Editorial: Race and Racism in the Caribbean: “So many knees on so many necks”

Annie Paul

What else have I missed today in apartheid Jamaica? Sarah Manley’s startling status update on Facebook a few days ago resonated deeply, pinpointing as it does the invisible walls that divide this society. These walls relegate poor, black bodies to oblivion while corralling the country’s profits and benefits for the middle and upper classes—Team Light-Skinned as Garnette Cadogan terms it—who run things here.

Continue reading “Editorial: Race and Racism in the Caribbean: “So many knees on so many necks””

Belmont Portfolio — for Earl Lovelace

JOHN ROBERT LEE

Prologue: Belmont window, Saturday

some girl you never spoke with
some girl who walked on the other side of your road
some girl you looked out for from your blue window
lived in a house like this
behind hedges of croton and hibiscus
behind a wall with a gate and a mail box on it
behind bay windows and a red verandah —
maybe she was as shy as you
maybe she watched you between her curtains
maybe she wrote your initials on page 67 of her green maths book —

when you met her in New York years later
with your school-mate her husband
you could not get past island gossip
and the vacuous opinions
to ask about her house
and the sacred memories you had scrawled on its cream façade.

ites, gold, green

who will come to the red gate with the red mail tinbox
its pillars topped with red pyramids
who will walk past the yellow hydrant
and stare through the closed gate
at the thick variety of garden
wrought-iron barricade round the verandah
who will see the green banana leaf
peering over the grey wall
for who might come through the red gate on Pelham Street?

somewhere in Belmont, yesterday

maybe epiphany, maybe:
not what was, or will be, but what is
right there in your eye 
angel wings, diaphanous, earth-corrugated
some annunciation, some mas revelation
Rudder-Minshall creation incarnating
high art across the galvanise,
to raise up some good-looking seraphim
from the corner of Belmont Circular
to cross the Savannah
in the ricochet and dingolay
to ascend for a moment on Grand Stage
from troubled, narrow lanes of the fallen.

Belmont Circular, vernacular

“if you comin’ down from the mountain/Oh God oh/When de riddim beat is in town/See me jumpin’ on de Savannah grass/de Savannah grass.” – Kes the Band

they don’t believe anymore
they have abandoned joy in the dancing line
the amazing image, teasing metaphor
workshop camaraderie, shavings off the chisel
jam sessions in a small bandroom
smell of wet canvas
actors and dancers all over each other —

gone busy in the world, trying to catch their big names
no change to spare, time somehow impossible
become strangers to kindness, generosity, thankfulness
foreigners to their first neighborhoods
the city’s first pleasant suburbs
blue street-signs, winding alleys
intricate fretwork designs over open verandahs
tin mail-boxes on gates or walls
prayer flags in the gardens
multi-colored galvanise barricades —

now the houses age like lonely parents
rusting roofs, broken jalousies
walls crack like a earthquake pass,
next to younger nondescript blocks of concrete apartments
groceries, restaurants, fortified with burglar bars
and their forbidding character,
but it’s the same everywhere in these islands
pushed down with debt, despair and indifference
divided among parties of pride —

do streets, suburbs, cities lose their joy
like artistes fixed on billboards
like critical hens of writers
like vain coteries of painters,
do they forget the first loves  
strolling from the first red gates near the yellow hydrants
the first-pan runs somewhere on Jerningham Street
young Shadow and Rudder with their first lyrics down a Belmont lane,
forgotten the innocent vows in the old stone church
the first drums of the first Africans in Freetown?
I suppose —

but walking with my visitor’s apprehensions
past this worn house, its satellite dish, its cracked wall
I raise my eyes to the spire-tip of Margaret of Antioch, Anglican
and from a room in the house
listen, a girl with a nice voice
singing with Kes the Band, 
“if you comin’ down from the mountain/
Oh God oh/
When de riddim beat is in town/
See me jumpin’ on de Savannah grass/
de Savannah grass.”

and the joy that is
the sacramental grace that always is
lifts the house of I
to embrace with surging heart 
Belmont Circular vernacular.

think of the Mystery

dear Belmont, given my intractable infatuations
my, I suppose, naïve expectations
and embarrassing enthusiasms

I meet Mystery incarnations
everywhere: brown heron on the Lea
fragrant marjoram in my front yard 

intent gaze of a child across traffic
and here, on a Belmont gate, 
teasing metaphysical speculations

the ubiquitous red mail tinbox
numbered 12A, Piscean number of completion,
with Alpha of the universe energies,

denoting harmony and perfection —
here, through the rusting gate
past the leaning, browning galvanise
under closed jalousies of the house next door
down the rough concrete walk
to what yard, what house, which Angel

of mercy, grace, unfathomable love
in what incarnation, in what masquerade
robed in what joy —

see, Belmont, my intractable infatuations
irrepressible imagination
my foolish certainty?


cello player waits for the Festival bus, Pelham Street

“..not another world, but this world experienced after another manner.” (Kathleen Raine).

