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The Garden of Forgetting

Written by Anu Lakhan for The Caribbean Review of Books on no date provided

Anu Lakhan on The Garden of Forgetting, by Gwyneth Barber Wood, The Watertank Revisited, by Delores Gauntlett, Days and Nights of the Blue Iguana, by Heather Royes, and The True Blue of Islands, by Pamela Mordecai

The Garden of Forgetting: Poems of Love and Loss, by Gwyneth Barber Wood (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-007-8, 60 pp)

The Watertank Revisited, by Delores Gauntlett (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-009-4, 77 pp)

Days and Nights of the Blue Iguana, by Heather Royes (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-019-1, 60 pp)

The True Blue of Islands, by Pamela Mordecai (Sandberry Press, ISBN 1-894528-01-8, 64 pp) 

If the novel died decades ago, its body landed on the much older remains of the poem. The publishing industry’s ongoing joke, the fluff of teenage journals, the interpretive dance of the literary world: who wants poems? And yet, to judge by the flock of collections issuing out of Jamaica last year, a reader would be inclined to believe that everyone wanted poetry, that the Caribbean air was full of it.

In 2005, these four Jamaican poets — Gwyneth Barber Wood, Delores Gauntlett, Heather Royes, and Pamela Mordecai, perhaps the best known of them — all published slender collections of verse. These are not regretful old men or revolution-minded youths, but, or so it seems, educated, mature, middle-class women. They are not naïve, though the work sometimes is. Their poems are full of memories — some nostalgic, some pounded with a mallet. Very often these are poems about making poems, about writing or trying to find a way to say the unsayable things only poems try to say.

Barber Wood’s collection, The Garden of Forgetting, is not an easy read. Not because it is obscure or inscrutable, but because it is often so personal, so full of loss and grief and the hollowness of grief, that one feels embarrassed — almost out of line — to comment on the poems in an analytical way. Some of the lines are too easy. To call them clichéd would be unfair and cruel, but there’s a tendency to snap the familiar sentiment on to the idiosyncratic feeling: “the quiet trove of memory”, “the sun’s searing indifference”, “our souls knew grief in the silence of a fluttering leaf”. There is more memory than craft here, but also something more. When she stretches, when she braves the words beyond the obvious, there is a sense of the rightness, the fitness of the thought. For instance, in “The Blank Screen”:

. . . I recalled the debt
I owed to God. Might as well be dead.
Too early for breakfast, too late for regret

No wispy reminiscing. No woe-is-me. No forgiveness asked, none on offer. A line Emily Dickinson might have liked.
It’s there again in “Autumn”, an otherwise unremarkable poem, but for:

The days get shorter after fifty and 
endurance wanes.

And later:

But nothing else changes:
love is the same, and autumn, if anything, wears
its passion-colour more considerately than spring

“Autumn” feels like any growing-old poem we’ve read before. Perhaps there have been thousands of poems saying the same thing in much the same way. But handling age and time clearly and summarily shows Barber Wood to be in possession of a harder side than is apparent in most of her work. Similarly, in “Waiting for the Train”, “I wonder how long or how soon before time throws this fight” shows the poet dry-eyed, wry, and resigned. Or, in a poem with the unpromising title “The Brine of Loss”, “you were the best I’d ever been” has the snap and tautness of a truly good, perhaps great, line.

The poems in The Garden of Forgetting are full of words. They are not long-winded, but sometimes the magic of a poem lies in its silences. Several are like short stories — they read like flowing narratives rather than verse — but without the sigh that comes at the end of the best short stories, a sigh that wants more, but is grateful for what has been given. 

The Water Tank Revisted is Delores Gauntlett’s second collection (Freeing Her Hands to Clap, published in 2001, was the first), and shows a fitting level of confidence in her voice. Whether or not it is the right voice is another matter, but such as she has chosen, she sticks to. Like Barber Wood, and indeed all these poets, the poems demonstrate a commitment to a certain presentation (perhaps refraction) of a Jamaica known by the poet. In Gauntlett’s case, this is often a Jamaica of violence or its threat. The poems also seem the most self-consciously Jamaican of the lot. Their Jamaica is not just a backdrop or a place of nostalgia set as a default position. Gauntlett is thinking about — thinking through — what Jamaica is. In the politically-minded but not hectoring poem “To Jamaica, At the Break of Day”:

It’s said that every defeated gesture implies
the past.

And then:

I write this poem to record 
that a past which fails the future is a wall
cleared of old faces, old photographs

There is blame for every “choice leading to the wrong thing still,” but she manages to maintain a quiet acceptance — as in an old and often repeated argument that always ends at the same place — and the flutter of hope that makes you return to the conversation. 

There is a greater sense in Gauntlett’s poems than in the other three collections of an attempt to shape a poem in a specific way. There is, with one delightful exception, no overt experimentation, just an overarching feeling of the poet’s essaying towards some particular outcome. “Design” might be the clearest and fairest description. At worst, these attempts are derailed, sometimes by subject matter, sometimes by the tricky inner workings of the poem, and leave the piece rigid and lifeless. At best, the voice is striking and new. 
In the poem “Body and Soul”, a conversation between the physical self and the — for want of a better word — inner self offers hilarity as well as profundity in unrhyming couplets:

Soul says it’s the one who does the dreaming.
It complains that Body drives it nuts

standing before the open refrigerator 
an hour past midnight

and grumbles about having to carry Body everywhere
as though it were some unspeakable habit.

The poem gives Soul the parting shot:

It gives Body a look that says:

I’m what silence holds in store for you.

