This is the fourth in the series of reviews I am posting over the summer of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).
The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan’s book is full of rebellions and unexpectedly, simultaneously manages to evoke the unholy trinity of Jean Rhys, Garcia Lorca and Garcia Marquez. But it’s not an easy read with its long lines of free verse transiting rapidly from person to person, place to place, from the demotic to the magical, from material to spiritual and the poems are also liberally peppered with Caribbean and Hindu references and allusions (many of which the likes of myself are going to have to look up). Ramlochan also invents many different characters, not giving all of them distinctively differing modes of speech but, in many ways, the (literally) presiding spirits here are the duenne and the soucouyant.
The former, in traditional terms, are spirits of children who died before they were baptized, who are fated to roam the forests of Trinidad, practicing their repertoire of dangerous pranks. They are sexless, their feet are turned backwards; they have no faces (though they have small round mouths) and they wear mushroom-shaped straw hats. The soucouyant is a shape-shifting Caribbean folklore character who appears as a reclusive old woman by day, but by night she adopts her true form as a fireball, flying across the sky in search of victims. These are outcasts, liminal figures with strange, threatening powers. Interestingly, Jean Rhys’ Antoinette, in Wide Sargasso Sea, is compared to a soucouyant and Ramlochan has spoken of Rhys’ character, “carrying her arsonist’s candle through the empty, cold halls of her oppressor’s mansion, ready to raze it to the ground”, as an important inspiration.
As with Rhys, the oppressor/Rochester figure represents the status quo, the loaded dice of orthodoxy and patriarchal power, and so – in modern parlance – what Ramlochan is pursuing is the “subversion of the hetero-normative value system”. Accordingly, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love’ draws on a grandmother’s experiences as an illegal abortionist, often faced with the disapproval of society (the church especially): “They have called me many things between these aisles”. The facts of gender inequality are made clear because when “men aspire to terrible jobs, we offer them hushed respect”, whereas women doing the same are felt to deserve nothing more than an “acreage of sorrow”. The word “acreage” is picked up on. Its limited nature is explored, ironically, suggesting that even in their degrees of sorrow, the experiences of such marginal women are strictly limited: “Give her enough land to hang herself”.
There is a sequence in the middle of the book which offers a clearer view of Ramlochan’s approach. ‘The Red Thread Cycle’, on the face of it, explores the traumatic consequences of rape. How to articulate the event is one theme and there is a magic-real quality which initially seems to add to the horror: “Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station. / Say you found yourself in the cave of the minotaur”. But this shifts quickly instead to reflect how police and authorities fail to take such a literal description seriously, even blaming the woman herself: “Say / he took something he’ll be punished for taking, not something you’re punished for holding / like a red thread between your thighs”. Other poems trace improvised rituals (real and semi-real) to expiate the crime and trace the passage of years. Some moments suggest the lure of suicide with allusions to Virginia Woolf’s death by water, carrying “pockets of white stones”. Seeing the unpunished rapist at large eventually becomes possible: “Nothing drowns you, when you see him again”. The sequence is a lot less chronological than I am making it sound, but what the woman has been doing over the years is, in a striking phrase, “working to train the flinch out of myself”. This has been achieved partly through art. Ramlochan certainly sees such pain as an essential part of the artist’s apprenticeship, that it will “feed your best verse”, and the sequence ends with her reading poems in public as an act of strength and self-affirmation, marking the psychic death of the aggressor: “applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy / is grating out gold halleluiahs / beneath the proscenium of his grave”.
But such possibly-biographical writing is not really typical of this book. Ramlochan transgresses beyond the confines of the Caribbean status quo by writing about her spirit figures who more easily and boldly express resistance. ‘Duenne Lorca’ seems to be an address to an unbaptised Caribbean Lorca-esque child. Like the Spanish poet, Ramlochan loves colour and a boldness of image almost to excess. The mother recalls how she “damped my dress with your purplish blood and rinsed you in the river, / stained my mouth / with the placenta of your leavings”. She rinses religion from his clothes each week and wishes him well in the forest he must haunt as an outcast but one who achieves freedoms unavailable within really existing society. It’s no surprise that Ramlochan is drawn to write about Lilith too, the Christian religion’s air-brushed female rebel. Even the Virgin Mary gets a poem, her character and role re-written as a jungle-haunting rebel, surviving weeks of deprivation. Eventually, she celebrates the “statues of the men who spoonfed us English [being] ground to glassine”. In this alternative history, the hoped-for liberation brought about by rebellion is successful: “We ate the words for marriage, for sacrament, for lawfully wed”.
The collection opens with ‘A Nursery of Gods for my Half-White Child’ which – apart from sounding like a poem title from heaven to the likes of ACE – challenges the teaching of religion (Ganesh, Kali, Krishna, Saraswati) to children and tries to offer the freedom to invent and self-invent in its place. I think the book would have opened better with ‘All the Dead, All the Living’ which is a much more enjoyable, energetic, colloquial celebration of such freedoms of choice. Set at Jouvay or Carnival, the poem invites all and sundry to “play yourself / or somebody else”. More idealistic wish-fulfilment than serious life-coaching, this is a message of liberation – to play grandmother, mother, all the dead, the living, even a soucouyant – is infectious. In a blurb, Vahni Capildeo notes Ramlochan’s poetry’s resistance to having an “identity” forced upon it and she’s right that the poems wilfully refuse any easy, specific biographical reading. Towards the end of the book, poems are in the voices of gay men. ‘Crossdressing at Divali Nagar’ is a more quiet and tender poem than most in the book, as two boys dress and paint henna patterns on each other.
The final poem has the character Vivek naming his various male lovers after religious festivals (because his father had told him not to make love to “faggots”). Ramlochan’s challenge to orthodoxy is obviously working on several fronts here. Though narrated in the second person, the voice is really Vivek’s and it’s an impressive piece of sensual, tender and funny, ventriloquism. But the book’s last lines are full of the book’s more characteristic serious intent. A “glock” is a pistol and Vivek here seems to make a firm, final choice of his festival-named lover and in doing so manages to challenge patriarchy, religion, family, gender and what we might consider ‘nature’ all in one go:
The day you marry Hanukkah is a glock pointed to your father’s face.
You tell him
I am the queen
the hard heretic that nature intended.