art in all its forms

art in all its forms

4/15/17

FILM REVIEW: Looking back at 'Poetry is an Island'

Derek Walcott in a still from Ida Does final version of her 2013 documentary

IN 2013, I saw an earlier version of Ida Does' documentary Poetry is an Island. Back then, I wrote the film was, "as unexpected as it is indispensable; the kind of gift you cannot imagine parting with even if you never realized you needed it in the first place."

Re-watching the film now (a final cut produced in 2016 was screened on Tuesday in Florida by the Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival, O Miami Poetry Festival and the O Cinema Wynwood) all the things I found exhilarating in 2013 are now bathed in pathos in the wake of the poet's death. Walcott's beautiful readings here are more heart-wrenching; the piece and its examination of the politics of neglect in the Caribbean has an unshakeable sadness. These are the final scenes, we feel, of a poet's epic life.

And the primary defect I complained of then seems more glaring now. The film is not a biography of the poet; it gives us his life in outline but is skewered in favour of his later years. It falls short when it attempts to give us an account of what makes Walcott's poetry so special, so deserving of international recognition. We are given an admirable analysis by Walcott's childhood friend Arthur Jacobs, yet I was left yearning for more varied, critical voices and for even the perspectives of some of the poets assembled in the film.

The 2016 cut also, understandably, does not include any of the work produced by Walcott in his great collaboration with Peter Doig, a final chapter which in many ways saw Walcott reaching new heights. VS Naipaul is mentioned as being too harsh a critic of the West Indies, yet the film seems to confirm - if only momentarily - one aspect of Naipaul's caustic views of the region when it decries how Walcott's plans for an artists' colony have never been supported; and when a theatre on the island named after its Nobel Laureate is pictured in ruins.

Still, Does's documentary retains its spell-binding power, especially its moments covering Walcott's great Nobel Lecture dealing with Ramleela in Felicity. These moments remind us of the presence of literature all around us; a literature that forces us to see each other in a different light, to challenge our myopic and bigoted thinking. Here is a film which, like a fine Walcott poem, reminds us of the true power of language and of seeing the world anew through art. 

4/7/17

PODCAST // The Things We Keep - with Marsha Pearce


In this PLEASURE PODCAST // I’m joined by art critic and lecturer Dr Marsha Pearce as we take a walk through The Things We Keep an exhibition featuring work by four female artists at Medulla Gallery, Woodbrook, Port of Spain. The podcast includes a recording of Pearce reading ‘The Things We Keep’, a Gerard Smyth poem. Music by Bensound. Special thanks to Medulla Gallery.




‘The Things We Keep’ features Alicia Milne, Jaime Lee Loy, Michelle Isava and Nadia Huggins and runs until May 1st. 

Ants in our pants: Inside Jamie Lee Loy's Little Girl: Playing House

Go fetch: Alicia Milne's Branch - found object from the landscape and Bodies that bind

Hooking up: Nadia Huggins' Ghostlines

Dangerous waists: Michelle Isava's Crone Study, Force Ripe and Red Woman

Andre Bagoo and Dr Marsha Pearce

3/26/17

This page is a cloud


IT IS THE LAST poem of White Egrets, published in 2010, and is the last poem in The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948 - 2013 a collected volume published in 2014. It bears no title, but when it first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2007, it was published under the heading, 'This Page Is A Cloud'. You can read it in full at the Scottish Poetry Library website here. At the moment, it is my favorite Walcott poem.

This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
then is hidden again until what emerges
from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea
and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road....

Here is a poem that literally jumps off the page. It engages the mind and the body, inviting reflection on the book as an object in our hands; on the poetry of ordinary life; and on death. A chapter is closed.

The idea of a page being a cloud takes us through several leaps. First, we are invited to remove ourselves from the abstract imagery of language and to contemplate something solid: the book in our hands. The scope of the poem widened, we then fly to the clouds. We are given a bird's eye view of the terrain, inhabiting the perspective of the titular white egrets. It all unfurls: the colors of the land, the shapes of valleys, the curves of roads, the serenity of fishing villages. But this is not just a picaresque, descriptive list. Each item is a symbol. What is at first beautiful is also rendered dangerous. There are shadows stalking the land, the road coils like a snake. "A line of gulls has arrowed" suggests an offensive, the idea of birds turning on man, as well as the arrows of the Amerindians. Time itself is pierced. Each turn ("a widening harbour", "a town with no noise", "streets growing closer") is a stop along the way in a journey that is both linear and also metaphorical. When "ancestral canoes" appear it is as though an Egyptian burial ship has been excavated. We have crossed over.

By the time we arrive at the closing lines ("a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again and the book comes to a close") we have been on a disorienting odyssey, traveling film-reel style through a country, through feelings ("white, silent surges"), through life and through time.

That the poem makes us think of the poetry book in our hands is not tangential to the theme of death. For Walcott is asking us to reflect on the place of objects in our lives and the relevance of objects in the afterlife. Like 'Love After Love', this is a great poem which the poet had to build up to, starting, perhaps with an earlier poem like 1987's 'To Norline' in which a relationship has ended: "when some line on a page / is loved...it's hard to turn."

By ending his books with this untitled poem, Walcott has implicated us in the matter to which he has invited our attention again and again throughout his career. Like a philosopher concerned with the relationship between language and reality, he uses the fraught process of reading to ask us to consider what is more real: language or what it describes? Life or death?






Big ideas for C'bean's biggest lit fest

The program for the 2017 NGC Bocas Lit Fest was unveiled last week, and a hearty serving of brain food is on the menu.


PRIME Minister Dr Keith Rowley is expected; the poetry slam prize has almost tripled; and tribute will be paid to Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott - but these are not the only big things at this year's NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

The festival program, which was unveiled by founder and festival director Marina Salandy-Brown last Wednesday at the National Library, Port of Spain, is set to be dominated by big ideas. Discussion panels and events are to be held on diverse issues such as the rights of LGBTI people all over the Caribbean, the importance of a free press, the problems dogging the criminal justice system and violence against women.

"From the start, Bocas has not just been a festival of literature but also a festival of ideas," Salandy-Brown said. Noting last year's program triggered nationwide debate on the child marriage statutes - which has culminated in a reform bill being tabled in Parliament - she added, "Don't ever think that a literature festival can't change the world."

Salandy-Brown also paid tribute to Walcott, whose funeral was yesterday. With tears welling in her eyes, she said Walcott served the region, "not just with his poems but with his burning devotion to literature and why it matters". Walcott was the recipient of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2011 in its inaugural year.


