“I was lucky enough to have two books to distract me, as Martin was dying…” I said to someone, at some point. “How could anything about that be lucky?” I suppose they meant anything about watching Martin dying.

They were right. And they were entirely wrong.


There is no grasping death, nor dying, no matter how hard you look at it. Perhaps that is because what you see is life leaving, not death approaching. What you try to hold hands with is the person walking a path new to them, in a body less and less familiar, with which they are trying to hold hands, for if they are wise, they trust that this is the body they have always known, and they allow it to lead them where it knows it must go… If they are not wise, they reject this new body with contempt, disdain, disgust, and often, determined sulking; perhaps that may be a bit of death approaching, but I cannot say. The person I watched dying learned to hold his body’s hand… in the end, magnificently, smiling benignly on everyone in Rekai Wellesley Place, smiling at the person who checked on him half an hour before he died.

That ‘knowing where it’s going’ is an experiment in trust and is unique to each body.

There is a period of adjustment when bodies do things they have never done and refuse to do things that they have always done. A room deserted for half a minute suddenly looks like the crib of a child who got into their diaper and had a good time with a magnificent canvas: bed, wall, floor, their own arms and legs and torso. Wake in the morning to a mattress soaked but not with the spunk of a night of loving on and on—with slobbered spit and pee and runny bowels. (Talk about the dance of the visual arts.) Nothing is erect any more. No penis, nor back, nor raised arm, nor even a head forever faithful before this, rises and holds steady. As for the brain, seat of image, thought, word, landscape and soundscape… “What is it like in your head?” I ask. “It’s like wading through mud…” He cannot walk, not because he lacks strength but because the messages from cerebellum command cannot find their way across the paths of nerves.

Hoarding in our house (as distinct from storage) has always been my purview: articles, papers, mildewed books, scandal bags of ancient letters and scribbled bits of poems decades old. Now the beloved hoards. Pockets holding two pens become pockets weighed down with six and eight. The bathroom vanity stores dozens of almost finished roles of toilet paper. “It’s not OCD…” my older son says. I smile and think, “Oh yeah?” The gerontologist confirms my diagnosis.

“You have to take care of yourself…” Every caregiver knows this. The caregiver who does this is rare, in my experience. I once tried to leave M with a kind neighbour for a few minutes till his ride to Seniors Day Care arrived. I was meeting a friend for a cup of coffee. The neighbour was willing—and terrified, so I stayed with him till he was collected. Any kind of accident might have happened in 20 minutes of waiting. Kind Day Care staff bring him home with diapers full of excrement, because he hates to use bathrooms other than his own. My neighbour had two young children—enough of likely diapers of excrement!

Nothing new here. As I type millions of people on earth are taking care or being cared for in these ways. Some are on leaky boats bargaining with wide water. Some are trudging, the terribly ill and their caregivers, towards an invisible line across which there is, perhaps, just perhaps, more care, better care, tenderer care waiting. There is no hope for wellness on any of these journeys, mine and M’s included; only for decent dying.

So now we are back with the books. A book is a contract of making entered into with a community, though the size of the village that makes the book varies with the writer. A small village is the writer, perhaps the agent, the editor(s), designer(s), one or two beta readers, and, if it is funded, the taxpayers. Big villages make my books, so add to all the above, ten more beta readers, some as experts, some to give the ordinary person’s response. No author enters into this contract lightly. The distraction of a book is not like time off to shop in the mall or see a movie or have lunch with a friend so as to forget for a little while that a beloved is dying. Though these are all to be recommended, I, like too many others, rarely did any of them. The distraction of a book is a parallel ritual of holding hands, if you want, but walking this time, not into death, but into life.

I was glad to have two books to distract me while Martin was dying.

The distraction of books

Corona, corona, all over Kanata…

One of my siblings has COVID. Tested positive on home test. Not immunocompromised. Complete regimen of shots. Thinks the priest presiding at grandpikni’s baptism may have given the gift. (Priest has since tested positive.) Ten years my junior. Says last night was terrible but today is not so bad. Going into quarantine. How can I speak to him of long COVID? I did speak of LONG COVID to my goddawta, also infected, telling her to have herself thoroughly checked out out once it was over. I shall remind her to keep track of her body, ongoing, make sure she knows what’s happening with those—seven was what I learned, but two, four or five have since been added—systems that keep our bodies functioning.

