In hand: A Leaf in His Ear

by Nicholas Laughlin on July 29, 2010

The Leaf in His Ear

Left, the golden leaf bears from his ear.
At eighteen, Bushman fighting to control diamonds
in his glass head. The waters of the river
swirl by.

I and I Rastaman, with knotty India hair, has long ago ceased.
The good Lord swallowed him up.
Into Guiana forests. North-west.
Dogs bark and howl.
In this first of May day, the Almighty is rain,
voices, wind in banana suckers.

Cover of A Leaf in His Ear, by Mahadai DasThe poem that lends its title to A Leaf in His Ear, the collected poems of Mahadai Das, exemplifies what her publisher calls the “oblique, gnomic” style of her later writing. Das, who died in 2003 at the tragically early age of forty-eight, published three collections of poems and did not manage to complete her fourth. “There is no way Mahadai Das’s work can ever be other than an unfinished project,” writes Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press. “Readers need to be trusted to see what is absolutely essential and fully accomplished in her work.” A Leaf in His Ear, edited by the Guyanese scholar Denise De Caires Narain Gurnah, assembles the poems from Das’s three previous books with forty-two uncollected poems ranging from her whole career. This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for the better part of a decade. I’m thrilled to have it in my hands at last, and a full review will appear soon in the CRB.

De Caires Narain Gurnah writes:

The poems collected here are characterised by a restless determination and energy as well as by unexpected and startling imagery. Amidst the air of sorrow that permeates many of these poems, there is a sharp wit and a keenly reflexive intellect at work sifting through the joys, disappointments, frustrations, and pain of a life lived through the fervour of nationalism and the bitter realities of independence in Guyana under Burnham and the mass migrations that followed . . . The trajectory her work charts from nationalism to disillusionment is not uncommon amongst Caribbean poets; what is distinctive about Das’s oeuvre is that this shift is so dramatically and decisively mapped. This, along with the space (I am tempted to say “jangling”) dissonance of her poetic voice and the intensity of the work, make hers a powerful and unique contribution to Caribbean poetry.

You can follow that “trajactory . . . from nationalism to disillusionment” even in the titles of Das’s three previous books. I Want to Be a Poetess of My People (1976) includes the much-anthologised “They Came in Ships”, memorialising the Caribbean’s Indian immigrants. My Finer Steel Will Grow (1982) suggests a determined turning inward, a phase of reflection. Bones (1988) explores even deeper privacies, or more private depths. Illness during the final decade of her life made writing difficult, and the handful of strange, startling poems that end this volume have been lost to us for too long.

Read two more of Mahadai Das’s later poems in the February 2010 issue of Town.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

munnaprasad August 5, 2010 at 2:02 am

Late sister Mahadai speaks to all the children of the Jahajis be they be in Guyana,Trinidad,Fiji or elsewhere.
Love her works. Its a pity that she was called so soon.

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