the hurricane’s roar
Isabelle Baafi explores the defiant and decolonising poetics of Shivanee Ramlochan and Safiya Sinclair.
Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting Shivanee Ramlochan
Cannibal Safiya Sinclair
University of Nebraska Press $17.95
The poetic landscapes of Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting and Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal do not lend themselves to easy navigation. Born of the irrepressible Caribbean landscapes in which the collections are set (Trinidad and Jamaica, respectively), and from which both poets hail, their poetics are defined by density, vivacity, fury and insurgence. Ramlochan’s was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. Sinclair’s won the 2016 Whiting Award, and will be published in the UK by Picador this year. As major contributions to modern Caribbean poetry, both engage centuries-old structures and dismantle them one daring line at a time.
The concept of savagery courses through both collections, especially Cannibal, whose title is the English translation of the Spanish ‘canibal’, itself mutated from the demonym ‘caribal’, after the indigenous Caribs of the Lesser Antilles. Christopher Columbus believed the Caribs to be flesh-eaters, and thus the word ‘caribal’ – and eventually ‘cannibal’ – came to identify their presumed anthropophagy. That this malapropism also birthed the word ‘Caribbean’ exemplifies the racism at the heart of many English words, and the imposition of colonial perceptions onto West Indian identity.
The deconstruction of colonial languages through the probing of the ‘savage’ identity is the core thrust of Sinclair’s collection – but paradoxically, this is often achieved through its reclamation. Wildness is an inherent attribute of the landscape – a place of ‘lurid rains’ where, as seen in ‘Crania America’, ‘[e]ven the sea derails full-throttle’; where ‘oceanliners / gulped in’; where ‘nothing […] will grow politely.’ Likewise, ‘Mermaid’ reveals the potency, fecundity and tenacity of the tropical landscape, in which ‘Caribbean thyme is ten times stronger than the English variety’ and uprooted weeds ‘grow back thick, tenfold, and blackened with the furor of a violated man.’ Savagery is a thing of defiance, strength and beauty.
Savagery is also a personhood, explored primarily through Sinclair’s own rendering of Caliban, the enraged half-human, half-monster from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Caliban, whose name is an anagram for ‘canibal’, represents the historical plight of the indigenous, the colonised and the enslaved in the Caribbean. In defiance of the original text, and of the pseudosciences which classified people of colour as barbaric, Sinclair’s female Caliban (they refer to themselves as ‘Negress’) embraces her perceived ‘savagery’ in ‘Crania America’, revelling in her ‘gabble like a diadem, / this flecked crown of dictions, / this bioluminescence.’ This Caliban in turn exposes the hypocrisy of man and denounces it in favour of the wildness that others have tried to purge:
What a brittle world is man.
Self inflammable, I abjure you.
No more the burned black body from the start of the poem; the ‘spurned husk’, ‘gnarled’ and ‘singed’ – she declares herself ‘inflammable’, hesitates to ‘unjungle’ the same terrain that others have tried to tame.
The core thread in Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting is ferocity. In the midst of Ramlochan’s equally formidable landscape – where the wind ‘midwife[s]’ the hardiest women (‘Song of the Only Surviving Grandmother’), where mangrove thickets snare the dead (‘Duenne Lara’) and tree roots wrestle with them (‘Materna’) – here we find the ‘scapulae’ and ‘straight-backed pins’ of defiance (‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’).
In several poems, Ramlochan channels the voices of abortionists. In defiance of federal law (abortion is still illegal in Trinidad), Ramlochan posits excision as a way to reclaim female agency. Here we see, like Caliban, women embracing their ‘savage’ nature, declaring their ‘unacceptable’ vocation. Across multiple poems, as in ‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’, the practice invokes anger and ostracisation: ‘I was instructed not to pray for you’. But those who perform and undergo the procedure embrace its ugliness, its stigma – both with boldness: ‘ankles thudding on / the metal table. Take it out’, (‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Gives Cold Comfort’); and with eagerness: ‘you test yourself with sharp filial bones, / writhing’ (‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’).
