By Pamela Mordecai
The Damp in Things, by Millicent A.A. Graham
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230838, 53 pp)
She Who Sleeps with Bones, by Tanya Shirley
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230876, 78 pp)
Millicent Graham and Tanya Shirley are young Jamaican women with first collections of poetry published by the same British press. Both have formally studied the craft and won awards for their poetry. Both have been to university abroad and now live and work in Jamaica. Not surprising, then, that their poems resemble in subject matter, in medium (being written in patwa, English, or a mixture of the two), and to some extent in accessibility.
I’ll take the last two points first. Most of the poems in Shirley’s She Who Sleeps with Bones (hereafter Bones) and many of those in Graham’s The Damp in Things (hereafter Damp) use language the average reader will understand to situate people in their physical and emotional times and spaces, recount their stories, sometimes make argument, sometimes leave argument to lurk. One is glad for this clarity, hopeful that it will invite more than the usual coterie of readers.
This is not to say that the poems are simple, for plain and simple are different.
One way in which the poets multiply their meanings is by using what John Figueroa has called the “creole ghost on the English line.” Here is Shirley’s “What I Learned in Grenada”:
I said, “Hello,
my name is Tanya.”
the bend over show your teeth
and throat laugh.
She said, “I dig up Tania outside.
Go down on my knees
dig my hands into the earth
pull tania out . . .
So you never knew
you were ground provision?”
The aggregation of “bend over show your teeth / and throat” to make an adjective is a creole device. Tania is a root vegetable, a “ground provision” like yam, but it is also patwa for “stand here”: stand = tan + ya = here. Is the farmer-lady rooting out ennui, stasis?
This creole ghost appears often in Bones, manifesting in Damp less frequently. On occasion, the poets employ the demotic at greater length. In “Upon Meeting a Woman by the Name of Melba”, Shirley mostly uses patwa to describe the pre- and postlapsarian states of Melba, a “tie-head, Clarendon woman” who is overtaken as an adolescent by Pastor’s “big like . . . cucumber” penis. Creole seasons “Sunday Ritual”, in which the persona describes how she copes with being “in this place,” away from home. In “Boypickney”, Graham does a razzle-dazzle slip-and-slide between codes and registers as she shows us a single father struggling to raise his leggo boy child. She uses creole also in “Country Road”, in the interior musings of the one man in the landscape (an archetypal figure?) as he makes a case for why he cannot marry: a woman who has been “hanging on” waiting for an unlikely rejuvenation.
There is no indictment of history in these poems. Shirley’s “Restoration,” “A West Indian Poem”, and “Music is Made Out of Smoke” acknowledge the painful passage of the past, but any quarrels the poets have with what-has-gone-before are for the most part folded into their depictions of the loves, joys, sufferings, struggles of the people, themselves included, who inhabit, in Graham’s case, a Jamaican landscape, and in Shirley’s, landscapes local and foreign. Their themes are much the same: generations of family, friends, customs and rituals, broken things, hard life, politics as it impacts people’s lives, relationships, love and the freedom to love, desire, betrayal, morality, mortality, the spaces of sky and earth and manmade habitat and growing things, the worlds of art and of the spirit. Sometimes the similarity narrows to an image: Shirley’s persona happy to be sitting on her grandfather’s lap “eating big people food” in “A Long Story” and Graham’s persona swept up into her father’s arms and (maybe, and maybe unhappily so) set on his knee in the kitchen in “Scotch Broth”.
There is no chance of confusing these poets, however. Their poems have different shapes and speak through different voices in different ways. In Bones it’s always a woman’s voice we hear, or seem to hear. In Damp, the personae in poems like “Country Road” and “Boypickney” are male, while in other poems the perceiving I/eye could be either a man’s or a woman’s. Shirley gives the nod to traditional forms: delicate haikus in “The Essentials”, the litany form in “A Chant Against Fear”, teasing anapaests in the structured verses of “The Distance Between Us”, internal, end-, and slant rhyme, free or carved stanzas, as the spirit moves, suiting the poem’s shape to her purposes. Graham is conservative. She has limbered up in the gymnasium of rhyme and rhythm, done long marches on her metrical feet and press-ups with traditional forms. Though it supports the poetry, this practice is not intrusive. She can slip into the harness of a sonnet in “Conversation” and not break a sweat.
It’s in their approaches that the poets most differ. Whereas Graham is cautious, Shirley tumbles into her material. (Damp has mostly short poems, while most of those in Bones go over a page.) She is a storyteller, full of energy, immersed in her worlds, unabashed, aspiring to conjuration and madness, caring and sharing. This headlong charge invigorates her portrayals of ordinary people, friends, family, pets, wounded creatures, yielding vivid images like the emblematic “two-year-old pulling her red Hello Kitty suitcase” in “Even Rolling Stones Gather Moss” and the fading and dying grandparents in “Grandpa in the Departure Lounge”, “A Long Story”, and “Where is God in All of This?” In poems like these — and there are many — tender, earnest, deeply engaged, the intensity of feeling is persuasive, its power undiluted by insistence or posture.
