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Birthright

Written by Cyril Dabydeen for World Literature Today on no date provided

Kendel Hippolyte, the St. Lucian-born poet, was educated in Jamaica in the seventies and was exposed to the radical politics of that country’s turmoil during that period; its influences can be seen in this collection. Hippolyte has been writing for some time, but with little exposure outside the Caribbean, save for a few small magazines such as Wasafiri (U.K.) and a few anthologies. The poet’s inclination in the present collection is somewhat reminiscent of Kamau Brathwaite, perhaps with a similar kind of verve though not with the same historical and esthetic reach; definitely he is far from the Walcott school embodied e.g. by Anthony Kellman in The Long Gap (see the Barbados subsection above).

Hippolyte’s political-cum-social consciousness informs the rhythm, cadence, and diction in most of these poems; and maybe the book is unique among Peepal Tree’s recent publications, for Hippolyte is a writer who fully engages in the ‘struggle’ - as I heard Earl Lovelace suggest at the University of Miami over a year ago as what drives the Caribbean writer (Hippolyte and Lovelace are somewhat ideologically bonded). The ‘struggle’ becomes the imperative behind many of these poems; it is perhaps, too, reason for their instances of diminished effect: for some of the early poems are too stark, the poet trying too hard to be apocalyptic, and therefore disengage the reader from truly personal and felt experience. Framed in contexts of oppression and the sense of black identity (so far so good), it is the execution in poems such as ‘A Village Guide (If You Must Return),’ ‘Birthright,’ ‘Mammon,’ and others where the images appear too dramatic, demonstrating sheer angst. Does all this stem from what the back-cover blurb states, that these are poems of marginalization of Hippolyte’s island by the international money markets?
In Birthright, however, other poems have genuine esthetic energy and appeal, achieving a counterbalancing effect in, for example, ‘Bridge,’ ‘Stone,’ or ‘Fascioners of Progress’ where the sense of ‘marginalization’ is captured but not overplayed. In ‘All This Is Language,’ ‘Points,’ and ‘Poems’ the intuitive intelligence is at work without the consciousness and vision being overwhelmed by a jeremiad inclination toward prophecy and doom. And there is genuinely tender appeal in poems such as ‘Visions of Us,’ ‘Mister Kent,’ and ‘Brother Bone.’ ‘Cave’ shows a delightful colloquial vigor, but the two strongest poems in the book are ‘Jah-Son/Another Way’ and ‘Bearings,’ where Hippolyte combines his poetic gifts with Rastafarian pulsebeats and dialectal rhythms as political and cultural insights come together - all essentially Caribbean - to make Birthright an achievement, as the reader seeks the ‘epiphany / it vanishes.’ Still, ‘in the dark, a poem / like a mermaid singing / comes to guide me’ (‘Bearings’).

This is a review of Birthright

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