Nov 232011
 

 

Hamilton, Bermuda

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Bermuda Voices, Island Writers

By Kim Aubrey

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Banyan Tree, Warwick, Bermuda

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Mother Tongue

by Jane Downing

Forget the language that you learned in school
of England’s green hills, violets, cold grey sea.
Forget the nightingales, the Grecian urns,
the cataract, the darling buds of May.
The time has come to name your world, your life.
The time has come to learn your mother tongue.

Words that are sharp as sea eggs underfoot,
that burn with neon fire like fiddlewoods.
Words that are soft as sea rods, and as rough
as wave-washed rocks where no man’s foot has trod.

Forget the language that you learned in school
of gentlemen and ladies’ rosy cheeks.
Speak truth: My lover’s beard is coarse
as winter seaweed, stiff with salt and wind.
He is not fair, his skin’s palmetto berries, red clay soil,
driftwood that’s been drying in the sun.

Take words that whine and howl like winter winds,
that wash the storm surge up against your ear.
Take sweet and piercing words like whistling frogs
singing with you the only one to hear.
The time has come to name your world, your life.
The time has come to learn your mother tongue.[1]

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“Take sweet and piercing words”

In January, 2009, I attended Ber-Mused, a poetry reading held in celebration of Bermuda’s 400th anniversary, and as part of The Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts. It was the first time Bermudian poets had been featured in the annual festival, a coming-of-age party for the island’s literary arts. I’d planned my trip around this reading, which was organized by Nancy Anne Miller, a fellow exiled Bermudian to whom I’d been introduced at a the Vermont College of Fines Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. It was almost exactly thirty-one years since I’d left the island to live in Canada. I’d been back to visit regularly for the first ten years, and more sporadically after that, but lately my homeland had been calling to me, my “tangled and complicated”[2]roots asserting their pull. Bermuda was working her way back into my writing, my thinking, my heart, inspiring me to start an annual writer’s retreat there, a way to reconnect with the island as the woman I’d become since leaving at seventeen.

That January trip was my first attempt at gathering writers from the U.S. and Canada for workshops on the island. Since then the retreat has grown, but that winter, only one writer signed up—my friend Shelly from Colorado. Our arrival coincided with Obama’s inauguration. On the television over the lobby bar at our hotel, we watched the new president and his family arrive at the White House, and felt moved by the significance of the moment and by the elation of the Bermudians working or relaxing in the bar, their eyes like ours fixed on the screen.

The following night after dinner, Shelly and I walked through the balmy streets of Hamilton to the Daylesford Theatre for Ber-Mused. Shelly has never been a fan of poetry readings but we both fell under the spell of the evening’s excitement as eight poets assembled on a darkened stage, a spotlight singling out each one as he or she read. Often, the poets performed one another’s work—Jeremy Frith, who has since passed away, reciting Christopher Astwood’s “Politics Time” in his fiercely Bermudian accent, Ruth Thomas and Ronald Lightbourne giving a humourous, blues-y rendition of Jane Downing’s “The Size Two Blues,” and Alan C. Smith leading us through Kim Dismont Robinson’s poignant “Emancipation Day,” about the lost promise of Bermuda’s youth.

As I listened to the poets’ distinctly Bermudian voices, and watched their faces, which seemed lit from within, a tide of emotions swept through me—an unexpected sense of shared national pride, gratitude for the circumstances that had brought me there that night, joy at witnessing this diverse group of Bermudians read together, and a keen longing for my voice to join in with theirs.

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Ber-Mused group. From Bottom Left : Jane Downing, Ruth Thomas, Alan C. Smith, Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Nancy Anne Miller, Kim Dismont Robinson, Jeremy Frith, Chris Astwood. Top: Ronald Lightbourne. Photo by Karen Pollard, Artistic Director of The Bermuda Festival of the Arts.

