Make Us All Islands: Richard Georges, Shearsman
Richard Georges was born in Trinidad, and brought up in the British Virgin Islands, where he now lives and teaches. These were among the Caribbean islands settled by British planters to grow sugarcane and make their fortunes by the exploitation of West African slaves, brought across the ocean in chains and subject to frequent whipping, rape and murder, if they survived the voyage.
In his first book, shortlisted for the Forward first collection prize this year - Georges was unable to attend the prizegiving ceremony in September because he was stranded by the aftermath of a hurricane – the poet sets out to act as a “griot” or storyteller for these people, of whom there is very little written record, and whose sufferings, he feels, history would prefer to forget about or gloss over.
The first landings and shipwrecks on the coral reefs, the drownings, and the bones of the ships and of the drowned are powerfully evoked in the opening poems, and haunt the rest of the book. There are vivid descriptions of the cane-cutting by the slave gangs, “dust//watered with/salt and blood”.
Elsewhere, everywhere, the sea is a beautiful and terrible presence, it “holds us up in life and/swallows us up,/grinding flesh and bone/to nothing.” And to the islands it brings a conditional wealth, now that they survive on tourism and financial services. It is a wealth for the wealthy that “segregates” the poor from the rich, that makes “us”, the local people, “all islands” as Georges writes in ‘At the Waterline’; none of the captains even of the luxurious schooners have “brown hands”.
This is a rich and various collection, rich with proverbs and meditations, and rich too with excellent vignettes of present-day life in the Virgin Islands, with skilful use of patois to bring characters to life. I particularly liked the girl tending goats who wishes her island would weigh anchor and sail east to “the Land” where her boyfriend has gone to seek work. For islands, however beautiful, are a prison.