Cecil Gray, Lilian's Songs. Toronto, Canada: Lilibel Publications, 1996. 116 pages. pb. $6.00.
Cecil Gray and Anthony Kellman have a great deal
in common. Both of these Caribbean men are serious poets whose work has
already received very favorable responses. They are didactic poets in the
best sense of that maligned phrase. That is, their poems are vehicles that
carry forward the eloquent weight of their values and beliefs. They are
formalists who are also comfortable writing free verse and are often attracted
to oral, folk, and popular traditions. Some of their poems are highly lyrical
but others are written in dialect and can even be quite prose-like. Noted
American writer Nancy Willard's critique of Anthony Kellman's work could
be equally applied to Cecil Gray's: "[Their] poetry combines the rhythms
of Caribbean music with a splendid gift for metaphor and form. You will
find yourself wanting to read these poems out loud."
Lilian's Songs is Cecil Gray's second book of poems. His first volume, The Woolgatherer, was published by Peepal Tree Press in 1994. Howard Fergus, reviewing The Woolgatherer in The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 9, wrote of Gray's "powerfully apt imagery" and "flexible attitude of rhyme." These attributes are clearly evident in the three sonnets that make up the title piece of Lilian's Songs. The sonnets are woven into a tribute to the poet's mother. The first begins, "My mother, Lilian, was silken black / wearing pride like the tribal regalia / queens in her great-grandfather's Africa / were bedecked with. Pain's counterattack." Lilian's dark face, "stirred up weather / that pitched her adrift, a lost refugee," yet "she kept coaxing from life / the notes she needed to soften the strife" while "she plait[ed] her woolly hair." Lilian's "woolly hair" is the unifying symbol of black hope and pride that braids the three sections of the sequence together. Part 3, or sonnet 3, ends with a rhyming couplet that spells out his black mother's victory over circumstances and change: "Lilian's songs will always remind me / woolly plaits weave strong strands of dignity."
The Long Gap, Anthony Kellman's book, is overtly like Cecil Gray's Lilian's Songs in several ways. For example, The Long Gap is also Kellman's second volume of verse; his earlier collection was titled simply Watercourse Like Gray, Kellman's poetry was first published in book form by Peepal Tree Press, which has a well-established history of recognizing and promoting the work of accomplished Caribbean writers. And like Gray, Kellman proved himself to be a master of "apt imagery" and "flexible. . .rhyme." The title poem of Kellman's The Long Gap will remind readers of the title piece of Gray's Lilian's Songs although Kellman's poem does not follow the formal structure of Gray's sonnet sequence. Instead, it consists of one long strand of verse paragraphs that employ subtle, often internal rhymes rather that overt end rhymes, and passages that are sometimes more prose-like than lyrical. Yet it, too, is a rich tapestry of family history woven into images and sounds, and like Gray, Kellman's references to music are key to understanding his message. As the narrator moves through the landscape of his childhood he reports, "I wrestle with an angel from that past" resolved "Not to leave with the song only part sung / not to leave without saying goodbye" to "Mother, bearer of all things, / lover of all things." Kellman's poem, like Gray's, ends on a note of hard-won victory as he turns away from the memory of his mother, who "calmly expire[d] at seventy-six" and turns to greet his young daughter-"I say: 'Everything will be all right just now' / and I look on the sunlight just now."
"Reggae, ruk-a-tuk, samba, calypso" music "throbbing 'pon de stereo'" and the "braid-dripping head" of a Barbadian fisherman's wife, "shining in the Caribbean moon" ("Fishing Song") are images that haunt the self-exiled Anthony Kellman. He finds himself continually traveling, both figuratively and literally, "between the gnarled skyscraper and the water's edge" ("A Dancer to the Gods"). But always, "Home is where islands are." ("A Churn In the South") Cecil Gray also feels torn between two cultures, though the source of his pain is not because he had to leave his beloved Caribbean in order to prosper as a scholar and writer. Rather, like Derek Walcott, he has discovered, "A wide road stretches behind like a thong history / wants to strap on me" ("Sides of My Road"). If he walked back down one ancestral path he would meet African "legends. . .in ivory and iron" in "forests the Niger would redden;" with tribal warfare; if he walked down the other path he would gaze on European "grey cobbled cities with cathedrals / like jewels, and hamlets. . .soaked red" with "disputes." Cecil Gray laments, "Hate crosses and recrosses my road. . .draw[s] straight lines to keep. . .the races apart, / their snipers aim shots at freaks like me." In order to escape the crossfire, the poet must "push forward," "full of strange wine" "dipped / from the world's brimming cisterns of joys and sorrows" ("Songs Becky Taught Us").
It is hard to do justice to one complex book of poetry in a short review, much less adequately explore two such resonant books as Lilian's Songs and The Long Gap. There are at least as many interesting differences as likenesses between Cecil Gray and Anthony Kellman's latest collections. Gray's volume is nearly twice as long as Kellman's, which may be explained by the fact that Kellman is teaching English and creative writing full-time at Augusta State University in Georgia while Cecil Gray has retired from his post as Director of the In-Service Diploma in Education Programme at the University of the West Indies. He only began writing verse seriously after his retirement in 1983. Before that, he was too busy "producing 25 textbooks for use in West Indian schools" to concentrate on poetry.
This reviewer is grateful he decided to do just that and that Kellman finds the time as well. I can honestly say these two books are the work of two gifted poets. As Gray writes, "I am always rereading / the words of the master, / tongue-strumming the metres / . . .re-startled by metaphors / that peel open places we know and show us what / they are made of."
Copyright © Cecil Gray