Copyright © 2001 by Cyril Dabydeen, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
The professor strutted, then stood before us with solid phrases in his mind as he brought us Boston and the entire East Coast; and the poet Sylvia Plath was foremost, as he heaved in hard. Tufted grass, water whirling, the Atlantic like a rutting bull. Billows and clouds somersaulting as he kept on talking, like a wayward confession no less. And Boston University with Lowell, Roethke, Sexton, and others, as he chain-smoked. Now and again the cigarette dangled from his lips, the same he mistook for chalk and wrote with on the board. Mesmerized we kept being, all here in Northern Ontario: place resonant with us no less.
He'd also recently come back from Dublin, and maybe the Irish invented story-telling and poetry. James Joyce, didn't we know? He'd gone there to explore his roots, with his American instincts intact. And a "noisy" poem he'd written, sheer onomatopoeia, about that experience, yet reflecting his existentialism; the same poem published in the student newspaper, The Argus, taking up the entire middle pages. Grunts, growls, his words being symbols merely; and how we lapped it up.
My own origins I began thinking about, all in the time of student unrest; but not yet in Canada?
The professor with stranger sounds coming to my ears. Grrrrhhh.
Leitmotif, like re-inventing the Orangemen, Catholics, or all of Belfast. And did Plath really commit suicide? This tallish man, the professor, challenged us with this next, saying it was the price one paid for art as he wiped his horn-rimmed eye-glasses; and what if he also contemplated suicide?
Far from it!
I recalled a week earlier a boisterous sound poet had come to our campus: a big Canlit event as it was; and the professor was asked to thank the burly guest, which he did in an almost incoherent, quavering voice. Such an impact the experience made on us all, applause still in my ears. And on Fridays once a month the campus poets would meet to hear the professor read, and to hear ourselves read too . . . the women mostly, all to "earn" the professor's praise. This man with longish brown hair, in tweed jacket, the cigarette yet dangling from his lips.
Grrrrhhh. I heard.
But he was also a deeply shy man, all the while as Boston and the entire East Coast kept coming to me . . . like a new world really.
Everything also being counterpointed with more student protests, and the politics of the take-over of Canada by Americans, didn't we know?
The professor's own silent agitation, an American as he was; and tropical instincts were yet in me, new images whirled. And fulfilling a dream I thought, with my own paltry verse: all that I indeed considered. And could I ever be like the sound poet?
Images of Lake Superior and the Great White North: with my being a drawer of water and hewer of wood, pioneering not unlike Susanna Moodie, though I'd come from a foreign land. "What foreign land?" the professor hurled.
Then, "You are simply here."
Maybe he understood people living in zinc-roofed houses where coconut trees sometimes bent low because of the trade winds; where too children caterwauled day and night, all in a sugarcane plantation. The fierce sun burning us all!
But now Boston seashore was mine too, the bull of Bendylaw and the sea's wrath. Plath I kept imagining.
The professor's cigarette smoke swirled in the air, as the women students coughed conspicuously, indeed wanting "fame." Another poetry group meeting on Friday evening it'd be; and whose turn was it to read next? Marie or Michelle? Lake Superior waters lapping in the background. Storms were also in the making, I knew. The Edmund Fitzgerald . . . and balladeer Gordon Lightfoot singing. Sugarcane images too, whole fields burning: the entire sky a conflagration because of the new harvest season come upon us. This memory, always.
Lotus leaves floating in a large pond, with my mother praying to an assortment of gods, Krishna mainly. Ghee and incense rising. Sandalwood smells reeking.
But being in Northwestern Ontario still, I yet contemplated a life, now with American draft dodgers, some living in communes; and could the professor have been one of them, bowing before a matronly woman with long jet-black hair: whom they called Mata (Mother)? Their own self-styled Hare Krishna . . . and seeking salvation, as B-52 Bombers kept flying over Southeast Asia!
The student poets smiled, and one distinctive male -- a Native -- made a wry face, as the women contrived their own distinctive pre-Raphaelite expressions. And Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" was being read again, as we started becoming acquainted with madness, like our own disinctive initiation rite.
