No Back Door by Mervyn Taylor, 2010, Shearsman Books, pp. 90
Hew Locke, 'For those in peril on the sea'. Photo by Sam Millen.
"SEA have no back door,” warns the father-figure in the titular poem of Trinidadian Mervyn Taylor’s latest book No Back Door. The closing lines of the poem, with their complex comparative analysis of two lives and generations, are a haunting invocation of loss, memory and even bittersweet joy:
Sea have no back door, he said,
putting on his pyjamas and going
to bed. All night I could feel
the waves coming in.
Taylor’s book, which was awarded the 2011 Paterson Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, is a continuation of many of the themes of the poet’s earlier work (which includes Gone Away and The Goat). It is a potent examination of contemporary Trinidad life, of migration and of the spaces in between and beyond. Death, loss, aging and illness confront characters of complexity who are given fine and gentle lines that hum like the low tide of the sea, always threatening to rise and eat away at an easily forgotten land.
The title poem, which is the penultimate poem of the book, is a good example of Taylor’s understated style and of the devastating emotional impact of his work. The father figure is subservient to forces in an around him: “In all his years on the island / my father never went to the sea.” Perhaps this self-imposed exile is not only a sign of father’s mind-set but also an expression of deeper fears. There is an inter-generational aspect to all of this: “He waved as we left for Point / Cumana, cleaned out the goat pens / and became the man his father / was, a necktie holding up his pants.” The play of that last image is highly suggestive: the necktie as a colonial/capitalist symbol is both rejected and embraced. In one sense its function is abandoned in favor of simpler things. In another sense the tie is embraced but made to suit the purposes and circumstances of the wearer.
Thus, in a few lines Taylor has set so many elements in play, but we never feel overwhelmed. We feel the tension between the son, another generation perhaps, and the father without a single line of explicit drama. When the father puts on his pyjamas and goes, the line breaks before we continue to read that he has merely gone to bed. Sleep, death, departure and migration are all suggested. The son’s feelings are in contrast to the depiction of the father. But one may as well be a reflection of the other at different stages in life, perhaps.
Elsewhere, similarly strong poems abound in this collection. Most startling is ‘On the La Basse’ which is a poem every Trinidadian will instantly recognize.
Ostensibly the poem is about a bonfire at the Beetham landfill. Public servants oversee the burning of old receipt books. The supervisor–in the sense of that official post and in the sense of surveyor–witnesses a seldom seen scene: “And as the bonfire rose higher and higher / among the piles of the city’s garbage, I saw.” The line breaks. What did he/she see? “Men, women and children clamber with bags, / saving whatever they could, eggs and half-rotten / onions to keep or sell....”
The poem is a reflection of social inequalities and it aims to present these without didactic flourishes or sentiment.
“In the growing dark I read, by the glow of the / embers,” the supervisor says, “...the ashes settling, the whine of the truck, reversing.” The idea of reversal, the surreal scenes. They are enough for the poet to achieve his aims.
Taylor–who teaches and divides his time between Brooklyn, New York and Trinidad–aims, perhaps, to chart journeys that are linked to the dilemma of the immigrant but not limited to that. In a sense, each piece is about a journey to death, the sea.
There are poems spanning the political and social aspects of colonisation (‘Colonized’ is a poem about Haiti which begins: “What do we owe them, for / taking back what was ours?”). There are pieces about ideas of ancestry and shared heritage (the titular figure in ‘Yankee Gal’ may have closer links to the Caribbean than she realises, especially given the warning encapsulated by the poem’s closing reference to Sparrow’s calypsos). Several poems recall illness, death and aging (‘Losing Weight’, ‘Joan’s Chair’, ‘Home is’, ‘At the Home’).
‘Felicity’ presents an account of crime in that town and laments its lost potential to be “a gift to the world”, as suggested by Derek Walcott in his Nobel Lecture of 1993. Of Taylor’s work, Walcott has said: “the sense of search, of the avoidance of flash, mutes his meters to an admirable degree, and the tone, which he found remarkably early, keeps him separate and unique.” This is a moving book which succeeds in charting a universal journey with skill and sensitivity.