Meeting Ground - A special Christmas collaboration between poets of Jamaica and Puerto Rico
Christmas is universal and elicits reactions from all. As the Jamaican and Puerto Rican poems that will be shared over the next two weeks illustrate, there are fundamental similarities in the Christmas celebrations, such as Christmas trees, food and family, but there seems to be a difference in the embrace of Christmas, at least in the poems here. The Jamaican poems submitted and chosen from both contemporary and deceased poetry giants, lean more on nostalgia, while the contemporary poems from Puerto Rico, are less nostalgic, but equally beautifully written.
Here’s to poetry, expressions and Christmas!
The celebration of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Three Kings Day are strong traditions that come with much music, parrandas, food, and family gatherings in Puerto Rico. However, the poems published here suggest some of the ambivalence that contemporary poets have over seasonal family strife, environmental damage, and the on-going political struggles of a Caribbean island that has yet to celebrate its independence from colonisation.
So much have I forgotten in ten years,
So much in ten brief years; I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not;
Forgotten is the special, startling season
Of some beloved tree’s flowering and fruiting,
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting:
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.
I still recall the honey-fever grass,
But I cannot bring back to mind just when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow bye road mazing from the main,
Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple:
I have forgotten, strange, but quite remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.
What weeks, what months, what time o’ the mild year
We cheated school to have our fling at tops?
What days our wine-thrilled bodies pulsed with joy
Feasting upon blackberries in the copse?
Oh, some I know! I have embalmed the days,
Even the sacred moments, when we played,
All innocent of passion uncorrupt.
At noon and evening in the flame-heart’s shade:
We were so happy, happy, ––I remember
Beneath the poinsettia’s red in warm December.
Claude McKay (Jamaica)- 1889-1948
Pine Trees in December
It’s cut down.
The slash in its trunk was clean and swift
and didn’t dye the snow red,
that cold transparency of its blood,
not even a twisted shout went through the maternal
tip-top breastfeeding it.
Its roots, contortedly perplexed,
still soak up water to give to it someday,
because they think that it, surely, has momentarily gone
after the trail of its pinecones like children
who agreed they’d return, and didn’t.
The pain of the wound was held in abeyance
because it has been more rattled being shaken brutally
by gloved hands that tossed it,
without mercy, against third-class freight cars
and lightless bellies of dirty ships.
Thrown there, almost on the tip of its green, needle-like fingers,
it senses another one, and another, and another,
which smell like it and still madly sweat
the frozen drizzle of their North.
The heat does keep growing, not the pine:
growing is that thing that happens
always at the cost of something else,
and here there’s heat in its fate
of gasses expelled by the arms
of dying pines.
More was to come. To see the sky again and remain still
in the brief pulse of clocks
that pass by in front of it, and to be bought.
To feel the voracious net that strangles it
in the redundant pretence of extinguishing it once again,
and, in passing, to see the inconceivable city,
tepid and grey, that rushes away in front of it
with a gesture of goodbye and the same irony
that the dead give off
when they pass it by.
To arrive, and not understand
that basin of water that it’s planted in;
To mistake its species, believing itself a fish,
vaguely missing the dense earth
that once secured its fine-nerved feet,
to remember the feet, to recognise itself in this way as amputated,
to think about the terrible commotion of its roots
and the slow bubbles of sap
that would by then be gurgling without destination
spilled out over its shadeless snow.
To be hungry and thirsty, and to drink
the only thing under its numb mouth,
is an instinct.
More was to come.
To feel fingers by the dozen
poking its entrails,
hanging strange metal pendants
that had never belonged to its body,
to feel that a caress was approaching,
which instead of caressing put a weight
on its fragile and hurt branches,
and a starry almost-thorned crown
that bows its neck down towards the ground
like a child with a dunce cap.
The worst was to come,
when the night starts to talk about stars,
and in the fierce darkness the pine tree awaits
soft moonlight that would put its needles to sleep,
to be blinded by the strident glowing that lights it up,
electric thicket of arteries
scorching its formless guts,
and to remain awake,
to die its death at the vigil
of a night holy for others.
Like this, like a clown,
besmeared in colours but immobile,
is the silent pine corpse offered up
to the altar of a remote nativity,
and tormented from the tip-top to the base
by the light of an artificial star,
itself the way
from Bethlehem to Golgotha,
to that white Golgotha of frosted felt
over which one by one the brown needles fall,
like wasted pieces of farewell, in January.
Janette Becerra (Puerto Rico)
(Translated from Spanish by Maria Grau Perejoan and Loretta Collins Klobah: poem originally published in Elusiones, 2001)
Jonkoonoo A Come
The drumming drumming closer and closer
one street corner away, inching
along the familiar street edged with cut-stone walls.