Such angst, indeed. Esther Greenwood becoming our own and being less fictional as time went by: Plath's novel The Bell Jar being all. In Canada . . . neurosis mixed with decadence or a sustained existentialism, all being acted out. In me!
How I imaged Otto Plath, a bee-keeping man, the tropics yet in me.
Wasps kept flying about, especially the black Jack Spaniard. And dragonflies with wings like small airplanes, images simply being magic realism. Next Plath's male character recuperating in an East Coast sanatorium: he with a macho dare, as Esther watched him steadfastly as he stood naked before her. Turkey neck and gizzard.
Bollocks! Eros no longer, but simply Thanatos.
I kept festering, the landscape literally changing before me . . . from tropical to temperate. Lake Superior waters still lapped, in a far yet close-up shore.
Balladeer Gordon Lightfoot singing.
Entering an immigrant's land I was: here where I would remain for good in Canada. And now nothing was too sacred or far-out, all things yet being confessional, I considered. Integrity in me too, I tried to cultivate, as the professor kept demanding more of us amid further student unrest, sit-ins. Protests everywhere!
Like tricks pulled out of a hat it was, with more images; as we once more read on the poetry Friday nights. The professor applauded from a discreet distance, and yet chain-smoked.
My own journal entries now, all that was yet spell-binding because I'd come from Guyana and still reflected deeply on Sir Walter Raleigh . . . who I now brought to these same Lake Superior shores. And iguanas mounting tall trees faster than their shadows in iridescent sunshine, I recreated. Our houses built on stilts on coastal ground being below sea level.
But not here! Waves yet threatened the Eastern Atlantic Coast, all because of Sylvia Plath.
Next John Cabot's Newfoundland I conjured with icebergs floating, each a flotilla of sorts. Remember the one huge ship going down, as I kept learning about because of E. J. Pratt (or some other). Bougainvillea, zinnia, hibiscus alongside deciduous trees. Beech, pine, spruce. You name them! My tree-planting days begun with northern forest fires blazing.
Not just cane-fires any longer!
A partridge fluttered past in the brush, disappearing in the wink of an eye. A grouse followed. Who could really tell, but an Ojibwa next to me who hummed about the Great Spirit. Tell the professor this, if he would listen. Another Friday night poetry reading indeed coming.
Now nothing seemed to last longer than memory itself wanted, as if with its own volition. Inevitably retuning to the tropics I was, as if I'd never left.
. . . Grandma being ill, you see, and my mother and I were taking her to meet Dr Bhatnagar Rameshchandra, a man from Bombay who now practised in this region close to the Amazon. How far away from the Arabian Sea and the state of Maharashtra was he?
The doctor with infinitely large eyes, and Shiva in his veins, here in our British colony still. He wetted his lips, as he listened to my mother mutter about Grandma's pain. A stethoscope palpably hung round his neck, like a garland. And I started fearing the worst. And what remedy would it be for high blood pressure and diabetes?
Would he suggest homeopathy, if not something aryuvedic?
The time indeed seemed auspicious . . . for what?
My leaving these shores one day, maybe. The doctor frowned. But gradually I was becoming a hardened sceptic.
Grandma in a side-room, with more details of her illness being discussed; and our being here far from the Ganges, our destined lot. But in me Northwestern Ontario winds were indeed blowing. My returning, or not having gone there yet because of the images counterpointed.
Dr Rameshchandra's grave look, as I contemplated life being one of literature merely. Grrowl. The boisterous Canadian sound poet still to come; and would we call him bp nichol?
Plath . . . Sexton, I kept hearing about also.
In the doctor's waiting room I picked up a copy of The New Yorker, reading a lengthy review of Lowell's Life Studies. Descriptions of Nantucket and a wildly rocking sea.
Vicariously I began moving closer, as if to the source of all rivers, yet the Himalayas from where the Ganges sprang I conjured and sustained in my mind.
And whose ashes would be strewn into the holy waters? The doctor no doubt contemplated how we came here, and our ancestral links with faroff Uttar Pradesh through the indentured system.
