New testament

By Vahni Capildeo

Poems: All Things Bright & Quadrille for Tigers, by Christine Craig
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-184-523-1729, 160 pp)

Christine Craig

Christine Craig. Image courtesy Peepal Tree Press

Christine Craig’s Poems combines in one volume her 1984 Quadrille for Tigers with a book’s worth of new poems, All Things Bright. Rarely does a poetry collection — let alone two books within one binding — have so unified an effect as this offering. The reader is overwhelmed by an impression of goodness. The last line of the five-part All Things Bright is a full quotation from C.F. Alexander’s 1848 hymn: “all things bright and beautiful.” Craig’s poems sing with optimism in full cognisance of the grand scale of agglomerated small despairs and jarring social disparities. Craig has dedicated herself to some tough day-work — witness her achievements for human rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection in Jamaica. Despite that — because of that — Craig, listening to the diaspora’s “new wave” of flitting poets, fearing to find them tricked into a “new slavery / the great white cities of the North,” finds instead

. . . the harmony is a net knotted
and thrown wide, and this is a faith
and this is a future and this is a
great shining song of possibilities.

(“For Imbuga, Kobena, and Moyez”)

Where Quadrille for Tigers closed by invoking Atibon Legba, the Vodun gatekeeper between us and the spirits, All Things Bright seizes the responsibility to will into creation a world where celebration is possible. It insists that celebration is necessary. It is a work of persistence, refusing to experience adjustment as erosion. Give a nod to George Eliot, whose happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history; tip your hat to Tolstoy, whose happy families are all happy in the same way; wave at all those writers who become their wounds, who take us for walks into the dark. Craig’s good book confounds those traditions. At no point will Craig’s reader be required to empathise in fascinated horror with a deviant consciousness, or have to venture down the decadent boulevard of the maudit (also necessary work, but a task for writers of a different slant). Sometimes, perhaps, the reader may be tempted to speculate about the author of the poems. The occasional emptiness, dryness, heaviness, as in “Days When Demons”, somehow conjures up the image of the writing woman who, after another day of “real-world” battles, sits with her notes, her hopes, her craft, and her imagination, and painstakingly begins opening the way to song.

The “distinct womanist tone” well remarked by Geoffrey Philp (writing at his blog) also contributes to the unity of effect. The voice of Quadrille is sometimes more enigmatic in terms of poetic technique, more obviously autobiographical in terms of material, than that of All Things, but there is clear continuity of speaker. This is Craig speaking, in all her womanity. (The thirty per cent-ish of the world with Internet access can hear the voice, and its intertwining of lyrics with lived concerns, at the University of Iowa’s digital library.) There is a further unifying factor: the poetic technique, which is various, but very deliberately and specifically so. Mel Cooke, writing for the Jamaica Gleaner, astutely ascribes the distinct tone to Craig’s “consistent juxtaposition of vantage points and penchant of making striking transitions between the Jamaican English and its undisturbed British co-parent.” If there is a fault, it is only that sometimes that the poems sound too determined to make a song of life and make the best of things, like a social manifesto, or a private resolve. “Islands” is a case in point. At a public rally, in real time, there would be a genuine swell of emotion among the participants who are instructed to

see across these islands
our daughters are growing
all our beauty
all our riches
are one.

Alone with the book, with the eye restlessly wandering the text, the individual mind might demur on being informed that when the child in the poem shares a look and a smile with the older woman-poet, the smile is saying “I will be a woman / like you,” and

. . . In that flash
of love and homage we know
it is sweet to be female.

Why not let it be a brimming of asexual, elfin childhood glow and pass on, says the restless mind, at leisure to analyse, unable to escape from analysis, reading with too-much-too-little-time. Yes! cheers the listener in the here-and-now, moved by the music of inevitability in the verse: freedom-recognition-identification-destiny-celebration.