(Here’s a freebie: https://open.oregonstate.education/aandp/ Can’t say how good the content is, but it is easy enough to research the authors’ credentials.)

COVID is kind of like fleas. When I told my older son I had found fleas in this likl space, he told me that, never mind that no four legged creature has entered my house (aka apartment) since I have lived here, until I found out where said fleas were coming from, I would not get rid of them. Not very encouraging. Do I knock on all my neighbours’ doors, pencil in hand, doing a census of flea-bearing creatures in the units above, below and next to me? And mi luv mi likl privacy? How mi fi do dat?


Deforestation in Amazonia, seen from satellite. The roads in the forest follow a typical “fish bone” pattern. This file is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“.

Most of us also know COVID’s brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren and other near family by now. They are called sub-variants and sub-sub-variants. What we are busy ignoring is that his large extended family, whose names and MOs we do not know, still lie waiting where he came from. We know where COVID comes from. When we clear cut forests and deprive creatures of habitat, we degrade the natural barriers of ecosystems. This means in plain English, I think, that nature has its way of keeping biological communities of organisms that socialize with one another in their respective physical environments, sort of like big families in their own yards. When we break down the fences and doors and everybody goes charging into everybody else’s house, we lay ourselves open to zoonoses, those clever diseases that can jump species.

More distant family are also dormant (we hope) in the melting tundra, waiting to have their way with us. I shudder when I think of it. How would I like it if strange people came banging down my doors, making holes in my walls, crawling trough de plumbing into mi likl baatroom, turfing me out of di house where mi  been livin all dis time??

Me, I like to carefully select those with whom I tangle up close. Don’t want no strange species at close quarters, gazing at me across the table, romancing me in my bed uninvited. So I must remember to at least give a money to Greenpeace, chant down SCOTUS for tying the EPA up in ever tighter knots, leave Bolsinaro to the Almighty… Who to manage di likes of im down ere?

Since you’ve gone…

Since I was last here, Martin Mordecai, my husband of 54 years, father of David, Rachel and Daniel, Zoey’s Aba, brilliant writer and photographer, has died. (If you have not read his historical novel, Free, you absolutely need to.) I took leave from this blog, this website, to be with him as he made that last journey, one that took him the better part of six years. He departed last year on the 19th of February. Ten days before him, his friend and fellow photographer, Peter Ferguson, took his leave. After Martin, four family members made their exits, two young, and two old. As I type, we watch, wait and pray with the oldest remaining member of Martin’s family, but one.

I have walked the bereavement journey with four other women—one family member and three good friends. I saw photos of H_____ looking lovely today, a luncheon celebration I should have been at. I am behind on pancakes for brunch with P____, and I haven’t managed to get A________ on the phone, but I plan to try again soon. D____ just sent me a WhatsApp message from Jamaica. She completed her Realtor’s exam. So we begin to slip away from one another into some kind of other life, even as our common loss binds us for always.

I tell everyone I am a poor pupil at Widow School. I don’t know anyone who is good at it, and it is a course of tough lessons.

Martin and I shared a writing life. It is a terrible tragedy that he did not get a chance to write the many stories he still had in him. Jean D’Costa writes on his obituary page, “Martin’s novel Free stands as a mighty testimony to our strange Jamaican past. He is not only a brilliant story teller and magician of character and place, but he is the most honest and reliable creator of worlds that I have met in the last 50 years. (My italics) One trusts him, and he never fails his reader. He carefully, painstakingly, describes every wood splinter, every humble garment or distant voice in the world of our past as if he had lived there himself. And then he helps us to go there too. Working with this careful, patient, inspired mind was true joy.” Martin appreciated Jean, as he appreciated so many people. They all loved him back. He loved life. He loved his two callings, writing and photography, and he served them both with terrible care. He could make anything look like a symphony of light and dark. If he died with endless stories still in him, thank God he managed to create thousands of images, a vast collection that would fill many grand books.I hope in time to see his photographs in the Art Gallery of Ontario, in their collection of works by black photographers. Rachel and I, or, if I die before we manage it, Rachel, his most beloved dawta, will collect his stories into a book. I suspect he’d like it to be called, Jesus at the Door.

