a powerful gathering of poems illuminates these pages

October 2022

Loretta Collins Klobah and Maria Grau Perejoan, eds., The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Caribbean Women Poets, trans. Loretta Collins Klobah and Maria Grau Perejoan (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2020); 397 pages; ISBN 978-1845234737 (paperback)

The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento is an exciting bilingual poetry anthology of contemporary Caribbean women poets. Edited and translated by Loretta Collins Klobah and Maria Grau Perejoan, the book brings together the work of thirty-three poets from the anglophone and hispanophone Caribbean and its diasporas in a rich gathering of thought-provoking writing by some of the most admired poets writing today. The authors included in this anthology were born as, or are descendants of, citizens of The Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands. In the introduction, Collins Klobah and Grau Perejoan elaborate on some of their decisions for arranging the poems. They note how they chose to anthologize the poems not by islands or language(s) but alphabetically. Their editorial decision in this regard was meant to “leave the process of identification to the writers themselves” (17), and they point out that some writers in the anthology invoke nation in their biographies, others do not. As a result of the arrangement, readers can simply immerse themselves directly in the writing.

The introduction to The Sea / El mar also offers a thorough, engaging, and informative critical study of Caribbean poetry, highlighting the work of important previous anthologies and reflecting on the vital role of translation (13–31). It also provides a helpful framing of the work of the contributing authors and a unique and rare insight into some quandaries posed by the translation process. Another of the selection criteria that Collins Klobah and Grau Perejoan foreground in the introduction is the inclusion of authors who, they insist, “should be much more widely read and recognised internationally” (17). While acknowledging the foundational work of long-established poets, the editors position this book as focusing on emerging and newly established authors who have received significant critical acclaim and engagement in the region and globally and whose work has shaped Caribbean poetry within recent decades, pushing the boundaries of genre and poetics.

The Sea / El mar features three or more poems by each author. This effective decision by the editors offers a greater sense of each poet’s writing and poetic voice(s) than would a single-poem format, and in turn it allows for the appreciation of more connections between poems and poets and across languages, especially similarities and divergencies in terms of tone, style, and subject matter. Poetic register and style vary widely throughout the collection. Equally, specific terms, worlds, and contexts are adroitly translated from one language to another, never an easy task (especially in poetic texts) and one that requires great knowledge of the linguistic contexts and poetic traditions. But it is a task for which Collins Klobah, as a bilingual Caribbean-based poet and scholar, and Grau Perejoan, as a Caribbeanist and multilingual scholar, are very well equipped. The Sea / El mar continues the critical tradition of another vital anthology of Caribbean women writing that celebrated its thirtieth anniversary recently, Her True-True Name (1989), a collection edited by Pamela Mordecai and Betty Wilson.1 Although it also anthologized prose, thanks to the expertise of both Mordecai as poet and Wilson as translator, the collection works as precursor to this new bilingual poetry anthology. Her True-True Name features many writers who are today household names of Caribbean literature (many in the early stages of their careers), and the anthology remains a landmark publication in the literary history of Caribbean women writing. It is in this sense that The Sea / El mar is like Her True-True Name—by anthologizing the works of emerging and fairly newly established writers, this time those of the first decades of the twenty-first century, the collection historicizes further the works of a new generation of writers living and writing in the region and the diaspora.

