YEAR'S END means its a good time to recap what you read and what you want to read in the coming year. When recently asked by writer Brandon Mc Ivor and his sister Breanne - who conduct writing workshops at Diego Martin - what were my favorite books of 2014, I realised that I had spent a lot of time catching up on books I've been meaning to read for a while. Many of them were poetry. Most written before I was born. And the vast majority were non-fiction. Instead of drawing up a list of my favorite books published in 2014 I've drawn up a list of books I read in 2014. (Or at least started to read!)
1. The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948 - 2013, selected by Glyn Maxwell
Not the kind of book you read from cover to cover, though, of course, you could. Walcott's poetry endures because of his ability to find the essential elements of life and present them, in elegant, painterly strokes, in poems which achieve what he once said the best poems should. They are perfection's sweat but "seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue's brow". I like how expansive this edition is and how you can still discover a Walcott poem you were not familiar with. At the moment, the poem 'Midsummer, Tobago' - from Sea Grapes - is my personal favorite. But that's like saying I like just one movie by Woodie Allen or one soca by Machel. Also up there for me is the opening poem of White Egrets and a poem called 'To Norline', from The Arkansas Testament.
2. Collected Poems, by W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson, along with The Dyer's Hand, by W.H. Auden
This was the year my family got fed up of the calls from NALIS saying I had a book overdue and decided to just get Auden's whole oeuvre for me. Nothing beats having this handsome edition of all of Auden's poems in one neat, compact door-stopping tome. Auden was a poet concerned with form. He also took on, like Dylan Thomas, an evangelical tone. Because of this, the achievement of some of his more daring poems - such as 'The Sea and the Mirror' - is sometimes overlooked. This is the poet who, in the poem, 'In Memory of WB Yeats', wrote the line, "The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day". His Collected is uneven, but that will always be the case for any poet. Auden was also notorious for revising earlier published versions of the poems. You are guaranteed, though, to be surprised by something new, whether in a familiar poem or a poem you've not read before. The essays in The Dyer's Hand reveal Auden's wit, wisdom as well as the fact that he was an excellent writer of prose.
3. Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams
The politician, man and historian may have been controversial - he is hated and revered in almost equal measure -but one thing is incontrovertible: this is a great book. Not only was Williams an excellent orator, but he could write. That's a pure and simple truth. And he could make a good argument, whether or not we agree with its finer points. The book remains relevant in a world where the projects of emancipation and independence remain ongoing concerns.
4. Discourse on Colonialism, by Aime Cesaire
This should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the state of so-called post-colonial society. This book is not just a historical artifact of the kind of revolutionary spirit that was key to provoking ideas of change, but it contains insights about the process of colonisation that are relevant today in terms of still-lingering effects.
5. The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James
If Eric Williams was a genius then I don't know what to call C.L.R. James, whose enormous body of work challenges, provokes and demands close, careful attention. This book is a tour de force. Consider, alone, its first sentence: "Christopher Coloumbus landed first in the New World at the island of San Salvador, and after praising God enquired urgently for gold." This is the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution, which contains important ideas from a writer who influenced major thinkers like Williams and Edward Said, among others.
6. The Waving Gallery, by Mervyn Taylor
More poetry. In a review of this book published in Newsday I wrote: "Every country is the undiscovered country. In this respect, there are no foreign lands. We are always constantly learning and discovering aspects of each place – home or abroad – as we are constantly discovering life itself. These poems are often sophisticated exercises that find an easy tone....Taylor gives us no answers.... He seeks to teach us the value of the truly examined life, to re-route the trip somewhat: to make it a voyage into the interior. He knows how fast a life fades, as quickly and abruptly as the day ends in the opening poem 'Mt Hololo'." Many other books were read and reviewed in 2014, but I shall say more on another day.
7. A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller
Reading a play is an interesting experience. The words are not meant to be read but staged. The work is also meant to comprise action and sound, the stage is supposed to be a realm of light and shade. A reader must imagine all of these and flesh out details. In this sense, a play shares some of the qualities of a novel. But it also has the advantage of distilling the action to dialogue: it depends entirely on characters.
Arthur Miller is known for his most famous work Death of a Salesman, but A View from the Bridge is also a great play to read. It intimates a deep, buried secret. But when the dust settles we feel nothing has been revealed, even though everything has been made crystal clear.
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson
In a Chicago-based recording studio, Ma Rainey’s band players, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee turn up to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive, tensions simmer — particularly around a young trumpeter appropriately named Levee — who has dreams of having his own band, and older players Cutler and Toledo. This 1982 work was one of Wilson’s cycle of plays which aimed at depicting the Black American experience over time. It stands as a record of race issues. But it is also a fascinating study of gender, attitudes to power, as well as band dynamics.
9. Utter, by Vahni Capildeo
Full disclosure: I’ve collaborated with Vahni in the past and can be regarded as completely biased. That said, the strengths of this book are likely to be recognisable to lovers of poetry everywhere. This is a beguiling collection that races through ideas, moments and experiences with a verve and style which is completely Capildeo’s. It is sometimes difficult, intense. It is always lyrical, beautiful, mesmerising. The poems cry to be read aloud, slowly, with careful attention to the nuances of intonation. Utter pleasure.
10. Sounding Ground, by Vladimir Lucien
Lucien’s voice is assured and strong, blending the personal with the political. These poems veer between rally cries and wry narratives. They are always moving. Personal favourites include, “The Last Sign of the Cross”, “Mi Jean”, “To Celebrate St Lucian Culture They Put on Display”; and “Tjenbwa: Ethnography”. The influence of Walcott is felt, but Lucien has found his own voice and concerns, some of which are often personal and, thereby, universal. This was an outstanding read.
11. Diatomhero: Religious Poems, by Lisa A Flowers
Despite the title, these are not evangelical poems. Or if they are, the message they seek to preach concerns the fluidity of our perceptions and senses: how life’s margins might be more permeable than we imagine. There are long sequences which I could not stop reading, due in large measure to Flower’s talent for unforgettable imagery. Additionally, the poems allude to fairy tales, novels and myths. They intoxicate and evoke complex feelings. “I was already in paradise”, Flowers writes, “Waiting out my death”.
12. Voyages, by Wayne Brown
In a recent column, of this book I wrote, “Voyages is a tour-de-force. Poems include “Monos”, “Drought”, “Crab”, “The Approach”, “Mackerel” and “Whales”. The sea is a key theme, and it becomes a burnished forum in which life, joy and death mingle. In ‘Poem Without End’, Brown states, ‘I write with the night in my veins.’ Like his deep, smooth voice, his best poems glimmer in the dark, they express ideas and images in hewn dreamscapes.”
As I continued to review books from the poetry scene, I also read: The Dustbowl by Jim Goar; Performance Anxiety by Jane King; Subversive Sonnets by Pamela Mordecai; Fault Lines by Kendell Hippolyte; The Butterfly Hotel by Roger Robinson and Difficult Fruit by Lauren K Alleyne. I also dipped into tomes by Dylan Thomas and the poetry of Ian McDonald.
But 2014 is over, and we are in a new year. Already, the first book I’ve cracked open is Days of Wrath by the journalist and poet Raoul Pantin who died last week. This is an intriguing read which is itself an important artifact of the events of 1990. I’m looking forward to reading more. So many books, so little time!
Sunday Newsday, January 11, 18