(Waterloo Press, 2011); pbk, £10.00
Beautifully woven narratives, coloured by the traditions and folklore of the poet’s native Trinidad and Tobago, form Fawzia Kane’s debut collection, Tantie Diablesse; theycombine to create an extremely engaging read. While her poetry contains autobiographical elements, Kane does not permit these moments to overpower the collection, thus allowing the poetry to achieve a sense of timeless universality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Kane is an architect, her poems are highly structured and visual. The narrative of each poem is presented in a lucidly depicted physical setting. The opening lines of “how to breathe” actively invite the reader to envisage the setting:
Let’s pretend that you saw him,
once, say, sitting in a café
some bright day in autumn.
Note the immaculate precision with which Kane writes. Succinctly, she provides the reader with exactly the right amount of sensory imagery required to feel they are themselves placed in the poem. She allows the intensity to grow, illustrating the experience of the prolonged breathless moment of heartache. Her style of writing allows her to manipulate time, freezing a particular moment and extending it, and then building tension until the reader comes to realise that “your flowers have no scent”. As well as stopping time, Kane is equally able to capture its passing, as in the poem “Exotica”. Here,she uses the image of a flower – its petals gradually progressing from emitting “a perfume so sweet / so strong” to the point where the “petals dip / the scent fade” until eventually it becomes a “wilting flower”.
The opening words of “how to breathe”, “let’s pretend” has the poem’s persona invite the reader to enter a shared scenario. This is just one of the ways in which Kane manages to create strong lines of communication between her reader and her characters. While a reader typically identifies with a literary character through the word “I”, Kane takes this process a step further, directly addressing the reader as “you” in many of her poems. Moreover, though unified by the poet’s own voice, the voices of the poems’ characters, crucially, retain individual identities, so the reader is forced to engage fully with a range of characters. Aptly, Kane experiments with free verse; each poem has its own, unique poetic structure – a feature which only serves to heighten the sense of individuality. This asks a great deal of the reader’s understanding of others.
Indeed, this is particularly true in the case of the title character. Referencing “La Diablesse”– a devil woman of Caribbean folklore who masks her identity and lures men to their death – Kane creates Tantie Diablesse, a three hundred year old ex-slave who cannot die. Unlike the deceptive Diablesse of folklore however, Kane’s character does not hide, but rather invites the reader in:
see how despair sews bells to my hat.
My kind knows death’s long punch line
and it’s hilarious.
With an entire section of the collection devoted to Tantie Diablesse, a character evocative of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazurus”, the reader is invited to engage with and forced to contemplate how she relates to, the Diablesse of folklore. The reader soon finds that this new Diablesse must be approached from another angle, one which makes it possible to consider what may lie behind her veil. The poet allows us considerable room for empathy.
Tantie Diablesse is a truly captivating collection; its strength lies in Kane’s intensely precise narration, particularly of Trinidad and Tobago’s rich traditions. It is timeless and universal in its amalgamation of history and the contemporary. The real beauty of the collection, however, lies in its ability to move the reader to consider others from an unexpected perspective, and through that to test the boundaries of human compassion.