NGC Bocas Lit Fest founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown at lat week's media launch.

The Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts was announced as a new sponsor of the festival. The finalists of Code's 2017 Burt Award were unveiled: Lisa Allen-Agostini (Trinidad & Tobago); Kevin Jared Hosein (Trinidad & Tobago) and Viviana Prado-Nunez (Puerto Rico/USA). Joan Dayal of the Paper Based Bookshop - which is marking its 30th anniversary this year - will receive the Henry Swanzy Award for distinguished service to Caribbean letters.

On the doubling of the First Citizens National Poetry Slam prize purse to $50,000, Jason Julien, FCB deputy CEO, said, "we are putting our money where our mouth is. For the next generation of Sir Dereks out there, we encourage you."

Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller, winners of the Forward Prize, as well as Ishion Hutchinson, who recently took home the National Book Critics Circle Award for his poetry collection House of Lords and Commons, Safiya Sinclair, Rosamund King, Jennifer Rahim and Rajiv Mohabir will be among the poets in attendance.

The National Library. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

For a second year, there will be a special project involving the prison system, led Debbie Jacob, but this time also including Anya Ayoung Chee.

"If this intervention in our nation's prisons can help just one or two inmates then it is worth it, " Salandy-Brown said.

In addition to Walcott, tribute will be paid to the late literature scholar and journalist Giselle Rampaul, and writer Angelo Bissessarsingh. The festival will also serve a hearty portion of brain food, taking a look at the legacy of CLR James, including his relationship to figures such as Eric Williams, Rudranath Capildeo, and Albert Gomes. There will be an examination of the ideas of Lloyd Best, as well as an event featuring acclaimed essayist Eliot Weinberger.

"Bocas is a full month of activities making April a season of literature for TT," Salandy-Brown said. "Never let it be said that Trinidadians do not love literature."

You can check out the full Bocas program at the festival website here.


3/25/17

We Are All Queer


If no two people see art in the same way, how can we believe that we all experience desire and sex in the same way? And if our bodies, while conforming to general patterns, are all shaped in different ways, why do we persist in the illusion that there is one way of experiencing sexuality? We all conform yet do not conform. In one lifetime we all have multiple experiences and our tastes may change drastically (I loved Sarah McLachlan as a teenager, now I am embarrassed to state this publicly). We are fluid over time, variegated from body to body. We all exist on the margins of what has been set and defined. Some view queer people as an alien group far removed from them. But the truth is, to various degrees, we are all queer inside, be it in body or in terms of our perceptions.

- from 'We Are All Queer', my essay at the ARC website on art and two recent events, the Caribbean Queer Visualities show and the Beyond Homophobia conference at Jamaica.

3/24/17

Poet Shivanee Ramlochan on Derek Walcott

Poet Shivanee Ramlochan. Photo by Andre Bagoo. 

If you’ve been to a Hindu funeral, you won’t forget the burning.

The ceremony is its own dread ritual, but when it comes to the commitment of that body to the fire, you will remember it. You will see the smoke rising from the body you once knew when its muscles were working and its heart was pumping, when it issued curses and sighs and farts and hunger growls. You will take the ashes of that body into your body; you will feel the heat even if you are feet away from the pyre. You will go home with the trace elements of that body that once fed and dressed and sheltered you, under your tongue and fingernails, in the roots of your hair, in the backs of your eyes.

I attended a Hindu burning when I was nine, long before I read “The Saddhu of Couva”, which you can read here at PoemHunter. Every time I turn to this poem, I cannot do so without the scent, the heat, the nearness of that first burning.

What is ready for the pyre in “The Saddhu of Couva” has long been cremated. The speaker, who looks out onto the canefields, sees rows of tradition razed before him. He longs to depart a life long made untenable for him by the advent of electric light. His faith in his gods is undiminished, but he fears the conduit has been cut – that labourers and hunters are slicing and caging the deities who were once bundled in white muslin, indentured from India’s belly. The world has wrought a great weariness in our saddhu; he senses his reincarnation might be upon him, imagines at every moment how effortless it might be to take flight.

POET Shivanee Ramlochan is about to unveil her debut book of poems at this year's Bocas Lit Fest. But as we wait patiently for Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, you can read 'A Week in Walcott' Ramlochan's gorgeous series on the poetry of Derek Walcott, which is ongoing at her literature website, Novel Niche. Read more from her post on Walcott's 'The Saddhu of Couva' here.

3/19/17

Walcott's world


EVEN AT the very end Derek Walcott yearned to explore new things. Morning, Paramin, his book-length collection of ekphrastic verse with the painter Peter Doig, bears all the hallmarks of Walcott the poet. Here was an artist who was rigorous, but who also tried out new forms, new modes. Though often somber, he could also be playful. At all points, he sought the sublime. Like the greatest poets, he always imagined a poetry that was just out of reach. If, like Icarus, he sometimes came too close to the sun, he also just as often achieved mesmeric flight.

Since his death on Friday, Walcott has been described by many as ambitious. Journalists from outside the Caribbean have said he took Western literature and used it as a tool to his own ends. They suggest his vantage point was that of an outsider. While his work certainly grapples with a feeling of being lost between two worlds, inside and outside the Caribbean, I think Walcott’s achievement is more profound than this. He did not make an argument for inclusion of the so-called Third World, post-colonial Caribbean within the global literary canon. Rather, he set out to show how, all along, we have always resided within it.

No one can question his technical achievements. You think of a Walcott poem and you think of his grasp for the musicality of language; his talent for acute images; his sophisticated metaphors that have the impact of an undeniable truth; his chameleon-like ability to replicate any type of landscape; his ability to surprise. Tiepolo’s Hound opens with these lines:

They stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street,
passing the bank and the small island shops

quiet as drawings, keeping from the heat
through Danish arches until the street stops

at the blue, gusting harbour, where like commas
in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.

In the poem ‘Islands’, from the collection In a Green Night, he wrote:

I seek,
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water.

Walcott worked hard. At one stage he described his calling in terms that brought to mind spiritual devotion. He said:

“I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us.”

Derek Walcott

If Walcott was a priest, many of us were his acolytes.

I first encountered Walcott’s poetry at secondary school. I will never forget that English Literature class, in 1999, when Mr Perkins asked us to read Walcott’s poem about Carnival, ‘Mass Man’. It was a hot afternoon at St Mary’s College on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain. I still remember the light of that day, streaming through the bay leaves of the trees that lined the front of the college, and the smell of old wooden desks. At the age of 16, I was not prepared for what was about to happen.

