THE TITLE asks us to think of change. To look back, to reflect. To put into context past moments, past times.
This exercise of self-reflection is also one of estrangement. It places one outside of the parameters of what is being examined. It subjects a life to objective scrutiny, to reportage, a reporter's objective gaze.
But the reporter’s selection of facts is an inherently subjective exercise. And what is really strange? To whom? To which version of the self?
Is strange necessarily pejorative? The unusual, surprising, alien can be pleasurable. What has happened to change things, to render these years different or differently perceived?
And whose life? The poet's? Or a persona of the poet? Is there is difference?
Thus, the title of Nicholas Laughlin's book, The Strange Years of My Life, like the best titles, is already a poem. It suggests autobiography, but flags the conflict between truth and perception. This is an epistemological conundrum. When does the mirage end?
When we encounter books of poetry we seldom have the author at our disposal. The poet's processes are often not documented and are largely unknowable to the reader. When a poet speaks about the work, it is easy to dismiss this as the poet's own reading of what she has done; as just another reading among many possibilities. But it is still a worthy exercise to look at what Laughlin himself has said of his own work, decades in the making.
"The poems belong to a hemisphere of the imagination that encompasses the narratives of nineteenth-century travelers and twentieth-century anthropologists, spy movies, astronomical lore, the writings of Saint-John Perse and Henri Michaux, and the music of Erik Satie," the poet says. "They balance on the edge between concealment and revelation, between bemused fascination and tentative comprehension. Every sentence is a kind of translation, and language is a series of riddles with no solutions, subtly humorous at one turn, sinister at another, heartbroken at the next."
|The Strange Years of My Life: manuscript notebook, successive typescript versions, proofs, book (Photo by/from Nicholas Laughlin's Flickr.)|
The troupe of “friends” and “strangers” whom the reader encounters in these pages, he says, are sometimes alter egos, sometimes aliases, sometimes adversaries. They inhabit a milieu of mistaken identity and deliberate disguise, where “there are too many wrong countries” and “already no one remembers you at home.”
These statements are apt. However, because poetry moves us by holding up mirrors, I also find reflections of Trinidad and Tobago life in this work. The brief poem 'Ars Poetica' is billed as a treatise on art, but its reference to guns inevitably invokes ideas of crime and punishment in this bloody society. It further makes us question the place of art in this at times fetid state. Yet, though some have dismissed art as a thing of ornamentation, they forget its power, how many people exist today simply because of that one poem, that one movie, that one song that got them through a difficult time. If Laughlin's poem says anything, its conjunction between poetry and violence reflects how words can do things in today's world.
Last week, Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo was awarded the Forward Prize for her awesome book Measures of Expatriation. Her work has astonished and her seven published works comprise an achievement in their own right. It's a good time to reflect on the place of the poet in the Caribbean region as a whole. Both Capildeo and Laughlin’s poems are implicitly political. They liberate us from tendencies that would seek to box Caribbean writing into a narrow corner.
On another note, this shall be my final column. I'd like to thank readers for, well, reading. Maybe you agreed. Maybe you disagreed. Maybe you were moved. As I move on after ten brief years of journalism, I can’t help but look back and embrace the title of Laughlin’s book. Often we have dreams and don’t pursue them. But what if we give ourselves permission to do so? I’ve one word for all the years of doubts. Enough.
From Sunday Newsday, Sept 24, 2016
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Anu Lakhan on The Strange Years of My Life
at Annie Paul's Active Voice blog here