The Long Gap

Written by Paula Burnett for Poetry Review on

INWARD STRETCH, OUTWARD reach' is the phrase which titles Rex Nettleford’s latest book about the Caribbean condition and it fits the recent work of Caribbean poets Jean Binta Breeze and Anthony Kellman as snugly as a pair of dancing pumps. Like Nettleford, academic and dancer, Kellman is an academic and a poet, Breeze a poet and a performer, trained at Jamaica’s national drama school. Their work mirrors reciprocal dance movements, inward and outward: not either/or, but the public and the private, the political through the personal. They are both introspective and open to the world, confirming a Caribbean identity as well as planting roots elsewhere - as Kellman has it, 'yearning for some other ground / but kissing the one I’m on'. Both were raised in the islands, Breeze in Jamaica and Kellman in Barbados, but now earn their living in the North, Kellman in Georgia, Breeze in London: emblematic lives, for poets whose difference is emblematic of an old debate in Caribbean poetry.

Introducing his fine anthology of contemporary Caribbean poetry, Crossing Water, Kellman writes of the riches of the poet’s two voices as 'folk singer and collegiate poet. All one. All part and parcel of each other, segments of the same carnival cloth'. Caribbean poets have famously pioneered fresh combinations between 'standard' English and the local vernacular (or Nation Language), but Breeze inhabits the Creole continuum differently from Kellman. She discovers poetry in speech rhythms (though as her new book and audiotape amply demonstrate she can do a standard voice if she wishes), but Kellman seems to reserve Bajan language as a mask to don for dramatic effect. The one lives orality, the other uses it. The difference is clear in ‘Mothersong’, Breeze offsetting the cold formality of school English (‘soon / it will be one hundred / to a class') against the warmth of loving maternal perseverance which is the poem’s 'home' voice, offering 'de sugar, chile / de sugar'.

Kellman sometimes tries too hard. Attempting a specifically Barbadian aesthetic he strikes literary echoes obsessively off pan-Caribbean writers: not only Brathwaite, but Walcott (an insistent and unhelpful ghost), Wilson Harris, and A. J. Seymour, plus a wicked calypso-style rejoinder to Naipaul’s study of the American south. Walcott’s 'V. S. Nightfall' becomes 'V.S. No-Ball' (which may not be cricket). In fact some of Kellman’s strongest poems are those which engage with the immediacy of his American present. Phrases arc across the volume like the planes which fly him back home, stitching the halves of his life together across the 'Long Gap' of the title poem, a spatial and temporal gulf. At best the intellectual baggage bursts open to expose 'the carefully stowed smalls of feeling. In an airborne emergency the island floats blessedly into view - on the sea’s blue couch: a green pillow // hand-embroidered, stuffed with love'. For all their differences these collections have certain topics in common. Both poets raise a fine fury about the social injustices of the global system - the 'shit-stim' to Breeze with her dub-style wit, who asks 'how long before downtrodden / get de ovapass?'. Both examine twin-track living and the moral imperatives of a Third World spokesperson. As artists both record the philistinism at home which drove them to seek appreciation and a living abroad, Kellman protesting: 'A poet's / filed and forgotten in some / sweltering Government office, silenced / by paperwork'.

Returning, both visit relatives and graves. As parents both have hopes and fears. As partners both record rifts and reconciliations. And both address the diaspora experience through a symbolic house-moving, as wooden-frame houses are transported and transplanted. In Breeze’s first poem and insistent question to her muse, 'Will you come tomorrow', modulates to the self-empowering 'I will come'. The pain of Kellman’s last poem, about revisiting scenes of youth which spark regret 'It comes too fast, this tryst with origins' - is relieved finally by the small, live joys (his daughter’s greeting, the sunshine) which inhabit the gap of 'just now'. It is easy to polarize these two poets between orality and literariness, but both use both, and both poets balance anguish with an urgent love. Their very different voices are trenchant reminders that the inward stretch and outward reach involve us all, North and South, black and white - that we are all in this chorus line together, and have been for a long, long time.