We students read and read and read and read. Walcott’s lines were so simple, they flowed right past us, right over our heads: “Hector Mannix, waterworks clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion”, the poem began. There was a man with “two golden mangoes bobbing for breastplates”. What on earth was happening? The disorientation a first-time Carnival reveler might feel fell upon that all-boys Catholic school classroom. It was only when Mr Perkins began to break down the poem, to critique it, did something click. Until then, for many of us, poetry was a kind of ornamental art: inert, limited to sound and not necessarily sense. That a poem could contain a torrent of fraught truths about ourselves, right there on the cool page, was the revelation.

We came to Walcott’s great lines: “But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet / my bull-whipped body swings, a metronone! / Like a fruit bat dropped in the silk-cotton’s shade, / My mania, my mania is a terrible calm.”

At last, we saw our own complexity acting on Walcott’s stage. He had written a poem about Carnival and all its queerness, but it was really a ghost story; a gothic horror about slavery and abandoned children. From that moment, the possibility of poetry: what it could simultaneously hide and reveal, what it could say and do (and I insist that poetry can do) came. Poetry could be ours. I don’t remember anything else Mr Perkins ever taught me. But I will never forget that lesson.

And so though I met Walcott only twice, I’ve always felt his presence in my life through his work. Admittedly, sometimes his work became problematic.



 
 Walcott reading at 92nd Street Y in 2007.

I remember recently seeing a re-staging of his play, Ti-Jean and His Brothers and being stunned by the cavalier way in which the poet deployed puns that alienated me, a queer man. Sitting in the darkness of the Little Carib Theatre and hearing actors read out lines in which they repeatedly ask each other for “fags”, conscious of the derogatory meaning of the word, I questioned who this play was intended for? What was its moral heart? And was its audience supposed to include me? In Morning, Paramin (reviewed here) I questioned one poem in particular, ‘Man Dressed As Bat’, feeling there was a violence in the poem that could not be accounted for on its surface. What was intended in this poem, which was literally about a batty man? I also became aware of the sexual harassment allegations that resurfaced when he was in line for a key post at Oxford.

“I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself,” Walcott told The Evening Standard of London. He added, “While I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.”

While he also had a long feud with VS Naipaul, Walcott had a vision of the Caribbean that was conciliatory.

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” he said in 1992 in his Nobel lecture. “The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments.” That is a vision we would do well to remember today, as fragmented and divided as we stand.

Walcott’s poetry never claims to be perfect, though it almost nearly is. Since no woman or man can be known entirely, since our responses to art and artists are distinct and complex, I’ve never stopped being a devotee.

From Sunday Newsday, p 18

3/12/17

Sasha Solomon on Leasho Johnson

Ever-bless good-good by Leasho Johnson, mixed media on canvas, 37" x 54".    


BLINK TOO quickly and one might miss the idiosyncrasies in these works. In one piece, two neon orange avatars, rendered without conventional gender and sexual markers, are wrapped around each other in a loving embrace. They are clearly a couple. Here, Jamaican artist Leasho Johnson implies that dancehall is a space where queer Caribbean identities do exist and can be seen. He asserts that those marginalized identities ought to be made visible, whether or not mainstream or even the dancehall subculture is ready or willing to acknowledge them.

Johnson expands on his narrative of dancehall as counter-culture. In his debut solo exhibition Belisario and The Soundboy (which ran from February 4- 24 at NLS, Kingston, Jamaica) 18th century paintings and art by figures such as Isaac Mendes Belisario are mashed with Johnson's signature neon orange characters.

Individually and collectively, these pieces ridicule the constipated male/female, masculine/feminine, and heterosexual/homosexual binaries that frame the island's cultural imagery and national identity. Ultra-conservative, cis-heteronormative Jamaica and its constricting preoccupation with all things straight is the butt of a huge joke here. 

According to the National Gallery of Jamaica, Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849) was, "the first documented Jamaican-born artist". A popular landscape painter, he created some of the most picturesque images of colonial Jamaica, despite its ills of slavery and cultural imperialism. But there are other references in the show as well such as the painters JB Kidd and William Clarke, as well as photography by Duperley and Sons.


Photo by Sasha Solomon

Belisario and The Soundboy opens with 'Cocktales & Pum-pum', a mixed media sculptural tableau which includes pieces such as 'Di Good Hole', 'Gumption', 'You Can't Twerk on Sundays', '6:30', and more. Mischievous and cheeky, these objects celebrate the sexual freedom of dancehall's women. They big up di gyal dem - the acrobatic, daring, and confidently sexual black Jamaican women who negotiate power and femininity in the dancehall space.

In 'Ever-bless good-good', two black Jamaican women meet at a sort of crossroads in the lush Jamaican countryside. It's a riotous image, positioning dancehall as a space for the sexual to be enacted and performed in the presence of the respectable.  

'Rude to your parents' is a broad declaration of the power of black female sexuality and a reclamation of the black female body. All in all, it's a Caribbean time warp of the first order, where Johnson radically changes the lens of time, culture, identity and history. 

Rude to your parents, mixed media on canvas, 37" x 54. 

Overall, Johnson creates a space for a difficult, but necessary conversation about who or what systems get to decide which Jamaican identities, cultures and histories are seen and documented. Is it possible for dancehall to be a space for intersectional politics to be seen as a site for queer culture? How do we go about choosing which aspects of our culture and history are worth documenting? By interlacing his neon orange dancehall avatars with these famous images of Jamaican life, he emphasizes that dancehall is as much a part of everyday Jamaican culture, and is even more so because it is the creation of the Jamaicans who are the progeny of those from the colonial era who are immortalized in much Jamaican art. 

Still, 'Ital dish/ Walk-like-a-dog' explores dancehall as a problematic space. The artist creates a world where the neon orange visual of 'fish', the derogatory word for a homosexual man or one who is effeminate, signifies an existence and a reality that is as much a part of our pre-colonial, colonial as it is the post-colonial and post-independent lives. Even in subcultural spaces, these identities are affirmed as real and tangible. 

Ital dish/Walk-like-a-dog, mixed media on canvas, 40" x 64".    

Johnson suggests we have sought to erase black queer identities in our conception of the working class and the communities from which dancehall originates. With Belisario and The Soundboy, he shows he is here to remedy this amnesia. He creates one continuous stream of culture, history and identity. He is here to upset.


