High breed

By Tanya Shirley

Leaving Traces, by Velma Pollard
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1845-2302-10, 92 pp)

First-time readers as well as those familiar with the work of Velma Pollard — one of Jamaica’s and the Caribbean’s pre-eminent women poets — will be enthralled by her latest collection, Leaving Traces. With her usual linguistic deftness, she continues her exploration of Caribbean history and culture, human behaviour, gender relations, morality, and the interplay between the personal and the political. Pollard’s style is marked by her sparse punctuation, witty syntax, subtle humour, and dread talk. She tells her stories with urgency. These poems are the work of a mature poet completely at ease with her voice.

The collection is divided into three sections: “Leaving Traces”, “Double Vision”, and “While the Sap Flows”, mimicking the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as well as the trinity. In these poems, persons as far away as Montserrat and Iraq are united by the devastation around them and the universality of their suffering. The poems exhibit a diasporic sensibility that goes beyond the poetic imagination into the realm of lived and shared experience. Most of the titles in the first two sections refer to actual places or people. The narrator is positioned as an outsider in the sense that she is often a visitor, but she is also an insider who is privy to the history and culture of these places. She becomes the marginalised figure who is given the role of mouthpiece; “la loca” who speaks her mind regardless of the “small children [who] stare and wonder” (“Portobello”).

Although there are a few poems that denounce the harmful effects of globalisation and American imperialism, there are also poems that acknowledge the inevitability of change and embrace the idea of renewal and rejuvenation. The collection ends with the poem “With Thanks”, which may be read as a microcosm of a larger utopian world view which suggests that in the end the threads that bind are stronger than those that divide:

So when my delta years
their gentle sands run

my skin reflecting my soul’s glow
will smooth forgetful of time’s touch
and all the marrow of November’s bones
will warm
how we loved

This final poem reiterates the poet’s compassion and empathy for a world which often forgets that we are united in our capacity to love.

The poems are narrated by a seemingly older, female narrator (with the exception of “Confessions of a Son” and “Confession”) who is imbued with the gifts of memory and truth-telling: “and so I know / and tell the world / that memory is the senior gift” (“Great Forest, Debrecen”). In the book’s first section, “Leaving Traces”, the persona journeys from Panama to Haiti to Puerto Rico to the British Virgin Islands to Montserrat, to Debrecen, Hungary, and Trento, Italy. In “Juan Bautista 1998” the persona travels to Loiza, Puerto Rico, to participate in the African bomba ritual of dancing and drumming, but is disheartened to learn that the ritual has been replaced by “sound boxes” since the “bridge [brought] the city near.” She confesses,

I humble
come from reggae land
to honour Bomba
cant believe
this cultural conquest
bow my shamefaced head

Then later announces, “I want to smash the globe.” It is a similar situation in “Thinking Re-thinking Baths, Virgin Gorda”, where the narrator observes, “Music however sweet / disturbs the meditative mood / beach and the Baths get littered now / selling T-shirts / with music sun and ice.” In these two poems and throughout the collection, the narrator speaks on behalf of a community; Pollard adds depth to the narrative voice by allowing this narrator to simultaneously record public happenings as well as the internal musings of someone fortunate enough to be both insider and outsider. Often this vacillation is facilitated by Pollard’s unobtrusive insertion of parenthetical comments and rhetorical questions.

The second section more clearly illustrates that many of these poems are engaged in a conversation with each other. The poem “Cut Language”, which celebrates a child’s ability to claim both English and patwa — “didn’t I tell them / everytime / bilingual is the lick?” — demonstrates the theoretical position outlined in an earlier poem titled “At the Hortobagy Near Debrecen”. In that poem, Pollard uses the interspecies mixing of sheep and pigs as a metaphor for hybridity:

creole I say
mixed breed
high breed
of language
sheep now

creole sheep
I say
these pigs are parents
they answer
doesn’t she know
species dont mix

The elongation of the word “hybrid” to form “high breed” is an example of Pollard’s skilful manipulation of language. Her use of the animals allows her to humorously comment on the significance of hybridity in the Caribbean. The repetition and positioning of “I say” to draw attention to the “I” as well as the mystical leaps made in the arguments capture the conventions of Rastafarian reasoning and gives the narrative voice an air of authority and profundity.

