Bookshelf (Mar/Apr 2019) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War; Theory; The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story; The Ice Migration; and Forged from the Love: Colin Laird, Caribbean Architect; plus a bookshelf Q&A with Jamaican-British poet Raymond Antrobus

  • Raymond Antrobus. Photo courtesy Raymond Antrobus
  • Forged from the Love: Colin Laird, Caribbean Architect
  • The Ice Migration
  • The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story
  • Theory
  • Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War

Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War

edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf (Nine Arches Press, 124 pp, ISBN 9781911027294)

If war songs praise bloodied heroes, then the unsung ballads of martial engagement point to those soldiers blotted out of the hymnals. So it has largely, historically, been, in Britain’s paltry recognition of the Caribbean servicemen of the First World War. The 1915 British West Indies Regiment, the BWIR, enlisted roughly fifteen thousand men across eleven battalions: many of those men never made it home.

Who would the black Caribbean Siegfried Sassoons and Wilfred Owens have been, if allowed prominence to tell their own stories? Unwritten — which assembles ten commissioned poets and one essayist, from the Caribbean and its diaspora — speaks into history’s silencing void, pulling WWI testimonies, fragments, and elegies into contemporary verse. These poems strive not only to describe our maligned military volunteers, but to imagine what they might have said, and what their loved ones might have endured. Potent among these is Guyanese-Grenadian-British Malika Booker’s “Her Silent Wake”, which chillingly centres a mother’s loss of her war-slain son, a mother who seethes, “that bitch of a stepmother England built a forest / of bones for rats to feast on succulent black men, the scent of her / actions rancid as hell.”

Though they speak in the main of families and lineages long deceased, the poems in this anthology are blisteringly, tenderly stitched through with the personal. Take Trinidadian Jay T. John’s stirring, powerfully sentimental imagining of the pioneering social worker Audrey Jeffers, “There are days where my hands”, which names Jeffers’s home street, summoning the domestic anchor of “Aunt Sherry’s gallery, where pools of / cool cotton lay draped before us, when a pricked finger was the only / worry of blood.”

Unwritten doesn’t wrestle the poetic crown from Wilfred Owen or his brethren. It demonstrates, with all the resonant urgency of a mission long past due, that black Caribbean post-war survival needs — deserves — its own soldiers’ and storytellers’ crowns here, too.

Theory

by Dionne Brand (Knopf Canada, 240 pp, ISBN 9780735274235)

Teoria, a graduate student mired in the completion of an increasingly elaborate PhD thesis, is easily distracted from the purity of academic purpose by three very different, sensually compelling women lovers. A novel of scholarly frustration and heartbreak hullabaloo might be desiccated in anyone but Dionne Brand’s hands: Theory, a genre-crumpling philosophy of a story, shows up the dustiest, most terminally hidden corners of the human heart, and reveals the aching limitations of a thinker’s intellect. Looking up at the window of one of their lovers, Teoria nocturnally muses, “Does she see me there, dressed in paper, dressed in the cuts on my fingers from turning pages?” Don’t be surprised if this sharp, erudite novel, as much thought experiment as it is institutional critique, keeps you up late at night with your own ponderings on unfinished romances and languishing dissertations.

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story

by Edwidge Danticat (Graywolf Press, 200 pp, ISBN 9781555977771)

“Sometimes we must become our own holy places, roaming cathedrals, and memory mausoleums,” pronounces Edwidge Danticat. No stranger in experiencing ultimate loss, and writing it on the page, the Haitian-American novelist and essayist guides us through the sepulchral cloisters of mortality through the testimonies of others. Using the lives, deaths, and creations of Gabriel García Márquez, Sylvia Plath, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Audre Lorde, and others both perished and present, Danticat reveals the underpinnings of our obsession with passing on, peering into portals such as the rise of self-penned obituaries, and the ravaging grief left in suicide’s wake. When the author describes her own mother’s death from cancer, her sorrowful gratitude leaks with illuminating light.

The Ice Migration

by Jacqueline Crooks (Peepal Tree Press, 144 pp, ISBN 9781845233587)

As daringly necessary a series of stories about cross-border movements as Britain presently needs, The Ice Migration sinks its roots into the land, exploring the intertwined bloodlines of an Indo-Jamaican family caught up in the rigours of indentureship. Spanning a century of slavery’s clutches, migration as escape route, duppies who work mischief and offer comforts alongside the living, and the keeping and shattering of secrets, these tales are acts of ambitious cartography, showing in exquisite diction how spirits converge where unfinished business — and blood debts — linger, haunting the earth as much as those who walk it. From the bullock carts of Calcutta to the rag-and-bone man’s Southall horse and cart, we are transported by these tellings.

Forged from the Love: Colin Laird, Caribbean Architect

by Robert Clarke (The Colin Laird Project, 196 pp, ISBN 9789768280107)

“I was first completely enthralled by his drawings, which I considered artworks,” says architect Sean Leonard upon discovering technical designs by Colin Laird. Architecture as art of the most socially engaged order: this was Laird’s driving ethos, proof of which lies in his literal landmarks of our Caribbean. Clarke’s assiduous research reveals the distinguished socialist’s commitment to leaving public and private space better-equipped to serve the needs of all people, from politicians to proletariat. As much visual treasury as moving biography, Forged from the Love presents handwritten letters and family photographs alongside other touching ephemera. Laird’s legacy lives on, in buildings as much as in the progressive goodwill his architecture inspired.


Bookshelf Q&A

Jamaican-British poet Raymond Antrobus talks to Shivanee Ramlochan about how hearing loss has primed him to write deep-reaching poems, in his debut collection The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, 91 pp, ISBN 9781908058522).

The Perseverance bravely and unapologetically demands space for D/deaf voices. How do you hope readers will hearken to this call?

My writing process for this book was a “project of listening,” given how much time I spent with all the voices in it. I hope I manage to inspire others to care as much about listening as they do about speaking. When I first worked with CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) ten years ago, I noticed how deaf awareness gave them patience and a presence that made them (generally) wiser than their years. The book directly addresses hearing people and points out ways that their culture doesn’t consider us, but I hope it also celebrates our presence in the world.

Your poems are bridges spanning worlds of experiences: D/deafness, dislocation, the difficulty of family trauma. Tell us about how you construct these bridges.

The Perseverance is in conversation with lots of poets and poems I admire that also grapple with loss and trauma. From Hannah Lowe, Kei Miller, and James Berry to Shara McCallum and Linton Kwesi Johnson, Caribbean poets inform my poetics heavily, as do deaf poets like Ilya Kaminsky, Meg Day, and Raymond Luczak. Also, John Betjeman’s poem “Portrait of a Deaf Man” showed me you could portray a deaf person powerfully but also truthfully in a poem. If I’ve been successful, then The Perseverance is no more about deafness than it is about communication, connection, language, education, and family.

Do languages of love persist for you, in music as in poems?

Records and tapes my parents played while I was growing up influenced my poetics. Becoming a teacher really gave me perspective in how lucky I was to have parents who were curious about the world and wanted me to question things — not everyone gets that. The building of my language of love probably came from music, because there was always something playing when I entered my parents’ houses (they lived separately). This means Prince Far I, the Heptones, Nina Simone, and Bob Marley are sounds associated with my homes, and therefore an important part of my language of love.