art in all its forms

art in all its forms


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'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.


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.


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.


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


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. 


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.