When one marries as we did in the middle of the last century, it is a wholehearted affair—you give it all of your body, every organ, your heart above all. I and my widow compañeras scramble around to find hearts to travel on with, grateful for the many kindnesses of friends and family. It’s a cruel game of “Hide and Seek” where every piece of heart you think you’ve got ahold of slips from your fingers with a memory. To breathe, to eat, to touch, to walk, to speak, to think are now for me the miracles—that they’ve always been. All my life I have known, but now, alone in all these doings, my trillions of cells affirm this divine prestidigitation. Each day, as I check the number of steps I have taken on my Fitbit, the conjuring is brighter…

So sit, and really look at one thing for five minutes, after you read this. It doesn’t matter what. Look at it till you meet it, until you hold the miracle…

“Elsie” and “Yellow Girl Blues” from THE TRUE BLUE OF ISLANDS

Below is a poem that explores colourism. It comes from my fourth collection of poetry, The True Blue of Islands, published by Sandberry Press in 2005. Another poem that explores colourism, “Yellow Girl Blues,” which comes from the same collection, can be found here on Poéfrika, an amazing website run by my friend and Sesotho poet, Rethabile Masilo: https://poefrika.blogspot.ca/2017/03/yellow-girl-blues.html?m=0

Tomorrow I’ll visit a session called “Colourism: What is it? Why should We Care about It?” at Wilfrid Laurier University, part of Course RE 285 “Religion and Culture of the African Diaspora” taught by Professor Carol Duncan. Many thanks to Professor Duncan for yet another opportunity to engage with her students.


Elsie could cuss like a sailor
rip masts too when she swept
like a storm upgrading
minute by minute trading
levels of intensity spit
shooting like sea foam from
the O of her mouth the eye
of her fury.

                     Of fourteen children
Elsie was last and lightest.
When they said she was no black,
had no fro, meagre melanin,
she don’t protest just slip
out of her blouse peel off
her vest and say “Okay: come
make we take the nipple test.”
And there they were brown crowns
resplendent on each breast.
“If me was white, dem would be pink.
Ink. Quink. Your belly rotten stink.
White. Black. You decent and me slack.
Hip-hip-hurray! Areolae carry the day.”
Elsie could cuss like a tar
Drink any tippler under any bar.
Recite Shakespeare; bring a tear
to your eye rendering Portia’s speech
to the mean moneylender from Venice:
“The quality of mercy is not strained…”
Reaching deep down for feeling
Elsie come up to make you laugh
till your sides hurt expatiating
on the nature of the selfish dirt
a leaven for the unstrained gentle
rain that droppeth down from heaven.
Brown Elsie could cuss like a salt
swab a deck ship invading bilge
water to hold a craft safe
let down any size anchor
haul it up with her hands
and no pulley from the blue
deep. Shin up to the topsail
unfurl a whirl of cloud
so a vessel could fly past
 a hurricane upgrading
minute by minute trading
levels of intensity
winding up ocean and air
thunder and fire
the very stratosphere spun
into the blackening
ire of her fury.
“No way I letting skin and melanin
degrees of kink in hair and booty-size
downpress the little levity that live in my
small chest, bounce in my little tits.
All that is shit. I eating pills enough.”
Same time she lifting up a little miss
eyes beryl green, hair streaming
down her back. “ See. She is mine
and Jesus know how she come so
because her Pa’s pink like a pig –
look how the pikni black!”

Nuff tanks, for dem no have no bash like Calabash – 1!

Red Jacket CoverExactly 4 weeks have gone since Nicole Dennis-Benn, Diana McCaulay and I kicked off Calabash 2016, reading in the first set, “Cooking with Gas”. Nicole read from her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun; Diana read from her YA novel, Gone to Drift, and I read from my debut novel, Red Jacket. After that came an amazing night and two extraordinary days… I record now, albeit a little late, my big-big thank you to the citizens of Treasure Beach, the fab audience, and especially the team that engineers the Calabash Affair! Kwame Dawes, Justine Henzell & the Calabash Company are first class prestidigitators, controlling weather, music, venue, line-up and the lit-loving massive. Big Ups! Nuff clapping and stamping and cheering and wild carrying on!

