art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Tell me a story

Truth is just another story.
— Marlon James 

THE DEFINITIVE article in the title of David Subran's exhibition gives us one way of reading the show. The Story suggests one story, one truth, one history, one clear narrative. Yet the thing about stories is there are many. Professor Bridget Brereton reminds us how, centuries after the fact, we can still find new ways of looking at East Indian indentureship under British imperial rule. There are narratives and there are counter-narratives. Always, it is impossible to capture the entire thing.

"These images danced in my head seeking escape into the wider world," Subran says in an essay accompanying his show. His paintings are kitsch, naive, intuitive, innocent, child-like. The palette, unmistakably crayola. The childish quality is offset by the grave subject matter. One painting deals with the fate of Indian mutineers. The chosen technique of execution: prisoners were tied to cannons and blown apart. 

Are complex events being broken down into digestible portions? Does the subject matter itself not demand a reckoning with how little we have grown? Is there a yearning to return to a moment when the atrocities shown were just things dreamt up by kids playing with crayons?

Like Kitch, Anthony Joseph's recent portrait of Lord Kitchener, Subran opts to give us snapshots of a story still being written. These are portraits that add up to a larger picture. And however complicated and nuanced the various strands of the narrative may be, it's harrowing. It stands as a powerful counter to forces seeking to build walls. In her essay on this show, Professor Patricia Mohammed observes an impulse to record "the haunting call and response between migrants and their homeland". Each painting, depicting a specific moment in history, is a beam. Each beam is a part of a bridge linking continents, cultures, and histories. See for yourself. Drawing from text accompanying Subran's paintings, here are some of the girders:

In 1857 the Indian members of the British occupational forces revolted against the British occupiers, at Lucknow. This revolt was eventually quelled by the British in 1858, but only after much blood was shed. Reprisals by the British in this area of northern India was brutal and forced many people to emigrate.
Some of the captured mutineers were tied to cannons and blown apart in order to send a chilling message to other Indians of the horrible fate that awaited those who dared to challenge British rule.
The queen of Jhansi was born Manikarnika Tambe. Following the death of her husband, the Rajah, the British seized the Rani’s property, citing the doctrine of lapse, which disinherited widows without a male heir. The British seized her palace, but the Rani, fondly called Lakshmibhai, amassed an army and joined the mutineers. She was eventually shot and killed by the British on June 17th 1868.
During the 19th century in particular, India endured many periods of drought. One of these periods led to the great famine of 1876-1878 that affected the Deccan. In 1873-1874 there was famine in Bihar, and later in 1896-1897 there was famine in the north of India. Because subsistence farming was the norm, many people suffered and were inclined to migrate.
The Zamindars were hereditary land owners who had the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal rulers, and later on, for the British. Some Zamindars regularly increased the taxes until it became impossible for the peasants to pay, and their land was sold by public auction, leaving them without resources for survival. Migration then became a viable form of escape from this oppression.
The growing concerns about slavery and its eventual abolishment, created a shortage of cheap manual labour in the West Indies. After a false start in 1836, on 16th November, 1844, the British government legalised emigration from India to Jamaica, British Guiana, and Trinidad. Potential emigrants were recruited by licensed recruiters, who hired informal recruiters (arkatias) to go into the villages. The arkatias often spun tales of the great wealth to be obtained in the West Indies, in order to entice the illiterate villagers.
The arkatias screened potential emigrants for health defects and they then left their villages for the nearest sub-depot for official processing. It must have been particularly heart rending for many of these villagers who had never left the village before, to now leave their families and venture into the unknown. However, many would-be emigrants could not have conceived of the vast distances they would have to travel, and the mighty ocean that they would have to cross.
Some would-be emigrants travelled over many days by bullock cart to the subdepot. Bansdih in the district of Ballia was a typical village. On the way to the sub-depot at Varanasi (now Benares), they had to pass near the Surha Taal, a marshy lake, that teemed with wild life and migratory birds.
The regulations of the East India Company stipulated that the would-be emigrant and his agent must appear before a local magistrate designated by the government of British India. This event often took place at a sub-depot. The terms of indenture were stated on a written document, to which the would-be emigrant usually gave assent by a thumb-print. The length of indenture was five years and was renewable for another five years. 
A sub-depot was located at the holy city of Varanasi near the Dasaswamedh ghat. After completion of the indentureship formalities, the indentured emigrants would be placed on a boat that sailed down the river Ganga, where the ship that would take them to the West Indies was docked.
Usually, the indentured Indians spent about four to seven days behind the walls of the Calcutta depot, before boarding the ship. Occasionally, members of family left behind could be heard calling out to a particular indentured person to come back to the family. These calls often received no response. The ships carried large amounts of water in kegs to provide for a journey that could take up to three months. 
At first, sailing ships built of teak were used, but by 1880 wooden ships were entirely replaced by iron sailing ships. On one ship, The Main, the emigrants were housed below decks, with single emigrant men at the front, married couples in the middle and single women in the back. There were deaths on almost every voyage. In 1895, 109 emigrants died on the Rhone, but usually the number of deaths varied from 10 to 40.
The voyage usually took three months, however, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the duration was greatly reduced. Several voyages took place during the hurricane season. The turbulence and harshness of the Atlantic must have terrified the emigrants, who were generally strangers to the ocean. 
The ships that brought the Indians usually stayed out in the stream and the Indians were brought ashore by barges. During the period 1866 to 1917, the Indentured immigrants were quarantined at Nelson Island for a short period before being assigned to plantations. 

