20 November 2012

Fred D’Aguaiar undresses death and rebirth

‘Continental Shelf’ by Fred D’Aguiar, published by Carcanet Press Limited, 2009, reviewed by Malinda Seneviratne

Death disturbs and therefore when we have to confront it we want to get over it as soon as we can. And move on/away.  But death arrives.  It arrives in the news.  It visits us from war and massacre, genocide and capital punishment, from here and there, as names and numbers and as of late graphic visuals.  The more horrific the pictures and larger the numbers, the more difficult it is to turn away. Partly because of the fascination, partly the fear; for there’s love and hate about death. 

When we’ve seen enough death in horror and quantity, we become happily numb.  Until the next massacre, provided there is a long time between horrors.  The Virginia Tech massacre was not the first campus shooting.  Still, it shocked, for ‘record’ reasons.  It was the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in US history, some said.  Seung-Hui Cho, said to have been suffering from a severe anxiety disorder, a final year English major, shot and killed 33 people and wounded 15 others. 
It happened on April 16, 2007.  I don’t remember the date.  I remembered the place.  And duly forgot it as other tragedies, other words and images obliterated horror-memory.  I remembered, though, when I was invited for a symposium on ‘Writing and Reconciliation,’ early this month, organized by that university and in particular by The Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program in Sociology, and the Center for 21st Century S’tudies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.  It played on my mind for a while and went away.  The good people and the stimulating program are to blame. 

It came back on the last morning of the event.  And I realized that death and tragedy are ‘ ‘backburnered’ by event but stays with the witnesses, the near and dear, and those who are averse to ‘backburnering’.   It was something that had happened five years before.  Fred D’Aguiar knew the date.  It was also something that stayed. 
Fred read from his acclaimed poetry collection ‘Continental Shelf’.  He spoke by way of introduction of that day, the student who would never sit in his class again and how when he called his mother she said she’ll come over and cook Caribbean food for his students.  He read from here and there, but the poetry related to that day made the book for me. 

‘Continental Shelf’ is in three parts.  In its entirety the collection traces Fred’s journey from place to place and his growing up in that larger moving.  Fred traces social, geographical, political and ideological maps (with all the fault lines, disasters and sporadic reasons for cheer therein) by talking about people, describing event, unraveling and laying out all the contradictions and complexities of his mind-engagement. 
Fred begins with a question in the first part, ‘Local Color’.  He speaks of ‘bringing back’, laying out the past-idyllic and asking that it all be re-enacted, ‘as would sprinters to a start line after a false start where one bolts and the rest follow’.  Someone fouled.  Others followed suit.  We need to return to that all-things-even place, he suggests even though that happy location would have had its own contradictions, own disparities. 

He describes that childhood world in detail.  It is in a way an exercise of  ‘I/we did this’ or ‘I/we did that’, but what takes us there and makes us belong to that world is the delicate weaving of human commonality or rather childhood commonality into narrative. 
‘Playing House’, for example, is not about Fred and some Guyanese context; it is everyone’s memory of a time that has been gently taken to ‘starting line’.  ‘Bullroarer’ is an ancient ritual of sharing among friends.  Or siblings.  It is as Sri Lankan as it is Caribbean. 

Fred returns to the Guyana of his childhood or rather draws from it in the third (and final) section, ‘Continental Shelf’ and the poem of that title, calling not for a return to starting line but for a wake-up: ‘This country needs to wake up faster, for my body could use another couple hours rest’.  That ‘country’ is both Guyana and the USA, it is every country that is made for idyllic rendering and ready for lament.  It is each and their connectivity, for Fred is acutely conscious of the political economy of trade, the commerce of resource and surplus extraction:
Give me back my slippers, my robe
And my favourite cup  purchased at Whatley
Diner from another life and laced with two
Per cent milk and beans from Central

The world has whirred around him and his eyes need rest.  He returns again and again to his Guyana on a ‘same-moon’ ship which seeks him out wherever he goes, especially Blacksburg, Virginia where he lives and teachers, and is witness to things that disturb but cannot rob him of hope. 

Fred’s poetry is musical, as poetry ought to be (I think) and not because he can easily pick the words and sounds that make for the kind of rhythm he wishes his lines to dance with.  It is not strained or artificial.  The rhythm comes from both word choice and thought strand, the poetry of life that he lays out in word configuration and line-break.

There’s a narrator here who made me think ‘he would write great short stories or novels if he puts his mind to it’.  No, there’s nothing ‘grand’ about his narration.  He reports stories that we’ve heard, events we’ve seen many times, people we have met and things that have caught our eye.  It’s only the outer cover that is different. 

And ideas too.  They are not ‘Guyanese’, they are not foreign. 

Never a book opened for anything
But reprimand and nothing but rules
In any book worth opening or so it seemed
Waist-high with things that gripped me
As a wave grips the sea and sea grips sand
As a current runs through the sky’s open hand. 

That’s how ‘The Never-Never’ ends.  We are all rule driven and rule made.  We are all doubters and rebels.  We are complicit in the processes that trick, suppress and overwhelm us.   We read books, but not as authors want us to read them.  We know rules and what they do, and when necessary we ignore them, go around them or even break them. 

There are moments when his words take out to a never-never world of dreams which come and go, which allow for visitation but not permanent residency.

I hand my life over to you
Embrace this gift for what it is
A raft of night afloat in days.  [Succession]
‘Elegies’ is sandwiched between ‘Local Color’ and ‘Continental Shelf’.  That’s his word-memorial to those students who died.  It is a twenty one part turning-inside-out of all that came to him and all that went out on that day and thereafter. 

Erin will not come back. 

I see her desk three desks back in that first row where she dived
For Cover, like the rest of the class she always sat in one spot.

She won’t come back, for she has never left:

‘But Erin’s desk will be empty? I see her loping way
Of crossing a room.  An athlete, she moves off the basketball
Court with so much economy for her strong body, as if space
In which she did not compete, hardly merited movement,
Like a coiled sprint, off duty, or a loved government.’

The absurdity of it all is apparent to all and said often enough, but Fred says it nevertheless because it must be said again and again:

‘Not twenty but thirty-two innocents killed, just think,
Thirty-two mown down in classrooms by weapons
You can buy legally before you can legally drink.’ 
Life returns, as it will.  Fred speaks of the return to routine, the back-to-groove of ‘Blacksburg back on its feet, Blacksburg undefeated’.   Not to him, and perhaps not to anyone of that moment, that incident:

‘How stunned April 16th left me
So that now is exactly like then till kingdom come’
April 16th is a day I remember.  Not 2007, but 2000.  Massive protests against the IMF and the World Bank in Washington DC.  Not anymore though, not after reading Fred’s narrative of all that took refuge in the underside of the mind’s many leaves of coping. 

They say aggregates (human ones, say) are greater than the sum of their constituent parts.  Perhaps it is the reverse that’s true.  The sum is less than the aggregate of parts because human beings are false-start bullies and followers of such cheats.  Some poets, sometimes, make things more even.  Fred D’Aguiar.   Just by saying the as-is and more importantly the un-ease that gets buried for convenient and eye-relief.  He is an outlier, if you will. And that’s what his life is all about, I felt, as he laughed, clapped, cheered, was silent and recited.   And shared. 

I won’t forget April 16 or Virgina Tech or Erin.  Each death will come running, from now on.  I could curse Fred D’Aguiar, but I think I will say ‘thank you’.   
[First published in the FINE Section of 'The Nation', November 18, 2012]