, , , , ,

Trinidadian Poet Shivanee Ramlochan
Photo by Marlon James – Poet’s Official Website  

My Poetry Corner November 2022 features the poem “The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love” from the poetry collection Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan, published by Peepal Tree Press (UK, 2017). Born in the twin-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago, Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine, writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is also the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.

Ramlochan grew up in an Indo-Caribbean family with a Roman Catholic mother and Hindu father. As a girl, she was more drawn to Hinduism than Christianity. As she came of age, she never fully found a home in either or any other faith. In an interview with Alice Hiller in January 2019, she related that her large, extended family regard her as “heretical, unorthodox, deeply disturbing, and irreligious.” As a self-declared “queer woman of color,” she added that they are puzzled about where she got “this whole gay thing from” and wonder if she would ever get married. Although the High Court overturned the law criminalizing homosexuality in September 2018, after the publication of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, same-sex marriage is not open for consideration.

In her debut collection, Ramlochan gives voice to the sufferings and struggles of anonymous women, queer, and non-binary individuals under patriarchal oppression. Drawing on imagery from Christian and Hindu gods as well as Trinidadian folklore, the poet explores the dark subject matter of rape, infanticide, and abortion. Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Olive Senior (2021-2024) welcomed Ramlochan as “a challenging, unforgettable and courageous new [Caribbean] voice.”

In the first of her three-part collection, Ramlochan establishes the colonial legacy that shapes the narrative of the violence against the female. Three Abortionist poems examine the life of women engaged in a dangerous occupation. As in other Catholic countries across the Caribbean Region, abortion remains illegal in Trinidad & Tobago, except in the cases of saving the woman’s life and in preserving her physical or mental health. The woman who has an abortion, as well as the doctor or other person who performs the procedure, face a four-year prison sentence. It is also illegal to aid and abet in the process, punishable by a two-year prison sentence. No protection is afforded for cases of rape or incest.

In “The Abortionist’s Daughter Gives Cold Comfort,” a patient who weeps after being stitched up is comforted with a sadder story of a girl who came to the clinic near nude, defiance / limning her jaw, a coven of welts / witching dark spells around her waist…. Take it out, she demanded. Presumably, the girl was too advanced in her pregnancy to safely undergo the procedure. But there are some places our knives dare not go. / The law would lash us to the trees, / pitch forest fires from the roots of our hair, / scalpel through / and through us. On leaving, the distraught girl howled and cursed the clinic. Here her ghost resides, / shrieking / as we part the thighs of young girls.

In the opening verses of the featured poem, “The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love,” we first learn of the church’s relationship with the abortionist, two generations ago.

Here is the church. These are the doors that open to the sea.
My grandmother once knelt here, awed, a special guest to an exorcism.

It is nothing like the movies would have you think,
she told me, and I believed her.

They have called me many things between these aisles,
she told me, and I believed her.

In repeating “I believed her,” the abortionist’s daughter reminds us of people in authority who do not believe survivors of sexual assault. Ramlochan explores this reality and its consequences in “Part II: The Red Thread Cycle,” a long poem divided in seven sections.

The next verse takes us from the treatment of women in the patriarchal church in the grandmother’s days to the hypocrisy of modern-day wage inequality between male and female workers doing the same job.

That is the trouble with our trade, she said.
When men aspire to terrible jobs, we offer them hushed respect,
the blushing necks of virgins.
Women wearing the same gloves, sorting the same straight-backed pins
between the prayers of their teeth,
are taught to deserve nothing more than an acreage of sorrow. 

Through this subservient position, the grandmother tells us, the woman builds her strength to endure millennia of female struggle.

Why an acreage?
Never give a woman more sadness than she needs.
From this fabric, from this persistent earth, she will wrangle
greater things than men can fathom.
She will wrestle squalling tar infants from the mire, and those children
shall stumble upwards, slicing through the spines of men
who have offended their mothers.

To read the complete featured poem “The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love” by Trinidadian poet Shivanee Ramlochan go to my Poetry Corner November 2022.