The Hosay Massacre at the Cross (2019) by David Subran. Oil on canvas. Image at start of post: Dance and Music (2019) by David Subran. Oil on canvas.

The Story by David Subran runs until June 22 at The Frame Shop


Reading Kafka in Port of Spain*

By Andre Bagoo

Letters to K, by Anu Lakhan (Argotiers Press / toof press, Port of Spain, 2018)

Franz Kafka in 1906.

SOMETHING about the planes. They draw him in. Perhaps it’s the drama, the epic struggle of the airmen fighting to get their machines off the ground. It gives him hope when it comes to his writing. Yet, leave the excitement of this air show in 1909 behind and fast forward to his deathbed decades later, in 1924, when he is editing ‘The Hunger Artist’. The joy of ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’ is gone. Instead, Franz Kafka gives us the story of a man nobody believes, a man unable to escape suspicion no matter his sincerity, a hero grounded and made subject to the merciless, never-ending gaze of onlookers, who dies miserably in a cage. The metamorphosis is complete. 

What happened to him? The mysterious menace that pervades Kafka’s work clouds our understanding of his life. We are tempted to believe he was miserable, dying at the relatively young age of 40. He starves to death. He has a form of tuberculosis that seals his throat. His three sisters Ellie, Valli, and Ottla are murdered during the Holocaust by the Nazis. Had he survived he too might have met the gas chamber. 

But just as his novels are left incomplete, so too Kafka’s life story. More manuscripts, more diaries, more pieces of correspondence are destined to emerge. For decades they have been subject to a legal battle, scattered in bank vaults and safes in Israel and Switzerland thanks to Max Brod’s secretary Esther Hoffe. Yet, even if Kafka the man is yet to fully come out, some readers can already sense what town knows. Here is a writer deeply concerned with the oppressive power of the deep state; who fears autocrats as much as he fears fathers; who exudes queer sexual desire but must hide it. This is the world in which Anu Lakhan’s new chapbook Letters to K, complete with drawings by Kevin Bhall, arrives. 


ON ONE simple sentence, Kafka builds the most convincing depiction of the oppressive power of the surveillance state ever written.

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,” begins The Trial. Josef K. is never told the charge against him, officials arresting him do not bother to show a warrant, guards do not identify themselves. The terror of these passages is so extreme it can easily cross into comedy. Yet, reading them in a country like this one, where journalists can be detained and their offices and bedrooms searched on the say-so of a justice of the peace; where reporters may be interrogated as to sources by official Parliament committees; where judges may issue bans on publication of stories that do not yet exist; where the state’s surveillance apparatus can be turned by political actors to target individuals in the media and elsewhere under secret processes—all of it comes too close to home. This is a work of fiction that understands a simple truth. The state will always be more powerful than the individual. Read in the context of the state's co-option of a range of mass data-collection techniques, it asks: What happens when the surveillance apparatus is applied to innocent, helpless and hapless subjects? 

Kafka's work, like the famous story 'Metamorphosis', gives us terror that crosses into comedy.

We may be tempted to give a simple answer. Nothing. But in piece after piece, Kafka suggests it is the dignity of the human being that is at stake. Innocents have nothing to hide, but they become second-class by nature of the unfair power dynamic. A whole class of citizens is created, turned into sheepish subjects. Not in on the joke, they become zoo animals—like those scattered throughout Kafka’s corpus. It gets worse. In ‘The Hunger Artist’ once a suspicion is raised against an individual, it becomes a permanent stain, even if there is a presumption of innocence. The hunger artist bends over backward to try to win the audience over. In addition to not eating, he throws in entertainment. 
Sometimes he overcame his weakness and sang during the time they were observing, for as long as he could keep it up, to show people how unjust their suspicions about him were. But that was little help. For then they just wondered among themselves about his skill at being able to eat even while singing.
As in The Trial, we are in a world where the state does not admit the possibility of error, where panoptic surveillance is regarded as authoritative and infallible even if produced or analyzed in defective ways. It becomes impossible for an ordinary person “to fight against this lack of understanding, against this world of misunderstanding.” And the deeper the state’s invasive reach becomes, the more secret and inaccessible it is to the individuals directly affected by it. The opening of another novel, The Castle, can be read as a metaphor for this complete lack of recourse:
It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there.
The Castle’s hero K., The Trial’s Josef K., Karl in Amerika—Lakhan’s title could well be an indirect reference to them all. (Her letter writer, “J_ L_”, is perhaps Josef L., an alphabetical progression of Josef K.) Yet, the letters are addressed not to these characters but their maker. Their whimsy taps into Kafka’s comic undercurrents in a way that draws attention to the darker elements of his writing. Which is fitting for a poet whose beguiling poetry veers between light and dark, the delicate and the ferocious, and now, the lyrical and epistolary.

Lakhan has written precursors to these poems, versions in which the correspondence is conducted via email. Both the earlier and the latest iterations differ in form from her sparse but unforgettable poems published in journals like The Caribbean Review of Books, Town and produced for the Caribbean Literary Heritage project. For the latter, she conducts a conversation with another dead writer, Eric Roach. Dorothy Parker, too, has been written to, all in a manner that draws attention to the grave in order to transcend it. In poem after poem, she lampoons and venerates the ego, tenderly and with wit. Though different in form, Letters to K retains this vein. 