It is a shame that “Picasso’s Rape Series (Ponce ’98)”, the next poem in the second section, is weakened by its unnecessary preamble, because so much is working in this poem: Pollard’s signature piling-on of alliteration; precise imagery; tender but unsentimental language. The poem captures the woman’s torment in Picasso’s painting: “forever and forever / she will dream / and dreaming will forever / pierce the quiet night / wild with desolation / a million nightmares / drive her / to her sleepless end.” It is a complex exploration of the portrayal of women not just in art, but in the wider society as well, and it “talks to” the fourth section of an earlier poem entitled “Trento”, in which the narrator bemoans the fact that men will assume a black woman waiting for her friend on a street corner in Italy is a prostitute unless perhaps she has a book in hand.

The longest poem in the collection, “While TV Towers Burn”, is also found in this second section. It is a harrowing account of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The poem empathetically chronicles the devastation but also incriminates the United States for its participation in prior politically motivated warfare and the subsequent victimisation of foreigners, resulting from the state of terror:

“Lest we become the evil we deplore . . .”
this from the Holy Pulpit
the Lord Bishop pleads
to folks and terrorists
the Other from the flaming chair of power finger points
“If you are the friend of my enemy you are my enemy;
our targets have no bases but their harbourers have . . .”

So mothers’ hair will tangle with the dust
falling for sons they never bore
so You can find that face or any face
to take your anger and your hate

The voice in this poem belongs to a griot who satirises the arbitrary nature of war — “throw the dice now and see / whose luck is out / whose luck is in / terror is terror anywhere / Iran, New York” — and dispenses the hard truth with solemn precision: “No need for Halloween this year / this year the earth has brought / (has bought) / its own dry pestilence of ash.” The two other poems in this section also explore the effects of the war in Iraq. “War Child” is an elegy for Iraq and her people who have lost their sense of identity under the regime of “Tweedlebush” and “Tweedleblair,” and the last poem in section two, “Messiah”, wonders what will happen if the Messiah returns today: “which of the men in the mosque / who with his bayonet drawn / which of the frightened faces / is He?” It is a powerful and haunting conclusion that reminds readers that one of Pollard’s strengths is creating the perfect endings for her poems, writing that last reverberating note.

Readers will also understand why the third section is like a rebirth. Even though the narrator has arrived at the autumn of her life, aware that “these leaves” in “another several years / will lie / crumpled and brown / beneath some other body / hiding in the shade” (“Soursop/Tree I Remember”), she is also aware that this phase of her life allows her to start over relationships, gain greater insights into human behaviour, empathise with others, and show gratitude for life and love. In these poems, nature nourishes the human spirit and teaches a lesson in resilience. The title poem of this section, “While the Sap Flows”, concludes in a voice reminiscent of Lorna Goodison:

Know this
O doubting heart
that while the sap flows
there is nothing
man cannot

Birds are celebrated for their calming presence and sweet music in the midst of “the urgent clatter” of the urban space (“Birdsong”). The reappearance of birds in this section represents Pollard’s thematic concern with rebirth and the continuity of life, as in the earlier poem “It is the Dying Time” man’s cruelty was portrayed through the killing of a bird. Not only do the birds reappear, but in this final section of the collection Pollard is careful to illustrate that not all men are cruel. Readers are taken on a journey into the interior landscape of desire, vulnerability, and self-examination: “My lowered eyes / now see / what my hands did” (“Confession”).

Leaving Traces will leave you thinking about your life and the world we live in. The structure of the book ensures that although we observe the impact of globalisation and American imperialism and grieve for the loss of tradition and culture, what resonates is Pollard’s appreciation of beauty and her celebration of the human spirit.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

Tanya Shirley is a Jamaican poet and lecturer at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.