March 26, 2007

Review of Kingdom of Empty Bellies

Jamaican writer Kei MillerFrom the moment I opened Kei Miller’s, Kingdom of Empty Bellies, I knew I was going to like it because of the juxtaposition of John 7:38, “For out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water,” and Bob Marley's, “Them belly full, but we hungry.” For if anyone wants to understand Jamaica, they need to read the King James Version and listen to Bob Marley. Preferably both at the same time.

Still, I was a bit wary. Reading a book of poems is like entering a relationship. Some people can talk a great talk, but can they walk the talk? By this I mean, after reading the book will I have a deeper understanding of the subjects about which the poet has chosen to write? Has the poet crafted the poem (sound and sense), so that I can dive headlong into the poem and perhaps encounter beauty?

“Mother” and “Hats” from the first section of the book, “Church Women,” allayed those fears. The poem describes a Jamaican matriarch whose sole mission is to save “sinners, whom she crushes/ to her chest shouting, Jesus! / Jesus! until the evil breaks.” In “Hats,” which is told from the perspective of a child, the speaker confesses:

The boy will not see the majesty

In these women;

He will not understand their purple claim:

We are not God’s children!

We are his wives.

The rest of the poems in the section introduce us to the world of these women whom I have often glanced on a Sunday morning through my car window as they urge a gaggle of children up a hill to a small chapel where they “will strip Britain/ off their tongues, allowing them to dance free.” And in a country as hard as Jamaica, I've often asked myself, what makes them continue?

“In Dream Country” the second section of the book, “Granna’s Eyes” answers that question with the haunting refrain:

Is de ocean

de blue blue ocean

in mi eye, in mi eye

Is de ocean

de endless ocean

in mi eye, in mi eye

It is beauty and terror. Terror and beauty. In this section, Miller exposes the dreams/fears of his immediate family and the color red assumes a different meaning from the associations in the first section: the "red flowers laid at the altar" ("Communion") and the "red banner" of Sister Sybil ("War Dance"). In the poem, “On Arson and Parachutes," red is not only the color of unrequited love, but also of Aunt Valda's murderous passion.

At family dinners, she was the one who danced

always in a new red dress

and hugging her, the sharp smell

of kerosene would rise as a ghost

from behind her ears.

When passion is turned inward it becomes destructive, and the men in the third section, “Rum Bar Stories,” are as intent on damnation as the women are insistent on salvation. The poems “Sunset Glow,” “Liza’s Love” and “Jamaica Dream” are the names of popular cocktails, which as Edward Baugh points out in the Caribbean Review of Books, “Kingdom Come,” "represent the contrast between the upscale life they [the drinks] represent and the unglamorous reality of the lives of the men in the poems.” And the aptly titled “Drink and Die," reveals not only the incongruity of the speaker's life and his surroundings, but also his realization of impending mortality:

And Paul, these days I feel

my bones being pulled

into the earth

and my skin lifting

to show the duppy-self

underneath. So I know

I coming, Paul, real soon.

The poems in Kingdom of Hungry Bellies do not have the usual props and tricks that much of contemporary poetry uses to dazzle and befuddle the uninitiated. Miller doesn't need to. Instead the assured tone of the poems convinces the reader that Miller not only understands the joy and terror of intimate relationships, but more importantly, beauty made real by poetry.


Voting ends this week for the Top Ten Caribbean Novels;



Stephen A. Bess said...

It sounds like Kei Miller wrote KINGDOM OF EMPTY BELLIES straight from the belly. From your description, he seems to have tapped into the core of who he is as a person and a writer. This sounds like an interesting read.

Geoffrey Philp said...

It really is, Stephen. It's a book I endorse 100%


the prisoner's wife said...

thanks for highlighting this book, i will have to check it out. i have been sorta struggling to find the poet-self within all of my other selves (mommy, wife, teacher). i need someone to light a fire in my belly again. this just might be it.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear prisoner's wife,
Thanks for the comment. I know the struggle can be hard, but like brother bob said, "forget your troubles and dance." kei's book made me dance and i suspect it will make many people dance.
all i can say is dance, sister, dance.

the prisoner's wife said...

thanks Geoffrey, i shall try.

Unknown said...

Like the contrast between salvation and damnation. Sounds like a good, well written Jamaican poem. Sometimes you forget what talent lies in this little island.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks, Leon. The more I re-read the book, the better I like it.