Words need love too
By Vladimir Lucien
The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, by Loretta Collins Klobah
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845231842, 102 pp)
Loretta Collins Klobah. Image courtesy the Bocas Lit Fest
Loretta Collins Klobah’s poetry collection The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman is a book of ordinary concerns. Here are the citizen in a crime-ridden society, and the frailty and ephemerality of all safety; the vacillating sense of responsibility for the overwhelming afflictions that surround her; the woman dealing with solitude after her man has deserted her; the mother who tearfully receives an orange from her estranged son; Grenada in the aftermath of “de revo”; hurricanes; police brutality — and so on. This book reflects on society in all its immediacy and urgency and now-ness. It is like the news, but with greater respect for words, and a belief that — along with young Yashira, killed by a stray bullet, or Yohaira Giminez, used as a drug mule, or the patos that face persecution, and even the person who survives them all — words need love too, and the world can be loved and comforted through words, through bearing witness. But Collins Klobah is also keenly aware of the ennui and helplessness that breeds not only smug witnesses but empty, enervated eyes:
My daughter, standing by my side, asks Do you see that?
I nod. We see it.
No one at the gas station moves.
Men and women stand, serious and silent,
our lives have fallen away from us.
No one tops off his tank and heads off.
We stay like watchmen.
This very poem also explores something more important, and closer to home. It deals specifically with the poet as witness, and the way in which brutality and violence that are immediate to the narrator (who is standing there with her daughter) can be euphemised or undermined by the very poetry that seeks to bear witness. The narrator, a citizen of la Tierra de poetas, is tempted by the image of the man being brought to the ground violently by a policeman:
I want to say that he strains
and leaps against the line
like a dorado, a dolphin fish,
golden and purple, leaping
from the sea, plunging and cutting
until he is tired, gaffed, and brought to the stern,
clubbed on the head until he quivers and is still.
But he is not a metaphor.
if I stay with this metaphor,
you will see mahi mahi
well-cooked in una salsa sambrosa,
con ajillo, mantequilla, alcaparra,
served with amarillos, yellow fried plantains,
in a seaside Cataño restaurant,
not the man who was beaten at my feet.
The narrator even admits to having added “hits” to online videos that may have contained some atrocity or other. This deep and complex reflexivity and exploration of the role of “bearing witness” both by citizen and poet (who are refreshingly indiscernible from each other throughout the entire book) becomes possible only when there is an effort to ground oneself as poet, or in the fortuitous moment when the poet, becoming, finds it impossible to wean herself from responsibility, from accountability, from solid ground and nation.
For all these “Puerto Rico” poems that spread like roots under our gaze in Collins Klobah’s book, her narrators travel considerably. We find them in Carriacou after Hurricane Lenny, in a Chicago bus terminal, in a cold-water flat in Peckham, in St Lucia, in Jamaica, and on the small island of academia. But they refuse to moult and drop the skins of their other roles: the poet does not become soukouyan, does not become the abstract voice of reason or epiphany or warning, or even of bearing witness. The voice remains a room cluttered with real furniture placed thoughtfully, or luggage with lives folded and tucked neatly inside of it.
In a 2011 interview, V.S. Naipaul said, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I can tell whether it is written by a woman or not.” Reading The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, I agree with Naipaul, to a point (though not with his further comment about women as “unequal” to him). What I feel, reading Collins Klobah’s book, is a robust gentleness, a strong perfume meant for our ears. You can hear in the writing the poet with book in one hand and daughter in the other, rushing here, going there, having to cook, worrying about safety. What I mean is that there is something very motherly, or mothering, in the verse. Or they exist like a kind of feminine principle. The presiding spirit could be Haiti’s Ezili Danto, the lwa of motherhood. And I’m tempted to ask the question people whisper to themselves when they see a woman triumphing over the mundane adversities and overwhelming responsibilities of daily domestic life: How does she do it?
