Chloe Lim reviews a poetry collection of harsh realities and surreal possibilities.
Loretta Collins Klobah, Ricantations (Peepal Tree Press, 2018), 128pp.
Discussing her latest collection for PN Review, Loretta Collins Klobah responds: ‘My poetry, engaged with the traditions of both Latin@ and Caribbean literature, is grounded in historical readings, archival work, popular culture, Caribbean spiritualities, the natural environs and the everyday, the warmth and angst of the pueblo.’ Ricantations is precisely this mix of harsh realities and surreal possibilities, of love and despair, for and in the Caribbean and its diasporas. This collection follows Klobah’s first collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman (Peepal Tree Press, 2011), that received the OCM Bocas Prize in Caribbean Literature. Even more ambitious in its range, Ricantations provides insights into Caribbean lives and vistas, in four compelling sections.
While these four sections are by no means mutually exclusive in theme, the division of poems in Ricantations generates further meaning by allowing each poem to converse with its neighbours. The first section for instance, opens the collection with a series of grotesque poems featuring physical anomalies, social outcasts, the disabled and the dead. Far from exploiting these abnormalities to capture a reader’s attention, however, Klobah turns a keen eye on the humanity behind each horrifying scenario. ‘La Monstrua Desnuda’, for example, reflects on the Spanish Baroque portraits by Juan Carreño de Miranda, La monstrua desnuda and La monstrua vestida. These portraits were of the obscenely large six year-old Eugenia Martínez Vallejo. Despite her youth and lack of consent however, she is ‘given up by her parents…to marvel / the royal court’ and here stands ‘undressed for the painter’. This exploitation is underscored as injustice in Klobah’s writing about the ‘Gawked at girl, phenomenal weight/advertised in the press, a child displayed / for royal visitors, naked Eugenia’ before being used as a segue to other forms of gawking dehumanisation.
The poem highlights ‘other women like me’, ‘people with achondroplasia’, the ‘anomalies, the freaky-freaky of sideshows’, and implicates the able-bodied reader too in what initially appears to be an outdated practice, the parading of abnormal bodies in Miranda’s paintings. Two other particularly striking poems from the first section are ‘Tissue Gallery’ and ‘Come, Shadow’. In the former, unborn, aborted foetuses are preserved in ‘bronzy water, / each homunculus labelled / in terms of in-utero days and weeks.’ Klobah’s sensitive and humane commentary comes through here as this initially perturbing scene reveals its logical context: ‘The women, who came with gravid uterus/to Puerto Rico from the Virgin Islands,/seeking to save or end pregnancies’. A similar interest in the difficult and grotesque elements of female life is evidenced in the haunting ‘Come, Shadow’, a poem about Klobah’s own mother and the psychiatric healthcare she received. Not all is gruesome, however, as the witty ‘Green Lantern y los Muertos Senta’os’ and the dream-like ‘Night of Charcoal Sky and Sea’ attest, establishing a foundation of wide-ranging interests and tones.
Termed ‘people poems’ by Klobah, the second section of Ricantations, ‘Revel Rebel’, expands the first section’s interest in complex internal lives to cover a series of vignettes of Puerto Rican life. From the unexpected story of an ex-convict who cares for butterflies (‘He Talks To A Butterfly’) to the fear of a captured rhebus macaque (‘Song of the Harpy’), each poem invites the reader to peer into the unique thoughts and experiences of animals, outsiders, and groups possibly unlike an Anglophone reader’s own. Exhilarating triumph coexists with despair here, as ‘The Flying Wallendas in Puerto Rico’ literally scales new heights through the story of the tightrope-walking Wallenda family, while in the same country, men prey on schoolgirls on the internet in ‘The Girl You Are Looking For…’ At the same time, the relationship of Puerto Rico to America is interrogated, with ‘Cardboard Oscars’ discussing the release of Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar López Rivera, and ‘Pulse’ mourning the Orlando nightclub shooting of 2016, where nearly half the lives lost belonged to self-identified Puerto Ricans. These poems underscore the deep connection between Americans and Puerto Ricans, despite the politically subordinate nature of Puerto Rico as an unconsolidated territory.