There is much music in the book, from the hymnal title onwards: Mozart, Marley, Scarlatti, Calypso Rose . . . Music is there to be fought with, because of its cultural freight or the personal associations with which it is impacted. Music arrives, too, as a transformative, animating power. Language itself is a patterning and unpicking force. The energy of Kamau Braithwaite is channelled repeatedly. The technique of individual pieces retains ability to surprise: “Florida Blues”, the last section of All Things Bright, lets the poetic line expand into a mixed, swampy gorgeousness like the “threatened, tenacious landscape” that is the poem’s subject. The rolling hypnagogic emigrant nightmare-vision of “The Stranger”, one whole section of the book, involves the reader in the frustrations and impulses to freedom of a Jamaican and feminine wasteland.

A pattern common to both the collections within this book is the ready shift to modes of prayer, exhortation, and dedication. “Sweet Fruit”, where the male poet/lover finally liberates the woman poet into fiery flight, suddenly makes time and space “for the / many who were hungry, for / the many who were abused.” Furious lament rears out of “Kingston”: “Weep, weep for us women on the streets / of Kingston. Weep for our children / hungry, angry.” A cry rises from “Portland Morning”: “Oh world, a heart could break here.” These poems are not really lyrics. They are dramas, running to several pages, switching character and backdrop. The poetic voice is public, politically engaged, Chorus to what it refuses to stage as the Greek tragedy of Hero Jamaica, Hero Humanity . . .

Though both collections have equal capacity for subtle, bitter, occasionally raucous comedy, the courageous, complex optimism of All Things Bright is a development from Quadrille for Tigers, which seems like a seed book in many ways, just beginning to rustle with the invocations due to spread out with greater boldness. While “All Things Bright . . .” shines out in Quadrille for Tigers as the title of a poem that is a celebration of the “steady act of hope” in the face of stasis, poverty, gendered violence, and terror, “The Causeway”, for example, is full of doubt, fragility, and a sense of the effort it takes to make poetry amid the futile and mechanical. The earlier collection’s tender love poems quiver with the awareness of potential. This woman’s writing is active, not passive; a song of the lover, not the beloved, it presents itself in motion, in possession, even in the act of expectancy:

Later, in the full rush of day
I walk soft, one moment of calm
shaped this fragile bowl I hold safe
till your coming should fill it.

(“Student Thoughts Away From Home”)

Because the earlier collection appears second in this book, the reader feels moved back to the more personal realm; from the declarative to the tentative. Whether or not intended, the effect has a springlike humility. The poetry of Quadrille (if the reader reads with the order of the physical volume that puts this 1984 collection after the 2010) makes itself felt along with, as part of, the unfolding reverberations of the first and later work. One of the recurrent ideas, or articles of faith, of All Things Bright, introduced in “Film Script”, is the necessity of cherishing some glowing film — film in the sense of gauzy or moist illusion, but also in the sense of story, moving picture. The visualisation of a longed-for, idealised image is no temptation to dead-end escapism, in Craig’s vigorous poetics. It is a technique for bearing with the desolation of today while shaping a brighter tomorrow. This idea appears perhaps most starkly in “For Isabel Allende”, which meditates on the act of reading about love and violence as a way of hiding in the imagination so as to gather the power to interpret and shape reality, a kind of retreat from, without denial of, the violence and love in the reader’s world.

Craig’s poetry is an inheritor of the pervasive migratory sensibility of Caribbean writing. Every love, whether man-woman, elder-child, music-listener, person-place, is imbued with a long-distance quality of time or space: the glimmer of a baby’s anticipated ageing; the characteristically dynamic exercise of patience with the beloved, and impatience with the self for dwelling in nations, or relationships, scored over and over with “not-at-home.” A merely superficial reading of “From Pinegrove”, for example, would see a local reclamation of an essentially Romantic lyric about a landscape in the setting sun. In fact, the fervency of the plea for the gift of one sumptuous, mountain-ringed hour creates a sense that moments of peace are under threat; one’s own territory isn’t easily one’s own. The poetic persona is a stranger to her own land; her land is a stranger to security. Hence the passion for continuity, not discovery; for memories and reawakenings in the moment itself.