Not the case for some poems in “Waiting for Rain”, the second section of Bones, which begins with “Colour Me Dis, Colour Me Dat” and ends with “Immaculate”. As bookends, these poems are a nice contrast, the first a colourful tramp through the persona’s sumptuous head-and-body “wild garden,” the last a layered meditation on the strictures of whiteness. There are other fine poems in this section, like “From Across the Room” and “The Life Left Behind” (I’m not persuaded by “Waiting for Rain”), but some could benefit from reticence. L-poems are not easy to write well and the worst kind to fall short on. Our best poets steer clear of them. However adept at cunnilingus the lover, however “sweet like mango” the parts, they can bear only so much sucking. Phalluses, open legs, and stirring hips hold us for just so long. Nor should the poet offer her readers a dismissive handle for her work.
Raindrops. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo
Water/moisture/wetness is matter and metaphor for both poets. Liquid images permeate both collections: juices of desire, stain of sex, trickle of time, rain of freedom and creativity, tears of wooing and grieving, damp of imagination and the poetic impulse, blood of toil, punishment, redemption, prayer . . . Though these images mostly symbolise what is vital and fecund, they can also signify what is eroded, dangerous, dying. In Shirley’s “Immaculate”, a schoolgirl, clad in white down to her underwear, ignores the warning that rain is the “enemy of chastity” and decides instead to “wear the rain,” eventually lying down in the wet grass to pray “for rain and expulsion.” (Immaculate Conception High School, commonly called Immaculate, is a Roman Catholic girls’ school in Upper St Andrew. The students wear an all-white uniform.) Graham’s “Rain Days”, effectively the title poem of Damp, describes how the poet-persona, as a child, is denied the satisfaction of chasing shoes in overflowing gutters, the chance to be one of the “sodden girls” who “wiggled on tip-toe, their tunic hems / hoisted.” Having observed her mother’s injunction to “know only the dry,” she is overcome with regret at being “kept raw / far from the damp in things.” The poems represent the poets’ calling to write as well as their divergent styles: “Immaculate” suggests why Shirley is dramatic, impulsive, eager to get down to the nitty-gritty, shock her reader by baring all. “Rainy Days” explains Graham’s caginess, her recourse to ambiguity, her disposition to create interplays of words with multiple significances, to arrange images in re-combinations that thicken the poetic statement.
If Graham’s poems are, as the blurb on the book says, about desire, it’s a furtive, shape-shifting, more-than-sexual longing. There’s no comparing the poets’ L-poems, for Graham’s are hard to find. “Dawn” might be an example, except that the persona just might be talking to a child. In “The Problem with Love at First Sight”, the persona (or one of the personae) ends up waiting “in un-romance.” Is the cat in “Cat” a beloved or a beloved feline? Perhaps “Last Impression” is a love poem? Aha! “Crickets”! Except what’s this about being “gobbled up / by the dark”? About “blind / whitening tongues” feeling “in the darkdom to find / our harsh expirations”? Is this poem about sex or death?
In fact, all Graham’s poems are enigmas, achieving their effects by tokens constantly on the move. Consider “Slingshot in the Garden”:
She used to hide herself, sweet
Julie between the green, turning
till ripeness betrayed her.
Then he would come,
a forked tamarind stick
in his mouth like a tongue;
his pockets full of pellets
to sling like lyrics, for
bruising her sun-rouged skin.
The poem, which tells us about a boy who spots a ripe Julie mango and brings slingshot and stones to lick it down, is also a story about a man “falling” a woman with his sweet mouth, his “lyrical gun,” and his “pockets” of testicles full of “pellets” of seed, as well as a version of the first Fall, with the mango as apple. “Sunset from the Kitchen” is allegorical too. Viewed at “only half past” — for the poet persona is still young — the play of light and shadow over terrain as the sun retreats is a metaphor for death. To further focus the poets’ different poem-making strategies, compare the kernel of this poem and another like it, “A Day for Death” (lyrical but terse, its end a frightening caution: “You cannot live the two: / love and eternity”) with Shirley’s extended treatment of the subject in poems like “Just Like That” and “Where is God in All of This?”
Graham’s “Rebuilding” is as perverse as it is ambiguous. The poet-persona, “rusty from contemplating elements,” nonetheless refuses to be glad that a hole in the roof is being patched, and instead complains about “a damned carpenter [who] is nailing it shut / with new sheets; galvanised,” thus depriving him/her of the sound of pigeons’ feet scratching, their coo, “the waft of navy blue wings.” Thus galvanised (refers to zinc and persona), he/she “will not feel this rain.” There’s more than one meaning for “galvanised,” more than one resonance for “rain,” several interesting confusions they help to create.
Words work hard in Graham’s hands, her vision prismatic rather than surreal. It is her appreciation of unresolved pluralities that enables the poems, “I Am” and “That Life”, in which the poet-persona can love a grandmother who “taught [her she] was Black,” slapped her in the face and beat her with a guava switch, “the proof / that love can make you flinch,” preferring the “cornmeal skin” of her sister. It is what enables this book of multi-faceted poems, which, as the end of “The Road” says:
Keep to the broken rind
that holds the serrated tracks
of a people who have pressed on.
Graham could perhaps borrow a bit of living dangerously from her sister poet. What Tanya Shirley could learn from Graham is that less can be more.
Pamela Mordecai is a Jamaican writer and editor based in Canada. Her publications include several books of poetry, most recently The True Blue of Islands (2005); Pink Icing (2006), a collection of short stories; and (with her husband Martin) a reference work, Culture and Customs of Jamaica (2001). She is well known as a children’s writer, and her play El Numero Uno recently premiered in Toronto.