Sasha Solomon is a Jamaican writer who recently participated in the Bocas Lit Fest / British Council art criticism workshop lead by Claire Armitstead and Gene Moreno in January at the University of the West Indies. 



3/5/17

Leasho Johnson on the male gaze and his new piece at the Jamaica Biennial

Leasho Johnson at Devon House. Photo by Andre Bagoo.
LEASHO Johnson, 32, has something to say, and he's wasting no time saying it. Hot on the heels of participating in Caribbean Queer Visualities last November; being featured at Fader in January; then mounting his debut solo exhibition at NLS last month, he's now making a splash at the Jamaica Biennial with In-a-the-Middle, an installation at Devon House which cooks up a scathing commentary on misogyny. Leasho takes a rare break to tell us, in his own words, about his latest work.

CCH Pounder checks out Leasho Johnson's In-a-the-Middle. (Courtesy the artist).
When it came to the title for this piece, I was thinking about ZJ Liquid's 'Inna the Middle'. I was also thinking about sweet potato pudding, a popular Jamaican dessert, and about our attitude to cooking more generally. Jamaicans love their cooking, especially their mom's cooking. We are very fond of sweet potato pudding, which we call hell a top, hell a bottom and hallelujah in the middle. I love the construction of this nickname and like to maintain elements of Jamaican patois in my work.

In-a-the-Middle is referring to the objectification of the female body in dancehall via the male gaze. I'm also referring to the idea of the female as the home-maker. I am trying to describe a kind of negative space that is misogynistic. It's also violent: a violent aftermath of something. What I'm describing is something I believe is commonplace in homes across Jamaica; as ubiquitous as rice and peas in a culture that deems women weak and that places men on a podium. Yes, dancehall is the centre stage of our culture, but everything happens in the home.

Digital sketch for In-a-the-Middle.

Devon House was part of the curating. I was transfixed by its aesthetic elements. I wanted to see if I could pull this piece off the way I saw it in my head and that involved its white walls.

This piece started after I created a piece with bottles for my solo exhibition called 'Cocktales and Pumpum'. In the course of researching that I came across an image of an outdoor kitchen made of rocks and firewood with large Dutch pots. It occurred to me that these pots were so familiar they were engrained in our culture. It made sense to do something using them.

The process of assembling this was nail-biting and I had given up a few times. This piece was brand new for me: new materials and a new space. But I had help from the National Gallery of Jamaica and fellow artists. Anything is possible when good people are behind you and for that I'm grateful.


A dress to the nation by Richard Rawlins

Richard Rawlins' A Dress to the Nation at Alice Yard. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

A DRESS is a gendered thing. It makes us think of the guises adopted by women and men. Of the body's impulse to conceal and reveal; to dress up and dress down. A Dress to the Nation, the outstanding new installation by Richard Rawlins at Alice Yard, is political in how it seeks to contrast bombastic presidential and prime ministerial speeches with a fading sense of patriotism. But the work's most glaring questions relate to a different kind of politics: gender and performance.

Standing inert in a black box, it has an ambiguity that means it can be pictured, variously, on a girl, boy, a svelte woman or man. Just as the dress mirrors the national flag, it is mirrored by glass and echoed by the subtle use of sound.

"I can’t help but hear the song from the musical Annie playing in my head," Rawlins, 50, says. What has gone astray in our wonderland is the fetishisation of the female: the placing of it behind a glass wall as if it is a strange, exotic thing, as if the only gaze that matters is the gaze of those who do not wear dresses, who scorn dresses, who regard them as markers of inferiority. The artist has given the nation a dress whose frills seem antiquated, whose noise comes from its smutty suppression, whose estranged body is at large, whose truth haunts us. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, it shows us the antagonistic link between the body of the citizen and the body of the speech-mongering statesman. It demands that we all be seen to be human.

A Dress to the Nation runs until March 8 at Alice Yard.




2/22/17

PODCAST // Film review - Moonlight


FOR the inaugural PLEASURE PODCAST // Andre Bagoo and Christopher Lou-Hing take a look at Moonlight, which is up for eight Oscars on Sunday. Does the film deserve the accolades heaped on it? Is it a good film or a great film? And will it be a watershed moment in queer cinema? After listening to the podcast, you can also read a full review of the film below.




Moonlight, a film doubly rare
By Andre Bagoo

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali


THE PACKED audience at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, for studiofilmclub’s screening of Moonlight was a sign of the tremendous buzz surrounding the film. Dozens of accolades have been heaped on Barry Jenkin’s coming-of-age drama, and since its screening last month it’s been nominated for eight Oscars. Whether it wins any is beside the point. Here is a movie that achieves what good art should: it moves its audience to empathy and love.

This is one of those films in which nothing happens yet everything happens. It is structured in three acts, all following the progress of Chiron. We see him as a shell-shocked child (Alex Hibbert) navigating a world torn apart by drugs; as a frail closeted teen (Ashton Sanders) being bullied by schoolmates; and as a buff adult (Trevante Rhodes) who has re-invented himself outwardly, even if he hasn’t yet found expression for his inner desires.

Like Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), which deals with gay life within the Korean-American community, Moonlight gives us something doubly rare: a film about a race not represented enough, and then a minority within that race. Yes, there are black people and some of us are gay. I’ve been waiting too long for this.

At one stage, when two stunning acts of violence occur, we are given a stark choice: be left devastated at the tragic consequences for the main character, or cheer loudly at poetic justice. The crowd at studiofilmclub cheered. Trinidadians are yearning to see themselves onscreen and to live in a world where people aren’t taken advantage of just because they are gay or different in some way.

Trevante Rhodes

Still, Chiron pays a price for his actions. In the process, Jenkins subtly raises difficult questions about the criminal justice system—how its narrow gaze ignores wider social conditions and history. It’s the old determinism versus free will debate.

None of this should suggest Moonlight is a philosophical treatise. Its strength lies in its singular focus on the human stories that populate it, including that of Juan, a charismatic drug-dealer played by Mahershala Ali. Juan is haunted by a guilt that seems to manifest itself in the form of little Chiron. We learn Chiron’s mother Paula (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris) is one of the people to whom Juan sells drugs, effectively enabling the addiction that has torn Chiron’s life apart.

But while it does a good job of depicting black male experience, Moonlight struggles to shake the Madonna-whore complex when it comes to its female figures. They are either overwhelmingly supportive of the men in their lives, or largely sources of trauma. Paula is almost the Hollywood stereotype of a black woman: a crack-head veering out of control. What redeems the film’s treatment of her are early and late scenes that give her a layered complexity. (Harris has spoken about her initial reluctance to take the part, a reluctance she overcame when Jenkins told her the character was akin to his real-life mother.)

