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Crown Point

Written by Evelyn O’Callaghan for n/a on no date provided

Reading through these two collections by Velma Pollard is to encounter an acutely sensitive consciousness grappling, even in apparently lighter moments, with the complexity of experience. Very much the ‘considering woman’, Crown Point (and other places which evoke poems of reflection and memory) tackles history and politics, race, urban alienation, death, the relationship between individual and composite group - and this only scratches the surface! If all this suggests a serious tone, it is intentional. There are lyrical moments of celebration: ‘Hope’, ‘Bird Kiss’, ‘From Senior’s at Gordon Town’, ‘Deja Vue’, ‘Ernie’. Yet in the pleasure of epiphany is awareness of its inevitable passing (‘Bud/Unbudded’).

There are also occasions of humour, residing chiefly in Pollard’s casual manipulation of language registers:

how ABLE - y
Anansa weaves
the only web she knows

Anyone familiar with the author’s scholarly work on Rastafarian creole will recognize the semantic significance, the duality of the above extract, as well as lines such as ‘the geolog unstraps his EYE and clicks’ (‘Belize Suite III’); or ‘Peace be unto you/my friend and brother/for I-ver’ (‘Two for Neville’).

The topography of Crown Point moves from the rural childhood eden of ‘Rainthoughts’ to the ‘tractless city/ withering the young/old people festering in the slums’ (‘Kingston’) to the North American metropolis where word-pictures of innocence corrupted, life meaningless and alone and afraid (‘Remembering Washington DC, Los Angeles’) complement similar prose evocations (‘My Sisters, My Mother’) in Considering Woman. Other foreign landscapes - ‘Belize Suite’, ‘Impressions - Havana 1979’, or the telling incomplete ‘Bimsh’ (for ‘Bimshire’, Barbados’s familiar name) - call on the poet to articulate their uniqueness and, through personal response, their similarities (‘in old Havana/little blacks/our old men toothless/smiling solidarity...’ ‘Verdad’) and unsettling differences from home (‘shocked to silence by the stillness here...’ ‘Belize Suite’). Sensuous appreciation moves fluidly through emotional and, finally, into intellectual response.
Pollard’s pervasive thoughtfulness informs the poetry, and refuses easy conclusions. ‘Why,’ asks the persona in ‘Foreign’, ‘am I scared by screens/not moved/like everybody clapping?’ at public displays of solidarity. Because, she reasons, ‘these screens are children/ ...the screen is children nowhere is a child’ emotional reaction is interrogated; dangerous logic (lumping individuals into ‘Composites’) is exposed. In ‘BM Revisited’, distress at viewing museum statuary with ‘their erstwhile heads/displaced where the imperial/master minds insist’ becomes an effective conceit for empire’s fragments (‘in marble as in men’) as one foundation of creole cultures.

Sometimes, the ‘considering’ leads to ambivalence, even contradiction: in ‘Sunday Thoughts’, the poet yearns for apocalyptic purgation, hoping that ‘destruction with its blessed cleansing/ will call our country/ to a baptism’; yet witnessing hurricane-ravaged Dominica in ‘Roseau, August ‘79’ she ‘rejoice[s] in my city’ with all its ‘dirt and sin’. Equally, the poetic voice switches moods and modes: strident demand for an end to political genocide (‘National Heroes 1980’); riddling parables like (my favourite) ‘Fly’; deeply felt elegy, as in ‘Remembering’, ‘Two for Neville’ and ‘Our Mother’:

Orange and red for our mother
who sang us bright songs...
jiggling from side to side pointing
her index fingers
>doing the Bustamante
the K-walk (‘Cake’ they correct me now)
and tuned (perhaps an octave high)
that ‘you can’t hinder me
from loving you...’

Crown Point opens and closes with memories of Gran, who reappears in the collection of stories. The grandmother in the title poem, ‘Crown Point’, is associated with ‘the round green world of penny-royal smells/... And Khus-Khus from the cupboard’, with an ordered, peaceful past which now ‘the clutter of my life/obscures’. Unable to face the loss of her world, the poet in ‘To Gran - and no Farewell’ puts off the ritual graveside adieu too long; when at last the visit is made, ‘some well intentioned/madman with his spade’ has levelled Gran’s headstone, with the others, into ‘one vast sepulchraic mass’.

So ‘Gran’ (the final story in Considering Woman) is resurrected in memory so that the art can stand as a lasting memorial. Nostalgic reminiscence (‘when we were little, remember, the world was full of pastures’) cuts to jarring realization of loss: all that is left of Gran’s home is the old oven-house occupied by vacuous old beggar-women living with filth and flies. Significantly, the pain of the contrast - decay and dirt where memory had known ‘lush landscape, healthy fruit and Gran in all different faces’ - forces the realization that the past ‘would wear a halo now’ in comparison with ‘those old women and their vomit-pulling filth’. Almost incidentally, the question is posed of how to see the past ‘with any honesty or truth’. Despite the immediacy of the emotion, the complexities of consciousness provide a crucial subtext in the story.

The main part of Gran is divided into sections prefaced by and, in content and mood, corresponding to snatches of a Jamaican call and response game (‘Children, children/ Yes, Mummah’). For the privileged grandchildren who spend time with her in the country, Gran is ageless, soft, smelling of good things to eat (‘What did she give you?/Bread and pear’). Like Olive Senior’s matriarchs in Summer Lightning, Gran is also on intimate terms with God (‘Where is my share?/ Up in the air!’) and enforces an unbending morality. Also similar to Senior’s tales is the contrast between Gran’s church, the black Baptist congregation singing lustily with their ‘sunshine of good-will’, and the ‘soft’ Anglican church with its quiet ritual and white ‘Father’, associated with parents and home. In the child/ narrator’s ‘scheme of things, the Baptist mode definitely had the edge.’

