Helen Nelson, Mslexia
Lewis Carroll's Alice didn't think much of books 'without pictures or conversations'. Imtiaz Dharker's The Terrorist At My Table has both: texts are interspersed with haunting line drawings, and the tone is almost entirely conversational. At the centre of all is the image of a woman in a flowing garment -- perhaps a burka or Palestinian keffiyeh in the style of hijab. On the front cover, her mouth and nose are hidden -- only a pair of mysterious eyes gazes into the distance. Combine the image with the book's title and there it is: the age-old (and very contemporary) human fear of what lies beneath the veil, documented powerfully in the title sequence of poems.
It is worth knowing that Dharker's daughter played the title role in the film The Terrorist; in many senses, therefore, this theme is close to the poet's heart. There are individual poems (`The Right Word', for example), which work well in isolation, but Dharker's poems are best read in the sequence in which they are presented, where the illustration resonates most effectively. This is a distinctive and unusual poet/artist presenting her third arresting collection.
Jaqueline Bishop's Fauna, on the other hand, is a debut poetry collection. Like Donna Weir-Soley's First Rain (also her debut in the UK), it is published by the magnificently independent Peepal Tree Press, which specialises in writing with a Caribbean focus. These two poets have a Jamaican childhood in common: each of them draws on lush and evocative memories of what Bishop describes as the 'blue Jamaican mountains' and Weir-Soley as 'the high purple of the St. Catherine Hills'. However, though each now lives and works in the USA, they are very different writers.
Weir-Soley draws on her heritage with affectionate pride: the memorable voice of her grandmother Teresa Matilda McCalla announcing itself early on, `Mi nevah have an easy life / Mi born inna struggle'. There is interesting tension here between different language uses: some unequivocally powerful poems are entirely in dialect; some equally strong pieces combine the rhythm and evocation of Jamaican Creole with mainly standard English (Weir-Soley manages this difficult task with unforced ease); and finally a few very English poems don't convince at all. Lines like 'They water the earth beneath your insouciant feet/bringing forth wild orchids to blanket your shame' fade into insignificance compared with 'Losing you is a ting dat only a deep belly bawl,/like what you would hear coming from a dead yard,/ way up somewhere in de bush, could express'.
For Jacqueline Bishop the art of the painter lies in 'Leaving in what is essential, taking out what/is not.' She possesses this art herself. Her writing is beautifully distilled, each poem leading with understated simplicity to the next. For her, Jamaica is both beautiful and terrible, 'All my mysteries reside in this place,/small dot of an island,/the restlessness and the need to always return/to my great grandmother's river'.
The river courses at the heart of her verse, calling her home with 'a woman's voice singing'. The smell of mango, however, evokes nightmare memories of her grandfather and of the mother who 'taught me to take it, to forgive my grandfather/and take it'. 'Let me tell you', says the poet, 'about/the darknesses which descend over me.' And she does. But more -- she talks about light, dreams, water, redemption and 'the noise of the world fallen away'. As you read her, the noise of the world falls away.
This review relates to the book
by Jacqueline Bishop