Naomie Harris as Paula

While the film seems to fly in its first two acts, things slow down in its third. Developments essential to our understanding of Chiron happen, but much of the conflict is largely off-stage, reducing the tension. We learn that he has molted and become someone at odds with the sexuality explored in his youth. An act of fate triggers a literal voyage of re-discovery. As in Jenkin’s previous film, the wonderfully peripatetic Medicine for Melancholy, we see how the biggest moments of a life are the quietest ones.

And those quiet moments are truly stunning. Jenkin and his cinematographer James Laxon exercise restraint in their use of imagery. They give us the moon only once, but make it count in a stunning dissolve over the ocean. Composer Nicholas Britell’s score veers between stirring violins to Caetano Veloso.

In a marked departure from films such as Get Real, Philadelphia, and even the recent Caribbean films Children of God and Play the Devil, Jenkins dispenses with the standard tragic ending. This is not the place for the passion-infused horror of Brokeback Mountain. It is, instead, a lagniappe to James Ivory’s delicious Maurice. There is one particularly beautiful moment when Chiron takes a glimpse at a path leading to the sea. He could go down that path to the raging waters. Of perhaps he can stay on dry land and, with his beloved, learn to swim. Bravely, he stays in the light.

MORE FAVORITE FILMS OF 2016

Paterson: I'm slightly biased about this one. A film about a bus-driver who writes poems. But Jim Jarmusch makes this work. Plus there is an Oscar-worthy performance by Nellie the bulldog as Marvin.

Hidden Figures: A popcorn movie that does justice to unheralded figures, it also is a sobering reminder that segregation and state-sanctioned racism was a fact of life only a few decades ago in the US. How far has the world really come since then in an age of Trump and Brexit?

Loving: A completely overlooked, powerful film featuring the best performances of the year by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. The true story of inter-racial couple Richard and Mildred Loving who were arrested for simply getting married.

Lion: In its first half, this is the kind of film Satyajit Ray would have made were he alive today. The second half loses some momentum but is still moving, with great performances by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.

Play the Devil: A milestone in Trinidad and Tobago cinema which, notwithstanding its tragic ending, impresses with its ravishing poetry.

Arrival: A smart, stylish tear-jerker of a film about the importance of language, disguised as a sci-fi thriller.

NB: Omissions are inevitable, also liked: Closet Monster, Other People, King Cobra, and the Absolutely Fabulous movie!

2/21/17

'Call Me By Your Name' bears sweet, fleeting fruit

BERLIN

Timothée Chalamet


Youth has no shame, shame comes with age.
- Andre Aciman


APRICOT season is brief. It lasts only one month from mid-June to mid-July. Similarly, the relationship at the heart of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's ravishing new film which sets the innocence of first love against the color of the countryside and the 80s.

It's Italy, 1983. Visiting 24-year old American student Oliver (Armie Hammer) causes ripples, impressing with his very sexy etymology skills, lounging poolside in shorts, skipping dinner and cavorting in town after dark. Seventeen-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) tries mightily to be repelled. He complains to his mother about Oliver's refrain of "later" at the end of every conversation, is vexed that Mafalda is never informed when the guest is going to miss dinner, and bristles when girls in town are drawn to the stranger. Yet he doth protest too much. His repulsion thinly conceals a deep fascination. Something stirs, ripens.

Armie Hammer

Guadagnino's last two films I Am Love and A Bigger Splash were stylistically audacious stories in which older characters come of age. Both involve people who are out of place, who struggle to overcome barriers to their happiness. So too here. Just as the older matriarch in I Am Love fights her fascination with her son's young friend, Oliver keeps his distance. Elio submerges his impulses as well, but in a less conscious  and more confused way. But everything rises to the surface in an understated, yet sensual night-time scene.

Not under-stated is the already infamous apricot sequence, a kind of remix of the American Pie/Jason Biggs moment. It's a scene that comes straight out of Aciman's novel where even there it was so warped and overdone as to be utterly plausible and certainly unforgettable. Guadagnino turns something unfilmable into something human. He understands the power of the impulses guiding his characters and cleverly maintains the novel's use of apricots as a leitmotif throughout. If the fruit is sweet and irresistible, it is also difficult to grow, fragile and fleeting.

Some of the initial scenes with Hammer are too opaque, with little indication of Oliver's inner turmoil. Fans of the book might enjoy this as dramatic irony, knowing full well what is about to take place. Others with little knowledge of the story might be put off by the deus ex machina effect when the couple finally pair.

But there are more than enough good things carrying the film forward, notably its depiction of provincial Italy of the 80s. Sufjan Steven's soundtrack is also eerie, intense and beautiful. At the same time, Guadagnino opts out of some of the stylistic gimmicks in his previous films. The result is a simple, yet deeply affecting movie, with a stand-out performance by Chalamet. In the end there is a twist in this James Ivory script which makes us realise the buried subject of the movie might not be the two lovers after all but someone else.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.



2/17/17

A House for Mr Baldwin

BERLIN

In 1979, James Baldwin set out to write a book that would tell the story of America through the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But by the time Baldwin died in Paris in 1987, 'Remember This House' was still unfinished. Raoul Peck's bristling and poetic documentary I Am Not You Negro - which screened to packed audiences here at the Berlinale this week - seeks to give us the final chapter.

The film has the urgency of Baldwin's vision. That vision argues for the end of race: a worldview that is humanist above all. The documentary fuses archive footage of the novelist and poet giving interviews and lectures with records of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and more recent events such as the Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and the litany of racist police killings that continue to rock America. In the process, Peck produces something of a curse poem: its invective is stirring and meant to provoke.

Missing is an examination of how Baldwin's sexuality was just as integral to his philosophy as his race. When the author of Giovanni's Room calls on us to love our brothers and sisters, he is not only asking us to remove the barrier of skin colour. He wants us to build a house that truly encompasses all. The film was up for one of the Berlinale's LGBTI awards, but it makes only passing reference to Baldwin's sexuality and the enormous impact it had on his relationship with his publishers, agents, the black community as well as his own output as a writer. Of Malcom X - who had a profound impact on him - Baldwin wrote:
I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable, from love.

Malcolm X

The nature of Baldwin's literary achievement as well as his relationship with key literary figures such as American poet Langston Hughes are also not mapped. Complexity is curtailed.