On Friday, 2 June, the audience of 2500 folks is gathered under a gigantic complex of tents next to the sea. The mood is warm, expectant, convivial… Not carnival excitement. Not snooty international literary event. It’s a Jamaican family affair, country Jamaican, and more especially Treasure Beach Jamaican, a place that has a kind of stripped down, essential goodness, a bare bones beauty to it. I am sitting beside Diana McCaulay, who tells me that it may well rain, and heavily, for the afternoon has been overcast, the skies gunmetal, broody. This is part of the festival mystery. Treasure Beach is in arid St Elizabeth, but ask anybody and they will tell you – anytime there’s Calabash, there’s rain! Diana recounts an occasion when,  as she was waiting to read, a cascade of water plunged from the edge of the tent above her, just as the set was to start. The waters tumbled terribly and then cleared up quick-quick, so things could begin as scheduled.

Nicole Dennis-Benn, Diana McCaulay and me. Photo by Cookie Kinkead.

This is my first Calabash, so I don’t know the runnings. (The organizers have asked me more than once before, and I almost came a couple years ago, and then discovered a prior commitment.) But, as I firmly believe, “Nothing before its time!” and Calabash 2016 is it. Before we go on, Justine teases that I didn’t get the memo about the colours. I blink, stupidly. It makes sense when I see the photos…

Kwame Dawes, Host and Curator of Calabash 2016, wrote afterwards to say that mine was “a homecoming of a reading”. In many ways, it was indeed that. I come back to Jamaica often enough, and have read at home as recently as in 2014, when I launched my fifth collection of poetry, Subversive Sonnets, with the help of friends, Earl St Hope McKenzie and Jean Small. But at Calabash this year, family surround me: my two sisters, Mary Cresser and Betty Wilson, Betty’s husband, Don, both formerly of UWI, Mona, my nephew, Julian Cresser, currently of the History Department at Mona, my niece, Karin Wilson-Edmonds, as well as old friends like Victor Chang, Esther Figueroa, Ifeona Fulani, Lixie Brodber (whose writing we will celebrate on the last day of the Festival), Velma Pollard and Jean Small.

Plus, there are other family and friends, some of whom husband, Martin, and I have not seen in many years. Justine Henzell,Co-Founder and Producer of Calabash, and her mother, Sally, are special people in that group of long-time-mi-neva-see-yu folks, Sally being one of 19 poets in Fri.PMordecai in flightJamaica Woman, the first ever anthology of poetry by Jamaican women, which Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris – also in Treasure Beach with his wife, Helen – and I co-edited and published in 1980 (Jamaica) and again in 1985 (UK). Sally is effervescent as ever, a joy to hug after so long. And of course, Mr Calabash self, Kwame Dawes, though I am sad to have missed his better half, Lorna. And I am finally going to share the stage with my cousin, Wayne Armond, who has been a part of the Calabash music scene since ever, and to meet his wife, Mitsy, and his now grown-up children after much too long.

A big treat was finally seeing in the flesh virtual friends like young St Lucian poet, Vladimir Lucien, 2015 BOCAS overall prizewinner, and Kei Miller, Jamaican poet, fiction writer, blogger, essayist, and fellow tweep, and Marina Salandy-Brown, BOCAS Lit Fest Founder and Festival Director. (We enjoyed opening night dinner with Marina whom we were meeting for the first time, and who shared tales of Cairo times, as well as old paseros, Prof Carolyn Cooper and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Also got a warm greeting on opening night from Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, who would eventually read three fab excerpts from A Brief History of Seven Killings, and had a long chat with social activist and theatre person, Sheila Graham.)

And so the Bash was off to a super start…












Back in the garden and the earth knows something is up…

So I’m back in my likl gyaden!


I tweeted a couple of days ago that the maples clearly know something is up. In five years of living here, I’ve never seen so many little maple seedlings. They’re in the grass, in the garden beds, in the flowerpots – everywhere they can get a root in. I’d said it reminded me of how amoebas encyst and split in dry times. At that point I hadn’t read the weather predictions for the summer. It turns out that heat is hell bent upon us, temperatures turned up, with ideal weather for forest fires like the one in Fort McMurray. A vast beast leaping across the western Canadian landscape, it has now crossed from Alberta into Saskatchewan. Folks in its path must be terrified. God help them!

