Forging Port of Spain

Andre Bagoo, Burn (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2015); 70 pages; ISBN 978-1858614154 (paperback)

• June 2016

In 1808, when Port of Spain’s bones were made of wood, a great fire caught and the city was burned to the ground. The old city was destroyed, and after, a new Port of Spain, with steel and limestone bones, was built on the ashes.

Two hundred-odd years later, Trinidad has a new relationship with fire. Oil is its lifeblood and the steel-spire flambeaus of Petrotrin are the sparks in its eyes. In our anthem, we are told that we are a nation born of fire: forged from the love of liberty, in the fires of hope and prayer—and Andre Bagoo is keen to this. He recalls those lines of our incendiary anthem in “Order of the Republic” and “With Boundless Faith,” selections in Burn, his second book of poetry. Burn is as much a meditation on Trinidad and Tobago as it is a contemplation on fire. And often those two pillars come together—spectacularly—in this lyrical, emotive, and consummately unified collection.

Trinidad and Tobago is a nation of fire—of burning, of destruction and creation, of fierce, roaring vivacity, and of things mired in smoke. We are a country full of juxtapositions, which is perhaps one of the best ways to describe Bagoo’s own dynamic in Burn. Contradictory verses such as “the thought / of having no thought of you” (11) from the titular “Burn” and “I work out / what I cannot work out” (62) from “The Spiral Staircase” are some of Bagoo’s signature turns, showing how fragile the veneer of incongruence can be in our modern world.

In a collection of haunting verses and images, “Burn” offers what may be the most resonant of lines: “Like the fruit which, by burning, is now solid / forever, my walking thoughts, upturned / left as grave heads, left as seed” (11). Fire, like in the forge, can create as easily as it can destroy. Fruit is made solid, and even in death—the ultimate destruction—things are created and left behind as headstones. This contradictory burning—the simultaneous creation and destruction, beauty and terror—characterizes Bagoo’s sophomore collection.

Although “Burn” is the collection’s namesake, no poem better defines the anthology as a whole than “Icarus,” which trades Daedalus’s overreaching son for a bookworm persona who uses books, and not wings, to near greatness. After being introduced to the persona’s library, readers might be surprised to learn that, despite Bagoo’s assurance that “the sun could do no harm” (17), it is water that undoes Icarus; his print-and-paper wings are destroyed not by fire but by a freak rainstorm. In fact, Bagoo’s Icarus uses the fire of candlelight to dry his books, the story inverted—fire making solid instead of undoing. At the end of the poem, however, the same candle is knocked over, burning returned to its destructive purposes, and the room is set ablaze by an ignited curtain tassel. Were it not for the name, one could easily imaging Bagoo’s collection beginning with “Icarus” rather than the titular “Burn.”

In the aftermath of those fires begun in the first half of the collection, which were relatively diverse in their subject matter, Bagoo refocuses his attention on Trinidad specifically; he goes on to rebuild Port of Spain. “Lady Young Road” declares, “Undo what has been done / And do what must be done” (38). Burn and rebuild. Make solid. The series of seven poems that begins with “Carr Street” and concludes with the spectacular “Chacon Street” evokes the city’s dualism: a young city in a young country—already once rebuilt—but which now feels inexplicably old. Bagoo’s rendition of Port of Spain is a highlight of the collection, sure to be familiar to the locals, nostalgic to the diasporics, and illuminating to the uninitiated.

Though creation and destruction bookend burning, Bagoo’s exploration of the theme is more thorough than its extremes. Fire is not just baptism or cremation but also illumination, love, anger—fête. The vivacious “Jubilee,” like Lord Kitchener’s “Rain-O-Rama,” celebrates the revelers’ burning spirit—the Blue Devil’s fire-breath and kerosene flambeaux—in the face of heavy rains. And “Yet Again” is pure carpe diem—the orange-red passion one feels for his or her country or for another person.

While Burn’s impressive thematic unity will be a treat for the metacritical and the academics, the most immediate triumph of Burn is at the line level. Bagoo’s command of language—his sheer ability to conjure images and emotions—is what will haunt readers. 

Bagoo employs vivid imagery that is at once esoteric and lucid. In “Independence Square,” the landmark is “a crocodile gliding / with people on its back” (56). In “Wet Season,” the Dragon’s Mouth has a “hibiscus throat” (55), and in “After Sir Charles Bell, Opisthotonus in a Patient Suffering from Tetanus,” the suffering patient is “a white rainbow of marble limbs” (31).

Bagoo’s images can be unintuitive and bordering on romantic, but they have a logic of their own that we quickly come to understand. At first, we might be skeptical to accept Bagoo’s words and turns of phrase, but as we get deeper into his furnace, we begin to wonder how we could ever better describe the phenomena that he captures so astutely. We are like Bagoo’s persona in “An Oil Painting Made Real”; it is only after having read his verses that we realize how essential his imagery is to our internal landscapes of Port of Spain and the world beyond.

Bagoo is a consummate poet but with a storyteller’s pen. His verses combine organically, bleeding into single breaths, with sentences like the best prose. There is a natural rhythm and cadence in his poetry and the result is remarkable. Seldom in contemporary poetry can one be left with both that mystical, emotional reverberation and such a clear sense of when, where, and how.

“Chacon Street” (in my opinion, the best poem in the collection) is written in a free but carefully managed verse, making the street real—the fruit turned solid. His imagery is so meticulous that when the last line of the poem declares Chacon Street “the saddest street in the world” (42), we are entirely onboard. Bagoo supports these declarations with an impressive catalogue of emotionally evocative imagery. One is reminded of haiku—a poem whose only intent is to simply and cleanly capture a moment but that, in so doing, inadvertently captures emotion as well. Unlike haiku, however, Bagoo does not restrict himself to three scant verses, and as readers, we are all the more grateful.

Even in Bagoo’s most conceptual poems, he employs hard imagery, never leaving readers without a foothold—which is not to say that we are always comfortable or at ease. Bagoo flexes his muscles and spins beautiful, often difficult images and narratives, using streams of consciousness, run-ons, and every weapon in his poet’s arsenal. But every time a poem spins a lofty idea or an amorphous intimacy, we are offered a rock on which we can once again find our balance.

Bagoo’s Port of Spain not only pops but breathes a hot, Puncheon-fire breath. Burn is a collection that belongs on the shelves of poetry and fiction enthusiasts alike.

 

Brandon Mc Ivor is a Trinidadian author living and writing in Yawatahama, Japan. He received his BA in literature from New York University and has had his fiction published in the Caribbean Writer, Existere, the Corner Club Press, Buffalo Almanack, and elsewhere. He is interested in the space between “high” and populist literature.

 

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