A Perennial Orchid, a Repeating Island

Ann-Margaret Lim, The Festival of the Wild Orchid (London: Peepal Tree, 2012); 80 pages; ISBN: 9781845232016 (paperback).

• February 2014

The Festival of the Wild Orchid constitutes a sensual experience of life in Jamaica from a variety of perspectives, such as history and the legacy of colonization, ethnic identity and conflict, femininity, motherhood, childhood, politics, literature, and popular culture. Ann-Margaret Lim carefully crafts each poem as a piece that recreates a vital part of the island and its people. The themes in the poems defy the linearity of history and instead trace the chaotic and contradictory nature of Caribbean history and Jamaican society. As Cuban researcher and literary critic Antonio Benítez-Rojo notes, “Within the (dis)order that swarms around what we already know of as Nature, it is possible to observe dynamic states or regularities that repeat themselves globally.”1 Lim invites the reader into Jamaica’s life and culture and to find the images—the regularities—to which he or she can relate and connect.

The “festival of the orchid” alludes to the Greek myth of Orchis, son of a satyr and a nymph, who was torn apart by the god Dyonisos’s followers as he tried to rape one of the god’s priestesses during a festival. When Orchis’s father prayed for his son’s restitution, the gods turned him into a flower. Thus the orchid, a perennial flower, returns every year, following a regular pattern or death and rebirth, just like its namesake. The poetic language and the sequence of the poems mimic the orchid’s life cycle, taking the reader into the island’s darkest corners where violence and death are always lying in wait and then showing him or her the light at the end of—and beyond—the tunnel in all of its splendor.

The Festival starts with the poem “Journey,” which explores Lim’s Chinese ancestry, the memory of it almost a blur: “I remember some things / I don’t remember them all” (12). The poems that follow and that constitute the first part of the book pay homage to women as nurturers, friends, and lovers. The female poetic voice describes the landscapes of the island, the fertility of its soil, and the constant presence of the ocean. This voice embodies a rooting presence that comes to life to bridge past and present in the poem “The Festival of the Wild Orchid,” in which an ancestor “howled an ancestor-waking howl” that is meant to counteract the effects of death during the Middle Passage and to bring strength to future generations of women fitted with “wild orchid leaves / and the hardiness of a tree” (15).

By revisiting places through the eyes of her own daughter, Lim is able to marvel at the smallest objects as they become invaluable treasures of memory. In “A Lesson for This Friday,” “Baby and the Ball,” and “Fixing the Moon,” an army of ants, a ball, and the moon are new items that bring joy or teach her about life:

 

Moon! Look!—
My twenty-one month old dishevels evening
to name the moon
and I, like a bovine creature,
could only obey, and look. (34; italics in original)

 

The first part of the book ends in a cry for Haiti during the 2010 earthquake, and it connects with a verse from “The Schooner Flight” by Derek Walcott, which opens the second part and refers to progress as history’s “dirty joke.”2 In this section, the poetic voice reflects on the Taino genocide during colonization, the devastation caused by natural disasters, and the degradation of human beings submerged in poverty: “In this land of the bad man, schools are ganglands / and teachers are prey who’ve lost all worth” (44). Images of violence, failed revolutions, and marked social differences come to play, painting a bleak portrait of Kingston and its inhabitants, who seem to have lost all hope of redemption: “There is no Bob, / no Peter, no Free I” (48) says the poetic voice in “September 11, 1987,” referring to the torture murder of Wailers member and radio jockey Peter Tosh at the hands of gangsters. In the last section of the book, the poems return their focus to the landscape and simultaneously pay homage to literary figures, including the aforementioned Walcott, and other people known to the author.

The Festival of the Wild Orchid is a beautifully written work with powerful images that awaken the reader’s senses and provide insight into Jamaican history and identity, into the past and the present of an island that, to say it with Benítez-Rojo, “repeats itself, unfolding and bifurcating until it reaches all the seas and lands of the earth.”3 Thus, this island represents all the islands, but at the same time it is unique in the orderly chaos of its composition. Ann-Margaret Lim has acutely portrayed the complexity of this contradiction through the richness of her imagery, the voluptuousness of a language plagued with a stark and crude reality, and the quality of a poetry that redeems the Jamaican landscape through the beauty of metaphor.

 

Leonora Simonovis-Brown teaches Caribbean literature and culture at the University of San Diego. Among her academic publication is the coedited anthology El tránsito vacilante: Miradas sobre la cultura venezolana contemporáneas (2013). Her poem “Fotografia” appeared in the San Diego Poetry Annual 2012, and a short story, “Avatares de una infancia (casi) feliz,” was published in the printed edition of La Esfera Cultural (Summer 2013).


 

Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 3.

Derek Walcott, “The Schooner Flight,” in The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948–2013, ed. Glyn Maxwell (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), 247.

Benítez-Rojo, Repeating Island, 3.


 

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