The sheer variety of poetic style, register, and thematic issues is one of the book’s many appeals. Spaces and experiences of home, carnival, nature, the city, and myriad other contexts are portrayed through a poetic prism that reflects the connecting threads in both the collection and its multiplicity. Various poems focus on aspects of life in Caribbean and diasporic urban spaces, such as Havana, Kingston, London, San Juan, Santo Domingo, or Port of Spain, offering complex poetic renderings in which spaces are evoked both realistically and lyrically, as in Thaís Espaillat’s “La Virgen de la Cueva siempre tiene trabajo / The Virgen de la Cueva Always Has Work” (116–21) or Sonia Farmer’s “The Trial / El juicio” (132–35). Beauty, hope, and resistance also take many forms throughout the collection. Yaissa Jiménez’s “Te la vuelvo a traer / I Bring Her Back to You Again” (174–76), a poem dedicated to Mexican folk singer Chavela Vargas, invokes the singer’s spirit of rebellion; lesbian pleasure; sexuality; and intimacy. Another example of how popular culture frames social spaces and quotidian acts in the anthology, often revealing their deep history, is Shara McCallum’s “What I’m Telling You / Lo que te cuento” (228­–29), in which Bob Marley is refigured against the image of a commodified global reggae icon to become the “man with the voice of liquid black gold” in the mind of a five-year-old girl at his recording studio and for whom he is “a legend” (228).

Winner of the 2018 English Pen Award and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, The Sea / El mar has been recognized for its ability to reach audiences and the quality of its translation and editorial project. Literary translation creates connections across literatures and their ecosystems. In this sense, translation is key to connecting literatures, writers, and their readers, and this is particularly significant in a Caribbean context, where the shared histories and cultures, as well as differences, already offer a framework of experience and dialogue. The early 2000s marked the publication of an important Pan-Caribbean poetry anthology, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005), edited by Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt. This anthology includes English translations of works by hispanophone and francophone poets alongside those by anglophone poets. However, it is rare to find anthologies of Caribbean poetry with such scope, and particularly bilingual ones such as The Sea / El mar. The foundational work of translators such as Betty Wilson and Richard Philcox have shaped the field and brought readers and writers from various linguistic traditions closer together. The translation work of scholars such as Nathan Dize, Kaiama L. Glover, and Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, and the work and dissemination of the Caribbean Translation Project, founded by Alecia McKenzie, have continued to shape and further translation in Caribbean literature. Similarly, Peepal Tree Press, a vital independent publishing house of Caribbean literature, has published translations of Caribbean writers such as Nicolás Guillén, Pedro Mir, and Orlando Menes. And having published poetry collections from many of the authors featured in The Sea / El mar, including Anthony Vahni Capildeo, Monica Minott, Shivanee Ramlochan, and Dorothea Smartt, among others, it is fitting that the anthology joins the press’s titles.2

Overall, the collection contains a wide range of poetic styles and forms. Another highlight of The Sea / El mar is the strong selection of poems from each author’s body of work, including a representation of some of the best prose poetry today. Capildeo’s “Investigation of Past Shoes / Investigación de zapatos del pasado” (90–95), for example, demonstrates the versatility of this poetic style, evoking gentle humor, reverie, and personal and family history through depictions of a series of shoes. And readers will enjoy the dexterity in pushing the boundaries of language they encounter in poems like Ramlochan’s “Vivek Chooses His Husbands / Vivek escoge sus maridos” (292–94), where queer love and desire defy homophobia partly through religious references, and in the exploration of language in discourse formation that features in poems like Tiphanie Yanique’s “Dictionary / Diccionario” (364–67), which dissects the word wife. The combination of fierce tenderness and strength of this anthology is further captured in its stunning cover featuring the painting Fuerza y maña (Strength and dexterity) by Puerto Rican visual artist Damaris Cruz. What a gift of an anthology! ¡Un auténtico regalo! This is definitely a book to gift to yourself and others.


Marta Fernández Campa is associate lecturer at Goldsmiths University. Her work appears in Caribbean Literature in Transition, 1970–2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), and in, among others, Anthurium, Callaloo, Small Axe, and Caribbean InTransit. Her book Memory and the Archival Turn in Caribbean Literature and Culture is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan. She is an editor at Caribbean InTransit.

[1] Pamela Mordecai and Betty Wilson, eds., Her True-True Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing from the Caribbean (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1989).

[2] For all authors published by Peepal Tree Press, see https://www.peepaltreepress.com/authors/.