While Rachel Manley engages what might be called communal themes, she remains foremost a private poet for whom the ‘I’ - as self or individual - is focal. Similarly, though Velma Pollard produces poems whose terminus is self, hers remains primarily a collectivist vision, one sometimes filtered through personal experience. Both writers explore the ambiguities inherent in human encounters, each with a respect for craft and a love of language that put them in the first ranks of newer Caribbean poets.
Manley’s A Light Left On, her third volume of poetry, (Prisms, 1972 and Poems Two, 1981) reveals the rich lyricism of her verse, the musicality of her voice, and the clarity and enduring optimism of her vision. A surface simplicity of language and the palatable ambience of song mask profound insights on the complexity of experience, the centrality of life even in the presence of death. In the opening poem, ‘The Gate,’ for example, the loss or leaving of a loved one is rendered lyrically and without remorse, for ‘parting is only / the marking of a book’s page / to which you will return.’ Thus all departures predict future welcomes since the gate ‘at the edge of memory’ remains unlocked.
Indeed memory (and, relatedly, the creative imagination) is celebrated for its ability to offer healing, succor, hope; and this finds expression in many of the book’s poems, including ‘Forty’ where loss loses its numbing sting in vivid, life-engendering recollections that reclaim the departed; the ‘Raron’ sequence which honors the memory of Rilke; and ‘Memory’ which reminds us that ‘You cannot sentence memory to death, / it returns through the years / lulled into hymns.’
Perhaps memory-become-hymn is best achieved in the tribute to an already mythic reggae icon. In ‘Bob Marley’s Dead’ a cluster of Manley’s recurring images and themes converge the moon as primordial life giver and orchestrator, memory as restorator, life that sows death / death that composts life, the regenerative power of music - in an irony that counters the poem’s title:
My island is a mother
I rise, at my beginning
The moon is dread
and there is prophecy
The Kingdom lives
a heart of drums
a small town throbs,
we have begun
from a mulch of bones
Rachel Manley writes in a sure, seasoned hand, her deft lines producing fertile grounds from which metaphors, for example, germinate effortlessly: ‘the ginger lilies / pulled their oars / against the breeze’ (‘Regardless’); and ‘Grief plants its obedient row of pines, / its story faithfully sewn, / as safely as the sea’s within a shell, / in the parable of a cone’ (‘Raron I’). While there is an evenness of tone in Manley’s poems, the beauty of her song, the fresh, poignant images that she fashions together militate against the ennervation of the senses that might have come from a lesser poet.