Gardening in the tropics
By Andre Bagoo
Lantana Strangling Ixora, by Sasenarine Persaud
(Tsar Publications, ISBN 9781894770729, 76 pp)
How are we connected to nature? Or, rather, how does nature mirror us? Sasenarine Persaud’s collection of poems Lantana Strangling Ixora does not deal with these questions explicitly, but the book certainly springs them.
In his essay “I Hear a Voice, Is It Mine?” published in 2000, the Guyana-born poet sets out his personal aesthetic for poetry — an aesthetic, by his own admission, in line with centuries-old antecedents. Discussing the idea of the author being present within the surface of a work of art — something he terms “Yogic Realism” — Persaud remarks: “No work of art can stand by itself or be enjoyed or appreciated by itself — not once a self, any self or consciousness, is doing the appreciation.” Tellingly, he adds: “change is … the natural process of continuity, of ensuring that the strongest seeds survive, thrive, and flower — a honed sameness.”
Lantana Strangling Ixora examines nature and how we are involved with it in our everyday lives. Consider the opening lines of the title poem:
There were times in the morning
we questioned the bloom
of the previous evening, watering
canna lilies, clearing the live oaks’
acorns from our white wrought iron bench.
Nature is an intrusion, but then a reminder. A reminder of the past, and therefore time, and our inevitable death. A death itself a miniscule part of the apparently eternal natural world, with its waves of renewal and destruction.
Throughout these poems, nature snakes in and out of life, and is an integral part of it. Human beings and their society take on the qualities of creatures of the natural world. In “A Serpent on the Flatwoods Trail”, the protagonist is found “staring from the blacktop / snaking through green slash pine and scrub palm / still glowing from long departed summer rains.” In “Yoga Studio, Plymouth”, the poem closes: “We twine lips around fingers around limbs.”
Elsewhere, nature is a threatening force, such as in “Global Warming”, which ends: “Let no dove scream in a flooding night. / He who values beachfront mansions will be worth more when water touches his door.” Until nature is indistinguishable from us, as in “Beachcombers”, a poem worth reproducing in its entirety:
An upturned sole cemented
in sand from the tide-dump
on shorelines of past embraces.
We are tracing footprints
along the water’s edge
tiny impressions, deep indented
heels, pointed toes, our steps curled
like the neck of an orgasmed crane.
And you may be correct.
Her imprints are more eye-catching
but in the coming tide tonight
all is erased on linen clouds —
saffron limbs on a just-laundered bedspread
saffron specks in the nude’s painted eyes
glowing in the dark like rubies.
Who are we, you, her? Has time passed at some point in the poem? Perhaps the place has changed from a shoreline to a bedroom? Or is this scene now inside a painting (“the nude’s painted eyes”)? This points to that aspect of Persaud’s style influenced by the ideas he expresses in his essay “I Hear a Voice”. It is, however, also a style which fits easily within contemporary notions of the poem which free poetry of the need to communicate solely through linear narrative, relishing what D.H. Lawrence called the “iridescent suggestion of an idea.” (Although we may ask here if there is even a unitary idea being suggested, or rather several ideas through different moments in time). So that Lantana Strangling Ixora also begins to grow other concerns. How should art treat with the relationship between man and nature? How are we — and perhaps nature itself — related to art? And what is the poet’s role in all this?
The process of opening a book of poems almost inevitably triggers some of these questions. And, frequently, books of poems themselves explicitly or implicitly deal with them. Each book — and each poem — goes some way towards answering these questions by defining “poetry.” Just as the poems collected in a book relate to each other, the poet, her book, and the context of that book form an organic whole relating to other human beings and the environments we are trying to build for ourselves in the flow of time.
Perhaps this is one way of looking at the many poems in Lantana Strangling Ixora which deal with key figures in Caribbean literature, such as Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Ian McDonald. A quick scan of the contents page reveals titles like “Walcott, Heaney, Muldoon & Co.”, “Mongoose Men” (alluding to a verse by Walcott which likened Naipaul to the furry animal), “Mongoose on Snake: Nightfall on Walcock”, “Sir VSN Sends Greetings to Walcott”, and “Naipaul Inventing ‘Hat’”. There is also a response to McDonald’s poem “A White Man Considers the Situation”. The closing poem is called “Finding Amy C*”. The asterisk points us to a note which reveals that the title refers to the late American poet Amy Clampitt. Persaud finds himself entangled in these names, and all they offer and represent to him. He is in conversation with them, just as he is in conversation with nature and with the reader. There are many voices in this book.
A word must be said about the poems’ frequent allusions to sacred Hindu texts. They play with the poems in subtle ways. They are also no doubt part of Persaud’s politics, which aims to redress what he perceives as the marginalisation of East Indian culture within the Caribbean. It is an agenda which, though central in the poet’s output to date, is not central to an appreciation of most of these poems. However, Lantana Strangling Ixora ostensibly sets out to examine what is really an issue of power: how one culture can dominate another, and how one identity can embody different competing traditions. The lantana and ixora of the title are explained in an epigraph defining both plants, explaining that the former is native to South America and the latter to India.
It is clear the engagement Persaud seeks is not necessarily limited to an idea of the relationship between poet and nature. Perhaps he is operating along a wider line of inquiry, which moves towards the permeability of literature and life itself. This is, arguably, a line that is always present. Art must always reflect what is outside it through what is within it. Art, too, is life itself, and cannot arbitrarily be cut out off and analysed as a static thing. The invasion of the so-called “Yogic” personality is, in the end, an artifice. For author and work are already one and the same.
The best poems here are the ones that speak for themselves by suggesting ideas without necessarily completing them. Consider “Letter From the Past”:
Spanish moss tumbling
from trunk to unclipped lawn
must go for a memory:
a tossed towel
ending a night’s erratic breathing
to Biblical personages
We work better in the dark
we work better unspeaking
on the uncut grass
the moss tumbling off leave-taking
limbs on a book that inks your name
We end, then, where we began: with thoughts of nature and the trees that make books — and therefore authors — possible.
Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and journalist. His first book of poems, Trick Vessels, was published in 2012. He is a collaborator in the Douen Islands project.