What lies within

By Lisa Allen-Agostini

Shell, by Olive Senior
Insomniac Press, ISBN 978-1-897178-48-5, 100 pp

Olive Senior

Olive Senior. Photo by/courtesy Martin Mordecai

The great debate over slavery reparations continues with United States Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama rejecting the notion that the New World descendants of enslaved Africans should be compensated for the hardships endured in African chattel slavery. “I have said in the past — and I’ll repeat again — that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying recently.

But Olive Senior’s new book of poems, Shell, could be used to argue compellingly in favour of reparations. Senior, a Jamaican writer of note, documents in this collection the direct relationship between the astounding wealth of white European sugar planters and the equally astounding, gruesome terrors to which their slaves, the source of that wealth, were subjected.

“The impetus for the shell motif in this book was a visit I made to Wiltshire, England, seeking the site of Fonthill Abbey, built at the height of plantation slavery as the grandest private house in Europe. Built by the man called ‘England’s richest son,’ William Beckford, Jr, whose wealth came from his family’s Jamaican sugar plantation,” Senior writes in a brief note at the end of the book. The house’s subsequent destruction, she adds, was no loss to her, but a chance to discuss the opportunities the resulting emptiness brings to “us, the inheritors — on both sides of the Atlantic.”

These opportunities are manifold. Consider how the Lascelles heirs, another sugar planting family, used their resources to support the work of Caribbean musician Geraldine Connor. Connor, who wrote and directed the massive musical Carnival Messiah, staged it near Leeds on the grounds of Harewood House in 2007 as the world observed the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. A Britain-based Trinidadian of African descent, Connor would not have existed had it not been for that trade; nor would the music and arts she celebrates in her musical, a montage of largely Afro-Caribbean music and dance structured around Handel’s Messiah. Just as African chattel slavery wrought positive benefits such as Connor’s art, it is also undeniable that it has wrought negatives, such as the sea of shanties Derek Walcott immortalised in his poem “Laventille”, “where the inheritors of the middle passage stewed, / five to a room, still clamped below their hatch, / breeding like felonies, // whose lives revolve round prison, graveyard, church.”

Senior’s poetry in Shell is a masterful double entendre, talking of shells in nature and humanity, always hinting with a nudge and a wink at the work and fruits of slavery. She says in the afterword that she started the poems years before, but planned to finish them to coincide with the abolition anniversary.

In “Maize”, she writes of a corncob as mother, fondly discussing her children’s foibles:

. . . prepared to die — together. To live, they must be forcibly
undressed and separated. That’s where my human children

come in. Skilled at brutality, they will happily rip these
children from me, strip off their clothing, pull them apart.

The image is a mixture of tenderness and brutality, as she is mother of both victim and conqueror. It is a favourite tactic in Senior’s oeuvre, this mixing of the perspective of oppressor and oppressed, perhaps speaking to her heritage as a mixed-race Jamaican born into humble circumstances but with the light skin and wavy hair of the more privileged classes; she was born in the country but educated with well-off family in the city, and her work often reflects the dichotomy of belonging to both worlds, and yet to neither.

Shell is a themed collection, like her other, celebrated poetry books Gardening in the Tropics (1994) and Over the Roofs of the World (2005). Gardening, her second book of poems, was published some eight years after her first, Talking of Trees (1986), so for this new volume to appear so soon after Over the Roofs is a rare feat. (Perhaps, one might cheekily suggest, she was stimulated by the latter book’s being shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award, a top literary paean in Canada.) Shell fits into her trend of taking themes from the natural world: Gardening dealt with plants, Over the Roofs with birds. In Shell, the shell is snail, corn, conch, any kind of hard covering of hollow, delicate, or delicious interior.

Sometimes the narrative voice is cold, abstracted. This is more noticeable in the later poems of the book, where she looks at the shell of slavery and the plantation economy hiding the real atrocities of the system. “A Superficial Reading” is a meditation on an eighteenth-century painting of a white lady whose arm is curled around her black slave girl.

Turn the page and revel in the surface opulence
of moiré silk, of creamware, pearware, skin.
The shell-like ear behind the torque of ringlets,

the black pearl eyes. The pose is classical.
She does not really notice you within the triangle
of her body and embracing arm not sheltering,

more like cold marble.

The child offers her mistress a shell — like a horn of plenty — full of pearls, and wears a pearl necklace (“borrowed,” the narrator says), all resounding with the theme of shell. It concludes on a meditation about the role of the African girl, her future as a “Sable Venus” “poised to be borne on cusp of emptied shell.” The shell is the hollow façade of the plantation system, which collapsed for economic more than humanitarian reasons, despite the fact that small, enslaved children such as the one in the painting (reproduced in the book) would have had to work as hard as adults in the system of slavery in the Caribbean. They all died young, with a life expectancy around age twenty-five, according to one source.

The pièce de résistance of Shell is the long poem “Auction”, a rumination in eight parts on the founding and fate of the Beckfords’ Fonthill Abbey. Fonthill was “the most extraordinary house in England,” by all accounts, with a central Gothic tower three hundred feet high. “Auction” is a poem of lists, echoing “The Poetics of a West India Dinner Party”, the poem that comes just before it in the last section of the book. “Poetics” is a “poetically arranged” list of items which was an actual menu from a mid-seventeenth-century dinner party in Barbados. The archaic language of the menu, not to mention its dubious delicacies (including kid, with a pudding stuffed in its belly), makes for a strange but compelling poem. So too does this list in “Auction”, “the poetics of possessions, enough / to make the visitor ‘dazzled and drunk with beauty’”:

Greek vases of chalcedonian onyx
Sèvres china
Egyptian porphyry
Cabinet by Bernini
Madame de Pompadour’s black lacquer box
Buhl armoires from the Louvre palace
Ormolu chandeliers
Mosaic tables of Florentine marble
Persian carpets
Portrait of de Vos of Grotius
Portrait of Rembrandt painted by himself
Portrait of Pope Gregory, by Passerotti
Portrait of Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino Allori
(“fresh as if painted yesterday”)
and . . .

The list goes on. It contrasts nicely with the real heart of the poem, the hidden, dark source of all this wealth:

600 beautifully
scarred and
black slaves.

At the end of it all, the narrator finds hollowness, dust, an emptiness. Unsurprising in poetry, where poetic justice is pleasing; true in life, where Fonthill, William Beckford’s startling architectural feat, supported by the slave trade, crumbled to dust.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She recently co-edited the fiction anthology Trinidad Noir, and she writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian.