Cassia Alphonso’s Black Cake Mix, won the award for Best Book of Poetry in the 2012 Guyana Prize for Literature, jointly with Ian McDonald’s The Comfort of All Things. Lori Shelbourn of the University of Leeds, UK was a member of the Jury.
By Lori Shelbourn
The title of this article is taken from one of the stand-out poems in Cassia Alphonso’s Guyana-Prize-winning collection, Black Cake Mix (unpublished). ‘Ladie Lucille’ is a lingering, moving and vividly-drawn character-study of an elderly diabetic woman whose struggle with alcoholism eventually leads to her death. From its first lines, the poem has an instant appeal, which comes in part from Alphonso’s gift for creating singular, subtle characters through the use of resonant detail, and in part from the allure of her poetic voice with its careful balance of standard English and creolese:
Yuh had to catch her early
before mid-day pass,
when she still had she senses.
Purpley-dark puffy skin coated her face
and a smile sweeter than swinging
in a hammock pun a cool afternoon. (l.1-6)
Like many of Alphonso’s poems, the immediacy of ‘Ladie Lucille’ is underpinned by a poetic craftsmanship and an originality of vision that could too easily go unnoticed. The description of Lucille’s smile is so effortlessly evocative that it would be easy to miss the way it makes a connection between smile and hammock that is both visual (shape) and emotional (the pleasure both invoke), as well as the subtle use of rhythm – carried through the juxtaposition of soft ‘S’s (smile/ sweeter / swinging) and punctuating ‘P’s (purpley / puffy / pun), and the gentle half-rhyme in ‘cool afternoon’ – that make the lines as sweet to read as the smile is to see. And it is often this way with Alphonso’s poetry; the poems draw you in quickly but are not so quickly left behind; they forge images, turn phrases, and raise questions that stay with you, sending you back to the poems once and again with a growing sense of wonder.
Take, for example, her description of Ladie Lucille as she starts drinking in the morning, ‘lean[ing]’ a ‘whole bottle’ of white rum and ‘float[ing] it down with water’:
Her lips had a blackness to them.
Mommy said is cause she burning
the blood out of she body.
When she ain’t sugared up
she was a jewel fuh watch sparkle.
Always made you laugh. (l. 17-22)
Alphonso invokes Lucille as a palpably real presence, but the manner in which she does so is curiously impressionistic. Lucille has many faces. We watch her like a rising sun, catching her ‘before mid-day passes’, seeing her ‘sparkle’ one moment and burn the next. A spectrum of light, then, becomes a potent metaphor for the dynamic variations of a single personality, and for the range of emotions this personality invokes in the narrator.
However, it is the description of Lucille as ‘a jewel fuh watch sparkle’ that lingers longest. Jewels are usually associated with some form of acquisitiveness; either they are proudly possessed or they invoke a desire for ownership. For Alphonso’s narrator this is not the case. She does not want to own the jewel, but rather to leave it be, to watch it sparkle. Indeed, going against the grain of conventional association, the jewel in this context becomes the perfect image for the way in which Lucille’s variegated, multifaceted being constantly eludes the grasp of her observer.
Something similar happens in the final stanza of the poem as the poet describes how Lucille gradually succumbs to diabetes and to death. Description and destruction, are, after all, at times closely linked. In Alphonso’s poem, however, Lucille does not vanish. There is no hasty conclusion, no ready moral or maxim, to explain Lucille away. Rather, the poem ends with that repetitious return of ‘she whole purpley-dark body’. Like an impression burnt onto our imaginative retina, Lucille’s ‘wholeness’ remains – fascinating, haunting, unassimilated and inexplicable; and somehow still beyond the grasp of both the poem and, if not death, then certainly oblivion.
In these two moments – in the description of Lucille as a ‘jewel’, and the description of her death – ‘Ladie Lucille’ touches on a theme that recurs throughout Alphonso’s writing: the search for a form of poetry that can appreciate without consuming, possessing or dominating its subject. We might almost say that Alphonso’s poetry is peculiarly concerned with the ethics of representation. And it is a very fruitful concern; one that raises all sorts of questions about the relationship between language, representation and power – in poetry, but also in society more broadly.
‘Maddie Carla’ is another poem that takes up these issues in a different way. Written as a dramatic monologue, the poem’s voice is so lucidly realised that it has all the immediacy of a personal meeting:
Is I name Maddie Carla.
Yes, that is wha dem does call me.
I know none a dem ain’t know my real name.
Them these people to big shot to care.
My muddah birth me Soneeta, a nice baby,
with big coolie Meena Kumari eyes.