on the third Day of the Creation Festival
the Ancients sit together
Earth in its mineral curve and design, Fadda
elegant water-bearing Plant in its clay pot, Mudda
young one clinging near with its tendrils, Alovera
and they chanted rumours in the Garden
of other Days to be imagined
to be imaged by Unimaginable
impossible cloud gossips of more coming 
more than Earth-stone and Earth-plant?
noise of — galaxies? flying fish? sea birds?
and did you hear the Tree proclaiming like some Angel
“beasts, beasts” – what on earth are they?
beasts born of Fadda Earth?  feeding on Mudda Plant?
and this Nancitori, this Nightmare:
Unimaginable will imagine in His Image
some Earth-Plant He calling A-dam!

in the neat stone garden of Villa Shalom
corner Pelham Street and Reid Lane, Belmont
in a back room somewhere
the cello player rehearses for a Festival play 
called Silent Scars.

Belmont gothic, Thursday

“if your clothes tear up/and your shoes mash up/you could still dingolay.”
“I came down to the city/like a walking symphony.” – Shadow

weeks toppling over Thursdays
so fast, is like the days shorten
and will soon be time to go, to leave
to kiss the last kiss, squeeze the last squeeze
prance the last dingolay
return like a stranger to the promise land —
in this October, your birth and death month
I YouTube your classic gothic Dr. Shadow,
Belmont boy, raise with peas in Tobago
griot wailing from the Savannah
wailing down tracks
of your desperate notes
elemental, existential
excavating despairing desires
“what’s wrong with me?”
off hungering, keening scales
of the bass melody
you rode like a midnight robber
watching for something, something
in the naked eyes of revelers
in the stripped eyes of lovers
in the wine of singers, dancers and flag woman
in the fretwork of the tenor pan
in the tired eyes of the old Brigade
in the mirror, in the mirror
watching for something, something
for God, really,
how else you explain
that perpetual empty space
out of which you hopped
standing in the same place
pulling from your guts
the plaintive chords
of those lost to themselves 
in the hell of poverty —

so we learn Dr. Bailey, gothic Shadow, how to put the story:
hear in your ear a prancing line
chant extension of syllables through waving melody
phrase in the cave of your palate surprising phrases
straight from the yard behind the galvanise
“you don’t need a bull dozer to become a composer”
ricochet and dingolay and wave it
down in the common life you come from
Belmont, Laventille, Charlotte Street, Tobago
stand up jumping in the parade of stanzas
with your rough, beautiful, holy voice.

leaving

leaving a place of passing infatuations
marking in your diary
a cartographer’s route of various sentimentalities
tentative journeys across newly familiar streets, like
Queen’s Park East into Jerningham Ave
left into Archer St, right on to Erthig Rd
left again on to Pelham St, crossing Meyler to find the B&B
corner of Pelham and Reid Lane. Ok —
ok, the beautiful front door of colored glass
ok, the light-brown curtain tied like a shirt around a waist
ok, the quiet stone garden
camaraderie around the kitchen table
the view from a blue window
yellow hydrant and red mail box,
ok the galvanise fences, the once fine houses
the surprising steeple of Margaret of Antioch, Anglican
and ok the crowds in the Grand Market and the noise
art galleries, plays, readings, concerts. Ok.
leaving, letting go of ambiguous embraces, 
picking up the suitcase of the little you have
pulling up pegs of the tent sojourner, again
to go back where you started,
after the “marvelous journey” to some Ithaka, 
until the next departure, next terminal
until….. ok, leave that there —
so you bury in the pilgrim ground
behind the beautiful door of rainbow glass
and its diaphanous curtain tie like a shirt around a hip,
in the quiet, stone garden of fragrant herbs, 
impossible infatuations
vague nostalgias
plotlines of shifty memory,
and board the narrow tube of the airport bus.

Epilogue: airport bus, rain

“forgive us this day our daily weakness/as we seek to cast our mortal burdens on your city, Amen/O merciful Father/in this bacchanal season/where men lose their reason../and if you know what I mean../let Jah be praised.” – David Rudder

strange old rubble wall
coming through the wet window of the airport bus:
different-shaded, different-sized stones
from sidewalk up to some indeterminate,
abstract, unfinished, uneven top,
looks blackened, as though burned,
and then, more even clay bricks finish the wall
which holds rust and red metal doors —
the humans of Port of Spain 
walking past it, traffic lights and pedestrian crossing 
might know who the strange wall is and its story,
is it historical artefact, crumbling edifice forgotten by the council
an unknown artisan’s work…
but it raining, the bus moving slowly in traffic
we look at bridges, torrential canals, white mosques, 
bars and billboards cruising under drizzle,
the young people singing Chronixx, and
a category 5 hurricane beating up the Atlantic.

All photos courtesy John Robert Lee.

John Robert Lee is a Saint Lucian writer. His recent publications include Pierrot (Peepal Tree, 2020), Saint Lucian Writers and Writing: an author index (Papillote Press, 2019), Collected Poems 1975-2015 (Peepal Tree, 2017).

News: PREE author BAGS VIRAGO DEAL

PREE is proud to announce that one of our writers, Sharma Taylor, has inked a deal with Virago for her debut novel, WHAT A MOTHER’S LOVE DON’T TEACH YOU. Taylor’s feat in accomplishing this is a tribute to her determination and ambition for in a 2013 Observer article about the young attorney not once does she mention her desire to become a writer. Yet in a mere 7-8 years Taylor is creating waves in the literary world with her first novel. The excerpt below gives an idea of the road Taylor has traveled to get here and serves as an exemplar for other talented writers out there who want to excel globally:

“But then her insecurities, which have been her nemesis, followed her to the all-girls institution where her classmates were predominantly girls from upper and middle class backgrounds. Up until the ninth grade, she just cruised along until one day she walked into her English class and heard her teacher reading a short story she had written and declaring to the other students that it was the best one of all the others she had graded.
“It gave me that initial confidence and I thought to myself, well, if I can write a good short story for English class, maybe I can do this, and that moment was a sort of watershed and I realised that I was as good as anybody,” said Sharma Taylor.

A powerful story of belonging, identity and inheritance, What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You brings together a vivid host of voices to evoke 80’s Jamaica’s ghetto, dance halls, criminal underworld and corrupt politics, and at its beating heart a mother’s unshakeable love for her son.

The storyline of Taylor’s first novel is simple: At eighteen years old, Dinah, a Jamaican maid, gave away her baby son to the rich American couple she worked for before they left Jamaica. They never returned. She never forgot him.

Eighteen years later, a young man comes from the US to Kingston. From the moment she sees him, Dinah never doubts – this is her son. What happens next will make everyone question what they know and where they belong. 

‘From the moment I read the opening lines of Sharma’s novel in Dinah’s patois, I was hooked,” says Rose Tomaszewska, Senior Commissioning Editor at Virago: “When we met over Zoom I fell completely for her extraordinary creative force and love for her characters. She is a writer of voices, a ventriloquist who brings us into the real Jamaica, and her energy springs off the page. I am excited to launch her as a debut talent at Virago.”

According to Sharma Taylor: I wrote this book to showcase Jamaican culture and to explore the relationship between mothers and their children. I was captivated by Dinah’s voice the moment she came to me in the kitchen of my apartment in Barbados. I can’t wait to work with the delightful Rose, who is as passionate about these characters as I am, and as I hope readers will become.

About the author:

Sharma Taylor is a Jamaican writer and attorney living between Jamaica and Barbados. She holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, obtained on a Commonwealth Scholarship and has completed various writing courses, including at Arvon and postgrad courses at the University of the West Indies. She has been shortlisted twice for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (in 2018 and 2020) and has won the 2020 Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Prize and 2019 Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize for emerging writers. Her short story How You Make Jamaican Coconut Oil won the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. An earlier version of this manuscript was awarded Second Prize in the 2020 First Novel Competition (organised by Daniel Goldsmith Associates Ltd, UK). What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You is her debut novel.  

 

Bottom

                                                           
VLADIMIR LUCIEN


“like your body got a mind of it own”
— Machel Montano

“Teach our philosophy the strength to reach/Above the navel; black bodies, wet with light.”  
                                                                                — Derek Walcott, Tales Of The Islands 


“It is around this very navel that the battle rages. The alternative tradition is belly-centred: in the beat, in the drum, the apparently bawdy”; it is “belly-drum centred.”
— Kamau Brathwaite (in response to Walcott)


And also, bottom-centred. Bamsee-rooted. 

So much that I can say to you here will come from my head. Oftentimes, fully formed.  And quite likely, you will take it into your head, and may or may not find it — based on the aesthetics of the intellect into which you receive it — beautiful. For the intellect’s is an aesthetics of completion, of the resolution of ambiguity into neat conclusion, clean theory. But what is done with all that beautiful head-knowledge? Well, as Brathwaite tells us, it must eventually contend with the navel. Being that point at which the lateral waistline meets the centre of that vertical line going from head to groin, the navel is physically a central point of intersection. But it is also a point of a former interdependence; that point through which we were fed by our mothers, where now a hole or a stub remains and now tells the lie of a broken connection. Depending on how we see it, the navel can tell us the lie of interdependence no longer being a matter of life and death for us as it was for the foetus. We believe now in the mouth, through which we now feed ourselves, and through which we express that exalted human capability we call language, language that allows us the luxury of talking about what we know nothing about. The mouth, through which we utter high ideals that our bodies and those of others — that sweat, become dirty, pass waste, dwell in the heat and dust of the world — spend lifetimes striving to reach. 

Yet so much about this conflict between the head and the pelvis, meeting at the navel, seems one dimensional — all of it focused at the front of the body. It doesn’t speak of the bottom, the butt, the bambam, the bamsee, the badonkadonk, the booty. The bottom, which is the head’s true opposite— both beneath and behind it. With the same fervency with which the head is praised, the bottom is degraded. But there is a secrecy about the bottom, a secrecy which has something to do with humility, wisdom. My suspicion is that if the head is the emblem of the intellect and the navel is the site where this intellect must tussle with the force of desire and emotion that may go contrary to what the mind has theorized, then the bottom is the emblem of wisdom, a place where the knowledge gained from that tussle between that pelvic region of desire, and that high plane of the intellect, is settled.

If it could listen, the ass would know itself to be, in common discourse, an insult. Oftentimes, it goes completely unnoticed. It is not the face with which we meet other faces, rather it is something to be covered. To show someone your ass — or theirs for that matter —  is to curse them. (At least, most of the time.) To call someone an ass, is to suggest a “donkey-like” stupidity demonstrated by them unduly bearing the burdens of others or making something burdensome that ought not to be; but also, conversely, due to the heft of their perceived stupidity, by their being seen as fit only to bear load. The ass — our asses, do that. They bear the load of us; being sat upon, playing a key role in standing up or falling down. At times, a kind of simultaneous aftermath for all that we tire ourselves out doing. Our asses are where our troubles, our stupidity, or even our best efforts inevitably land us. Hardly do we think of it as anything having to do with thought or wisdom. Or at least I hadn’t.  And so the bottom attains a kind of anonymity, but is a site of tremendous power and mystery, related both to desire and to true knowledge. And to speak of it as a site of true knowledge, is really to say that it is the beginning of knowledge and the end of desire. 

In the Caribbean, at a certain point in the year, the bottom is brought out into the open, and becomes the face of the culture. That is, it is similar to what some people understand to be “mooning,” a metaphor which isn’t at all inaccurate. For the moon’s is a quiet light, and in some sense considered illegitimate. It is of the dark, and in a way taboo. And yes, it too is also linked to the beginning of knowledge, and the end of desire. But in the Caribbean, while at night throughout the year it grinds in the dark, still in a quiet, moon-like way in dancehalls and nightclubs, during carnival the bottom is given, no, claims the prominence of the sun. And it is the women — who know very well, the moon — who give it that prominence. The bottom protrudes, is pushed out and is made to rotate, gyrate, grind. It is pushed onto men. Men seek it out and are humbled by it. And it is animated by something that involves both the head and the pelvis in a somewhat harmonious relationship with each other: music. The music of those unfinished spheres. And in the dark too, the bottom lives, as a point of desire for men who desire men, for men who desire women or for women who desire women — there too there may be secrets that can be told about the bottom. My concern here though, is with the bottom in its unredeemed state, in its everyday function — the wisdom sitting visibly in its cleft, yet whole face. 

Louis Armstrong — I was told by a Professor — was well-known apparently for talking about his bowel movements. In his letters, he would not only talk about them and speak praisingly of laxatives, particularly one named “Swiss Kriss” but he would sign off very important letters — including one to the President: “Swiss Krissly Yours, Louis.”

Like true wisdom, it is quiet, humble, patient and capable of suffering; of being squeezed, pushed up against, fallen down upon, flogged, ignored, debased and bearing so much of this in absorbent silence. The bottom’s knowledge is knowledge gained through experience, the knowledge that comes from “suffering” — which we all must do. Suffering in the way that its etymology suggests: “sub-ferre” bearing from below. Appearing dumb, large and fleshy, without bone to give it a firm, sturdy structure, sometimes excessive, it deals in the passage of waste, it embarrasses us with the noises it makes. In its ability to suffer, both the inflicting of pain and indifference (and the cruel combination of the two) it understands something of experience that the head often eludes: that to truly know, is to feel. A posteriori knowledge.

Unlike the head, the bottom knows that life is not so much a matter of deserving the best as it is about experiencing a little bit of everything: both the best and the worst of what life has to give. In this, it also knows what eludes desire’s impatience to have what it wants. Its silence is due to having made peace with its situation — behind and beneath — from the very beginning. Its two-facedness is not a metaphor for deceit. None of its “faces” are hidden; they appear side by side. They know that though separated, they are two sides of one thing. So the bottom, is a manifestation of the full knowledge of the two-sidedness of “reality.” Over and above all of this, it is a manifestation of the ongoing ideal of ongoing life: balance. 

So in a strange way, what we are constantly striving for, is not so much to reach some high ideal, but to reach the ideal exemplified by the bottom, by the debased ass. The ass, even as it comes to refer to the donkey — homographical cousin to the bamsee — which is balanced enough, though dumb-seeming,  to bear our load. So many of its names, in their very rhythm and their rhyme, the see-saw like quality of their sound, or even how the words look, bear witness to The Great Twoness, to the constant need for balance: bumbum, bambam, bamsee, botsee, booty, batty, budonkadonk, boomboom, butt, ass, bambalam. The bambam, the quality of twoness in life which is somehow the key to our rebirth in wisdom. 

Portrait of the Poet as an Ass 

One of my first encounters with shame, I remember, was in primary school, when I was six years old. My mother — who taught at the same school I attended — happened to be my teacher. To have one’s mother teaching in the same school one attended was fine if one was an exemplary student. And I was. In such an arrangement, it was also hoped that the parent-teacher would never end up teaching the child-student, to avoid any accusations of bias. Teachers would usually be moved around to different classes to avoid this. But this was a small, countryside school of a small faculty, and a small student population. In a way, the school was already somewhat incestuous in its associations as the students all came from the surrounding area, with some of their houses being directly outside the school gate, and most of the teachers — my mother included — were from the surrounding village. The school was part of the village, the village part of the school. 

The concern for bias was justified, in that I was the best performer academically, in my year group, and in such a small school, it was easy to be known, throughout the school for one’s aptitude or one’s notoriety. But the concern was also unnecessary because of the kind of mother I had. Whether at home or in school, to my five- or six-year old mind, it seemed quite often the opposite of bias with my mother. She managed the arrangement well — I was never to call her “mommy” in school and I was expected to be disciplined and focused in class just as all other students were. 

I was smart yes, but I was also a talker at the time, and one day Mommy — Mrs. Lucien — caught me talking in class and told me to stand up on the bench where I was seated, and if I remember correctly, to put my finger on my mouth. It was a strange place for me to be. Prior to this, I don’t think I had ever been punished in any significant way in school. And whereas I may have been placed at some height, whether in others’ esteem or on the stage at assembly, as an example for other students to follow, I’d never associated such heights with shame. But it was what I felt, and doubly so, because it was my own mother who had placed me there. I felt betrayed. I couldn’t help it — soon after I was made to stand in this way, with my classmates snickering around and beneath me, I started to cry. I remember crying bitterly. This was the last period of the day and it was soon time to go home — the time when Mrs. Lucien usually became Mommy again. I couldn’t hold back my anger; I confronted her about it. I don’t remember my mother’s response, but I imagine it simply being part of who my mother always was: steadfast in her disciplining of me.

I couldn’t say so then, and probably didn’t even know the word yet — but I felt like an ass. The one whom everyone was laughing at for once, the target of punishment. In this school, in a very poor community, shame was an abiding part of the reality. There was one boy in my class whose teeth were so bad that there was discernibly more rot than teeth in his mouth, and he was dubbed, with unsparing literalness — dan wiyé (rotten teeth). There was another boy who, early one morning, came pelting into the school in his underwear, his mother chasing him with a belt or some other object to beat him with. Another student lost her mother to an accident that resulted in her being electrocuted. Tragedy and shame abounded around me in that school, and yet it was never a place where the students held a tragic view of themselves. My mother no longer lived in this community. I never had. We lived in a different suburb with people who may never have known such people as came to this school nor their parents, except as the ones who came to cut their grass or to clean their houses. But my grandmother was from this community and was of it. She would have cleaned people’s houses at some point in time. Yet there was a phrase she would say, that she passed on to my mother, a phrase whose wordplay is best construed in its own language: menm si ou mal, ou pa ni pou malpwop. ( Even though you’re poor, doesn’t mean you should be nasty). 

The idea behind my grandmother’s phrase is that one must know oneself from one’s circumstances, and in this, dignity is found. The lack of a tragic vision at that school was not due to any incapacity to understand their condition, but rather an astute understanding of that very thing — that it was a condition, it was conditional and therefore was not who they were. What is more, is that it is not only something that they knew themselves from, but also that they knew it was something against which they could make themselves into something more even in the midst of these conditions. To be that something “more” was entirely based on their conduct, entirely based on their ability to recognize their dignity as having nothing to do with the condition of their experience but their performance within any condition.  Menm si ou mal, ou pa ni pou mal pwop. 

My moment of shame was typical of the kind of lesson my mother was forever trying to teach me. Which is that I too had to know myself from my circumstances, even though mine were ostensibly “fortunate” circumstances. It seems to me now that the very vision of me standing on the bench — for shame and not reward this time — was an inversion of what usually obtained among my classmates and I in school, and beyond that, what the fundamental difference was between them and me. Without fetishizing them, there was a lesson that I was yet to learn which they had been learning each and every day. A lesson I am still learning and perhaps, in their way, they are too. My standing on the bench, and the acrimony that attended that moment for me had everything to do with that ability to know oneself from one’s circumstances. 

Within the Western theatrical tradition, this moment, invested with greater gravitas by being based on the lives of kings, is defined as tragic. So significant is this fall from grace that it usually results in the death of the King. But not in this community: the truth that Monchy, the village of my mother and grandmother, carried, was the abiding anticlimax of life eternally going on. One needed to know oneself, even from this fall from grace. But you could only know this by being submerged, even sometimes torn apart by these circumstances. You had to endure, you had to perform well — for in your performance was your dignity, your acquisition of personal authority. And that required me being able to, for a moment, be the ass. Accept that this too was meant for me; that my life did include such moments. That I did in fact have an ass within me, and on me, even with the emphasis in school and in life as a man, on my head (or heads). My shame had to do with believing that a particular experience was not meant for me, that I would perpetually escape it on account of my brightness or some other quality. And as I think of it now, it is fitting that I was made to stand on the bench, placed above my classmates. It demonstrated the contextual nature of one’s position — any position — in life. 

Standing there for reward, you were hardly aware of your body. Being on high in that way and being applauded, having your notions of yourself as special confirmed, was a heady experience. One was on the verge of almost escaping the body, the clinical cleanness of the head into a rarefied air. Standing there for punishment, being set aside in that way, one wanted to escape the body, but had to dwell within it. Utterly. Like an ass, like the ass indeed. 

Years later, in fifth grade, in another school in the city, a girl would come to school with five hundred dollars. No one knew where this girl could have gotten that kind of money. She came from a nearby low-income community. Her uniform was often dirty. Some of her teeth were broken and remained that way. Yet this girl came to school, early one morning, with five hundred dollars. She chose and went privately to five boys and gave each of them a hundred dollars — without explanation. And somehow, what this girl wanted was not clear. She was not one of those who were actively teased in class. On the contrary, she was by and large ignored. One would think that meant she was “spared” teasing. But there was something like pleading that attended her giving of the five hundred dollars to those five boys. Not all of the boys were people who teased, but they were boys who were somehow accepted as not quite teasable, and some may have been arbiters of teasing. It seems to me that what she wanted was simply to be left alone, that the indifference would continue and never turn into teasing. By the end of the day, inevitably, this scandal would have been found out. Someone had told the teacher that this girl had been giving out this kind of money. One of her parents was soon in the school, having noticed the money missing. There was shame for the girl that in a way she had brought on herself. This memory comes to me often now, and with it the realization that this girl could not pay her way out of the experience she was hoping to avoid. Nor could any of us. To be the ass, to be the butt of jokes, can and will happen at all levels; to everyone. It occurs to me now too — a bracing revelation for someone who practices as a poet — that this is the double meaning behind the word utter. Utter, related to utterance, an exaltation of the Word, which brought the world into existence, which brought the “light” into existence. But then that word had to come down to earth, had to come down to the bottom of its world, where it became “utter” — a kind of extremity of a supposedly bad thing, a kind of curse word, with which the dark earth was inseminated. 

This is what we, the soi disant meek, have inherited. And to turn it too quickly into tragedy is to somehow suggest that such experience of being “utter” is illegitimate, is not of us, is not meant for us. To turn it too quickly into theory is to say that the messiness of experience is not a necessary part of any knowledge gained or earned. But it is. It is where we are given that peculiar chance to understand The Great Twoness: ourselves as made continuously by dwelling with and enduring the conditions of our circumstances, and in so doing, making ourselves into something more — the half that has not been told, but which we, through enduring, are given a chance to tell. To be what Zora Neale Hurston called the B-people: be there when that which antagonizes us is there and be there when it’s gone. And this is learned in a world of matter, and in the world of mater: motherThe mothering presence in the world, that insists on us knowing work, knowing labor, and difficulty. The mother that insists on us knowing what she, being a mother, has already known — the work it took to make us and then to know herself from that feeling of twoness, and that labor that supposedly made the twoness separate. So we stand on the earth, like that bench in my first grade classroom, for shame and for reward, for pleasure and for pain, and perhaps for reward again, and for more shame. All of it, our inheritance. 

Thinking Ass Backwards

Louis Armstrong — I was told by a Professor — was well-known apparently for talking about his bowel movements. In his letters, he would not only talk about them and speak praisingly of laxatives, particularly one named “Swiss Kriss” but he would sign off very important letters — including one to the President: “Swiss Krissly Yours, Louis.” That same Professor showed the class an example of a Christmas card Armstrong would send out, picturing him sitting on the toilet —which he called endearingly “the throne” — with the caption “Leave It All Behind Ya.” Ralph Ellison, responding to this bawdy humor, accuses Armstrong of thinking, as we say in the Caribbean, ass backwards, saying to Albert Murray: “Man sometimes ole Louie shows his ass instead of his genius.” Whatever Ellison may have thought, evidently Armstrong had found in the bottom, and in its bodily function, a philosophy that is fundamental to life, to self-renewal which must include a function of ‘leavin’ it all behind ya’, a function that is key not only to birth and rebirth, but also to sustaining life. 

True growth, and rebirth, is often inhibited by the inability to put things behind one, usually the very labors that attend one’s maturing — the things that try us. But chief among the things we are unable to put behind us, is ourselves, our condition yesterday or the day before, or our eager and cherished ideas of who we “are”. To grow is not a trajectory of the same self moving through space, but a constant growing and changing — i.e. knowing — of self; a self that is given birth to in the first instance, and throughout its life has the often neglected duty of giving birth — that is rebirth — to itself.  Constantly we evade this responsibility by trying to place the labor, the responsibility — through blame — on others. But it is our inexorable responsibility which life will never allow us to slough off permanently. To take it up — this task of self-rebirthing— involves, in more ways than one, putting oneself behind oneself.

Like birth this involves being able to take on a work that seems thankless, being the ignored one, being debased, facing suffering and heaviness, but also coming to know oneself from and through that suffering. In the act of birth, the danger for the child (and father) is that he/she comes to know him/herself without having to endure the labor that birthed his “self”, and this child/father can and often will spend their whole life running from that task. The danger for the mother is the inability to know herself from that labor, from that pain, from that double existence. How to be both two and one? She asks. How to be anything other than one? asks the Father, asks the child. Inevitably — whatever our “gender”— we must at different points in time ask ourselves the version of this question that is most applicable to our particular dilemma. In this, we all become our mothers. And are our own children/fathers.  But also, it may be where we come nearest to knowing God: 

Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said…And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts…

To know the face of god may be to know something truly unbearable, but we are allowed to see the buttocks. And somehow to know the buttocks of God, is to know something pivotal about ourselves and to know this pivotal thing about ourselves is to know all we can know and feel of God (or whatever we want to call it) in this life. Rather than the pursuit of knowledge as a thing in and of itself to “accumulate”, maybe what we see in the mirror of the buttocks of God is knowledge that cannot be separated from intimacy with ourselves which is bound up with the fundamental condition of our existence. In it, the twoness and oneness of knowing ourselves in things and knowing ourselves from things as each infinitesimal unit of experience demands.           

And so it is that the “ass” comes, verily verily, to be a synonym also for the self: we try to save our asses; we bear the world’s punishment with our asses. And if we are willing to see it, we can have some part of the knowledge necessary to truly save our asses. Because what our ass endures most is us, our struggle with our selves. That is its work: attempting to bring balance to something that is always threatening to topple forward ahead of itself too far into the future; or to fall back too heavily on the past; or to fold under the heady circumstances of the present.  Perhaps, if we are to look back in time for guidance, it may be useful, also, to look right behind us and maybe, looking forward, we may come to know what on earth it is the Gods are trying to teach by showing mankind not their face, but their bamsee. 

Vladimir Lucien is a poet from St. Lucia. He is the author of Sounding Ground which won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and co-editor of Sent Lisi: Poems and Art of St. Lucia

Blood mas

ADELE TODD

This year I chose to look at both the traditional Mud Mas and the historical (and banned) portrayal Pissinlit. Pissinlit was portrayed by men who dressed as women and made fun of their frailties such as menstruation. The costume also gives acknowledgement to Carrie the movie in which a teenage girl has telekinetic powers. Most recently our nation has also been rocked by the murder of a young woman and my portrayal ultimately looks at crimes against women.

The Portrayal itself is titled B L O O D  M A S. The character begins with her foot showing the date in blood. She is wearing a simple slip and carrying a knife. The Performance begins with her bleeding from her calf and then down her arm and onto the knife that drips down her leg. Eventually blood is splattered onto her virginal shift, trickling down. She turns and the front of her night clothing is drenched in blood. Finally blood pours down her head. She begins to slash out again and again with the knife

I am asking with this body of work to include B L O O D   M A S as part of the Jouvert experience. I ask that all victims of abuse and violence be given this voice. Yes, the costume may be scary to look at. Yes, it is in your face about crime and victimization. Yet, it is also strong, because it makes clear that you may want to kill the person but the spirit rises up and takes its power back.Her eyes are open and she is not defeated. She shall NOT be forgotten.

Jouvert can accommodate protest. It can handle controversy. It is not meant to be tamed in any way. The characters we laud have been played to scare, to remind and to make sense of things we cannot understand.My portrayal intends to be part of that pantheon.Thank you for reading.

Adele Todd is a graphic designer, artist and lecturer at The University of The West Indies. In her design career she has produced books and magazines, advertising and trademark design. As an artist she uses performance centred around experimental thread work and a technique she has coined dimensional embroidery.

VOYEUR

Paula David

A green mountain range rises majestically from the sea.  She blankets an island chain where the Bible is always the standard and often the only textbook. The mountain range dwarfs her children.  Her tall, jagged peaks impede movement and entrench isolation.  Blue waters surround her, genuflecting at her feet.

A red and white vessel, as large and ancient as Jonah’s whale, belches notice of its departure.  The boom bounces off the mountains through narrow valleys that act as echo chambers.  The sea is a blue marble tabletop, perfectly flat and polished to full luster.  Around mid-channel, flying fish hover blue grey above the blue-black sea.  The surf plays dodge ball against the sides of the ferry.  A white shrouded seagull skirts the sea’s surface, his telescopic eyes penetrating deep below.

A woman grooms her lover tenderly.  She examines her lover’s face, scratching at scars and stroking wrinkles while her lover’s head rests snugly on her lap.  They are an unlikely pair.  Neither pretty, one is ornamented beyond the bounds of decency, each earlobe bearing the burden of six ingot rings.  The other is clad in brown cotton which sinks into the brown of her skin making her as inconspicuous as a ground dove.  Bejeweled lover lazily traces her index finger from the forehead of her ground dove past her nose down to her lips.  Normally nosy islander passengers avert their eyes.