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Bodysurf

—for Erin
by Paul Maddern

To understand everything about the swell—
how on a given day the seventh in the cycle
provides the greatest chance to ride to shore
if caught where the rip collides with the surge,
where the wave pries a mouth wide
and prepares to heave its travelled miles—
to understand the moment of submission,
when to dive in and up the crest
in order to avoid a rabid tumble,
to be flung skyward out the other side
falling yards into the trough and humbled—
to understand that we’re aligned
to leave behind horizons to the climbing wall,
hunched and turned three quarters,
believing that the travelling momentum
is such we’ll be absorbed and pulled along,
so someone watching oceans from a towel
might raise herself a little on one elbow
and to her partner whisper, Dolphins.[3]

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“Someone watching oceans”

When I was growing up on the island in the sixties and seventies, I didn’t know of any Bermudian writers. The poems, novels and plays we read in school had all been written by dead white British men, and in my final year of high school, one or two living Americans, like Ken Kesey. No one told us about Kesey’s Bermudian contemporary, Brian Burland, who was writing and publishing gritty, honest novels about Bermuda from a self-imposed exile in England and then the U.S, before returning home in the nineties. The conservatism of the small island would have made it impossible for him to write as freely if he’d stayed there.

In “Return to Mangrove,” Kim Dismont Robinson’s insightful introduction to the Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, she gives an explanation for Bermudians’ difficulty in writing poetry and fiction about their lives and their homeland:

Like many other small islands dependent upon tourism and international business, Bermuda has often viewed itself from the outside-in. Ever dependent upon the whims of a foreign market, Bermudians have been conditioned to examine our environment in a manner that takes the form of an external measurement. We are far more likely to ask “what might an Other think of this?” than to ask “what do I think of this?” Such a fundamental point of perspective greatly affects how we view the world as well as how, when, and if we choose to express ourselves. Our conservatism has its roots in this behaviour, and might explain why as a nation our authors are far more likely to try their hand at writing historical narrative rather than poetry or prose fiction. [4]

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Kim Dismont Robinson, Photo by Louise Tannock

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Another reason for Bermudians’ reluctance to write with a necessary depth of honesty is the size and density of an island where it’s commonly felt that everyone knows everyone else’s business. This social pressure requires a special courage for its writers to overcome. In her review of Bermudian writer, Angela Barry’s short story collection, Endangered Species and Other Stories, Robinson relates Barry’s response to this pressure:

Writing about life on a small island can sometimes be challenging, and Barry says when it came time to publish her stories, she realized locals would, undoubtedly, attempt to draw parallels between her fictional characters and real people. ‘But I can’t take that on. You can’t write anything unless you dip into yourself, but that can have many different forms. It can be your own personal experience, it can be people known to you, things you’ve overheard, things you’ve seen on the television. But as a writer of fiction, you have control over what you do.’[5]

Kendel Hippolyte who edited Volume II of the Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, This Poem-Worthy Place, identifies a third but related barrier to honest writing in “the ways in which Bermuda is an enigma to itself…how a country of 21 square miles (albeit 67,000 persons) can, under an almost quintessentially picture-postcard beauty, hide so much—of itself, from itself.” [6]

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Journal Entry

by Alan C. Smith

In my mouth,        a hair,
means that he’s still here.
Spit it out  in my     hand,
place it between     pages
of my journal to    forget,
forgive                   again.

Foregone        outcome:
there’s a split in my lip
in the corner      where
the nail bit,   pink ring
purpling from the grip
of last            evening.

 

“A split in my lip”

Robinson, who is the island’s Folklife Officer, sees this Bermudian blindness as caused by a habitual reliance on the outsider’s view of the island, but it may also arise from a fear of self-knowledge, a reluctance to engage with the island’s painful colonial history, years of racial injustice and tension inhabiting such a small place, the very closeness of our hurts, whether social, political, familial.

When I left the island to live in Toronto, I was seventeen, pregnant and recently married. My husband was studying engineering at the University of Toronto, where I enrolled part-time. We made our life in Canada because of a lack of jobs in his field in Bermuda, but it also suited me to forget the pain of my island childhood, where my brothers and I had been molested by our uncle, and where we grew up amidst the political turbulence of the sixties and seventies, a time marked by sometimes violent protests, fear, excitement and confusion, a time when most white Bermudians felt things were changing too quickly, and most African Bermudians knew that things were not changing quickly enough.

