In the Fires of Hope and Prayer

Roger Robinson, The Butterfly Hotel (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013); 72 pages; ISBN 978-1845232191 (paperback)

Lauren K. Alleyne, Difficult Fruit (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2014); 76 pages; ISBN 978-1845232276 (paperback)

• June 2015

Look carefully at a poem and you will see flame. This is certainly true of the work of two poets from Trinidad and Tobago who, though long migrated from their homeland, deploy fire imagery to evoke longing and Caribbean identity. Their beautiful poems also work in incendiary, phosphorescent ways—throwing mysterious light into a dark cave. Just as these poems reveal with blinding light, they also create shadows on the walls. As the title of Lauren K. Alleyne’s Difficult Fruit suggests, they are not easy to pin down. But we are grateful to experience their heat.

Two poems in Roger Robinson’s The Butterfly Hotel are concerned with deyas, the small clay lamps used in Hindu Divali celebrations. In “Where I’m From,” the voice of the poem uses the deya to assert a Trinidadian melting-pot identity: “I am from the flickering flame of a deya, blue at the wick, luminous, / smelling of kerosene” (67). And in “Collage,” Robinson describes the making of the small round clay vessel into which oil and wick are placed:

The gentle curve of a finger and thumb
in the wet clay make a tiny deya;
it’s beheaded by twine and set aside
for baking—hardened by fire
to hold a burning flame. (59)

The deya is a vessel of fire, yes, but even the process of making a deya reveals its purpose. Perhaps, then, this is a metaphor for poetry and art.

Other sections of Robinson’s collection are concerned with fire. In “Brixton Revo 2011,” the poet invokes the London Riots of 2011:

they ransacked phone shops, darted in and out
of trainer shops lit by flares of fire.
As thick black smoke billowed
from inside they stood still. (18)

The poem is a torrent, fueled by rage and an unstated history. We are left “smelling the petrol in the air” (18). Then, in the prose poem “Month One,” an immigrant’s first impressions are recorded:

He bought chilli peppers from the market and set his tongue aflame. He spent his last remaining coins on telephone calls home and listened to static. He kept his heater at the glowing-coal setting. . . . He felt the warmth of home in the industrial dryers. The windows of washing machines reminded him of planes. (25)

Fire is home. While we can see the easy link between heat and the tropics, the observations here also feel fresh: washing machines turning to planes, the choice of food mimicking the desire for a different climate; showing up a familiar longing.

If “Brixton Revo 2011” is concerned with an escalation into mob behavior and crime, then it finds an echo in “As All Boys Did,” in which we see a subtle degeneration of behavior among children that raises questions about the worsening state of crime. The poem opens:

We knelt and lit
the flame, protected
it from the wind as we dripped
hot wax on the caterpillar. (52)

But later, the stakes get much higher in this game:

We lit fires in forest hills,
ran blindly down
with flames at our heels,
stole cocoa pods
from the estate trees,
ran and laughed
at the guards’ gunshots. (52)

Though fire remains the constant, things get deadlier. The same kind of rage is what links both moments. This rage later becomes bitterness, as in “Texaco Oil Storage Tanks,” in which unemployed workers who are cogs in a global political wheel beg “with burning sun on their shame” (58). Another echo to “Brixton Revo 2011” comes in “Area,” which begins:

With the halos of our angelheaded
Afros, we walk like gunslingers. Hipsters
with thick cardboard dancefloors in our hands,
we’ll be burning crews on their own streets. (61)

All this weaves a kind of incandescent garland around the book’s strong, pastoral pieces. When the smoke clears, we have a sense of seeing the world in a clearer way; our senses are more alert, and we feel the landscapes around us, such as that featured in the icy “The Immigrant’s Lament,” with its ending:

The snow falls
like pieces of a crumbling sky;
he thinks it turns men
into ghosts. (26)

One poem, “Monarch Exodus,” merges the book’s different strands of movement:

We won’t stop till our journey’s done.
As throngs of us invade the sky
our countless numbers block the sun.

And when we move, we move as one
and few that fly return alive. (27)

We feel a sense of movement, through time and history. Many tribes, flocks, groupings and ideologies—both good and bad—can be read into this piece. It is an achievement.

Lauren K. Alleyne’s Difficult Fruit contains poems which function in similar ways. The book is studded with fire, and Alleyne deploys different forms—ranging from the sonnet crown to the ghazal—in order to conceal and encourage meaning. In “On the Most Depressing Day of the Year, Jan. 24th,” language takes on the qualities of the elemental: a face looms like, “a flaming sentence” (28). In “John White Defends,” religion and racism conflagrate: “I wanted / to spare him the burning / crosses” (29). Not only do we see images of the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, but we are made to contemplate structural; institutional forms of bigotry. The entire armature of religion is welded to a larger social problem where we feel Jim Crow and “the whip of a merciless law” (30). Decades later, relocated in a suburban setting of “petunias and peonies,” the voice of the poem still laments: “I should have known / There would be a reckoning” (29). This fire is hard to out.

Nature and illness attack the body in “Elegy,” where “the infection flamed through / the kerosene trail of your blood” (35). And with death is love, which “charms good sense / into sweet, burning madness” (39), in “Love in G Major.” In “The Edges of Things,” “a single longing” sees “lip to whisper / burning to breast” (40), and in “Seven,” a memory of a first communion is transformed: “your dress is burning / white, your veil engulfs your head / like lacy flames” (57).

As with Robinson’s book, these fires provide relief to other matters in the book. The subject of rape is buried deep within the sonnet crown “Eighteen”; that choice of form becomes an elaborate cover to a buried truth we often seek to avoid. A similar idea of subterfuge is raised by “Catching Spy.” In this volume, the seemingly out of place sometimes becomes the center. Such is the case with the poem “Love in A Flat,” in which a single off note by Coltrane becomes the heart of a melody. But while both books share an impulse to engage in misdirection, the core of these collections is a concern with love. In the end, readers are left like Beatrice in Dante’s La vita nuova, eating from a burning heart.

 

Andre Bagoo is a poet and journalist working in Trinidad. His second book of poems, BURN, was published by Shearsman Books in 2015.

 

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