KAFKA’S shorter pieces, such as ‘Metamorphosis’ and the Meditations, are so charged with bleak symbolism that they can rightly be classed as verse, sitting alongside Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Kafka,” says Saul Friedländer, “was the poet of his own disorder”. While Letters to K is described as “an epistolary narrative” by its publishers, it's worth considering whether this is a chapbook of prose poems. “A prose poem is a poem without line breaks,” suggests Jeremy Noel-Tod in his introduction to the recently-published The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. “Beyond that, both its manner and its matter resist generalization.” The great American poet James Tate offers, “by the end of a prose poem, a revelation or epiphany of some sort has been achieved”. Both would seem to apply. Additionally, there is no reason why letters cannot be poems. Letters to dead writers more so! In the end, the author’s choice of form points to the fact that all art is a kind of memorial. And letters, like small time-capsules, have an inherent drama. They mimic the performance of the human personality over time. Like poems, they don’t need an audience to bring satisfaction to their creator. “Letters have always felt like dreams to me,” Lakhan’s protagonist writes. “The dream, with its inner logic, understands itself.”

Notable too is the fact that Kafka was drawn to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, an assortment of prose writing that seeks to present a philosophy of life. The form of this early work is important, as it likely influenced Kafka’s own embrace of fractured narratives. Such an embrace is fitting for a writer whose queerness has been largely left under the radar. 

Much is made of Kafka's multiple engagements with women, his ritualistic visits to brothels, his strange sublimation of his sexuality in his writing—all of which are obvious indicators that more is going on beneath the surface. 

Kafka had gay dreams, was excited by male erotic bonding and wrote prose charged with homoeroticism, such as the opening chapter of his novel Amerika. If his failed engagements, his botched heternormative performances, are not clear enough signs, he tells us: “If I want to arouse disgust in myself, I need only imagine putting my arm round a woman’s waist.” His queerness hides in plain sight, making passages in Letters to K about K’s seemingly failed love life pregnant with meaning.


ALSO pregnant with meaning is the moment in Letters to K when the letter-writer hints at family estrangement in terms that suggest she or he might be visiting from the afterlife:
I have always felt an outsider, even in the house I grew up in. I used to love walking through it when everyone else was asleep (it was almost impossible that I would actually be alone). The house itself was a greater friend than the occupants. Why was I haunting a sleeping house? 
In addition to giving us one way to read the piece as a whole, this draws attention to Kafka’s own troubled relationship with his family, specifically his father. In the famous Letter to His Father, Kafka addresses Hermann Kafka, penning a lengthy indictment against the father’s “unceasing reproaches”. In one childhood incident, Hermann punishes Franz for asking for a glass of water by locking him on a balcony. 

“As a father you have been too strong for me,” writes the younger Kafka. “Even years afterward I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night.” This fear of his father clearly inflects his sensitivity to the power of the state. “For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason,” Kafka writes. Tellingly, he presents a spectrum that would be dramatically replicated in all of his work:
The world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.
Ironically, Kafka gave this letter to his mother to give to his father. But his mother never gave the letter to its intended recipient. In a similar vein, Letters to K is destined not to reach its dead subject. Instead, this lively chapbook’s fate is to reach all of us. 


Letters to K is available at Paper Based Bookshop

* With apologies to Vahni Capildeo, 'Reading Dante's Inferno in Port of Spain'. Post expanded on 10.03.2019.


Native Son

The great books of VS Naipaul

Photo via Reuters
HE WROTE dozens of books, yet, in a sense, VS Naipaul spent a lifetime writing only one thing: his own story. 
After the early novels, in which his keen ear for dialogue, technical mastery of prose, and talent for comedy emerges triumphantly; after the magisterial A House for Mr Biswas, in which the title character’s profound vulnerability sheds light on the fate of Trinidad as a new nation; after the novels set in London, in which he sought to prove he could write about anyone anywhere and in wintery tones too; after In a Free State, which saw him push against the margins of the novel; after the ambitious books of sex, violence and Black Power; after The Enigma of Arrival, a work that has not lost its power to confound; after the forced yet sometimes beautiful sequences towards the end of his fiction; and the turn to stunning reportage and travel writing, in which he spoke truth to power and offended in equal measure – after all of this we are left with, in effect, the most astonishing autobiography in English letters.
On August 11, on his deathbed in London, Naipaul took comfort in Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar, with its tide that “turns again home,” 
For some, the question is: which home? 
The books provide the answer. They can and should be read as one. They tell a tale that always leads back to Trinidad. He remains a native son. 
His prose is famously crystal clear, but Naipaul the man was as messy as they come. 

- from my piece in Sunday Newsday, August 19, 2018. Read in full here. Find another piece, also published in the same paper, and with focus on the non-fiction, here.


FILM REVIEW: Moving parts

Valerie Tian in Moving Parts

Moving Parts tells a story not often told. It seeks to give audiences a glimpse of life from the perspective of persons who are smuggled into Trinidad and Tobago as well as persons who fall prey to human trafficking. That focus on these invisible groups is laudable, especially at a time when the world is alight with debate over the role of immigrants.

The film follows Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) and her brother Wei (Jay Wong) who are both grieving the death of their father. Zhenzhen is smuggled into the country then soon finds herself captive to handlers who promptly take away her passport. After a few days of having her do menial work in a restaurant, they enlist her into a prostitution ring. As time passes and it becomes clear neither brother nor sister can free themselves of a vicious cycle of subservience, there are tragic consequences.