Nothing to do with global warming, of course, just as last year’s being the hottest year on record means… Well, it seems not to mean anything to a lot of people. Still, all growing things round here seem to be battening down for something, for it’s not just the maples. There’s another tree with seedlings all over everything. I thought it was an oak, but there aren’t any acorns on the roots, so oak seedlings they are not. And the dandelions are gone wild… but they’re wild beasts anyway, dents de lion, as my friend Sonia Chin first pointed out to me. Lion’s teeth! They’ve been taking over in this neck of the woods for some time. My primitive solution to the dandelion scourge is to behead them. Each dandelion decapitated represents fifty future dandelions nipped in the bud. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’ll get around to digging them out eventually, but I’ve got to get the garden going first.

It is exhilarating to be back busy about plants and grasses and lawns, even though it’s so dry. I grieve for some things. I lost every fern this winter, never mind it was the mildest of the last few years. Perhaps they missed the snow water? You can see a couple behind the campanulas in this photo.



There was that small grove of green ones in one corner of the garden, and some silver ones in a long bed by the fence with our neighbour to the north. Ah well. A grove of forget-me-nots has replaced the green ones, sprung out of nowhere, and they are a pretty comfort.

So, back to my tentative gardening efforts, for I wasn’t much of a gardener in the tropics and am very much a novice here in the north. I do know one or two things by now. Bark nuggets are a great investment. They really keep the weeds out. Something interesting, though… The bark nuggets of 2016 aren’t like those of a mere two years ago. They are chunky rather than flat and they look less like bark. I wonder why? I also suspect that the same actuaries who worked out the savings on a pair of jeans if it has five loops instead of seven, have worked out the savings over millions of bags of nuggets if each contains a couple large chunks of wood, as in board, lumber. I have had the opportunity of studying bag after bag of nuggets, for my solution to the intimidating problem of the front ‘lawn’ has been to make a huge newspaper+bark bed out of most of it. (See the one with the campanulas above, which I made with great success three years ago). It is this close scrutiny that has revealed at least one chunk of board in every bag of bark!

As for the rest of the lawn, I shall band my belly and try my best to create a rain garden that will make use of the water from the rainspout on that side of the house. Forget-me-nots and rudbeckia, both of which thrive here, are apparently good plants for a rain garden. I shall start with them.

Rain barrels are also a great investment. I have just bought our third, and in this city, it’s possible to apply for a rebate on one’s storm water charge if one has two or more rain barrels – a bigger one if one also has a rain garden! We do have to find a better way to get the water to flow out when it’s down to the bottom of the barrel, though, perhaps by mounting the barrels on a platform.

Today I worked hard at the “English garden” that occupies a large oval in our backyard and is ringed with a flagstone path. I struggled with the grasses. A warning again about grasses! Some of them won’t stay in place and you will struggle with them once they commence walking about. So know your grass before you sweep it up and take it home.

Sadly, the delphiniums didn’t make it back in quantity this year. Here they are making a splendid show a couple years ago.

Two sturdy plants made it through, so I’ve planted new ones, though they will take time to establish themselves. They were my pride and joy! A bit of possibly important serendipity: the seeds and young shoots of delphiniums are poisonous. They can kill if ingested.

Now I shall have to make a decision on the grape vine, for which we don’t have an arbour. We can’t control its mad excursions with the curved trellises we’ve tried to train it onto, and we’ve never reaped grapes, not even two summers ago when it was covered with bunches, which we bagged with brown paper bags. The critters ended up getting them all. For that reason, my tomatoes are growing inside this summer!

More in due course from this apprentice gardener! Meanwhile, happy gardening!

Is Writing Poetry Hard? (2)

I used to blog, when the going was good, as often as one post a day. I’m not sure how I did it. I don’t write slowly but I do go over and over what I write. I suppose I feel that one can never be too cautious, or too picky. I’m not just talking of mechanics here, though they are important to get right. It’s the relevance of ideas, the Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.11.29 AMclarity of thought. It’s how thoroughly the subject, whatever it is, has been addressed. So I’m having another go at the question of whether writing poetry is hard, not because I want to take back anything that I’ve said. Rather, having borrowed that remarkable insight about poetry’s interrogative intent from Dionne Brand, and turned it from the reader to the poet, I’ve hardly done it justice.

