Review: Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Imortelle and Bhandaaraa Poems’
DR. LEANNE HAYNES
Published: Jun 29, 2013
“Immortelle and Bhandaaraa Poems” is Trinidadian-born artist and building services engineer Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s second volume of poetry, published by Proverse Hong Kong in March 2011.
This collection, which was the finalist for the inaugural Proverse Prize, consists of over 50 poems, a concise glossary of terms and an array of mixed media images.
In fact, one of the first things to captivate the reader is the front cover, an image created by Manoo-Rahming herself. This is indeed a perfect point of departure, so let’s start there.
The cover-page is made up of seemingly torn up pieces of paper fused together to create the distinctive image of the Immortelle, which as the writer explains in her glossary, is a type of tree that “used to be planted as shade trees in coco plantations of Trinidad and Tobago”.
The fiery red flowers are set against a watery background, a brilliant blue sky and whispers of cotton-wool like clouds. Visible are the many tears in the paper, strategically pieced together by Manoo-Rahming, creating a coherent whole and in this case, a picture that tells a story of a thousand words. As highlighted in the volume’s introductory comments, the brilliant color of the Immortelle’s flowers is reminiscent of the flames in Hindu cremation ceremonies, which draws directly on the writer’s Indian descent. The cover then becomes a symbol of Manoo-Rahming’s Indo-Caribbean experience and in turn, acts as a precursor for the entire collection.
This syncretism is expressed in more ways than one in the collection. Not only does Manoo-Rahming combine aspects of her Trinidadian birth place, her Bahamian home, with that of India, especially evident in the use of vernacular, she also combines the visual with the poetic – a sure indication of her skill set.
The visuals are not to be treated in isolation (though one can appreciate them independent of the verse), but rather should be considered as working in conjunction with the poems, adding a visual dimension to a particularly intimate set of words.
The seven images contained in the volume each correspond to a poem in “Immortelle and Bhandaaraa”. The cover page image, for example, corresponds to a poem in memory of Ras Shorty, or Lord Shorty, who combined African rhythms with Indian instruments to create Soca. Cleverly then, there is a dual-narrative at work here and indeed in the entire collection, where the visual interacts with the text (and vice versa), which as Sandra Pouchet Paquet argues, generates a tension as well as transforming the reading experience.
Integrating visuals into a poetry collection is proving particularly popular of late with Caribbean writers, and in turn really does serve to represent two dominant forms of artistic expression in the region. Though a wonderful addition to Manoo-Rahming’s volume, and indeed necessary for its overall purpose, I believe the positioning of the images has lessened their function, if only very slightly: the images are all placed together at the beginning of the collection and not, as I would expect, next to their related poems. As such, there is a little less ease to the reading experience than there might be if the images were next to their corresponding poems. That way one could experience the image in even closer proximity to its poetic counterpart so that the tension between the two forms would be heightened even further.
Nevertheless, had the publisher positioned these visual additions differently then the reader would not be bombarded with the sensory wonderfulness and psychedelic magic of “Mandala”, which is the first thing that hits the reader when they open the collection.
The color in this opening image mirrors the explosion of sentiment in the poems that follow. And just like the branches of the Immortelle on the cover page, these poems reach outward, as a means of dealing with the heavy emotions addressed in the subject matter.
The collection, divided into five sections, each named after goddesses (Bhavani, Durga, Coatrischie, Hecate and Shakti), has a strong female voice. The poet grapples with a whole host of themes including life, death and even rape.
In a poem called “The Colour of Rape”, for example, Manoo-Rahming skilfully poeticizes the sheer brutality of this act in such a way as to create a series of questions that interrogate the subject. In doing so, Manoo-Rahming asks what colors can effectively represent the physical, emotional and mental effects of rape: “Can a charcoal pencil / Draw grey obscure shape/ Of battered self-esteem?” The fiery provocation of “The Colour of Rape” is contrasted by earlier poems about the loss of loved ones, and as Pouchet Paquet rightly points out, “This is the work of mourning.”
In fact, most of the poems in the opening sections are dedicated to people who have passed away. This part of the collection is representative of the poet’s ability to move seamlessly between different memories, portraying sentiment, gratitude and grief in carefully constructed, effortless verse. And the poems do appear to be effortless as if the poet is recalling moments, not as a stream of consciousness because these are cleverly crafted words but there is certainly an ease, where the words roll off the tongue.
“Mirror Glimpses”, for example, is about the loss of the poet’s mother and sister. The opening verse reads: “Mama your face followed/ me to this place. It hopped/ a ride in my genes/ like a scorpion/ that smuggled itself/ from Long Island to Nassau/ in my bag of cookies. I took it as a sign: Sally will die”. This poem has such immediacy and the poet’s matter-of-fact tone, stating the impending death of her sister makes the verse even more hard hitting. But there’s also a sweet vulnerability here, which gets to the reader, effervesces, slowly but surely.
Other poems in the collection reach out to Caribbean spaces and the region’s fauna for inspiration, while others take a more inward look. See, for example, “The Poet” towards the end of the collection where Manoo-Rahming uses metaphor to poeticise the poet’s role:
A poet is one who finds the rents
The ruptures in our quiltlike cores
Unravels the broken threads
Collects them into balls of fibers
Spins them into rainbow-colored yarn
Weaves an unpatterned fabric
With which she mends by hand
Gently ever so gently
Crevices in quilted psyches
Just like the poet who spins multi-colored yarn, Manoo-Rahming’s “Immortelle and Bhandaaraa Poems” is a vibrant collection, which fuses the visual and the poetic. The volume covers a range of themes; some more harrowing than others but does so in such a way as to soothe, interrogate and stimulate the human psyche.
Manoo-Rahming was born in Trinidad in 1960. She is married to a Bahamian, and lives in Nassau, Bahamas. Lelawattee is a poet, fiction and creative non-fiction writer and essayist. She further expresses her creativity and seeks enlightenment through sculpture and drawing. She has won essay and art awards in The Bahamas. Internationally, she has won the David Hough Literary Prize (2001) and the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize (2009) for Short Fiction and was overall winner of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) Short Story Competition (2001). Her first book of poetry, “Curry Flavour”, was published in 2001 in England. Lelawattee is a practicing mechanical/building services engineer and is president and co-owner, with her husband, of a consulting engineering firm in Nassau, Bahamas. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in many publications in the Caribbean, the UK, U.S. and Holland.
Leanne Haynes recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (postcolonial studies) and BA (literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and U.S.
• Reprinted with the permission of arcthemagazine.com.