Caribbean Beat Magazine

Caribbean Bookshelf (July/August 2013)

This month’s reading picks

The Comfort of All Things, by Ian McDonald
(Moray House Trust, 83 pp, ISBN 9789768212832)

Ian McDonald’s most recent collection presents, by the Trinidad-born writer’s estimation, sixty-seven poems that are “unfinished” — insofar as a poem can never be completed to the poet’s final satisfaction. These nearly-seventy versions of poems do not bite with brutal perplexity, nor do they jar for the sake of being thought controversial. McDonald turns most readily towards the land, summoning visions of Nature’s spectacle that evoke notions of the pastoral: in “Marigolds”, the poet describes an ebullient stroll amid “a whole field of marigolds set fire by the wind. The path between that leaping gold led down to a dancing edge of sea, blue as a child’s imaginings.” This engagement with landscape is vivid, conducted in language that reveals an abundance of natural light, of childlike wonder and animation.

Flanking energetic escapes into verdure, however, are persistent reminders of the poet’s personal mortality, and the drawing to a close of human days. Contemplations of what has made a life worth living — the pleasures of family, of working well, of absorbing as much beauty as possible — are cast alongside sober reflections regarding what waits for one beyond the mortal veil. The immutability of the cycles within nature that the poet channels for refuge becomes the selfsame force prompting the speaker’s wonderings about the great beyond. In “Dream Heron”, the poet parallels the freedom that flight affords with the relentless desire for something more than mortality’s transience.

Powerful in its unruffled clarity of voice, The Comfort of All Things semaphores essential truths tied to the pleasures of perceiving a lifetime shot through with beauty, one that is not immune to the natural persistence of erasure, erosion, and grief.

Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor

Between Bodies Lie, by H.M. Blanc (AuthorHouse, 346 pp, ISBN 9781477269114)

Disenchanted with the twinned states of his romantic and literary affairs, novelist Cristobal Porter takes refuge in an unnamed Caribbean island, understood to be Trinidad. There he rapidly sinks into an infatuation with the enchanting Ana, wife of the American consul. The pair’s vague, multi-layered navigations of their ardour and attachment constitute the bulwark of Between Bodies Lie, a promising if occasionally staid debut from Blanc. Written in elegantly modulated prose, the novel displays a consideration of language’s rhythms that resonates with poise; one feels for these star-crossed lovers, even if they do ultimately sing a familiar song. Of particular appeal is the dually ephemeral and concretely-rooted Ana, an excellent character study in complexity and the objectifying gaze of masculine desire.



Dark and Unaccustomed Words, by Vahni Capildeo (Egg Box Publishing, 80 pp, ISBN 9780956928917)

Longlisted for the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Capildeo’s fourth collection interrogates the supposed natural order of poetic states, firmly trouncing the supposition that poetry is the province of those to the manor born. Reclaiming verses to categorise the miracle and tedium of daily occurrence, the poet functions as both archivist and participant in personal, nerve-wracking affairs: the ignominy, for instance, of a difficult driving lesson with an instructor who exercises a kind of power that is particularly unwelcome. Holding up a magnifying lens to the inconsistencies governing our beliefs of nature and the normative, Dark and Unaccustomed Words proclaims every pathway open to a series of curious and often charming reassignments.



Steppin’ Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh, by John Masouri (Omnibus Press, 486pp, ISBN 9781847728364)

An uncompromising singer who used his music to demand the legalisation of marijuana worldwide and to foster the dismantling of Apartheid, Peter Tosh was reggae’s original firebrand. This spellbinding biography highlights that Tosh hijacked a bus during the Walter Rodney riots of 1968, and was brutally beaten by Jamaican police in 1978 for berating politicians and smoking weed on stage. It also reminds us that, although he enjoyed patronage from the Rolling Stones upon leaving the Wailers, his confrontational style alienated journalists, who widely dismissed him as a second-rate pretender to Bob Marley’s throne. Masouri is particularly strong on the rise of the Wailers and Tosh’s pioneering solo work with Sly and Robbie, while the subsequent descent into the mental instability and doomed romance that prefaced his terrible murder is chillingly related.

David Katz

Sugar in the Blood, by Andrea Stuart (Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pp, ISBN 9780307272836)

Steeped in assiduous research and startling turns of imaginative invention, Andrea Stuart’s chronicle of her family’s legacy in the Barbadian sugar-and-slave trade earned her a 2013 OCM Bocas Prize longlist nod. Stuart navigates the genesis of the sugar empire in Barbados, beginning as early as 1630, carrying the reader through generations of conquest, assimilation, and a gritty survivalist ethic. Everyday scenes of plantation life lead into present-day reflections on how the great estates have endured, or crumbled. In every teaspoon of sugar, Stuart reminds her audience, is a hearkening to an entire inheritance of savagery and violence, the tools upon which a successful economy once thrived.