Journey without maps

By Ian Dieffenthaller

Approaching Sabbaths, by Jennifer Rahim
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-184-523-11-56, 128 pp

Trinidad and Tobago’s anglophone poetry canon is a youthful being; research suggests a date of 1922 for its earliest collection, and prior to 1974 output was sparse. It is relatively simple to trace progress from the tentative steps of pioneers such as Alfred Mendes and Albert Gomes through the transitional work of Harold Telemaque et al, to Eric Roach and Derek Walcott, Federation, Independence in 1962, and the young guns whose work straddled the 1970 Revolution. After the fallout, there occurred a veritable explosion of poetry-book publishing, covering every strand of existence in the incipient nation, and making it difficult to discern any common endeavour. One uniting factor has been poet Anson Gonzalez, whose New Voices journal ran from 1973 to 1993. His efforts, like those of earlier West Indian pioneers Frank Collymore and A.J. Seymour, has begun to bear fruit, at last enabling us to think about “Trinidad and Tobago poetry” as a definable body of work.

Perhaps Gonzalez’s best discovery has been Jennifer Rahim, now well on her way to becoming Trinidad and Tobago’s best poet at home. And there is something about Rahim’s work which parallels that of say, Howard Fergus or Ian MacDonald — West Indians who remained at home — in the way she writes out of the West Indies rather than from the metropolitan centres of her exiled compatriots; writing in standard English naturally punctuated by Creole language and cultural references. Approaching Sabbaths, Rahim’s third poetry collection, comes seventeen years after New Voices published Mothers Are Not the Only Linguists. The title suggests that after all these years she may be approaching a state of equilibrium, but on first reading the work seems to stand as a metaphor for the nation, which may have earned a pause but is still some way away from the seventh day.

Approaching Sabbaths comprises four sections and a postscript: eighty-five poems which move us steadily and skilfully from darkness into the possibility of light. Although Rahim was born after Independence, she is old enough to have witnessed the journey of the nation out of the silence of colonialism, only to encounter Babel. Her parallel journey as a poet is shown to be traumatic at times, but always reflective, coming at last to articulate what it is to be Trinidadian.

Rahim sets out in search of a saint “for women like us,” those who “never knew what grace is innocence”; those “who will never woo a unicorn.” The book begins:

Stamped there
……..a kind of small animal fear
like some bird….caught off
its way……..missed most.

In a style reminiscent of Mothers, the physical layout is used to portray the hesitancy and foreboding of the narrator, who is made to plumb the depths “where even angels stumble / in a growing dark” before accepting the need for a guiding hand. Much of the rest of this section is in short stanzas, often in triplets, which may pick up the religious undercurrent, or merely signify the inarticulacy wrought by such incomprehensible events as a child murder committed by children “twisted like neglected / fields of cane.” At first, the complex net of personal relationships may seem impenetrable, but close re-reading does pay dividends. “Lady Lazarus in the Sun”, for instance, takes Sylvia Plath’s model nightmare of 1960s patriarchy into new territory — middle passage; menstruation; moulding as a “carnival baby”: our narrator, pierced with Christ’s wounds, admits the possibility of being filled with the eternal energy of goddess Kali. Poet and nation must pick up their beds and walk, learn to take sun again,

becoming the dark past brown
the woman no longer held under

The book’s second section switches the focus from womanhood to childhood and parental relationships. It is half as long again as the others, and shares its title with the overall collection. Forgiveness looms large; the sevens of Matthew 18 are recalculated in various ways until our daughter is at the turn of the seventh day. In “A New Starting Point” the child-narrator and her father are the subject of a “70×7” note, trying to find the right syllables to assemble into words that will repair their relationship. This section also places the book firmly on Trinidadian soil. In “St Francis and the Douen” the folkloric lost soul of the child who dies before baptism is first blessed by the saint and in return regains both soul and the bond between parent and child. The communities of Chatham, Grand Rivière, and La Vega are cited as the ecological sources of the nation’s life, and their potential exploitation is portrayed as a threat to a developing mother nation. The following section, “Poems Rain”, is something of an epiphany, centring on developing the ability to accept grace in a form where it is so abundant, yet feared and unregarded — poetry as tropical rain — so as to have strength to carry on.

Section four, “Return to Quinam Bay”, comprises one poem of eighteen parts. It is a poem of journeying — a journey into the metaphorical heart of the nation which parallels the pilgrimage of the narrator and her male companions to Quinam, the place where Trinidad and Tobago’s “black Yeats”, Eric Roach, committed suicide so that the nation might live; to where:

….………………………..the road’s
a black canal to sea
, he came burdened
as Colon did, with his share of darkness:
histories he had made and inherited.

The “pilgrims” travel north-south “on the road to making history real”, recording the geography and development of south Trinidad and the way places like Palmiste, Debe, Penal, and Siparia are ordered in the minds of their inhabitants. Several doubles later, and having fallen foul of the Scalextric-scaled San Fernando interchange, they arrive at Quinam beach, both road’s end and lost dream, a moment marked by a fellow traveller with, “I leave quite Marabella for this?

He was disappointed with his discovery,
as perhaps Columbus had been, his hope
of riches and glory drowned in a filthy sea

The narrator and her companions have travelled twice that distance to share this disillusionment — “finding was illusion / the pastiche of discovery”: the realisation dawns that “Stories tell no lies. Truth is always need.” Columbus needed to find “three hills that never were, / people never seen,” where a poet “swam to sea to reverse history.” On approaching her day of rest, Rahim has discovered that Trinidad, a product of colonial invention, needs to reinvent itself more often than we realise to stay alive, and that sabbaths must be deferred:

I write to make all our stories go on.

Sabbaths won the 2010 Casa de las Americas Prize, the judges marvelling at the poet’s ability to “capture a sense of the historic, social, and cultural complexities of the contemporary Caribbean.” It is a work of sustained intensity, enriched by a liberal sprinkling of metaphor and animated by the craftsman’s ability to turn a phrase. It is a journey of poet and nation which revises the myth of West Indian placelessness, and is destined to become an important artefact in the literary archive of Trinidad and Tobago.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Ian Dieffenthaller grew up in and around San Fernando, Trinidad, trained as an architect, and acquired his PhD from the University of Birmingham. He has written on West Indian and West Indian British poetry for journals such as Wasafiri, Poetry Nation, and Mango Season. His book Snow on Sugarcane: The Evolution of West Indian Poetry in Britain was published in 2009, and he also edited and introduced Rivers of Time, the collected poems of Cy Grant (2008). He is currently working on an anthology of Trinidad and Tobago poetry.