art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Nicholas Laughlin's 'Small Husband'

Photo by Andre Bagoo

Nicholas Laughlin is known as the editor of several important publications, including the Caribbean Review of Books. But quietly, he has been amassing a strong body of poetry, published in journals throughout the world. "I also write poems," Laughlin notes on his website. "I’m slightly shy about this, and if asked am likely to change the subject, but some of my poems have been published in magazines in the Caribbean and elsewhere."

PLEASURE takes a brief look at one of his recently published works, an extract from a sequence called Small Husband (the title of which is a reference to a kind of recurring avatar figure; a mythical creature that appears in different guises in Laughlin's worksometimes a little king, sometimes the poet John Keats). The sequence amounts to something of a deeply personal meditation of a persona who may or may not be the poet or may, in fact, be all of us. Tellingly, the "small husband" is mercurial and cannot be pinned down. Here is one part of the sequence, called 'Roitelet' (little king), published at Almost Island:

Small husband, I have been longing for you,
parched and hugging my tinder heart.
This afternoon too tranced and hot,
dusk too cautious and hot and silent,
night reluctant, each hot hour
holding its breath, what is it waiting to hear?

Small husband, you hide among the ants,
you wait among the thorns, your eyes green as the setting sun,
a heartbeat hunting a red stone under the leaves,
electroplectic fidget.
Small husband, is this where you will drink?

Small husband, I too sleep alone,
tied to myself, limb to limb to limb,
a hitch of grass and hair and string,
weighed in the earth of my bed, cold and red.

(>>>READ the rest of the poem at Almost Island)

Immediately, several aspects of this must be noted. The small husband at first serves as a kind of monument to time, with the diurnal workings of the world revolving around it: the "afternoon too tranced"; "dusk too cautious"; "night reluctant". The longing of the poet or the persona of the poem ("holding its breath") meets the personification of hot and bothered time in a kind of weird pathetic fallacy. 

This complex relation established, the small husband shifts (or rather is revealed further). It takes on insect qualities ("you hide among the ants"). It joins the chorus of the living world, kept breathless in anticipation of the object of desire. What are they waiting on?

Then: the personification/metaphor between persona and creature becomes complete: the idea of the poet merges perfectly with that of animal, even as the narrative voice maintains a dichotomy: "Small husband, I too sleep alone / tied to myself, limb to limb to limb." The poem has more to say:

Small husband, I too never sleep
in the loud night, the night like a bed of stone,
each star like a pebble flung to glass.

Small husband, you watch at dawn,
you call like a necklace of cold water in the rocks,
raincloud in your throat, a song like drowning,
breath battling the dark drag of desire,
a song of names that cannot be pronounced or repeated.

Small husband, I want to follow you
up the scarlet ladder of your throat,
the thread you snag from leaf to leaf
with knots to show I cannot follow on,
a shivering string that snags too in my wrist.

The sense of the erotic is, paradoxically, inflamed by the poem's stance against the erotic: it is deeply un-erotic and, in this manner, heightens its sensual machinations ("I want to follow you up your throat"; "breath battling the dark drag of desire"). The sense of time, animal and metaphor/multiple persona established, the further dimension of sound is added, deepening the sense of an unfolding argument ("in the loud night"; "a song like drowning"). The small husband is then given the same sensory perception as the narrator of the poem ("Small husband, you watch dawn"); and this is immediately, and playfully, subverted ("I want to follow you"). 

What is unfolding, therefore, is something of a dialogue with a Freudian id, but not just. The complex effects created by the opening stanzas culminate in the last lines.

My little king,
I dream you crouch in my thighs and watch through my eyes
the failed flight of my hands,
you creep in my shirt and your claws clutch tight in my lungs
so I breathe in winces, like a bird.

Small as you are,
small husband,
is there room in your breast for me,
a sprout of green,
for a long mystery, a great fire,
an arrow, an echo,
a story,
a solstice,

The regular opener for each stanza ("Small husband...") is replaced with "My little king", making the synonymic relationship clear. But as soon as this king is crowned, another aspect of the "small husband" reaches a climax: its relationship with self-defeat and pain. The "failed flight" of hands triggers an attack on the lungs, and a phantasmagoric escape where wincing in pain is a form of flight ("like a bird"), where flight was once failed. This is almost a sadomasochistic mechanism that marks a complex relationship between elements within and without the narrator.

Until finally, the poem presents the ultimate impregnation: the narrator seeking space within that describedsomewhat modestlyas small ("is there room in your breast for me?") The invasion of this, or rather the marriage of the seemingly disparate elements in the false dichotomy echos a human relationship, as well as a personal discovery. The curtness of the lines thereafter signals a consolidation, a quiet success or defeat which no longer requires the same mode of expression that came before. And finally, the ideas of fiction ("a story") and the re-assertion of the diurnal motif of time from the first stanza ("tomorrow") end the poem, suggesting a cycle either coming to an end or about to begin again. Like life. 

These processes are all, in various ways, reflected in much of Laughlin's poems. The idea of time as witness; the un-erotic as erotic; the personification of self/persona; the symbol of the bird (Laughlin has published several poems with birds as key symbols); the idea of deception and the covert; the struggle of self to find something: freedom, love or companionship. Common markers in his work include: the use of primary colours (red, blue); the repeated image of the bed as a forum for all of these thematic concerns; paper and the tools of writing as implements of a complex music; the alienated self. Consider an earlier poem from Blackbox Manifold

Mercy on My Small Husband

Mercy on my small husband.
When he sleeps bare five hours a night
wrapped in paper like an accident,
like an insect itching serifs inside an envelope.
He sleeps knowing I am nowhere near.
He sleeps near I know not where.
My small husband is an impossible sleeper.

Sleep is not impossible.
I cough and scrabble my blanket of fur,
my bed of cold white zinc.
And above me is all the clean glass air, safe from echoes.
Unmercied, I am bound in my own veins.
I keep my watch like a leftover promise,
staring at Orion’s crotch,
at the stumbling of the blind bull.
No one will surprise my small husband,
not me.

And this one, published at tongues of the ocean:

Here is the Poem

Before this was a phrase it was a pebble,
something slippery, something with little teeth,
the bitter of green, the smell of something red,
it makes you sneeze, it hums like falling asleep.
Before this was a poem it was a question,
or maybe the desire of a question,
or maybe the desire for something to happen,
the string that tautens when love is about to happen,
the question that taunts when the tongue encounters a pebble,
the name of the taste of something that smells like red.
A poem, like love, is always about to happen,
unless it’s already happened. The thing about poems:
poems are impossible, like the colour blue...

(>>>READ the rest of the poem at tongues of the ocean)

These pieces suggest a mass of work building into a discourse on universal themes surrounding the human body and various doppelgängers: on ideas of self-alienation and self-discovery; relationships, love and death; the struggle to reclaim lost facets of the self; failure and the fear of finding terrifying new things. 

Laughlin's poetry is also a deeply Caribbean meditation, in its concern with the geography of self-actualisation and in its subtle echos of processes known so well by those who are scattered throughout the Caribbean diaspora.

Nicholas Laughlin at Hosay celebrations, St James, Trinidad, 2009. Photo By Andre Bagoo.

>>>READ MORE of Laughlin's work from Boston Review, Poetry Wales, tongues of the ocean and many more here.

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This exclusive post is published to mark poetry month. 

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