But even during those decades of political struggle, some Bermudians were writing, and many attending the workshops of the Bermuda Writers Club. Ronald Lightbourne remembers developing his craft with feedback from Dr. Maara Haas, a Canadian writer who led workshops for the group. Lightbourne, inspired by the works of James Baldwin and Derek Walcott, has always identified himself as a writer, attending conferences in Canada and the U.S., publishing his poems in journals at home and abroad. He describes his early years:

I grew up, the son of missionaries, traveling the entire Caribbean, and Belize, and came home to Bermuda finally at the age of 17, to take my A Levels at the Berkeley Institute. Folk tales, the Bible, hymns and pop songs all fed my interest in how words worked with the imagination. I published my first two poems in The Munronian, the literary magazine put out by the students of Jamaica’s Munro College, where I came under the influence of Mervyn Morris. I studied music and Education in London before returning to teach in Bermuda.

Returning to the island where encouragement for writers was scarce, he found community and support in The Bermuda Writers Club. Lightbourne describes some of the activities of the BWC: “They ran an annual writing contest in poetry, playwriting and short fiction. There was always a prize-giving banquet where an imported speaker held forth. It was usually very well subscribed.”[7]

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Ronald Lightbourne

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Through the years, Lightbourne has continued to be active in the island’s writing community, from his involvement with the Bermuda Writers’ Collective to starting a self-help group for playwrights at the Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society, to taking part in the Flow Sunday Spoken Word sessions, founded in the late nineties by Andra Simons, Suzanne Mayall and Cyril (Beatnik) Rubaine. Kim Dismont Robinson credits Flow Sunday with “provid[ing] a space where Bermudians could freely express themselves for the first time without fear of censorship.”[8]

That Bermudian writers only discovered such a “space” and freedom fewer than fifteen years ago says a lot about the strictures, both spoken and unspoken, that inhabitants of a small, conservative island find themselves living under. How do you summon the courage, or even the words, to say those things your society thinks should remain unspoken? The support of other writers and role models can be an enormous help.

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Poets and other artists can now perform their work at Chewstick, a non-profit organization founded in 2003, which has grown quickly, tapping into the oral tradition of the griot, or West African storyteller. Chewstick provides a permanent venue and a supportive audience for Bermudian poets and performers like Tiffany Paynter, Chris Astwood, Stephan Johnstone and many others, both experienced writers and beginners, to take to the stage and encourage each other’s honest and ardent expression. Chewstick has become a cultural force, offering a writers’ retreat, jam sessions, open mics, poetry slam workshops for young people, a sports program and other events, with a view to “empowering” Bermuda’s youth, and bringing together a diverse group of Bermudians to share their stories.

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Chris Astwood describes the impact of Chewstick:

Chewstick is much more than an open mic night, and I think it’s safe to say that’s always been the intention of its founders. It’s a registered charity that has supported Bermudian culture in many forms since before it was a registered charity, a truly grassroots organization that exists because its founders and members really believe in Bermuda. I’ve seen it open doors and make links between people, had the chance to share my new and old work in a safe and friendly atmosphere, got to co-lead some weekend youth poetry sessions with Stephan [Johnstone] (big up to ChewSLAM)—it’s done a lot for me, and I’ve put a little time into helping out but not so much as it’s helped me out.

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Nothing

by Nancy Anne Miller

Nothing grows in a straight line here.
Oleander boughs curl, wriggle flowers
like painted pink toes for tourists.

Cacti flail thorny branches over stone walls,
the way octopi renege the nearby presence
of a gad about summer swimmer.

Standard English won’t grow vertical,
in the Stonehenge temple of teeth.
Drops an octave, swoons like sea grass

in a tide. Scatters tongues on the beach
in shells; tell of the in, out of ocean,
tiny scallop shovels which dig deep.

I  turn  brown as the earth below me,
my accent a thick shade, skin peels,
a need to be dressed, undressed by sun.

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Nancy Anne Miller, Photo by Lisa Cueman

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“The in, out of ocean”

While opportunities for writers have improved on the island, Bermudian poet Dane Swan lives in Canada where he can generate some income from touring the North American Slam and Spoken Word circuits, and applying for government grants. Swan has recently published a poetry collection, Bending the Continuum, with Guernica Press in Toronto. He says, “There are hurdles to being a writer in Bermuda. No distributed publishers, little to no grant system, little payment for readings.” All the same, Swan believes that “Bermuda’s mere existence is inspiring. The island is filled with great literary inspirations.”

In an interview with the Royal Gazette, Swan confesses that he was in the remedial group in high school English, and didn’t find his voice as a poet until he encountered slam poetry at a festival in Ottawa, Canada, where he was attending Carleton University, and heard Anthony Bansfield and Oni the Haitian Sensation perform their work.[9]

Now he says, “I would love to… be a part of changing the English curriculum in Bermuda’s schools. I truly believe that introducing kids to writers who are like them at a young age, can inspire them to strive for greatness instead of merely passing school.” Swan who was recently accepted into the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts hopes for a future of literary successes for himself and the island.

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Dane Swan, Photo by Michelle Darby

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Opportunities may be limited, but some poets who have stayed in Bermuda are making the most of them. Alan C. Smith, who is also an artist and performer, whose visual art forms part of the Bermuda National Gallery’s permanent collection, describes his busy creative life on the island:

Even though I and some of my contemporaries have often felt like step-children on the artistic scene in Bermuda I feel very fortunate to have been able to write and develop as an artist here. Cultural Affairs and the Bermuda Arts Council have been instrumental in providing opportunities and funds for me to grow and develop. I have had encouragement from other artists and institutions on the island and have been able to collaborate with artists in other genres, from dance to music to visual art. I have been invited by schools to facilitate workshops with students of varying ages and to judge poetry competitions. I have been commissioned by institutions and organizations to write and perform work about themes as diverse as drunk driving, African Art and domestic abuse and rape.

Smith also attends workshops sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs, and led by Caribbean poets and writers, such as Mervyn Morris, Kendel Hippolyte, Olive Senior and Lynn Joseph. In addition, Smith, Lightbourne and some of the other Ber-Mused poets, with the help of Head Librarian, Joanne Brangman, started a group that meets at the Bermuda Library. A workshop there, led by Nancy Anne Miller, also contributed to the group’s genesis. Smith says, “This has been a great opportunity to share work and critiques and create a sense of community.”

In 2005, Smith was one of the poets featured in a special section on Bermudian writing in The Caribbean Writer. In her introduction to the section, Kim Dismont Robinson discusses the idea of Bermudian identity—what the island shares with the Caribbean and how its isolated location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean makes it different. In her poem, “Another Island,” she “imagine[s] other islands I cannot see/islands just beyond our cold and limiting horizon.”[10] From within this island solitude, each poet and prose writer brings his or her own Bermudian experience to the works here—from Jane Downing’s powerful villanelle about the indelible “taint” of white “privilege,” to Alan Smith’s conflicted feelings for a harsh, unloving grandmother, to Angela Barry’s journeys into the dark heart of the slave trade, the beautiful, endangered heartland of Guyana and the troubled heart of an African Bermudian mother worried by her young son’s fearless assumption of his own power and freedom in a world of white “entitlement.” The other writers featured are Chris Astwood, Margaret Anne Hern, Lisa Howie, Ronald Lightbourne, Llewella Rewan-Dowling, Andra Simons and Saskia Wolsak.

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Alan Smith, Photo from This Poem-Worthy Place

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Time Travelers

by Dane Swan

Who are the loneliest people in the world?
My guess: Time travelers.
When love fails it’s off to the machine—
time to rewrite affairs;
avoid heartache.

The time traveler never truly
invests in love.
He thinks he can figure her out this time.
She believes she can make him feel this time.

Physical touch is a question mark
the time traveler wrestles with.
If the moment is true,
were other moments false?
When physics and metaphysics collide.

The loneliest people in the world
manipulate history,
question imagination,
wandering aimlessly
as forgotten images of the past.

 

“If the moment is true”

Nick Hutchings, who, like Smith, Lightbourne and Jane Downing, attends the monthly meetings of the Bermuda Library Poets (BLiP), came to poetry later in life as a way to express thoughts and feelings about his island community. Hutchings says:

I was educated in Bermuda and Canada but despite the best efforts of my many teachers to prepare me for a life inside I became a commercial diver instead and am now the president of a deep-sea exploration company. I love to explore and am equally happy doing so in the deep ocean or the intriguing social phycology of my community, using aquatic robots for the former and poetry for the latter. Bermuda, being an isolated Seamount with a fascinating natural and social history, is a great place for both. An aquatic robot can be an impressive tool as can a literary construct. For example, a childlike rhyme can be used like a key to gently unlock a door long closed in someone’s mind.

