Who is the Kumina Queen, and where is she going? Is she heading back to her African home?
The vibrant, colourful cover of this poetry collection very much reminds me of the work of a Jamaican artist friend, Rudi Patterson, who died some years ago – in particular, his painting of the swaying, swinging I Threes. I suspect that the poet, like our friend Rudi, is from the eastern end of Jamaica, where most of the poems are apparently set. The poems are not merely an expression of culture, though. We should unpick them slowly and carefully, and examine them before we knit them back together again. They form a rich and complex pattern.
The collection starts off with a deliciously lustful poem – written, as many of the poems are, in the first person. The woman is caught in a Fisherman’s Net. The second poem continues the love story, but things get a little complicated. Penelope is faithful to Odysseus, but…
The poet’s voice is compelling. After reading six or seven poems, I found myself listening to it with care. The tone fluctuates, but the reader is drawn in and carried along. I found lots of small links in poems, so they weave in and out of each other; names appear and reappear in different contexts, often family members or named by family members (like Bongo, not a real person in fact, but a negative and wasteful person). There is great grandmother Katie (or Aunt Katie) and Aunt Jackie, and Clara, but not so many men’s names. In fact, men are the silent onlookers in many of the stories, the half-remembered memories.
Belly Pain is sadly a poem that many Jamaican women can relate to. Yes, it’s that kind of belly pain. The ensuing poems, Crosses to Bear and Jemima’s Wait are, similarly, about loss, disappointment (a Daddy who would forever be a “no show”) and a kind of resignation that somehow refuses to quite lie down. There are several poems that retain that echo – a sigh of regret, an empty space where there should be someone, an empty road, sitting and waiting. The poems are often grouped together in twos and threes; for example, there are three consecutive poems that are painted red: Blood Flowers, and more red flowers in Point of View, and red blood in Last Rites to Menses.
Depressing? No. There are the poems with a wry twist of humor: a brief but illuminating conversation with a “fake West Indian” abroad, and Good Hair – another family memory. I loved the last verse of Point of View. The neighbour watching her doing her gardening – in a philosophical way.
I have to confess to confusion (or perhaps conjecture is the word) over some lines that I read over and over, and could not quite put my finger on. Why was Mama, on the verandah, “counting spinning wheels”? Why are plastic bottles “dangling from the almond tree”? Only Mr. Pink (in Duppy Run) can answer the second question.
I particularly loved River Mumma’s Fate, perhaps because this Jamaican legend has always moved me. The Mumma herself is speaking. How did she end up in the river, and how did she cope with it? This poem is the song: Cry Me a River. It’s a real beauty – the poem, I mean. I also especially loved, for different reasons, Straw Flowers Growing in Miami Like Weed – a nightmarish story of a young man who got into trouble with the law overseas. Why nightmarish? The image of a “man-size bee” trying to get in her window, “his golden childlike fuzz seared, dripping red…” as well as the Sesame Street characters – seemingly harmless “pals” – Kermit and Oscar. This was chilling. Sold Again (Generation Now) is also a sad story of oppression and a young man who can do nothing but “dazzle with diamond studs” and speak in strange, derogatory language.
Several somber poems towards the end dwell on the issue of death. A sad poem called Final Office brought back for me a piercing memory of a work colleague who passed away suddenly; we had to clear out her office, paperclips, sticky notes and all. Drop-Pan Game is an elderly man taking chances with death… It’s a gamble. Bird-Shooting Season is a wry commentary on birds doing “reconnoitring flights” at the funeral of…yes, a bird shooter, to make sure he was dead. From birds to flowers, there are also white roses, and a prayer leaf that closes in like hands folded in prayer. Direct Debit just creates one stark image. And there is one more bird poem: Sign Birds (You May Choose to Believe in Omens) in which the ghost-white symbol of death calls the names of those who have passed. Yes, there are lots of names.
So, where do we find the Kumina Queen? She dances through the collection, which is dotted with cultural references. Easter Sunday Morning is dedicated to the Kumina King, Rex Nettleford, dancing with his “spins, dips and breaks.” A little later, in Travelling Under, the poet also dances counter-clockwise, as in the Kumina dance (and also, by the way, in Western ballroom dancing)…and in the very next poem, an elderly woman also dances. Then a “reader-man” appears (does he have a girl under his spell, or is it the other way round?) – that is, a kind of clairvoyant who can “read” people; a kind of obeah-man.
Navigating the Middle Passage is music that needs to be read out loud in a ringing voice, traveling through the currents of land and ocean. There are several African names embedded in it, besides the Kabaa of Islam and the field hollers of the Southern United States. It is a surprisingly, defiantly joyous poem.
You can return to these poems, these reflections and meditations, many times; and after the second or third reading, they will always give you something new. I guarantee it.
And so, the Kumina Queen is lifted up and carried away, in the dancing steps of the poet, back over the seas, back and back.
Monica Minott is a chartered accountant and poet. She has received two awards in the Jamaican National Book Development Council’s annual literary competitions for book-length collections of her poetry.
Monica Minott was awarded first prize in the inaugural Small Axe poetry competition. Her poems have been published in The Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Caribbean Journal, Cultural Voice Magazine, SX Salon, Jubilation, Coming Up Hot and The Squaw Valley Review, and more recently in BIM magazine. Some of her poems have been broadcast on Power 106 in Jamaica.