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One Life, One Love
An Excerpt from Twelve Poems and A Story for Christmas
How do we make one life? How do we draw together all the disparate strands of our lives and make them into one seamless garment? These are the questions I ask myself whether I am trying to fill a blank page, painting a fence, or putting up drywall. How do I make this life, one?
As I look back on these early poems (shown below--written over twenty years ago) I can’t help but notice the continuity of concerns in my work: musical: “dubwise blinks out the slanting rain”; social: “mongrels and madmen scamper,” and the rawness of the influences. There is Kamau Brathwaite with the fractured typography and his repetitive, jazz-like vamping on sound: “the core, the chorus”; Derek Walcott’s insistence on Romantic, formal elegance “O, innocence”—I always wanted to write a line with “O”; Dennis Scott’s tight, spare phrasing: “stark voice of a TV preacher”; Tony McNeill’s love of the lyric and his critique on the emptiness of modernism—what we have become: “husks of coconuts” and the King James Bible via my fundamentalist upbringing: “whitewashed brilliance of stones that will nor forgive.” These have been the primary influences on my work and everyday I work to reconcile my life with these voices that came before me, and whose music creeps into my life and the oddest times.
How do I find the right pitch, the right timbre? How do I sing with my own voice, and acknowledge the great debt in the voices of these elders who paved the way for my own voice to be heard, so that I can sing with this authority.
It’s been called the “anxiety of influence” but as everyone has heard, “Who feels, it knows it.” Every artist, every conscious person goes through this and worries if s/he is being true to that voice that only s/he knows as true. It’s a question of authenticity. How do I live an authentic life? My children ask me this in various guises every day. ..
I don’t know how to answer them. I won’t tell no lie.
What I do know is I keep working every day. As a husband and father, I work to be as good as I have imagined the Holy Family—their lives, their loves, and their times and the co-relations with my life, my loves, and my times.
I wonder what must have gone through Mary’s mind when the messenger came to her with the idea that she was carrying the child who would be called “Prince of Peace.” Did she see herself as in the lineage of those great women prophetesses like Judith? What would be her role in giving birth to this “anointed one” of her people when every day she woke up to Roman rule, taxes, and domination? Every morning she woke up and saw these strangers in her holy land committing sacrilege on the holy ground under her feet, and that they trampled upon and muddied with the blood of saints. And would her son suffer such a fate? Israel’s history was written with the blood of martyrs. Would the collaborators whom she saw in the temples, who hated their brothers more than they loved their own country, betray him as they had betrayed, killed or cause to be killed their own brothers because they preferred to profit under foreign rule than to be free?
And what about Joseph? A holy man, but still a man. Wouldn’t he have felt a tinge of jealousy? Yet, he did the right thing and brought up a child that he knew wasn’t his. Some men would never have done that. Some men have run even when they knew that they were the father. But Joseph was one of those men who do their duties without fanfare and never did anything spectacular to prove his true identity. I’ve known men like this, and they have been models for me when I became a father. I am thinking of Melvyn Smith, a quiet, Christian man whose steadfast earnestness and devotion to his family I have admired to this day. I am thinking about my father-in-law, Francisco Jose Patino, who brought up three girls that were not his own. I am thinking about Roy, friend and my countryman from Westmoreland, and how he has done similar good things. There were and still are many men like Joseph in Kingston, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, New York, London, the places in between and around. We’ve just never heard about their stories. They aren’t being good fathers for the fame. But we need to hear or read about their stories to keep us going, so we’ll know we are not alone. Because sometimes it gets dread—the times when we wonder if we can keep on because we think the Romans have us on the run.
And why do we do keep on? For love. It’s why Joseph and Mary stuck together despite everything and trusted in their redemption. Joseph and Mary also loved each other and they probably intuited some of the things that lay in store for their son. They’d seen it with their eyes and read about it in the Torah. Mary could easily have been killed by a few over zealous religious fanatics who judged everyone but themselves. Joseph and Mary knew there would be shame, there would be name-calling, and they would have to bear it. For sooner or later, someone would say to their faces, behind their backs, or when Joseph was dead, and intending the insult, “Isn’t this Mary’s son?”
But we have to go on. We have to keep working to weave together all the parts of our lives together to recognize our wholeness.
As I writer, every time I stare at this blank page that has so many possibilities, I find it a daunting task. I doodle, write nonsense, stare off into space, cut the lawn, or rearrange the books on my shelves. Then, I write. And I write to remember.
Sometimes, I remember my mother, who after my father left, brought up my sister and I, and countless other cousins. Sometimes, I remember my father, and I know he loved me when he left. But who know what goes on in a married couple’s life? Sometimes we judge our fathers too harshly. Fathers are asked to be so much, and sometimes they think that what they have is so little that they begin to think that the Promised Land is just beyond the next river, the next sea, the next—when they are standing in the middle of Paradise. In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.
Sometimes, I remember my grandfather, Andrew Lumley, who traveled the Caribbean Sea and was a cook, shopkeeper, baker, rum shop owner, and God knows what else just to feed his family When the last child left, he had half his farm and one cow. Or so the story goes. It was a long time ago. Now aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, friends and those who have made my life so rich are scattered all over the world in places as near as Georgia and as far away as Australia. ..
