Writing the “gold” and the “heavy”: Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (2017)

Jennifer Rahim


“You think you’re going to die tonight. You’re wrong.” (60)—so goes the mono/dialogue in the poem, “Attrition” by Shivanee Ramlochan. I can think of no better place to introduce this Trinidadian poet’s much acclaimed debut book, Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (2017). The “breaking open” (60) and promissory survival divulged in the poem’s cleverly construed confrontation portends something of the almost surgical ontological and epistemological wreckage and recalibration the book outworks. Her uniquely conceived treatment is of the most touchy issues that haunt the chambers of the Caribbean psyche. In the new wave of unfiltered confrontations with the shadowed, suppressed and uncensored worlds of knowledge and experience currently surfacing in the region’s literature, she is certainly a significant emerging voice. Sexuality and gender circuit concerns with voice, body and power. These branch out into a number of interrelated directions, all delivered in the eruptive current of a language that shocks and provokes, overturns and crumbles, strips and stitches. This is clearly a writer with the gift and wild to tilt the wont terrains of Caribbean literary discourse.

The collection’s three-part organizational structure is fluid, making it possible to engage the collection at any point. Likewise, themes intersect and dovetail much like the looping of a fragmented image/self that deconstructs and reconstructs itself. The book’s cover is spot on in this regard. What makes this book a challenging read is the poet’s skillful manipulation of identity markers like pronouns and their customary subject/object locations. The central “I” / “you”, for instance, slips between speaking positions and gender-assigned bodies that are never entirely containable or identifiable. From this perspective, the poem “Duenne Lara” provides an interesting entry point to the collection. It supplies the book’s title and belongs to a suite of “duenne” poems that evoke a cross-fertilization of folklore and literary resonances. Each is an unbaptized or unclaimed aspect of the self. Each is also a jealously protected, deeply grieved and desired bastardized dimension of the split self. Lilith, the sexually abused, dark and vengeful feminine, appears first, Lorca is the “neither female or filial” “Darkling son;” but it is Lara, the “suitor,” estranged lover, that draws from the poetic “I” or “we” the ominous, self-welcoming declaration: “Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting” (20).

Premised therefore on the simultaneously uncomfortable, dangerous and ecstatic knowledge of a non-binary identity, the book unravels that terrain of experience: the anguished rituals of self-baptism, the explorers of pleasure and necessarily defiant marriage to a selfhood that is a “terrible gift” (29). This prodigal treatment of the “I” announces Ramlochan’s approach to the complex terrain of human sexuality, the intersectionality of issues that can traumatically impact lived experience, and the on-going recalibration of identity claims and understandings. This first collection is not a tentative novice’s journey of discovery. The poet’s ground is already established. She lodges her right of being in Nature, the first mother: “Nothing the forest raises is a monster” (22). From this crucible, the book’s social concerns and critiques emerge at the core of which is the poet’s resistance to the surveillance of “normal” sexuality, the refusal of blanket norms that hold the self hostage, the sexual violation of women’s bodies and the damaging fallout of a heteronormative culture supported by law and religion.

The spine of the collection is upheld by a non-binary, creolized, queer poetic through which the poet stages enactments of rebellion and integration, accompanied by a plethora of dismantling, expelling, rebirthing and remothering images. “Mangrove” and “forest” are imagined as birthing, nurturing and healing spaces as in the poem, “The Virgin Speaks of What She Endured.” In fact, from the opening poem, “A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child,” the poet signals her quest for a liberationist aesthetic built on deliberate “plays” honed from a creolized imaginative sensibility, open to a multitude of sources. Instinctively iconoclastic, she holds the prison-house of language in her teeth, tearing, “unswallowing,” unlearning and “bastarding into birth” (11) allied and enabling words/myths/gods, because life itself depends on such acts: “there is no such thing as an accidental shrine” (11).

Threat, violation, defiance, desire and love circuit the collection. In a world where the constellation of race, gender and sexual orientation conspires against the presumption that the arrival at “old age” is automatic and renders even the act of loving a plummet to the “ruination of you” (65), deliberate acts of resistance and revolution are necessary. The “catechism” of survival she creates from the Hindu pantheon intersects with poems that recruit gods, appropriate religious and popular festivals, such as, Divali, Phagwa and Carnival to subvert gender normative pressure and make room for liberating enactments of queer presence and expressions of desire. “Catching Devi & Shakuntala” and “Crossdressing at Divali Nagar” and “All the Dead, All the Living” are memorable examples.  