Two things come to mind immediately. The first: if Gauntlett were to abandon poetry entirely from this moment on, that last line would outlive her career, herself, and possibly many others. The second is a mere speculation on influence. The Jamaica-based writer Wayne Brown is quoted extensively in her book’s back-cover blurb, and Gauntlett’s poems have appeared in the Jamaica Observer’s Literary Arts section, formerly edited by Brown. The coolness of that last line, the knowingness a breath away from smugness, is very Brown. The point is quick, but there’s a lingering aftertaste. Similarly, the last line of “Firefly”, where a child dances on Noel Coward’s grave, “unaware of what the past has up its sleeve.”
Whatever the success or failure of individual poems, a current of understated humour, as well as Gauntlett’s conscious and conscientious interpretation of her Jamaica, vivify the collection as a whole.

Heather Royes has been widely anthologised, and has a previous collection, The Caribbean Raj, to her credit. Days and Nights of the Blue Iguana includes a selection of thirteen poems from that older volume, some of which — like “Theophilus Jones Walks Naked Down King Street” — may be familiar to her readers.

Days and Nights takes a more deliberately pan-Caribbean tone than Barber Wood or Gauntlett’s collections. While they both find expression through Jamaica (with occasional forays out that are more marked for their un-Jamaicaness than for themselves), Royes’s collection provides what amounts to an itinerary. She writes of Cuba, Suriname, and Trinidad; has a mild obsession with the ice-cream queues of Havana; knows popular middle-class addresses in Trinidad and who Peter Minshall is; and contemplates Guyana’s famous Sea Wall. 
In “Returning to Havana After Twenty-Five Years”, Royes does not toss around the names of streets or people in a way that contrives intimacy with the place (this does happen in other, weaker poems), but registers a believable voice when the city speaks to her like an old, long-absent friend:

“Chica! What happened?
We thought you loved us — but 25 years?”

The poet replies:

“It’s a long story —
my life is complicated.
I wanted to remember you with dance and song — 
not sorrow . . .
I never knew you’d wait.”

There it is: the kick to the chest, knocking the breath out of you. “I never knew you’d wait” is a line meant to stop hearts, whether it appears in a love song or on a t-shirt. 
It is easy to identify the things that unsettle the reader and, ultimately, undermine this collection: the poet seems determined to prove what she has learned — or that she has learned — from her travels. It glazes superficiality over otherwise intelligent, insightful poems. 

But — and this is why we read, and, I imagine, why people keep writing poems long after their relevance has taken the beating of a Good Friday bobolee — in many cases there is something just under the surface. “Postcard from the West Indies (Circa 1933)”:

Dear Beryl,

In some islands,
the boys dive for coins
tossed by tourists from the steamers,
their sleek, black bodies slicing the water.
What smiles, what guiles!
What fools are we!
Wish you were here.

How pleased am I not to be Beryl in receipt of such a note from a holidaying friend. Be suspicious of what seems amateurish or shallow in this collection. The sting will come.

The True Blue of Islands is Pamela Mordecai’s fourth collection of poetry. Endlessly anthologised (pick a Caribbean collection, any Caribbean collection, she’s there next to the other must-haves like Jean “Binta” Breeze, Louise Bennett, XYZ, a little something from Derek), she also writes children’s stories, plays, and textbooks. Hers is certainly the most self-assured and cool of these collections. Small surprise, four books down the line. More surprising, and therefore all the more delightful, are the bite and brashness of some of the individual poems. Had she not been a well-established literary figure, these pieces might seem to have a kind of reckless energy, familiar in less experienced writers if not always successful. They’re a bit wild, a bit coarse, a bit take-it-as-it-is. A tack not so advisable in younger poets, where it falls readily into self-indulgence. True Blue proves maturity actually does have its payoffs. 
“The Story of Nellie”, a savagely simplified nursery rhyme about sexually abused Nellie who takes to a life of sweets and eventually drugs, feels like Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”. Nellie does, in fact, get a gun. The poem closes:

knows her life
is not worth shit
thinks perhaps
it is her time
to mess with it.

Sashays back
into the building
feels a flutter
in her heart

buys some mace
and a small pistol.
Nellie’s making
a new start.

The kamikaze hum works not only for this kind of pain — which probably deserves less reverence and more planass (Trinidadian for a beating with the flat of a machete) — but for the collection as a whole. The True Blue of Islands is no easy title. It is a redefinition of the Caribbean cliché, or a whole stash of them. 

Pains, deaths, violations of different kinds are given similarly raw treatment. It smacks of I’m-done-with-self-pity. Sounds like Pam’s got a Harley. And through all of it — bravado and confidence alike — the images, when she chooses to use them instead of merely spitting, are sharp, clean, and gorgeous: “her white head-tie crisp as hot bread”, “hurricanes of wild wet words” (which was almost “storms of wild wet words”, but for a sliver of errata slipped in like a book mark), “O, to be content as dust”. 
These poems are darker, harder, and more real than those of Gauntlett, Barber Wood, and Royes; indeed, than many better-known collections destined for greater acclaim and wider distribution.

These four women have sent into the world these poems they’ve strung and polished and worked and possibly feared. They’ve sent them out to be devoured, dismissed, or embraced. Their collections have little in common with each other, but for one striking thing. They refute the opening paragraph of this review. To them at least, the poem is far from dead. They still believe in it. They are fighting for it. Maybe the Caribbean air isn’t full of poetry, any more than the streets are paved with gold. But maybe the dream is almost as good if it keeps us looking.

This is a review of The Garden of Forgetting

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