A merchant of feathers sells soft things in hard times, as we learn in these new poems from Jamaican Tanya Shirley. From one of the poetic voices highlighted by Kei Miller in his far-sighted 2007 New Caribbean Poetry anthology, here is a lyrical communion of delicacy and barbarity that sings a tempestuous song of contemporary Caribbean society. Shirley’s musings are both redemptive and reflective: life is its own long, uneven song, as the messages within her verses proclaim. Her sophomore collection, The Merchant of Feathers sets its wonderings to the major and minor keys of both a ribald and rebellious life, savouring notes of feminist ire that rage against homophobia, child abuse, and the devastated dreams of little girls — in Jamaica and the wide world beyond.
Shirley’s first book, 2009’s She Who Sleeps With Bones, revelled in the declarative weight of confident and unbridled female sensuality. Her new book straddles this confidence, deepening it to examine the fractures, landmines, and personal faults through which women wade, to come to the amplitude of their sensual, emotional selves. The narrator of “Message in a Dream” is told of this transformative power by a soothsayer, who presents the woman’s fierce majesty to her: “Lightning rises out of my palms, hits the water and the waves spit fire. ‘You are too passionate,’ she whispers. ‘You will kill things along the way.’”
So many of these poems are alchemical, addressing Jamaican corruption and misogyny with wit, and a sharpness of tongue that makes slur-touting dancehall deejays cringe. The world as Shirley sees it is layered in complications. Amid these, The Merchant of Feathers strives to limn fissures with sweetness, to caulk apathy with wonder, so you go to your eventual coffin well-lived, well-loved, and perhaps even a little mischievous about the entire circus that brought you there.