Refreshingly, the film jettisons the tourist brochure approach to local filmmaking and presents Trinidad in an unvarnished way, making great use of downtown Port-of-Spain locations in particular. Some thought and effort clearly went into the visual strategy of the film, with Nancy Schreiber's hand-held cinematography underlining the gritty realities of the story as well as conveying the rich mood and textures of the capital.

Sections of the film bring to mind Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros with its interlocking narratives and brooding mood. The minimal score also leaves room for mesmerizing sequences that rely on the ambient sounds of the capital. For instance, there are two memorable scenes in which Multisymptom's 'Sonita' becomes a haunting counterpoint to the action. Director Emilie Upczak shows verve in her management of all these elements.

Because of what the film is about, however, it will inevitably invoke comparisons to films like Taken and Trade. These comparisons will not be justified. This is not a film about action. Nor is it a tearjerker. Which is problematic. Despite achieving strength in some of its quieter moments, the movie - which is only 77 minutes long - is too languid given the menace of its subject matter.

Moving Parts

Directed by: Emilie Upczak
Written by: Emilie Upczak, Nicholas Emery, Jay White
Produced by: John Otterbacher, Emilie Upczak
Co-Producers: Rhonda Chan Soo, Annabelle Mullen
Executive Producers: Melanie Archer, Bonnie Kennedy, Jud Valeski
Cinematographer: Nancy Schreiber
Production Designer: Shannon Alonzo
Editing: Gabriel Coss, Jonathan Gollner
Production Sound: Cedric Smart
Sound Design: Kris Franzen
Score: Rafael Attias

Opens today at MovieTowne, Port of Spain. 


Paint the town blue

LIKE THE words in this sentence, the objects in Shane Mohammed's collages build on one another. Individually, each object has performed some function and carries an archive of associations. Yet, exhausted of their use and repurposed they hint at secret narratives. But must there be narrative in art? Even the lack of story is a story. Everything here functions like the words in a poem or the pieces of a stained-glass window.

In a statement accompanying Block and Blue (the title of the show does not do it justice), Mohammed gives us an account of his process:
I collect objects and in admiration use them to tell stories of past and present experiences. They reside in our homes, on our top shelves and below the kitchen sink, in our glass-cased cabinets and among the landfills. 
The objects range from the everyday plastic bottle to the inner workings of an antique clock and everything in between. They are accumulated by the cycle of working, living and satisfying but in this collection they are returned to the cycle as a fuel to the cycle itself. The objects are collected and stored whilst influenced by the process of painting, personal restrictions, ideas of colour and relationships to individual objects.
All of it is beautiful, as if Yves Klein or a jab jab went around Port of Spain picking out things from dustbins. The room is filled with shades of blue, making everything have impact en masse. Individual pieces, as pleasing as they are, feel less audacious. But, as the artist suggests, each piece is destined to be re-constituted as object d'art, in the process opening into an infinite process of creation through collection.

We come away feeling like we've been given access to a person's private hoarding: as though her thoughts were made manifest and laid bare on a circuit board. Block and Blue nobly asks us to question and interrogate the most common things in our lives. It reminds us of the magic that happens when objects no longer have a time and place, when they transcend context. And it makes us wonder about the distinction between animate and inanimate, functional and decorative, bodily and sculptural, between horcruxes and that which they contain.

Block and Blue is on at The Frame Shop, Carlos Street, Woodbrook. Call (868) 628-7508. Show runs until May 12. Saturday opening hours 9am-2pm.


'Listen, I am writing for the people'

Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas

Those were the days of Black Power and that’s when The Last Poets and the black poets were all streaming and then again I was influenced by that. That’s the first time you are hearing this type of poetry and from Canada I went to Jamaica and there I heard Louise Bennett now doing her dialect and pushing this nation language and it was right there on campus, that I decided that I should try my hand after hearing Louise, try my hand at writing dialect poetry and I wrote that first piece: 'The Band Passing' and since that time I have never gone back to writing Standard English. I mean I still write Standard English. But when I discovered the power of the poetry, when I saw how it moved people in the audience, the local poetry particularly, the response blew me. I thought, you know, this is wonderful because you became a pioneer then, in those days, because there was nobody else to follow. You wrote your poem and you want to sing, you just sing, you want to dance, you dance your poem, you want to put it upside down, you put it upside down. You were in charge of your poem. There was no structure that you had to follow, whereas in the Literature Department you had all these Literary Terms and what is Literature and what is Poetry. Did away with all of that and said listen I am writing for the people. Let them be my audience.

- Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas recalls how he started writing poetry in the inaugural Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago podcast posted over at the Circle of Poets website. LISTEN here


Poet’s words dazzle in daughter’s new film

By Andre Bagoo

FATHER-daughter relations, the politics of being an artist, and poetry of breath-taking power converge in Unfinished Sentences, Mariel Brown’s moving new work about her late father, the acclaimed poet, writer and newspaper columnist Wayne Brown.

Minutes into the film premiere last Thursday at CineLit – the film segment of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest – it became clear this was not a feature film dramatizing Wayne Brown’s life. Nor was it a documentary in the conventional sense. Rather, the daughter has done something more fitting. She has made a fine example of that genre of art called the film-poem.

