Cecil Gray and Anthony Kellman have a great deal in common. Both of these Caribbean men are serious poets whose work has already received very favorable responses. They are didactic poets in the best sense of that maligned phrase. That is, their poems are vehicles that carry forward the eloquent weight of their values and beliefs. They are formalists who are also comfortable writing free verse and are often attracted to oral, folk, and popular traditions. Some of their poems are highly lyrical but others are written in dialect and can even be quite prose-like. Noted American writer Nancy Willard’s critique of Anthony Kellman’s work could be equally applied to Cecil Gray’s: '[Their] poetry combines the rhythms of Caribbean music with a splendid gift for metaphor and form. You will find yourself wanting to read these poems out loud.'
The Long Gap, Anthony Kellman’s book, is overtly like Cecil Gray’s Lilian’s Songs in several ways. For example, The Long Gap is also Kellman’s second volume of verse: his earlier collection was titled simply Watercourse. Like Gray, Kellman’s poetry was first published in book form by Peepal Tree Press, which has a well-established history of recognizing and promoting the work of accomplished Caribbean writers. And like Gray, Kellman proved himself to be a master of 'apt imagery' and 'flexible. . .rhyme.' The title poem of Kellman’s The Long Gap will remind readers of the title piece of Gray’s Lilian’s Songs although Kellman’s poem does not follow the formal structure of Gray’s sonnet sequence. Instead, it consists of one long strand of verse paragraphs that employ subtle, often internal rhymes rather than overt end rhymes, and passages that are sometimes more prose-like than lyrical. Yet it, too, is a rich tapestry of family history woven into images and sounds, and like Gray, Kellman’s references to music are key to understanding his message. As the narrator moves through the landscape of his childhood he reports, 'I wrestle with an angel from that past' resolved 'Not to leave with the song only part sung / not to leave without saying goodbye' to 'Mother, bearer of all things, / lover of all things.' Kellman’s poem, like Gray’s, ends on a note of hard-won victory as he turns away from the memory of his mother, who 'calmly expire[d] at seventy-six' and turns to greet his young daughter: 'I say: ""Everything will be all right just now"" / and I look on the sunlight just now.'
Reggae, ruk-a-tuk, samba, calypso - music 'throbbing ‘pon de stereo' and the 'braid-dripping head' of a Barbadian fisherman’s wife, 'shining in the Caribbean moon' ('Fishing Song') are images that haunt the self-exiled Anthony Kellman. He finds himself continually traveling, both figuratively and literally, 'between the gnarled skyscraper and the water’s edge' ('A Dancer to the Gods'). But always, 'Home is where islands are.' ('A Churn In the South') Cecil Gray also feels torn between two cultures, though the source of his pain is not because he had to leave his beloved Caribbean in order to prosper as a scholar and writer.
It is hard to do justice to one complex book of poetry in a short review, much less adequately explore two such resonant books as Lilian’s Songs and The Long Gap. There are at least as many interesting differences as likenesses between Cecil Gray and Anthony Kellman’s latest collections. Gray’s volume is nearly twice as long as Kellman’s, which may be explained by the fact that Kellman is teaching English and creative writing full-time at Augusta State University in Georgia while Cecil Gray has retired from his post as Director of the In-Service Diploma in Education Programme at the University of the West Indies. He only began writing verse seriously after his retirement in 1983. Before that, he was too busy - producing 25 textbooks for use in West Indian schools - to concentrate on poetry.
This reviewer is grateful he decided to do just that and that Kellman finds the time as well. I can honestly say these two books are the work of two gifted poets.