By Kemi Falodun
- Title: Unlikely
- Author: Colleen Crawford Cousins
- Publisher: Modjaji Books
- Number of pages: 63
- Year of publication: 2016
- Category: Poetry
Different people make different demands of poetry and so it is wise that in this collection Colleen Crawford Cousins writes as one who is free of any pressure to meet everybody’s demands. What more could a poet ask for than a self-selecting audience that thinks it worthwhile to make the effort to connect with the poet’s words? Having already published two books, one co-authored, Unlikely presents an intimate blend of surrender and reinvention of self.
With themes that range from separation to love, from loss to recovery, the poetry in Unlikely is a constant attempt to open up spaces, regardless of how small, by questioning the basic desires of humans, by foregrounding our internal struggles to fight or surrender, to stay or run. The collection is a plea, a prayer, a releasing of things that the hands are no longer strong enough to hold on to. It also challenges preconceptions about family, calling attention to the tension that exists in homes.
One of the things worthy of note in the book is the poet’s excellent storytelling skill. ‘Pitch’, for instance, might as well be a film. The reader seems to know where it will all end until confronted with a plot twist. There are other prose poems that afford the reader the intense satisfaction of reading good fiction, but ‘Found Poem: Mowbray News, 15 July 2014’ is especially haunting. In its description of an intruder, ‘a figure peering in at a side door’, the reader already feels a certain presence right from the beginning of the poem:
she was strange
had a long tale about having been discharged from hospital
insisted on raising her clothes to show dreadful open wounds
and sank to the ground moaning.
The date in the title of that poem also serves as a trigger for the memory or the imagination. Perhaps the reader has reasons to remember that day, in which case the date may take them back to relive its experiences, whether pleasant or not. Otherwise, the date comes to stand for a day filled with the incidents that the poet depicts in the poem.
The poet employs figures of speech, particularly metaphors and hyperbole, to get her message across clearly. In ‘Crossroad’, a tale about letting go and new beginnings, the poet speaks of a hungry child whose ‘anxious eyes still light up Nothing Street’. She also merges different words and worlds in a way that compels the reader to remain present. Some of the poems are especially painful to read. ‘Envy’, for instance, examines the sorrow that some children hold on to, clutching it to their chest like a precious belonging.
But what happens when the weight of sadness is so enormous it could bend one’s bones? On the subject of marriage, the poet compares the pain of going through a divorce with death, writing that the latter would in fact ‘taste less bitter, less estranged than this ending, which opens up like a fan to show the darker pattern of the years’. There is a mix of defiance and surrender in her words as ‘Divorce’ examines both the departure and the arrival of self. It calls to mind those memorable lines in Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome
Apart from speaking on brokenness and of gathering the pieces, ‘Crossroad’ also indirectly addresses the restrictions that some people believe the marriage institution places on a person’s (especially women) progress and fulfilment in life: ‘those still married to always and never can be recognized by the areas of deadness around their hands and feet’.
Unlikely demands a level of emptying of the reader’s mind in order for the reader to be fully immersed in the poet’s words. The first poem in Unlikely, which is also the title poem, is as much a testament to a journey of self-discovery as it is to the journey of the writer’s ancestors to the Cape in 1820. This was a period after the Napoleonic wars, a period of unemployment for many Britons, and the unemployed were encouraged to settle in the south of Africa. The poem, together with some others in the collection, is given to the reader in such lines and with such spacing between some of the words as though to reflect the brokenness and the gaps of human experience. Perhaps it makes things clearer to know that it was in 1991, after many years abroad, that the poet returned to South Africa, the place her ancestors made their home. And in capturing the essence of the collection, these lines are vital:
His father said
We are here to build this country up unlikely
Photograph: ‘Crossroads’ by Carsten Tolkmit
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