Unfinished Sentences, therefore, is not strictly about the life of Wayne Brown. His daughter’s grief and depression, her struggles within this region’s precarious creative arts sector, as well as the story of her father’s momentary rejection of her because of a haircut all find a place in this meditation. Equally, the effective use of archive footage in relation to historic events surrounding the family narrative, gives a wider context. We get a glimpse of the politics of race relations and of life in Caribbean countries as they straddled the transition from colonialism to independence. The result is something similar to the personal and political meditations in The Amerindians, the 2010 film by Tracy Assing.

But every poem, whether written on the page or presented to us on a screen, is an act of anamnesis. And the strongest aspect of the film is how it breathes life into Wayne Brown’s words, starting with his astonishing poem, ‘Voyages’ – the title poem from his 1989 collection. The poem interrogates language, history, and the idea of the human body as apparition. Says the poet: “The poem dies, / the cry of the slaveship under waves / dies and resurfaces”. As the film unfurls, Wayne Brown’s lines come to dramatize aspects of his life, as if arguing a case for the notion that an artist’s private life always finds expression in her work.

With the aid of Nadia Huggins and Sean Edghill, who serve as the film’s directors of photography, Mariel Brown also successfully creates a distinctive look for the work, embracing techniques and filters that evoke the Polaroids and grainy film textures of a bygone era. Visual artist Huggin’s underwater footage, in particular, is striking. As is the voicing of actor Nickolai Salcedo, who eerily achieves Wayne Brown’s timbres. Additionally, composer Francesco Emmanuel and editor Laura Fong-Prosper weave the film’s disparate strands expertly.

But the real star is the written word. Those going into this film wanting to know as much as possible about Wayne Brown’s work, its reception during his lifetime and since, and how it fits within wider literary currents, may be dismayed by the wide focus. Equally, those who are not driven to ecstasy by poetry and letter-writing will find relief in the focus on universal themes like family quarrels, romance, race and love. The incident in which the writer says his daughter’s haircut makes her look like an “ugly dyke” raises troubling questions about his attitudes to LGBTQ rights and, therefore, his legacy. But such questions are not taken up.

While the film sometimes slips into the banal and lacks incisiveness in relation to the complexity of its prime subject, it does feature many candid, hilarious moments with Wayne Brown and the people who knew him best. The man, his loved ones and his words truly come to life.

What a drawing can do

WENDY NANAN has given us an exhibition of drawings, but what does it mean to have an exhibition of drawings in a world where digital photography has taken over? What can a drawing do that a photograph cannot? Or is there something that both do that is valuable?

These are not the only provocations of Wendy Nanan Draws, the latest show at Medulla Gallery, Woodbrook. The bulk of the drawings can be classed as male nudes, as if the artist is reversing the bias of the art world in which the female body has long been fair game and the male body off limits. Nanan’s gaze is not necessarily erotic, though there is a kind of yearning and curiosity evident in the selection of which bodies are deemed interesting.

But the recent animus around questions of sexuality – particularly the status of members of the LGBTQ community – provides another lens through which to view these pieces. In their celebration of the diversity of the human shape, they are a reminder of the democracy of the body: everyone is different, but that is no reason to deny some the right to human dignity. The drawings ask us to bring questions about sexuality out of the shadows and confront them head-on.

There are also allusions to several of Nanan’s previous shows in the same space. A book in one drawing references Books and Stupas – an exhibition which comprised papier-mache forms that were painted, chalked and collaged. A conch in another piece references her glorious Shells, which consisted of assemblages drawn from the marine and tropical environment. This gives followers of Nanan’s work the sense of an organic whole: of chapters and themes unfolding over a lifetime. Kind of like how readers of a particular poet or novelist might notice certain motifs over decades of work.

The drawings have a raw, un-staged quality, as if drawn in great haste. They do not, however, feel like sketches. The line takes on many textures due to the use of inks, pastels, watercolors, colour pencil. Each piece is painted in colour. The arrangement of the subject matter is also counter-intuitive: they do not replicate what we’d expect in traditional portraiture, landscape or still life.

The overall effect: the drawings have, though the artists’ inner workings, become figurative. She sees bodies but draws landscapes of the mind.

A good example is ‘The Boys on the Beach 2’ where languid men lay on the sand, shells oddly positioned between them as if some kind of onanism has or is about to occur. There is no focal point, there is a liminal quality. Here is what a drawing can do that a photograph might not.

- from Newsday, March 3, 2018, p. 32


A poem for Asami

Trinidad is a beautiful but troubled country. What's the role of the poet here?

Asami Nagakiya. Illustration by Christopher Lou-Hing.

Voices Carry, by Mervyn Taylor
(Shearsman, ISBN 9781848614970, 100 pp)

Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting, by Shivanee Ramlochan
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845233631, 72 pp)

SOME questions about the role of the poet came to mind when I was reading two recently published poetry collections by Trinidadian authors. In my view these books  demonstrate the importance of the poet having the freedom to be socially engaged. Mervyn Taylor’s Voices Carry and Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting respond, each in their own way, to issues plaguing our society.

I know both authors. My third book Pitch Lake is dedicated to Taylor; and was recently reviewed by Ramlochan. I would not want to pretend to review these titles as an independent critic might. Instead, I refer to both books as part of an overall argument about the right of the poet to speak out in the manner of their choosing.

Let me be clear. The poet has no duty to anyone.

Yet, no poet lives in a vacuum. Each is a product of a society or societies. Though we sometimes disagree on what poetry is, we do not quibble over who poetry is for. It is meant for an audience. That audience, too, is comprised of sentient individuals: beings whose lives have been colored by factors that shape our understanding of the world. On this pulsing theatre stage, what is the place of the poet?