As Gran ages, however, the balance of dependency and power shifts. Now it is she who engages in childlike ploys for attention from those beloved grandchildren, who are torn between sadness, guilt, pity, irritation, duty and self-interest. This is one of the most honest and moving accounts of growing old that I have encountered - most readers will share the narrator’s mixed emotions. It is also an account of how Gran’s community - for the story introduces a whole cast of characters - has changed: ‘The mill-yard had bustled with people, had bustled with business once, but that, too, had sunk, like Gran, into a deep and endless coma.’ With Gran’s death, a way of life ceases to exist outside memory’s ‘stretch’.

The collection of stories ‘considers’ woman’s lot with the same ‘merciless eye’ of honest insight. Two wonderfully dry, witty and ironic poems serve as epigraphs and point up the obstacles a woman (writer) faces from the ‘little man’ in her life. Here is ‘Women Poets (with your permission)’:

the little man
too early home today
surprised me scribbling 
while the washer turned
ahaa... I see you
take your little write
well let me see your book... 
mhmm... mhmm... not bad not bad
a little comma here
a period there that sentence can
make sense... 

your friend there scribbling too
and Genie down the road
well well how nice
how triply nice
not mad not mad'

Two impulses - the male’s magnanimity in giving his stamp of approval (‘how nice’) to female appropriation of her ‘little write’/right to write, and her almost guilty secreting of this ‘write’ - inform the second poem, appropriately entitled ‘Version...’. Worth noting is the seamless fusion of (parodied) Biblical idiom and Jamaican creole, effecting delicious puns as in ‘no Adam nothing, nothing Man.’ However much the woman (writer) pleads to be ‘free/and gender-/less’ the appeal to male authority underscores her alterity. It is this trap that becomes the focus of the stories which follow.

In a series of three ‘Parables’ which utilize a relaxed creole vernacular narrative and appeal directly to the reader - ‘You know that I can’t swim’ - Pollard deals with the cages in which women find themselves. The poem ‘Fly’ in Crown Point utilizes the same surreal strategy to evoke the same type of situation. ‘Parable I’ heads to a tongue-in-cheek conclusion - as I read it (for the beauty of the form is its open-endedness) - that women who insist, after all this time of being ‘sat upon’, on getting up and moving in their own directions, can only be blamed for the violence of male reaction: witness the man’s reproach to his wife’s severed head, tucked under his arm, ‘Look what you mek me do!’ ‘Parable II’ suggests the maddening contradictions of the maternal role, particularly in the case of the boy-child who must be carefully protected and then let go absolutely. ‘Parable III’, more obscure in its blending of the realistic and the bizarre, appears to endorse a philosophical attitude to female lack of power: ‘For if the hand come, it gwine catch you no matter what you do. And if it don’t then you don’t have no worries.’ These metaphorical pieces are most striking in the novelty of form and the disturbing insights provoked. One hopes for more in this vein.

Other ‘Cages’ follow in the next section and we are on the familiar territory of ‘After Cages’ and ‘Hindsight II’ in Crown Point: women’s lack of power and ‘space enough’ in their relationships with men. Narrative here is more mannered, carefully highlighting the (middle-class?) double standards that reduce Joan/Jean/Joy to flies in the web of patriarchal arrangements. The gulfs between individuals caught in a marriage (‘Cages I’) or an ‘outside’ liaison (‘Cages III’) are communicated through stilted dialogue, the most notable feature of which is the failure to communicate.
For the woman, the nuclear household is a platonic cave with only reflected light from outside illuminating the ‘warned loneliness’ of ‘the children and the washing and the cooking’; for the man, it is a suffocating trap which he escapes through work and ‘screwing around’. Joan accepts; Jean leaves (‘She founds another man!’); Joy keeps the cage door open even as she settles in. As in the epigraphic poems, the women accommodate their male partners out of insecurity and dependence, at the same time coming to the conclusion, with the reader, that ‘this generation of men and women can’t make it.’ There is little joy in these short, tight scenes from a marriage.

‘Tales of Mothering’ which follow, treat of mother/child relations, some of which go badly wrong as women seek to escape their cages. The surrogate mother in ‘Sister II’ silently asks ‘what parents, religious custom, what harsh rule’ could tie a young girl to an ‘educated stud’ in a loveless marriage. As she commiserates with the angry husband, she internally applauds the young wife’s escape from a sterile union. ‘Sister I’ moves from a horrifying vignette - ‘Swift through the air, cutting the nothing like white light a flash of packaged debris - one, two, three - in arcs from a balcony on the high apartment building’: a woman and her two young daughters ‘broken on the pavement’ - to the reactions of her ‘sisters’, who knew her married loneliness (‘The husband is a dresser/ Dress sharp every morning and gone,’) but cared too late to help.

The cold city of ‘Sister I’ is also the setting for part of the superbly crafted story, ‘My Mother’. Here, among uncaring crowds, a West Indian mother works to send money and barrels of second-hand clothes home to her daughter. The child cannot comprehend the sacrifice, even when her mother’s body is brought home for burial (and the graveside commentary is absolutely authentic, by the way). Only later, a grown woman distressed by ‘the frightened faces’ of black women in New York as they hurry to work - recalling, in details, ‘Bitterland’ from Crown Point - does the narrator weep for her mother, ‘for the peace at Anne’s Ridge that she never came back to, after the constant madness.’ Now the daughter gratefully pays tribute. As do these stories - a bittersweet tribute to Caribbean women, then and now, from one of their own. It has become a cliché to welcome another distinctive voice to the ‘canon’ of West Indian women’s literature; for Velma Pollard, however, the welcome is sincere.

This is a review of Crown Point

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