Where I Am Not Your Negro shines is in its sophisticated examination of cinema as a reflection of a society in which things have gone array. Peck's provocative juxtaposition of jejune Hollywood musicals and comedies with images of lynched black bodies could be dismissed as a cheap gimmick were it not so true: both were often contemporaneous. Forget the American dream. This is American Psycho.

The narrow focus on America should not be mistaken as an indictment of race relations in one country alone. Baldwin lived all over the world and the whole point of his argument for brotherhood is one that also implicates any society where race has been allowed to dominate the narrative. This, by necessity, includes the global entetprise of colonization, premised on racial superiority, the implications of which reverberate today. The film also feels more than timely in the age of Trump and at a time when Europe is struggling to grapple with a refugee crisis inflected by race.

'We had many other Trumps before this one,' Peck said at Thursday's screening in Berlin. 'We share the same history. It's a problem of the whole society. You cannot say you are innocent after seeing the film.'

Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary is like one of Baldwin's strongest sentences: Nothing can be changed until it is faced.



2/5/17

FILM REVIEW: Black Orpheus (1959) - Carnival goes wrong

Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice 

THIS IS a film that navigates worlds. And in the process encounters choppy waters.

Marcel Camus' 1959 classic—which screens tonight at the Big Black Box as part of the TT Film Festival's Carnival Film Series—has been praised and dismissed in equal measure. The film won a Palme d'Or, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. But it has also drawn criticism. Though it gives us a riot of colour, one colour seems to dominate its gaze. At first, we appear to view the lives of black people as outsiders, with everything rendered quaint, charming, exotic. On the strength of just the first half of the film, Barack Obama once criticised its depiction of "childlike blacks", rendered as, "the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages".

There is something disheartening about the first act of the film which manages to gut Carnival of much of its subversion. The scenes of revelry are often unconvincing; performers look trapped in a pantomime in which they have been told they must simulate the ruction of the masquerade. Mas is meant to be art that is worn on the body; it is the one art form that demands incorporation into the world of its audience. But when the camera captures black masqueraders performing satire in European-inspired costumes, the project is reduced to a spectacle now presented in Technicolor for an applauding Global North.

But that's just one side of the equation in this problematic yet sublime film which follows a doomed love triangle.

At a time when black people in Hollywood films were largely relegated to "mammy" roles, Frenchman Camus gave us black people who were relatively complex. Death and love, characters were allowed to fear both. True tenderness unfurls amid the film's cardboard cut-outs. And here is why the film is still relevant, flaws and all: we are still in need of stories that show how much all races are vulnerable, black, white or otherwise. If the depictions here are artificial, it is only because all art must oversimplify.


And though we may have misgivings about the authenticity of what is being depicted, we cannot deny the film's visual power. Camus makes every shot count. Fabric, nature and even fruits in a market stall form part of his kaleidoscope. Symbols are deployed: a bird in a cage; three trams passing each other. The use of mise en scene is memorable. We often move from intimate domestic settings that tell us about characters to wide shots of Sao Paulo, showing us disparities of wealth already well-entrenched at that time in Brazil. Sound is carefully controlled, emphasis is placed on voice and music, the outside world is muted to add menace to footfalls during climatic scenes. Though at times the actors are boxed in by the arc of the story, they still effectively move us, bridging a crucial gap.

The film's climax is predictable to those concerned with the Orpheus legend. Even so, you cannot help but be roused by the film's central segment. Here, Carnival is imbued with both beauty and menace, its contradictory qualities perfectly captured in an extended sequence which begins with a festive parade and ends with a shocking development. The haunting last act brilliantly merges pathos with social commentary on crime, class and marginalisation.

Here is a film that tells us something about Carnival that is often glossed-over: it is the moment when society reveals its true colours.


BLACK ORPHEUS; screen play by Jacques Viot; based on the play Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes; directed by Marcel Camus; produced by Sacha Gordine. At the Big Black Box, Murray Street, Woodbrook on February 4 at 7pm. Running time: 100 minutes.
Orpheus . . . . . Breno Mello
Eurydice . . . . . Marpessa Dawn
Mira . . . . . Lourdes de Oliveira
Serafina . . . . . Lea Garcia
Death . . . . . Adhemar da Silva
Hermes . . . . . Alexandro Constantino
Chico . . . . . Waldetar de Souza
Benedito . . . . . Jorge dos Santos
Zeca . . . . . Aurino Cassanio




1/29/17

'My role as a writer'

The University of the West Indies last week convened an unprecedented three-day academic conference aimed at exploring the ways in which Jamaican sexualities, gender identities and queer practices are expressed and experienced beyond the discourse of violence. The following is an address at the conference delivered by novelist, poet and essayist Kei Miller. 

Novelist, poet and essayist Kei Miller at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, on Saturday.
Photo by Andre Bagoo.


Let me start by just saying how pleased I am to be at this conference. I just want to support the idea behind it; the necessity to talk about LGBT lives in the Caribbean outside the discourse of oppression and victimisation, especially where that narrative is so easily consumed by sometimes well-meaning outsiders and insiders who then, unwittingly perhaps, refuse to acknowledge any other possible narrative, who roll their eyes or who dismiss as naïve and overly romantic any counter-story, any counter-narrative that points to ways in which LGBT people in the region experience hope, belonging, comfort, community, or even joy in the Caribbean.

I know, for instance, several Caribbean writers and scholars make it a point, for instance, to refer to our African ancestors as “the enslaved people” and not as “slaves”; the importance, more than just semantics, is to give agency, to acknowledge the ways in which black people did not participate in their own oppression. It is similarly important, I think, to do the same for queer lives in the Caribbean – people who sometimes and on some days live loved and wonderful lives.

And none of this reduces the absolute urgency to talk about and to tackle homophobia when and where it exists. These narratives must happen concurrently: a discourse about homophobia and what happens beyond it.

I have not titled this paper but I have tried to think through the brief for this panel, of the role of art, the role of the artist, the role of the writer to community—even risking all the preciousness that we call upon ourselves when we begin to think about our functions or our roles. So in this paper – and at some risk to myself because Jamaica is a small place – I want to return to a public conversation that I had with a Jamaican journalist and poet Mel Cooke.

On the face of it, it may seem that I was picking an argument with Cooke because of his homophobia. And that is pretty much true. Cooke’s homophobia is demonstrated in the article we will talk about. It was all the more dangerous because it was the kind that would not acknowledge itself. It was genuinely not aware of itself as homophobia. His discrimination was a close cousin to much of the racial tensions in America today, which is to say it was a series of micro-aggressions. His homophobia was casual homophobia. And when confronted, he eagerly pointed to the ways in which he had been an ally; in which he had openly condemned the more obvious and violent forms of homophobia in Jamaica.