Spectres crowd both Cannibal and Haunting, demonstrating the ways in which trauma and grief continue to affect survivors and/or descendants of violence and injustice. For Ramlochan, the dead inhabit the world of the living alongside them: ‘Sister, keep vigil. / Our eyeless homestead remembers your touch’ (‘Duenne Lilith’). They are as close as the next room: ‘your lost children whistle through gaps in the farm floor’ (‘Song of The Only Surviving Grandmother’). They exist in a state of decided unrest; squalling in the mire, wandering in the forest and ‘backwards-skirting in the yard’ (‘Duenne Lilith’). The bereaved are not merely haunted by the dead; they are enamoured with them, and even haunt them in return. In ‘Duenne Lara’, a grieving mother serenades the spirit of her dead child, wishing to be inhabited by it:
[…] come live in me, little
claim these metatarsal prayers.
Everyone knows I am a haunting.
A major theme in Haunting is, as Ramlochan has said, the ‘inner and outer fissures of rape’. And so the living are often as haunting as the dead. In ‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’ and several other poems, survivors continue to see their abuser in the community around them – ‘The man who got that infant on you glowers in our marketplace’ – reflecting the inescapability of trauma, and the failure of patriarchal societies to protect women and indict assailants.
Occasionally, in both collections, individuals are haunted by alternate or past selves, whose existence grief has irrevocably fractured: ‘I am not your mother’ says the speaker of ‘Materna’ after a stillbirth; ‘but in my womb there is the knowing of you.’ Likewise, in Cannibal, the ‘savage’ or repressed self may erupt at any moment and devour the wicked living. In ‘Family Portrait’, a woman gazing into her family’s past, and recalling its violent undertones, ‘observe[s her] doppelganger in the shadows of the frame, / setting fire to the curtains while we slept.’
In both works the land is an archive, bearing witness to its violent past. In ‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’, a woman performs her own abortion ‘beneath the archipelagic eyelid’ of the ocean’s gaze, and in Sinclair’s ‘Catacombs’, a woman imagines the necropolis beneath a Jamaican beach, where ‘villagers’ buried themselves: ‘miles of skeletons clutching each other from island / to island, linked like a shackle, femur to femur.’ As wound, the landscapes bleed for, and alongside, their inhabitants. In ‘Duenne Lilith’, a haunted forest ‘is named for cuts’; in Sinclair’s ‘Confessor’, the sky is literally ‘a wound I am licking’, and the flora is likewise coloured by bloodshed that remains inescapable: ‘What wounds the Poinciana slits / forth, what must turn red eventually.’
Both collections address the occasional ineffability of trauma and grief. As Sinclair explains in ‘Dreaming in Foreign’, ‘[w]hat the body speaks is untranslatable, / how always some unpeopled aching’. As Ramlochan agrees in ‘V: The Five Count’, which recounts ongoing episodes of rape: ‘you have razor shins you can’t explain to your grandmother. // I fell, you say. I keep falling.’ To remedy this, the poets draw from rich linguistic wells, including religion, mythology, theatre and ecology, to confront their trauma, abusers and ghosts. In ‘IV: The Policeman in Your Throat’, assault is described as a kind of liturgy: ‘The policeman’s boot blesses the small of your back. You are / still praying, but these are new psalms, / and they have no likeness in holy writ.’ Meanwhile, in Sinclair’s ‘Incorrigible’, the carnivorousness of animals resonates with a child’s experience of familial violence:
A frightened net
of sparrows comes loose through the air;
weaving through a thicket of sandflies, picking life out.
Are they watching us?
For both Sinclair and Ramlochan, language does not only confront – it also facilitates catharsis. But, as Ramlochan shows in ‘VII: The Open Mic of Every Deya, Burning’, this catharsis does not come easily. It demands submission: ‘When the poem told me to go on my knees, I went.’ Its dredging pierces: ‘Each line bursts me open.’
In Sinclair’s ‘Incorrigible’, a speaker who tries to write into her wounds finds it difficult: ‘I fight to tack it down, / the indefinite I, I, iamb; to tease this venom out –’. The echoes of ‘I am’ within ‘iamb’ suggest attempts at self-actualisation. The inclination towards iambic pentameter, which the speaker finds elusive, suggests an attempt and inability to engage traditional poetic forms.
