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April 2, 2011

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A Review of Sheilah Solomon’s Book of Poems, ‘Perception’s Knife’

By JAMES LEE WAH

Sheilah Solomon, former public administrator, Secretary General of UNESCO Branch in Trinidad and Tobago, creator of TTCAN (Citizens Agenda Network) and now published poet. It was with great excitement and high expectation that I approached her first volume of poems entitled Perception’s Knife which was published by Sheilah and launched by Paper Based Bookshop at the Normandie Hotel during the last Christmas Season. Thank you, Sheilah, for that wonderful Christmas gift.

The wonder is that someone who has lived such a full and busy life could yet find the time to write. The expectation is that someone who has lived at that high level of intensity would have a lot to say. Sheilah does not disappoint. What we get are revelations from a gifted and sensitive soul trying to make sense of the experiences of her life, as she puts it:

“Trying to find the answers to the sums life sets”.

But I feel these poems are more than a search for truth, clarity and understanding. The process of writing seems for her to be also therapeutic. They seem to be an attempt to exorcise the demons that we all carry with us. Perhaps “demons” is too strong a word. I mean negative emotions, like fears, doubts, disappointments, frustration, anger- all part of being human. I should further qualify that statement and say that my observation applies mostly to the first section of the book entitled “Slow Learner”. This book as a whole conveys a sanguine hopeful outlook. Life with all its tribulations is decidedly happy.

SECTION 1- SLOW LEARNER

The title suggests that in our youth, we are slow to understand the painful lessons life teaches. Later, through pain and loss, we develop fortitude; we learn the art of living.

Two poems stand out for being well crafted: “Failure” and “Needy”:

NEEDY

“I’m a bit short on gas”

You said

driving it into my service station.

“Fill me up”

You said

Tank upped with TLC,

you drive away……

Fare Well!!

The poems, “Failure” and “Needy”, are both remarkable for their brevity. The poet cuts to the chase, to the heart of the matter. The metaphors “yellow shoes” and “service station” work well. They reverberate in our imagination, creating waves like pebbles dropped in a pool. We are called on to fill in the details ourselves. The dramatic impact is great. The poems best exemplify the book’s title. “Perception’s Knife” cuts to the heart of reality. These poems are direct, pointed, immediate, balanced and resonant. In “Needy”, the poet strikes a chord that people will find familiar; the world is full of givers and takers, predators and conmen.

There are also emotional terrorists like “My Narrow Veins” in which the poet lets it all hang out- her weaknesses, her exasperation. She expresses a fear of being trampled by others. A playwright once put it bluntly- “Hell is other people”. But the converse is also true; Heaven is other people, as Sheilah goes on to show us in poems about her friends.

The loss of love and the loss of family are the themes of some surreal poems like “Glass Heart” and “Briefing By Butterflies”. In the latter, there seems a gradual acceptance of the fact that that is what butterflies do; they flit from flower to flower, but the pain of betrayal is no less.

Not all the poems in this section, however, deal with loss, pain and separation. In contrast, “Still Life” is a snapshot taken on the move of a couple “wrapped in a cocoon of quiet love; secure”. So here is recognition of the possibility of enduring love.

In the section titled “In My Room” Sheilah invites us into her home to share the happiness that exists there. She recently constructed a flat to house a collection of paintings, sculptures and artifacts gathered from around the world. The flat is beautiful. From any viewpoint, one’s eye encounters some interesting colour, form or object to delight the mind. It’s a mini musée des beaux-arts.

The last two poems in Section 1: “Mirror Dinghy” and “Late Blooming Cactus” suggest, after the suffering, reconciliation.

