over the roofs of the world

by Olive Senior
109 pages,
ISBN: 1894663829

Imaginary Origins

by Cyril Dabydeen
251 pages,
ISBN: 1900715945

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Carribean Snow Birds
by Michael Greenstein

In the Introduction to his selected poems, Imaginary Origins, Cyril Dabydeen claims to find his poetic self in crossing boundaries and looking in different directions. Drawn to Columbus who displaces Adam as the first man, both Dabydeen and fellow Caribbean Canadian poet, Olive Senior, explore his figure and in their poetry rediscover America.
As Janus-faced in her Caribbean-Canadian identity as Dabydeen is in his, Senior uses a bird's-eye perspective in over the roofs of the world, her third book of poetry, to transcends her postcolonial dilemma. "The Pull of Birds" addresses Christopher Columbus as the Spanish "Col=n", to displace him as the standard-bearer of America. Senior shapes her four stanzas with receding, run-on lines to underscore both Columbus's sailing, reenact the boats' rocking on waves, as well as imitate birds crossing his ships. Sailing on to the second stanza, he prays for "a miracle to centre him / in that unmarked immensity, as warp to woof." His colonising compass fails to centre Col=n; instead, the postcolonial path of birds gives direction:

And suddenly from the north a density
of birds flying south, their autumn migration
intersecting his westward passage.

Similarly, Senior's intersection of alliteration (weaving, warp, woof), internal rhyme (immensity, density), and participles participates in the voyage of discovery. Instead of the "official" textbook account of Columbus, we are given the voice of birds, who are given the last word¨"Guanahani"¨to displace the opening "Col=n". "Birds seeking to outdistance these raptors skimming." These predators are Columbus's three ships that the birds have beaten to landfall, for nature precedes conquest.
After that grand crossing, Senior offers a series of smaller poems in "A Little Bird Told Me . . . " that focus mainly on Parrot as trickster. She plays with shapes and nuances in "The Secret of Capturing Parrot" where the bird's captors try to smoke him out of his green canopy. The prosaic question in the middle of the poem¨"How will they know where Parrot is hiding?"¨gives way to the final shaped lines that mimic the mimic:
The wind shifts.
Parrot's captors break out into a fit of coughing.

Parrot's tongue.
Similarly, by blowing smoke over its beak and laughing, the poet gives voice playfully to the trickster in "The Secret of Taming Parrot". This bond between poet and parrot continues in "The Secret of Crusoe's Parrot" and "The Ultimate Secret".
Avian imagery recurs in the book's second section, "Islanded", with "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird", and "Misreading Wallace Stevens", as Senior's postcolonial island writes back to Stevens's modernist stance. "Islanded" concludes with a prosaic statement and poetic simile:

This is not exile.
You can return any day to the place that you came
though the place you left has shifted a heartbeat.

The shifting and shifted heartbeat of Senior's poetry is compared to "that artful dove Hopping Dick / you hopscotch." From "The Dance of Cranes" to "Penny Reel", Olive Senior hop-scotches between Canada and Jamaica.
The poet choreographs quatrains in "Penny Reel" to imitate the dance form:

It is Saturday, the night of penny reel dances, girls in
pressed hair, white muslin and sashes, turn to
high-stepping gentlemen as they weave out and in
eye passing each other on the go-round.

The verse weaves the simplest enjambment of "in" with the internal rhyme of "muslin" and the contrast between girls and high-stepping gentlemen. The contrast between the little dressmaker who stays at home working miserably on Saturday night and the other revellers dancing around the maypole lies at the heart of the poem. She is forced to lock up her children away from the merriment until she earns enough pennies from her sewing to liberate her children. Abused by her "man", she wishes for "No more scars / on her body criss-crossing like ribbons. No more / riding her. No more grinding her down." Senior patterns "Penny Reel" on traditional ballads and Rapunzel features, evoking the poverty and hardship of her native Jamaica.
The final poem in this collection, "Ode to Pablo Neruda", re-deploys the "thread" metaphor to pay homage to the Chilean poet in a lengthy dialogue that opens with:

You did say:
Don't call up my person
I am absent.

