Morag Styles welcomes A Caribbean Dozen
(edited by John Agard and Grace Nichols, ill. Cathie Felstead, Walker, 0 7445 2172 6, £14.99)
A Caribbean Dozen is a great treat. The dozen in the title refers to the thirteen poets who are featured in this book, in keeping with the market tradition of a little bit extra or ‘mek-up’ thrown in by generous vendors at Caribbean markets. Some of the Caribbean poets are well known in Britain and live here now (like the editors themselves) – James Berry, Valerie Bloom, Faustin Charles and Marc Matthews. Then there are poets I have long revered like Frank Collymore (from Barbados, who died in 1980), Telcine Turner, Pamela Mordecai and Dionne Brand who live in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Canada respectively. Finally, there are poets I am ashamed I didn’t know like Opal Palmer Adisa, David Campbell and John Lyons. Each poet introduces herself or himself by writing some childhood memories, including favourite youthful reading, and is represented by four or five poems which often, but not always, make reference to the Caribbean. There’s also a brief bibliography, plus an attractive photograph of each poet.
The illustrations (full colour throughout) are an added pleasure with Cathie Felstead evoking the lush, sensual nature of the Caribbean through her colourful, mixed-media artwork. There are some truly glorious spreads. In almost every case she made me re-examine familiar poems and brought inviting visual images to the words on the page without getting in the way of the reader’s own imagination. Illustrating poetry is never easy; illustrating so many different voices must have been even harder, but this is a case where the illustrator adds a strong dimension to the verse.
Let’s begin with the editors. Grace Nichols’ delightful ‘Ar-a-Rat’ is included, but a new animal also makes an appearance in the form of Dilberta, biggest of the elephants at London Zoo, ‘the walking-whale of the earth kingdom’. ‘If the headmaster asks for me / say I’m a million dreaming degrees / beyond the equator’ says the Geography teacher in one of John Agard’s poems, while we hear from Count Laughula and Anancy in two of the others.
Sureness of touch is also James Berry’s hallmark. He’s represented by a few of his best loved poems from When I Dance and the memorable ‘Isn’t My Name Magical?’:
‘My name echoes across playground
it comes, it demands attention.
I have to find out who calls
who wants me for what.’
Valerie Bloom is an exciting performer whose teasing voice is captured nicely by poems like ‘Chicken Dinner’. I also like the quieter, positive ‘Who Dat Girl?’. ‘Who dat girl? Who dat girl? / Pretty as poetry? Who dat girl in de lookin-glass? / Yuh mean dat girl is me?’ Bloom writes in accessible dialect which comes alive when read aloud. Faustin Charles is also a humorist with a penchant for rhythm, repetition and a sense of wonder:
‘And every night before they go to sleep
A black-eyed fairy will reap
Raindrops from their dreams.’
Now for the poets who are not yet familiar to British readers. Telcine Turner is witty and tender and will, I think, delight many children with her narrative poem ‘Charley and Miss Morley’s Goat’. This story in verse is told in Louise Bennett tradition, easy to understand and with a lively refrain, ‘Run, Charley, run’. ‘Dancing Poinciana’ is much more lyrical and blazes off the page:
‘Fire in the treetops
Fire in the sky
Blossoms red as sunset
Dazzling to the eye.’
Opal Palmer Adisa also writes evocatively of flowers when she describes jasmine, ‘My eyes / pool of deep ocean waters / glittering under the sun’, and fruits, simply by listing the names ‘and coolie-plum / star-apple / and custard apple / navel orange / and wild cherries’.
David Campbell addresses the history of some basic crops in ‘Corn and Potato’, where he gently informs the reader that they originate from Native American communities. He celebrates reptiles and invertebrates in a poem entitled ‘All the Ones They Call Lowly’. John Lyons combines amusing word play and Caribbean language with his ‘pum na-na frogs’ ‘cheeky chichichong’ and ‘mammie’s coo-coo and callaloo’.
Dionne Brand captures the threat of hurricane, vividly yet simply:
‘Gather in the clothesline
Pull down the blinds
Big wind rising
Coming up the mountain.’
This is a contrast to the wind in another poem which ‘hovered and hung and rustled and lay / where I could’.
Pamela Mordecai strikes a more sombre note with her ‘Lament of an Arawak Child’: ‘Now there are not more hummingbirds / the sea’s songs are all sad / for strange men came and took this land / and plundered all we had.’ She has a nice sense of fun in a list poem about legs from the small child’s point of view, ‘thin legs / fat legs / dog legs / cat legs’, and one about a rabbit, ‘A rabbit is easy / to care for / to munch on grass / is what he’s hare for’.
Finally, the distinguished poet, Frank Collymore, shows how to be philosophical and amusing at the same time:
‘I’m told that the spider
has coiled up inside her
Enough silky material
To spin an aerial
to the moon and back
Cannot even catch a fly.’
A Caribbean Dozen is an excellent introduction to Caribbean poetry for readers of six to nine and for younger children, who will be drawn in by the pictures, to share with adults. For too long Caribbean poetry for children has been served by only a handful of talented writers. John Agard and Grace Nichols have now made sure that other gifted poets get a wider audience.