Leaving Atlantis is a suite of poems that explores the unstable territory between public and private. They are addressed to the great Barbadian novelist and thinker, George Lamming, the silent but speaking partner in a relationship of love that comes between two writers when “your flag is flying at half-mast”. The suite works at multiple levels, as a record of the negotiation of feelings, permissions, exclusions and treaties between two persons who have to confront the reality of long lives that have accumulated “memories I cannot share”, and not least that the poet is a woman of deep religious faith, and the man a lifelong Marxist and non-believer. What the poems also deal with in a moving but resolutely unsentimental way is the fact that the age of one of the partners makes the temporal finiteness of the relationship a matter of acute awareness. What is the poet to think when she sees the man throwing out and putting his papers in order? “Clearing out?”
The poems also meditate on the ironies of a relationship with a man who has both been public property as a writer and a leader of the struggle for Caribbean sovereignty, but also an intensely private person, habituated to a life of movement and temporariness. Quite literally, Leaving Atlantis references the moment when the writer is forced to leave, with a rude absence of notice, the hotel at Bathsheba on the Atlantic coast of Barbados, his refuge for many years. Is the relationship and provision of a home a “Coming Home”, the arrival at a place of rest after the turbulence of a life of struggle, or does it threaten a loss of autonomy after a life of privacy and independence? What of sovereignty now when “I am your dotage, your vulnerable/ season”?
More than a portrait, fascinating and intimate as it is, of a public man; more than an exploration of the writing of the man for clues about what he might be thinking (and an acceptance of the ultimate mystery and unknowability of the intimate other), this is a suite of poems about the miracle of love, and how it may come at any time.
What people are saying
“Time, too, is playing its peculiar game,” observes Esther Phillips in her new collection, Leaving Atlantis. These intimate poems—made so by their constant address to a “you”—engage with the complexity of time’s work on the body and the mind, through the lens of a relationship defined as much by the shared life made between two people as by their necessary embrace of where their beliefs and essential selves diverge. With a sequence of poems, memorable for their striking metaphors (“this chorus of crickets/holding no grudge against the day’s dying”) as for their unsparing directness, Leaving Atlantis confronts the truths and paradoxes of politics, faith, loss, and—yes—love.
In her extraordinary collection of poems, Leaving Atlantis, Esther Phillips writes quiet and powerful poems of love and care; of anguish and contradiction; of the complexities of human relationships. It’s through the poet’s eyes and her sensibilities that we get fleeting glimpses of how a love can become fraught and turbulent sometimes with a moving logic of its own before resting and finding different ways of expression. Esther Phillips has fashioned words and emotions through which we may inhabit moments rarely seen in Caribbean Literature. Her gift is immense.
—Anthony Bogues, Asa Messer Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory, Brown University.
Leaving Atlantis traces the arc of a relationship, from the elated recognition of love to the puzzling onset of disconnection, and the suggestion that one never really leaves or disconnects. With characteristically quiet, subtle craft, Esther Phillips’ poems sound depths of feeling and stimulate thought about essential, complex issues like the relationship between reason and belief, body and spirit, and the secular and the religious. Leaving Atlantis makes a memorable contribution to Caribbean literature.