6 months ago

The Caribbean Review of Books (New vol. 1, no. 19, February 2009)

A sample of the new CRB, as published by MEP until 2009


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 dancehall’s misogyny, seeing what she calls “femmephobia” — a fear of feminisation — as a central element in a discourse that combines fear of predatory womanhood, incarnated as “punaany,” with adoration of the mother. Hope, it seems, has discovered that dancehall culture has enshrined the madonna/ whore dichotomy in its lyrics. Rachel Moseley-Wood takes the film Dancehall Queen as her subject; she sees the film as failing to show dancehall as a subversive site of female empowerment, because it retains a patriarchal presentation of the female dancehall performer. In the final section, Robert Carr takes a close look at the Jamaican state and the challenge posed to it by the “don system,” which has become a “subaltern state” linked both to networks of globalisation that supersede the state system and to conceptions of masculinity that exclude both women and those men who are defined as womanly or “soft.” This assessment of the state in relation to social and cultural factors, and to violations of human rights both from above and below, is the one piece in this collection that I, as a political scientist, wish I’d written. Bernard Jankee’s brief survey of Jamaica on the internet focuses on three websites —,, and — each very different in affect, one being aimed on Jamaicans overseas, one being the product of a Jamaican who is also a significant figure in Jamaican cultural production (but which “is not a very welcoming site”), and the last being focused on tourism. Kamau Brathwaite might not want to take credit or blame for these essays, but his inspiration is clear in many of them. The authors do more than perfunctorily express their gratitude to him: they are engaged in profound scholarship on ground that he has prepared, whether as poet, as historian, or as cultural critic. That this is more than mere ancestor-worship is, beyond doubt, something that he must contemplate with pleasure. A Surveyor’s Journal For Wilson Harris I took my name from the aftersky of a Mesopotamian flood, birdless as if culture had shed its wings into a ground vulture on the plain. Beneath the astral plane, a war-ripped sail, rigged to its mast a lantern and a girl who swayed and stared off where the waves raced backwards. I begged her in signs. She jumped overboard, arms sieving seaweed, eyes netting home. Dear Ivy, you live in my veins. Spurned flesh, I couldn’t bridle the weathervane’s shift; it turned and turned into a landfall, and I, panting panther, sleek carnivore of the horse-powered limbs, ran from a reign of terror. All my despairs in green rain, on leaves I prayed to the mantis, head wrapped in white, reading the “Song of God” over a bowl of beef. Afterwards, I hemmed into my skin this hymn: O lemming souls of the mass migration that ended in drowning O embroidered heart and marigold wrists that brushed the copperbrown field O cargoes that left the dengue jungles and ended on the yellow fever shores O compass points that needled the new to the old, stitching meridians into one tense O reflecting telescope that spied the endangered specimens Clashing head-brass, the vertical man vs the horizontal man, those who lost their surnames to the sea’s ledger, beached up on the strange coast, waiting for the Star Liner to cross that imagined Mesopotamian water, the ship’s bulwarks in sleep, weighed down a spirit-bird, my calm, to never flounder, to walk holy and light on this land. — Ishion Hutchinson 22

The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 The contender By Sharon Millar Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet, by Anthony de Verteuil (Litho Press, ISBN 976-95008-8-7, 392 pp) Many of us secretly desire to be plucked from obscurity — perhaps to live again in time to come, through the pen of a meticulous researcher, someone willing to sift through the dust of lives gone by, restoring and presenting another era through time’s forgiving sepia filter. Fr Anthony de Verteuil spends his days doing just that. An astonishingly prolific writer, since the early 1970s he has been publishing detailed historical volumes with a speed and tenacity that are truly admirable. His specialty is the history of French Creole families in Trinidad, but he has written extensively on diverse aspects of the formative nineteenth century. With a light and engaging prose style, de Verteuil is a delightful narrator, painstakingly presenting the minutiae of lives past in a way that is both entertaining and instructive. With a heavy reliance on oral history and a hearty sense of humour, his material is seldom pedantic, and it is testament to his indefatigable research that both Trinidadian historians and those of the wider region turn to his works as reliable references. I picked up Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet with all this in mind. This is not the first time de Verteuil has turned his attention to Devenish (18191903); in 1986 he published Sylvester Devenish and the Irish in Nineteenth Century Trinidad. Despite his Irish heritage, Devenish’s social and familial history was strongly French. A prominent member of Trinidad’s French Creole community, he was closely linked by family to the de Gannes family, the Le Cadres, the Begorrats, and the D’Abadies. In this new book, however, de Verteuil’s main concern is Devenish’s poetry and his prowess in verse. Interestingly, de Verteuil recently released another book examining the writing of another prominent French Creole: Leon de Gannes: Trinidad’s Raconteur (2008). Structurally, both books are similar, beginning with a detailed family history then presenting the subject’s original writing. (Devenish’s verse is presented in both the original French and in English translation.) De Verteuil must be lauded for making these literary offerings available to the wider public, as they contain valuable insights into nineteenth-century life in Trinidad and provide additional reference points for the local literary tradition of that dynamic century. But the subtitle of Sylvester Devenish begs further analysis. De Verteuil makes a brave leap into the literary gayelle, describing Devenish as “the most outstanding poet Trinidad has ever produced.” By throwing this hat into the arena, he opens Devenish’s work to a whole new level of analysis. The literary and cultural traditions of nineteenth-century Trinidad have been the subject of much animated discourse. This intellectual landscape cannot be examined without recognising emerging new literary voices of the era. Writers such as the black intellectual John Jacob Thomas (Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, 1869) and Michel Maxwell Philip (Emmanuel Appadoca, 1854) made their mark on the literary climate of post-emancipation society. Joining this clamour in the latter part of the century were oral and written accounts of the newly arrived East Indian indentured labourers, whose stories appeared in chronicles like Journal of a Voyage with Coolie Emigrants from Calcutta to Trinidad (1859), a documentary account by Captain and Mrs Swinton. It is only by acknowledging the changing literary paradigms, which reflected ongoing changes in the rapidly evolving society and the movement toward a dynamic national voice, that we can begin to pull the real worth from de Verteuil’s (and Devenish’s) work. Devenish appears fully fleshed and bounding with energy in the book. This seemingly unstoppable man influenced Trinidad society in many ways. His work as the island’s first surveyor general took him to every nook and cranny of the island, as he literally mapped the colony’s topography. Much of his poetry reflects this strong bond with the landscape. In the nineteenth century, poetry was a ubiquitous part of the French Creole social calendar. Landmark events such as births, weddings, and even funerals were marked by verse, which was often sung. When the price of cocoa was high and the French Creole planters were flush with the proceeds, their children were sent to France to be educated, the girls going to finishing schools and the boys to well-respected establishments where they received a solid education in the classics. Devenish was no different, and had the benefit of an excellent education in France. “While in Paris, Sylvester made the acquaintance of the authors Jules Janin and Honoré de Balzac,” de Verteuil tells us. Not only did he meet them, it would appear that they were happy to encourage his literary endeavours. 23

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