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The Chase

Written by Laurence A. Breiner for CRNLE Reviews on no date provided

Peepal Tree Press, under Jeremy Poynting’s direction, is at the moment the most important press for the dissemination of West Indian poetry. The mere commitment to poetry is impressive enough these days, but the range of Peepal Tree’s catalogue is impressive in its own right. The press has for example made a unique and commendable effort to bring forward poetry by West Indians of East Indian heritage. In recent years it has published at least half a dozen collections worthy of attention: Sasenarine Persaud’s Demerara Telepathy, Rupert Roopnaraine’s Suite for Supriya, Mahadai Das’s Bones, Cyril Dabydeen’s Islands Lovelier than a Vision, and Rooplall Monar’s Koker. These poets are quite unlike one another in many respects, yet as a group they make it possible to think meaningfully about the lineaments of a distinctively Indo-Caribbean aesthetic. Peepal’s vigorous promotion of young writers has by no means been at the expense of established authors, or of a group too often forgotten, writers familiar from anthologies and periodicals who have not previously published in book form (Ralph Thompson, Earl McKenzie).

Amid this plenty, I will here focus on some books most likely to be of immediate interest to the general reader, a handful of volumes of ‘collected poems’ by older poets. Though Roach and Figueroa belong to the same generation, they cut very different figures. Born in Tobago, Roach never went further afield than Trinidad; he remains the preeminent poet of Caribbean earth and of the people who flourish there despite harsh climate and harsher history. By contrast, the Jamaican Figueroa has worked abroad and travelled widely, but has always regarded himself as Antillian, writing as the urbane poet of a creole Caribbean. The other two poets, born in the mid-Thirties, come from the generation of emigrants, and both have long lived outside the Caribbean, Slade Hopkinson in Canada, Milton Williams in Britain.

In ‘Birthday Poem’, John Figueroa provides us with a rueful self-description: ‘Fifty years of not quite / Gaining anything / (But weight / regularly).’ Hardly an accurate picture, as this generous and rewarding collection of more than 80 poems demonstrates. Figueroa has always taken the broadest possible view of Caribbean culture, its resources and its potential. His poems often rhyme and are sometimes sonnets; he likes to write about architecture and ‘line’, and many of his poems are interesting for their expressive structural patterns. He translates, imitates, and quotes poets working in French, Spanish, and Latin as well as English, and has a special attachment to Valery, Lorca, and Horace. Yet he is always entirely, unmistakably, a poet of the Caribbean. Indeed, he actually writes in creole more frequently than the other three poets under review here. He makes deft use of the various registers of West Indian speech in poems like ‘Epitaph’ and the well-known ‘Portrait of a Woman (and a Man)’; the delightful ‘Problems of a Writer Who Does Not Quite...’, in which he ironically scolds Walcott for displeasing a Eurocentric critic, is written in very tasty Jamaican patois:

Mek I advise yu boy
If yu trouble white people toy
Especially as yu win big prize an ting
Yu arse goin swing.

Beyond the humour and the sharp satire there are poems of faith, of nature, of politics, and some particularly fine elegies. The long breath - the syntactical ‘line - of Figueroa’s most serious poems makes them difficult to sample; the sentences will arc over several stanzas. A few lines from ‘Love Leaps Here...’ will at least give a sense of that line, and of the poet’s profound engagement with his island’s life and landscape:

Aphrodite has leapt out of foaming sea
But now over the hills
Like cloudless white showers
Silent at first, drumming after
Love seizes and batters;
It is from dry earth
Touched with the white shower
That Venus surges up
Possessing the land like Spring.

The final gesture of this collection is equally eloquent in its way. The poem ‘Goodbye... Despedida’ derives from the European tradition, from Lorca; yet it is full of the sea and specifically Caribbean nature, and Figueroa takes the opportunity to strike another blow for his culture. Notoriously, English has no rhyme for ‘orange’; Figueroa here nonchalantly provides a rhyme of ‘oranges’ with ‘arranges’ - entirely plausible without distortion if the language you are writing in is Jamaican. Point and match to the wily creole.

This is a review of The Chase

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