Through the Caribbean Sea and Other Waters

Loretta Collins Klobah, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman (London: Peepal Tree, 2011); 102 pages; ISBN 1845231848 (paper).

• August 2012

Given the myriad places and cultural contexts one enters into in Loretta Collins Klobah’s The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, one might be tempted to use the word journey to describe the diverse explorations in this collection. However, it soon becomes apparent that Klobah does not undertake any such sequential, comprehensive, or cohesive project. Instead, the twenty-nine poems read like a series of provocative ruminations by someone who has led a full, well-traveled life and who has judiciously opted to share only the most meaningful of these experiences.

The opening epigraph, which borrows from Puerto Rican musician Ismael RiveraYo puertorriqueño soy, profesión esperanza”—sets the tone for one’s reading of the poems. It immediately centers the writer’s explorations in the Caribbean while introducing the polyvocality that will characterize the text. Specifically, it suggests the rich blend of Spanish and English that Klobah utilizes, and it signals the fact that various artists are key to the works in the collection. One soon encounters a seamless borrowing from individuals as diverse as Edwidge Danticat, Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Mutabaruka, Camille Pisarro, and Derek Walcott—to name only a few. In conjunction with the text’s English title, one might say that the epigraph also alludes to the cosmopolitan experiences of the diasporic Caribbean speaker who moves fluidly throughout the Caribbean archipelago, South America, England, and the United Sates. For example, a rich cultural sensibility is evident later in the text, in phrases such as “bachata bashment,” which undoubtedly resonate with readers familiar with anglophone and hispanophone Caribbean contexts. Finally, Rivera’s words suggest the universal and personal concerns that the poet engages.

Some of the most compelling moments in Klobah’s poetics involve the detailed examination of a female speaker’s intimate moments with others. Often these intensely personal reveries read as nostalgic without becoming trite or overly sentimental. At other times clear, direct, and sometimes confrontational language grabs rather than alienates the reader. For example, in “The First Day of Hurricane Season” the speaker’s raw honesty is palpable:

No one ever taught me to expect that a phase of life
Spent without a lover could be as happy, simple, and rich
As this. Now I am remembering just the way his pelvis
Swung hard and loaded with freight into my labia
Flame petals. The memory feels good, like fireworks
in the kegel muscle and quick spreading heat. (17)

Here human and terrestrial struggles collide and, among other things, the violent image of the welcomed yet rupturing freight through the labia complicates the poem. The frank, direct description of happiness is also a refreshing rather than banal introduction to this scene. Klobah returns to this sort of candid intimacy in several other works. Notably, in “Night Wash” the description of a “kind of hot-eyed, bottomless weeping that [the poet had] . . . not had / for a very long time” (78) offers another stark, honest look at a woman’s personal struggles.

In the piece “Ladies Room, Chicago Bus Terminal,” in which Klobah tackles child abuse, similarly intimate forays into individuals’ lives are woven through more expansive treatments of sociopolitical issues. The poet again risks being overly sentimental in her desire to “gather” the young girl in question into her arms. However, any such danger is averted. Skillfully moving between emotional ranges, Klobah balances this gesture with the child’s reality and a clear Caribbean cultural reality in the query: “What if the girl was calm and cradled one sweet dulce de coco from my satchel / in the safe haven of her uncrushed fingers?” (59). The layering of adjectives perfectly suits this multi-layered emotional world, even as each new descriptor forces the reader to pause and consider the disturbing implications of the “uncrushed fingers.”

If there is a striking shortcoming in this otherwise compelling collection, it is that the sometimes shocking and necessary shifts in more personal poetic forays periodically become heavy-handed in works that more explicitly tackle sociopolitical events. For example, in the poem “Snort This” an at-times-didactic approach risks alienating readers. Here there are extended moments when more conversational prose feels abrupt and lacks the finesse and emotional range that characterizes other moments in this poem and most of the works at large. Similarly, in “El Velorio, The Wake (1893)” the otherwise moving image of a grieving father burying his child—the image of a man who “lifts his small bride from the casket, carrying her to the balcony”—is undermined when we are told that the parents pave the child’s former play area and that “this visual detail, added to the parents’ home / in tribute, will remind them daily of the absence” (19). Given the delicate web of images that Klobah skillfully weaves earlier in the poem to create a tangible sense of the girl’s passing, it is surprising that the poet later demonstrates so little faith in her readers’ ability to make such connections.

More successful are Klobah’s more explicit plays with form and content when dealing with such loaded issues. Notably, the repetition of the phrase “this poem” in “Going Up, Going Down” brilliantly invokes Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem.” The work pointedly and convincingly assaults homophobia in Jamaica and the country’s history of violent responses to subversive voices. Here too, however, rich metaphorical play in lines like “Let the elevator rest on its proper floor / and the door slide wide” (36) give way to a didactic recognition that gay male lovers should not be charged with satisfying the poet’s predilections. Certainly one might make a case for the need for a more forthright, objective examination of contemporary social ills. Yet at times the stark language is too pedantic and jarring, yanking one from the powerful emotional context into a realization that the poet is determined to make a point.

In contrast, Klobah’s masterful control over emotional and linguistic play while tackling difficult contemporary issues is best displayed in a series of poems in the middle of the collection. For example, “The BBC Does Bomba” leaps off the page, vigorously leading readers through a rhythmic performance of a community’s typical Saturday morning. As the variegated lines quiver in and out, they masterfully perform for the reader the moving experiences that the BBC is unable to sterilize and record for its audience. In several works clustered together at the heart of the collection—including “Bomba,” “The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman,” “Ladies Room, Chicago Bus Terminal,” and “Peckham, London, Cold Water Flat”—the poet is at her lyrical and polemical best.

In works such as “By the Waters of St. Lucia” Klobah again carefully mixes the personal and political, with a nod to artistic greats like Walcott and Marley. The haunting words of a young SIDA/AIDS victim’s question—“Missy, how do I look?” —is preceded earlier in the poem by the speaker’s gut-wrenching sensitivity in observing the community as she asks, “Who am I to balance anyone’s heart against a feather?” (26). This seductive line is simultaneously immediately comprehensible and decidedly elusive. The extreme emotions suggested by the juxtaposition of the heart and feather allude to the speaker’s profound sense of futility. Also, the interpretative challenges that the lines pose mirror the situational difficulty the speaker describes. The rich complexity of lines like these in this and other poems warrants a first, second, and third reading of Klobah’s The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman.

 

Sam Vásquez is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. Her research interests include Caribbean and African American literature, particularly poetry and poetics; theories of humor, gender, and sexuality; and African diasporic visual culture. She is the author of Humor in the Caribbean Literary Canon (2012) and of numerous essays on African diasporic literature and culture.