In anger, with compassion
By Mervyn Morris
Sounding Ground, by Vladimir Lucien
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845232399, 73 pp)
Vladimir Lucien’s debut book of poems is an impressive collection. Building on personal and family experience, Lucien reflects and challenges the socio-cultural situation of St Lucia. The bulk of the book presents memorable individuals, recalled with compassion or in anger: story after story of severely limited horizons, a legacy of slavery and colonialism.
European practices have been superimposed. A grandfather “eat his farine and fish / in a civilise fight between knife and fork / and etiquette on his plate.” City children whisper when “country bookies” get up in school “to talk prupper Ingleesh.” Sometimes “the rain falls / and the strands of God’s clear conscience / pile up in the puddles (shows you your own face, / makes you cover your head and know your place.)” But there are also poems for some who refused to know their place, among them C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, and an unnamed steelband man.
Factors of history and culture are given prominence in titles such as “Sambo” (I, II, and III) — some relatives — and “Overseer”, four poems about tyranny in school: each year brings the Boss “a new crop that he must season, / nurture and cane.” In “The Last Sign of the Cross” a young man, turning away from the church, has walked “beyond his mother’s caul / of worry in search of a place / that tells his story.” Wordplay (caul/call) and internal rhyme (worry/story) are regular features of Lucien’s technique. In another poem, three nature-loving men have taken to the hills. Parodying the Eucharist, one of them
with locks of ideas tangled inside his head, broke his meditation
into three pieces, gave it to his disciples, said:
What about feeling we rights like roots firm in this soil?
What about di Equal Rights of tings dat be an’ continue to is?
What about Di Divine Right of Tings?
Many passages in these poems invoke “folk” beliefs, such as that bad luck must follow if we “step on our shadow foot / and not say sorry.” Bush tea can suggest rituals of faith and supernatural power. “The way you boil the morning into being, / boil us up from our dreams / to this miracle of tea, two or more leaves / gathered in our names, a simple kind / of obeah, that makes us rise from the bed” — the echo (rise from the dead) typical of Lucien’s wit. Eight poems glimpse obeah (tjenbwa) as more than metaphor, and the last one focuses an ethnographic challenge:
You ask them about the dark practice, whispering
your question like bush. The answers
dangle over you like fruit, daring you
to climb the dark bark of the tree
if you want the truth.
Some aspects of St Lucian culture are contrasted with what is said to prevail in other places. “Donbwé is hard, not like the dumpling my friend knows / that yields easy under forks. Donbwé demands / immediate teeth, a unique kind of chewing.” In St Lucia, when someone dies or is killed, “Everyone says a soft ‘hisalòp!’ / in their heart and moves on”; in Trinidad, “people slide easily / into stretchers everyday, belly-laugh their way out of breath, / lives wrapped in a roti of death.” French Creole expressions are glossed (though the page referencing goes wrong).
As can be seen in the samples, Lucien is a fertile maker of metaphors and is often witty, sometimes punning. The language of the poems is colloquial English, mostly, with Caribbean inflexions — St Lucian, of course, but sometimes Rasta, sometimes Trini. (Lucien studied in Trinidad and married a Trinidadian.)
A few poems deal with relationship problems: “Was like I find I leave the sugar bowl / of your heart open to the ants, small / and gathering like suspicion.” The making-up can be good, as in “Rainfights”: “May we always argue / and suffer the intervention of rain / and thunder that sends us lightning / into each other.” But not for long: for “we bring up bygones.”
“Pastoral”, which follows, is unconvincing, not only in its pursuit of formal elegance (“watching you yearn” seems to be there for the rhyme with “learn”), but in the wishful separation between past and present:
….. the past has a way of being polite
that the present has no time to learn,
it will tell you “good morning,”
it may tell you “good night,”
but no moment will ever speak out of turn.
Two tiny poems do not seem to work: “Home” (fifteen words) and “To Celebrate St Lucian Culture They Put on Display” (twenty-three, including the title). Neither has sufficient tension to sustain the brevity.
Another uncharacteristic item, more successful I think, is “Declaration” (a “found poem” perhaps?). The list of items includes
in nuse paper
Lucien plays pronunciation games elsewhere, as in “Crane”, which begins: “Well, Jimmi get a works wiff a flim / company up in Canayda.” The persona says,
……………………………………….I doh trus’
all dis television fuss, and all dis crane,
dat taking our vision, an’ going high high,
wiff it clear eye into di sky, how all dis takeknowledgy
just above our head, like it doh even need we
again to move forward.
What Lucien does well, and frequently, is persuade us he has known the experience of a range of St Lucians, now and in history; and that he deeply cares. I was struck especially by “Overseer: Ranks”, about the sad decline of a boy whose mother
….. beat Ranks in front of the Boss,
to show — like parents used to do
to please priests in the old days —
her total intolerance of upsetting the way
things were and forever should be.
I was caught up in the propulsive power of “For Jorel”, in which a mother anxiously waits for her son to come back home from the shop, and has a vision predicting news of his death: “he should have come home to where the tropical storm / of his mother love and lessons was brewing, / he should have know, he should have no.”
And one of the finest poems in the book is “Sambo III”. Uncle Bravely, a pathetic figure observed by his brother’s grandchildren, comes “and comes / again to the step of Sambo’s well- / respected house.” (Sambo’s “well” and Sambo’s house.)
He just comes — like the time when he went
out to sea and didn’t return, when everybody
thought he had drowned — walking through his own absence,
wanting nothing more than to lift things, to feel again
the heaviness of life, then let go, to bob up and down
in memory like the cupped heart of a fishing boat
beating on the sea.
The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2016
Mervyn Morris, Jamaica’s Poet Laureate, is the author of six collections of poetry, including I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems. His most recent book is Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture.