Poem by Jason Allen

• February 2015

Knowing Home for the First Time

A house comes into the world, not when they finish building it, but when they begin to live in it
—César Vallejo, Poemas Humanos

Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and the end of movement
—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets
 

I

What is home, my love?

Home is what I remember:

The church at Coffee Grove—
the epicenter of the night;
the call of song already
of a not very intimidating church
the village’s proudest work of masonry
swollen with fervent prayers,
with constancy,
with the sounds that rocket each night
constantly

The night meeting ended, the return home
was another act of solemnity

I remember:
The celestial vault replete with a swarming of stars
And the night was dark
Never again the night
has been so dark
A velvet dark—voluptuous
And the solemnity of conversations,
the ardor, the earnestness,
around the service of the Lord
and of the living

I remember also the night enchanted
by the chirring of crickets,
the road embalmed by the kerosene
from bottle torches, the flames

that dance and flit as does our togetherness
And all our passion and all our devotion dance
and ignite
tenderly,
as all the “saints” dance and ignite
in an elation of rumps and sexes

I remember also the poem of the immense night
in which our singular fear was meeting a duppy
An evil spirit
in the form of a man
or of a woman
or of a calf

And the salutations were warm, close, intimate
Never again such intimate “good night”
Never again such unity

And each “walk-good” surged towards another
with avidity
and with the ardor of the sentiment

Could I again find the height and the depth
of those nights?

 

II

Home is my story:

That of Jokoto Hill

The path that takes off madly from a village
and rises into primitive nudity
as high as the depths of hardship are deep

It rises, twisting,
scattering a few houses,
as if to mark a few slight pauses
The incline becomes vertical
It soars, it tangos
Skin forms leather or stone,
the faces of laboring souls
under weight of wicker basket
Their ears music with buzzing
of the temples

The path forms wrinkles,
lines on which I now write

Can I balance this line right,
the way they balance their baskets tight
on the necks that dance?

How many rocks?
How many centuries of steps,
of descent and ascent
with a bankra,
with a basket of yams to sell?
How many thousands of hours
with scallion and thyme?
How many thousands of bruised feet
can I put into this rhyme?
Would their power and beauty in couplets
lift my pages?

Let me tell you of Jokoto Hill,
the star from which I fall toward you
with two bruised feet
It is the first terrain I mastered,
this road home
And home was at the top of it
in a little love-filled village, Coffee Grove,
my gift to the world

 

III

Home is my memories:

the rag-and-bone shop of my heart,
the bric-a-brac that I force to become form

Here I am at six-thirty
on this same hill,
a lone child,
having played and laughed;
I’ve let time slip away
and now feel the terrors of the dark overcome me
I must walk alone
making my way over infinite rocks
while feeling the nearness of the other world
and now the saltiness on my back
from the sharp bite of the leather strap
dancing in the hand of my mother

In the thick night, a glimmer surges
and lights up a pure tear,
only for an instant
Feeble gladness, risen in the dark, collapses

Just time for a little how-d’ye-do
and a little compassion from the traveler
with his bottle torch
The fireflies flutter and the unpeopled night
deploys its shadows
that terrify my soul
deeply
softly

Here I am in Oxford
walking through a field at night
The darkening silhouettes of the cows
that surround me
remind me of “rolling calves”
I am still terrified of duppies
in a country far away

She asks me to explain
and as I do, I think to myself “how curious”
Her fascination reminds me
that I am from far away
The immense night of my childhood inhabits me
though this is the home I now claim
and the duppies, good and bad,
come back to terrify and to comfort

I have actually left my native hillside
but I truly have remained

 

IV

What then is home, my love?

Home is this strange construction
that I now inhabit

But home is also you,
my thick-haired Breton who aligns
the different cords of my story

And as I sit with you right here in your living room,
with Akhmatova in my hand
and your head on my chest,
I relive the lassitude of Sunday afternoons
in villages whose names
you have not even dreamt of

At home in Oxford, at home in Paris,
I am at home in you, my love
The way one sunbathes on a riverbank
in the countryside of Jamaica
The way one lies on the lawn
at a jazz concert in St. Lucia

Home is my story
Home is love
Home is in the poetic shock of distant worlds that meet;
in you in whom these different parts accrete

As Eliot’s “pattern” is, so is this home
of mine:
the center I could not find,
now known for the first time.

 

Jason Allen is a final-year doctoral student in anglophone and francophone Caribbean literature at Merton College, University of Oxford, and a teacher at Paris-Nanterre University in France. A native of Coffee Grove in Manchester, Jamaica, Allen is currently working on a collection of poems that explore the connections between memory, journeying, and identity. His poetry is influenced by his own experiences of cultural displacement and multiple belonging.