Writing poetry surely interrogates the poet in the general ways that I suggest in Is Writing Poetry Hard (1)? However, it also cross-examines her in the course of her writing every poem, and as in every good inquiry, the questions are specific to the poem. And that is, literally, the rub, the erosive drip-drip-drip of queries, the near drowning demands of waterboarding. Every word set down is tested for what it means, what it implies, its near, nearer and farthest resonances, its satisfying the purposes of thought and wit and fancy, by itself and in combination with its neighbours.

It’s as well that poetry is seductive, an enchantment that begins in nursery rhymes, hides in plain sight in hymns and chants, pop sToronto poet and city laureate Dionne Brand.ongs and musicals and pantomimes, sustains itself in song and story. It thrives in oral language. Jamaican patwa, built on the scaffolding of the King James Bible, driven by the substrate structures of West African dialects, shot through with Irish, Welsh and Scots sounds and sayings, is an ideal medium for the poetic message. (For information, a dialect is a form of language specific to a place or group of people. It is not a sub-standard form of language and so not a pejorative term.)

Well and good, but what does that have to do with the matter at hand? Absolutely everything, for the Q&A between poet and poem is conducted in a language that the poet learns in all the aforesaid ways, as well as others, peculiar to him, related to his experience of life and language overall. Perhaps he is bi-lingual or tri-lingual, so he knows all kinds of lore, all kinds of literatures. And out of those come his vast store, his poetic lexicon, his imaginative grammar, and his metaphoric suprasegmentals.

I think a poet submits to these ongoing interrogations because they are question and answer, summons and response, a conversation between self and word. I say something when I put words down, and the words come back at me, with an echo, approbation, suggestion, objection or question…The feedback loop keeps going, and like an energetic child determined to play, the poem leads the poet on until he tires and puts the lines he’s written aside for another time. Either that, or it keeps pulling the poet till he achieves a first draft, at which point the he says to the pushy poem: “Enough. ‘Another time/ we’ll do that take/ again.’”  (A quote from “No Take,” a poem of mine in Journey Poem, my first collection.)

When they get together again, of course, poet and poem, the whole exercise starts over. Perhaps it is why poets often say a poem is never finished. What has any writer ever said of any subject to exhaust it? Which poet provides the answers to all the questions about a grain of sand – or the world in it?

Is Writing Poetry Hard? (1)

… poetry interrogates the reader… “Dionne Brand in Conversation.” Interview by Christian Olbey (2002)

I’d say writing poetry is a hard thing, yes.

In an oft-quoted statement in a 2002 interview with Christian OlbeDionne Brandy, Dionne Brand tells Olbey “poetry interrogates the reader” while “the reader interrogates prose”. If poetry interrogates the reader, it grills the poet much more. It is in part that cross-examination that for me, at any rate, makes writing poems such a tough business.

The probing proceeds at all kinds of levels. Do you, the poet, have wit enough? Wisdom enough? Watchfulness enough? Words enough? Do you have craft enough? Stamina enough? Patience enough? Daring enough to bare your body – breasts, belly, booty of images – to the casual stare of any old reader, pinching your ass on any old passing page? Will you choose to share, or, like Ken Ingram, Jamaican librarian-poet, take a manuscript of maybe your best writing to the grave?

Those are just some of the queries. Then there’s Emily Dickinson, writing nearly two thousand poems, all but a dozen or so unpublished in her life, and raising a question about the necessity of audience, a question that Louise Bennett would appreciate. The Hon Miss Lou would no doubt laugh, allowing it was Providence alone that made Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, Rex Nettleford and Ferdie Sangster come along to help arrange an answer for her.

Being Louise, she probably also knew that having had her answer, and an audience for a while, fickle Jamdowners would love her and leave her soon enough. (I’m told many of today’s Jamaican children have never heard of Miss Lou. For sure we’ve scrubbed the Ring-Ding tapes – an irreparable loss.) Our little island is not Newfoundland, ready to make a bard of every man and, having done so, cup its ear to every bard…

And there are the terrible queries, every time, of whether what one is trying to say is worth it.

