Curry Flavour

Written by Geoffrey Philp for Caribbean Writer on

It’s not very often that a debut collection of poems can entertain, instruct and enlighten, yet Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s Curry Flavour does this with confidence and wit. Manoo-Rahming extends the Indo-Caribbean presence in Caribbean literature and introduces the concept of the Caribbean as a generative life-giving force through a creative re-working of the Goddess archetype in her various incarnations as Lakshmee Maataa, Durga, and Maha Kaali. The poems, as the jacket explains, ‘express a New World, pan-Caribbean consciousness which is rooted in a womanist revisioning of her Indian ancestral heritage and a childhood spent on the sugar-growing Caroni plain of Trinidad.’

Perhaps the most striking feature of Curry Flavour is the celebration of sexuality. Poems such as ‘Come Dine With Me’, ‘Come Dream With Me,’ and, of course, ‘Curry Flavour’ exude an eroticism untainted by the puritanical strictures of Western thought that too often regard sex as a necessary evil. Manoo-Rahming delights in the sheer pleasure of sensuality and records an encounter with a lover, ‘You said it was the scent / of roasted geera in my hair / pungency of onion tearing at my eyes... that made you cry in your coming / for your mama’s curry’ (81). In other poems, ‘A Little Loving’, ‘Callaloo Woman,’ and Eve of Creation,’ woman is venerated in all her beauty and power.
Manoo-Rahming also sets herself the audacious task of remembering ancestors whose voices were lost in the transatlantic crossing. In ‘Ode to my Unknown Great-Great Grand Mother’ she begins with the seemingly impossible task, ‘I heard you were the first / to belong nowhere,’ but with a series of carefully chosen details and controlled acts of land naming she reverses the flow of forgetfulness and states, ‘My ashes are the last to belong somewhere’ (13). The ancestral voices hum through her poems and the paradox of time through the experience of incarnation and the fecundity of the nexus between the human and the divine is captured in ‘Incarnation on the Caroni’: ‘Your lifeforce curls upward, like wood-smoke; then, like a rainy drizzle, fall upon me / caressing my full breasts, my round belly / and enters my womb / implanting new life’ (11).

But there is also a great deal of sadness in these poems that are witness to incest, infertility and the pain of abandonment. Most notably in ‘Leaf-of-Life Hands’ her agony is conveyed through series of metaphors that are uniquely Caribbean: ‘Where were you, Mama? / Where were your leaf-of-life juice hands? / Your lemon-grass tea breath / your dhaal and roti smell / your bhajan chanting voice / to rock me steadily to my sleep?’ (47). And in ‘Daddy’ she laments, ‘Still, Daddy, I wish / you didn’t have to disappear / from my life / while I was here slipping / into cracks where you never buried / my navel string’ (45). The absence of caregivers and protectors leads to the inevitable abuse by other who should have cared, but chose to injure, and all the narrator of the poems can do is chant to the moon: ‘Chaan Mama, mother moon / sits in the sky / Chaan Mama knows the secret. / She has seen this forbidden thing, / this incestuous love, / every full moon night’ (62).

Yet to portray Curry Flavour as merely a collection of dirge-like reminiscences or a treatise on Indian mythology tinged with eroticism is to do the collection a great disservice. In ‘Independence Sestina’, ‘Carifesta Five - Rebirth’, ‘Steelpan in Miami’, and ‘Love Up de Culture’, Manoo-Rahming explodes with a joy that crackles in every line. Curry Flavour is an exuberant collection that captures the dynamics of the divine and the temporal, the mystical and the mundane balanced with a subtle sense of humor and audacious wit that pervades this collection which is as engaging as it is seductive."