CREATIVE SPACE #3 of 2020 (uploaded March 25th 2020)
CREATIVE SPACE is a series spotlighting local art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 and ran to 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. There are plans for its continued evolution across multiple media platforms. CREATIVE SPACE is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, and freelancer.
This is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media Group) with extras.
If you would like to be featured or to sponsor a future installment of the jhohadli.wordpress.com online edition of CREATIVE SPACE, BOOSTing your BRAND while boosting Antigua-Barbuda Art and Culture (contact Joanne to find out how)
Also, remember to support your artists during this time through philanthropy – cash or in kind contributions; and through purchasing and pushing their books (by buying physical copies in your local bookstore, you will support local businesses – some have deliveries and drive-throughs; but if you can’t get out, many of your local books are also available as ebooks and some as audio books) – or just reach out and ask someone what they need. And until (and after this COVID-19 storm passes, follow the guidelines, be sensible, be kind with each other, be safe).
CREATIVE SPACE: ART IN TIMES OF TRAUMA
What is art for, if not for times like this? This is the first post-hurricane Maria creative work that I have had the opportunity to engage with and it is both a powerful reflection on the trauma of survival and hauntingly present (and prescient) considering the current state of things.
Hurricane Maria hit Dominica in September 2017 roughly two weeks after Irma decimated Antigua’s sister, Barbuda. Many Caribbean islands were knocked out by the one-two punch. Survival and rebuilding were immediate priorities. Now, we have art that speaks to the collective trauma felt across these islands by sharing Dominica’s specific experience: Celia Sorhaindo’s Guabancex (with Papillote Press), a collection equal to the category 5 monster with which it wrestles.
On the cover is a satellite image of the monster herself; the title is Taino for the spiritual entity associated with natural destructive forces.
Maria was a Guabancex. And, as with all such things, in the poetry collection, she pushes us to answer the question, and who are we, with more urgency than in ‘normal’ times.
I am hard pressed to pick a favourite or favourites from this slim but not easy 32-page collection. It reads cover to cover as an unfolding horror. “My daughter burst open her heavy eyes and our swelled shutters and doors – stared, pointed at the flogged and naked phantom trees; brutally splintered limbs pointing all over; black hollow knots in white tortured trunks mouthing – the horror.” And, as with most horrors, Guabancex compels even as it repels; and you have to stay for the end even anticipating that the end might be a set-up for more horror. Guabancex, the sequel; life, unyielding.
The collection is tonally an emotional roller coaster. Its imagery is precise and evocative. Its energy and word flow; use of symbolism (e.g. her father’s watch in ‘TimeXemiT(ion)’), metaphor (“This beloved mango tree is recovery” in ‘My Sister and I are picking Mangoes’), anthropomorphism, allusions; its play on words (e.g. the use of GoD, shorthand for the government of Dominica, suggestive of God-God, in ‘Housing Revolution’ to underscore the dis-ease one feels post-disaster when dependent on powers greater than oneself to reorder one’s life especially when uncertain that their motives and values align with yours), and blurring of the lines between realism and mythology. All of this elevates it.
But Guabancex is not written for scholarly criticism, though it deserves such attention; it is deeply personal, intimately specific, the kind of specific you have to have lived in order to be able to write, uncensored, and accessible to the very people it writes about – the people as in the poem ‘Mudras’, with empty buckets, jostling in line, hoping for water. It declares “im not going to sit here and paint a heavy hurricane picture for you” in its opener, ‘a poem filled with words not metaphors’ – a poem wanting to be heard but not interested in performing pain, that this is not meant to be a voyeuristic experience but an immersive one.
Who is art for? Who is this art for? Well, if ever a collection was therapeutic this might be it; but it is not self-indulgent. It is of the self, sure, the narrative self, but it is in so being of the people; it is a collective catharsis. The collection does a good job of telling singular, character-driven stories in poetic form. In so doing, it is telling stories of the community at the centre of the storm; stories that anyone who has been through trauma on this scale – hurricanes, war, nuclear disaster, pandemics – will find deeply relatable, sometimes reassuringly so, sometimes uncomfortably so; it is an experience, not a read.
Other poems in the collection include ‘Hypotonic’, in which the water is insistent, getting inexplicably in to “sealed places” and emotions are raw – “even now, writing, I well up”; ‘In the Air’, in which the survivors wear their trauma, “swaying like a punched drunk spirit” and in which night terrors are reinforced by “the chain rattle of locked door;…signaling predators”; ‘Ajai Alai’ offering no let-up – its “I thought we had seriously prepared for this hurricane” unsettlingly resonant; ‘Thank You’, moving between meditation and practicality, “there is no news, no current and the phones have no charge”; and on like that, providing as vivid an accounting of life during and after a hurricane as there has ever been. Some of the poems step back from the immediacy of the trauma, and can be just as nightmarish as a result; the looting, the xenophobia (“Dominicans should fill first, before these Haitians” from one of the men in ‘Mudras’), the selfishness, the politicking, the emotionless determination of a colony of ants, Mum’s Missing Roof Screws, the anxiety over which speaks to a greater loss of control over one’s life. In poem after poem, we have an epic meditation on grief and survival, the “slow, back and forth, across that strange taut rope lying between horror and happiness, self reliance and assistance, being alone and in the spirit of community, holding on to…and letting go.” – ‘Ode for Mum’s Missing Roof Screws (Somewhere Still in the Universe)’.
‘Invoked’ is a stand out piece for being from the perspective of Maria, self-styled as a mythical entity with “Cyclops eye” and “cloven hooves” (reminiscent of a certain Caribbean she-devil), wrathful and full of judgment (against perceived vices like materialism): “I will trap you for days inside your mausoleum, force you to loath loved ones unburied bodies on your bloody marble kitchen table; cling onto the door of your en-suite bathroom, concrete sealed—in two ferocious shakes you will shiver, stare into a void, unhinged”.
Madness, the madness this evokes, faith as madness (as in ‘What do I know’ with the John-Baptiste character whose “head is gone”), and madness generally is a sub-theme in the collection, as if it is the only acceptable outcome: “I WILL TURN YOU LOOSE/I WILL TORNADO YOU OUT/OF YOUR RIGHT MIND.”
There is another Maria, “a toothless guabancex-grinning woman called Mad Maria, living under a bus shelter in a now bare-bone village” – and the pendulum swings to the even more vulnerable, as realism dances with fantasy, for a time existing on the same plane, the storm having torn the rip between reality and unreality, sanity and madness.
There is a particular madness, an altering of reality that happens after such a trauma, especially if it is not, as it once was, once in a century. In ‘H2.5AZ (Strong Ties, Galvanized)’, Sorhaindo writes, “blows they say will come more frequently—ferociously unpredictable.” This is life now and that is stomach-dropping. Art can be escapist, therapeutic, and cathartic, but it is also about truth telling. This vexes people but it is part of the artist’s work to make us uncomfortable.
Guabancex ends with a multi-page poem, ‘Hurricane Praxis (Xorcising Maria Xperience)’, which goes on so long it creates the feeling of being trapped in the experience with the people; one can only hope that on some level it does exorcise the experience – though nothing really can. Perhaps, not even art. But still, create, especially in times like these.
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