Guabancex by Celia Sorhaindo
Full disclosure: This was a review copy sent to me by the publisher Papilotte Press, an independent Dominica/UK publisher. I wrote about it in my CREATIVE SPACE column which runs every other Wednesday in the the Daily Observer newspaper and the extended edition here on the blog. That online edition is excerpted below. My reviews are all my honest opinion irrespective of how the book came in to my hands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read the entire CREATIVE SPACE online edition here.