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Birthright

Written by Kwame Dawes for Poetry London Review on no date provided

KENDEL HIPPOLYTE HAS LIVED and worked in the Caribbean for most of his life. He has published, but his work has appeared only in what are essentially self-publications, modest chapbooks filled with rich and complex poetry, but local work that has not had any critical attention beyond the confines of the Caribbean… 

Hippolyte, in his first major publication, takes us on a journey into the St. Lucian landscape in a manner that has not been done since Derek Walcott published not Omeros, but Another Life. Walcott’s sense of St. Lucia in the better-known Omeros is clearly one of distance, the vision of a tourist-like returnee trying to contend with the myths of his past but failing, somehow able only to allow the explosion of language and the genius of literary allusion to lift the work from the pathos that undergirds it. But it is Another Life that tries to truly connect with St. Lucia and that succeeds in introducing us to that landscape as seen by the boy-artist, the brilliant prodigy of a child. Hippolyte echoes and updates Walcott. The St. Lucia he pictures is not sheathed in the myths of antiquity that are donned in Walcott’s Omeros like the cheap upholstery of tourist hotel furniture. Hippolyte’s world is real, there are drugs, prostitutes, there is the abject decay of a city; Castries is a symbol of loss and change. This does not mean that Hippolyte’s poems are polemics, efforts to assert a sense of the loss of a society through didactic explication, for Hippolyte is nothing if not a remarkable lyricist. His verse sings with a poetic inventiveness that is both extraordinarily controlled and ordered.

Hippolyte’s collection is a large one. There are some one hundred and fifty pages of verse that dates back to the seventies when Hippolyte lived and studied in Jamaica and became influenced by reggae music and poets like Kamau Brathwaite. Much of this early work is predictably didactic and at times the youthfulness of that period is painfully revealed in the pieces that fall into that category. What is somewhat disconcerting about the way the collection is organized is that the order of the poems does not follow any chronology of composition. It is disturbing because the reader of selected collections may have the tendency to treat the movement of the poetic imagination as one that reflects the maturing of the poet himself. Perhaps there are some poets who can get away with that arrangement: such poets tend to produce selected works after a rather short period of writing. The work collected is very similar in style and substance and it is possible to conceive of the work belonging to a singular movement, a singular moment of creating. This does not quite work with Hippolyte’s collection and one wonders whether greater discrimination in the selection process would not have offered us a stronger introduction to his work.

Lamenting this problem, however, tends to mislead the reader, for there are a significant number of poems in the collection that are quite simply brilliant poetic expressions. Hippolyte manages to dance through evocative reggae allusions, the stylings of Calypso, the staccato punning of Brathwaite and lyrical sprawl of Walcott. It is clear that Hippolyte’s social consciousness is subordinated to his fascination with words, with the poetics of language, and so in the end we are left with a sense of having taken a journey with a poet who loves the musicality of his words. His more overtly craft conscious neo-formalist pieces are deft, efficient and never strained. Villanelles, sonnets and interesting rhyming verse show his discipline and the quiet concentration of a poet who does not write for the rat race of the publishing world, but for himself. One gets the sense of a writer working in a laboratory patiently, waiting for the right image to come, and then placing it there only when it comes. This calm, this devotion is enviable for frenetic writers like myself who act as if there is a death wish on our heads or a promise of early passing. Our poetry, one suspects, suffers. Hippolyte shows no such anxiety and the result is verse of remarkable grace and beauty.

…Ultimately, these two collections suggest that there is a certain wealth of writing emerging from the West Indies. The voices are increasingly assured and the visions are more confident and more clearly realized. It is true that if a gathering of the poets of the West Indies was to be organized in Jamaica, for example, the majority of them would have arrived from outside the West Indies. There are certain advantages to what seems to be a largely unfortunate reality. It means that the writers are allowing themselves to feed off the work of other traditions and are challenging themselves by working with writers from other parts of the world. This can only enhance the writing, focus the sense of identity and evolve a more realized sense of tradition in West Indian writing.

This is a review of Birthright

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