The Kingston Buttercup has a small yellow flower. It grows with determination by the roadside, prickly but ignored.
Ann-Margaret Lim’s title poem in her second collection of poetry Kingston Buttercup describes a glimpse of this little city flower as a kind of release from the pressure of traffic, winding down from her home in Red Hills. It’s not only the traffic that presses down on you, though; if you live in this city, you will know the sharp edges, like the buttercup’s thorns.
Today Ms. Lim launched her book at the University of the West Indies (UWI), under the aegis of the Department of Literatures in English. Head of the Department Dr. Michael Bucknor provided a welcome. Poet Laureate Professor Mervyn Morris spoke about the poems, which are divided into two sections. The first part, Spirit Tree, includes many delicate strands of the poet’s personal history, entwined with robust echoes of her island’s past. Her home in Red Hills was also the home of Tainos, and her very first poem reaches for this heritage. Then there is the suffering, anguish – and rape – of slaves owned by Thomas Thistlewood and described in his diary of 1750 – 1756. The poet wonders: “Who in Thistlewood’s Diary would I have been?” These are the “duppies of history” as Professor Morris described them – many of them. There are also the family stories, of Lim’s own mixed heritage. We meet her Chinese “Popo” (grandmother) making sticky sweets at the stove; and her mother, who left for Venezuela, and did not send her any amor after that. The poet is musing, drinking alone in a Beijing hotel bar; she is distracted by sudden rainfall in Florida; in a Caracas hotel room, she sees herself as Simón Bolívar in reverse (he penning his famous Jamaica Letter). There is a great deal of loss and longing in these poems.
Those in the second section of the book – “six of them menacing, or obscene” – Professor Morris observes – take a small step back. A distance emerges at times, between the poet and the landscapes, the poet and the people. Just a little distance. We see a gunman (Sandokhan, who was quite notorious in the 1980s) hiding in the hills; we expect to see the yellow tape of a crime scene. A fiercer tone creeps in; I can imagine the poet biting her lip as she writes Cheated or Eve and the Snake, 2012 (in these poems, the distance shortens rapidly again). Then, perhaps there is a sigh on writing Peeny Wally (female peenie wallies do not have wings – they have to borrow them from the males). A certain defiance smothers regret. But I also enjoyed the magical realism of Guinea Hen Weed and the muted threat of Shaker Way. There is vulnerability.
Professor Morris read one of his favourites from the collection: Sea Dirge, a short one. An image of Hellshire Beach – and the darker place it has become – flashes before the reader:
Went to the beach,/searched the horizon,/its blue fading to white;
saw the seagulls,/the ritual of fish and festival;
saw a man/walking on the moss-covered rocks/to disappear into a lean-to on the beach
– blood-soaked shirt peeled,/fresh chop to his chest.
Postscript: Kingston Buttercup was longlisted for the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. In the poetry section of the Bocas Prize, Ms. Lim kept company with two fellow Jamaicans: Ishion Hutchinson (House of Lords and Commons) and Safiya Sinclair (Cannibal). Ms. Sinclair’s book came through to the shortlist, just today. In the other categories, Jamaican Kei Miller (for his novel Augustown) and the late Trinidadian Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Glimpses into the Past/A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago were chosen in the fiction and non-fiction categories.Out of the three, one book will win the overall prize.
Meanwhile, as Professor Morris said: “Please buy the book!”