Mirth and more at The Merchant of Feathers launch
In closing his launch address of Tanya Shirley's poetry collection The Merchant of Feathers in Lecture Theatre 3 of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, last Thursday, Dr Kei Miller made a strong pitch for the Peepal Tree Press publication.
"If you leave here without buying the book, then you would be a fool," Miller, who had the Jamaican launch of his award-winning books Writing Down The Vision and The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion in December at UWI, said to the nigh-full room. And Dr Michael Bucknor, head of the Department of Literatures in English at UWI, Mona, which hosted Shirley's launch, remarked that only Miller and Shirley could attract a full house.
It would be unfair, though, to say that the long line which led to a seated, beaming Shirley and her pen at the ready to autograph copies of the book when her launch reading was over was due largely to the combination of a crowd and unwillingness to be deemed a dimwit. Shirley, who has already established a reputation as an excellent poet and presenter of her work, read some poems from The Merchant of Feathers, which were words to the wallets of those wise to words.
Before Shirley's reading, though, Djenne Greaves played selections on the keyboard inspired by The Merchant of Feathers. Before playing, he invited those who were so moved to "buss a silent shot" for the songs. Of course, this required being able to fill in the words to the songs, which seemed to defeat many audience members. Still, there were sufficient giggles of recognition to indicate that a muted fusillade had honoured Beenie Man and Miss Thing's Dude, Admiral Bailey's Punaany, the immortal Shabba Ranks pair of Needle Eye and X-Rated and Gyptian's Hold You, among other songs.
Shirley's reading confirmed the eroticism in the tone set by the music, but went further - much further - in scope. Opening with How Dreams Grow Fat and Die, she went back to childhood dreams of dance which were shot down by a mistress who wanted slender frames on her stage. Subsequently, Shirley dreams of taking graceful flight, a feather, and the caustic dance mistress is "a barbed wire that kills me".
There was more pain, well - and often humorously - put so as to cushion the word pricks yet still carry the impact of the incidents, in Shirley's reading from Flower Girl (written in Patois) about the determination of a little girl's aunts to press her hair just ahead of the wedding to a poem springing from the well-known line "the people are deading" from the Tivoli incursion of May 2010.
However, there was loads of love, audience members hooting when Shirley said, "I found love since the last book." (She Who Sleeps With Bones, Peepal Tree, 2009).
After that, there were references to Shirley's "honey", the feathers reappearing - again in a sad way - in En Route to Negril as "honey" drove over a bird.
WHEN LOVE STRIKES
One piece was response to an earlier musical rendition of Gregory Isaacs' Night Nurse, the setting a dance, the action a rub up, the outcome a parting, and the observation "I can see how much you wish love had found us with different lives."
Going back six years to the previous book's launch, held at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts at UWI, Shirley remembered her grandfather, a man of style and swagger. He passed last July and Shirley read At The Nursing Home for him. As "he taught one girl that love is larger than the space we live in".
A poem about the sexual act of squashing made a deep impression on the audience, recognising Professors Mervyn Morris and Edward Baugh, she closed with a poem inspired by the latter's Obituary Page. The outline of her wishes for When I Die made it clear that Shirley plans a grand exit, the procession to the final stage accompanied by jugglers and poets, among many others, while grown men who loved her fall into the laps of strangers.
They were strong last launch reading lines, before the wise headed outside the lecture theatre to form a line of another kind.