Poet Mervyn Taylor. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

At the very least, poets who choose to directly engage with the issues of their time; who seek to express truths; who sincerely advocate for justice and equality should not be vilified. Nor should their work be, for these reasons, deemed inferior or dismissed as simplistic. Plato and Socrates questioned virtue, but poetry reassembles it with both crystal-clear water AND mud. Remember, poetry is a true democracy.

It is often said in debates about poetry that the idea of a poet having an agenda is distasteful or distracting. But it is not about the poet having an agenda. It is about the poet having the freedom to express their moral conscience. It is about an individual’s willingness not to turn a blind eye to suffering. A desire to express our dream for a better world, presenting the world in all of its beauty and its ugliness. If a poet is dismissed as being fashionable due to her awkward quality of having integrity, then so be it.

Taylor’s previous books include The Waving Gallery, No Back Door, and Gone Away. Like these works, Voices Carry examines the shifting individual, moving across boundaries and time, coming to terms with bitter social realities. The collection is nostalgic about the past, in love with memory, drunk on music and literature, ever mindful of the shifting times; the changing world. His poems achieve great clarity but not at the expense of freshness. They feel like fables but are completely modern. If at times they veer into the surreal, that is because life in Trinidad and Tobago is surreal (consider ‘Blue Lights’, ‘Bad Dream’).

Crime is the villain of theses poems, stalking them, made more horrific by how Taylor casually incorporates suffering. In ‘Alma’s Advice’ he writes:

Who are the boys we’ll root for,
when they’re all dead or gone away?
Where is the cluster of houses
We’ll indicate with a wave,
meaning where we grew up, where
we had our first glimpse of secret
flesh, covered with fur.

But for all the fine poems, it is ‘A Kind of Valentine’ that lingers in the mind long after we close this book. Taylor writes of murdered Japanese steel pan player Asami Nagakiya, found dead on Ash Wednesday, 2016, in her Carnival costume. The poet gives us, “the Carnival that so went to a man’s/ head, he tried to hide her/ among the yellow blossoms”. The concluding lines:

I will walk you round this Savannah…
I will show you where not to go at night. But
I cannot help during the day, when

it is bright, and a hundred thousand people
offer invites, and behind the masks, men
are not always who they say they are.

In this book, voices bring us news. They carry—meaning they go far and wide; they endure. They carry—meaning they contain multitudes, bring us gifts.

Shivanee Ramlochan at painter Che Lovelace's studio in Macqueripe. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

In a similar vein, Ramlochan’s rich debut, Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting preaches truth. There is a sense of a poet luxuriating in language. Elegant lines are dipped in Gothicism and folklore; incandescent monologues are spiked by the poet’s imperatives. There is the play of magic realism, the personal is made mythological yet the sense of intimacy, of secrets being revealed remains. In this way social concerns, such as those relating to gender and violence, are woven into a beautiful tapestry. Ramlochan’s mosaic leaves us with the bristling sensation of a yearning for justice. And so the complex ‘Materna’:

I am not your mother
but in my womb there is knowing of you.
The dome of my head is shorn close, ‘til it hints of marrow.
These years and years of hair
carpet your dreams.

Also consider the irresistible ‘Shepherdess Boxcutter’ sequence where the traumatic and fertile are allied. Everywhere we find the body of the abused, the marginal, the silenced – now strangely brought back to life by the poet’s scalpel as though we are privy to a miraculous post-mortem. Translate “Everyone knows I am a haunting” and you get everyone knows I am a-hunting; everyone knows I am a ghost; everyone knows. All should be afraid.

These books respond to the immediate needs of the world around them in ways that are compelling, beautiful and, in my view, necessary. Taylor and Ramlochan approach social realities differently, yet those realities are present all the same. They demonstrate John F Kennedy’s famous declaration: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

- Sunday Newsday, June 18, 2017, Section B, page 3 & page 6.

READ Dalton Narine's open letter to Taylor here.


BOOK REVIEW: Travels with a Husband

Rex Dixon, Toco Moods, acrylic and collage on paper, 2010.

Wherever I sat, there I might live, 
and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.

- Henry David Thoreau

REX DIXON's talent for painting, poetry and prose shines bright in Travels with a Husband – a playful book that is intriguing, humorous yet ultimately slight notwithstanding the wealth of material it marshals.

Scholar and filmmaker Patricia Mohammed has made something of a companion piece to her beautiful film Seventeen Colours and a Sitar which documented the artistic pairing between her husband Dixon and sitarist Mungal Patasar. Whereas that film presented, "a marriage between intuitive and experimental ways of working" this book presents the marriage proper between Dixon and Mohammed.

But Travels with a Husband is not a juicy tell-all. As Mohammed states in the introduction, the title of the book is a pastiche of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) and Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt (1970). Mohammed cheekily adds, "neither reference is literal but nonetheless some parallels may be drawn... the double entendre in the indefinite article is deliberate, open to anyone's interpretation." We identify easily with the two authors and are promised a book that gives us a glimpse of their life:
We are, like many others, very much products of the modern condition of being, always transitory migrants, not quite settled in any one place, and wary of the boundaries of nation, class, ethnicity or gender that attempt to define our lives. Like many others, we leave a little of our souls in each place we have visited or lived in for a while, and we take some of theirs with us, always adding to the imaginary landscapes that constantly fuel our creativity and joie de vivre
Yet, after 216 pages, we don't feel like we've had a meaningful glimpse of any of this. The book covers a dazzling array of countries, assembling short essays, poems and paintings. But the prose sections anchoring it all are problematically insubstantial.

