Caribbean Passion

Written by Erika J. Waters for The Caribbean Writer on

Opal Palmer Adisa's muse has always been Jamaica, whether it's the island of her youth, serenely recollected in ""Childhood Landscapes"" or the island today, where ""the smell of the sea / blends with fear,"" as she admits in ""Sky Juice"" (82). In her three previous volumes of poetry, two novels, and short story collections, she's always passionate about her homeland, about the women and men who shaped her life there, about her own sexuality, and, in particular, about Jamaican women. 

""What I want to do in my writing,"" she told Kwame Dawes in Talk Yuh Talk, ""is to expose the womanness of myself and the Caribbean women I've always known"" (187). In her latest poetry collection, aptly titled Caribbean Passion, Adisa accomplishes this and more. Short emphatic lines energize her poems, no matter the narrative voice. In ""Moda Young Gal,"" for example, originally published in The Caribbean Writer, Adisa writes as a grandmother, proud and unapologetic about her sexuality:

me will tek all de
tongue waggin
fi wake in de arms
of a young man
and have him plant
sorrel kisses pan me (77)

Adisa becomes the voice of a maroon in ""Run Away Bay"" and paints a disturbingly realistic portrait of the woman: ""me soles caked in yolk / lime juice rubbed / into me armpits"" (15). In ""Spanish Town"" she is the voice of a feisty market woman (""me see and know it all""), so irritated at the goings-on around her that when she hollers at a young girl: ""move out de way! / an mind de crazy motorists / knock yu down"" (99) her fury practically bounces off the page.

These are dramatic monologues, written to be performed, and Adisa is a performance poet of the first rank. When she reads ""Boat People"" dedicated to the people of Haiti who ""survive the sea"" she sings out the refrain to Damballa so loud and clear that the god himself must surely hear her. One can imagine her acting the voice of the market woman or the sexy, uninhibited grandmother mentioned earlier.

However, from my perspective, the poems written in her own voice and from her own experience are the most striking. She analyzes a nearly taboo subject in ""Bumbu Clat,"" and in 'Banda,"" her lines move around the page to mimic the rhythm of the graveyard dance with all its breathless energy:

we dance
calling life
waving to death
decay and fertility (80-81)

In ""Head in Idea,"" her homage to the revered poet Kamau Brathwaite, her affection and admiration are heartfelt, and she reveals much about herself, as speaker, and Brathwaite, as subject:

so me steady watchin him
me steady listen to wha him seh
me steady learning him words
because me wan dat man
walkin wid him head
enshrined in ideas
fi know me well groovin on what him seh
me long time now a rub-a-dub
mellowin on him words
me long time a romance him
poet of de people (97-98)

What really sets Adisa apart from other Caribbean women writing today are those poems which she writes not only in her own voice, but also as a woman, possibly herself, a woman who thrives on her own sexuality and erotic nature. She is bold and candid in her subject matter -- Who else would write a poem entitled ""Bumbo Clat""? -- which inventively pairs botanic and erotic imagery. In ""Bamboo Fingers"" she reveals:

your fingers
are like slender
bamboo vines
polished to perfection
they search out
my secret places. . ."" (38)

and in ""Coconut Man,"" she nearly sighs, ""my tongue hungers to / trace the length of your coconut trunk"" (39). In ""Naseberry,"" she tells us, 

My tongue
traces your inner thigh
spilling naseberry
everywhere.. .
your maddening sweetness
impels me
as I bite and nibble"" (4.1)

and in ""Oleander,"" we read of her lover's ""guava voice"" (36).

The poet here is unambiguous in her depiction of longing, fulfillment, and sexual excitement and implicitly compares the poetic persona of the Jamaican Woman in all her intensity and incarnations with Jamaica itself, for the island's intrinsic natural beauty remains constant despite the passage of time and the events of politics and history. These skillful poems seem to be the core of the book, the passion identified in the title.

Indeed, the cover of the book prepares us for what's inside: a topless woman stands on a beach, arms crossed over her head, enjoying the crashing waves at her feet. This woman, with her strong back to the reader, is an important symbol of the poetry within, of the passion and strength of the author and of her unwavering promise to be true and honest, both to her homeland and to herself. She acknowledges how Jamaica shaped her: ""who I am / is no surprise / to those who rubbed / love in my limbs"" (53) and she promises us that she won't moderate who she is: ""i came / and will keep on coming / glancing around corners / making sure / I'm still the self / i have been shaping / still the self I I'm trying to know"" (58).

Erika J. Waters South Freeport, Maine