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Nick Hutchings holding what he describes as, “a piece of rare deep-sea lava called carbonatite from 2400 ft. below the surface of the ocean. Attached to it are the shells of little known deep-sea critters,”
Photo by Thad Murdoch

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Hutchings’ poem, “One Fine Afternoon,” uses the familiar childhood rhythm and rhyme of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to confront an outsider’s view of Bermuda, eager to set “the facts” straight. This poem is assertively Bermudian featuring characters whose names a non-Bermudian would most likely not recognize, and giving a wink to the insiders who are its ideal readers.

 

One Fine Afternoon

by Nick Hutchings

One fine afternoon in St. George’s town
Astwood and Daniels were walking around
Chief Justice’s brother and best footballer anyone knew
Stopped near some tourists enjoying the view
When out on the water and easy to spot
Came the clean lines of an elegant yacht
Her topsides shined and buffed so bright
Turquoise water reflected in light
As the visitor looked he said to his wife
“Man, these people have got the life
And that someone would make such a generous loan
To let his staff take the yacht on their own”
Astwood looked at Daniels who was shaking his head
Then with a smile to the tourist he said
“That is the owner and his family out to relax”
“One shouldn’t prejudge without knowing the facts”
Said Daniels as the two friends turned to go
They thought it would be good for the tourist to know

 

“Turquoise water reflected in light”

As Bermudians explore what Jane Downing calls their “mother tongue,” they seek to write themselves and their island into being on the page or stage. In her review of Angela Barry’s story collection, Robinson quotes Barry describing her high school education in 1950’s Bermuda, “‘In our history classes…we were not given any structure to look at the world in which we currently were living. Similarly, in our studies in literature, we examined some wonderful writers, but there was never any suggestion that they were writing about us.’”[11]That the situation hadn’t changed much when I was in high school in the seventies, or when Dane Swan attended Warwick Academy in the nineties means that a few generations of Bermudians are hungry to see their lives reflected in a literature of their own.

Jane Downing, who is Registrar at the National Museum of Bermuda, says:

I find it extremely exciting to be writing at a time when poetry writing and performance in Bermuda is flourishing, and is firmly anchored in our sense of place. I have been a voracious reader of poetry from childhood but very little I read evoked my own environment (except perhaps the odd piece by Claude McKay). It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Walcott’s In a Green Night: Poems 1948-60 and Kenneth Ramchand and Cecil Gray‘s West Indian Poetry in the Bermuda Bookstore that I found poems which hit closer to home. Today there is a body of published work which Bermudians can relate to, which reflects our environment and all the different personal experiences and facets of Bermuda life. I see the flourishing poetry scene as part of a more general public expression and exploration of Bermudian identity, a complement to similar growth in scholarly work and art.

But does a poem or story have to be set on the island, or in a similar environment, to be Bermudian. Paul Maddern, a Bermudian who currently lives in Northern Ireland, where he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre, argues that:

there’s a school of thought that poetry isn’t about ideas or place; instead its primary concern is language. It’s a school I subscribe to. Interrogating the sounds and rhythms of language is why poets are poets. Ultimately, Bermuda influences my writing not because I necessarily want to write about particular places, flowers, animals or people, but because I was born and raised there; it was where I was formed, and therefore where my own personal language was formed. So, wherever I am in the world, that influence will always be with me. Thankfully, it’s inescapable.

Nancy Anne Miller, who writes about the island from her home in Connecticut, describes a similar experience as a poet and Bermudian:

My way of looking at the world, beholding it and processing it was formed by an exotic island environment. The use of image metaphor in my work is a direct result of taking in a multi-layered world with many cross references, both in the semi-tropical landscape as well as in the culture which was enriched by multi-ethnical references. Hence, there is no separation between my being a poet and being Bermudian as the island has effected how I behold the world, and how I use the tools of metaphor and of simile to write about it.

