The Trinidadian poet reflects on leaving the island – and always carrying it with her
Wherever I Go …
there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.
We are to the very end
a naming not our own,
though we leave to find
what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know,
like a small beach
has the ear of the great sea
and a trillion ebbs
are never without returns.
This flow is the staying,
though we depart.
An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle
like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …
This week’s poem is from the latest collection by Trinidadian writer Jennifer Rahim, recently published in the UK. Wherever I Go … seems to demonstrate the creation of one of those sacred spaces referred to in the book’s title, Sanctuaries of Invention.
“Travel cures imagination,” Rahim writes in a longer poem, Homing Now to Stardust, part of which is an affectionate epistle to a globe-trotting nephew, “but home is where we anoint ritual.” While Rahim’s own pleasure in travel is clear in the many descriptively exuberant poems in the new collection, Wherever I Go … seems to say that the home country is more resistant, a portable sanctuary that travellers must form from their own images and symbols.
The poem’s stanza pattern may itself be symbolic. While the title begins the poem, and evokes a first phase of imagined travel to unknown destinations, the three-line structure of the opening stanzas suggests containment. It may also allude to the name, Trinidad – Spanish for “Trinity”. (The full name imposed on the island by Christopher Columbus was “La Isla de la Trinidad”, replacing the original Arawak word Iëre, “Land of the Hummingbirds”).
So, for the first three stanzas, the lineation suggests an island surrounded by sea. This ocean, the poet memorably says, will always be “what rings me”. The variety of meanings in “ring” includes encirclement, and perhaps the physical ring used in tracking a bird’s migratory flight. End-rhymes, too, assert the sense of containment in these tercets.
The poem’s thought will move on, and the tercet structure change to couplets, the pairs of lines walking firmly and carefully into a wider world, when the powers of imagination will be most needed. Before this happens, though, there is a central acknowledgment of alienation through “a naming not our own”.
Again, some lines from Homing Now to Stardust shed light on the colonial contexts of Wherever I Go … “We joke de ole Buckingham / would drown in our Queen’s Park Savannah. / No name they gave us / could contain the largeness of islands.” To rediscover what has been obliterated a difficult personal acknowledgment is needed: “though we leave to find // what is left behind / and that holds us, / more than we know, // like a small beach / has the ear of the great sea.”
The voice of the “small beach” is listened to by the “great sea” as if the sea were some kind of generously maternal or paternal spirit. The exchange is furthered in the imagery of “ebbs” and “returns” and the “flow” that “is the staying, / though we depart”. The poet has spoken of herself in the first stanza, but from the second stanza to the end of the poem, she speaks for her people in their collective movements of migration.
In the enticing metaphor of the oyster and the single sand-grain, there’s a return to the earlier idea of enclosure, with a symbolic protective entity, the oyster in its shell, very much smaller than the “great sea” and even the “small beach”. The poem imagines a new-old world in miniature. At first, it seems as if the “single grain” might symbolise the country, the oyster being the person whose memory lovingly recreates and encloses its presence, and, implicitly, transforms it to a pearl. But the idea is more original than that: it is, I think, the island that’s represented as the oyster. Warmly, safely, she (now female) “stores” each individual islander “in her heart’s muscle // like a lover’s memento”. The last line echoes and revises the main verb, “go”, in the title, and also ends in an ellipsis. It tells us that, although movement and change remain unavoidable, fundamentally “she never lets us go …”
A writer of fiction and criticism as well as poetry, Rahim won the 2018 OCM Bocas prize for Caribbean literature for Curfew Chronicles: A Fiction. One of her acclaimed earlier collections, Approaching Sabbaths, is reviewed here, in an essay that includes an interesting short introduction to the anglophone poets of Trinidad and Tobago.