SECTION II- VOYAGES OF THE MIND

This section begins by paying tribute to a great West Indian “voyager”, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott who, in his eighties, still continues the journey he began as a teenager. He is still producing poetry and his latest book White Egrets, has just been awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Prospero’S Gift explores the Utopian vision of a Brave New World “of the Spirit”. It is the Shakespearean template for an ideal society, where Caliban and Ariel can co-exist, a just society characterized by harmony and love, where man is truly his brother’s keeper, and which Sheilah and mankind generally have embraced as the way to go forward. How has this ideal fared through history? Some gains have been made such as the establishment of institutions like the United Nations, the concept of providing aid to impoverished countries and disaster areas but such progress continues to be derailed by man’s preoccupations with greed and power. So:

Ferdinand and Miranda, shipwrecked, still await landfall.

“Unemployed” is a complex poem which brings into focus the tragedy and waste of human potential in the social misfits we are producing. It reads like a parable of our times about a young mason who cannot get a job because he does not have a party card. But he seems unaware of the real talent he possesses for writing poetry- he has a way with words, but he does nothing with that talent. Instead he waits for a handout.

“Is who you know

that matters” he said. “Words matter”

I said.

What has happened to self reliance and self confidence and creativity and innovation? Why do we always look to somebody else to solve our problems?

The poet gives us a more upbeat message in the following two poems in this section. In “Our Dragon Is Stirring Again” she expresses the faith that “the spirit of the people” is slowly rising. She praises the start of the return from the nakedness of our Carnival and the Chinese manufactured costumes. We must return to real creativity.

But hope for our people, is not confined to Carnival. In the poem “Hope”, the poet puts forward a more exciting prospect of the scales now falling from the eyes of the people. They are now-taking up their beds,

learning to walk

upright,

walking forward

together,

transforming the darkness

This is a clear message for our people reaching across the divisions of race and class to find a common humanity and so “feeling their power”. People should empower themselves, take up their bed and walk and not depend on politicians and foreigners to solve their problems.

SECTION III- SENSING THE SEA

The word “sensing” is used in a similar way to “sensing the mood of a lover”, as in being sensitive to….. So we should work with the forces of Nature, not against them.

Sheilah lived for some years in a home “down the islands”. So her descriptions of the sea have a freshness and intimacy of firsthand experience and keen observation.

Snorting with power the wild white horses

Race along the rails of the reef- Magnificent!

Each dies, exhausted- yet is instantly sucked back to resurrection

I spoke to Sheilah soon after she had returned from sailing to some Caribbean islands. She had not yet come down to earth. “Still floating” she said. “It was heavenly”. That word “heavenly” best describes her love of the sea.

SECTION IV- TRANSITIONS

There is great pain in this section, as here the poet confronts the tragedies that befall the Cropper Family- Sheilah’s neighbours and friends. There is no outpouring of grief as one would expect. The events are handled with commendable restraint.

One poem “Memory” hints at the depth of the trauma.

Nine poui seasons

had passed. A question

startles memory.

Many mornings now I wake

Weeping for murdered friends

The poet concentrates instead on celebrating the lives of the dead ones and on the recovery of the survivors.

In “Angela’s Garden”:

Her passion fruit vine

climbs the iron bars

Someday perhaps,

there will be flowers.

Keats in one of his odes says that it is futile to attempt to separate joy from its neighbor pain, and Marvell states:

and at my back, I always hear

Death’s winged chariot hurrying near

Life is lived in the valley of the shadow of Death. So let’s make the most of it.

And that thought brings me to one of the most successful poems in this collection- Villanelle– A Mother’s Response to Dylan Thomas.

I have learned that much of life’s a play

And what is real lives on as love despite.

I like the music and the form and the strength.

SECTION V- PORTRAITS

This last section celebrates the joys of friendship. In “Seventy” written for Lloyd Best, Sheilah says

So this is what

Endures: friendship and love

In Slow Cooking:

Friendships tested by time, flavoured by fire

So ends the book.

If poetry is a record of the best and brightest moments of the brightest and best lives, Sheilah Solomon has given us much to think about. In her first poem she writes:

I seek to speak the

Language of the soul

She succeeds in touching our souls with her perceptions. Thank you, Sheilah, for sharing so much with us.

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