Padhraig Nolan reviews
In Continental Shelf, Fred D’Aguiar has produced a body of work concerned with rigorous observation of a world thrown into turmoil by unforeseen trauma.
The book is divided into three sections. The first – roughly a third of the book – is a set of poems drawing predominantly on memories of his early life in colonial Guyana. This section is entitled Local Colour and while that title may contain subtextual intentions, the poems within rarely trouble the reader with anything more substantial than lighter, anecdotal implications. Through local characters, patois, textures, wildlife - including a strikingly camouflaged caiman - and a gift for vivid scene-setting, an agrarian childhood in a tropical climate is sketched out in close detail, as in Tamarind Season;
“Tamarinds hide all summer for us to find them,
Gnarled fists closed around our hopes,
Keepsakes for mouths starved of sour things,”
Oncoming modernisation features too, particularly in the poems Railway and The Barber-Green;
“this new smooth black bitumen
its fragrance of sweat and goodness
how a marble rolled on it kept going”
For me, the real strength in these poems is found in characterisation of loving familial relationships, depicted in the intimacies of day-to-day ritual and occasional crisis, as in Leaving;
“For her head, long neck and round
Shoulders I cried without sound.
For her arms waving I bawled.”
However, the crisis that drives the dominant second section of the book is no minor one, throwing D’Aguiar forcefully into the abyss of major tragedy.
In 2007, as a faculty member of the English department at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, USA, the poet experienced at first hand the shootings which claimed thirty-two innocent lives as well as the suicide of the troubled student killer. Entitled Elegies, this section takes up the majority of the page count and emotional weight of this collection.
Though a major shift in themes occurs, the move from first to second section isn’t as abrupt in tone as might be expected. The final poems in Local Colour are downbeat, melancholy and metaphysical while the beginning of Elegies comes on as practically journalistic, detailing the interruption of campus routine by the sound of sirens, the poet’s initial confusion before moving to technology for confirmation and realisation of the scale of the tragedy. Within pages, this new immediacy gathers pace until sooner than expected, we are living with the poet in the shock of aftermath; the grieving campus playing out before us, his concerns at this point still outward, descriptive, stunned.
“I meet one of my students face to face. Her red eyes, drained
Dry, make four with mine. She asks if I heard about Erin.
What about her? I know what she will say but before I complain,
No, more a moan than a protest, she says, Erin’s gone Sir.”
Recollections of individual victims come and go, snippets of information regarding the killings are revealed, the poetic picking up on the scrappily emergent narratives of social tragedies. The poet also begins to turn – not quite directly – to consider the killer (with whom he was familiar). The writing in these early poems remains hesitant, restrained, somewhat fearful. However, as this section progresses, the poet’s gaze turns more inwards, to deeper and darker territories of the mind and this is where the writing becomes more energetic and interesting. Every other aspect of his life becomes perceived through the horror of the human condition – the capacity for almost random terror. Anything living that comes within range is clutched and held, squeezed that little too tightly, fear and love become obsessive. A jittery whorl of emotion spins forth; a strong sense of survivor’s guilt, terrified joy at the simple fragilities of life mix with hollow, soul-sucking grief.
“That is the condition I’m in: blood
Poisoned by this campus slaughter,
Mind foggy with boats of thoughts
On water without a current, just afloat
No engines, nor sails, and that fog
So near that it eats my outstretched hand.”
D’Aguiar decries his own demons bravely, yet always within considerations of the victims, their families and, with more restraint, the killer. Despite the poet’s steady, inquisitive hand, some verses can wobble and tilt close to self-pity, exercise or therapy; some rhymes clang, some sentiments cloy. But then, this is rough terrain, requiring unsparing, full contact.
Throughout, formal structures and attendant parameters help to keep the whole - occasionally teetering - emotional construct moving forward. Elegies comprises of a sonnet sequence containing twenty-one parts; each one a group of up to ten sonnets. While the stanza structures shift in style throughout, the overarching formality allows for wild swoops of imagery and emotion to remain grounded, both for the reader and I’d guess, the writer. And wild swoops there are. This is a difficult and, at times, troubling read which can pose questions to the reader for which there may be few answers. Who can fully answer grief?
The choice of structure, the intensity of emotion - though occasionally counterpointed with a blank, curiously distracted tone – can sometimes bring the feel of a bruised love poem. In expressing his grief and confusion, D’Aguiar does, I think, express something of how we love the dead and, in doing so, renew our love of life and the living.
The final, shortest section of the book gives the collection its title. Continental Shelf reads, to some extent, as a continuation of Local Colour. Guyana and memory feature prominently again, as does a more meditative tone and pace.
As a collection, the decision to book-end the trauma of Elegies with two sections of such a different temperature serves to provide decompression space for the reader. Whether this is a positive or negative structural choice, I really can’t decide. Elegies certainly stands alone as a formal work, and the sheer energy of this psycho-emotional juggernaut somewhat overwhelms the poems that come before and after, though they remain high quality. It could be argued that this heightens context – particularly relating to parental anxiety. Yet the lingering feeling is of a game of two halves, wrapped around one entirely different, livid spectacle.
Padhraig Nolan is an Irish graphic designer, artist, musician, and poet, based in Dublin.