What it means for women, in particular, but not exclusively, to live circumscribed by narrowly gendered subjectivities and expectations: violence and sexism are main haunts. The heart-rending rape-survivor poems of “The Red Thread Cycle” section, located like a sore pivot point in the collection’s middle, charts the triple victimization suffered by rape victims at the hands of callous law enforcement services and the criminalization of abortion, sensitively tabled in a series of abortionist poems positioned in section one. The paralysis of voice, the “policeman in your throat” (41), points the lethal combination of a persistent culture of male authority and entitlement over the female body. Further, silence and shame around sex and sexuality that make even the body’s violation untellable and compounds victims’ experiences powerlessness, shame and guilt. This poet is securely invested enough in the power of “speaking” a thing not to be a propagandist. The reader is simply invited to be a witness, although it is difficult to read and digest all her lines.

Throughout the collection the poems are thematically cross-stitched to highlight the possible life-sabotaging impact of gender constructions in women’s lives. A poem like “Clink Clink” (61), for instance, with its clandestine, bartering ritual to which the girl is subjected, companions the women “braceleted in cagewire,” their voices constricted like “burst figs” in “Kiskadee Bride” (31); but these restrictive narratives are counterpointed by self-liberating poems like “Crossdressing at Divali Nagar” and “What Fights, Still.”

Meanings move in several directions, just as identity shifting occurs throughout the collection. Poems like “The Abortionist’s Granddaughter Gives Blood” and “Fire, Fire” [I risk to say] speak to the self-harming, self-abortive effects of internalized homophobia: intense, almost torturous inner battles for wholeness, self-love and love—the learning how to “survive with / so much fire” (30). Yet ascribing labels to Ramlochan’s poems must be a provisional exercise as their borders resist closures. Epistemological shattering is her intent. Targeted are conventions about privacy, censored notions of decency, acceptability and the sexual body. “Camp Burn Down”, “Fatherhood” and the Vivek poems are in this line. Extreme exposures and the unleashing of sexual power and same-sex desire are modes of refusal and grounds of authority aimed at silencing closeted and duplicitous practices around sexuality in a Caribbean that stringently polices the body. This poet courts the scandalous and “bad girl” unmanageability to axe away at targeted dishonesties and betrayals that will hopefully open more unguarded conversations about who we are and what personal and social responsibilities this knowledge requires of us.

This is the poetry of insurgency—the rampaging dance of an incensed, fierce Kali in search of retributive release from the stranglehold of the intolerable. At every turn, the reader is met with raw visceral intensity, defiantly unapologetic credal rending, and unspeakable disclosures that refuse the incarceration of divides that separate private and public, sacred and the profane. Ramlochan places herself, her body and voice, at the heart of that “war”— the “hard heretic that nature intended” (70). Her pages are virtually a poetic gayelle. Words carry like a mounted bois and strike like a nail-splitting three canal. At its best, such a poetry/art attains the capacity to unsettle, and so interrogates us—asks pertinent questions about the quality of our humanity, the nature of our fears, and our settlements with unfreedom. This new voice has clearly earned the pearl of fearlessness. Shattering the mask of objectivity and authorial distance, she draws close to her subjects sharing pain, guilt, shame and pleasure. In the gruelling abortionist series she self-identifies as “the daughter of women who knew surgical guilt” (30).

So the book is brave, bold in its risk-taking—the marks of a writer who knows that the only real loss is the failure to sing, full-throttle, the song that is one’s own. Her allegiance is to a personal sense of honesty, the basis of the bonds of solidarity she seeks with the subjects she engages. There is also the responsibility she claims to give voice to her grandmother’s untold “gold” and “heavy” stories (64). Although the “chaos” of identities and desire can, at times, alienate the reader, Ramlochan is an exceptional imagist. She words the wordless and surgically sutures fragments of consciousness into surreal, primal reconstructions that can defamiliarize, revolt, surprise and allure. This poet’s commitment is not to soothe or please, but to honour a creative trinity wrought in “ink and blood, / and salt” (28). This book’s explosive exploration of a “heretic” poetics will impact the discourse of literature and culture for some time to come.

Jennifer Rahim‘s first collection of poems, Mothers Are Not the Only Linguists was published in 1992, followed by Between the Fence and the Forest, Approaching Sabbaths, which won a Casa de las Américas Prize 2010, and most recently Ground Level. She also writes short fiction, and published the acclaimed Songster and other stories in 2007, and most recently, Curfew Chronicles in 2017 which won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2018.