I enjoyed Pamela Mordecai's Subversive Sonnets so much, that I was motivated to write a review. Full disclosure here: I have never before written a formal book review, in print or online, so this is my first foray, and I hope I do justice to such a wonderful collection.
First off, I would like to offer sincere thanks to Pamela for sending me a pdf of the collection while I waited on my copy from Amazon. I had reached out to Pam, as my featured poet in September, to request permission to reprint some of her poems on Poets of the Caribbean and she graciously emailed me a copy of Subversive Sonnets.
Subversive Sonnets, published in September 2012 by TSAR Publications, is Pamela Mordecai’s fifth poetry collection, and it is a delightful read. At 96 pages, there are 32 long-form poems which span the early 20th century to the present, touching on the forces of nature, environmental degradation, love, parenting, depression, class conflicts, race, survival, and the treachery human beings are capable of.
“Stone Soup”, the first poem in the collection, relates the experience of a survivor (a relative, perhaps ?) of the 1907 earthquake that devastated Kingston, and other parts of Jamaica. Then, "Family Story: Only Child's Version" speaks of the challenges of parenting, and of depression, and its impact not just on the depressed individual, but also family and the wider community.
A favorite of mine is the peripatetic "Reading at 4:00 a.m." which takes the reader on a global poetic journey, covering Walcott, Heaney, Louise Bennett, Larkin, Brand and Pope. Mordecai reflects on geography, migration and resulting miscegenation over centuries. The 4:00 a.m. reading also takes in the World Wide Web, and in a possible reference to global warming and environmental destruction, Mordecai writes:
"I read that animals can't fool themselves.
They know when they have fouled their habitats.
They know inside their breasts and blood and wings—
all animals that is but human beings.
It’s only us, the smartest of the lot,
who sit inside this slowly heating pot
like frogs saying the temperature’s the same.
Spring chickens spinning in a stewing sludge,
we sit and peck our corn and do not budge
we wriggle in our excrement and crow
our disavowal choosing not to know".
It was interesting to find out that "Reading at 4:00 a.m.", combined with "Litany on the Line" and "Trois hommes, un reve" was short-listed for the CBC Literary Awards in 2007. This, I think, speaks to the power of this emotive and interesting poem.
Then, there is the sensuous "Cockpit Country - A Tasting Tour" conjuring simultaneously the beauty of Jamaica's Cockpit Country, and the beauty of the physical expression of love.
"Poor Execution", a heart-wrenching and vivid poem, speaks to violence, and the wickedness of the human heart, with haunting lines such as:
"Did they make you watch Julie’s screams purple
as she blew out her life with every breath
she drew to keep it in? Or was it that
as you begged to go last, hoping to hold
her as they sliced a smile into her throat,
he strummed his pick across your sanxian neck
and crimson burbled your reply under
Another favorite of mine in the collection is "Blooming in Barcelona", which was featured on this blog earlier this month and it was good for me to learn that "Blooming in Barcelona" was short-listed for The Bridgeport Prize (UK), in 2008.
Subversive Sonnets is a collection that every person interested in poetry in general, and Caribbean poetry in particular, should own. I give it five stars, and I am predicting many accolades for this powerful collection. Thank you, Pamela Mordecai, for providing us with a collection that further enriches Caribbean poetry.