Mel Cooke’s article, ‘Bye Bye, Boom Bye Bye’, published on 4th June, 2015, recounts a disturbance. The disturbance, though happening very clearly in Cooke’s own psyche, he locates instead in the body of a man he encountered at a furniture store in Jamaica. His problem with the man, according to the article, was not that the man was very possibly gay. His problem was a kind of gender performance that he found so outlandish, so preposterous that it reduced the man into being a jackass and a caricature of his own self. This is how Cooke’s article begins:
I was in Courts on Constant Spring Road, St Andrew, in December when I saw it. There were two of the things, but one was especially itty. It wiggled up the steps to the store's upper level behind a store employee. It wiggled, it simpered, it held its handbag in the crook of an arm with the wrist especially limp. It preened and smoothed down its hair and reveled in an oddly bronze complexion and surreptitiously glanced around to see the effect on those who were around. 
It was disappointed. No one batted (and that is a pun, in case you missed it) an eyelid.
There is much irony that is lost on Cooke. He says no one batted an eyelid. This pleases him. Everyone simply went about their shopping refusing to be drawn into the intended raucous that Cooke assumes this man, this person was trying to create. And yet Cooke is writing an article in a national newspaper about the incident. Sir, someone did bat an eyelid. But more than that Mel continues.
What did I do? What anyone interested in observing human behaviour would, naturally. I followed back a it. And upstairs I saw a person reclined in one of the chairs on display, pouting as he looked at his telephone, which he was suddenly very interested in now that there was no potential audience for the it which he had projected.
The ironies pile up one atop the other. There was no potential audience for this man’s performance of gender and yet Mel follows him through the store. Sir, there was an audience.

Like so many of us who sit easily in our privilege, it does not occur to Mel that following a man through a store to gawk at him is an act of aggression. His article goes to some length to rob this man of personhood; of his humanity. Yet, the writer allows himself to follow because it is what “anyone interested in observing human behaviour” would do, naturally. There is not time enough here to talk about what is meant by that word naturally; what behaviors are credited or discredited as being natural or unnatural in this scenario.

Mel’s position is a popular if not profoundly un-thought position in Jamaica. It announces itself in several ways: me nah have problem with battyman so long as them don't come to me with itme no care what people want do in their bedroom so long as they don’t push it in my face; as long as they don’t brazen with it — as long as they act natural, heteronormative — man must act like man, woman must act like woman. It should be acknowledged that this particular strain of homophobia is just as present in gay people. “Straight-acting” is used as a strange compliment. Does “white-acting” serve as a similar compliment? “No fats”, “no fems” etc. etc.

When the man gets bored of his own flamboyance, according to Mel, he resumes his personhood. Mel writes:
The costume was the same, but the persona totally different—deflated and different. Simply a person, different from me but certainly not intent on and failing to disrupt sensibilities.
But I want to suggest here that my argument was certainly about a sort of homophobia but it went beyond that. And at its heart I think this was one Jamaican writer talking to another and at stake was the role of the artist, of the writer, who writes out of and back to that community. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few years. What is the role of the Caribbean writer? And trying not to fall into a kind of silence because of this fear again of the earnestness that the answer to such questions might provoke. I’ve been thinking about this particularly because I’ve been challenged to think about it in a series of  conversations I’ve been having in different countries in different times but always with a particular writer I very much look up to: the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace.




Most recently this conversation happened about four weeks ago in Haiti. Lovelace always calls me to account for my generation of writers. Writers who he thinks lack the cause and the urgency that his generation of writers had. Earl will tell you that he had independence, nationalism, black power to fight for. And what do you have?

I try to tell him that if we seem cynical about these things it is not because we don’t believe in the fight but we now know who are excluded from these projects, who were left outside of nation and black power, including LGBT people, and we try to think of a Caribbean that might include more.

I am appreciating these conversations with Earl because … it was one of his novels that made me certain about what the role of the writer was. It was his novel The Wine of Astonishment, which tells a story about a community in Trinidad under threat—their way of life, their traditions, even their mannerisms are under threat by authorities who would have them act differently, behave more normally. To be themselves they have to meet in secret. And the law is now against them as well. This is a Spiritual Baptist community and a racist law was introduced to silence them. The leader of the church sees the damage the law has done to his flock. He knows that sometimes, when laws are so profoundly unjust, they must be broken.

In the chapter when he does this, when he breaks the law, he gives one of the most amazing sermons I’ve read in literature. He comes to his congregation in a state of repentance saying the problem was not just the law but him as well. He had failed because he had failed to tell them who they were. And in drawing out this sermon from him, the congregation shouts, “Tell us preacher! Tell us who is we!”

That to me was a community calling to its writers. Tell us writer, tell us who is we.

*

I know that is a high and holy presumption: of telling people who they are, offering them both a plodding banality and the incredible magic of themselves, of their personhood. But if we cannot offer them personhood, then at the very least we should do no harm. We should not take personhood from someone.

So for Mel Cooke to reduce this person to an it that was, for me, the most profound betrayal of one’s role as a writer, the greatest evil one could do on the page. Not only did he not tell this man who he was, but he would tell him that he was not.

Cooke’s failure was a failure of imagination: that this man who appeared as a story existed only as a spectacle. Performing only under his gaze, this man had no agency, no history, no ambition, he was nothing.

I think my job as a writer and pseudo-academic would be to remind this man of another unjust law in Jamaica that had to be repealed as well. In 1859, the poor people of Jamaica could take no more of the unfair toll that they had to pay on the main thoroughfare. For three nights they rioted, destroying the toll-keeper’s house and the tollgates at Savanna-la-Mar . The Falmouth Post described the rioters as, “ruffians, some dressed in female attire”. The Rebecca Riots of 1859—men dressed as women, fighting for justice.

My role as a writer is to tell the man at Courts that he belongs to that tradition. That even here he is rooted in a history of resistance and triumph. That he is a warrior. That in every nuance of the word, he is fierce. That he belongs. That he is beautiful. That he is a person.

*

Miller spoke on the panel, 'Coming Out, Coming Home', alongside artist Simone Harris, festival director of Belfast's Outburst Queer Arts Festival Ruth McCarthy and yours truly. The panel was put on with the support of the British Council and was chaired by artist Annalee Davis, Caribbean arts manager of the Council. You can watch the full panel at J-Flag's Facebook page here.



