The Poetry Society Annual Lecture Series gaze back to my island of origin – was I, like Lot’s wife, turning my gaze backwards in longing for what I had lost, or Orpheus turning his gaze to share something with his beloved, Eurydice; or was it more akin to the two-headed Sankofa bird, one head facing forward, the other backward, found in the Ghanaian symbolic system known as Adinkra, used particularly among the Akan and Ashanti people. The Sankofa bird represents the idea that there is no harm in going back to fetch what was lost and further that we should, indeed, go back and learn from the past. Was it perhaps that I was turning toward a memory that was akin to a state of grace: “Other than childhood”, Perse writes in “Pour Féter…”, “what was there in those days that there no longer is?” Whatever it was – the languished, anguished beauty of the island, the lamentation of its history, that epic sweep of history that swept up and swept away so many, once known now unnamed, once loved now lost, unmourned – it drew me, inexorably, back to a time and place that were familiar, but strange.
Many of the images in “Pour Féter…” are rooted in his experience as the child of plantation and slave owners: the poem makes reference to “my mother’s maids, tall glistening girls” (they would have been slaves surely); “the black sorcerer aphorized in the servants’ hall”; “my nurse was a mestizo and smelt of castor bean”, and describes someone as “bowed like a maidservant”. He writes of not “know(ing) again any place of mills and sugar cane” (these would have been places of unending and at times deadly toil for Black slaves), and the “wounds of the sugar cane” (perhaps a transference from the wounds of injured slaves?), as well as “high musical ships at the quay” (probably some would have been slave ships). These are not images I can relate to and yet this poem held me, becoming a portal of sorts: “Naming each thing, I proclaimed that it was great, naming each beast, that it was beautiful and good”. There is a paradisal, almost edenic quality in the poem, notwithstanding its embeddedness in a slave-owning society, that sparked memories in my mind about that tiny, post-slavery Caribbean island I came from. It was and still is a place of great loss for me – emotionally – a place where there were emotional wounds but also a place about which I would echo Perse and say: “O I have cause to praise! O bountiful fable, O table of abundance!”; a place where “in the rawness of an evening with an odour of Deluge, moons, rose and green, were hanging like mangoes”.
50 The Poetry Review