Caribbean Passion

Written by Geoffrey Philp for on

In many poetry collections of the past decade, the overwhelming mood in these books has been a languid despair bordering on nihilistic obsession. Opal Palmer Adisa’s, Caribbean Passion, defies this trend. Indeed, the emotion that shapes every syllable in this collection is a fervent love that celebrates its expansiveness. Adisa explains in a recent essay, 'Saturated in Guava Jam': ""I was born into love, was fed it from my mother’s breasts, cut my first tooth on it, took my first step, stumbled, then got up and walked right into the arms of love... Love was abundant and always available... I count myself fortunate because always present was the virile love, this sticky guava-jam-love that you craved but only ate in small dosage, regularly, because it was so sweet and thick."" Throughout the four movements of Caribbean Passion: Mento (pages 1-24), Ska (pages 25-48), Reggae (pages 49-77) and Dancehall (78-103) what emerges is a portrait of a woman and poet who is unabashedly erotic and boldly passionate about her home, life, and culture. And at a time when some Caribbean poets, artists, and intellectuals may be tempted to turn away from the Caribbean and its landscape as a proper subject of artistic or intellectual meditation, Adisa's poems pull our attention back to where it rightly belongs: our homelands in this archipelago of islands.

In the first section, Mento, the speakers merge with the landscape of Jamaica and the Antilles. Whether it is through an Arawak, a grieving mother or abandoned lover, the personae redeem the land in their own voices. In this regard, Adisa performs an important function a poet -- what the scholar Joseph Campbell in Transformations of Myth Through Time calls 'land naming' which consists in 'sanctifying the land by recognizing, in the features of the local landscape, mythological images' (29). Given the history of the Caribbean that we have been taught to despise and regard with abhorrence, the loving gaze that Adisa casts on these islands reveals the redemptive power of her art as she restores meaning and value to our collective histories. For example, in the poem 'Indigenous' the speaker returns the original name to each Caribbean island, and having completed the task, the islands respond gratefully with an emphatic cry -- 'this is my name/this is my name' (14).

Similarly in the Ska section, Adisa redeems fruits such as ackee, star-apple, and even the lowly stinking toe. Yet it is also this section that contains the most openly erotic poems such as 'Bamboo Fingers' and 'Naseberry': 'and when my fingers/ press your pungent brown skin/ your juices stain me/ oh to be smeared/with such fruit' (41). It is also to be noted that Adisa is an excellent performance poet, and a poem, such as 'Coconut Man', will lend itself easily to her dynamic presence and verbal agility: 'my tongue hungers to/ trace the length of your/ coconut trunk... where I'll savor/ the coconut water quench/ of your mouth/ juice trickling' (39).

The Reggae section is a bit more somber. It may be said that the collection moves from indigenous innocence to a mature appreciation of Caribbean history and landscape, and from that stance offers hope. This is not to say that Adisa portrays a Panglossian paradise. On the contrary, she confronts issues such as sexual abuse in 'Lime' and 'Asham', and one of the most inflammatory words in the Jamaican vocabulary, 'Bumbu Clat': 'as a derivative/ bomba means to be wet or soaked/ in lingala/ bomba connotes hiding' (78). She also pays homage to her mother, her grandmother, and the Jamaican heroine, Nannie. She ends the section with the bodacious, 'Moda Young Gal': 'because me wear low cut blouse/ that accentuate me plump breasts/ tight pants that hug me/ sapadillo arse/ and stroll down the street/ sporting me poui cap/ dem she ah don’t dress me age' (75).

Finally, Dancehall erupts into a celebration of Caribbean culture in poems such as 'Sky Juice', 'Boat People', and 'Fi Mi People'. Dancehall contains the most optimistic poems that are grounded in the physicality of the Caribbean. Adisa further explains in 'Saturated': ""these poems attempt to translate and share the raw passion, that in my mind, characterizes all types of relationships in the Caribbean. We are not a dispassionate people. The very nature of how we relate to each other, our attachments, braided like a bougainvillea trestle; how we respond to oppressions, our fanaticism, bleating like a cutlass blade hitting against stone; how we celebrate our lives, our fervor, pungent as 100% proof rum with coconut water; how we interact with the environment and our ancestral memory, our ardor, spicy like curried goat and rice and peas; all of who we are is informed and characterized by our zeal."" Part of the faith comes from inspirational figures such as the elder Caribbean poet/genius, Kamau Brathwaite, to whom she livicates the poem, 'Head in Idea': 'is how him come/de poet a we heart/ dat sweet man/ who speak/ like him know fah true/ dat him words/ is de handkerchief/we been seekin fi wipe/ de tears from we eye' (96).

Caribbean Passion is rooted on the ideals and ardor emanating from the arc of islands that encircles our hearts. The collection confronts when necessary, the disturbing parts of our culture, but on the whole it is celebratory and does not fall into patriotic didacticism devoid of poetic crafts-womanship. These are poems from a poet who has mastered her discipline. Through the personae in these poems, whether it is an Arawak, higgler or sensual grandmother, Adisa’s poems never fail to surprise the reader with her originality and sparkling wit. Adisa teases, coaxes, and plays with language and we need it. For it is easy to give into the despair that has befallen Jamaica and the entire region: ""It is out of this love, and the need to stay connected and to remember that despite how things are going now in that island home of mine, that underneath all the turmoil, despite all the killings, underneath the rapid, continuous de-valuation of the Jamaican dollar and the escalation of drugs into the society, there is the enduring love, strong and durable as our national tree, the lignum vitae, and that it will surface again, bob and float on the waves until it is washed ashore to quench and color the landscape and the people again"" (Saturated). Adisa’s poems offer a necessary corrective to the negative circumstances, so that once again we can stand in love with our islands, peoples and landscapes. I can hardly wait for her next performance.