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Jubilation!: Jamaican Independence in Poetry

Jubilation! An anthology of Jamaican poetry edited by Kwame Dawes

Jubilation is the expression of great joy and triumph. But in Jamaica, a land ruled by paradox and inherent ironies, even great moments of jubilation have their counterpoint in pain, sorrow and loss because our greatest achievements have often been born out of a crucible pain and nurtured in a kumbla of poverty and deprivation. Jubilation! the Kwame Dawes edited anthology of poems marking Jamaica’s 50th year of independence exudes this paradoxical, ironic celebration.

A collection of Jamaican poetry is a fitting marker for the commemoration of the island’s independence. Despite it’s publishing challenges there is a strong literary tradition with many of the forerunners such as Claude McKay, Una Marson and Louise Bennett having made a significant mark on the world stage. Indeed, the anthology’s ‘Dedication’ is itself a meta-poem about the value of poetry also paying homage to those who went before.

Jubilation! provides a wonderful tapestry through which to explore contemporary Jamaican poetry. The anthology comprises new and not so old poems, some by established and celebrated poets and others by emerging voices, providing a mix of the who’s-who and the who. The collection includes works by Lorna Goodison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Edward Baugh, Olive Senior, Jean Binta Breeze, Tanya Shirley, Kei Miller, Andrew Stone, Shara McCallum, Ann Margaret Lim, Easton Lee, Mel Cooke, Mutabaruka, Richard ‘Dingo’ Dingwall, Christine Craig, A-dZiko Simba, Mbala, Mervyn Morris, Earl McKenzie and Dawes himself. This litany of names highlights the diversity and fecundity which inhabit the pages.

There is an element of the familiar brought through easily recognized pieces such as Johnson’s ‘Reggae fe Dadda’, Miller’s ‘A Who Say Sammy Dead’ or Evan Jones’ ‘Lament of the Banana Man (a sequel of sorts to ‘Song of the Banana Man’). And even in the pieces that are new, the familiar may still lurk. However, as with Goodison’s ironic ‘Hope Gardens’ or Danielle Jennings’ beautifully painful ‘Mango Time’ they help us to see the familiar through a new light.

Kwame Dawes at Calabash 2012Dawes chose to limit his editorial interference by not segmenting the poems thematically. They appear in alphabetical order according to the poet’s name. This A-Z  arrangement (or ‘Y’ rather as d’bi Young is the last poet) grants the poems free reign to rub-up against each other with no thought to theme, motif or moments in history, painting a kaleidoscope of Jamaica. Few of them proclaim this is Jamaica 50. Instead they provide spaces between their lines for quiet and disquiet reflection on who we are, where we’ve been and what we have been through. They delve into history and contemplate the present, sometimes simultaneously.

The poems don’t generally seek to define what it means to be Jamaican, but they provide sufficient insight into what this means, whether it is the appreciation for the burning beauty of a poinciana tree and its glorious metaphor for rootedness; recognition of the “inherent problem” in the phrase “no problem”; celebration of the genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry; or understanding the terror of the hot comb to a young girl asked to straighten herself into acceptable forms of beauty. They deal with loss and love, triumph and disappointment. They speak from the perspectives of Jamaicans at home and those abroad delving into migration, home sickness, ancestry and identity. There are pieces that are intensely personal and others that are blatantly political.

These poems question. They mourn. They reflect and this is all a part of the celebration, not a blinkered patriotism mindlessly parroting the greatness of the nation. And most importantly no where does it trot out that bastion of the unimaginative: “we likkle but we tallawah”.

Title: Jubilation!: Poems Celebrating 50 Years of Jamaican Independence
Editor: Kwame Dawes
Genre: Poetry
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press