Sharda Patasar on Ruth Osman

All Made of Longing by Ruth Osman
(Bamboo Talk Press, ISBN 979-8391924609, 76pp)

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

– W.B.Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’


In post-world war worlds, poets like Yeats and Eliot, witness the dismantling of their countries, their world as they know it and strive to make sense of it through their work. Later on, in another unravelling, Joan Didion emerges, in a city caught in the net of psychedelics and new age religions, a city where people are in a search for purpose, to write, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘The centre was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements…Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future.’ Closer to home, we find the writer V.S. Naipaul, in Finding the Center, exploring the act of writing as a way to his center. As Didion writes, he presents two ideas of history: the history with dates and the undated, dark history out of which ‘we had all come’: ‘To discover the wonder of our situation as children of the New World, we had to look into ourselves, and to someone of my kind of Hindu background that wasn’t easy.’ This act of looking into self is the core of this debut collection by Guyanese born singer/songwriter, flautist and poet Ruth Osman. All Made of Longing, fits this emotional space that Trinidad represents, a place of departure, the waiting place, where things happen and don’t.

Longing, that emotion that lies in the space of the in-between. Longing is a migrant’s world. It is necessary to remember that Osman is of Guyanese origin, located in a space where the Guyanese citizen would often be looked upon with suspicion. This is a woman displaced, voluntarily, a necessity, if she is to distance herself from a privileged life in Guyana, where familiarity in her world, hinders discovery. As she once stated in a newspaper interview: ‘I had to find myself and grow. I couldn’t do that in Guyana. Because I had also grown up in the church in Guyana I was not aware of other circles. In Trinidad I found myself in philosophical circles, a very diverse set of people; people who do not think only in a particular way.’

Banishment, in our original Christian creation myth, makes desire a central axis. Longing, the child of desire, becomes, it seems, another rite of passage.

But though this may be so, Trinidad brings her face to face with the reality of being dispossessed – of name, of circles, of community. From a family, whose spiritual life was centered around the First Assembly of God Church, where her late father, was a deacon and her mother, eventually a pastor; where she herself began writing songs and eventually became the creative arts director at the church, Trinidad presented a divergence. A new place yes, but where she was now required to create pools of familiarity and where her art became a tool for unearthing herself. As Naipaul recognized, ‘to discover the wonder…we had to look into ourselves.’

If the self is the first point of enquiry, the ear must be tuned for listening. It is the first eye, the first portal of sight, the void and chaos through which we emerge. That creation began with the Word, is not a beginning to gloss over. The first sin, disobedience, begins with the inability to keep in the ear the warning. And so, it is only fitting that the first poem reads like an invocation. ‘Handwritten’ in its simplicity, is an invitation to the muse:



I write.

Nib to paper

Ink on white

Feet tucked under

Windows flung wide…


kind angel.

I dim the light…

Talk to me

I am listening.

She makes us ready, gives us as readers space to tuck our knees under too. Followed by ‘Disclaimer’ which sets itself up as a separate poem, but which, in fact feels like a confession for the collection.  The one becomes the many:


The best poems write themselves

they say….

This is not

such a poem.

The poems are short, snappy, economical, almost epigrammatic. They meander as the internal voice does, but for the most part, here, in the absence of the music of Osman’s songs, they are concise. These are thoughts laid bare. ‘Here, this is what I have to say. I say no more, no less,’ the poems seem to say. In the process, the book explores, through naked bodies, animals and reptiles, the liminal space of longing.

The I of the poems calls for the rain to ‘ravage me’ (‘The Gentle Rain’), for the body to lap the warmth of the sun ‘till my blood forces fire through my veins.’ (‘Sunshine’). Asked within these pages is the question: ‘Is it too late to start again…Peel it off and grow another skin?’ (‘Skin’).

Longing is laborious. The poems capture this in the various types of longing that reside in one person. It is slow death. For even when all seems well and our narrator, in the poem ‘Phone call’, is tumbling into air at the deep-throated drum of a lover’s voice and the air is light, we are yanked back to reality in the refrain:


Promise you’ll catch me.



