by Fabian Ade Badejo
Thirty-one years is a long time to wait for a new harvest of voices, but in many respects, Where I See The Sun – Contemporary Poetry in St. Martin – the second anthology of poetry to be published on the island within two generations, was quite worth the wait. Just as the first, Winds Above the Hills compiled and edited by Wycliffe Smith was linked to a major cultural event, the St. Maarten Festival of Arts and Culture (SMAFESTAC) held in 1982, this new anthology can be described as a commemorative publication to mark the 10th anniversary of the St. Martin Book Fair, never mind the fact that it came out in 2013 and was launched at the 11th edition of this important literary event. It is not within the purview of this review to compare the two anthologies, but suffice it to reiterate the pivotal role House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP) has been playing in the development of a St. Martin literary tradition, with dozens of published writers whose works may have never seen print.
Where I See The Sun … is therefore a welcome addition to that steadily increasing list of HNP publications – professional in their presentations, delightful in their content, and edifying in the maturing of the literary arts in St. Martin.
Where I see the sun … I see a rainbow, straddling the hills, arching through the sky, with feet firmly grounded in the Caribbean Sea. This collection of poems, culled from a publicized “Call for Poetry,” reflects the exciting ethnic, national, and racial demographics of the island. However, this is not a rainbow collection in the sense of a lack of collective identity. To the contrary, these are ALL St. Martin poets, singing St. Martin songs like a well-experienced choir. It is a credit to the editor of the volume, poet/essayist/historian and publisher, Lasana Sekou, that he deliberately selected these poets despite their varying backgrounds as true St. Martin voices, speaking to St. Martin issues of their choice. St. Martin is a melting pot and as I have argued in other places, it is perhaps the most Caribbean in this sense, of all the islands in the archipelago, certainly, the most charismatically Caribbean of them all. Here, place of birth and country of origin is meaningless when you embrace the land and its people. In other words, you don’t have to be born here to be considered a St. Martiner; you just have to fit in, blend in and make your own contribution to the life and progress of the people and you will become what is termed in local parlance: “born to be here.”
Nobody in this new collection exemplifies this “new arrivant” St. Martiner more than Mariela Xue, born in the Dominican Republic, brought to St. Martin at age 9, went to primary school here and returned to do high school in the country of her birth and then returning to St. Martin in 2002. Mariela, who is married to a Chinese, speaks for all those “born to be here” St. Martiners when she writes in “Over-qualified exile”:
“Am a daughter of the soil by proxy/an’ have achieved a great deal/impossible in my birthplace/Saint Martin, surrogate mother,/has given me more than I could imagine,/the opportunity to excel,/when the very people who open the door and held it/open are at times not of their own doing/denied this privilege.”
Mariela Xue is not really “a daughter of the soil by proxy” as she proclaims: she is a true daughter of the soil because in this soil, a “surrogate mother” is a mother, period. She is one of the few poets with five or more poems in this collection and certainly one of the new talents I expect to achieve a great deal more.
Where I see the sun … I hear voices, fresh like the dewdrop on a hibiscus leaf, coursing through the contours of memory deposited like aging salt in the Great Salt Pond. The sage, Kamau Brathwaite was right. Indeed, as he wrote in the blurb that opens this volume, “It’s a rare & sparkle event to have an anthology of (mainly) young poets – already into memories, their bright eyes searching the horizon for future and language.”
“My language is like the wind,” writes Georges Cocks in “Idiom, Creole.” “It strokes my soul as the clouds that it’s teasing,” he continues, ending the poem thus: “These chains of islands/Offshoots of magma/Recognise/Creole, the language of these paradise lands.”
But if Cocks, one of the few published poets in this collection, sees his language like the wind, taking flight “as the migrating bird from the mainland,” Kimasha P. Williams minces no words in making the link between the language she speaks – St. Martin English, a variety of English-based creole, as Dr. Rhoda Arrindell, former Minister of Education and a leading linguist, has already established – and her identity.
