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Lara Rains & Colonial Rites

Written by Edgar Othniel Lake for The Caribbean Writer on no date provided

Howard A. Fergus’s new volume of poetry is a modest publication, complete with a useful compendium of footnotes for selected poems. I am struck by the rich style of poetic composition which Fergus employs. The poems lend insight into his noteworthy stewardship as a diplomat and chronicler of his island’s heroic history. A native of Long Ground, Montserrat, Fergus is from the turbulent East Side of this now notorious island, as easily at home in the volcanic Caribbean landfall as in the empire’s spectacle of rising ash.

The poems in this volume show his range of interests extending from hurricanes to cricket, from South Africa to crime. Among Fergus’s emerging heroes are Brian Lara, Nelson Mandela, and Maurice Bishop, but he also celebrates old teachers, family and friends. The title poem, ‘Lara Rains’, betrays the admiration of Fergus’s generation: their endless rhapsody on cricket as post-colonial pastime. In ‘Lara Rains’, rain and runs seem synonymous; ruin becomes a metaphor for Lara’s phoenix rise. In somber cane-cutters’ ritual, Fergus’s Lara decimates cricket’s records. Rain is suspended at the dawn of this brittle poem, but delivered as promised at day’s end. World Test Cricketer and Batting Champion Brian Lara, does reign indeed, getting the lion’s share of poems.
Using cricket as a theme of expanded boundaries, Fergus reaches for players as varied as Nelson Mandela, as well as his own friend, George Allen. The poet expands a Caribbean literary and humanist tradition, cricket as comradeship, first started by eminent Caribbean writer C. L. R. James, and extended by V. S. Naipaul, Michael Manley, Michael Anthony and Hilary Beckles.
A different poem, ‘Lara Reach’, is inspired by a villager’s celebration of Lara’s meteoric rise and considerable trajectory to Lord’s cricket grounds. Exacting references of historic flight, and flights of fancy animate this poem. Outbursts of surprise roll off the page as incantatory praise, and pelt the reader’s imagination. Like a bowler’s perishable bouncer, comes this animated phrase: ‘Ode bounce of de bullet’, with its sheer verve ricocheting on the pitch of creole grammar; or, this batter’s once slender admittance, ‘ball jus’ miss me right stick.’

The poem, ‘At Cover’, is named for a crucial cricket field position, cover. It serves as metaphor for Fergus’s strategic deployment in his chosen field as a writer. Fergus positions himself modestly. He laments not being recognized and only chosen ‘from a bumper crop of tropic poets.’ In this elegant poem, Fergus articulates the poet’s deployment in his chosen field. His allusions are well placed, much like his passing strokes ‘I cannot tarry for a second coming to score my piece.’ Immortality also looms in Fergus’s elegiac protest; he wants to play forever, and positions his verses past time, ‘heaven is nice. . . but my heart will not be fit to play. . .’ One line, faintly resembling Neruda’s, ‘Our comfort teams with doubt’ is as deft as a cricketer’s quick late-cut past the mid-off fielder.

His poem, ‘Behind God Back’, is a lashing poem of self-derision, soul stirring, and second-person ambiguity. Fergus drives through Long Ground’s evolution with both distance and familiarity. Fergus establishes poetic bivouac, with Long Ground’s first crop, tobacco as trope for past hallucinations, and looming currency for Montserrat’s present-day growth into self-awareness. Cotton, once a cash crop and an accursed burden, becomes for Fergus the bootstrap fabric of self-determination.
‘Toasted Majesty’ is the poet’s hymn to a dying colonial order. Its observations are robust with the sentimental lines of an insider. Fergus has been a parliamentarian, occasionally standing in as Acting Governor in his island-nation’s affairs. By far the longest poem in this volume, ‘Toasted Majesty’ is bittersweet and filled with crusty truths about his island world, now disrupted in full view. The poem’s refrain ‘Though the children scream; the children would scream,’ lends to each stanza a volcanic incandescence; with fluttering variations ‘should scream’ as embers, congealing into a hypnotic permanence.

Fergus wears the chevrons of a historian in ‘You Was a Freedom Fighter, Ma.’ For any generation, this poem should strike a chord of collective gratitude. At the end of each verse, Fergus erects a refrain, distinctly shifting it to the present tense, ‘You is a Freedom Fighter, Ma.’ Derisive phrases grow as children ‘Yuh six picknee’, quickly evolving to liberative salute ‘six picknee free’, all neatly emblazoned on the frieze of pre-independence. But twice mentioned, these parabled ‘six’ become twelve, a mirrored tableau of full discipleship; and we are reminded by the poet’s voice that liberty is costly, and ‘cotton cuts the eye.’

‘Grave Beauty’ is a short and textured poem, a huckster’s heap of verbal harvest. His lines wax close to haiku. His flowers’ names ‘purple bougainvillaea sweet lime red exoria myrtle scenting evergreen’ are like sticks in the poet’s dye vats, stirring the mist of such graven beauty ‘to dye the face of death’; flowers represent our lives, ‘cut down in their prime.’ For Fergus, the first stanza’s line ‘none like my mother’s dusty home’ soon becomes ‘none like my mother’s flower-cold home.’ There is a quiet triumph erected for these lives dyed by death; their transcendent grave mounds reminiscent of the tannias’ nourished life bed.

‘Tamarind Tree at St. Anthony’ is a salute to the old tamarind tree which Fergus calls a ‘centenarian guard.’ Under its shadow, and despite its notorious shelter for honeybees, he fashions pre-Columbian reverie, colonial wars, ‘countless wrongs’ into an existential treatise. Fergus takes its sweeping panorama from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, and nourishes his neighboring poem, ‘When Justice Came to Church,’ about a judge’s Monday morning conveyance at a village church. Yet Fergus subtly lends a towering strength to the villagers’ hopes, by placing the poem across the page from the flourishing tamarind tree.

But Fergus reaches his peak with fine poems dedicated to his friends, none among them as penetrating as Timo. A larger-than-life character, Timo is good from the heart and generous to the bone. This archetypal character is fast disappearing, and Fergus reminds us through a last bedside visit. But he does something else that rings true. He captures Timo’s essentially nativist language, the lingua franca of the praise-song; this poem is no wooden obituary. Far beyond the mythic spectator fields of Lord’s and mythic Elysium, we applaud Fergus on this second stride to the wicket. His first poetic volume, ‘Allioguana,’ rightfully alluded to the rich incantatory Amerindian legacy of this island.

Now come the rains, long suspended on this battered island-nation of Montserrat. A mature poet, Howard A. Fergus is caught playing in familiar themes far afield.

This is a review of Lara Rains & Colonial Rites

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