Nah watch me suh yuh know.
But dem people here, dem call me Carla,
and it don’t boddah me much … (l.1-9)
The question of Maddie Carla/Soneeta’s name is central to this poem. In varieties of popular wisdom it is often held that to know someone’s name is to have some kind of power over them; and certainly here, the naming (or misnaming) of ‘Maddie Carla’ is fraught with questions of power. The fact that people call her by a name that is not her own becomes symbolic of the ways she is ignored and reduced by the society around her; written into the margins of other people’s stories as an insignificant presence ‒ a ‘beggar ‘oman’, a ‘pauper’, a sinister madwoman who might ‘grabble’ someone’s children (l. 16-20).
And the question of names has a further resonance, of course, when considered in the context of colonial history where re-naming – the imposition of European names, European languages – was one way in which colonizing powers asserted their dominance over the peoples and places they ruled. A whole social history, then, is condensed into Maddie Carla’s predicament. But appearing, as it does, in the context of a poem, this question of naming – of the relationship between name and named ‒ also expresses a self-reflexive anxiety about the ways in which histories of inequality and domination are inscribed into the words we use, and the way we use them.
Similar concerns are raised by the way that the poem is narrated. Maddie Carla/Soneeta addresses her audience defiantly, almost dismissively; anticipating their (and our?) lack of understanding even as she tells her story.
Yu hear lil girl? Lil Putagee girl,
whiter than any white man I eva see.
Cause if me had a man like dem
A house like dem, clothes like dem
I would out class all a dem
But till then, is right here a gon sit
And they gon pass and say,
“Morning Maddie Carla,” […] (l.23-34)
So often in literature the author and/or narrator will address their reader as a friend, ally, or confidant; some measure of identification is usually taken for granted. The way ‘Maddie Carla’ is narrated, by contrast, reminds us that the social relationships between writer and subject, narrator and reader, are no less trammelled by social inequality and the politics of gender, race and class than any other social relationship.
‘By Cuffy Monument’ is another stand-out poem in Alphonso’s collection. Written as a reminiscence that is shared with a childhood friend (Jody), this poem remembers a time when the two girls ‘skulk[ed] school fuh go galavant’, and ended up playing by Philip Moore’s famous commemorative statue (l.2). There is an almost carnivalesque spirit to the girls’ gallivanting. Social rules and the routine order of things are uplifted, suspended and subverted as the girls venture out. They taste fruits as if for the first time, paying little heed to the social conventions that usually separate the ‘dutty’ from the clean (‘Go buy salt n pepper mango / in deh lil plastic bag that we were told not / to buy cause they venda people dutty’ – l. 7-9). And they take pleasure in the feeling of the breeze blowing around them with only the most perfunctory concern for the customary boundary between ‘lawlessness’ and propriety (‘The breeze would run beneath we uniform, / skirt flare up, laugh, tuck fabric between we legs / so nobody can saw we lawless’ – l. 22-24).
But what makes this poem so peculiarly enjoyable is the poet’s willingness to meet her subjects on their own terms. The commonplaces of ‘childhood’ poetry are refreshingly absent here: there are no idealizations of simplicity or naïveté, no oppositions between innocence and experience, no retrospective adult explanations or judgment. Indeed, just as the girls suspend social conventions to make space for their own experience, so Alphonso suspends representational norms to make space for an original perspective on childhood.
One of the most striking instances of these parallel suspensions comes in the last two stanzas of the poem:
Under Cuffy monument we lay down.
From far we use to cover we eye
slave look like he was holding his long
wutlessness. Under freedom fighter we saw what he held and was nothing vulgar. (l.17-21)
There is a strange maturity in the way the girls recognize but then see beyond the well-known joke about Moore’s sculpture.
And this shifting of perspective carries with it, I would suggest, a slight caution against readings that would reductively interpret their own actions – and the potency of their sensory, sensual engagement with the world around them – as a manifestation of ‘vulgar’ sexuality or ‘wutless’ behaviour.
As with most manifestations of carnival, the normal order of things is restored as the girls’ gallivanting comes to an end (‘Two thirty strike […] / Is back to school we start – l.31-32). Well, almost. After this suspension and subversion of conventional perspectives, the ‘normal’ doesn’t seem quite so normal anymore and we are left full of questions about different forms of learning, for example, or the history of our social vocabularies, or the nature of childhood. ‘By Cuffy Monu-ment’, then, demonstrates once again Alphonso’s great capacity for writing lively, engaging, and approachable poems that tackle big issues in a highly original way. It is a rare combination of attributes, and one that makes this poet ‘a jewel fuh watch sparkle’.