Andre, the Obeah Man

Andre Bagoo, Trick Vessels (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2012); 80 pages; ISBN 978-1848612037 (paper). 

• August 2012

In a lecture given on 12 January 1962, on the “origins of poetry,” Derek Walcott says of “the good poet” that “he is and has always been the vessel, vates, rainmaker, the conscience of the king and the embodiment of the society even when society is unable to contain him.”1 Walcott opines that poetry at its highest involved both magic and personal industry and intense communion between poet and society. This is the tension within Andre Bagoo’s debut collection, Trick Vessels. Let me say that it is an inherent and inevitable tension, not merely for Bagoo but for the poet in the West Indies. Yet, what makes this peculiarly the tension of Andre Bagoo’s Trick Vessels? The collection begins with, as an epigraph, the definition of a “trick vessel” taken from A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times: “The action of the device is as follows: three liquids of different colours are poured into a hole in the cover of the jar in succession; shortly after all the liquid has been poured in, the liquids discharge from an outlet pipe in the same succession” (9).2

And this is the trouble as well as the source of the collection’s uniqueness. The poems themselves are minefields of tricks, detonating so softly that you are hardly aware of when they have hit you or have invited you to share in their injury. But softly and suddenly, it happens:

                                I broke
the radio antenna, and said, “I
think I broke your radio antenna,” (though
I was convinced this was untrue, I
think, I broke it for spite, to spite and despite
you). I think I broke you, am not sure who
broke this in two. (47)

This poem, titled “My Father’s Car,” brilliantly analyzes the deteriorating relationship between a father and his son. Notice at the end of the lines quoted: “I broke,” “I,” “I,” and the internal rhymes that have the sound of an “owl in the heart”3: “untrue,” “broke you,” “in two.” The enjambments are intimate with that crumbling filial relationship. They break with the priapic antennae. Like any good trick, the poems in Trick Vessels are well crafted.

To return to the tension of which I spoke earlier, Bagoo is treading a very thin line between inclusion and alienation, both of which admittedly are viable poetic devices. Yet will the reader feel it worth pursuing when he feels alienated? I think within this collection, the answer most times would be yes. Bagoo presents us in many of the poems with a voice that can sometimes be so haunting and rooted in our reality and passions that we become the revenants, following involuntarily wherever the voice takes us. The poems where one gets a bit lost have the esotericism of a grimoire, like Le petit Albert, something a nonpractitioner can follow without understanding the entire thing as a system, an organism, even though one can feel its ineffable and terrifying effects in their fullness, moving deep within. The poem “Dribble Cup” exemplifies this:

COMPULSORY COURSE MATERIALS:
1. One Bar Bug in an Ice Cube
2. One Squirting Coin
3. One Laughing Tissue
4. A box of Cachoo Sneezing Power. (53)

Yet when you get to the more generous poems (which predominate), they send you back to these seemingly impregnable spells (a few of them are vessels containing some serious, searing satire). Here, a set of lines from the poem “A Window at KFC, Frederick Street, Near to a Gaol” that speaks directly to the wet, dank center of our lives, lines that could have been easily written by Albert Camus, or Sisyphus himself:

They must not find it ever.
What are they looking for?
What do they find?
if they had found it
they would not move. (38)

The pun at the end twists the knife deeper within. And the reason you return to poems like “Dribble Cup” is that Bagoo stops us from taking very simple things for granted. The sobriety and dryness of the voice makes Bagoo seem like someone who had incidentally chosen poetry or had been chosen by poetry to negotiate through a world that is immediate and aggressive while remaining entirely open to scrutiny and judgment. Like the best of our poets one can see him reaching for something through poetry, not imposing poetry upon things. For instance, in the poem “Landslide” there is a strange and brilliant critique directed with startling precision at our way of seeing, our disturbing indifference to human suffering that calls W. H. Auden’s “Musee des beaux art” to mind. Our indifference however, seems a lot more voluntary: “What a stunning view,” a line that could have come from someone accompanied by a real-estate agent. And, yet, this is followed by the absolutely brilliant double entendre: “Pity.” You can hear the potential landowner saying this to his agent, as in “Pity I cannot afford this.” But there is more: the distant “pity” for those affected by this landslide, and to stretch it a bit, pity that this stunning view which provides this experience for the viewer is at the expense of those affected. And this persona could easily be a poet, or a photographer taking pictures of war-stricken countries or overpopulated malnourished warrens surrounding a prosperous city or shouldering some other sort of privilege. It creates an interesting juxtaposition of distance from the landslide: “What a stunning view” (emphasis mine). And a feeling of almost claustrophobic closeness:

The land must now
peel salt layers, put on
a corduroy mud jacket.

It does not need your help to dress. (15)

After our neglect of “the land” (a way of referring that is more agriculture than cultured), our divorce from its necessities and its well-being, we are made to feel our estrangement anew, but this time with a sense of compunction. The stunning view becomes the sea now, and the house (and land) assailed by the inherent and equally stunning disavowal and accidie of which we are guilty. For the poem is not about our neglect of the land, but more about a sort of spiritual or moral malnutrition: “What a pity about the house. / That stunning view of the sea.” This is the kind of intricacy I am talking about. And it is absolutely magical. But one senses its potential menace. Imagine this kind of intricacy and subtlety applied to something less familiar, something perhaps too personal. But in poetry this will always happen as one tries to find the balance—as one balances the inexorable social responsibility that the West Indies magically seems to inspire in its writers and the responsibility one feels toward one’s so-called inner reintegration. Andre seemed to fare fairly well under this conundrum. This, from “The Oilbird”:

Your young are slit
to fuel the light
when all your life
is bright darkness. (29)

I could have saved all of us a lot of time by saying what I really thought when I began reading Andre’s collection: that West Indian poetry should welcome this obeah man of the Word. But I thought I would give the readers a little sprinkling of go-out-and-get-it powder first. Here, then, is a little more from Bagoo’s “The Night Grew Dark around Us”:

Let the love, which is a flower, say:
“His love had no end.”
Let the flower, which is the night, say:
“His love has no end.” (11)

 

Vladimir Lucien is a twenty-four-year-old writer from St. Lucia who resides between St. Lucia and Trinidad. He has published poetry in several journals, including BIM Magazine, the Caribbean Review of Books, and ARC Magazine, as well as forthcoming publications in the Caribbean Writer and Wasafiri. He is also the screenwriter for the documentary The Merikins, which previewed at the IMAX theater in Trinidad in March 2012.

 


1 Derek Walcott, “Poetry—Enormously Complicated Art,” lecture, 12 January 1962, National Library, Port of Spain, Trinidad. See “Poetry—Enormously Complicated Art,” Guardian (Trinidad), 13 January 1962.

Andre Bagoo quotes from Donald Hill, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times (1984; London: Routledge, 1996).

3 W. S. Merwin, “My Friends,” The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1993), 64. 

 

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