Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 was published on Friday.
We have found that much of the poetry produced by Virgin Islands writers fits into the classification of “free verse,” which is credited to the American poet, Walt Whitman. Some would argue that the origin of “free verse,” however, is in the King James version of the Bible, one of the books found in most post-emancipation households in the 19th century.
The Psalms are poetry with meter, but not rhyme, and use other poetic devices as well. Sermons and pulpit pronouncements followed suit. It was explored in the days when people read and wrote to each other. There is nothing like a morning cup of coffee or bush tea and reading poetry out loud with a friend.
Among the group of Modernist poets exploring the Virgin Islands experience published in The Caribbean Writer (Vols. 16-32) is Daisy Holder Lafond, a Virgin Islander who makes figurative arguments through images and metaphors evoking a sequence of feelings and ideas about the way a society grapples with a history that continues to conjure ambivalence and angst. One example is the poem, “On Visiting Annaberg Ruins” (Vol. 27) (Annaberg Sugar Plantation, St. John, and USVI). The following is an excerpt:
if time could heal
I would not be here lingering
ancient mahogany trees
licking old wounds
of ancestors long gone
from thrusting cane
tru these rusty old rollers
in this said sugar mill
In “Conch Shells, Christiansted, St Croix” (Vol. 23), Lyn Frederiksen also uses a series of images to explore the ambience of a schoolyard where history is alive in an old graveyard. She invokes the simple, yet complex, counterpoints of two worlds, past and present, in exploring the truths of this island space.
Behind the Anglican Church
conch shells border the graves
mortared in rows
in a ship-hold through the Middle Passage
My sister Julie went to school in the parish hall
played in the grave yard
gashed her knee
on a conch shell ringing
a child’s grave.
A small thing.
A band-aid is enough
Exploring the ambience of history in another Virgin Islands space, professor and author Vincent Cooper employs a musical moment to make a point about historical significance in his poem, “Steve Ture Plays St. Thomas in 2014” (Vol 27). The poem is both concise and suggestive, encouraging the reader to pay attention to the natural cadence as well as the words to determine how things fit together.
I was a witness when Ture the trombonist
blew his horn like a mystic monster on the island paradise of St. Thomas
close to a square mile of former Danish stock
dockyard, where warehouses held their ground with capital gains,
a piece of sprawling history.
This is the spot.
In “Children of the Sun” (Vol. 19), professor and author Rudy Wallace writes of a “sun-short” St. Thomas boyhood and his haunt of its summer forests — evoking joy and contentment through a series of nature images that function both as a retreat from the world and a microcosm of this Virgin Islands world.
Apart from the melody of images and his effortless management of metaphors, the specifics of flora and fauna are important for environmental study.
High up in sun-towers of mango trees
We spied on ground lizards crawling
In the dust, and snug in the arms of branches,
Sharing the iguana’s green terrain,
We scattered Chi-Chi birds into the sky like fireworks.
While I am mindful not to attempt to equate aesthetic reflection with political action, another of Wallace’s poems that actually reinforces the argument about entering Caribbean/Virgin Islands literature in a seamless way into the curriculum is “In an Islands Library”(Vol. 16).
The universal nature of modern Virgin Islands literature is evident here as we note that this philosophy is larger than the Virgin Islands. It in fact addresses some of what we grapple with as were enact, readdress, and revisit this conversation about Virgin Islands laced, based or infused curriculum. The first stanza sets up the argument:
Caribbean literature and Greek mythology,
Cloistered in an illusion of solitude,
I’m captivated by a great thinker’s philosophy,
Not Aristotle’s, not Socrates’,
Not by Plato’s theories …
The last stanza angles the chronic debate — now many decades old — about the inclusion of the Virgin Islands experience in the curriculum:
Not by the ancient musings of philosophers,
But by the mischief-making intelligence
Of the comic materialist, that unrepentant rapscallion,
Anancy the Spiderman.
As we debate, we might take a moment to consider the sticking points — classroom, curriculum, culture, economy, environment. Is this phenomenon like an amoeba or some other single cell being that should be studied under a microscope of curiosity in a separate course, one month of the year, while set in a protected ethnic silo? What of the evolutionary markers? Who should be charged with this? What should be studied? What should be the end result of this study? What are the appropriate vehicles for transporting the enduring ideas? Should this experience be infused like ginger in lemon grass tea into the curriculum so that the fragrance of cultural understanding is affirmed in the identity of its diverse student population?
In Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning, information and recall are on the low end of the critical thinking scaffold. So how do we take this conversation up to the higher rungs?
We know that the struggles we have in today’s world, even the most pernicious ones, are grounded in customs, beliefs, fears, ignorance, power and ideas. This is often transmitted through what we sing, what we say, what we dance, how we play, how we work, what we eat and what we write, what we ignore and what we acknowledge.
We can explore all of these dimensions in the works of our poets, fiction writers and essayists and while criticism is still very much lacking, Virgin Islands writers are forging ahead and the most successful, internationally acclaimed among us are budding and branching in the rain of formal criticism.
— Alscess Lewis-Brown, St. Croix, is the editor of The Caribbean Writer; she has written six books for young readers, including the popular Moko Jumbi Majorette series, and she is a part-time professor at The University of the Virgin Islands.