'Down under Coversí: Two Visions of Truth'
Patricia Harkins-Pierre, The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 16
Two strong, provocative Black women poets, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Dorothea Smartt, with their cultural - roots planted 'deep-deep' in Caribbean soil, have recently published poetry collections. These poets are similar in striking ways and yet different in their unique and penetrating voices. Both women are noted performance poets who are also closely associated with experimental British theater. However, while Jean 'Binta'Breeze was born in Jamaica, Dorothea Smartt was born and raised in London although she is 'of Barbadian heritage' according to the authorís notes. Dorothea Smartt [...] has spent much of her recent professional life in the States, as a guest writer at Florida International University and Oberlin College.
Like Jean 'Binta' Breeze, Dorothea Smartt is also a master artist who sculpts both Standard English and Caribbean English into a wide variety of poetic forms. Both poets, according to Kamau Brathwaite, are among the 'wonderful new' Caribbean women artists who have moved 'into oras of their own consciousness.' As quoted on the back cover, 'Now for the first time we have a Dread Mary. The Black Medusa of this new voice in Caribbean poetry, this Brit born Bajan international... will tangle you up & burn you to stone.'
Brathwaite is referring to a series of nine transformational poems in Smarttís collection that declare Medusa, the infamous female monster of Greek myth, to be 'a Blackwoman / afrikan, dread,' a woman 'full of sheself,' who 'cut she eye at a sista mirror / turn she same self tístone' (57). In one of these poems the narrator warns, 'Yes nuh! Believe it ! / she could turn a man tístone,' (59) and later adds, 'Medusa is our motherís mothers / myself all coiled into one' (60). Her explorations of the Medusa myth in connecting medium prove that Dorothea Smartt, like Jean 'Binta'Ē Breeze, is capable of boldly crossing cultural boundaries in order to borrow from the past as she shapes poems for twenty-first century readers.
Another skill she shares with Jean 'Binta' Breeze is her ability to compose a brief lyric poem in spare Standard English that is as beautiful as it is economical. An excellent example is simply titled 'denial':
as a child I had a notion
that the wind
could be talked to
listened to, if you knew how
even ripples on the pond
at Battersea Park... (25)
Dorothea Smarttís sense of exact diction, line, and balance is very strong here, transforming what might be printed on the page as an interesting prose statement into precisely chiseled poetry instead, with a poignant tone of nostalgia, mystery, and loss. The open ending seems symbolic of the open-ended interpretation about the truth - or falseness - of the notion she had as a child. It asks a classically Romantic question: Are human beings, at least as children, capable of communicating with nature? But the sensibility behind the notion is typically post-modern - not presuming to postulate an answer but rather leaving the implied question open. This gives the poem a poignant tone of nostalgia, mystery and potential loss.
Reminiscent of Jean 'Binta' Breezeís technique in The Arrival of Brighteye, Dorothea Smartt links her title, connecting medium, to a series of poems within her collection. However, in this case the narrator is the central character rather than an unnamed friend, and she is an adult rather than a young girl. Moreover, these are poems of self-imposed exile rather than coming-of-age poems set in the Caribbean. In 'connecting medium' the persona eloquently describes landing in a 'sea of lights' at J.F.K. Airport. It is night and only a 'hunter moon' guides her as she travels into 'Harlem / up Lennox to 132nd/ thruí sets of t.v. cop shows/ into the /scaled-up megamix / of everything I knew to be / industrial, urban' (39). The first 'connecting medium' she discovers in the midst of an alien environment is the flow of her menstrual blood, a symbol of the femininity she shares with every other woman in the world. Through the comforting power of such 'connecting mediums,' the narrator soon gains victory over the threatening unfamiliarity which initially silences her.
Dorothea Smartt and Jean 'Binta' Breeze are 'sister poets' with much in common, yet as their work testifies, they have strong individual voices. Dorothea Smarttís collection may seem safer or more pleasant to read since her poems are never so sexually raw and explicit as those in The Arrival of Brighteye. However, they share an unflinching commitment to '[r]eflect, research the truth' even 'down under covers' as Dorothea Smartt puts it in 'dream bed.' And as she asks in 'medusaspeak,' 'How can [a poet] speak to you / gently of hard things?' (64).
This review relates to the book
by Dorothea Smartt