Most people who love poetry know that a poem may acquire more of its own life when said aloud, recited by someone who understands the rhythm of the thing, the places that emphasis and anti-stress ought to go. Reading Malika Booker's Pepper Seed, then, is like wanting to taste the raw strength of each poem, where almost every poem cleaves to a powerful backbone of intent.These poems are not just for demure tasting with good tablecloths and Sunday lunch manners; in fact, they're for the opposite. They demand a direct, bone-gnawing, approach: they go down to the marrow of what matters and in reading them, so do you.This is Booker's first full length collection and was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2013. A British writer with Guyanese and Grenadian roots, Booker's work has been published in several anthologies and journals. Her 2008 pamphlet, Breadfruit, was released by Flipped Eye Publishing. Booker was the Royal Shakespeare Co's first Poet in Residence.
There are uncomfortable places lodged in childhood memory, shared familial scars and personal traumas buried beneath the skin. The emotional legacy of our Caribbean societies is, typically, to bear hardships with fake stoicism, and much of Booker's poetic movement prises the rusty lid from communal secrets. These poems are saying what's not frequently said even within the supposedly equalising space offered through fiction.In Pepper Sauce, a poem within the collection's first section, Testament, we read of a teeth-grinding grandmother with "one hand pushing in fresh hot peppers, seeds and all, turning the handle of that old iron mill, squeezing the limes, knowing they will burn and cut raw like acid." These prepared peppers have been specially marked for a punishment meted out to a terrified granddaughter, a penance that uncomfortably prickles in the mind long after the poem has been read.
Testament is barbed-wire-fenced with revelations like these, bursting at its seams with the cruelty of matriarchs; the endurance of estate slaves; the rejoicing clamour when a colonising tyrant meets his end. In Death of an Overseer, his demise prompts "women to raise up they red petticoats and dance, trampling he grave, while machetes pound stone, lips drown rum and burn on highwine."The collection's other sections are Crucial Times, Lamentations and Altars, followed by an Epilogue that holds a single poem, My Mother's Blues. This final piece is lit up with private miseries that are at once interior and synonymous with the complaints of motherhood: the burdens of ungrateful children; the separations that work themselves into a family as time goes on; the grim sadness of having no one left to feed, because all the mouths one loves are distant.To get to My Mother's Blues, a lilting lamentation and a musical tribute, the reader must walk with the narrator on her other journeys and these are conducted around the world. From Brixton to Brooklyn, from Trinidad to Guyana and even in the seeming rootless space of other, stranger countries poems emerge like necessary sunlight. From multiple places, they echo with flinty, mud-and-glitter truths. "This is the life your ancestors lived," they say, frequently following up observations culled from centuries ago with, "This is the life you are living now."
Pepper Seed's poems are as interested in checking out the differences between our forbearers and ourselves, as they are in telling stories of how women navigate the world. Not every piece is a suffering cry; far from it, some of these poems dance straight from the pages and into our desire for movement, for some kinetic bacchanal that spices things up and makes life worth living. In Sweet Liquor, the narrator describes a fete scene in which "man does tek over the dancefloor and smash they bodies, flesh hitting flesh, jumping and hollering like the army evict them, like them bodies have nuff sin to wuk out they system."This is the crossroads that emerges, exultantly, through so many of these poems: life is salted with every bitterness, but despite that, dancing rages on.As Pepper Seed reinforces, the fiery spectacle of our brief walk on earth seeks out its own beauty. Like these poems, we call light and miracles to ourselves and deal with the darkness as it inevitably hitches on for the ride.