The Nakedness of New by Althea Romeo-Mark
General impressions –
The Nakedness of New deals heavily with the timely issue of immigration, and the title refers specifically to the vulnerability of being new/in a new place without the resources, network, and comfort that would make you feel at home. The collection covers place/displacement and moves across the Caribbean, Africa, the US/USVI, and Europe. It explores the rhythms of life, the violence we visit upon each other, the ins and outs of immigration (e.g. “we come in waves./Our boats, tiny specks/ on dark, fathomless oceans” in At The Mercy Of Gods) – particularly potent in this time when immigration is headline news (from the packed boats entering Europe with people from Africa and the Middle East, some lost at sea or to slavery, to the separation of families, some children lost forever to their parents, at the US Southern border to discourage immigrants from certain “shithole” countries). This book sits in that conversation in a deeply empathetic way.
From my previous readings of Romeo-Mark (especially her book If Only the Dust Would Settle which I really liked, but also her journaled poetry, blogs, reviews, and social media), the locations featured in this collection – The Nakedness of New – as well as her style and common themes are familiar. Sometimes a bit too familiar. It would be interesting at some point to read more deeply and elaborately, for instance, about Romeo-Mark’s unique Caribbean-Switzerland experience. I’m sure there are many stories to tell given that she’s lived there since the 1990s.
For now, there are hints, but only hints, of that aspect of the poet/author’s storied journey. Meanwhile, though several decades removed from Africa and England, and many more decades removed from the Caribbean, these earlier chapters – already well covered in Dust – occupy the bulk of the poet/author’s attention. The time disconnect might account for why the Antigua chapters, for instance, notwithstanding the vivid imagery, feel nostalgia-hazed (lingering over the rituals, values, superstitions of a Caribbean and an Antigua before I knew myself).
Romeo-Mark is skilled at capturing an image and from that image a line and from that line a verse and from that verse a poem, a story, a life. Her writing is vivid, precise, incisive, striking, so that even the familiar will at times surprise an emotion out of the reader. In fact, she is so skilled at narrative storytelling through verse/poetry that I wished, reading the book, that it was exclusively a poetry collection without the prose essays she uses to set up certain sections. She is a good writer and has led an interesting life so it’s not dull reading but her poetry, the narrative storytelling that she does through her poetry, doesn’t need the set-ups and explanations (and sometimes it breaks the reader’s stride).
The breakdown –
Some of the poems didn’t land as well as others for me. Some like Now ‘Massa’ Loved Some Hunting were interesting, but felt uneven in execution. Some of the ones of the recent Caribbean felt travelogue-ish though it’s clear that the poet sees beneath the pretty pictures of a life of catering to “the needs of strangers and their desires”, observing that while “vendors are haggling souvenirs. Many are crafted in Colombia” (Antigua Panorama) and other less than sunny aspects of ‘paradise’. One of my least favourite poems in the collection, though I see the pepperpot the poet is concocting, might have been New World Bouillon because it feels dated with its gentle treatment of Columbus as a “curious man…who carries a large portion of courage in his bowels” among other things. Vessel, another framing of Caribbean history, might have worked better as an opening as it captures the complicatedness of it all with a bit more wokeness. Of course, whether or not either poem needs to carry that water is a matter of opinion, and that was mine.
By contrast, Romeo-Mark’s writings on war, lack/loss, and migration (and home from way back) are ever fresh, ever potent – e.g. We Do Not Cry For Meat, Uninvited (brimming with tension from its first line “she cannot say no to armed hitchhikers”), Street Sweeper (which in lines like “I joyfully sweep up berry seeds./They are not broken fingers or toes” speak to a kind of PTSD), The Raid, and Liberian Curfew. Also strong are slices of life such as Haunting Lesson with its image of children being paraded through village streets as a form of tough love for bedwetting, Turn the Broomstick Up with its parade of unwanted visitors, Cookbook with its lessons handed down mother to daughter, Hanging Hearts on a Clothesline (one of the best examples of narrative storytelling in verse in the collection through and through, and one of my favourite poems in the collection), Patriarch, Things That Transpire Under A House (another favourite narrative poem), Pauline, Brochure (a commentary piece on the contrast re what’s shown and what isn’t when your job is selling yourself), and Small Island Deprivations (one of a few not-new poems – this one having been featured in an online collection I edited in 2014).
Romeo-Mark’s strongest moments lie in the specific. Also, every now and again a line will stop you with its insight – e.g. “Jumbi, you jam with us/mock your past,’/mask your loss/in the revelry of carnival” in Moko Jumbi, or the traveler in Murdered “carrying memories/ of death,/she follows a long trek/to nowhere/and pauses only/to suckle the child/strapped to her back”, or when she ends When My Brother is Not My Keeper with “death, now,/is a casual thing,/and war is life”.
So there are strong pieces throughout – others with telling imagery and beautiful lines include The Nation Builder’s, Desiree’s Revenge, and Love at First Sound – but the collection does have cohesiveness issues in my view as an entire project. The sub-titles and essays are meant to aid with the shifts in geography but it doesn’t read as seamlessly as it could.
This book is actually strongest for me when it’s speaking to the immigrant experience and that, as a point of focus, trimming anything not specifically oriented toward that theme, might have moved this from a collection with good poems to an award winning poetry collection – strong, topical, timely. Perhaps it is that – I do hope that the author takes a shot at submitting it for the Bocas poetry prize and see what happens. Because, yes, the collection could have been more cohesive but Romeo-Mark is still a good writer with great lines, great poems, and vivid and deeply felt moments. Plus, I’d like to see more writers from Antigua and Barbuda, which Romeo-Mark is, initially, go for it.
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