The approaching beat pumping fear in the child
through whose eyes I look today
as though it were yesterday.
The villagers waited in the boiling sun
milling around the drumming excitement
for the inevitable approach of the marching troop.
Beat by beat racing the heart.
The unseen child hemmed in by the open fear
of hearing the words ––Jonkoonoo A Come
took shelter behind the shop counter
where a splintered split in the wood was the peephole
through which the staged display
of excitement was in full view.
The costumed troop, mesh-masked and foot loose
stomping to the iambic beat of the day
prancing to the onlookers delight
in the sparkles of festive mood.
The tempo slowed to a sudden shift, when
the masculine Bride decked in a white-laced frock
with red hibiscus adorning a cardboard crown
relayed a whispered message
to the One masked in black with a pitch fork under his arm.
The bad news buckled his knees and took his speech.
A brisk breeze lifted through the nearby breadfruit leaves
while the whispered news took hold.
A tall man shedding his horse-head mask
blew deep-feeling support on his bamboo flute,
the drumming paced giving way to the toot
lifting its essence up the December skies
where pain and pleasure became one.
That day ––for adult reasons why –
I saw the Devil cry.
– Delores Gauntlett (Jamaica)
On our family Christmas tree,
the coloured lights had to be put up
first of all.
Those were my mother’s instructions.
Then came the garlands and ornaments.
Finally, she strewed thin, silver tinsel tears
all over the tree, completing the decorations.
It didn’t matter whether there was a star or an angel on top of the tree.
There wasn’t any orthodoxy in the celestial iconography
that would crown it.
This custom lasted during all
of my childhood and early teenage years.
Over time, my mother lost interest
in setting up the Christmas tree.
So then my father did it,
following the family tradition
to the letter.
Everything except for hanging up the tears.
Many years later
when my mother died,
her three children strewed all the tears of our bodies
across two continents: America and Europe.
We are still inexhaustible streams.
What I never knew is if when our father remarried,
a few months after
my mother’s death,
he continued to forego
Christmas tears while decorating his tree.
On my part, for ten years
I haven’t put one in my house.
This loss of interest in finding
a place to hang tears
is a maternal inheritance.
Cindy Jiménez-Vera (Puerto Rico)
(Translated from Spanish by Maria Grau Perejoan and Loretta Collins Klobah)
not so much season as seasoning
that flavour that eyes ears taste
that the tongue tastes
that the skin feels
how the skin chills
inna christmus breeze
and every sense wakes
as the first carols take you back
to days when you believed
when you waited
for that magic morning
inna christmus breeze
Mbala (Jamaica): 2019
“A cada lechón le llega su navidá combativa”
after El Verano Boricua 2019
The walls of Old San Juan
are decked with the spirit
of the season: Navidá Combativa 2019 –
spray-painted in blue, sealed in fire.
These are not Christmas lights
that flutter across storefronts,
balconies overhead. The streets are aflame
again. Our first cleaving still sizzles at the edge
of our mouth ––how we watched
his head boulder off a cliff, into the sea.
Our machetes quiver afresh, rods spin
in the ready over the crossfires of this country.
A new pig sits at the head of the hogpen
we’ve come to call the governor’s mansion.
A nation so hungry, a single swine
will not suffice to quell the carnage
we’re owed, the debt carved
from us like meat off a bone.
The entire sty is in for a butchering.
A cada lechón le llega su renuncia,
rang through la Calle de la Resistencia,
the newly-minted streets of Puerto Rico,
in the summer swelter. But the swells swallow
coastlines anew, the breeze stirs Caribbean pines.
Christmas is here. And the people
know all too well that this time of year
el lechón se coge, se mata y se pela;
se pone en la vara y se le da candela.
By Ana Portnoy Brimmer (Puerto Rico)
* The title translates as “Every Pig Has His Combative Christmas Coming”, and the poem alludes to massive street protest in Puerto Rico during the summer of 2019, which forced Governor Ricardo Rossello to resign from office. The last couplet is made up of two verses from the Puerto Rican Christmas song (aguinaldo), “Ese Pobre Lechón,” which translates as “You take the pig, kill it and skin it. You put it on the rod, and set it over the flame” (translation by Ana Portnoy Brimmer).
Editors and translators:
Ann-Margaret Lim has two poetry books – The Festival of Wild Orchid and Kingston Buttercup, published by Peepal Tree Press. Loretta Collins Klobah is a poet, translator, and professor of Caribbean Literature at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. Maria Grau Perejoan is a lecturer at The University of the Balearic Islands in Mallorca (Spain) and a literary translator specialising in Caribbean literature.