Mervyn Morris captures this book’s movement accurately in his back-cover blurb, when he says the verse is “rooted in Puerto Rico” while exploring “experience in other parts of the Caribbean, and Latin America, the USA and England.” As Morris says, “the mood, occasionally indignant, is most often compassionate and celebratory.” But for all the book’s rootedness, and for all its recognition of the Caribbean Sea that joins us all —
shaking brutal hurricanes
and mutinies at you
barbarous executions of Africans
rebellious and palm wine honey women
undersea live burials
(“Language and the Mapping of Slavery”)
— there is still a spiritual or cosmological scatteredness or arbitrariness that is as much the poet’s as it is her society’s — Caribbean society’s. Gods exist as metaphors, in what could be seen as a casual form of manifestation. Yet the world the poet moves through is not one in which the gods themselves seem to participate or act, or even cause mischief. It is the desiccated world of human action and inaction. Therefore the poems’ allusions to Oshun and Oya, Ezili and Buddha remain just that: allusions, or illusions. And The Twelve-Foot Neon Women raises the realisation to us, however unconsciously, that there is a profound arbitrariness in Caribbean spirituality as evidenced in our artworks.
This originates, I believe, from what Erna Brodber sees as “a knowledge vacuum” among Caribbean intellectuals, “that [makes] positioning themselves in the stream of spiritual history impossible, and that [forces] them to wonder if their newfound spiritual rituals would really lessen the sense of wearing the wrong robes.” Brodber adds pertinently that our intellectuals in search of a spiritual past still don’t “know if they [are] connected to the feared obeah man down the road, formerly the butt of jokes in their friendship networks.” In “Produce Truck Sutra”, Collins Klobah asks:
Do the dead
arrive to the O-Bon fete
or the nine-night wake?
Do the dead rise
the amplified plea
of a produce truck?
Do the dead recover
from the violence
they did to each other in life?
I have seen some examples of this “vacuum” overcome both in real life and in poetry, as in Kamau Brathwaite’s encounter with Namsetoura in Cow Pastor, or in Christian Campbell’s fantastic poem “Legba”, in which the deity is not the man quoting Blake but rather what happens to that man, or possibly both of these.
But, within the arbitrariness, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman has a strong and pointed desire towards the divine, and a deep wanting for a Caribbean/African divinity keenly aware and electrically connected to the trajectory of Caribbean society and its present and painful Sisyphean realities:
We have created a new world where the indiscriminate gun
is always at our backs. From the first murdered Taíno to now,
the cosmic bullet has been in the air. The carved moon
trots across the sky. Let us rock our babies
to sleep, kissing their hair, rearranging
their night clothes, playing our odds against
carnage, against the stray shot seeking our thresholds.
(“El Velorio, the Wake (1893)”)
“El Velorio” is an extraordinary poem, and one in which Collins Klobah verges on the very connections and unity she seeks. The “cosmic bullet” and the “first murdered Taino” acknowledge a definite moral and spiritual trajectory that we are forced to examine. It provides us with a context within which we can truly assess the ubiquity of the pain and trauma and spiritual breakdown that surround us.
What is ultimately refreshing about The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman is the manner in which it does not run from sentimentality. There is a sharp awareness in this book not merely of the marginalised figure whom poets use as fodder for a poem that exposes them to an emulsion of sardonism and praise, but also of their diurnal afflictions, which are real and painful and true. This is where Collins Klobah is mounted by her lwa, Ezili Danto. She becomes aggressively and urgently caring. This is where the book moves towards a greater unity: not merely a unity of concern or theme, but a unity of spirit, a unified presence we can feel through Collins Klobah. And this in no way precludes exploration and range. In fact, it is what roots them both.
If you read carefully enough, you will see that the covers of this book are arms opening, its blurbs are tattoos, the heart behind it is shining, neon-bright, with love.
Vladimir Lucien is a writer from St Lucia. His first book of poems will be published in 2014.