Ťhere can be no excuse for not knowing Olive Senior – who has recently taken over as poet laureate of Jamaica, where she was born (although she has lived in Canada for much of her adult life). Yet I have to admit that I had, unaccountably, not read her until now, and after days immersed in her splendid Hurricane Watch: New and Collected Poems, I have emerged with the sense of having met a life-enhancing person through the most beguiling poetry – filled with intransigent tropical gardens, singular birds and a keen social conscience. I cannot think of a better way to read your way into 2022.
Olive Senior – the name itself nudging towards becoming a poem – has an inclusive attitude towards her work and never disdains humble things. She will give full, equal and affectionate attention to mango trees, magpies and even to a Christmas pudding (a recent, gorgeous poem, soaked in rum) as well as to global and racial injustice and environmental issues. There are playful, shaped poems here too: an egg about to hatch, a nutmeg charged with history, slanting rain. She is unlofty, humorously humane and I read her back-to-front, beginning at the end, focusing on her fine new work and later learning, by chance, how she has propped herself and readers up, internationally, 疫情期间.
Between May and September 2020, Senior produced Pandemic Poems: First Wave, what she describes as “a pandemic lexicon” (which she has since self-published), with each poem a “riff on a word or phrase trending through the period” – and it is worth perusing these. She makes no swanky claim for them, freely admitting that “what I needed to say was more important than the saying of it (which is not how I usually write)”. But readers on Facebook and Twitter were entranced and the poems have, however modest she is about them, been a runaway hit (或者, in lockdown, a stay-put hit). In her preface, she marvels at the “instant call-and-response offered by poetry in the moment”, 哪一个, she suggests, “takes us back to the dawn of humanity”. She is keen to promote democratic, down-to earth writing in the West Indies and beyond, and to remind us that poetry is for everyone (to read and write) and can help in times of need. These coronavirus poems are slight, sympathetic and binding: about social distancing, contact tracing and (one of my favourites) desperate measures applied to the cutting of hair in lockdown. F for Flattening (the curve) is a reassuring mix of accepting what cannot be controlled and revelling in continuing wildness. 这里, 也, you get a tiny hint of her humour, the possibility that there is an absurdity attaching to our bumpy road.
这 Collected Poems, which start in 2007, are more evolved than the pandemic offerings but share the same atmosphere of staunch, warmly present empathy. A former journalist, Senior is a natural celebrator but is in no danger of idealising her beloved Jamaica or the world beyond. In her outstanding poem Dead Straight, she describes returning to Jamaica and finding the land disfigured by a “dead straight” highway for tourists; a pre-pandemic flattening of the curve. “Not a glimmer of the coastline as I try to make it home/to you through a forest of hotels as thick as thieves…” In this “new paradise”, 她补充说, “the only palms are greased”. But her triumph, here as elsewhere, is that although undeceived, she travels light and retains a gift for not taking life too seriously, 这是, in itself, in our po-faced times, a serious undertaking.
We have beaten nature down
But somewhere, are things we can never control:
Wildness always trying to break in.
When and where, unnoticed for how long
did this bump in the road emerge
that so urgently
needs flattening now?