In this ode, Senior adds presence to Neruda's absence thereby offering insight into the poetic process. The opening invocation recalls Milton's Paradise Lost, with Neruda serving as muse: "by those who like me seek the pure voice untrammelled, the courage to speak of things nobler than the self." Where Milton appealed to the supernatural, Senior and Neruda lower their sights to the raw, the natural, and "the voice from the bottom of the well." Looking for the "right chord", the poet turns to Neruda's "thread" and spins her own web of words: she is both Spider's apprentice and Trickster.
Senior turns to her other lineage¨those ancestors handed a one-way ticket, a "lifeline to the plantations," the ones bound in chains and dragged across the Atlantic on that dreaded Middle Passage. Her "hurricane heart" pulls in two directions: north and south across the Americas, east and west from Africa to the New World. Her quest for the millions who have "disappeared" joins with Neruda's tightrope walker swinging between joy and obligation. The ode concludes with transcendence of the initial bottom of the well:

The heavens
and open.
With seeming ease, Senior flies over the roofs of the world in different directions.

Like Senior, Cyril Dabydeen writes about Columbus and Pablo Neruda. Like Senior's "The Pull of Birds", Dabydeen's "Discussing Columbus" uses participles as a means of participating in the dialogue between poet and reader, poet and Columbus. Dabydeen relies more heavily on first-person pronouns and end-of-line stops:

I talk in tongues of newness,
I fulfill a rage without disdain;
I am the voice within, I cringe,
coming to an understanding
of who I am, where I am going next;
this Columbus in me, smashing the waves
into smithereens with bare hands.

Through alliteration, internal rhyme, and participles, Adam, Columbus, and Dabydeen find common cause in the poem's epigraph from Bartholome de las Casas: "All the peoples of the world are human." The poem works out¨and works through¨this all-inclusiveness to come to an understanding of identity, the inner Columbus making and breaking waves. Destiny's "next" leads to the opening of the second stanza: "Next, making much ado about Behring Straits." Talking and grimacing, the poet of participles discusses Canadian treaties and constitutions, "making memory out of nothing." In the face of a sudden divide, "I linger and laugh at other boundaries / which I do not understand. . . " Making much ado about nothing, the poet risks extending that lack of understanding to the reader even though he embraces the totality of "a deserted but peopled land!"
An earlier poem, "For Columbus", exhibits similar characteristics of inclusiveness: the poet longs for Italian brothers, Greek sisters, an African father, and Indian mother, and a French aunt; in short, the extended family of mankind. He then turns to other Spanish explorers, such as Cortez and Pizarro, who clashed with Montezuma and the Incas. The poem concludes with a Robinson Crusoe persona engaged in another form of colonialism with Friday commanding and the Spanish Empire sinking in the background. All that Crusoe is left with are a Bible and the bottomless sea.

As I try to jump over it, my paradiso,
El Dorado, the heathen sky
falls prostrate
at my feet.

Dabydeen also pays homage to Pablo Neruda. In contrast to Senior's fully developed ode, Dabydeen's poem ("After Pablo Neruda") appears underdeveloped because his epigraph from Neruda's "Memoirs" is as long as the actual poem. Where Senior creates a monument to the Chilean poet, Dabydeen offers a flat, unheroic stanza whose shape lacks the excitement of Senior's structural shifts:

To be a hero
in undiscovered
is to be obscure:
these territories
and their songs
are lit only
by the most
and by the flowers
whose name

"Weaving Fables" also prompt unflattering comparisons to Senior's imagery. Where Senior weaves to fill in the blanks, Dabydeen drops stanzas like stones, each one a discrete unit. The poet is "Mowgli", Kipling's native boy; he is also the Bengal tiger, before shifting to the sea around Bombay. As the poet goes back in time, he recalls the tragic history of the "Middle Passage", the abysmal transatlantic crossing from Africa to America that Senior also summons up in her poetry. But the transitions from sugar plantation to a tenement in Calcutta are too abrupt, the woven fables forming a pattern not easily discernible.
A similar problem plagues the title poem, "Imaginary Origins" (which originally appeared as "Maestro", indicating a certain editorial indecisiveness.)

From among cows
you blossom,
out of offal
pungent in the air.
You throw a lasso
and grapple
with horns.

The reader, too, grapples with the horns of Dabydeen's dilemma, but the lasso fails to tie up all the loose ends of his poetry. The poems selected from his ten volumes of poetry in Imaginary Origins fail to satisfy in the same way as Olive Senior's. In exploring his "hinterland spirit" through loss, dislocation, confessional and mythopoeic modes, Dabydeen's vision in different directions is often blurred. ˛

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