Fine… Enough with the smoke and mirrors, you say. Is the actual writing difficult? The answer depends on the individual poet, of course, but it’s only ever happened a couple times in my life that a poem came out, ten perfect fingers and toes, yelling at the top of its lungs. Mostly they are preemies, needing an incubator and lots of TLC over days, weeks, even months… There are the ‘rules’ of course. Pare it down, for every word must work. Cut ‘the’s’ and ‘and’s’ and ‘then’s’. Watch the adjectives, adverbs, -ing words. But rules cannot a poem make.

One of the reasons I sometimes write in traditional forms is that they help me mind the baby. I can’t entirely explain how that works, but, in the case of metre, the rhythm reassures me, and I now know enough about the music to mash it up when I need to. The rest of the time we hold hands and walk together, and it’s comforting. Similarly, I’ll reach for a rhyme and it will lead me to an image, or some other kind of word play, or drag my imagination in a new direction. At which time I am at a crossroads, with decisions to make. FolloDobru 1w the rhyme? See where it’s going, but keep a version of things as they are, so I can come back if I decide that I’ve strayed? Crash on through the brush, prepared to throw the whole thing up if it doesn’t work?

This last is perhaps the greatest challenge. I recall a poem I once saw Surinamese poet Robin Dobru perform, counselling that sometimes the poet must give a poem to the wastepaper basket. He’s right. One must be prepared to do that. And not find it hard.




Thanks to Carol Narcisse for the question, a perfect one for Poetry Day.

Rote Learning, Rhythm and Rhyme

If there is no rhythm, there is no God. – Derek Walcott

A sad day it was when learning by rote went out of fashion – after all, acquiring native and other languages is one long, elaborate, ongoing process of memorizing – words, structures, idioms. Then there’s math and periodic tables, definitions, user instructions, recipes, important addresses and telephone numbers. I am always amazed when my 16-digit phone card number instructs my fingertips as I dial my sister in Jamaica, overriding worries that I’ve forgotten it. Long gone – I hope long gone – is the concern of educators who thought we’d be damaged by being obliged to learn things by heart. Memorizing is here to stay. In addition to the above, we’ve learned too many proverbs, songs, hymns, chants, and wise sayings that way…

Sorry. Rhyme often creeps upon me. That’s just as well, for into this brief discourse I wish to slide the matters of the two Rs, rhyme and rhythm. I’m a big fan of both, perhaps because I write poetry for children as well as the adult stuff. They love the music of those Rs as utterly as they love jokes, which I throw into the mix when the Muse of Hilarity is about. See “Toes Knows” here http://www.pamelamordecai.com/hello-world/#more-1 Rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic devices, as any parent or teacher of reading, or anyone who’s ever watched Sesame Street knows. It’s worth learning a poem by heart for there’s no power like that of letting your internal or external voice recall and rehearse words with the measure of moans and mirth those two Rs can conjure.

But alas, there’s the danger of doggerel once a poet gets into words metred and rhymed! Thus, not every poem profilinJane Kingg the two Rs is a poem that deserves to be committed to memory. Rhyming is a heady but dangerous business, and if you are not Keats or Walcott orJane King, you should tiptoe around end rhymes. Run-on lines are saviours, as also slant rhyme, and rhymes in places other-than-the-end-of-lines. As for measure, it is there to be crossed, fractured, all shook up for the poem’s purpose.

The truth is these two Rs are playmates. If you frolic with them long enough they can lead you into the ways of meaning, and in the last analysis, what makes the poem is the depth and breadth of the subject that rhyme and rhythm are servicing; it is how these Rs transmit image and word play; it is how they convey the meat that metaphor explores. So Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Brook” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-brook-2/ is not as fine a poem as Edward Thomas’s “The Brook” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-brook-6/. “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/trees/, though much beloved, wont bear comparison with Housman’s, “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now.” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/loveliest-of-trees-the-cherry-now/ William Shakespeare and William Blake, Philip Larkin, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Louise Bennett and Derek Walcott show us what poems can be, even if one is working within the most traditional constraints.

The truth is also that what seems to be free verse is often hiding metre in plain view. Nose through Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Envoy to Palestine”and find the iambics.  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/247308  Ignore the line breaks and scan the lines as they run on. Hear the half rhymes – wheat and beneath (full rhymes for a creole speaker like me), coat and lute, and the completeYusef Komunyakaa 2011 NBCC Awards 2012 Shankbone.JPG rhyme of dead and ahead. It’s not that the poet doesn’t know he’s deploying these tools, for he’s too fine a craftsman. It’s just that he mayn’t be such a free versifier as we like to think.