 

A Photographer’s Affinity For Bermuda

–for Eric
by Wendy Fulton Steginsky

He knows the difference between the snowy
-white within a longtail’s open wing as it glides
off South Shore in mid-March and the bleached

whiteness of a sea urchin abandoned to the August
sun. He captures the exact silver of a grunt’s under
-belly as it cuts through sea foam, turns it

turquoise-green, the color of esperanza.
In the flannel-gray shadows of banyan
trees he notices roots that ache for soil.

At Spittal Pond he singles out natal plum’s
trodden flowers, restores them to their milky
-white dignity. He translates the strength

of casuarina trees into knotty brown lines.
In early morning he defers to a frangipani’s
rosy aloofness that spews from every petal;

when whistling frogs trill from buttonwood bushes
that bend and dip he uncovers wind’s pebble-
soft voice as it cooees over Mullet Bay—

between breaths he hears it plead, Come home . . .
. . . Come home.

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Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Photo by Emily Steginsky

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“Roots that ache for soil”

When asked how living abroad affects what and how he writes, Dane Swan says, “The scope of what I can be inspired by is wider. Not only can I write about my experiences in Bermuda, but also, the world beyond. I feel unlimited in scope.”

Poets writing about the island from abroad have obvious advantages and disadvantages. We benefit from our dual role as outsider and insider to gain a “wider” view of the island, which we can write about from a safe distance with less anxiety about Bermudian responses to our work. But our experience of contemporary island life is limited, and exile can unsettle our sense of a Bermudian identity, and make us prone to nostalgia. Wendy Fulton Steginsky, who lives in Pennsylvania, discusses the challenge of nostalgia:

I struggle with presenting what may seem like a romantic or idealized view of my childhood. Maintaining a balanced perspective as I look back can be a challenge and I often fight the tendency to portray Bermuda as an idyllic place. As in most situations, I’m attracted to the unaltered, unchanging aspects and I tend to focus on those in regards to Bermuda. So my poems reflect the profusion of natural beauty that abounds on the island not, hopefully, in a naïve way but in an authentic way as a frame for my voice and mind.

Steginsky, who tries to visit whenever she can, describes her feelings for the island:

Even though I’ve lived away for many years (34 years in the U.S.) I still consider Bermuda my home, the place where my roots first took hold. It’s the place where I lost my first tooth, learned to ride a bike, kissed my first boyfriend, smoked my first cigarette; it’s also the place where I ate supper picnics on our family’s boat, anchored in expansive turquoise waters off an uninhabited island topped by a crumbling limestone castle, where I experienced the terrifying wrath of several roiling hurricanes, the thrill of our Poinciana tree when it burst into flames, where whistling frogs lulled me to sleep.

For Steginsky, writing poetry about her homeland is a way to reconnect with her younger self and to come to terms with the loss inherent in exile. She describes her memories as a living entity that requires attention and understanding:

My poems grant my memories air and breath so they can live when I can’t be physically present in Bermuda. My poems come from a deep place inside me, often expressing great longing and loss. Most recently I needed to sell my family home in Bermuda, the only house I’d lived in growing up on the island. It was a heart-wrenching experience—I felt as if my roots were being severed and the ground beneath me slipping away.

Poetry came to my rescue, providing the container for all my complicated feelings and allowing me to share what mattered most, revealing my interior self in a very intimate way.

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Salt

by Ronald Lightbourne

Salt that had so flavoured my life is done,
unseasoned seasonings cancelling my fête.
That sumptuous full variety is gone
which of your bounteous bounty once I ate.
I gnaw on loneliness as on a bone
a dog gnaws when there’s nothing on his plate,
and hide, disguised, as one hides in alone,
nothing, if not the soul of desolate.

Blessed desolation that it comes from you!
Something I have, at least, that’s from your heart
to keep between me and this view
of nothing, all around, on every part.