Such linguistic mistrust lies at the heart of Cannibal’s metanarrative. The first section of Cannibal bears Kamau Braithwaite’s iconic quote on Caribbean poetry – which, when written in Caribbean dialects (or ‘Nation Languages’), resists the parameters of traditional western prosody: ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.’ Sinclair’s own exploration reveals the crux of this conflict; unpacking the discomfort and violent legacy of the grafted tongue in the mouths of black people in the Americas: ‘Home some brute sojourn / we wracked unspeakable, we mute vernacular / smashed nuclear sun and this code-switch’ (‘One Hundred Amazing Facts About The Negro, With Complete Proof, II’).
In several of her poems, including ‘I Shall Account Myself A Happy Creaturess’, Sinclair uses the English language to rebel against it; frustrating standard grammar and exposing its limitations:
Night prowls dangerous heavy.
Exhume a neon city. Our moon gone fat
With astounding matter.
This feast parasitic.
But she also concedes an ambivalent relationship with her own diction. In ‘Elocution Lessons with Ms Silverstone’, a Jamaican adolescent describes herself as ‘that girl too furred in dialect’ and recounts her attempts to ‘correct’ it. Years later, after time abroad, she admits in ‘Home’ that her diction is ‘now as straight // as my hair; that stranger we’ve / long stopped searching for.’
For Ramlochan, the use of Trinidadian Creole reflects the multifarious cultural influences in the Caribbean. For instance, in ‘All the Dead, All the Living’, a cacophonic depiction of Trinidad’s street carnival features the luscious lines:
Wine en pointe and wine to the four stations of the cross,
St James soucouyant,
deep bush douen come to town
to make a killing in mud and mudder-in-law
Such interweaving demonstrates the influence of English, French and Spanish words, which – along with Indigenous and African languages – birthed Trinidadian Creole. Additionally, the use of alliteration, slant rhyme and assonance creates musicality and interplay between reverence and irreverence, realism and surrealism.
Another powerful way in which both poets defy traditional frameworks is through explorations of eroticism. In Haunting, sex allows survivors of assault to reclaim their agency and abandon shame: in ‘II. Nail It to the Barn Door Where It Happened’, a survivor urges herself to ‘[g]o to the movies alone’ and ‘[m]ake love to yourself in the darkness, in any way you can bear it.’ In ‘III. You Wait For Five Years, and Then’, another celebrates the moment that ‘loves the shine in your teeth while you choose/ for the first time, in a cane field.’ And in ‘Catching Devi & Shakuntala’, lesbian eroticism facilitates female empowerment, wherein women answer the demands of justice and vicariously fulfil the dreams of their female forebears. Here, we find eroticism:
to pull every girl out of every body tonight
to ransom every woman from the three canal
to cure every remedy in a ruined field
to tell your daughters to run, run,
Meanwhile, in Sinclair’s ‘Center of the World’, the female body becomes a lightning rod to harness and re-centre cultural narratives around itself:
[…] I have nothing
to hide. I will spread myself
wide. Here, a flash of muscle. Here,
some blood for the hunt. Now the center
of the world: my incandescent cunt.
Also, to heighten the uplifting of female bodies and queerness, the erotic in both works is conflated with the divine. In Sinclair’s ‘Kingdom-Come’, sex is a form of salvation; a submersion and resurfacing; a state of being adrift and being cleansed by the same flood that claims:
Stone after stone,
I swallowed anchor.
And nobody saved you,
white as a throat
as I washed Noah’s animals
caterwauling from the dark.
Both Ramlochan’s Haunting and Sinclair’s Cannibal are triumphant explorations of linguistic decolonisation, narrative recalibration, radical feminism, and the reclamation of power after violation and erasure. These are worlds in which logic and/or syntax are not reliable footholds. In which the density of the language reflects the treachery of the terrain, both internal and external. In which Sinclair’s ‘wild’ grammar embodies the fracturing of a framework that has meticulously paved over its own cruelty. In which Ramlochan’s long and often unbroken lines reflect the refusal to cut short the voices of ‘women who bleed, fuck, dance, cuss, transact and thief without apology, be they gentle or garrotte-hearted.’ They are expertly crafted works, that demand careful consideration and defy forgetfulness. To read each is to be wildly enriched and, like the tropical paradises in which they are set, to encounter a world that you will want to visit again and again.