A Testimonial to Love

Written by Jennifer Rahim for the Peepal Tree Press website on Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

It is always a rewarding experience to read a text after the storm of its first appearance on bookshelves, when the rush of attention wanes in the hype and excitement of newer publications. Reading Esther Phillips’ collection, Leaving Atlantis is a reminder that what is valuable in works of art never loses appeal—is ever able to draw appreciation and raise essential questions about the always vulnerable nature of our shared humanity.

Phillips attempts the uncommon, particularly in the poetry of the English-speaking Caribbean. These poems are first and foremost a singular, extended meditation on the experience of a significant love. They are songs that emerge from the eye/I of that tempest and alcove. The poet battles and yields. She is never a passive or doting lover, but one who seeks, knocks, overturns in order to find spaces of communion that draw her ever closer to the silent beloved, “G”

For them both, she suggests, it is a “meeting of improbabilities” (10) that touches Phillips on every level of her being. If G., as she says, calls her his “nemesis” that claim can easily be reversed. This collection is seminally about the lover’s journey into the uncertain terrain of the heart’s country. From that simultaneously tumultuous and nurturing centre, the poems, which gel like a unified suite, open out into love for the Caribbean “Region” and a metaphysical consideration of love’s source—the Eternal, “that greater Love / that makes me love you still” (43).

The identity of the white-haired beloved in this moving and probing reflection on the nature of love and “art” of loving is no secret. In the gentle rhythms of the opening poem, “Coming Home,” the poet offers the aging, travel-weary luminary of Caribbean letters her love, which embraces the island birth-place they share and is the “branch” of rest for mind, body and spirit: “So, love, light here / Now is your homing season” (9). The unguarded expressions of tenderness unveiled in some of these poems, like “And Yet Again” and “Morning,” are themselves to be treasured.

No stone is left unturned in this strained saga the poet describes as an experience of a “near distance” (26). Tempests rage as personalities and emotions clash, as silences and angers broil, as fear and denial create stonewalls in the internal and external space they must grow to accept as shared. The poet does not seek easy answers or expect ready-made solutions to ebb and flow of their relationship’s dance. Rather her questionings emerge from the crucible of encounter, and her reaching for answers, the necessary internal stretching and unmooring of having encountered a “Pearl” of great price. Maturity resonates in her insight that, “[t]the seeker learns / to shape her own heart’s harbour” (12). Surrender and acceptance, and their fruits, communion and peace, are a hard fought for respite.

In a world of flux and uncertainty, love invites stability, yet even this longing for anchor tugs against the book’s multi-faceted meditation on “leaving.” The inevitable material and existential divestments as death approaches permeate the collection. There is, for instance, “G’s” heartbreaking departure from the hotel/home Atlantis in “Exit I” and “Exit II” that heralds the folding of an illustrious academic life. There is too the “strange dis /ease” (10) that love initiates as old mindsets and expectations are challenged and must be abandoned, or at least appear so. Sometimes dispossession comes in comic ways as the cleverly constructed poem, “Transition Radio,” which is also about the appropriation of language.

Leaving Atlantis is a pilgrimage into the chambers of the vulnerable human heart as it seeks to self-protect even as it must surrender to a force greater than itself. Always there remains the impenetrable mystery of individuality. “You are yourself another country,” the poet admits (12). The greater mystery, however, is love’s endurance not so much in spite of, but because of the other who remains, through all its trials and battles, “a country worthy of habitation” (12). To love is to die—the essential lesson that underpins this collection, and made more urgent by old age and approaching death.

This modest text, with its uncluttered approach to language, crystal clear clarity of its sayings and uncomplicated treatment of a timeless and illusive theme will remain a precious member of the Caribbean family of poetry. The collection is a testimonial to “love.” It is, too, an act of memorializing G. that has both private and archival value. The book may well endure as a resource that literary historians and biographers may want to consult. Several poems reference G’s creative and academic writings. Phillips takes time to footnote key allusions such as her reference to the novel, Of Age and Innocence in the poem, “Pebble. Crab. Iron”, which she spins into a reflection on immortality versus the temporality of the intellect/Reason—a key point of conflict in their relationship.

There is definitely a conscious effort to flesh out, from an insider’s perspective, the complex character of this colossal Man of Letters. The poet brings the reader into contact with the domestic, “unseen” dimensions of the public persona and intellectual—his personality quirks and frailties, battles with failing health, his Marxist resistance to religious faith and possible late-life temptations to turn to the “Book” (38), his hopes and disappointments. These peeks into the man behind the academic at best serve to humanize a figure that, from a distance, most will simply appreciate as a phenomenal mind and foundational architect, “Captain,” of our Caribbean civilization.