And yet one word from you could ease this pain
and bring me to your banquet hall again.[12]

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“Your bounteous bounty”

 

If distance can sometimes make us prone to nostalgia, it can also give us the perspective and freedom needed to write honestly, the space necessary to explore both our roots and our branches. Many writers have to leave their homeland in order to write about it. Paul Maddern comments on his need for distance when writing about Bermuda:

I believe it was the Jamaican writer, Lorna Goodison, who said she can only write about her homeland when she is away from the island. My experience is the same, but unlike Ms. Goodison—who I believe splits her time between Jamaica and America—I’ve now lived away from my homeland for longer than I ever lived there.

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Paul Maddern

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Maddern describes visits to Bermuda as full and charged with meaning. He “revisit[s] the landscapes of …[his] childhood,” takes lots of photos, notices “what landmarks remain; what changes are being wrought.” He says:

If I’m there at the right time, I spend a day or two watching longtails darting off Ferry Reach. I ride my moped along the island’s main arteries and make detours down the roads and lanes that are particularly special to me. I take the ferry around the Great Sound and along the North Shore to view my homeland from the sea, and I swim in that sea at any opportunity.

The sea provides not only a metaphor for Bermudian poets, but also a chance for actual immersion in the waters of memory, both for those remaining on the island and for those returning to visit. Maddern can only write when he is back in Ireland and has had time to assimilate everything he “soaked up” in Bermuda. He says, “Each trip …involves an overload of memories and sensory experiences. But in terms of producing writing drawn from those experiences, it’s all too much to process at the time.”

Nancy Anne Miller agrees:

I find that writing from afar most often creates an aesthetic distance which gives me time to process imagery, and to refine it into what is essential for the poem to resonate, be alive. I believe taking on a country as my subject has matured my work, as I try to embrace the scope of such, as entwined and morphed through memory. Poems can take on the anthropological task of a dig (to echo Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”) to recover a place and to re-member it through the map of words.

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The World of Water

by Chris Astwood

If a marlin at the weigh-in
breaks a record, it’s hats off
to both fisherman and catch -
the latter for a life of luck
the former for a snatch of fortune;
All the photographs, sun rash,
and rounds on the house, can’t add up

to that invisible transaction
between catch and fisherman:
we celebrate their exchange
of providence, the transfer
between our world and the world of water.
But one must drown the other,
and let us never forget:

No matter how many lines we cast
that pull fish into their last gasps,
no matter how good our luck
with chum and bait and hook and gaff,
their ocean’s rising always,
climbs slow up the coastal rocks
to reclaim the bones.

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“That invisible transaction”

If this “re-membering” is the work of the exiled writer, for those who stay in their homeland the challenges are different—to build and take part in community while maintaining a sense of a separate, independently thinking self, one who can give “a response formulated from the inside-out,”[13]an ability to see with the eyes of the insider/outsider without leaving home. Nadine Gordimer calls this “the tension between standing apart and being fully involved… that… makes a writer.”[14]

Alan Smith writes in solitude but pursues performance opportunities to share his work with others. He describes the liberating effect that Chewstick and other regular open mic sessions have had on his own process and on the arts in general:

For me writing is a necessarily lonely endeavour. I began writing quite a few years before Flow Sunday’s, the original open mic event that was followed by Nenu Letu and the most enduring of the three, Chewstick. In order to get my work out there I began to create performance opportunities around my work, theatrical presentations that became increasingly cohesive and narrative. That proved to be rewarding but expensive. I was elated when Flow kicked off and there was a free arena to bring one’s work to the public. Flow initiated an exciting movement; the desire for less inhibited self-expression stoked. The visual artists followed suit, and bolder, less traditional art began to show up in art exhibitions. A small group of serious poets began to emerge.

The night of Ber-Mused, a stage that had been dark and empty lit up to reveal “a small group of serious poets” ready to celebrate what they, and other Bermudian poets and writers such as Andra Simons, Veejay Steede and Laurel Monkman, had accomplished thus far. Now, whether from within the closeness of the island community or from the distance of exile, Bermudian writers have begun to embrace their role as artists—“to reveal a society to itself”[15]and to “reply… honestly: ‘This is what I think of this.’”[16]

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Event Horizon

by Kim Dismont Robinson

Even when the ground seems steady, there is always a farewell in movement

I know this because I know the landscape of my island
And I have never been its cedar forest
My rootedness tangles the soil here differently,
In a way that ties but does not lash me to my home

