Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Juliet Wilson's Bougainvillea Dancing


As well as editing Bolts of Silk with perspicacious elegance, Juliet Wilson is also a wonderful poet, and I am very pleased to review her chapbook, Bougainvillea Dancing.

This could be considered a failure of chronological etiquette, since it is an earlier work, compared to, say, her collection Unthinkable Skies. But Unthinkable Skies has already been well-considered by critics (who offer much praise); and Bougainvillea Dancing, I feel, has a special aura of its own: it both embraces and laments the dangerous passion of powerful forces, which themselves interact through a tension of opposites, mysteriously blending and colliding.

The poems draw heavily from this Scottish poet’s extensive stay in Malawi. Timewise, they meander back into the nineties, but focus on the 2000-2001 divide. In this aspect, they could be thought of as the planks in a bridge that spans two millenniums. The dialectic between Africa and Scotland, set in an extraordinary moment in history, is so pervasive as to be inescapable. Wilson, well aware of the fateful juxtapositions, dedicates one piece to 9/11, the day that terrorists commandeered airliners and slammed them into New York’s Twin Towers (“We fall, splinter/apart/in glass shards/Screams dislocate/all we thought/we knew”).

Another piece humbly offers the straightforward title, “Real Millennium” and leaps from a shoreline littered with “a wasteful century’s dross” into transformative renewal: cribs are fashioned of “driftwood and detritus” and we are led to “retrace the ancient tales/to find a glimmer of hope.”

This intense nexus of antipodes, both geological and psychological--continents, wars, and glimmers resurgent in faltering wrongs--suffuses Bougainvillea Dancing so thoroughly that the author might be pouring many of its clashes and surges subconsciously into her often bittersweet phrases.

If so, it is because the poet allows herself this openness. Forgive me for speaking in titles, but she dares to be a “Time Traveller,” and admits to a deep “Disorientation.” In “Reading the Leaves,” she visits a sagacious fortuneteller, who also turns out to be a cherished part of her personal history.

If you are looking for passionate odes to Malawi’s landscapes and moods, you will find Wilson’s brave lyricism replete. The collection starts with a triad of sensuously riveting works. The first two, “Drought” and “Tropical Rainstorm” present a counterpoint of extremes:

Eagles with cunning in their bills,
claw the shrinking lake, my ebbing blood,
scratching for small fish - usipa, utaka,
rage against the dying of the lake

And then:

First the wind
whistling down the wooded hills,
bougainvillea dancing in tune,
oppression slowly lifting

The third poem, “After Sunset,” offers an exhale of wonder in the aftermath of this thirst and tempest; a speculation to the stars about majesty and darkness. There is a kind of stalemate in this reverie, a fascination that cannot help but settle into reverence:

Above, Seven Sisters and Southern Cross
shine down on the lake’s constellation.
Black sky and black water meet in communion
and dug-out canoes become stars.

Praises to nature are laced throughout this booklet of longing. I say “longing” because Wilson is a profound thinker as well as a heartfelt artist, and erects a crucible of changing cultures and primal elements, which yields no simple truths. Ironically, only beauty and pain emerge with the force of valid conclusions, not the answers an empathic traveller would seek.

And Wilson is indeed an ethical empath, all too aware of “the dirty dark smell of the tea-estate trading hall,/the pittance paid for hard labour,/land stolen from food crop production” (from “Reading the Leaves”). She is so sensitive that she cannot have her future guessed without noting the callous causal chains.

Starting early in the chapbook, Wilson often takes on some imbued other--a “you” or “your” becomes the focus, often with a resonant tinge of regret. It’s as if the lines of her poems were violin strings, fated to echo with a vibration from an immortal yet distant music. There is love in this music, the love of someone very close:

Ten years on
your memory is elusive
as the mountains,
indecipherable as code

(From “Malindi Beach”)

One poem is even titled “You.” Not a romantic poem of loss, still it bears marks of pinnacle and plummet:

You touched me,
bruised my tired heart,
left imprints on my soul,
kept me awake at night.
Tarantulas and hunting spiders
invaded my dreams
when we said goodbye.

The above excerpt exemplifies a mystery: there is a kind of Mona Lisa Smile in Wilson’s use of “you” in this oeuvre. Sometimes her “you” concerns delightful birds: “Metaphor for free/you swoop, soar, swirl/sharp joy in my heart as I/watch you roller-coast the sky/sublime as operatic arias” (from “Swifts”). Sometimes she is speaking to a person, or maybe each poem a separate person.

And sometimes, to my eye, she is speaking to Africa itself, as in “Making of a Muse”:

Now continents and years away,
your likeness sits here in my soul,
a symbol, cipher, set in stone
for me to bring to mind

It is possible I am way off, and there is a simple linear meaning behind the second-person that threads through this poignant collection. But one of the great traits of Bougainvillea Dancing, as I see it, is the permeability: the various yous that can refer to people, to animals, to places and to Africa itself. Each “you” participates in a holistic invocation, which relies on the magic of the poet’s voice as she wanders through realms, pasts, and prophecies, touched in special ways along the route.

The last theme I will emphasize is a bit ineffable, a sort of tentative joy, a seed of happiness embodied in these poems, one still searching to blossom. Part of it is the virtuous humility of the writer, who never once brags of ecstasy. She is rightly wary of the tourist’s faux rapture, and stays in richer currents. Maybe the poem “Drumbeat” brings this out best:

In my Edinburgh flat, the drum
sits quietly, untouched,
its message stays unheard.

Even “Eating Mangoes,” a luscious aria, permits the adventurer only ephemeral glee:

I came back to the UK too soon
still craving that flavoursome mango
and every last one of them was green.

Maybe the point is deeper. Wilson implies, perhaps, that we are not worthy of catharsis. No great answer, enduring summer, unjaded love or complete relief. Why?

We are not because her poem “Refugee” tells us: “Hope lies lost in the desert.” We are not because (from “Victoria Falls”): “Where Livingstone stood is now/remnant rainforest on a tourist track.”

We are not because we are agonizingly “Connected”:

Mining coltan in the Congo
modern day slaves
who will never see a mobile phone
are forced to sacrifice their forests
on the altar
to an alien god.

Despite the horrors, accused with fervid candor, Wilson ultimately does what a great poet must. She confronts the multifaceted “you”--the you that is her grandmother; and also birds that “swoop, soar, swirl”: and, moreover, the land’s magnificence; and she sings of love, and yet also much more, until the reader is pulled into this rainstorm of senses, places and aches. Together they are the water of the heart itself, challenging the silence of drought.