Williams declares in “These words in my mouth”: “These words in my mouth/I love them/ I ain’ care wah you gawh say/These words in my mouth/I love them/I talking like this everyday.//Don’ come tell me is broken English/When you can understand well/Fine! I gohn leave it outside the classroom/A’leas until they ring the bell.//These words in my mouth/I love them/These words in my mouth is me/Te’een matter how much I hide it/These words are my identity.”
Dr. Arrindell, the foremost proponent of recognizing the St. Martin English as a nation language, to use Brathwaite’s term, would surely be smiling on reading this.
Language, identity and culture are all intertwined, a tripod upon which rests the St. Martin Personality. Tamara Groeneveldt in “I know St. Martin’s Culture” rattles off a litany of cultural markers to knock out the colonial notion that St. Martin has no culture. “I don’t know about you, but I know about me/I am sick and tired of hearing that/St. Martin doesn’t have a culture./I know that if everybody knew what I eat,/Live and breathe on my island,/They would snatch it up like a vulture.”
And indeed, they do.
Groeneveldt is not alone in extolling those elements of St. Martin culture – its food, home remedies, dance, songs, economy, plants and other natural resources. She is in the company of Lysanne Charles (“Miss Grandmother”) who paints a folksy, lyrical and rootsy picture of a nurturing Caribbean grandma who took care of her as a child when she fell sick, and of Raymond Helligar (“Sin’ Martin Is We’z Own”) who writes: “So we claiming this land fo’ we and everything on it,/is we own/So every gawling, every pelican, is we own/Every rockstone in the gut, is we own.”
There are others too: Terry Daniel, Glenda York, Patricia Chance-Duzant, Tadzio Bervoets, Lucinda “La Rich” Audain, Faizah Tabasamu, and Laura Richardson in a polished classical form, all speak glowingly about the land, its people and its culture.
The tone of their voices is unapologetic, unashamed, and unafraid to proclaim their identity as St. Martiners and to claim the island without regard to its dual colonial status. They sound at times like rappers – just being real – dealing with their own existential stuff, generally oblivious of where real political power actually resides.
This latter observation could be considered a drawback in the whole collection: that the poets – with one or two marked exceptions – seem in the main, unconcerned about the political developments and constitutional future of the island. There is no doubt that this does not reflect what, in recent years, has been the dominant issue among the people of the island as expressed constantly on radio call-in programs, TV talk shows, newspaper articles and online publications. In his introduction to the anthology, Sekou expresses a cultural Job-like concern about this point but it will not, and I don’t think he meant it to, stop the inevitable scrutiny.
Why does this group of poets sidestep the issue? In fairness to them, they are not the only ones: other artists, regardless of the art form they practice – music (especially kaiso), dance, theater, plastic arts, etc. – also seem to deliberately ignore political issues. For them, there is a clear separation between art and politics, never mind the political melee rampant around or during carnival, which has become the main course of calypsonians of all stripes. And even then, the lack of ideological commitment is glaring.
This is bothersome, especially in a collection of poems like Where I See the Sun that opens with “The Ponum Song,” a liberation song, with its accompanying dance, intoned by our enslaved ancestors, which one would have thought would set the tone for what to expect in the collection.
The St. Martin cultural and historical icons that Sekou has identified and popularized island-wide and beyond in his writings over the years, are clearly visible in a number of poems in the collection. However, one is still apt to ask: where is especially the political aspects of the “Sekou School” that I identified years ago in Salted Tongues? That school of poets, led by the revolutionary Lasana Sekou, whose hard-hitting poems seek a knockout punch against the colonial status of the island? For sure, they are there in name: Deborah Drisana Jack, Changa Hickinson, who says, perhaps rhetorically in “small change II”: “The nurse asked me,/Why are you so negative/about country in the kingdom/when your blood is B positive?” Then retorts: “When our rulers/are our leaders/there will be no/yard sale of government.”
I would add Faizah Tabasamu and even Mariela Xue as “new entrants” to the Sekou School, although their poems in this volume do not speak directly to the ideological directions of Sekou. Whatever the reason(s) may be, this is an omission that should be of concern to the progressives on the island.
