World-Making Words

Kendel Hippolyte, Wordplanting (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2019); 56 pages; ISBN 978-845234355 (paperback)

• October 2019

A restlessness stirs in Wordplanting, Kendel Hippolyte’s seventh volume of poetry. The stirring is a hunt to uncover intimately known but hardly practiced civilizations buried beneath clichés of Caribbean colonial dismemberment. For Hippolyte, this work is both enlivening and urgent—bordering on spiritual. Throughout Wordplanting is a vivid, searching intellect, linked to the wandering ethos of the poet at work (akin to Robert Hayden’s “austere and lonely offices”) but with the proverbial soul of a people—whom the poet claims as kin—in its sight.1 Through what can be read as a rejection of the ferocity of modernity and its reductive notions of progress, Wordplanting is preoccupied with a reclamation of social and personal sovereignty in an understated yet troubled Caribbeanist consciousness: “I woke one morning and the Caribbean was gone” (“Avocado,” 16). This is context for the poet’s investigations into various kinds of modern disaffection.

It is perhaps this restlessness that Hippolyte works the hardest to exploit in this work, in spite of the instability in every social construct that it evinces. In these poems we also encounter his decades-old poetics of bridging ecological ethics with social commentary and explorations of domestic anima, most poignantly evidenced in the suite of poems titled “Domesticities.” We hear laments for “the caring choreography of this domestic rite” (“Tea,” 20), “the wrong note squeaking of a door” (“House Music,” 21), and a poet as a snail carrying its home who “listens for the quivering air” (“Poet,” 22).

Since the 1980s this St. Lucian poet and playwright has practiced his brand of envisioning. “For the I doh dream. I vision,” he asserts (“Harp,” 11). And in this volume, his trademark wordplay and wit burn into the psyche against a central credo, splintered across each poem: “Marie, how have we come to work so diligently at our dying?” This one question in “A Letter for Solidarity,” the opening poem, reveals the poet’s depth and daring and the means by which he enters the brokenness of his Caribbean with a fervent love (7). It is there that he holds the terror and the ardor. There, both he himself and his wider community are called to an accounting.

St. Lucia became independent from Great Britain in 1979. What followed as a sore foot in the dank mouth of imperialism was an observable independence generation—a cause for great disappointment, with its reproductions of many of the colonialist ills that it sought so full-bloodedly to leave behind, “to try so doggedly to buy a meaningful existence” (7). The poet in this work is all too aware of these continuities in the guise of parochial ills. This territory is most explicitly charted in the long poems, perhaps for their use of narrative form: “Avocado,” “Harp,” “A Birthday Reflection in Verse for Fidel,” and “A Letter for Solidarity.”

The four long poems in which Hippolyte addresses peers and monumental Caribbean figures such as Fidel Castro offer some of the most affecting lines of the book, even though he sometimes slips under the durational demands of the long poem. Yet because of this the long poems occasionally fall into overwriting. Some of them begin too late; others still, tittering beneath too much narrative propulsion, find their urgency loosened. Such happenings, exampled in “Avocado” and its otherwise poignant opening stanza (recall the poet’s suddenly gone Caribbean referenced above), address us with selves “swirling out in to a futuriginal symphony of civilization enlisting itself Caribbean” (16). The lines that carry on in this way arrive at the core of their sentiment inflatedly and therefore lose impact. Still, there is something in Hippolyte’s poetry that invites us to wonder about what it means to be in the company of a poet carefully and grandly located in the materials of poetry: sound, rhythm, line breaks, words precisely chosen. We are in the company of one who has studied carefully. With compression, such as in the roiling, dub-layered “Harp,” the speaker in “Avocado” attempts “to nail with names the element beyond grasp” and thus pulls us back to urgency (19). And so we know we are with a formidable poet, studying youth who “cast the pebbles of their words” at those of his generation (“Harp,” 11).

But, if I’ve been paying attention, there’s a newness in Wordplanting that is not merely an overcoat for the long duree of a world that made such a thing as “progress” possible to begin with. Here is a poet who believes in the alchemical strength of words, the base of every civilization, with their dangerous and calibrating power. A poet who brings words but also attempts to interpret the rain and its after-images, a poet who answers his own echo with more words, and needed ones. So skilled is he at brandishing the smallest details into the sparingly aphoristic, he does so with a soaring threnody “into a corridor half-lit, / uncertaining your footsteps” (“Key,” 45).

Hippolyte’s indictment of the remnants of empire in an age of independence is poetry that blows across the mind, working as a portal: “Always, the way in,” says the poem “Key.” Hippolyte employs words as “one questioning key / transpiercing the small eye” so that familiar things open up new ways to see (45). It is as though the doors he opens are all fit by this key and reveal different facets of Caribbean life depending on the day he happens to pick up his pen. In this way, the shorter lyrics in the book’s second half take the heart. The poet is awake and aware and fearlessly observant of how mortality renders some bold without the widening of their lens. So although Hippolyte seems most at home in the domestic in this collection, the work fully contains his concern with both the august and transient dreads of an abused world. The poet invokes things ranging from tea to light and air to fish and rain to revolution—as though to say, It is time to let a new day in, in “what else but gratitude” when “the world’s buzzed crackling has hushed” (“Air,” 49; “Key,” 44):

How to praise
In ultra-language below the palimpsest of cultures, worded histories
What stirs in the ruffled slow green of a breadfruit tree’s nudged
                                                                                 leaves
(“Air,” 49)

Some poems, such as “Wordplanting,” “Light,” and “Tides,” with their quick, evolving associations and brevity, work autonomously as though they sprang from the ground, bearing their own consciousness, and live on still in the reams of this book. To live in such a place (as now) is to reach for an awareness of language as life-source, something needing to be planted in some other sense. The poet suggests that this is necessary if we are to survive past this age of “uncompleted things” (“Resolution in January,” 42), that words can be useful somehow in reimagining the self, home, island, archipelago, world: to “allow for such life as sea moss might have” (“Tides,” 39).

“This poem will soon end / and its true usefulness begin,” says the final, title poem, which makes deft work of the metaphor of planting, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.”2 Hippolyte exits this slim volume leaving us in its (word)garden, a place to view the shared world that begs “a fine gratitude // as all must, into earth / resolve” (“Wordplanting,” 51).

 

Canisia Lubrin is a St. Lucian poet based in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak and Wynn, 2017). Her second poetry collection, The Dyzgraphxst, is forthcoming from McClelland and Stewart (2020).


1. Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” in Collected Poems: Robert Hayden, ed. Frederick Glaysher (New York: Liverlight, 2013), 41.

2. Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” in Death of a Naturalist (1966; repr. London: Faber and Faber, 2006). 

 

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