Bookshelf (Nov/Dec 2019) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of In the Vortex of the Cyclone: Selected Poems; I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara; Perfected Fables Now: A Bookman Signs off on Seven Decades; The Lesson; and Five Midnights

  • In the Vortex of the Cyclone
  • I Even Regret Night
  • Perfected Fables Now: A Bookman Signs off on Seven Decades
  • The Lesson
  • Five Midnights
  • Barbadian artist Annalee Davis. Photo courtesy Annalee Davis

In the Vortex of the Cyclone: Selected Poems

by Excilia Saldaña, ed. and trans. Flora M. González Mandri and Rosamond Rosenmeier (University Press of Florida, 144 pp, ISBN 9780813064291)

These collected poems from the late Cuban writer Excilia Saldaña seldom appeared in English before her passing in 1999 from asthma complications. Consequently, their publication here, in this bilingual edition, is a gift to the Anglophone Caribbean and the rest of the world. Saldaña died at fifty-two, well known in her natal Havana as a children’s writer, translator, professor, essayist, and poet. Her pen was untimely stoppered, but her dying diminished none of the robust imaginativeness and roving spirit contained in these poems. In the book’s foreword, fellow Cuban poet Nancy Morejón begins: “Seldom does a cyclone show its throat in a form so clear and defined.”

The proof of Morejón’s assertion stirs in the sprawling free verse of Saldaña’s long-form poems, which trade in thick erotic associations, hemmed by meditations on the psychic roots of Cuban culture itself. In “Mi fiel” (“My Faithful One”), the poet’s speaker makes several inroads into memory, cultivating a space where a female eros pursues and lays claim to a matching maleness. This powerful feminine voice manifests in “my nape of cohune palm, and my thick cane syrup ears, and my trumpet- / wood hair, and my forehead pregnant with spectres and apparitions.” In lushly unapologetic descriptiveness, Saldaña’s poems delve into Afro-Cuban womanhood’s life-cycles of lover, mother, and committed explorer of one’s own land. Unafraid to make playful forays in form and tone, In the Vortex of the Cyclone is an atmospheric feat in contemporary verse, a world in which “the fruit of the girl bursts into blood and cotton, / spatters the whole house as she goes, / waters the rose, / feeds the dove.”

I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara

by Lalbihari Sharma, trans. Rajiv Mohabir (Kaya Press, 80 pp, ISBN 9781885030597)

To hold this book of poems is to have a history-maker in your hands: this is the only known literary work completed by an indentured labourer in the Anglophone Caribbean. Originally composed and published over a century ago, Sharma’s verses of religious devotion and longing are translated by award-winning Guyanese-American poet Rajiv Mohabir, and lovingly resurrected by Kaya Press. Poet and translator, though separated by a hundred years of history, both trace their roots to the same region of Guyana: this is but one testimony to the survival of language that I Even Regret Night makes. Sharma’s poems echo with the arduous, repetitive incursions of indentured life, as Mohabir translates in “Kavitt”: “As the bell tolls five, the pot heats on the fire: / rice and yogurt boil with sugar. / I eat my fill and the sardar comes to the door, / bringing orders we must endure.”

Perfected Fables Now: A Bookman Signs off on Seven Decades

by Gordon Rohlehr (Peepal Tree Press, 290 pp, ISBN 9781845234508)

Guyana-born scholar Gordon Rohlehr’s contributions to regional thought have fed our great debates of some fifty-odd years. Assuming the mantle of our consummate Carnival chronicler, the Bookman, Rohlehr observes the effects of war, suffrage, colonialism, calypso, and commerce on the societies of the united, yet non-unified Caribbean. Whether his attentions turn to Earl Lovelace or Derek Walcott, to the contemporary poets of the Antillean Anthropocene, or to the behemoth of educational evolutions in our primary and secondary schools, Rohlehr’s analysis cuts clean and whistles mischievously, subversively against empire. Of his boyhood days in St John’s Anglican School in Suddie, Essequibo, he writes, “We learned ‘Rule Britannia’ and were glad to sing it when George VI died from lung cancer and an incurable stammering.” This Bookman’s ledger is a timeless treasury, unafraid to bite.

