Wed | Jan 16, 2019

'Fried green plantains' reframes the familiar

Published:Thursday | October 26, 2017 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Natalie Corthesy

The strength of Natalie Corthesy's poetry collection, fried green plantains (2017, Nasara Publishing), lies in its reframing of the familiar to vividly convey the poet's opinion, while nudging the reader from accustomed viewpoints.

However, it is not the bulky strength of a large column supporting a roof, but the combination of power and grace, like a dancer - an artist Corthesy references in fried green plantains.

The sections it is organised into are short, as there are 36 poems to seven subtitled steps, which go from Cut the fruit from the tree to Enjoy! In-between are Select the fattest fingers, Remove the skin and slice the fruit, Pour coconut oil into a Dutch pot, Fry the plantain until golden and Sprinkle with sea salt. Based on the contents of each section, I have taken the liberty of assigning a theme.

So Cut the fruit from the tree is largely about slavery and, in the poem 'Myal', Corthesy writes:

"Wheeling in a trance

the dancer becomes the dance

and the repeater takes her

to the other side"

In its opening line, 'Freedom Song' immediately dismisses one-sided notions of Jamaica's racial heritage, even as the first stanza captures the difference between the owners of flesh and the flesh of the owned:

"When our ancestors

cast their net of slavery

across the Caribbean Sea

they unwittingly reeled in

the spirits of warriors and gods"




It is a leap to love in Select the fittest fingers, the poem 'Please May' I describing 'Mount Diablo hips', that poem followed by the painful, predatory part of male-female relationships in Miss Delacree. The title invokes the St Andrew (not the upper part) community, with the girl child being owned ("Ask di don first/den ask de modda last/fi sample puss inna bag/wid out gun shot blas"). The effect is lasting, though not always obvious, as the poem ends:

"Miss Delacree.

now Miss Sweet Thirteen,

hoist pon a speaker box,

an a mash up di scene"

Remove the skin and slice the fruit is about race. Inevitably, there are those observations which are obvious (in 'Blacktocracy', Corthesy opens. "Two thousand and seventeen/and it still matters, that I am black"). But she still manages to find a slightly different angle to the not so new, closing 'Ring Games' with "She is living too/A roast breadfruit not too fair".

And so, fried green plantains continues through its short segments, the city of London central to the poems of physical travel in Pour coconut oil in the Dutch pot. For those who are enthused with the uniformity of England's capital, Corthesy has a different viewpoint in London at first glance as she notes "the clumped houses/fashioned by lazy architects".

Going through the strange city, in 78 rpm Corthesy find a record shop and the tunes of home, where the music belongs to those who made it, as "This was not ska for beginners/Diaphonous lyrics grooved through my veins". And when she says "My London/Is replete with streets of anonymity,/filled with actors auditioning for dreams" it encapsulates the resident, visitor and immigrant, all faceless actors attempting to find significance in the mass.

I think of the segment, Fry the plantains until golden, as having greetings and goodbyes; Sprinkle with sea salt has encounters of the often brief by memorable kind (plus there is the reassessment of the lines "Linear graffiti/of 4 a.m. urine on the wall"); and Enjoy! Has poems of striking places (Moneague, where the fog is "like a dense gust/of sativa smoke") and dates (August Mawnin, Easter Blessing).

Throughout 'fried green plantains', Corthesy is true to the dual languages of Jamaica, has a keen eye for that which requires reinterpretation and, for the most part, does not preach, even as she gently encourages reconsideration of the familiar.