably, the question of how a place’s inhabitants see themselves. What are the markers, the everyday (or esoteric) emblems by which Trinbagonians can chart their identities? Jagdip Maraj’s 1966 poem Faded Beauty poignantly examines the perils of the Indo-Caribbean indentureship experience. Maraj chronicles a sense of cultural decay with bitterness, saying that the faded beauty of a race now “breathes asthmatically/in impure forms about the country/and in venal brahmins repeating/ the scriptures with strange intensity.”
Eric Roach’s Letter to Lamming in England, written in 1952, raises pointed, reflective questions to its subject, retrieving no certain answers about the significance behind our geographical placement. Even with a lack of clear absolutes, the ineffable strength of our ties to the land remains certain. Roach’s poem suggests this in its closing echoes: “O man, your roots are tapped into this soil, Your song is water wizard from these rocks.”
Unevenness is almost a given in anthologies. The work of so many, of several provenances and stations, cannot be expected to feel either definitive or uniformly good. Yes, some of these poems are better than others. Some evince greater care in their craftsmanship; some, quite likely, could have been traded in for different pieces without much demur. Still, each of this century of poems seeks, in ways both minor and outstanding, to graft honesty and introspection onto T&T life: revealing, in the process, that life in T&T is a complex, many-splendoured enterprise.