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Islands Lovelier than a Vision

Written by Jeremy Poynting for n/a on no date provided

In 1976, hunting through the shelves of a dusty Guyanese bookstore, I came upon a pile of a little booklets called Poems in Recession by Cyril Dabydeen, published in 1972. The cover was unprepossessing, but within were poems of an agitated freshness of language, overwrought at times, too concerned with finding a ‘poetic’ voice, but nonetheless of an unmistakeable originality. The sentiments were radical, patriotic and concerned but they also had a sense of otherness and dislocation, a probing for historical depth and cultural authenticity. Four lines from a poem called ‘Moonlight’ stay with me:

… slices of fish
as big as hands 
reflect the feel of night 
within bodies of water.

To my disappointment I learnt that Cyril Dabydeen had left Guyana for Canada some years earlier and no-one really knew whether he was still writing. So it gave me real pleasure to discover, about four years ago, that there were a string of poetry titles and a collection of short stories available. My expectations were not disappointed. Here was a writer who had worked diligently at his craft, whose each book, Distances (1977), Goatsong (1977), Heart’s Frame (1979), This Planet Earth (1979) and Elephants Make Good Stepladders (1982) showed some new quality of development. At times, reading the earlier collections, I felt that some of the excitement of the first book was missing, that in pruning away some of the eccentricities of language and immediacy of social concern, the poetry was occasionally in danger of becoming too self-reflexive and formalistic. But there was also an experiment with a looser, more colloquial voice, tried out with mixed success in This Planet Earth which promised a different direction. And then in Elephants Make Good Stepladders and even more in his recent collection, Islands Lovelier Than A Vision (1986), everything comes together. The gains of the tightening up of the earlier collections remain (the precision, the reluctance to waste a word) but the boldness of image I so much admired in Poems in Recession is more consistently present and the voice of the poems is dramatic and dialogic, personal and alert to the sound properties of language, as anyone who has had the revelatory experience of listening to Cyril Dabydeen read his poems will know.
Coastland reminds that in each of the earlier volumes there were poems of great depth of controlled feeling; when I come across them now, poems such as ‘My Brother Is A Hero’, ‘The Fat Men’, ‘The Father’s Life’, in this retrospective collection, they have the feel of classics, permanent points of reference.

But Coastland does more than simply bring together some of the best of Cyril Dabydeen’s work (for the rest one should hunt out the earlier collections before they disappear), it allows us to trace the movement he makes through different frameworks: the Guyanese nationalist restless within the nation, the migrant who cannot yet tell whether he is an immigrant or an exile and the settler in Canada who is alert to all that is new. Most importantly, it allows us to see that what is distinctive about Dabydeen’s concerns is that earlier stages are not jettisoned in a journey away from roots, but remain an integral part of the evolution, taken up at enhanced levels of investigation.
At first, for instance, the inability to leave Canje memories behind provokes the exile’s sense of failed escape, the nightmares of guilty recall in such poems as ‘Absences’, ‘Nephew’. But then osmosis between layers of memory and contemporary experience provokes a movement from a dualistic to a dialectic imagination, between the vision of a poem such as ‘Two Kinds of Frenzy’ (‘a tug-o-war life’) and a poem such as ‘Rum-Running’. The personal journey made from the Caribbean to Canada comes to be seen as the second stage of an ancestral journey made from India to the Caribbean (‘the indentured / also grew accustomed / to neglect’, ‘Letter’). But memory is never simply a nostalgic or pained backwards look because at both personal and historical levels the past, as in ‘Anaconda’s Doubt’ (the ‘dream how things long past could survive’ ) ‘Sleeping Giant’ and ‘Marina’, has a latent turbulence which draws attention to energies and possibilities contained in the present. ‘Marina’ moves from historical reference (‘This granary / Of time long past’ ) to the question, ‘What is yet to come?’

What comes out of such connections in Dabydeen’s work is a richness of perspective and image which provides both intellectual and sensual pleasure. The dialectical vision brings such polarities as coastland/heartland, man/nature or victim/voyager into interpenetration. Sometimes the oppositions are held in tension as in the active-passive ambiguities of the journey expressed in ‘Seafarer’ who is both ‘still being / hurled’ but is also ‘moving about… Ulyssean’ ; elsewhere there is a dissolution of everyday categories of difference as in The Hunter’. There is a global political consciousness which is hardly ever sloganeering because it has at its heart a relish for the stubborn individuality of people and a witty alertness to the quirky coincidences of history revealed in poems such as ‘Sir James Douglas’ and ‘Lives’. Memory and journey, the twin reference points of Dabydeen’s work, frequently bring together the personal and the world-historical. Above all, there is in Dabydeen’s work an acute sensitivity to place, which is never a mere backdrop to human activities, but something which in so many poems is both entered into physically (see ‘Seeking Light’ for instance) and which enters the poet, so that the poem takes on the role of giving a voice to place, as in ‘Frieze’:

… I murmur new beginnings; 
The sun comes between my eyes, voices
on the horizon; leaves, fronds, all mutterings
of a new place… 

Place also opens up mythical resonances in Dabydeen’s work. Beneath the memory layers of more recent migrations lies a sense of something deeper, aboriginal. One can see in this a response to Dabydeen’s memories of his native Canje, a region of Guyana where human settlements maintain a precarious survival on the edge of the encroaching forest (see ‘Green Land’), and to his newer perceptions of a surviving Canadian wilderness. Both coalesce to provide windows onto the primordial.

Complexity of vision is matched by a density and variety of voice. There is a very real anguish and anger expressed in a number of poems, but through a tough-minded control it hardens into something jewel-like, with a persistent cutting edge. Feeling is not allowed to dissipate into sentiment. There is also an undoubted sophistication and craft in Dabydeen’s work, but it has increasingly become married to an earthy colloquial vigour.

This is a review of Islands Lovelier than a Vision

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