Discussing Columbus

Written by Kwame Dawes for World Literature Today on

The blurb that launches Cyril Dabydeen’s latest collection of work (he now has at least ten collections of poetry to his name, a remarkable achievement in the Caribbean, making him perhaps one of the most prolific Caribbean poets writing in English) comes from Kamau Brathwaite, a poet with a reputation to uphold. Brathwaite proclaims Dabydeen 'one of the most confident and accomplished voices in the Caribbean diaspora this side of the late 20th century.' This is heady praise and it is fitting praise - there can be no question about Dabydeen’s credentials as a poet, a fine craftsman, and a wonderful weaver of images and rhythms. But Brathwaite’s statement offers us a way to read Dabydeen. Dabydeen belongs to what Brathwaite terms the Caribbean diaspora, which is a fairly recent conception. Dabydeen is, of course, an IndoGuyanese safely ensconced in the Indian diaspora; but as a poet who has lived in Canada for most of his life, he now belongs to the growing group of writers from the Caribbean who make their homes elsewhere. The work that is emerging from such writers is expanding the range and shape of Caribbean writing and stretching the idioms and political concerns normally associated with writing from the Caribbean.

The writers of the Caribbean diaspora feature in interesting ways in Dabydeen’s verse in Discussing Columbus, and well they should, for Dabydeen’s interest in Columbus is a complex one - one complicated by the contradictions of home and exile that would have characterized Columbus’s sordid later life in the Caribbean. Dabydeen invokes Derek Walcott, Fred D’Aguiar, Wilson Harris, and Joseph Conrad in various dedications. These writers are influences and co-sojourners in this curious diasporic world. In 'Adelphi', dedicated to Harris, Dabydeen reveals his willingness, like Wilson Harris, to invoke myths other than those that belong to the Caribbean. For him the palette is expanded, and this is crucial to the poet of the Caribbean diaspora. It is the same instinct that allows Walcott to leap gleefully into Homer’s myths in his Omeros - there is a refreshing willingness to stretch the icons of verse without seeming pretentious and completely out of place. This is what Brathwaite means by 'confident':

Here men grow shorter - 
never taller - 
Hector and Priam
brandishing sword.

Whacking at whole fields
in the mythic sun;
where women gladiators
wield machetes
or short knives
against the enemy-bush

In 'Driving with Fred D’Aguiar to Miami Beach' we are again drawn into this motif of traveling, this peculiar sense of constant movement and homelessness. But here it is not a lament; it is a sense of comfort in the business of journey, in the excitement of entering new places and being an urbane traveled poet.

The poems in the collection maintain that quality of playfulness and contemplation. One senses always in Dabydeen’s work a sense of rest, a place of pausing to reflect. And his reflections are wide-ranging, from the discomfort of being a regular guy at a Governor General’s dinner in Ottawa, to the deft and indulgent retracing of Hemingway’s steps in Cuba: 'Marlin’s sea reaches up to me in the sun’s sweep / On this bone of an island - / As my blood is also on the rise.' Dabydeen never shouts, never complains, but is constantly restrained by an overactive sense of irony and a very cricketing sense of fair play. It is this that sometimes mutes some of the fire in his consideration, but that leaves us with the sense of a poet completely given to the careful working of his craft.
It is true that, among those who live in the Caribbean diaspora, Dabydeen’s voice stands out as a honed, accomplished one. This is no mean achievement, for he is in good company: Grace Nichols, Jan Carew, John Agard, David Dabydeen, Derek Walcott, Opal Adisa Palmer, Fred D’Aguiar, Rohan Preston, Linton Kwesi Johnson, James Berry, Archie Markham, Marlene Nourbese Phillip, Dionne Brand, Lillian Allen, Ramabai Espinet… you see my point. Perhaps it is simply a reality of literary practice that the criticism lags behind the work, but I expect it will not be long before we will have to start granting more time and scholarly effort to tackling the work of Cyril Dabydeen, a poet who is still awaiting the weight of the accolades and attention that he truly deserves.