A young woman strains the seams of her tiger print blouse and black spandex trousers deliciously.  She walks across the deck, cell phone in hand, seeking out the right spot for reception.  With one practiced hand she languidly coaxes a light veil of dreadlocks which has strayed past her cheeks over her eyes back into place.  Her skin is the colour of slightly burnt toast luminescent with butter.  Her lower lip pouts just enough to suggest a hunger that bears no relationship to food.  Pie chart and bar graph in hand, she smiles at the speaker on the other end of the line.  She gestures to him, points at the charts, cajoles and convinces.  Her beauty is wisdom; the sweetness of her voice is reason and the bounce of her hips, purpose.

Tiger woman makes her way towards the staircase as the ferry pulls into harbour.  She skips down the steps.  The lovers wait patiently on their white wooden nest while the crowd of work-a-day passengers, eager to disembark, dissipates. 

The tigress is met at the bottom of the stairs by a tall man uniformed in Benetton khakis and white linen shirt.  His thighs and pectoral muscles are hard beneath the tropical weight clothing.  They shake their hellos, fingers pressed deeply into each other’s palms.  The fingers linger then, reluctantly, disengage.  Lips and eyes smile brightly as they stroll past the octagonal kiosk where minibuses swing by furiously to gather up impatient passengers.

Benetton and Tigress sit on deck chairs sheltered beneath a huge yellow canvas umbrella.  She shows him a balance sheet.  He nods approvingly.  The sun strikes the diamond studded band on her left ring finger.

Bejeweled and Ground Dove hold hands as they stroll across golden sand past rows of yellow umbrellas.  Drunk with love and oblivious of all other human presence, they sit on the sparkling sand in the shade of a Flamboyant tree.  One strokes the other’s hair.  The other wipes sea spray from her lover’s unperturbed cheek.

A waitress giggles a greeting to the tigress.  She looks pointedly at the young woman’s left hand as she smiles through a message to her employer to telephone his wife.  He dismisses the waitress with an impatient nod.  He moves his chair closer to the tigress’ and pulls a bank statement midway between them.  Their thighs touch. 

Benetton and the tigress linger over lunch.  He has not called his wife.  He reaches for the tigress’ hand beneath the table.  Her fingers tighten around his palm.  She leans close enough toward his chest to feel his breath.  Their upper bodies do not touch but waitresses nudge each other.  The tigress pouts playfully as Benetton steals a shrimp from her plate. 

The mountain sits tranquil in the distance.  Waitresses neglect paying guests in their eagerness to serve the pair.  One waitress outpaces the others to replenish a water glass.  She grins triumphantly at her rivals whose faces contort between scowl and smile in good humoured envy.  The guests, islanders with knowing eyes, revel in the neglect that gives them just cause to dawdle and enjoy the spectacle.

A patron reluctantly pulls himself away from the mid-afternoon entertainment.  His torn, once white t-shirt is blood stained from the fish he must resume gutting on a jetty two thousand yards away.  The Flamboyant tree stands mid-way between the yellow umbrellas and the jetty.  As he nears the tree he notices the lovers.  The mountain, now standing legs splayed and arms akimbo, commands him to action.  Her green cape shudders as she summons the chattering wind.  The wind strikes the flaming flowers of the Flamboyant.  They fall to the ground, shocked by the suddenness of the assault.  Air driven sand stings the eyes of the lovers.  The fisherman issues a war cry, plucked from the book of Genesis.  A woman joins him, then a man, then another.  Men and women become a river that swells and breaks its banks in furious deluge.

BOOM!  A rock crashes against the trunk of the Flamboyant tree.  Rubber slippers slap hard against soles that pound on hot sand.  

BYE!  Bejeweled stumbles and falls over driftwood that lies long and thick like a Python on the beach.

BYE!  Ground Dove turns back and swoops Bejeweled to her feet.

BOOM!  Bejeweled and Ground Dove outdistance the flood of island bodies that drip sweat and venom by sixty yards.

BYE!  A man, righteous wrath curdling on his chest, brandishes a cutlass high in the air.

BYE!  A woman hurls a rock, heavy as moral fortitude.

BOOM!  Bejeweled and Ground Dove slip between yellow umbrellas.  Bejeweled wails as she tugs at her lover’s sleeve, urging her to quicken her pace.  The lovers dodge behind Benetton and the tigress.

BYE!  The tigress lets out an agonized scream as a rock strikes her forehead.

BYE!  Benetton is on his feet, bewildered.

BOOM!  The tigress falls, blood drenched, to the ground.  The lovers gather her up.  Benetton leads the women past the bar through the solid mahogany door of his wine closet.

BYE!  The mob rushes forward, rock and cutlass armed.

BYE!  All four push hard to slam the thick wooden door shut. 

Image credit: David Pinto. Good Hope, Trelawny, Jamaica.

I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica.  I have lived and worked in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for a little more than 30 years.  I am more curious about my own community than any other.  This leads me to borderline obsessive interrogation and consumption of the history, literature, music and art of the African diaspora in the Americas.