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Trinidadian-American Poet Desiree C. Bailey
Photo Credit: Wilton Schereka on Poet’s Website

My Poetry Corner May 2022 features the poem “Ex(ile)” from the debut poetry collection What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C. Bailey that won the 2020 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Born in the Caribbean island-nation of Trinidad & Tobago, she was nine years old when she migrated with her family to the USA where she grew up in Queens, New York.

Bailey earned a BA from Georgetown University (Washington DC), an MFA in Fiction from Brown University (Rhode Island), and an MFA in Poetry from New York University. In Fall 2022, she will be the Writer-in-Residence at Clemson University (South Carolina).

In her interview with Corrine Collins for Air Light Magazine in September 2021, Bailey described her poetry collection What Noise Against the Cane as “a praise song to the ocean, Black people, Black women, the Caribbean, and struggles for liberation.” The first half of the collection is a long narrative poem titled “Chant for the Waters and Dirt and Blade,” written from the imagined perspective of a young, enslaved husk of girl orphaned   at the ocean’s distant edge / before ship   before humid choke of hull / before trade winds splintering [her] off into the world’s directions. With dreams of freedom, the girl joins other slaves in their fight for liberation during what became known as the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804): freedom: ruthless siren   hurl and shriek / louder   than a dream.

18th Century Sugar Cane Plantation – Saint-Domingue / Haiti (Faktor)
Photo Credit: History Collection

The slave girl witnesses the French colonizers’ transformation of the beautiful island, then known as Saint-Domingue:

in this garden the white man veils his face
from his gods   shears the land for it to look like him

in the leaves' tender shadow   he poisons the soil
with his spilling anger   his barbed sorrow

smell of a burning in the distance
whispers of uprisings in faraway fields

Her memory of life before being sold into slavery fades with the grueling days in the cane fields: I don’t want / my flesh to remember   but the stink / collect there   mapping / a route to my head // I want memory to fail.

She would rather be forgotten than have children to suffer her fate: I won’t leave / no memento of me / if the great god grants me / one thing // no sons or daughters / to stock the mills / no sons or daughters / pockmarked with price // bark of weeping dragon blood tree / leaves of asosi and rue   bitter tea / made to expel   I pour myself // I drain the weight / the sale of my womb.  

The second half of the collection contains individual poems. Most of them, written in the poet’s voice, ponders questions of diaspora, migration, and Blackness. While working on the book, Bailey realized how traumatic it was to have left her homeland at an early age to reunite with her father living in New York. She recalls the strangeness of her new home in the poem “First American Years,” where people treat them as backward or uneducated:

The new school wants to know if I can read cat, dog, hat. I think they think big words don't exist on islands.
Ma studies to assure America that she can do what she's done for years. Before this, she listened closely to hearts in utero. Guided the newcomers through canals.
Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2021
Photo Credit: Visit Trinidad

In the poem “Orfeu Negro / Black Orpheu,” Bailey grapples with her reactions to the 1959 film produced by French director Marcel Camus. Set in a favela in Rio de Janeiro during carnival, the film is an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film is rich in diversity of Black Brazilians, from poor blacks to blacks whirling gold thread for carnaval

I too from masquerade land…. My island a speck, a globe of spit slipping past the eye of the world. So I watch Orfeu Negro greedy for a glimpse of myself…. My greed, my open mouth cares not for taste. I am almost ashamed….

O thirst of commerce, ever-sucking despite force of flow, pitching our flesh from port to port. Aren’t we charmed and exquisite, dancing as we’ve always danced, drenched in our cane-taint?

The featured ten-verse poem “Ex(ile)” draws attention to the Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. In the opening two verses, the speaker notes that news reports were more concerned with the destruction of tourist resorts and leisure boats than with the lives of Caribbean people: yachts smashed in the marina and water rising in hotel rooms. [Hurricane Maria took the lives of an estimated 4,645 Puerto Ricans.] Verses 3 and 4 capture the plight of the people:

Hours after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico – September 20, 2017
Photo Credit: Inside Climate News (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Bodies are piling up in the morgues and instead
an elegy of boats
an inventory of industry, countdown
to when paradise can begin again.

So it seems when we’re no longer property
we become less than property
a nail sick with rust, jangling in high winds.

For Caribbean island-nations in the path of supercharged hurricanes, the climate crisis is already a present reality. Yet, island nations and territories are left to fend for themselves. With external assistance comes more exploitation. People are forced into exile through migration or within their own homeland (verse 5): banished / in one’s own yard, barred / from the fruits of your mother’s land.

Inside ex(ile): tempests and fault lines
are developers’ wet dreams.
A mainland will sink its territory in debt
starve its subjects in the wake of storms
clearing ground for palaces on the shore.

In the final verse, the people turn to their gods for clemency and justice:

Spare our kin, we plead. Save your wrath for the profiteers.
Cast them from our archipelago, our ile ife of the seas
until home is a place we never have to leave.

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Desiree C. Bailey, go to my Poetry Corner May 2022.