The Rs live in language. It’s tough to escape them. So let’s learn poems by heart so we can taste them as and when we like.

So, which black writers have sold out?

“One can argue that, to earn mainstream cred, [black] artists typically had to be culturally inert, pandering to the masses with racial broad strokes at the expense of artistic integrity. Alexis has risen above, delving into universal themes and cultural commonalities that are enriched by his racial makeup and illuminated though (sic) his methodology to prose.” So says Ryan B. Patrick in a recent piece entitled “André Alexis and the changing narrative of popular black literature” http://tvo.org/article/current-affairs/shared-values/andre-alexis-and-the-changing-narrative-of-popular-black-literature

In the concluding comments in a recent post entitled “Publishers vs People of Colour Who Write” https://www.dundurn.com/news/Publishers-vs-People-Colour-Who-Write I remark, “It’s hard to resist conforming with ‘mainstream’ values, aesthetic and otherwise, when that conformity opens doors.” It’s not just a problem for People of Colour. (Hereafter POC.) We all know very well that some writers choose marketability over deep truth. Writers, like other people, have got to eat.

Whereas I agree with much of what Ryan has to say about the difficulties writers of colour face, I also know, as an old editor, that generalities are sensible cover, especially when one qualifies them carefully. When one proceeds to specifics, it’s a different calabash of crabs. So, though I do not know what Ryan Patrick means by André Alexis’s “methodology to prose” and I’d disagree with his describing Alexis’s work – or for that matter the writing of Marlon James or Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also figure in his post – as ‘popular’, my ignorance and our disagreement about terms needn’t constitute a problem. I must also say that I admire André Alexis’s work, and that I enjoyed Fifteen Dogs. (I’ve just finished Childhood on my second attempt and will reserve judgment on that book.)

But if man going bring dis kind o argument – “[black] artists typically had to be culturally inert, pandering to the masses” – no mind if him is Marlon James (who just now make a similar comment) or Ryan Patrick, him must come better dan dis.

I note Patrick’s careful, “One can argue…” Indeed. One can argue that Donald Trump would make a fine president of the United States, or that the earth moves round the sun – and persuasively, if one has wit enough. “One can argue…” can also shape shift, Anansi-like. Is one making this argument? And if one is, as seems to be the case, upon what basis? Who and how many are these black writers? African? Black British? Caribbean? I’d be glad if any of these had that much of a look-in to publishing!

I’m left to think they must be Black American or Black Canadian writers. But it doesn’t really matter. Whoever Ryan Patrick is flinging stone at (perhaps in the wake of Marlon James’s comment?), he needs to name at least some of those he indicts for selling out. That there may be many in some respects would be a good thing. It would mean writers of colour are getting published. But if one is going to praise and name (as in André Alexis’s case), one should, in fairness, damn and name. It needn’t be a long list; just a couple examples would firm up Ryan Patrick’s case.

It’s true that for some a publishing contract with a big house – or any contract at all – may be a temptation to desert the narrow path of honest insight. Others, though, like Ezekel Alan , self-publish to answer their responsibilities as griots in this millennium. The irony is that Ryan Patrick is making this argument in the midst of self-searching by the publishing industry, which at all its levels and in all its permutations, includes a miniscule proportion of POC in both Europe and North America, and, as it is now admitting, systematically whites out these writers.

That said many black authors accept that, even if their work is good enough to warrant their becoming “authors of note”, they will likely have to wait till they are dead for that recognition. In this, they follow writers of all colours through the ages. As Lydia Davis says of Lucia Berlin, “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top…sooner or later, and will become exactly as well known as they should be…” The struggle meantime is for all the people to hear their stories told, to see their lives and experiences thoughtfully and skilfully explored, their sorrows mourned and their triumphs celebrated. Black writers will write bad books, mediocre books, and fine books, just as all other writers do. They are perhaps the most to be forgiven for selling out. The sad truth is that for a young person to merely see the name and photo of a black author on a book is still eminent cause for rejoicing.