Still en route we were.
Grandma . . . yet in pain.
My mother winced. All the while I was reading about Lowell, and about evoking my own orange grove in the midst of a nightmare, so called. Dr Rameschandra, in the waiting room, looked at me, he coming closer to the Caribbean Sea itself, well, because of one like me. The waves hurled, closer to estuaries of the Orinoco and Amazon . . . and the hinterland forest with the jaguar, jaguarondi, puma, cougar, ocelot. The many-plumaged birds also: a hundred species of macaws, robins, egrets, and hummingbirds. The large-billed toucan kept making a solid mark on a tall mango tree.
Time to fly north.
Dr Rameschandra's India with neem leaves spread out, as I imagined sitting under a banyan tree, like the Buddha and contemplating goodness and virtue, my confessional life no less.
Other places I longed to be in simultaneously, including everywhere in the East.
The Bengal tiger yet roamed around. A plantation life it was because of this lineage . . . in me.
Mute-tongued with memory, all things yet combining.
Dr Rameschandra urging my mother's own recovery, while I kept thinking of Nantucket and the Atlantic. Lowell's words all the while, as I started planting trees in burnt-out areas on Canadian soil.
Spruce, fir, and varieties of pine, with cold Northern Ontario winds blowing. Gordon Lightfoot, d'you hear?
My mother shook her head as she watched me; and right then she knew I would travel far north . . . only. To America or Canada?
I bided my time, my imagination working at top speed, as I slowly turned the pages of The New Yorker in the doctor's waiting room.
Grandma breathed her last, as the man with his stethoscope walked around, looking grave. The Professor's growls too, somewhere. Ireland's own foreground, closer all the while.
Do you hear?
With what seemed like neurosis, I started entertaining visits to other places. Founding Father Sir John A Macdonald's grave in a cemetery in Kingston, Ontario . . . my indeed wanting to be an authentic drawer of water and hewer of wood. In the north side, then the south side beyond Princess Street I was . . . being truly in Canada's first capital city.
Local poet Tom Marshall urging me to establish belonging here. Like a glue it would be, not unlike looking for the holy grail itself.
Was it? I'd left Northwestern Ontario for good it seemed, including all the trees planted, the same I would never be able to watch grow tall.
A federal government's Green Paper on immigration stirring new pulse-beats in me. And Grandma was now indeed dead. Lotus-lily pads floating in the Ganges, somewhere. Her spirit drifted far . . . more than being transmigratory!
-- Sylvia Plath's not so well-known. -- said a graduate professor to me at Queen's University.
-- But she's American.
-- Ask the Boston professor.
The same who might have returned to the East Coast, or gone back to Ireland to become a journeyman, or a computer engineer and felt lost forever. Surely not to America!
Now pretending to be a Canadian, I gazed at ivy creeping up Kingston's limestone walls. How Lake Ontario's waters lapping all night long.
This space of time with its own distinctive or definitive rhythm because of places I yet carried with me . . . and in me.
An Ophelia among us, or a Hamlet: such vicarious acting out of new experiences, as I wanted catharsis only. Indeed, tragedy I pursued because of Sylvia Plath. Do I dare? Whose literary world was I mapping out with my own metaphors . . . as I visited Newnham College at Cambridge University next? My veins rattled like seeds in a pod. A postcard fiction already in the making. What really attracted you to Sylvia Plath? asked the serious-faced thesis examiner.
Pears fatten like little Buddhas.
Words I simply mumbled.
Burnt cane-leaves floating in the air, as the workers' faces seemed mere masks. Why ask?
I also wanted also to be an Ivy League Canadian, not just a member of the League of Canadian Poets.
The women poets kept swimming nude in Lake Ontario among flowers being not unlike garlands round their necks. Ophelia indeed . . . and was I my own Hamlet? All the while the professor stood before me with chalk in hand, as smoke swirled in the air.
Protests of a kind yet continued, in a time of my own making, because of who I kept being.Or simply becoming.