Kwame Dawes (ed)
(Peepal Tree Press, 2012); pbk. £9.99
2012 was a big year for Jamaica. Internationally, the island’s impressive athletic performances during London’s Olympic Games prompted a proliferation of green, black and gold flags at numerous events and festivities. As Usain Bolt, unofficial Jamaican national hero (Jamaica has specific official National Heroes) and the world’s fastest man, broke yet another astonishing world record, celebrations of a more longstanding and complex form took place. August 6th marked the 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence from British colonial rule. It seems appropriate, therefore, that Kwame Dawes’ edited celebratory collection of poems marking this shift is exuberantly titled, Jubilation! Bringing together a diverse body of work from long established writers to more recently recognised word crafters, Jubiliation! deftly demonstrates the depth and versatility of Jamaican creative writing. At the same time, it illustrates a determination to claim a space in the popular imagination that exists far beyond the touristic imagery of idyllic beaches or the chanting crowds of the sports arena.
This body of work challenges accepted notions of both physical and social mobility. The poems highlight the ways in which specific places and forms of movement change their importance and meaning over time, as well as what they mean to different audiences. These works capture struggles to challenge colonial (and neo-colonial) hierarchies in big and small ways. Velma Pollard’s “Roads”, for example, succinctly refocuses the seemingly mundane act of negotiating Jamaica’s ubiquitous potholes into a deeper engagement with power, ownership and self determination throughout the Caribbean:
…inside this chain of islands
roads tell silently
or shout who owns
who does not own…
The act of celebrating Jamaica, in all its forms and idiosyncrasies, is also a process of capturing and reclaiming the memories, events and voices of past and future journeys. These are travels that involve the traumatic experiences of slavery, the inspiration of resistance, the nurturance of food, hair salons and rituals, and the release of humour and playfulness—each illustrating the interconnectedness of complementary and contradictory island tales.
Yet despite the depth and density of the topics addressed, they are often put into sharp relief through unexpected prose, as Fabian Thomas’ three-line poem “Middle Passage” demonstrates:
Did the dolphin know
merrily swimming astern
the hell in the hold?
A critical eye and understated humour point to the problematic effects of everyday practices, such as beauty regimes, which reinforce narrow identities of “acceptable” images of Blackness. Tanya Shirley’s “Flower Girl” embodies the struggle between competing generations and traditions, as a mother attempts to ‘fix’ the hair of her child before a family wedding. Despite this clash, the humanity of the conflict and its namesake shines through:
The hairdresser cooed and cajoled
but she was no match for this child
who had not yet learned that vanity
will make women walk through fire.
…The child gripped the side of the tub, looked up
to the heavens hidden behind the ceiling
then fell asleep, the aunts wondering,
What do we do with her hair?
For those already familiar with Jamaican poetry, this collection provides a treasure trove redolent of the island’s rich creative writing while introducing several new, engaging artists. Stylistically, the collection illustrates a breadth that will appeal to a broad audience—it places the dub poetry and musicality of Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson alongside more traditional forms. The volume is also structured alphabetically, rather than chronologically, which provides an opportunity to experience contrasting perspectives and timeframes in thought provoking ways. Readers who are new to this body of work will find this an excellent gateway to a bountiful landscape of words, imagery and political expression. It should encourage us all to more thoughtfully explore what a postcolonial identity might engender.
Susan P. Mains