For it seems as if we are always leaving our homelands for somewhere else. And when we go home, we realize why we left. We see the beauty and the horror at the same time.
This is true every time I go back to Jamaica, which has now pushed Colombia, my wife’s homeland, out of the first place as the murder capital of the world. In time, this may change. Who knows? There is so much promise and so much peril. And Jamaica, at Christmas, is heightened by all the social inequalities that the Old Testament prophets (representatives of our collective conscience) would have hurled at the rulers (representatives of our “traditional” ways of doing things—thoughts that we have conjured up to rule our reality and which we have deemed unchangeable): making unjust laws, issuing oppressive decrees, depriving the poor of their rights, withholding justice from the oppressed, making widows their prey, and robbing the fatherless: "Everywhere is war."
In Kingston, the houses of the powerful tower over the shacks of the poor that squat in the shadow some of the most beautiful mountain ranges I’ve every seen. Yet at night, when the buses have finished belching their black smoke into the air, and the screech and the screams of the day have died, when the peenie wallies light up the limbs of the poinciana and the croaking lizards and the tree frogs begin their symphony in the fever grass, and the cats begin to crawl through the broken aqueducts, and the women and the men, tired from a long day of work, start limping home under the streetlights, I can almost forget all that has happened in the city that sleeps under a sky so big, it fills me with joy even when I am simply standing at a stoplight on Matilda’s Corner or watching children play from verandah of a friend’s house on the Mona Commons, and I can almost forgive her for what she has done to so many of my friends, my brothers and my sisters.
And I do forgive her. For I am part of this reality that consents to inequality and limited thinking—for they can’t possibly be anything like us. But I can’t forget some of tragedies out of which my family and I were born. All these faces that keep coming back—faces filled with light.
All these faces, these moments come flooding into my life at Christmas when I am looking at the faces of my wife and my children—our family—when we meet with my wife’s family and our extended family from the Caribbean, Central, South, and North America for novenas.
For nine days beginning on the sixteenth of December, we meet at each other’s homes. We meet, quarrel, gossip, eat and pray and go over all the things that have made the year lousy and blessed. But at the back of my mind is the gratitude that I feel to be alive in this time and space with people I truly love and hate. But they wouldn’t be in my life if there hadn't been a connection—if I hadn’t called them into my life to be my teachers. My loves and my hates teach me how I have defined my life. And so, I give thanks for all of them—my angels and my demons. They tell me about the things I will do with relish and the things I will never do. The things that I have left behind, the things for which I yearn, and the surrogates I create and seek out to quell my deepest fears. So, give thanks for all of it.
Sometimes I miss many of the faces that are not here, but I look at the faces in front of me and I am reminded by something my daughter always says, “It’s all good.”
I want to believe that even when I see the faces of children from Colombia who look like my children or I see similar faces of children from Jamaica and I see my children too. Twin countries caught in a spiral of murderous mayhem to which there doesn’t seem to be any hope.
Yet, we must hope. As another of my heroes, James Baldwin, once said, “You can’t tell the children there isn’t any hope.” And that is what Christmas also means to me—a time when I can believe and hope again.
“It’s all good,” and I’m beginning to believe my daughter. I only wish I had the wisdom to see the grace (of which I get glimpses when we gather for novenas) all the time.It’s in these moments that I realize, despite the hardships, the tears and the laughter, how much of a beautiful, horrible, heart-breaking, awesome, frustrating, and wonderful journey it’s all been and continues to be.
“It’s all good.”
All night I thought of Kingston;
dubwise blinks out the slanting rain.
Mongrels and madmen scamper
back and forth across the boulevard.
A room lighted, closed to the night.
An old man keeps pacing the floor
weaving webs of light from a single tale.
I thought of lives that vanish
at earliest cockcrow. How friends,
eyes downcast, avert like bends of a river.
Remember the storm that caught out lives?
Like kites hoisted above the trees.
You’re so far away,
and our lives connect
our dreams to other lies.
What we said or tried to say,
isn’t the fiction we’ve become,
or could escape.
The rain fell harder,
the street a vertigo of voices
filled with the noonday laughter
of braided schoolgirls--
trees whisper our names--
syllables, dust on the windowsill.
Christmas Eve ‘88
(For Nadia, Anna, and Christina)
(For Nadia, Anna, and Christina)
The hoarse horn of a fudgeman,
and stark voice of a TV preacher
in a tortured pulpit,
disturb plumbagos loll in dew,
while my daughter sleeps in heaven-
ly peace. O innocence that shatters
the iron psalm of Singer
sewing machines, filling last orders
on Christmas Eve. For my lungs burn
with carbon of the city, swollen
tongues repeat the core,
the chorus rotting in the pit-
iless silence of pews, arranged
like shorn skulls, husks of coconuts
toppled by a senile wind that forgets
the sun, a roaming spear in the live-
r, leaving trackmarks wide as a grave,
penance for all that was lost in the race-
form stuck in the hip of touters,
in the groin that resists the needle,
the need to be whole, to be holy,
yet praying for tips of water from Lazarus’s
finger to wash away hurt from sides of walls,
(whitewashed brilliance of stones
that will not forgive). But finding rest
in laughter, simple as a child’s footsteps
under a star that promises life,
like light on Joseph’s forehead,
and faint echoes of “Noel, Noel…”
like candles above our heads,
the song of my children that keeps me alive.