You can read more about the Beyond Homophobia conference here.










1/25/17

Supporting the art of art criticism

A moment from the recently-concluded Bocas Lit Fest/British Council art criticism workshop at the UWI, Mona. 

THE JOB of the artist is to see. And the job of the critic is to do exactly the same.

That was one of the key principles underlined at the recently concluded Bocas Lit Fest/British Council Caribbean workshop held at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.

The workshop, held from January 8 to January 14, was a rare opportunity for participants to view the practice of art writing through the eyes of Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s books editor. Journalists and writers from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas and  Dominica were given practical examples of how visual art criticism can be approached; examined how literary texts can be analyzed; saw how formats can be adapted to suit the rapidly evolving landscape; and discussed challenges common to all critics whether they write for small journals or big-circulation newspapers.

There were field trips to the National Gallery of Jamaica and the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts; panel features with publishers and editors; lunches during which we mingled with islanders; and intense workshop exercises. In one instance, writers were given free rein to pluck an artwork from the National Gallery’s impressive collection and to write on it. Then, back at our base at the beautiful UWI campus at Mona, our writing was subject to an extensive surgery.

“A lot of criticism is re-assessment,” Armitstead said, “bringing in new intelligence as it comes in.”

“The goal of art-writing is to see more,” added Gean Moreno, curator of programs at ICA Miami, who led the visual arts component of the workshop.

I was one of the participants. Not only did I get new insight into craft matters, I also gained a renewed appreciation of criticism and its role: its power to provoke opinions and, thereby, enhance our democratic freedoms. This is an art that ties us all, whether we come from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas or Dominica. To nurture art, the art of criticism itself has to reach new levels.

*

Get more information on the Bocas Lit Fest and the British Council Caribbean.






1/4/17

BOOK REVIEW: Morning, Paramin

At the book launch of Morning, Paramin last December at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille. Photo: Andre Bagoo


A POEM contains time. Its effects rely entirely on a progression through words, lines, stanzas, developments, regressions, erasures—whatever materials are deemed fit.

A poem also contains time because it can look to the past. And it sometimes looks back in order to bring news to the present. Implicitly, the entire project of poetry looks to a future, in the same way all action assumes some kind of tomorrow.

Yet, sometimes it feels like time has paused in a poem: as though what is being presented is a fine photograph or painting. For a moment, WH Auden’s clock stops. A poem can be timeless, even if every fiber of its being is made of time.

In Morning, Paramin Derek Walcott confronts this vortex head-on. The book is an extended sequence of ekphrastic poems done in response to the paintings of Peter Doig. You might think the idea of a poet having to respond to a set image is limiting, but in fact such a stricture can give the poet more freedom. The result, in this case, is an ease and fluidity in Walcott’s lines. While the poems are sometimes mindful of process, they feel fresh and free even when deploying formal conventions. Famously, a book closes at the end of White Egrets. This new book triumphantly defies that.

In the new work, which was launched last week Wednesday at Doig’s studio space at Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, the paintings are not illustrations. Nor are the poems slavish replications of every stroke of the painter. In fact, sometimes Walcott takes the poems to unexpected places given the images. For example, in ‘Metropolitain’, the poet finds a tone that seems counter to the darkness of Doig’s painting ‘Stag’.

“Drunk is drunk anywhere,” Walcott memorably states. The Nobel Laureate gives us one of the greatest tributes to booze in poetry, calling Stag, “the loveliest of beers”. (Carib appears in another poem, but only as a symbol of tabanca.) There is a prose poem (the outstanding ‘100 Years Ago (Carrera)’), and poems that seem somewhere between rondels and sonnets contemplating another line but not needing one. Two poems are four lines long. Brevity is required for vastness.

Gradually, the book reveals its true subject matter: love and loss. Walcott once again looks to the past: dealing with a figure named Margaret, a likely reference to the poet’s second wife. The pair divorced, she died in 2014. The most fevered poems deal with her, such as ‘In the Heart of Old San Juan’, ‘Santa Cruz III’, and ‘Paramin’ where the poet declares, “when I join her it will be Paramin / for both us and the children.”


Yet these tender moments are offset by other tones. In ‘Man Dressed as Bat’ Walcott finds exhilaration and comedy at one moment, but then states, “What a sad thing a man dress like a bat. / Crip, cripple it!” The violent intolerance to the bat is not adequately accounted for in the poem. In ‘Mal d’Estomac’ and ‘Abstraction’ Walcott, the author of Tiepolo’s Hound and himself a painter, enters the guise of critic, analyzing modern art and Doig’s style.

If Walcott looks to the past, he also looks to a present with Doig. In ‘Grand Riviere I’ Walcott remarks of the landscape, “This lowering green emptiness is what you love / as hard as Peter Doig”. The poem ‘In the Arena’ casually describes Doig as, “a good fella”, adding, “You can tell a / good painter by how much he loves a place.” In ‘Peter, I’m Glad You Asked Me Along’, Walcott states, “Everywhere is wrong / as all forms miss perfection, hence the mask / in which the whole society is based.” He adds, “this craziness is just where we belong.” The effect is similar to what occurs in Catullus’s love poems to Lesbia, where anyone who acts as a portal to the object of the poet’s love is also loved. In ‘Lapeyrouse Umbrella’ Walcott writes, “What she has forgotten you learn every day, Peter.… / She sleeps in that country where there is no time, / as my pen and your brushstroke blend in the one metre.”

Readers will come away with a newfound appreciation of both artists. Walcott’s astonishing poems underline the complex power of Doig’s paintings which have a limitless range in terms of subject matter and technique. One minute we are down the islands at Carrera, the next we are skiing on a mountainside. At times the colours are as bright and vivid as a sign by Bruce Cayonne, at others, muted, oozing dark chemistries.

Doig’s best work finds de Chirico-like surrealism in the everyday. Examples include a heart-sign in a basketball court, a man walking with a pink umbrella next to the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, odd-looking boom boxes casually arranged at the side of the road, and, more recently, the yellow and green structures at the Port-of-Spain Jail, where the painter has utilized Rastafarian iconography in an audacious series of oil paintings.

But it is the sense of Walcott’s gaze – at the paintings, at his life, at his friend – that comes over most powerfully in this book. In the most haunting poem of the sequence, ‘Window Pane’, the poet looks to the future and writes, “all that lies ahead is the blank page / of winter no matter how well I write.”


Morning, Paramin, 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374213428, 120pp)
Available at PaperBased Bookshop


- from Newsday, December 28, Section B, page 1