20 April 2009

Percussion, Salt & Honey by Nehassaiu deGannes

Percussion, Salt & Honey By Nehassaiu deGannes Providence Athenaeum, 2001 Winner, 2001 Philbrick Poetry Award Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt Funny how we’re different readers at different times isn’t it? I read Percussion, Salt & Honey several years ago with impatience and perplexity. And yet, re-reading it now, I must have mixed it up with another chapbook since I now find deGannes’ poems smart, skilled, interesting, and lively. When it was published the style of Percussion, Salt & Honey wasn’t yet a mannerism. But by now our taste for dreamlike, visionary, evocative images presented in a rhythmic chant that includes snatches of other cultures, gristly English vocabulary (liberally mixed with various spices from other tongues), and garnished with a sprig of history, a dash of biography, and a sprinkle of autobiography is, perhaps, slightly jaded. That’s not to say deGanne’s chapbook isn’t worth revisiting—it is. The writing is often abundant, sinuous, muscular, dense, compelling. It takes guts to do it well, as deGannes does, in “On the Fourteenth Floor,” which begins: of a Scarborough high-rise we eat boulliabaise Africanized: a yellow Carib collage a post-colonial dish: distinctions Arawaks taught us… and later: down in an estate kitchen no two grow alike granny’s ‘colored’ but not other so an iron pot can not refract her copper-kettle image back: once we saw her dip her whole head in dyeing roots in a bucket of patent shoe-black Garifuna mother: Scotts-Irish plantation owner dad But Vincentian pepper-pot is not oil-black: is not Petrol’s sun-scaled fish-back: Is not aloe-flesh… This is a rich and seriously playful poem, where words like braf (in Welsh ‘fine’ or ‘delightful’), and nkisi (objects with spiritual power) appear tossed in with phrases in Bantu (kufa banganga simbi –most likely, since deGannes is an accommodating poet, ‘each spring I unearth what remains’.), and puns (appraise him/praise him)—all used in the service of texture, tone, voice, and meaning in an admirably complex and comprehensive art. There are, for me, less successful poems in the series such as, “Boston Bridge Works, 1927” which contains the following: for birds or the dead Slip off your shoes Feel yourself rotting wood exhausted iron, oh that saxophone sound Well it’s not worth repeating but wind takes up residence with power You know gates latching unlatching shiver of light on rainsoaked wire. That last image is a fine one. And I’m not tripped up by the use of space, lack of punctuation, or windy indentations. But what do the words say beyond playful, clich├ęd post-moderne and not-particularly-interesting observations? We’ve heard it before and are tempted to agree, ‘it’s not worth repeating’. And in “Isis & Black Madonna On X-roads, N-roads, & the State of the Union ‘Address,’” we find something that trims sails uncomfortably close to blather: a movement suggesting blackness: mass against a cloud as if in sea foam a coffin tossed not quite crow not yet eagle somehow a lung breathes in W now wing It’s as if deGannes lost voice for a moment, then regains it in poems like, “Isis Prepares for Ressurrection” (your touch/doesn’t touch my flesh/ but finds my bracelet instead/ a ring of nehessi copper turning my wrist/green like and old woman’s arthritic arm…” In ”Vortex,” the recurrence of phrases evolve in meaning with repetition to haunt the poem and enact a vortex of racism, identity-formation, and defamation ending with the death of a talented adolescent football star: this feeling of being hunted persists even after the hounds are called off even after your high school’s been integrated even after you rescue your dreams from the pocket of another man’s coat I WATCHED THIS KID STAND FLATFOOTED AND THROW A FOOTBALL 60 OR 70 YARDS SOME CAN THROW SOME ARE QUICK AS CAN BE BUT HE HAD IT ALL IT WAS AMAZING TO SEE the propensity towards flatfootedness among African-American males and some females has been shown to have direct links to class and religious affiliation categories once defined as laws of natural selection flatfooted males and some females have a tendency to choose low-lying occupations those not requiring flight they are content really to remain in fields…. In other poems in this collection the use of capitalization distracts and is of uncertain effect, but here it’s as if the loud voice of White Society booms its banal idiocies supporting and accompanying the unfolding tragedy. I googled Nehassaiu DeGannes to check out what she’s been up to hoping to trace the evolution of her style. She’s written plays, but I found no poetry. A shame. But then, I’m not a very persistent googler, so I’ll hang onto the slim hope that there’s another book or three of poems out there I’ve missed. Let me know. Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt