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Father and Daughter
Photo Credit: Parent Cue

My Poetry Corner January 2016 features the poem “History Shelves” by Caribbean-American poet Sassy Ross. Born in St. Lucia, at the age of ten, she moved to the USA where she lives in New York City. From a sample of fifteen of her poems, recently published in Coming Up Hot: Eight New Poets from the Caribbean by Peekash Press, this poem explores the poet’s troubled relationship with her father. Using the bookcase filled with “books dense as stone tablets / on a pharaoh’s tomb,” in their family room, Ross recalls those early years of their history together.

The poet’s memory of her father is enmeshed with the drug culture in the Caribbean in the 1980s. In her poem “The Rottweiler,” she and her mother go in search of her father the drug addict. Late at night, their Rottweiler alerts them when her father returns home like “a thief who had his own set of keys.”

In the first stanza of “History Shelves,” Ross describes her father as a man who had once hungered for knowledge.

I’d almost forgotten the volumes that we kept
in that solid case of oak catty-cornered
from the sofa, a floral ode to polyester

In the early years, he read aloud to her: “while I jabbed questions into his side.” She became “a junkie for words I could not pronounce.”

Later, in grappling with his drug addiction, she feared that she would end up like him. After all, they were “both cut from the same cloth.” Thanks to prayer and her belief in a power greater than herself, she did not succumb to his fate.

I have not cursed the gods. I have not dissembled.
Though we were made from the same cloth,
I have not transgressed. My voice was not loud
as I appealed to the ibis-headed Thoth,
assembled boards into an altar.

Her father’s addiction shook her world, destroying their relationship. Whenever her father awoke from “[fighting] demons in his sleep,” he “bent words, usurped the role of deity / to whom I pled.”

In remembering their early history of sharing love for words and knowledge, Ross is able to reconnect with what her father’s drug addiction had stolen from her. She concludes:

I’d almost forgotten the volumes that we lost.

Whether fueled by drugs or alcohol, domestic violence destroys filial relationships. My father, who became violent when drunk – alcohol released the demon in him – also loved books and reading: his legacy to me. Like Ross, “I have not transgressed.” I did not partake of the firewater that flowed freely in Guyana’s rum culture.

Forgiveness came with time and distance. The “volumes lost” cannot be replaced. A shelf stands bare.

To read the complete poem and learn more about Sassy Ross, go to my Poetry Corner January 2016.