The Lesson

by Cadwell Turnbull (Blackstone Publishing, 290 pp, ISBN 9781538584644)

This debut novel set in the US Virgin Islands is a page-turning speculative fiction thriller with an environmental conscience. In accessible prose, it asks what happens when co-existence stops being simply a watchword, and morphs into a way of life. Probing the breakdown of interspecies diplomacies between the residents of St Thomas and the Ynaa, Turnbull’s cast of characters grapples with big canonical sci-fi considerations of humanity intersecting with alien life. Proof that extraterrestrial invasions don’t need to happen in New York, London, or Paris to be compelling, The Lesson presses a stethoscope to the heart of global border insecurities, listening to our (in)human anxieties about sharing our home. Here’s a tale of first contact that challenges what you think you know about strength, survival, and staying safe.

Five Midnights

by Ann Dávila Cardinal (Tor Teen, 288 pp, ISBN 9781250296078)

Young adult literature receives a welcome Puerto Rican addition in Ann Dávila Cardinal’s debut, which centres teenage experiences of Latinidad in bustling barrios and horror-tinged encounters. Peppered with Spanglish, pop culture references, and a strongly summoned sense of place, Five Midnights presents a world in which folkloric hauntings brush shoulders with crime-and-drug dangers. “Gringa-Rican” Lupe Dávila finds San Juan a far cry from her Vermont-residential life, and her immersion in San Juan’s irrepressible duende is one of the novel’s principal strengths, forthright in its exploration of the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico. One of the secondary characters shines brightest: Marisol, an independentista with a lot to say about systemic oppression and the right to self-rule. Her anger at her displacement, and its roots in a globally underexamined history, strike the book’s highest and bravest notes.


Bookshelf Q&A

On Being Committed to a Small Place: Local Writings (TEOR/éTica, 252 pp, ISBN 9789968899406) collects a series of essays by Barbadian artist Annalee Davis. She talks to Shivanee Ramlochan about the challenges of building a politically commited practice in the contemporary Caribbean.

“Artivism” — the portmanteau of art and activism — feels an apt designation for your practice. At the roots, is all your art political?

I live in a part of the world that is sometimes rendered invisible, outside tropes of exotica, crime, or ongoing climate disasters. The inability of most people to see this territory or its artists holistically, or recognise the multi-dimensionality of places and people’s capacities and desires, is partly grounded in extractive economic models foundational to the Caribbean’s complex colonial histories. Cuban essayist Antonio Benítez-Rojo refers to this as the long annelid parasites of history that moved through the bowels of the Caribbean.

Committing one’s life as an artist and cultural activist to a place often misunderstood or flattened by stereotype is inherently political, especially in small post-independent nations still asking if artists are legitimate or valuable citizens. We are required to employ collective strategies ensuring our very survival by simultaneously preserving a practice while expressing our civic responsibility through building community, and mitigating madness. Shaping our spaces as active citizens is deeply political.

What is the chief benefit, for you, of marrying essays and images in this bilingual edition?

Although this publication originates from Costa Rica in Central America, a mere 1,600 miles from Barbados, our understanding of each other’s cultural milieu is sorely lacking. Intervening images among the English and Spanish languages function as complementary tools revealing mine and the region’s wider context with that of the readers, and hopefully this will build affinities. As the first Anglophone writer in TEOR/éTica’s Local Writings series, this unique opportunity provided me with a gift to offer intellectual exchange and kinship through the form of this book.

If all art opens a dialogue, is your ideal co-conversationalist always Caribbean?

I continually pivot on this archipelagic hinge as my work repeatedly takes me out of the space and simultaneously brings me back home. As an unrepentant regionalist, however, the constructive and often urgent exchanges that take place with my Caribbean kin across this deeply intertwined archipelago are somehow distinctive and nurture me profoundly.