Calabash Festival - Confounding the Void

At 10 o'clock on Saturday morning, the seats in the tent were sparsely occupied. The sun had not assumed its full force as yet, so a certain coolness prevailed. Saturday mornings at Calabash are perhaps the most fashionable.

Saturday May 26, 2012

At 10 o'clock on Saturday morning, the seats in the tent were sparsely occupied. The sun had not assumed its full force as yet, so a certain coolness prevailed. Saturday mornings at Calabash are perhaps the most fashionable. They offer a study of summer fare--loose slacks, pastel colored blouses, breezy skirts, stylish sandals, open cotton shirts that know how to flirt with the breeze, florals, florals and more florals.

We began two minutes after the hour. The session: "Confounding the Void". Invoking Kamau Brathwaite, the great Barbadian poet who once wrote, commanded himself to throw a stone to confound the void. I could not have been wrong to have read that line as something of an ars poetica in miniature--the stone being the poem that must shatter silence, emptiness and the gaps of memory and experience.

Three poets followed each other onto the stage to participate in such stoning. My back was to the audience as they read. When they were finished, and stepped onto the stage to face the audience which had now grown into a crowd of cheering colors.

For Loretta Collins Koblah, it was something of a homecoming, the sling back patois, the alert intelligence, the quick humor, the landscape constantly interrupted with the evidence of a history as complicated as the people--all would have been familiar to her. So it made sense that here in Jamaica and here at the Jubilation festival, she chose to read poems the showed how much she understood this island, and that showed how important her time studying in Jamaica several years ago had been on her life. She has imbibed the music of the Caribbean so thoroughly--first in Jamaica, and now, for ten years, in Puerto Rico--that her poetry is now fully understood to be of this region, so much so that when she arrived in Jamaica for Jubilation, she was still glowing from being a finalist for the Boca Prize for Caribbean Writing for her book of poems The Twelve Foot Neon Woman... It is from this book that she read in the first session on Saturday the morning, when the tent was still filling with folks who, despite the fatigue from staying up to hear No Maddz and Raging Fyah unscrew their heads the night before. In her reading she reminded us about how matters of grace can exist even in times of sorrow and loss:

When her well-to-do son drops by once,

in all the time I rent a room from her,

to hand her a bag of green Seville oranges

through the iron gate, she cries.

She also reminded us that in the grand imaginary, there exists such a thing as Caribbeanness. It speaks many languages, it plays many music, but it somehow manages to find beauty in the many things these islands share.

She was followed by Christine Craig who took the stage in her gleaming white cotton slacks and blouse, seeming completely at ease, completely at home in the glowing morning. When I introduced her, I quoted a line from her bio that I am sure she must have insisted on, that she is an unapologetic feminist. she has used that line since the nineteen seventies when she lived in Jamaica and did major pioneering women's rights work on the island.

She then proceeded to reach across the narrow divide between the stage and the audience with her poems that intimate home even as they recognize the fact of departure and exile. It had been years since she published her first poems in Jamaica in the 1980s--poems that reflected her fierce passion about women's issues, and that, at the same time, were intrigued by the possibilities of sound and disciplined poetic craft. To have her new book arrive in our hands after such a long hiatus, and to realize that she has been writing poems even as she has continued to live fully and intensely, has been a great pleasure for readers of Jamaican poetry.

Finally, Shara McCallum, smiling brightly, told us that she left Jamaica as a child. And yet she never quite left, as is the way of departures that we have so little control over as children. She had the look of someone filled up with the joy of the presence of family and friends, and with the sense of anticipation at reading to such a large audience of people who already understand so much of what she has written about.

Her patois is grammar perfect in the way of someone who has practiced the language with a deep sense of respect for it and a hint of scrupulousness prompted by anxiety about getting it right, and she read it as one who has learned the diction, tone, and phonetic qualities of patois--self conscious and endearing. The audience slipped into language with her as she read poems about Calypso, Kingston, rasta, and family.

Against the backdrop of the sea, the same sea that swallowed (she told us) her Rastafarian father who took his own life so many years ago, her poems engaged Greek mythology, Jamaican folk and urban mythologies, and the private mythologies that the best poets forge for themselves.

She kept promising that she would end with something lighter, less harrowing, less painful. It was an unnecessary promise to an audience that understands that the very fact that poetry is written about the brutal realities of our existence is where its beauty truly resides,


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