Rex Dixon, Spanish Postcard, pencil on paper, 2000.

Mohammed, who is the author of a book-length study on Caribbean iconography, writes the bulk of the book's passages. Her tone is often witty and wry. Her prose is strongest when she paints cameos of characters encountered during the couple's peregrinations across countries like Jamaica, Canada, Namibia, Spain, Japan, Haiti, the Netherlands, India, Australia, Cuba and Barbados. There are some memorable descriptive passages, such as this one about Jamaica:
The blue of this sea is not translucent aquamarine like Negril or Montego Bay. It is as changeable as a summer's day on the Antrium coast of Northern Ireland. Prussian blue in mid-morning, with a ribbon of lilac marking the horizon, and a white frothy lace, the shore. 
However, Mohammed's narratives sometimes over-reach, coming to grand conclusions without adequate development. You get the sense that she has held back the big ideas she wanted to explore. For example, we are left wanting to understand more about her views on resistance; crave a better examination of Namibia and its politics; wish for exploration of how "masculinity and nationalism is forever an ongoing game"; and definitely needed more on Cuba and Haiti.

Rex Dixon, Two Burning Cages, acrylic on canvas, 2013.

Understandably, the authors were aware they were not writing an academic book. But a book like this has to be able to carry complex ideas in ordinary language. Some things here are simply too breezy. A narrower, more sustained focus would have been useful. We are left with a rushed feeling of fragments recollected by-the-way after the passing of years.

The real strength of the book, though, comes in how it showcases Dixon's art, including several of his paintings and multi-media collages done in a series of locations. Lines are never straight, brilliant tones are washed together, forms suggested, text and photographs merge. We ask: are we looking at animals, places or elaborate fonts spelling words we've never used?

Rex Dixon, Intuitive Painters Plus Dog, gouche on paper, 2005.

Many influences loom: the fluid energy of Pollock, the graffiti-like abstraction of Basquiat, the palette of Chagal. But while his painting relishes in the ambiguous, Dixon's poetry and prose are crystal clear. In 'Poem with no name' he achieves a moment of excellence:
Van Bylandtstraat washed over in Payne's grey
A gloomy winter Sunday
On either side
aged houses sit like old men and women
rubbing shoulders and feet together
sending smoke signals through their chimney pipes
as if to say
there's life inside us still 
Yesterday the shadows danced
mischievous dwarfs along your rooftops
Today the dull red bricks lie sullen
drugged dreamless,
too weary resisting
the damp and cold.
And just as his paintings suggest a stylistic master, Dixon's prose has an understated grace and clarity that puts some more established writers to shame. 'Requiem for my grandfather' is a fine essay with the kind of touches that demonstrate a mature writer:
One day when I was six, my mother took me to the railway station and, coming out of the steam was this tall man in an army uniform with a long kit bag slung over his shoulder. He came up to us and started kissing my mother. "This is your father, Matthew," she said. I realized then that I was also named after him.
Unfortunately, the stance of both authors on contemporary art practices appears to be one of disdain, even if they have authored a book that places them at the centre of those practices. This is a work that demonstrates art's malleability and the usefulness of hybrid forms.

Also, it must be noted that the book feels heavy in the hand, there is no index of Dixon's artwork, no list of names or places and no pages for notes in the back, something readers travelling with Travelling with a Husband would have appreciated.

In the end, we find ourselves looking for the provocations and profound insights of books like Stevenson's Travels or even VS Naipaul's The Middle Passage. Instead, we end up feeling like we've spent a lot of time reading the trailer to a more serious movie the authors really want to make.


Dalton Narine pens an open letter on Mervyn Taylor

Ah, Mr. Taylor, whenever I read a new book of your poems, why do you treat me as if I had plundered your pockets of small change?

There’s always one that comes flashing back. A rush of water that takes me over the shallows. It happens when I get stuck, a boat grinding to a stop in the muck in my head.

Mervyn Taylor has done it again.

You pick up a book of his and are so absorbed it kills you that a lone, mostly unadorned poem throws you off his merry-go-round of verses and drops you in the middle of the mas only to be confronted by a midnight robber wading in the sea.

Aha! Taylor seems to reduce the long-winded robber talk to that simple scary silly joke just to tease. As in ‘Not on Any Map.’

We read, re-read, read once more—and, strangely, we’re seeing things. All of them belonging to the truth coming out from a gloomy ocean, like Minshall’s Oil Slick character in Carnival of the Sea.

But this can’t be. Eventually, you catch Taylor’s drift. That’s the point.
Was it always like this,
learning the hard lesson.
Carib killing the Arawak,
landfall hard to make, looking
for mountains, three to be
exact, a bed of oil forever
bubbling? Who set me
adrift, I forget that too. (25)

Voices Carry engages your attention. You sense Taylor’s inspiration, see his experiences and imagination and craft reflected from the foam on a tall, robust glass of beer, the kind of mug you’re tempted to steal as you hopscotch the bars.

One gets that Taylor is a control freak the way he builds a mere word, a line, a paragraph into scenes. How he illumines them with your grandmother’s candles for natural light.

Taylor is an ol’ player from Belmont who’s as keen on the tricks of the trade in the mas as in verse where he looms with a smooth voice in your ear.

