The Merchant of Feathers is Jamaican poet Tanya Shirley’s second full collection, but she has also been anthologised by Kei Miller in New Caribbean Poetry (2007), one of the eight poets “in whose hands the future of Caribbean poetry… [is] secure”.
Divided into three sections, the first, “The Alphabet of Shame” delves into childhood memory, and a more bitter than sweet growing up. From that first poem on, I defy anyone reading this collection aloud not to be seduced by the rhythms, the subtle but tight internal rhymes. I defy them not to sway. The post-colonial, personal and particularly female pain is strongly and very beautifully drawn here. Consider that dream-crushing ballet teacher:
You, of faux British accent and hollowed
collar bones I imagined were tea cups.
You, who wanted a kukumkum orchestra,
a herd of bones gliding under
the baton of your arms.
The following poem tells of a home, a “three-storey remnant of whites”, when “riots still smelled/like burning cane [.]”, where she danced “as years before me/some white girl did.” Significantly, the searing prose poem “Recompense” with its shades of Toni Morrison’s perfectly-pitched anger, hits the target. Tanya Shirley is a gifted reader of her work, deservedly much sought-after in her native land, but doubtless her audiences there already have significant understanding of the issues she raises. This volume and others demonstrate why Peepal Tree can make such an important contribution on this side of the ocean –
[…] and she not letting Scotland get away scot-
free; she laying claim to that money that build bronze statues[…]
Jamaica is seen in all its fractured wonder, and her dark play on the nursery rhyme in “Sweet sweet Jamaica” has its children “Sugar and spice and army knives/ bullets and broken glass” in a paradise turned into nightmare.
The second part “Standing Outside of the Circle” develops that anger into adulthood. With purposeful, sexual energy, many of these poems are both highly erotic and damning – following the tenderness of lines like “On a bed of grass, you nuzzle between my thighs –/even the sun blushes” to the “Morning” section of that same poem where “Beneath your sweet tongue lies/a black mamba, his poison the only thing true.” If Shirley is scathing of men, she is often equally furious at the women she sees to be complicit.
‘Broken, please enter.’ You let men in hoping
they’ll build mansions in the rubble of your arms.
Through all this there are spells, charms and necromancy woven into these lines, and the women’s funeral howls and foretelling. She is also unafraid to be witty in the grimiest of circumstances, and there is a wicked humour in her observation that “his dick is a dead man on her back” and “(I imagine prostitutes face stiff competition)”. Her tongue is no less quick in two separate poems when she deals with the breathtakingly casual sexism of DJs –
[…] a man so rich […]
he can go to the store where woman’s heads are sold
and get me a new one.
In a terrifically-crafted rejoinder, she has that same misogynist “marvel at the acquiescing nature/of my tender parts”.
Then in one of the book’s most beautiful poems, she marvels at the mother who tends her beloved son, injured in a homophobic beating. The poet is understanding too of the woman’s situation, who, in respect of the boy’s unaccepting father, is simultaneously having to “pacify him with what he needs”. Her insight into women’s compromised lives is great.
The final section, “Let This Be Your Praise” raises hopes and joy to the rafters. The last poem, “Edward Baugh, When I Die” gives it laldy to the end –
I want you to grieve for my flesh
that knew what it was to be pinched
and squeezed, bitten, adored. […]
I want trumpets and saxophones,
a congregation of stilettos and lace.
Tanya Shirley has far more lines to write, but I’m certainly signing up for her funeral plan.