Tue | May 30, 2017

Writer redefines history with haunting masterpiece

Published:Sunday | September 27, 2015 | 9:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Ashby
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Title: Providential

Author: Colin Channer

Publisher: Akashic Books

Colin Channer's Providential is raw, bold, fearfully dark, and unapologetic. But this is understandable. For how could anyone sanitise bloodletting, massacres, slavery, and some of the darkest chapters in human history?

Channer is well known for his creative genius, and here, he has not disappointed. In fact, it is arguably his strongest offering yet. He gets personal, discussing his ancestry. He takes jabs at history and culture. In effect, he is the consummate existentialist, viewing life through survivalist lens.

Notably, his poetic lustre does not buckle under his literalism. He is revolutionary and unforgiving, especially in 'First Recruits', where he tackles colonialism and those who betrayed their own at the behest of the Crown. He pens, "They answered when the Queen wanted constables, dependables, regulars to keep order after riots rumbled to rebellion back in 1865 ... thirty years after slavery and the liberty half cooked ... . Of those who came, nine hundred-plus were taken. Sharp-eyes, big hearts, plenty meats between the blades. Feet with arches. Walking proudly. Traitors falling into place."

In 'First Kill', and 'Second Shot', dupli-city turns tragic. And that same tone is

repeated in 'Funeral'.

In 'Lea', there is an unmistakable intimacy that hurts, deeply. His ancestry is at the core of this chronicle. Again, there is empathy for the bloodline - rattled, beaten down by slavery, but still courageous.

"More follow, born-free and ex-chattel, going home at twilight, slow marching dressed in rag calico, burlap, osnaburg, using foot beat to hold a rhythm ... it's a detail Lea included when he told the tale to Phyllis Fay, his great-grandchild, my mum who asked about a photo framed in pewter on a bureau."

And the inimitable 'Clan' is as wrenching and provocative as it gets. Here, tribalism and parochial mentality - yes, our twisted form of identity - are laid bare. It is very much the cause of internecine hatred and calamity.

He writes, "Every clan has its colours, its history, its foes, its limits, its ways of notching who's out and in. Every clan has its parlance, its secrets, its publics, its fables, its side deals cut with death."

Later, he asks rhetorically, "When will it end?"

But abruptly, Channer changes his brush and canvas, and proves his range in 'Civil Service', a near-sentimental offering that reflects the warm, impeccable gift of nature.

He travels with a man-boy of

nearly 20; really a 'slave' boy in the 1930s who finds himself in love with a German woman. There is yearning and a love affair - an anathema, and worse, even if contemplated. But Channer leaves us with the wonderment of our natural habitat: "Above, birds ... . Around, insects hustle-bustle, get on with the gnawing, digging, scraping noise making of their work. Ahead, green mountains gallop, left to right, unbroken herd."

Channer

traverses places, times, and

eras. Slavery, abolition, the colonial era, independence movements, and the struggles in Jamaica and Liberia. Anguish, civil strife, racism, political partisanship, and the blight of the past, hover - never surrendering.

In 'Neville's Logic,' he writes, "He'd been there with the rest, free born speaking English, no clan or tribal language, no lash markings on the shoulders ... just a skin, colour, a future its set duties ... pickininny to whites ... to blacks - recruit to toughen up for backra work Jamaica? Their country - Jamaicans? Near white. Nation? Something more like land."

And the wanton slaughter bedevilling Liberia is duly captured. "We shouldn't joke too much about this awful war and blah blah about this country founding the coast of Guinea ... by ex-chattel."

social psychosis

And the twisted politics and gangsterism - the pure social psychosis that snuff the life force of innocence and the unsuspecting, are played out in 'Balls', a kinetic, sharply written indictment of Jamaica's slums. "The boy was no gangster, so I gathered from the man who sold me Shirley biscuits in a pack and a few loose sticks of gum. Just a gun bag for an activist nobody couldn't touch. "Some o' them a get too bad'" he said. "This one balls get cut."

In 'Tentative Definitions', he redefines commonly held concepts. On honesty, he affirms, "A lie for a lie and a truth for a truth", while conceding its Babylonian origin.

And of death, he so tantalisingly describes as a race: "From when you join the force is on your marks. You must be set to go."

In truth, just about every other poem, speaking with utmost clarity, invites discourse.

What an apt title, this. Channer, in many ways, surrenders to destiny. That's the way it is. Realism wins out.

Surely, Providential perfectly clothes the written word with matching tone and atmosphere. Welcome to the hallowed halls of Fine Poetry!

Ratings: Highly recommended

n Send feedback to glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby. Dr Ashby is the author of the new book, 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment.''