He had me right there with him in Charlotteville rummaging through ‘The Village Where Dreams Are Kept.’

I’d been through every nook and cranny of that otherworldly idyll of Tobago when he acquainted me with Sarah, that old black magic that he weaved so well among the crowing cocks, and the Nylon pool and the blackbirds tiefing from the fishermen’s nets.

Gang-Gang Sarah.

Oh, Lord! That old black-magic chick still has me in Taylor’s spell as we walk away from the sea near the forest.

Voices Carry is a work about adventure and of nostalgia for the romance of the shifting back and forth between two worlds.

An esteemed poet with great respect and gentleness, Taylor mines his work with equally rich and well-connected words. He tantalizes your experience with personal idiosyncrasies, such that they tend to immeasurably enrich learning and our understanding of his art. In his macoscope of exploration, there’s a matchup—and mashup—of society and human nature with our own blues, a collusion that doesn’t dent the book’s appeal. He ladles it out with dollops of agony and ecstasy and an extra few shakes of a roving sailor’s talcum powder.

Mervyn Taylor. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

‘Incoming,’ the first of a quintet of poems, reaches me as a war veteran in the trenches in the middle of the night, the sound of a mortar round leaving the enemy’s firing tube. Phafft! Yet, it’s about coming home. And it asks, “Which death might be better, in snow, or one where the heat cooks us quickly, till we’re done.”

Taylor offers us a feast in this, the best of his six books. He doesn’t chinks on his readers. It’d be wise to collect them all. An Island of His Own, The Goat, Gone Away, No Back Door and The Waving Gallery. Each in a class of its own inventiveness, all of them distinguished as pearls of wisdom. In Voices Carry, ‘Those Who Stayed’ have rank. Novel and unusual, them. A double-entendre chantwell that evokes the underworld lifestyle of Trinis for life.

“And the boy in America, for some reason hasn’t called,” a voice offstage worries.

Could it be that this Trini to the Bone rudeboy, whose records of his past remain zealously home-made and preserved, unlike the lifer mother whose new dress, bought on a whim, changes with the color of her mood?

What is Taylor telling us?

On the heels of ‘Those Who Stayed’, ‘Enough’ waltzes in, masked as Armageddon. The battle between crime and punishment will be fought back home. The nuclear race of our badjohns, wholesalers, sellers, dopers, criminals and killers are in the mix. ‘Enough’ is as spare as it is powerful. A most emotionally wrought scene, it arrives with rat-a-tat energy and a God-bless-you pat on the soul. It sings. It cries.

A poem can have different meanings to different readers. Taylor’s experience could either translate into a general situation or some private experience of his own. His poems stretch beyond ordinary speech. From poetry to ole talk to conversation to song.

And Taylor is singing it when he offers to walk Asami Nagakiya, the murdered Japanese masquerader, round the Savannah.

In ‘A Kind of Valentine’ you’re hanging out with him, and you’d hardly miss any of the vignettes that masks our daily lives as he and Nagakiya traipse around the Cyclop’s eye of Port of Spain.

I will walk you round this Savannah
because we’ve always boasted
of its beauty, because it’s where 
all our love and all our craziness
take place, where our horses have raced…(21)

Like Dante travels through Hell and Paradise, these poems take us from quiet moments to intense life experiences. Like Asami’s. Voices Carry is Taylor’s best work, a far cry from other scholarly stuff I’ve read recently. He gives us his lifetime of intense experiences. Yes. Observation and poetry.

Dalton Narine is a journalist, film producer and director. Mervyn Taylor's new book, Voices Carry, is published by Shearsman Books


PODCAST // Ghosts come alive at UWI art show - w. Melanie Archer

Melanie Archer inspects work by Maria Diaz at the National Museum.
Photo by Andre Bagoo.

In this PLEASURE PODCAST // I'm joined by designer, art critic and publisher Melanie Archer as we take a look at the University of the West Indies (UWI)'s Visual Arts Degree Show 2017 which was staged at the National Museum from April 12 to May 6. It was the second year in a row the annual show of student work was held at the Museum.

A list of those featured in the show this year includes: Reanna Ali, Naqiyah Assin, Khaffi Beckles, Nikeisha Claxton, Maria Diaz, Virginia D'Ornellas, Lendel Fraser, Anesha Garcia, Shane Mohammed, Khylah Mykoo-Garcia, Kavisha Peru, Shantee Rajkumar, Joy Rajnauth, Christopher Ross-Dick, Ciele Williams (fine arts); and Alejandro Ali, Maryssa Beckford, Jade Bridgemohan, Shayna Karim, Dhillon Khan, Camille Parris, Anna Power, Jerrell Riley, Amrika Sampath, and Amaara White (design).

In this podcast we examine logistical issues with the show and focus on work by Diaz, Mohammed and Fraser who all startle with spectral examinations of the human body whether through haunting sculptures, claustrophobic collections of artefacts, or micro-landscapes of skin.

Because so many artists were featured in the show, it was impossible to cover every single piece. So be sure dear listeners to add your two cents and to let us know what you thought in the comments section below.

You can also find out more about UWI's Visual Arts program here, as well as its Department of Creative and Festival Arts here.

This podcast was recorded just before Archer launched a campaign with Mariel Brown to fund a publishing project, A - Z of Caribbean Art. Find out more here. And while you're at it check out Melanie's great website here.

Maria Diaz's haunting work photographed by Melanie Archer

Inside Shane Mohammed's assemblages
Until the next despatch!


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. 


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