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St. Lucian Poet Kendel Hippolyte
Photo Credit: Peepal Tree Press (UK)

My Poetry Corner February 2023 features the poem “Avocado” from the poetry collection Wordplanting by Kendel Hippolyte, published by Peepal Tree Press (UK, 2019). Born in 1952 in the Caribbean Island nation of St. Lucia, Hippolyte is a poet, playwright, and director. In the 1970s, he studied and lived in Jamaica where he earned a BA from the University of the West Indies in 1976.

He is the author of seven books of poetry. Fault Lines, published in 2012, won the OCM Bocas Prize in Poetry in 2013. In 2000, he received the St. Lucia Medal of Merit (Gold) for Contribution to the Arts. He lives in St. Lucia.

I do not usually feature very long poems, but Hippolyte’s fourteen-stanza poem “Avocado” captivated me with its compelling narrative, rich imagery, and Caribbean rhythm. As I question what will become of America with its deepening divide and a world seemingly hellbent on self-destruction, the first line drew me close. Attentive.

[Kindly note that Hippolyte is known for writing in Standard English (British spelling) as well as Caribbean English and Kweyol, his nation language.]


i woke one morning and the Caribbean was gone. 
She’d definitely been there the night before, i’d heard her
singing in crickets and grasshoppers to the tambourine of the oncoming rain.

In the opening stanza, the poet describes his sudden awareness that something is amiss in the usual sounds of a new day breaking. So much like the way imperceptible, incremental changes go unnoticed until one day we realize that everything has changed around us.

The poet questions his disquieting awareness of the erasure of Caribbean culture and what this would mean for his own self-identity.

i thought: she can’t be gone. If she is gone,
what is this place? With her gone, who am i? 
If she is gone, who braids the fraying fibres of memory into accord?
i thought: She isn’t gone, just hidden. I’ll go find her. 
And so i went looking.

In his search for her, he heads first for the beach—the pearl of St. Lucia where the tourist industry outshines all other economic activities. For those who have vacationed at a beach on a Caribbean Island, the transformative lure and underbelly of the tourist industry would be far from one’s mind. Not so for the local population as Hippolyte describes in the third stanza. Their exclusion from the tourist’s paradise is evident in his word choice: barricades, ramparts.

But at the beach, the barricades of deck chairs, ramparts of pastel walls / blocked any wandering. A non-pastel guard, though, told me he’d glimpsed her / walking off between clipped hedges that closed after her into a maze, / tatters of madras hanging where there used to be hibiscus. / There had been rumours of hotel managers trying to hire the sunlight, / contract the hurricane into a breeze for gently fluttering brochures, / draw columns of strict profit margins permanently on the sand; / and the Caribbean, sensing the intimation of quick, crab-like hands crawling / to get underneath the white broderie anglaise of her skirt, withdrew herself / the way the sea, clenching herself into a tidal wave, withdraws.     

After leaving the beach, the poet wanders back into town, still looking for her. Even the flowers growing by the wayside seem to withdraw from him. In town, he ambles toward the rum shops, trailing his childhood memory of colonial sugar plantations and the under-scent of hot molasses, her history’s black sweat. But the rum acolytes, who unbowed their heads from drinks and dominoes and swore / she’d just been there, just!

As he walks toward the market, the poet is sure that he will find her among the market women with their come-to-me calls crisscrossing in a birdflight chattering, / their seasonings, vegetables, fruits set out in clusters – breves, crochets, minims / of aubergine, pomerac, thyme along the staves of foodpaths. A woman, who recognizes him as Solinah’s friend, calls out to him. She offers him an avocado as a gift to a friend. He thanks her and leaves the market.

The poet roams the streets looking for her, giving us glimpses of what his island-home has become. The streets still knew each other’s names, met at corners, exchanged views…but fewer people heard them…in the snarl of vehicles revving further north. He fails to catch a glimpse of her in the oncoming rush of cars wearing wraparound dark glasses…Too fast, too loud, too tinted. Not just cars. The whole thing.

In the downtown commercial district, young women in wannabe boutiques with glitzy accessories are themselves accessories of the unravelling tawdry evening dress of empire. In dim, electronic games arcades, silhouettes of our children transmogrified into Ameritrons. As evening shadows fall over the buildings, he still cannot find her.

A troubling realization strikes him: If she, the Caribbean, had gone, was there any trace left of her?


And if in truth she had gone – the centuries of her civilizing presence, in the air like sea salt, / the cascade of good years like grains of rice pouring from cup to pot, generations / of her mothering, neighbouring, villaging, lend-hand, raising up, lifting up / our eyes higher than empty hands closing into tight fists to scratch an itch of silver – / if after all this, she had gone, what wider absence was there left to know / except the sky-wide absence of our not even knowing?  

Without finding her, his beloved Caribbean, the poet returns home with a sense of displacement. Seated at his kitchen table, he recalls the avocado in his backpack: The gift from her, a woman whom you didn’t know and who did not know you but you both knew Solinah. On placing the avocado on the table, he realizes its significance: a gift between two strangers / for her sake. In the green globe of one moment, the seed of a whole civilization.

Oftentimes, what we seek is right there before our eyes. We need only to be attentive. Like the poet in his penultimate stanza, we may question the validity of our perceptions as too simple to be meaningful.

Really? Had a market woman, hand raised with a gift, from her to me through / Solinah, in that casual gesture traced the curving line that rounds into community? / Romanticism, surely? Yet how else, through centuries of the stock exchange of flesh /  – glistened black bodies tarnished silver coins transacted on an auction block – / how else had the bought-and-sold survived within their own unchatteled selves? / Gift. The unslaved remembering of hands held out with no calculating fingers, offering / the graciousness that grows out of a ground of knowing: existence is a grace. / Grace eliding into graciousness eliding into gift. / The first fruits of civilization.

Everything changed for the poet since that first glimpse of her, the Caribbean. He sees her in faraway places where her spirit still runs deep. He sees her whenever people gather to celebrate, lend a hand to a neighbor, and whatever else holds their community in place. It is a vision of neighborly love, expressed in the simple act of giving and receiving with grace and gratitude. It is a hopeful vision for all of us who may have lost our grounding or footing in a fast-moving, ever-changing world that cares not for those who cannot keep up or are left behind. As the poet notes in his closing verse, such neighborly love is rare and fragile.

…Harder to find now, / and when found, best held lightly, in an open palm; then unheld, let go / in an unexpected, unexpecting, freehand green thankful of avocado.    

To read an excerpt (stanzas 1, 2, 6, 7, 12, 13, and 14) of the featured long poem “Avocado” and learn more about the St. Lucian poet Kendel Hippolyte, go to my Poetry Corner February 2023.