This duality of unfolding and folding recurs throughout most of the poems in various ways. In the poem ‘Writing for You’ the I waits for a lover but then retracts:


I have been waiting

for myself

for this woman that you bring

to me, proud, incendiary,

the cosmos in her belly.

But when she approaches

I stammer and step back

into the shadows.


Only when she is gone, will the narrator write and sing of her beauty. We wonder, in the presence of the work, whether fear is not a necessary rite of passage, the place in our bodies and minds from which we are ‘pulled through navels’,  the darkness that we inhabit, in order to get to the light. As Edwidge Danticat writes in Create Dangerously: ‘Self-doubt is probably one of the stages of acclimation in a new culture. It’s a staple for most artists.’ Osman treats us to large helpings of this but in minute glimpses, glimpses of clear lakes, of falcon wingtips brushing the sun, of the poet’s nib poised on white paper. And the language, the message it communicates, is hopeful. Writing, telling stories is a means of salvation.

This ‘I’ is a resilient body, at certain junctures. It stands, fixing itself in the land, in the soil, in grimy hands that must ‘dig down, past the hubris and rotting leaves…mourn the death of a star and sing another into being’ (‘The Dark’). There are hands ‘grown craggy/ with toil’, limbs that unfurl, that wait to blossom.


Image courtesy Ruth Osman.

Nature is a recurrent motif reminiscent of the original garden to which we must journey. Our lot is to labour. The stories that we tell ourselves in order to survive, are a form of labour. The labour of making meaning through story necessitates desire, for desire’s function is dual – birth or death. Banishment, in our original Christian creation myth, makes desire a central axis. Longing, the child of desire, becomes, it seems, another rite of passage. That emotion that is both spiritual and worldly. Our ‘I’ and ‘she’ long for lovers, for acceptance, for care, for space, for courage, for lost loved ones, for death and rebirth. This longing is a place of displacement.

At the same time, a sense of needing to anchor oneself comes across in poems like ‘The Centre’. Here, the centre is found in the natural world, in ‘the fellowship of trees dancing to the wind’s lavway… where old stories gather flesh and come alive as we blow on their bones.’ The repetition of ‘Here is the centre’ at the end of the poem, is an act of grounding. For in this place, where the centre is elusive, it must be set in the ear and mouth. This setting of song, of word, recurs in the question that Oya, Orisha goddess of weather, of transformation, asks:


who will sing a new world

as the old writhes

as the old dies?


Yet again, the question is given a partial answer in ‘The Dark’:


Someone must dig down

past the hubris and rotting leaves

Someone must…

mourn the death of a star

and sing another into being.


Invocations to Oya, to Nature, references to Jill Scott and to the proud, incendiary, woman are difficult to ignore. The songstress here appears as a figure of power, the power to sing a new world into being for this is what is needed. Is it, we question, that our age of the itinerant, of climate emergency, is calling for a female messiah to sing the new world into being? It is a plausible contrast to the Word, spoken in the first iteration of Genesis. That the poet subconsciously feels that song is required to birth a revised world may not be a far-fetched assumption, for Osman is after all a singer/musician as well. Though the page deprives us of the auditory experience of music, imagination is a powerful generator of sound.

In this collection lies a counter-narrative to Yeats’ beast slouching towards Bethlehem. Here is woman as shape-shifter – beast, serpent, warrior, Nature – singing the world into being. But this is still incomplete woman unlike the complete male God of the Bible. This is woman, who is not yet at the centre. This is woman, still doubtful, still creating safely even while clawing at ground that tethers her, emerging and hiding, stronger when supporting – allowing river to take its course, or her child to create herself a new world. But as Salman Rushdie wrote a little over four decades ago, “Our identity is at once plural and partial….But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy.” Each reader will find parallel narratives here, many angles from which to enter this work. But what is evident is that, regardless of our gender, race, class or nationality, fight as we may, ‘we are all made of longing.’ This is humbling.



Sharda Patasar is a Trinidadian writer, director, and musician with an interest in cultural studies. She was recently appointed an independent senator in the 12th Republican Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.

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