September 3, 2010

"Earthquake 2010" by Jennifer Rahim

Earthquake 2010
Tues. Jan  12th : 2.30p.m.
Before the earthquake rocked
Port-au-Prince with more fury
than an autonomic bomb,
BW 610 from Port-of-Spain
was safely on the ground
and my sole shake down
was from an immigration officer,
young, hardened by his job,
who asked me twice
if I had anything
that was not in Canada before.
Each time I answered,
“No, sir” to a question
that struck me as an anachronism
in an age of travel
and oddly strung for a country
that flags its cosmopolitanism
like a religion.
He was bent on a confession
so on the third round
I thought hard of the contents
in my single roll-on,
then admitted, like a revelation:
“one coconut fudge, two
toolums and a sugar cake,
pink,” and added, “I mean candy,”
sensing the qualifier
was necessary.
Winter entered his eyes
at my declaration.
They were sweets of home,
a small comfort I allowed myself,
but an entire history
that travelled with me;
one I shared with the Guyanese woman
in trendy metropolitan wear
who sat taciturnly in 12C
guarding a phantom ascendancy,
and the elderly Trinidadian man
a few rows forward
in a grey Fedora
and black leather coat
he never removed,
already feeling the cold;
a history that gave me
an Islamic name the officer
pronounced with the long e
and looked quizzically
from my face to my I.D. –
9/11 reruns terrorizing
his hidden screen.
When tectonic plates,
began secretly negotiating
their catastrophic shift,
the officer was asking,
“How much did you pay
for your sweets, miss?”
I said, after a pause, “Three dollars”
and to defuse what I caught
of his doubt injected,
“That is Canadian.”
He stamped me in, then,
with no further question
understanding fully
that his currency
would be worth much more
than that of islands, places
where the sugar in my sweets
made rum, hot countries
where people could escape
to roast their limbs on beaches,
like the barbeques
of pillaging buccaneers,
only browning themselves,
for their own tropic feast
like commercial cannibals.
He needed nothing more
so like a believer the dogma
of his salvation
he accepted the money
of the place I was from
should be worth
much less than his own
and could crumble and fall
like the frail shanties
of Port-au-Prince. Cathedral,
Presidential Palace and all –
rent like a judgement –.
Everywhere: rubble, white dust –
like an upturned sepulchre.
A grave:
it was the image that came
when I tugged my luggage
off the Airport Rocket,
journeying the cheapest way,
and paying three Canadian,
the price of my candy,
to get first to Kipling,
the western end of the subway
that recalled the injurious poet
whose verses pined for Home,
a West of light and faith,
being sentenced to a hellish India
in the season of good cheer.
Heaven, believe me, is a location.
So coming from my south
(with the undeclared slices
of my mother’s black cake,
that had never been in Canada before,
safely stowed away in Brazilian leather,
a bargain from a Rastaman
on Fredrick Street who called to me
on Christmas Eve, “Sis, a small sale
please to buy something nice
for the youth man,”)
when  I saw the powdered tiles
of Kipling,  the thought  rained on me:
ash, the traffic of winter.
The merger was unexpected,
sudden, that exiled adjective
of good writing,
but native to my climate
with its hasty sunsets
and abrupt downpours,
temperaments I had marked,
undisturbed, as signs of home
until the lady who stood next to me
under the eaves of Kentucky.
We both had no umberallas,
both stranded I thought
before she uttered, “That is signs.
“Not a warning and look, rain.”
then gave me a flyer advertising
a crusade in Couva.
I watched her walk on water
across Broadway, a new
believer exorcised of an old faith
that made no provision for hell.
Now she was haunted by readiness,
anticipating an end that will come
as suddenly as  August rain.
The earthquake was a nightmare
tossing in Haiti’s consciousness,
when my train sped, resolutely,
to Castle Frank and the woman
I first saw on the Rocket
filed past
in search of a seat,
though the carriage
was half-empty.
She dragged her duffle bag
behind her like a corpse. –
I remembered, she was last
to board the bus
and had said something, softly,  
in her Créole to the driver
who didn’t or couldn’t answer,
but waved her further in
with defensive impatience.
I saw her that second time
on the train whose final stop
was Kennedy;
I saw her lumbering
in the direction of its thrust,
like someone climbing a hill.
