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minister of culture appoints poet esther phillips as barbados' first poet laureate - february 2018

Minister of Culture appoints Poet Esther Phillips as Barbados’ first Poet Laureate – February 2018
Photo Credit: Barbados Government Information Services

 

My Poetry Corner January 2019 features the poem “Unwritten Poem” from the poetry collection, The Stone Gatherer, by Esther Phillips, a poet and educator born in Barbados, where she still resides. In February 2018, she was appointed the first Poet Laureate of the Caribbean island-nation.

After attending the Barbados Community College at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, she won a James Michener fellowship to the University of Miami where, in 1999, she gained an MFA degree in Creative Writing. Her poetry collection/thesis won the Alfred Boas Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets.

In 2001, she won the leading Barbadian Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award. Years later, the third of her three well-received poetry collections, Leaving Atlantis (2015), won the Governor General’s Award for Literary Excellence.

Phillips is a Sunday columnist of the Nation newspaper and editor of Bim: Arts for the 21st Century, a 2007 revival of the seminal Caribbean literary and arts magazine, first published in 1942. In 2012, she formed Writers Ink Inc. and, together with its members, the Bim Literary Festival & Book Fair.

saint george - barbados
Saint George Parish – Barbados
Photo Credit: Go Barbados

She grew up in the verdant Saint George Parish, rich in “visual and sensory and auditory images and influences,” Phillips says in an interview with Zing Magazine. “I also believe that listening to my mother play the piano as a young child and beating the tambourine at church gave me a consciousness of meter and rhythm from very early.”

In addition to the lyricism in her poetry, Phillips’ work is also rich in metaphor and visual images. But, she adds: “I avoid abstractions as much as possible; readers are more easily able to connect with the visual and concrete.”

This is evident in her poem, “Word,” on teaching an adult male to read. The word “F-i-x” bewildered him: dis word so small.

How could his daily toil
of hammer, saw and nails;
an old lady’s reckoning
of last month’s window
against the patching
of her roof this week —
how could her life of sacrifice
and his of labour, sweat
and boiling sun
be totalled up
in this small word?

boy playing with old bicycle steel rim and stick
Boy playing with old bicycle wheel rim and stick
Photo Credit: Flickr

In her poem, “My Brother,” a little boy running down the road with a roller and a metal wand brings back memories of her brother. In the second stanza, the visual image becomes a metaphor of life’s struggles with a troubled and distant father.

How often did your
bare feet hammer
your frustration into
this hot tar, insistent
hands striking, every
lash echoing your own pain,
willing with furrowed brow
and glinting tears the roller
to go straight, for so might
your own stifled dreams
one day run straight and true?

During her interview with Saint Lucian writer, John Robert Lee, Phillips notes: “Poetry cannot change human nature: the endemic inclinations that move us towards chaos. Nor can it obliterate the reality of evil. But I believe that poetry may offer us times of respite and the realization that there is still beauty in the world. Poetry may offer us the knowledge that as long as there is a community out there sharing common experiences, we’re not alone. The cathartic value of that awareness is not to be underestimated.” 

In the featured poem, “Unwritten Poem,” Phillips reflects on her ex-son-in-law. As a mother, she had found joy in her daughter’s marriage and had connected with her son-in-law. But, alas, the union did not last for long. The poet doesn’t disclose the reason for the separation, but shares only her loss and shattered dreams for herself and daughter.

You never gave me time
to write your poem.
I needed time to know you:
the fledgling husband playing
his unaccustomed role,
no model given from the past;

[…] 

When should I have written your poem?
The day of your wedding?
when you, handsome in tuxedo,
took her hand and swore
that you would love her always?

Would it have been the day
you placed my grandchild in my arms?
For in that very moment, my heart
would have soared upwards.

The poet reflects on the happy times spent in his company: just glad a woman and her son-in-law / could have no discord. In her closing stanza, she laments her loss.

But now you’re gone,
and all the hopes I cherished, prized,
will flourish in the gaze of someone else’s eyes.
How does the heart recover from the lives
we’ve met and touched? So little time,
so little time, yet loved so much.
 

How does the heart recover from the lives / we’ve met and touched? 

(In a strange coincidence, today also marks three years since my son’s marriage ended.)

Amidst the chaos in our country and across the world, Phillips focuses on the quiet crises of our personal lives where our connections with the outer world occur and, oftentimes, collide. 

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Esther Phillips, go to my Poetry Corner January 2019.

NOTE: Excerpts of cited poems from Esther Phillips’ poetry collection, The Stone Gatherer, published by Peepal Tree Press, U.K., 2009.

 

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