The Long Gap

Written by Cyril Dabydeen for World Literature Today on

With The Long Gap, Anthony Kellman, originally from Barbados and now teaching creative writing at Augusta State University in Georgia, secures his reputation: my interest in him stems from our mutual ties with Peepal Tree Press, with whom Kellman has published a previous poetry collection and a novel. Kellman has also edited a Caribbean poetry anthology in English, Crossing the Water (Greenfield Review Press).

Kellman’s meditative tone and voice with measured rhythms are unique, here going beyond his first book in verbal flexibility and metaphorical maturity, with emphasis (in James Joyce’s words) on 'the imagination is memory'. And as suggested on the back-cover notice, 'These poems are rent by loss and estrangement, [and] also by recovery, through memory, of a paradise of place and childhood' (Andrei Codrescu). The 'sorrow of exile' is also felt, though Kellman is far from pining away for coral beaches in Barbados or for lost island friends like Everton and Cameron. Integrated here is the sense of a rich Caribbean poetic tradition, with testimony reflected in 'Island: Lover' (dedicated to the late Guyanese poet A. J. Seymour), as Kellman writes about 'Life mysteries leap / in silent confidence from my fingers' while eschewing the blatantly political in favor of verbal texture, yet characterized by sharp irony (e.g., 'V.S. No-Ball' for Naipaul?). Irony is seen markedly too, in 'A Minibus Named ‘Scorpion’', but in such poems everything appears controlled, sculpted, in Kellman’s indisputably formalist manner.

In the title poem, 'The Long Gap', Kellman ruminates over the past, examining his complex but intricate feelings about island life; finally, as he laments, 'O something in me ruptured. / To go back, to go back / to clutch at roots of the word / to stay and hope for the suspension to snap.' The 'suspension' or the sense of hanging between landscapes is what we derive from many of these poems, though Kellman is not afraid 'to rouse the fire of leaving,' which he must, if only to sustain his identity as both poet and Caribbean man living in the U.S. Poems with titles such as 'Ballad of the Limestone', 'Isle Man', 'Graves of the Sea', 'Calypso’s Island' and 'Sea Horse, Pass By' (the latter two being tributes to the late poets Bruce St John and Timothy Callender) attest to Kellman’s fidelity to place and spirit within island contexts while showing a Derek Walcott influence in style and form nearly throughout. Kellman is also blatantly honest in his veiled criticism of Caribbean society: 'Is this why poetry doesn’t come easy here?', as the persona in 'The Long Gap' states. 'I must never let down my guard. / I force my mind on the six ixoras, / on the labelled honey jar I put them in / half-filled with pure island water,' the irony highlighting the contrast of place and mood enhanced by assonance through wordplay to make this collection special, perhaps truly distinctive.