The Poetry Society Annual Lecture Series
John Hawkins, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh are three who come to mind along with the buccaneers, privateers and conquistadors. There were also legions of those who, denamed or unnamed – heroes all – were forced to work and died in so many small ways in service of a brutal enterprise, which in its deadly embrace of these actors and events is not so much epic as unepic.
“Pour Féter un Enfance”, or “To Celebrate a Childhood” – from St.John Perse, Éloges and Other Poems, tr. Louise Varèse (1926) – the poem at the centre of the mind map, has had an indelible influence on my writing life. I don’t recall the day, hour or time, but when I first read it, it unlocks something within me: an ache, an unrecognized longing for the island of my birth – Tobago, which I had left at eight. There is a sense in which the poem becomes the nucleus, the kernel of the work I’ve done since and I am seized by the need to give voice to the islands. Perse was the first person I had read who talked about rain that I recognized, in Pluies (Rains) – the sound of the rain of the tropics, particularly on galvanised roofs.
“Pour Féter…” would lead me to his other work, Anabasis (1924), Exil (1942), and his collected works Pluies (1943) and Vents (1946). Indeed, every time I traveled to the Caribbean I would take his poetry books with me like poetic talismans. We have very little in common, St.John Perse and I. Born Alexis Leger, he was a white creole coming from a family of solicitors, descendants of slave owners from Guadeloupe who owned two plantations – coff ee and sugar; I, a Black Caribbean woman descended from enslaved Africans. He was of French heritage. My imposed culture and language was English. We do share a small but maybe significant biographical history – he was ten when his family repatriated to France, I was eight when my family moved from Tobago to the neighboring island, Trinidad. Not quite the same, but the two islands Trinidad and Tobago were and are very diff erent, the latter being very rural and hauntingly beautiful while Trinidad – or at least the capital Port of Spain – was even then, very urban. My family were, at the most, a couple of generations away from slavery – my father a headteacher of a primary school, my mother from a respectable family. We were long on respectability and ever short on money. Indeed we, St.-John Perse and I, were worlds apart.
Something about that poem held me fast, causing me to turn my
48 The Poetry Review