Sasenarine Persaud is among the established contemporary Guyanese writers. He settled in Canada for several years before moving to the USA and has published six collections of poetry and three books of fiction as a novelist and short story writer. His interests have been wide and varied covering the not surprising preoccupations of the ‘exile’ in the Caribbean literary communities of North America as well as a deep interest in Vedic philosophy and Hindu mythology as his work matured from early volumes of nostalgia and bitterness, including invectives on the subject of Guyanese politics and race as in Demerara Telepathy and Between the Dash and the Comma. Most recently Sasenarine’s concerns have widened with a more confident accommodation of issues and handling of craft.
His most recent volume of poetry is In A Boston Night: poems (Toronto, Tsar, 2008) one of the many books that had a special launching at Carifesta X in Georgetown. This is his best collection of verse. Its contents reflect the most interesting qualities of Sasenarine Persaud including his themes, experience, an identity with which the poet seems comfortable and a notable confidence in his style. Here we find a poet that has come to terms with his ‘exile,’ his Guyaneseness and his belonging to a universal community of poets.
Persaud often adopts the persona of a traveller with several apparently autobiographical accounts of places, people, literary and social encounters. He occasionally touches on native land, family and some elegaic verses reflecting on personal loss dealing with both memories and verses in memoriam. He seems very sensitive to place, which is either a preoccupation with travelogue or namedropping/place name-dropping, but which enriches the collection with the author’s ability to engage these places in a dialogue with issues that concern him. Many poems deal with encounters in North American locations and with literary personalities. What is deeper and more interesting than the mention of their names is the several poems that engage intertextuality. Persaud manages a dialogue with a number of writers through references to their work and dialogue with their preoccupations in his poems, which in a number of instances works well artistically.
Among the most accomplished and noteworthy pieces are those in which Persaud pursues his keen interest in Hinduism. Within the 80 pages of poems there must be a hundred allusions to the Hindu pantheon, Hindu mythology and cultural traditions. What is more, the poet draws them into comparative references to other mythologies and literary references. For example, he alludes to the Classics and many Greek mythical references, adding these to his intertextual explorations of other literary works and with Guyanese myths and cultural traditions.
Where these work they represent Persaud as a more assured and settled poet than the earlier versions of himself. In A Boston Night is far freer of the baggage that plagues too many of his earlier poems in which he is uncharitable or unkind to persons who are easily identifiable in poems in which they are subjected to personal attack. Bluntly put, he uses the poems to abuse or ridicule individuals. In other early poems, too, Persaud is not at his best when railing against the ills of race and politics in his native Guyana 30 years ago. Those ills deserve any poet’s denunciations, but need to be treated in more temperate and controlled verse.
One of the major poems in this collection is Audience: Walcott in Boston which is a mixture of an interesting account, a portrait of Derek Walcott and some abuse hurled at him by Persaud who does not seem to appreciate Walcott’s brand of humour. This humour is caustic and is very sharp picong delivered without malice even when it refers to ethnicity. Ironically, there are echoes of Walcott in Persaud’s poetry. The very title of this book recalls In A Green Night, and there is a slight Walcottian narrative in one or two of the longer poems. And it is interesting the way Persaud hits at the Nobel Laureate while referencing Naipaul.
The best poem in the book is Odysseys, My Love which is a love poem. While it could be addressed to a woman, it is quite obviously devoted to Georgetown and worked out with close references to Hindu and Classical myths. It is intertextual with the well-woven allusions to Homer’s The Odyssey and the Ramayana with the Greek mythical love story of Ulysses and Penelope compared to the Indian Rama and Sita. However, another that approaches it in accomplishment is Her Dancing on Leaves: Re-Reading Palace of the Peacock which refers to Wilson Harris’ immortal classic novel.
Persaud captures some of Harris in the poem. As the persona approaches an interior lumber camp he hears the cry of “Timber! Timber!” This recalls Harris’s complex novel The Four Banks of the River of Space in which the narrator describes the environmental destruction which leads to the threats to the human race. The fall of each tree in the interior lumber camp is accompanied by the cry “Timber! Human timber!” The whole poem is a dialogue with Harris, not only with Palace of the Peacock, but with a range of the novelist’s concerns including criticism. Criticism because Persaud alludes to Harris’ discussion of “the bone flute” in which the Caribs draw strength from the femur, a bone taken from the thigh of a vanquished foe.
This poem indicates how accomplished and interesting a poet Sasenarine Persaud can be when he sets aside his more emotional invectives.
Her Dancing on leaves:
Re-Reading Palace of the Peacock
We sat , not a desk apart,
Side by side in a lecture, travelling through
The savannah’s tall grass. Donne on
A white horse in a canter-“ A shot rang out.”
He was dead, we thought, captain of a surly crew
On a Guyana River approaching the rapids.
I was born there, I shout, unable to hold it longer.
Where? On the river? Near the beautiful Mariella?
Barefoot, I saw her once, a baby on her back.
The forest leaves six inches thick on the trail.
We passed her slowly on the truck. Someone
Waved. She blinked and smiled. Taking food
For her husband at the logging site. Her body firm,
Her skin buff copper in the sun-starved quiet
We disturbed. The Bedford’s hum in low gear
Could not drown her dancing on leaves; a rattle, a drum-
Or later still as we neared the camp,
The cries Timber! Timber! We cut the engine.
After a hundred years, her husband felled
The tallest greenheart in the stand, the best.
We crowded around, coastlanders, to glimpse
His massive trunk. The chatter resumed.
Chainsaws screamed. Business concluded, we left
The noise and the Brittle quiet. That was when we saw
The butterflies. One, two, following us like dolphins.
One forest trail, there’s only one way the Bedford
Could go-as slow as a Sunday afternoon stroll
On the Promenade near the bandstand looking
To England across the Atlantic. Blue butterflies’ wings
Like tennis rackets driving, with topspin, escaped straws
Of sunlight through the umbrella of leaves overhead,
Thinking, her son reading this might say, I was born there!
Sparkling cobalt wings alight on the green leaves
In your aquamarine eyes. Her bare toes hidden
in the socks of russet twigs we finally see in yours
hoisted on the chair in front. I see her every time
I see that forest, that forest every time I see your eyes.
Donne is dead. We have scaled the cliff face. Someone,
the boy, carroll, is playing a human femur flute
and the thick snow outside makes it look like
Christmas – the holidays. After the last lecture, I close
There’s nobody as I descend the stairs in the rock. Pausing
To zip my coat, you appear like an Amerindian walking
In the bush, the baby on your back haversacked books,
Unwrapping the scarf to say you’re going home.
I knot the silk around my throat, look to the nearest
Door. I wish you luck for your finals, and your stay in Rome.
In your eyes are the merging of the green and blue
Of my exile. You take the long corridor slowly –
I the closest door. An exile is always lonely, I would
Call after your back, we tend to look behind once
In a while. I head outside instead, the Boston snow
Like white sand on the edges of a tropical forest –
I went there once, enchanted. I loved – was born there –
A shout rang out. We died and yet we lived and lived again.