Richard Georges: Make Us All Islands

William Camponovo

Richard Georges: Make Us All Islands
by Richard Georges
Shearsman Books

First, a confession: there is a terror in writing a review like this, a low but present thrum, almost percussive: When (and where, and how – responsibly) to mention Walcott? The titanic figure casts such a shadow over the continental United State’s psychic construction (and, indeed, projection) of the Caribbean archipelago that it may be hard, at times, to unsee his images, to unlearn his influence. And yet, in Richard Georges’ debut collection Make Us All Islands, that larger appreciation of influence—and of tradition, literary, cultural, intellectual, psychic—binds these poems in a way that is holistic and expansive. It reminds us (almost to a startling degree, to this reader) that our sense(s) of place are rooted in experience both personal and collective, and are fundamentally told and re-told and passed on. Place, simply, is a gift—and gifts are to be shared.

Make Us All Islands does not read like a debut collection—the author, a native of Trinidad and currently an educator in the British Virgin Islands, utilizes a range of styles and rhetorical strategies, moving from short, lyric poems in couplets and tercets to long, sprawling poems that interweave multiple characters in multiple eras. Beyond this, though, the poet possesses and develops a dizzyingly nuanced and layered historical framework, developed, primarily, through the vehicle of the sea (and, in turn, the ships stranded, wrecked, or destroyed in the Caribbean archipelago), and thus takes the reader through indentured servitude of newly-liberated slaves in the 1800s, to a cataclysmic 1926 shipwreck in the Dominican Republic, to, ultimately, a contemporary, modern narrator looking back at this legacy of migration (both forced and un-), of movement (both in time and place), and of memory (both personal and historical). 

Georges uses Walcott’s “The Sea is History” to open the long poem “At the Waterside,” quoting the Nobel Laureate in the epigraph: ‘Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors / who sank without tombs.” In this multi-part poem, Georges moves us ever-gently, ever-imperceptibly through time and point-of-view, creating a poem present and presently observed and historically recursive. 

What begins as a quiet, lyric series of observations—“the ferry/lurches towards the grey dock through blue-green waters,/adorned with gold sargassum and white-capped tourists” resolves, over the course of the opening stanza, into a narrator’s grappling with historical memory:

I think of another ark pulling down its sails,
a crowd of Tortolans eager to see their sons,
and La Diosa del mar, our Lady of the Sea,
brothers chained once more in her choral embrace.
This is a rock with no time for her history [. . .]

and the reader comes to know, to experience, that the sea is, fundamentally, the sea and the story of it. It is haunted by shipwrecks, by the specter of slavery and the Middle Passage, and in this poem and others these historical accounts are not simply described by the poet, but enacted. 

The poems move in and out of multiple perspectives and points-of-view at will, at times using pieces of language from disembodied speakers or outside texts (including, even, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833). The poems are polyvocal, and polytemporal—they use historical realities not as flourishes, but as real, lived and living experiences that constitute a modern thinking, feeling self. In this sense, history is embedded in the text, but in Georges’ deft, respectful application of historical language, it is given room to speak and be heard: it becomes embodied, too.

But while Georges’ collection evokes the implicit and explicit legacy of the barbarous violence of colonization, the work is not despairing. The end of “At the Waterside” leaves us with, of all things, wonder that resonates as wonder precisely because of the real, demonstrable, historic(al) darkness that preceded it: 

My dog announces, along the beach somewhere,
a discovery – a piece of driftwood not unlike a snake.
I uproot myself, and count my sinking steps
towards his celebrations, the salted voices
singing behind me.

It is this type of rhetorical maneuvering—sensuous; personal; intertextual (evoking the sinking of Walcott’s epigraph); lyric and epic, simultaneously—that is emblematic of the subtle (and thrilling) complexity of this collection. 

Two short poems called “Corpse I” and “Corpse II” take this simultaneous conflation and expansion of the singular experience to astonishing heights. In “Corpse I,” Georges writes:

the body lying prone
in the gritty surf

not resist the probing
of sea and sea foam

direct the Atlantic
past its opening

some other propitious
and dumb instrument.

body lies still as stone
for the groping sea.

This, friends, is nothing short of a magic trick. The body here is both agentic and non-agentic; it is dead, but it also has, still, an actual and active relationship with the sea (which, after all, “gropes” for said body, “probes” it). This is no trivial thing. We are always part of our environment, not only as abstractions, but in real, material form. The language—and, in turn, the body itself—is both elevated and reduced: “propitious [. . .] dumb instrument.” 

The Atlantic, in a very real sense, is full of bodies; the Atlantic, in a very figurative sense, is full of bodies. Our bodies—our injured, killed, maimed bodies—are fundamental, and paramount, here, in this poem, and throughout this collection. The body qua body is elemental and central. However, the body is also part of a group, is recognized (and ruled and colonized) by other, opposing bodies. The body is at once itself and part of a larger history, a story, an environment, a culture.

In this way, we may gleam how an appreciation for the collective informs Georges’ larger poetic and rhetorical project. Literarily, he evokes Walcott, yes, but also Caliban and Prospero, Kamau Brathwaite, Alphaeus Osario Norman. These texts are part of an intellectual and cultural tradition, but they are rooted in a personal experience. 

The body (and, thus, the life) gives meaning, then, to its surroundings even when it ceases to be—precisely because it participated in those surroundings. The body is part of an ever-developing and ever-changing environment that is fundamentally different from having come into contact with the living organism. The body is the locus of experience, but the body exists in, quite literally, an ecosystem. In “Corpse II,” Georges writes:

The sloping cedar stoa
guards a bird in Icarian rot,
its grubby feathers spread
like folds of a mother’s frock.

This is petite, but it is not petty. We afford the bird the dignity it innately possesses through language, through allusion and association. Our natural world (our cedars, our corpse) are defined in terms of Greek architecture, Greek mythology, our shared cultural history, and made real through a simile that is of no use to it (but of much use to us), of a frock. No, more specifically, a mother’s frock. In these four lines (which make up the entire poem), we have a unified, complementary ecosystem interconnected in minute and tender ways. We have, in short, a full and fully realized world—this world.

William Camponovo earned his B.A. in Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Washington and has also studied creative writing pedagogy at Antioch University – Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The Seattle Review, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets 2011, Iron Horse Literary Review, and online at Poetry Northwest. Currently in the Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center, he spends most of his time writing about the poets Adrienne Rich, Harryette Mullen, and Alice Notley, a fact about which he could not be happier.

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