After an unexpected day off from this blog because of my secret life as a biographer of Mrs. Mary Delany (1700-1788, left) the remarkable flower collage artist, I return for the Poetry Weekend Blog with this post and an orchardful of thanks for all those who have hurled themselves with such passion into the Canadian-American-British poetry discussion, particularly Zach Wells, the editor of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. Now it's time to bring in the Caribbean, and today's poem does just that. On my blog break I attended one of the programs at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City where I am a Fellow this year, not thinking that that the prose writers Maryse Condé and Elizabeth Nunez, both born in the Caribbean, would lead me back to our discussions. But Maryse Condé refused, à la Zach Wells and a bit like the grandfather in Joy Russell's poem below, to generalize about what a Caribbean, particularly a French Caribbean writer is.
While Condé was thoroughly uninterested in linking writers with nations, Elizabeth Nunez found it irresistible to relate place and customs to a writer. I'm with Nunez, obviously; I find it irresistible, but I also find it ineffable. Characteristics I feel are solid start evaporating in my very hands. Joy Russell also seems driven to make these cultural connections, and she makes them solid by inserting history, and family history, into her poem that was chosen for Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008. Russell depends on metaphor to carry this poem, especially "the city soot, a new glove for the body." Thinking of verbal comparisons such as that "new glove" prompts me to remind Americans that Canadians rarely use the "melting pot" metaphor, where all cultures merge, then cool into a monolith. Instead, Canadians use the "mosaic" metaphor: the cultural mosaic, each piece grouted into the landscape so to speak, shining side by side.
Russell says of her poem "On King George's Crowning" that "it is part of a poetry manuscript whose eyes and ears fall on Vancouver, London and Belize, their bodies of water and connection to Empire." The Georges, particularly King George III, have their impact on our Canadian-American discussion, because George III was one of the supervising figures in the late 18th century revolution that created our two countries, and the reaper / raper of the treasure of the Caribbean. He was also, I have to admit, a big admirer of the flower collages of Mrs. Delany, to whom I am devoting myself this year. What goes around comes around, in this blog, anyway.
After Joy Russell's tercets is a PS I hope you'll read.
On King George's Crowning
On King George's crowning, the interviewee
said they all got sweets and little goodies, and when
they come by boat, some come as stowaways. Once
they collect money for this woman's fare. Others
come, a fiver tight in their pockets, like my grandfather
when he escaped from the belly of the crown and never
spoke of it again. Others not bring overcoat--
no one told them how air moves vampires through
bone, erases memory matter. Some dress in suits
tropical style, as the ship moved its shaky
hand over the old surface of the sea They arrive,
say 'I born Jamaican, I die Jamaican,' take a bite
of the sweet, hand to mouth, take the test
of motherland's history--bitter--replied, when asked if
they spoke the Queen's English; Enoch Powell's rivers
of blood forming a new oxygen, scarlet-marked
as they sliced through London fog; iris recording
life, how it is: Houses of Parliament, Big Ben
in the grey dank; a room, a galvanized tub to wash, emerge
baptized; the city soot, a new glove for the body; the signs
reading no Irish or blacks or dogs, not wanted but
take your money, just the same. Some, some,
carry hope like luggage, others not so sure-footed, others
not so childlike in believing all what this mother have to say.
Some bring formal names, leave pet ones behind,
whisper night bougainvillea. How this country
cold, cold, cold through and through and no hot tea
enough to warm you, or hand friendly enough to pry
open the dark days, bring morning brightness. Some come,
stay, patience worn thin like paper, hearts
tough as old bread, and letters back home with every
copper earned from the Double Decker, brow wipe
of the sick, hammer of nail into two by four--if they
lets you, if you not too dark for their liking.
Some, some, come long way, did bite
of the sweet. Motherless mother's milk.
cryin' crocodile tear
for her lost chil'ren.
from The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008
Stephanie Bolster, Editor; published by Tightrope Books
I just want to thank fellow poet and Best American blogger James Cummins, for bringing humor to these posts. Do Canadian's have a funny bone? You bet, but not when we're duking it out about poetry, so thank you Jimmy C!