Toronto, Lilibel Publications, 2009, 71pp.
In Possession, his sixth volume of poems, Trinidadian Cecil Gray continues his long and seemingly compulsive meditation on the fate of Caribbean island nations that flaunt a rainbow of mixed cultures, within an historic context of colonial victimisation through slavery-and-indenture. One poem “At the Sea’s Edge” considers the fate of victims of empire worldwide: “Today Iraq, yesterday all of Africa, and before that / the land and people of what’s called America.” (p.65) It is bitingly ironic to stomach the fact that European imperialists conquered and dispossessed dwellers of an entire continent, then named it “America” after themselves. Such is the contempt of imperialists, we are told, that their victims are: “stepped on like roaches by imperial boots.” (p.65) But in spite of the sharp and unsparing nature of these particular comments, Gray’s tone manages generally to shun shrillness over the brutality and injustice of imperialism. Restraint and control come t the fore more often than not.
In “Coast Road,” the persona recalls abuses of empire specifically in Trinidad: “blindfolded years of slums and subjection / when smooth roads were closed to those with complexions / a bit too swarthy, and their sweat could not earn / enough to relieve them from hunger, nor from / compounds they lived in like horses in stables.” (p. 68) Such dehumanising conditions are bad enough. What is worse is fear that their sordid truth may be lost in the mists of history. So far as mixed cultures go, “Bugles and Drums” acknowledges rhythms of Africa and Shango worship in Trinidad where: “beliefs had to come from Europe`s scripture … and to be African / was an offence.” (p.8)
But not all poems in Possession are weighed down by the heavy hand of history. Some poems focus on personal, everyday events and relationships. For instance, “Sceptre” celebrates the piety and patience of the poet’s grandmother, while “Jimmy King” recalls fond memories of a friend, and “Goodbye” gives thanks for forty years of friendship with Freya Watkinson, an English woman who dies before the poet’s final visit to her. In “Epitaph,” meanwhile, Gray pays fulsome homage to P.E. Ferdinand who was his teacher seventy years earlier, but now: “has sunk like a stone into oblivion.” (p.11) The poet’s unsolicited expression of gratitude, so long afterwards, when no one might have noticed had he remained silent, carries a hint of our capacity, alas rarely seen, for noble actions of pure goodness, independent selflessness and sheer integrity.
In an unusually satirical poem “Cutting Edge” Gray sneers at poets who indulge in avant garde literary gimmicks. This implies preference for his own more conventional style which mixes iambic pentameter and free verse with varied stanzaic forms and lines of varying length. When it suits him, however, as in “Well,” Gray shows that he is versatile enough to display his own dalliance with avant gardism through idiosyncratic arrangement of lines on the page.
Although many poems in Possession consider commonplace scenes or events, often in foreign parts, for example, in Canada, England and India, there is no denying the pervasive, haunting presence of the poet’s native post-colonial Caribbean environment. The opening poem to the volume “Always the Sea” quotes two lines from the Barbadian poet Frank Collymore as an epigraph: “Like all who live in small islands/ I must always be remembering the sea.” (p. 1) And this idea about the crucial role of small islands in shaping Caribbean consciousness is driven home by the final lines of “Bounty” the second to last poem in Possession, which declare that mere sight itself of the Caribbean landscape evokes: “the love for an island that was not yours but / which claimed your faith and reshaped your ends.” (p.70)
What also haunts Possession is a sense of loss and transience when: “All things sink out of sight,” ( p.5) or: “Expectations have withered to straw;” (p.9) for as we all discover, sooner or later, youth, ambition, energy and enthusiasm all inevitably fade away in time. In “Fragrance” for instance, the poet recalls the bubbling eagerness and zest of his schooldays which brought: “the scent of burgeoning hope;” (p.9) but: “None of that happens today.” (p.9) “Take Five” also recollects the poet’s youthful excitement over particular musicians – Brubeck, Desmond, Billy Eckstine – and particular tunes – “Tenderly,” “Moonglow,” “Over the rainbow” – which produced such irrepressible delight that it led the poet and his young friends, during one of their music listening sessions, to burst out in song for their neighbours to hear. But the poem ends with two sad questions: “What heavy roller through the years crushes such zest? / How is celebration so ruthlessly suppressed?” (p.15)
It would be a mistake all the same, to detect bitterness or worse – complaint – in these questions. The poet is probably prompted by no more than natural concern over his own process of ageing. As the persona of an early poem “Cool Now, Calm” bravely acknowledges: “I wish for nothing more, merely to endure / a pebble on memory’s soft powdery strand.” (p.5) If this sounds like pretentious or pouting bravado, consider other lines in the same poem: “despite comforting myths / like warm blankets” that is to say, systems of belief that promise spiritual transcendence, or some form of eternal life: “dissolution comes to end / every trivial parade.” (p.5)
We surely cannot expect a more confident or decisive acceptance of the finiteness and transience of all living things, especially when it is followed by: “Twilight has its own comforts like any age.” (p.5) This mature acceptance of loss enforced by human mortality, within a universe of unfathomable secrecy and ultimate mystery, gains even stronger conviction from the magisterial final two lines of “Cool Now, Calm”: “I am glad that I had days to do what I did / but I’m cool now, calm, as it fades away.” (p.5) Here is both gratitude and contentment. Who can wish for more?