Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 8th 2018 Contents SUNDAY 8 APRIL, 2018 -- UWI TODAY 21
BOOK REVIEW Re ective, but not Passive
BY ELIZABETH WALCOTT HACKSHAW
When I was at university in Boston, one of my most
demanding and brilliant professors, Roger Shattuck, a
scholar of 19th century French Literature and translator of
Marcel Proust, authored an intriguing book, e Innocent
Eye. In that book, he explored the ways in which we read
literature and asked a fundamental question: is it possible
to read a text with an "innocent eye"?
e immediate response is, of course we cannot, we
bring to books all of our fears, our prejudices, our politics,
our joys, our failures; in short we bring ourselves to the
books we read. How we read and what we read tell us a lot
about who we are.
So consider this when you read Rajendra Ramlogan's
collection of poetry, My Words, My Liberation.
I met Rajendra for the rst time in my o ce at the
University two weeks ago. He had emailed me about doing
this book launch and I reminded him that although I taught
poetry, I was de nitely not a poet and I felt he needed a poet
for this review. But Rajendra has a powerful mind and his
skills of persuasion are unworldly. With these powers of
persuasion, I had no choice, I agreed and I am glad that I did.
I was taught to read literature in a deconstructive mode,
simply put, to approach a text without knowing too much
about the author's background, to focus on the world of the
text and less on the poet's biography or the world outside
of the text. My professors argued that knowing too much
background in uenced our reading, but knowing too little
did not give us enough context in which to locate the work.
Reading was then a delicate balance of the two, a dance
where we knew a few steps but never all of them, taking away
predictability, opening ourselves to the possibilities of the
work with a measure of naiveté and perhaps even innocence.
Rajendra's poetry is a construction where traditional
forms and rime schemes are used as sca olding for ideas
that want to break from tradition. at is the dance of this
work. In the rst poem of the collection entitled, "Bullet for
a Prince", the poet writes:
Death has claimed another black face,
and my women have lost the father for the race...
e pain we feel for a dead brother is real.
In this unjust land, it will never easily heal.
e unjust land is the United States and this section,
the rst of ve, is devoted to the unraveling of racial politics
in America but also to the poet's own awakening about his
black identity. e title of this section, " ese are My People",
encapsulates this awareness, or as the French say, this prise de
conscience, and it is clearly expressed in the poem, "Sonnet
to a Black Man," where the poet a rms:
I have struggled in this land with you on my back...
Yet I survived the pain, I survived it all,
and I am a man standing proud, standing tall."
My Words My Liberation is a journey, real and imaginary,
that the poet must take in order to realize his liberation. But
liberation is a vague term, and sometimes it is more useful
to look to antonyms to discover and uncover meanings.
Ramlogan's declaration of liberation also announces a state
of imprisonment; there is this idea of captivity within his
concept of freedom. Many things have held him captive and
not the least of these is the image he holds or once held of
himself. My Words My Liberation is then a dual re ection
on both captivity and freedom.
e tone of Ramlogan's poetry is re ective, interrogative
and exploratory but not passive. He challenges his own
convictions and in so doing also challenges those of his
reader. e title's insistence of the personal, My Words, My
Liberation, belies what actually takes place, for his concerns
are not just for personal self-determination and agency, he
is decidedly concerned about the state of our world.
Injustice is a preoccupation and a pervasive motif in the
collection. For the poet sees it everywhere, in the past and
present, in our history of genocide, in the treatment of the
disenfranchised, the ostracized, in the way we cut down our
heroes like Martin Luther King or Toussaint L'Ouverture,
and in the ways we butcher our own environment.
His treatment of this theme takes the form of many
guises: vagrants, abused women, children of the barrios,
the mentally ill, and it spans continents. e perpetrators of
these ills are also named, drawn from politics, history, even
mythology, revealing once again a rich mind. In many of the
poems there is a tone of disillusionment but not resignation.
As the poet writes in "Black Gold---Oil":
Raucous celebrations greet your emergence,
as men fall to their knees and swear their allegiance.
Pledging delity and service to your cause,
loyal subjects, economic whores
e poet does not simply wish to point to all that is
ng with our world, but through words and the power
he pen, through metaphor and the pun he has decided
ngage and indirectly his readers are inspired to do the
me. e image evoked in the poem "Sarajevo" is a poignant
, as snipers lunch bullets "we shut our doors to those
o ee." e culpability and complicity that he expresses
not be ignored.
ere are also battles to be fought in the wars we wage
inst nature by allowing its destruction. e poet's love of
ure and the desire to nd once again a telluric harmony
xpressed in "A Sonnet to Remember":
" en heaven lowers its curtain of rain,
bringing a mixture of pleasure and pain...
e juice of a succulent papaya run downs a face,
another symbol of the Creator's grace.
But I would be wrong to leave you with the impression
that this is all that there is. e poet has even more to
o er, because there are also moments of brightness, music
and levity. As we see in the poem, "One Summer Day in
Washington" where: "the praises to summer can be set
to music," or where: "the symphonic blending of teenage
chatter serenades the mall, / a day when eyes can irt with
quiet fun,/ a day of summer, when musical tribute can be
easily spun." He also writes about the trajectory of love in
the penultimate poem, "Ships of Dreams." e ship's voyage
is the metaphor used to describe the journey the poet takes
with his love. eir time together full of trials and glory is
e ectively evoked as "the weathered beams" of the ships
hold their story. e sonnet also brings to light another
important element in Ramlogan's poetry and that is the role
of the poet and the poem's ability to x and immortalize
a moment even when that moment has long past. I must
confess that this is one of my favorites of the collection since
it is able to render so much in so few words, so allow me to
indulge in a few lines:
Long ago, along the endless shore,
buried deep and seen no more,
were two little ships fast asleep,
resting weary bones from sailing the deep.
From their weathered beams ows many a story
of a past full of tribulations and pregnant with glory
As they rest side by side, a love unfolds
that speaks of those who dared to be bold.
I could go on but I will leave the rest to your reading
of this collection and I know that you will read it and read
it well, perhaps even with an innocent eye.
Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw is a professor of French literature and creative writing at e UWI St. Augustine. She reviewed the collection of
Rajendra Ramlogan's, My Words, My Liberation, on February 28, 2017 at the launch of the book. On April 19, she will deliver her Professorial
Inaugural Lecture at the School of Education Auditorium at 6pm. Her lecture is titled, "Cracks in the Edi ce: Notes of a Native Daughter."
My Words, My Liberation
Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2017
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