Nevertheless, Where I See The Sun can also be considered a harvest of salt. Long before tourism, long before the advent of European adventurers, buccaneers and slavers, long, long before the West Indies Company that reaped millions in profits from our ponds, salt was king here. The Amerindians reputedly named the island “Soualiga” – land of salt. Tabasamu, in her poem of the same title, personifies her as “a woman with rockwall plaits in her hair/and white sand painted on her toes…./her lips are liquid red/and her fingers cannot hold a pen/they are brittle/from picking sour diamonds from the water/in her tub.”
Like Bervoets in his excellent prose poem, “The Great Salt Pond (3000 BC – 2012 AD): A Eulogy”, Tabasamu laments that “she isn’t who she used to be.” This is generally acknowledged on the island, not only by environmentalists like Bervoets, but also by a very large section of the population, resulting in HNP embarking on a popular signature drive to put a stop to the unnecessary filling of the Great Salt Pond, described appropriately by Sekou as the “cradle of the nation.” The resolution and signatures were later presented to the Parliament of St. Martin as well as to the relevant Ministers. Salt is the ingredient that brings out the good taste in this collection of poems. Salt, in not just a historic way, but as a metaphor for the sweetness and bitterness the island has known, is engraved in every St. Martiner’s DNA. Nobody captures this better than Dr. Jay B. Haviser in his poem “untitled”: “naked is the body and soul of the salt-picker,/salt surrounds them,/salt within the very flesh of their hearts…” These may be perhaps the most powerful three verses in the entire collection.
Drisana Deborah Jack is certainly among those who have elevated salt to the level of a national symbol. She writes in “the edges sing our songs”: “the footprints of the Caribs/etch the sides of the hills/marking their place/their present/our history/looked at you/saw women and salt/named you after both/one to soothe, one to suck/one to heal, one to season.”
Jack, a published and accomplished poet in her own right and a leading painter/multi-media artist, leads the choir in singing love songs, for what would a volume like this be like without love poems. In “the nest and other homes for the heart” Jack waxes lyrical: “someday love will find you/build a nest in your heart/with twigs of longing and bits of fabric/from clothes long worn.” Or in “tonight”: “I wait for you,/with supple skin/scented with hints of jasmine/and orchids…/warm…moist…open.” The subtleness of her erotic conjurations is a trademark of Jack’s poetry: she has a way of “killing you softly” with her pen.
Tabasamu’s love is also perfumed: it is “lavender, regal and true,” “lined with silver.” But while hers is a divine love, Tamara Groeneveldt takes up Jack’s subtle eroticism in “Sweetest thing I’ve Ever Known.” “Sweetest thing I’ve ever known/Still makes me smile although I’ve grown old/Sixty years later and it still sends the sweetest chills/Up and down my old bones./I may be gray but my fire never went cold.”
Hurrah for those whose libido remains intact even into their old age.
But young love is a learning process, as acclaimed musician and songbird, Mischu Laikah seems to suggest, whether she is trying to wriggle out of a controlling relationship (“New Beginning”) or simply trying to “Fall in Love Again.” Her poems, as could be expected, are written to be put to music.
There is a strong female presence in this volume, which is de facto representative of the cultural landscape of the island. Of the 25 poets in this anthology, 15 are women. Nothing to really worry about? What is certain is that this is approximately the ratio of female to male students in many of our classrooms. It is a topic for a different discussion.
As for Where I See The Sun, Drisana Jack ends her beautiful poem, “the edges sing our songs” with this one line: “the harvest will not be simple.” Sekou, I’m sure, knows that the harvest of voices in this anthology was not simple. But it was bountiful and opens the barn to brighter suns.
(Editor’s Note: Fabian Ade Badejo is an author, journalist, and literary/culture critic.)
Where I See The Sun – Contemporary Poetry in St. Martin, a new anthology of 25 poets and spoken word artists, edited by Lasana M. Sekou, at Van Dorp, Arnia’s, Shipwreck Shops, and Amazon.com
Group photo of the writers anthologized in Where I See The Sun – Contemporary Poetry in St. Martin, at the introduction of the new book during the opening of the St. Martin Book Fair 2013. (Saltwater Collection)