- Home of the Best in Caribbean & Black British Writing -

Against Linearity

Written by Patricia Harkins for The Caribbean Writer on Thursday, October 22, 2015

The title poem of Earl McKenzie’s new book, Against Linearity, begins with this brief stanza about the people of Jamaica: 'We reject the straight line.' In a later stanza readers learn why he and his fellow Jamaicans 'fear the straight line' - 'for it is rigid as death.' The poems in this slender volume by the University of the West Indies philosophy professor vividly describe how the Jamaican people 'bend' straight lines 'into trees and rivers / into the crookedness of life.'

McKenzie’s poems do not portray life’s intricate 'web' as necessarily beautiful or beneficent. In one of his most haunting poems, 'Noon and Midnight', the poet shows us how the circular pattern of life may include, on one hand, a Jamaican school girl with a pretty red hibiscus in her hair and, on the other hand, a taxi driver who 'laughs / as he runs over a dog in Jamaica.' Life flows and curves in cyclical poems about roseapple and trumpet trees, 'the blue stones of my rivers,' 'the cones, circles and ovals' of coconuts that hold within them the 'nectar water… liquid life.' But even on a 'good day' when the narrator is breathing the 'cool and mystic air' among the 'coffee blossoms in the Blue Mountains' of Jamaica, readers are soon reminded that tomorrow the blossoms will fade.

McKenzie’s parallel vision of the deadly, cold power of the straight line is strongest in his references to Jamaica’s past and present history. Long ago 'the bloody blades' of marauding pirates and slavers victimized their fellow men. Now 'the hard and unfriendly bodies' of unbending strangers crowding city streets seem just as deadly to the poet. One of his most vivid symbols of the straight line occurs in a poem titled 'Three Stares', in which uncomprehending, innocent animals are tied to rigid bicycle bars as they are hauled to slaughter along 'sharp edges' of stone-paved roads.
Although the poet writes about Jamaica in Against Linearity, it is clear that his message is universal. The straight-lined, rigid 'fence posts' and 'cattle pens' that symbolize how politics can hold people in bondage there, for example, work symbolically to describe the dangers of political power elsewhere.

Earl McKenzie’s poems are didactic without being pedantic or dull. His overall concepts of life and death are neither original nor surprising but the particular images from nature that inform his work, along with his keen insight into human hearts, make Against Linearity a book to cherish.

This is a review of Against Linearity

View this book
- Home of the Best in Caribbean & Black British Writing -