This reviewer is a little troubled by the implications of the wording of some of the poems that sweep and swoop with such desire for justice as well as love. Sometimes an opposition appears to be drawn between the authenticity of the poor and the parasitism of the Jamaican privileged class. The poems’ energies can turn in vengeance or with dismissive disgust on those in coolly sealed-off lives. This is a lapse in the otherwise remarkable sensitivity to the peculiar inherited and self-fashioning oppressions of New World humanity, from which no one is exempt. By contrast, the “womanist” stance steers superbly clear of essentialism; rather than setting out parameters for some true Caribbean femaleness, there is an aliveness to the complicated humanity of women.

Unfortunately, these socially engaged poems’ racial consciousness is less nuanced, though this seldom obtrudes. Yes, the outrages and near-vanishment imposed on indigenous peoples by post-Columbian invasions and resettlements are registered keenly. Yes, the horror of slavery and the canefield haunts whatever other music the text strives or yearns for, a “steady, fearful weeping all night long.” The blind spot appears in that poem’s injunction to the woman proudly and timidly in a mixed-race relationship. The poetic persona exclaims, “Oh lady, love that coolie man” – because of the ancient history (especially “spiritual”) that is his “by race.” What disturbs this reviewer is not just the (il)logical mishmash whereby genetic ethnicity means an individual acquires a value as the conduit, or product, of a culture — as if any unitary culture, let alone from so huge and difficult a region as India/Pakistan, is ever definable; as if any culture can be passed on mystically, in the blood, without active education. To pick on the sort-of-South-Asian human being as more “spiritual” than others is orientalist. It replicates colonial fuzzy stereotypes, which ignore the actuality and centrality of argumentative, iconoclastic (even atheistic), bawdy, materialistic, scientific, and political elements that are just as heritable from “oriental” nomadic, village, and urban civilisations.

Even this essentialist error, though, is good-hearted, beautifully flung out, and while it gives pause for thought about the perception, and construction, of “identity” in ideal Caribbean social interaction, it does not massively detract from the book’s overall effect. Similarly, for every teetering on the brink of reverse racism (anti-“white”), there is a pulling back and renewal of sensitivity to the intrinsic self-contradictoriness of our post-Columbian situation in its marvellous provocation to new ways of being.

And the poetry of the poetry? Two brief notes of what lingers. First, there is the sensuous appreciation of Caribbean-ness evident in the images. This appreciation is perhaps the sweeter for being grounded in a politics of respect. It would in any case operate freely in terms of technique. In “Discovery Bay”, “blue tongues, lightly foamed with white / lick quickly inland”; in “Lithographs”, “night licks up the last wisps / of orange cloud with a smooth, grey tongue.” The reader begins to feel consistently how the land and its inhabitants are licked into shape, always in a lovely process of smeared and intimate transformation. Second, there is the effective use of deliberately unoriginal language to make the poems accessible at a poetic level to a wider audience. Certain images or phrases are striking because expected. They are not lazy or stock-poetic; rather they are placed rightly and polished, like cherished family ornaments. This technique (re-)creates scenes in such a way that readers or hearers, including those who dislike or do not know much poetry, can start to believe in the praiseworthiness of the poems’ subjects and locations. So “Without Apology to Proust” brings the reader to a “carpet of mint” and “deep rivers”; “Portland Night” to the “molten” sea. Craig’s oeuvre makes a contribution to a literary shorthand that enables Caribbean situations to be recognised and loved. This is the kind of continuance that leads to an established literature, to which people can naturally turn and find something of their reflection. The result is again liberating. Not every Caribbean writer has to reinvent the wheel.

The lasting impression is, as said at the beginning, a beaming and disillusioned goodness. Live a moment with the “brightly clumped” workers of “Portland Morning”. Stop for the dizzying yellow-green flutter-and-stillness of butterflies–clouds–thoughtful-schoolgirls–leaves of “Butterfly Season at St Hugh’s”. Know what it is for mothers and daughters to be close as “pearly onion skins / folded into each other,” in “This Sky This Day”. All Things Bright is a new testament in Caribbean poetry. With Christine Craig, we are not exactly entering paradise with the heart of little children, but shunting hell away from earth with the lifelong fortitude to stand up for remembered innocence, for our first glimpses of right and happy ways of living.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2011

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to Britain in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns (2003), Person Animal Figure (2005), Undraining Sea (2009), and the forthcoming Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2011).