To write about Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican lives, therefore, is to write about what might be considered peripheral elsewhere in Americentric, Anglophone spheres. Klobah destabilises such a world view in Ricantations through her discussion of non-normative experiences, while demonstrating the colour and range of experiences in the Caribbean. This brings us to the third section of Ricantations, ‘Memoirs of Repairs to the Colony’. Turning her eye away from San Juan, this section begins with other towns in Puerto Rico, Corozal and Naranjito. In particular, the poem ‘Naranjito’ demonstrates Klobah’s skill not just in capturing unique poetic, personal narratives, but also in depicting landscapes, saturating a picture of the town with shades of green, imagery:
Homes cataract from high slopes down to Río de la Plata. / Re-painted jade, lime, mint, green papaya, / sea-washed glass, brightest green of iguanas. Camouflaged, each house dematerialises.
At the same time, through specific, historically grounded scenarios, Klobah interrogates power structures that are historical and multi-layered, going beyond a simple Caribbean-American relationship. ‘Memoir of Repairs to the Colony’ for instance, highlights a defunct leper colony, ‘to insulate colonial guards, Spanish, then American’, on Isla de Cabras. This ailing community of the past is then paralleled with present-day Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in ‘Ricantations’, reminding us of the all-too-real difficulties faced by Puerto Ricans today.
Perhaps what is most reflective of the collection, however, is the inclusion of two long poem sequences in its final section, ‘Art Brut and ‘Mary Harlotry’. Pushing the boundaries of what Klobah had achieved previously in Twelve Foot Neon Woman, these long poem sequences capture the attention that Klobah gives to a range of stories. ‘Mary Harlotry’ in particular, is a tour de force in extended ekphrasis, providing poetic commentary on Eddie Ferraioli’s mosaic series of twenty Virgins adorned with Puerto Rican flora. The choice of the virgin, Judeo-Christian icon, clothed in endemic flora, is rendered even more poignant with an increasing association to ‘mutilated women’, ‘raped women and girls’. This feminist representation of forgotten and abused women is reclaimed through the female poet, even as she pays tribute to the benign male artist. The false dichotomy of female victim-hood and male violence is thus refused, as ‘the artist claims / to protest victimhood and defend us with these images of Virgins’, resisting the ‘Virgin/Whore’ binary. Nonetheless, Klobah’s act of ekphrastic writing stakes a claim on creative agency as a female artist, a claim that she repeats again in ‘Spathes’, calling on Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, saying ‘Let my daughter receive your gifts’. Klobah’s feminist vision therefore is one that claims active, regenerative power for women, while at the same time refusing to villainise all men, in a context where all Puerto Ricans have suffered too at the hands of colonisers and disasters. This attention to a diverse range of experiences is apparent too in ‘Art Brut’, featuring three solitary men, looking to build a home. These disciplined long poems present a culmination of the ethos behind Ricantations as a whole.
With Ricantations, the overall impression is one of compassion toward and lucid observation of Puerto Rican life, both in the Caribbean and its diaspora. The presence of a glossary as well indicates its intentions to introduce an Anglophone reader unfamiliar to the region’s language and history to the medley of elements that make up both a region as well as the personal lives of individuals, poet included. At the same time, while Klobah’s poetry is distinctively womanist in approach, focusing on aspects of the lived experience of women of colour, it also resists such politicising. The collection is committed to reflecting on diverse and multi-faceted experiences of the pueblo, taking in its history, natural landscapes, spirituality and more. Ricantations sees this diversity simultaneously, rather than as discrete categories or themes to dwell on separately. The marginal or peripheral are treated not as such, but rather as fully developed persons, locations and situations that deserve sensitive in-depth treatment. All is connected as the titular poem suggests: ‘allied by our hurricane grief, / disordered but sentient of how we are related, neighbours, / iguanas, honey bees, bats, birds, trees, islands.’
Chloe Lim is a teacher and writer based in Singapore. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA and MSt in English Literature, and is Assistant Blog Editor for Asymptote Journal.