For those who believe that the Caribbean starts in Miami, Geoffrey Philp’s new collection of poems, Florida Bound, firmly establishes this quirk of geography. In the journey of these poems, leaving Jamaica and arriving in Miami, Philp, who never wanted ‘to tell my story this way’ meets the new blueness of ‘Florida waters’, the traffic, the Interstate, with his heritage of lyric language. His poems are as vibrant and diverse as Miami where each street ‘crackles with dialects / variegated as the garish crotons.’ Miami, albeit citified, becomes just one more island with all that is good, bad, and potentially violent beset by the same sea, same hurricanes, and 'mangroves lashed sapless by the wind.'
Reminiscent of early Walcott, Philp’s poems wander through bedrooms and along the waterfronts of that perceptive land accessible only to poets, only to those who can pull the day through dawn fog to the delicate ‘breath of extinguished candles’. He effortlessly enlarges the simple to the universal and leads us guilelessly along, rewarding readers with meaning layered by fresh imagery.
Philp weaves dialect and landscape into his short, stylized lines with a subtle authority. It is easy to get caught up in the content and miss the grace of his technique: the tight lines, slant rhymes (answers, brochures), and the fresh turns and reversals of his line breaks. He is often poignant without being sentimental:
Our village is deserted, except for the drone
Of power boats; pink tourists ski in the wake
Of crossfire, bodies piled like crates of Coke.
A barber sweeps through glass and cleans
His blade, muscles bulging under his shirt.
The poems ends as 'we practice to become martyrs.'
Higglers in the marketplace count the rows of tamarinds;
Husks pass through their fingers like a rosary
Florida Bound opens with one of the best hurricane poems I’ve come across:
Gilbert mash me house to powder;
Liff up de mango tree, drop pon it side,
Lick off nuff han banana, chop off it head,
Blast de cokenut tree to a splinter
Philp works the piece in three parts, amplifying the loss and hunger linked to the devastation of the hurricane to that of the modern condition: the violence of children, the paycheck to paycheck subsistence and the historical trials - ‘My people been facing crosses from creation.’ Despite the desperation and discouragement that builds throughout the poem, we are left with a glimmer of hope, that the only choice is simply to go on, that perhaps, ‘me have de strent fe start again.’
‘Florida Bound’, the long title poem, ends the book almost as a letter home to Jamaica ‘where the land is a cracked gourd, a testament broken,’ the poet’s apology for choosing exile over the deep geography of his birth; a poet tired of rulers ‘who teach only the whip and the rope. /…tired of dreams. New Jerusalems.’