Because I am here, I know the shifts and changes
Familiar and comforting are the days when sky is milky like the sea
And a dark curtain of distant falling rain
Blankets, curtaining the west,
Carving this slender landscape into ever thinner strips
It is stunning to see horizon from this shore

I was here, for a time
And when first I said goodbye I could not imagine a return
The curve of Dockyard fixed in place like some strange event horizon
Holding me at bay, with all the fury of history
Beating at my back
Refusing to shift the soil that was choking out the root

The days I felt the sea raging in my blood
Showed me I was not to be the glassy pool
Softly reflecting blurry pastel cottages
The elements I could not help but evoke
Drawn dormant from the heart of this island
Whipped into memory
Our volcanic origins, all but forgotten,
Rising again resplendent from the sea

Yes, it is dazzling to see horizon
Especially during a storm
To fill a gateway with imaginings
To speak and dream and act from a place so fixed
That, in standing,
All that now remains
Is to step on through

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 —Kim Aubrey


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. From This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2011) 43.
  2. Kim Dismont Robinson, “Return to Mangrove,” Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, ed. Mervyn Morris (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2006) 7.
  3. From The Beachcomber’s Report (Bakewell, England: Templar Poetry, 2010) 12, first published in Incertus, (Belfast: Netherlea Press, 2007).
  4. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 5.
  5. Kim Dismont Robinson, “The Atlantic Adventure,” Online review of Endangered Species and Other Stories, by Angela Barry, Peepal Tree Press website, , first published in The Bermudian.
  6. Kendel Hippolyte, preface, This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2011) 4.
  7. That the speakers were “imported” is revealing, pointing to Bermudians’ reliance on imports—from essential shipments of food and goods to foreign expertise, which is often valued more highly than Bermudian know-how.
  8. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 5.
  9. Jessie Moniz, “Once in the remedial English group, Dane Swan is now a writer,” Royal Gazette August 3, 2011 <http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20110803/ISLAND02/708039997/-1>
  10. Kim Dismont Robinson, “Another Island,” The Caribbean Writer 19 (2005): 156.
  11. Robinson, “The Atlantic Adventure.”
  12. From This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II, 56.
  13. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 9.
  14. Nadine Gordimer, Introduction, Selected Stories (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) 4, qtd. in Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) 29.
  15. Hippolyte 4.
  16. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 9.

  15 Responses to “Bermuda Voices, Island Writers: Essay — Kim Aubrey”

  1. This essay could not be entirely comprehensive, and I’m sure it is missing the names and work of some wonderful Bermudian poets and writers. Please feel free to add their names, and even one of their poems, or a link to their writing, in a comment here.

  2. What a gorgeous anthology, Kim.

  3. It must be something in the air, the sea, the sun of the 21 square mile country that is Bermuda that has given rise to such lovely work from so many gifted writers. Thank you for this beautiful and informative essay.

  4. Kim,

    I loved your article, it was written from your heart.
    Thank you for sharing that wonderful feeling ” my homeland had been calling to me”…

  5. Thanks, Natasha and Gary!

  6. Thanks, Val!

  7. This is beautiful and fabulous, Kim. I’ve never been to Bermuda and had no sense of its riches (beside its natural beauty) or conflicts, though I’ve spent time in Jamaica, which is also post-colonial. I’d like to read even more about your childhood and personal experience there, but this is a great tribute to all the Bermudian writers. Now I understand more about your writers’ retreats there.

  8. Thanks Kim!

    I have so enjoyed reading both the work and the intentions of other Bermudian poets.You’ve done a good job of collecting us up and making a narrative which is both historical (factual) and inspiring (imaginative). Your own poetic skills come through in how you have handled the subject matter, re-membered it into an island truth we all abound in.

    Nancy Anne Miller

    • Thanks, Nancy! And thanks to you and all of the poets for sending me your wonderful poems, and sharing your thoughts and stories with me!

  9. When asked how living abroad affects what and how he writes, Dane Swan says, “The scope of what I can be inspired by is wider. Not only can I write about my experiences in Bermuda, but also, the world beyond. I feel unlimited in scope.”

    I’m a huge retreat person! This terrific.

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