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Snowscape With Signature

Written by Mario Relich for Lines Review on no date provided

The Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Derek Walcott should indicate that there are many other excellent West Indian poets, rather than that he is some sort of isolated genius. I deliberately say 'West Indian' rather than 'Caribbean' because Walcott’s supreme achievement, although other poets have prepared the way for him, is to make the term 'West Indian' in relation to Caribbean poetry in English completely justified. 'West Indian' poetry, as opposed to merely 'Caribbean', which simply refers to the region, is characterised by what another West Indian poet and novelist, Wilson Harris, called the 'cross-cultural imagination'. It can be defined as poetry open to various cultural influences in order to arrive at new, and more mature than history has hitherto allowed, visions of what it means to be human. The poets under consideration here all focus on such visions.

I shall begin with the poems by Abdur-Rahman Slade Hopkinson collected in Snowscape with Signature. Hopkinson, a Guyanese, died recently, and had been an actor with Walcott's renowned Trinidad Theatre Workshop. His acting career, however, was cut short by kidney failure. Fellow poet Mervyn Morris, a Jamaican, in his introduction provides a vivid picture of Hopkinson’s acting: 'Some details of his Lear - his processional entrance as a decrepit majesty, head tilted at a petulant angle; his visceral howl of suffering in the storm - are remembered still.' He later converted to Islam, hence his adopted double-barrelled first name, and spent the rest of his life as a teacher in Toronto. He ended his life as a Canadian citizen.

At some point, iron had certainly entered his soul. In 'Himself at Last', for instance, he seems to gloat over the fate of a lawyer, 'This dean of small-minded mediocrities', struck down by 'a swift sclerotic stroke.' That stanza ends with the following line: 'Wounded his brain. End of petty sessions.' Yet the poem ends with the following paradoxically consolatory couplet: 'Speak praise to heaven for this man's handicaps / Which have strapped him at last down to himself.' The poem may be thinly-veiled self-scrutiny, or it may not, but its very ambivalence makes it all the more effective. Other poems such as 'A Song for You at History’s Fortune' and 'Reign of Terror, 1970: A Nightmare' deal with violent events in post-independence Trinidad and Guyana. 'The Madwoman of Papine,' on the other hand, focuses on the sources of violence and self-degradation in all of us. But the poems strongly influenced by Sufi mysticism are more agreeable, and impeccably cross-cultural. 'Mankind is Asleep,' the title alluding to Gurdjieff, for example, ends with the following lines:

So, strictly search
For images now hard now liquifying,
For images of pure fortuitousness

Hopkinson’s poems are tightly disciplined but, as the above lines imply, his imagination also ranges at will, and his capacity to surprise makes every one of his poems worth reading.

This is a review of Snowscape With Signature

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