4.50 p.m.
It must have struck
as I boarded the No.65 to Parliament.
I entered behind
two knapsack toting teenagers
plugged into their I-pods
nodding their heads
to private rhythms
with the zoned-out look
of deliberate disconnect.
I too put on the wide-angled gaze
of public commuters
as the bus rattled along a street
named after its buildings
in the third year
of Toussaint’s rebellion:
the time of a different split,
for Canada –.We suffer
our differences,
So as I walked east
towards the Distillery, in six below,
with my embark rumbling
in my wake like a wounded love,
taking the cold
after a brief respite
from staying with the bus
as it swung west on Front
then doubled back
along the Esplanade’s decent poverty,
I thought only of the jadda
fenced by thin plastic bags.
Distrusting the automated street stops,
she had made a ritual of half-
standing at intervals, bowing
forward to see ahead of her,
afraid of missing her stop, –
the soiled fringes of her dress
far more streetwise.
At Parliament and Queen,
she stood, frozen, a stranger
to what should have been familiar.
5.26 p.m.
When, at last, I switched on
the blessed the heat,
then the TV and heard:
“My God, the world is coming
to an end,” and saw the cloud
envelop Port-au-Prince,
the jadda’s rehearsed plea,
“Please, let me off!”
her panic bypassing the bell,
resounded like an aftershock.
200,000 dead.
and a pastor with the faithless
tongue of new grief lamented,
“Haiti is a cemetery.”
Horrible, in any language,
sounds the same.
Yes, there is a world
that must end,  and Haiti
our first light is now
its grim apocalypse
as Obama’s slick neighbourliness
descends like a vulture
on its long-injured soil
where an unholy advent
slouches forth to reincarnate itself,
its agenda secreted
in the stench of death
and provoked desperation
as pregnant carriers arrive
like Trojan horses with arms
empty of real need.
This is not a time
for sleep. Not now,
when the evil Toussaint fought
and fights, yet, resurrects its head
like Revelation’s cosmic beast
with might to sweep
the very stars from heaven.
This is the time
Carter portended, when dreams
must birth, again, revolution,
for Haiti,
misused child
of our freedom, lies helpless
at the very door
of the dragon’s jaws
and her betrayal
is already our condemnation.
Hell, believe me,
is also a position.
That’s why Robertson,
that deluded evangelist,
could preach the devil freed,
then cursed Haiti,
as though the will to liberty
must seek absolution
from what withholds
its freedom.
Wednesday 13th: 11.21a.m.
Trinidad called to say
that in St Augustine,
where the literati gathered
to honour Walcott,
Rudder’s penitent prayer,
Haiti I’m sorry,
opened the proceedings,
pleading for all our abuses
to your earth,
demanding reparation
for your losses
from a Caribbean
that moves on
the strength of your steel.
Even here, Haiti,
I see the kaleidoscope
of your make-shift tents stretched
like a crude quilt of solidarity
that shames us, silences
our insipid religion
and hand-out politicking.
I see each hoisted square,
an SOS to winged ancestors
who stormed you free
of Napoleon’s twisted heaven.
They will not, now,
deny you  presence.
You are the best in us
we, too,  must save
lest we all die
bankrupt of spirit
while the spangled stars
rule our fate.
If poetry means anything,
let this be a mouth charged
like Jeremiah’s call to build
with much more resolve
the temple we too dimly

from the manuscript "REDEMPTION RAIN
A version "Earthquake 2010" was originally published in BIM.

About the Author

Jennifer Rahim is a Senior Lecturer in Literature in the Department of Liberal Arts, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. She is a critic, poet and short story writer. Her articles on Caribbean literature have appeared in MaComere, The Journal of West Indian Literature, Small Axe and Anthurium. She edited with Barbara Lalla a collection of Cultural Studies essays entitled, Beyond Borders: Cross Culturalism and the Caribbean Canon (UWI Press 2009).

Her creative publications include three poetry collections: Mothers Are Not the Only Linguists (1992) and Between the Fence and the Forest (2002) and Approaching Sabbaths (2009). She has one collection of short stories, Songster and Other Stories (2007). Approaching Sabbaths was awarded the 2010 Casa de las Américas Prize for best book in the category Caribbean Literature in English or Creole.

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