April 2018

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When I was at university in Boston, one of my most demanding and brilliant professors, Roger Shattuck, a scholar of 19th century French Literature and translator of Marcel Proust, authored an intriguing book, The Innocent Eye. In that book, he explored the ways in which we read literature and asked a fundamental question: is it possible to read a text with an “innocent eye”?

The immediate response is, of course we cannot, we bring to books all of our fears, our prejudices, our politics, our joys, our failures; in short we bring ourselves to the books we read. How we read and what we read tell us a lot about who we are.

So consider this when you read Rajendra Ramlogan’s collection of poetry, My Words, My Liberation.

I met Rajendra for the first time in my office at the University two weeks ago. He had emailed me about doing this book launch and I reminded him that although I taught poetry, I was definitely not a poet and I felt he needed a poet for this review. But Rajendra has a powerful mind and his skills of persuasion are unworldly. With these powers of persuasion, I had no choice, I agreed and I am glad that I did.

I was taught to read literature in a deconstructive mode, simply put, to approach a text without knowing too much about the author’s background, to focus on the world of the text and less on the poet’s biography or the world outside of the text. My professors argued that knowing too much background influenced our reading, but knowing too little did not give us enough context in which to locate the work. Reading was then a delicate balance of the two, a dance where we knew a few steps but never all of them, taking away predictability, opening ourselves to the possibilities of the work with a measure of naiveté and perhaps even innocence.

Rajendra’s poetry is a construction where traditional forms and rime schemes are used as scaffolding for ideas that want to break from tradition. That is the dance of this work. In the first poem of the collection entitled, “Bullet for a Prince”, the poet writes:

Death has claimed another black face,
and my women have lost the father for the race…
The pain we feel for a dead brother is real.
In this unjust land, it will never easily heal.

The unjust land is the United States and this section, the first of five, is devoted to the unraveling of racial politics in America but also to the poet’s own awakening about his black identity. The title of this section, “These are My People”, encapsulates this awareness, or as the French say, this prise de conscience, and it is clearly expressed in the poem, “Sonnet to a Black Man,” where the poet affirms:

I am a man, and I am black.
I have struggled in this land with you on my back…
Yet I survived the pain, I survived it all,
and I am a man standing proud, standing tall.”

My Words My Liberation is a journey, real and imaginary, that the poet must take in order to realize his liberation. But liberation is a vague term, and sometimes it is more useful to look to antonyms to discover and uncover meanings. Ramlogan’s declaration of liberation also announces a state of imprisonment; there is this idea of captivity within his concept of freedom. Many things have held him captive and not the least of these is the image he holds or once held of himself. My Words My Liberation is then a dual reflection on both captivity and freedom.

The tone of Ramlogan’s poetry is reflective, interrogative and exploratory but not passive. He challenges his own convictions and in so doing also challenges those of his reader. The title’s insistence of the personal, My Words, My Liberation, belies what actually takes place, for his concerns are not just for personal self-determination and agency, he is decidedly concerned about the state of our world.

Injustice is a preoccupation and a pervasive motif in the collection. For the poet sees it everywhere, in the past and present, in our history of genocide, in the treatment of the disenfranchised, the ostracized, in the way we cut down our heroes like Martin Luther King or Toussaint L’Ouverture, and in the ways we butcher our own environment.

His treatment of this theme takes the form of many guises: vagrants, abused women, children of the barrios, the mentally ill, and it spans continents. The perpetrators of these ills are also named, drawn from politics, history, even mythology, revealing once again a rich mind. In many of the poems there is a tone of disillusionment but not resignation. As the poet writes in “Black Gold—Oil”:

Raucous celebrations greet your emergence,
as men fall to their knees and swear their allegiance.
Pledging fidelity and service to your cause,
loyal subjects, economic whores

The poet does not simply wish to point to all that is wrong with our world, but through words and the power of the pen, through metaphor and the pun he has decided to engage and indirectly his readers are inspired to do the same. The image evoked in the poem “Sarajevo” is a poignant one, as snipers lunch bullets “we shut our doors to those who flee.” The culpability and complicity that he expresses cannot be ignored.

There are also battles to be fought in the wars we wage against nature by allowing its destruction. The poet’s love of nature and the desire to find once again a telluric harmony is expressed in “A Sonnet to Remember”:

“Then heaven lowers its curtain of rain,
bringing a mixture of pleasure and pain…
The juice of a succulent papaya run downs a face,
another symbol of the Creator’s grace.

But I would be wrong to leave you with the impression that this is all that there is. The poet has even more to offer, because there are also moments of brightness, music and levity. As we see in the poem, “One Summer Day in Washington” where: “the praises to summer can be set to music,” or where: “the symphonic blending of teenage chatter serenades the mall, / a day when eyes can flirt with quiet fun,/ a day of summer, when musical tribute can be easily spun.” He also writes about the trajectory of love in the penultimate poem, “Ships of Dreams.” The ship’s voyage is the metaphor used to describe the journey the poet takes with his love. Their time together full of trials and glory is effectively evoked as “the weathered beams” of the ships hold their story. The sonnet also brings to light another important element in Ramlogan’s poetry and that is the role of the poet and the poem’s ability to fix and immortalize a moment even when that moment has long past. I must confess that this is one of my favorites of the collection since it is able to render so much in so few words, so allow me to indulge in a few lines:

Long ago, along the endless shore,
buried deep and seen no more,
were two little ships fast asleep,
resting weary bones from sailing the deep.

From their weathered beams flows many a story
of a past full of tribulations and pregnant with glory
As they rest side by side, a love unfolds
that speaks of those who dared to be bold.

I could go on but I will leave the rest to your reading of this collection and I know that you will read it and read it well, perhaps even with an innocent eye.

Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw is a professor of French literature and creative writing at The UWI St. Augustine. She reviewed the collection of Rajendra Ramlogan’s, My Words, My Liberation, on February 28, 2017 at the launch of the book. On April 19, she will deliver her Professorial Inaugural Lecture at the School of Education Auditorium at 6pm. Her lecture is titled, “Cracks in the Edifice: Notes of a Native Daughter.”