Page 1


There is a lot to admire in this debut, including the wide formal range, ambitious scope, mythic power, and fascinating narrative. However, what I love the most about these autobiographically-inspired poems is the way the “I” is made up of an extraordinarily complicated recipe of history, geography, race, class, will, and chance. In Forbes’s quest, you will find personal poems that strike with resounding social significance, as well as poems that survey a sometimes gentle and sometimes violent historical landscape with visceral intimacy. — Jonathan Andersen, author of Stomp and Sing

In the vein of Jamaica Kincaid, Providencia is a kaleidoscopic journey home to a very small place, an island that may appear tiny on a map but contains a whole world of feelings unto itself. Providencia is a place where a child’s cornrows become a map to hidden treasure chests, where pirates are haunted by the enslaved men they slew, and where beautiful women walk long dirt roads in heels, heads held high, to deliver telegraphic warnings to their absent, adulterous husbands. One hears all kinds of sirens in this book; those that screech on the streets of Brooklyn, those that tempt men who love men, those that sound warnings from a conch shell, and those that lure sailors to their deaths in wine dark seas. With a yearning untainted by sentimentality, Forbes gracefully scribes his/our Caribbean diasporic family history in his debut book. — Lisa Sánchez González, author of The Stories I Read to the Children, The Life and Writing of Pure Belpré

Sean Frederick Forbes’ poems are a luxurious blending of the exotic with the mundane, creating a world that is simultaneously familiar but tinged with a mild surrealism, a world just out of reach, but in clear focus, populated with a grandfather who demonstrates what it is to be a man, a brother born with no fingernails, a father who searches the Viet Nam of his living room shag carpet for mines, where pirates invade Providencia and loot and sometimes conceal private treasures. The absolute beauty of these poems is the self-confronting journey of a man who seeks to discover where he came from, to unravel who he is. Forbes is a master surgeon whose steady hand and sculptured incisions are not


only precise, but inventive, extracting parts of our bodies and souls we did not even know existed. While these poems show a grace and meticulous awareness of form, where nothing is superfluous, they are also paradoxically raw and gut wrenchingly tinged with an honest humanity and a voice like no one else writing today; it is as though we were privy to conversations while listening with our ears to walls. These are poems anchored in the heartbreak of human longing but not void of hope, and like the theory of a lightning bolt arbitrarily connecting with a single mutated cell, these poems create a life form that never seen before, where the characters are half dreamlike and half human. I am compelled to give this book my highest compliment: these unpretentious poems invite and demand that I return to them over and over again. — Bruce Cohen, author of Placebo Junkies Conspiring with the Half-Asleep

In Providencia, Sean Forbes presents poetry that is rich in a kind of spare aesthetics. Spare, as in clear, as in extra and its opposite, sparingly, as in leave uninjured, as in can-you-spare-a-dime yes, especially that sense of provide. In the “Bone” sequence, a retelling of a folktale, the reader is drawn into parallel worlds of family violence as devastating as they are fascinating. In “The Map to the Pirate’s Treasure Is Woven into the Women’s Hair,” Forbes provides an historical retelling that weaves cultures and centuries. A marvelous debut collection. — Kimiko Hahn, author of Toxic Flora


PROVIDENCIA


PROVIDENCIA A Book of Poems by Sean Frederick Forbes Introduction by V. Penelope Pelizzon

new york www.2leafpress.org


P.O. Box 4378 Grand Central Station New York, New York 10163-4378 editor@2leafpress.org www.2leafpress.org 2LEAF PRESS is an imprint of the Intercultural Alliance of Artists & Scholars, Inc. (IAAS), a NY-based nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes multicultural literature and literacy. www.theiaas.org Copyright Š 2013 by Sean Frederick Forbes Cover design: Holly Turner Cover background art: Š Wilson Valentin/Vetta/Getty Images Author Photo: John Murphy Book design and layout: Gabrielle David Ebook design and layout: Angela Sternrich Library of Congress Control Number: 2013953968 BISAC: Poetry / American / African American ISBN-13: 978-1-940939-01-8 (Paperback) ISBN-13: 978-1-940939-02-5 (eBook) 10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

Published in the United States of America First Edition | First Printing 2LEAF PRESS books are available for sale on most online retailers in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia. Books are also available to the trade through distributors Ingram and Baker & Taylor. For more information, contact sales@2leafpress.org. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded or otherwise without the prior permission of the Intercultural Alliance of Artists & Scholars, Inc. (IAAS).


For the Robinson, Newball, and Forbes families


CONTENTS

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .v PREFACE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix INTRODUCTION. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1 Gnosis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5 ISLAND VOICES: PROVIDENCIA AND QUEENS, NEW YORK CITY An Oracle Remembering Providencia’s Formation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 Errand, 1949 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 Arrival in New York, 1961 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 Friday Evening . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 Epistle on Adoration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 Haiku . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 Island Pantoum. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 Beauty Salon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 Island Ghazal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20 The Burning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 Isla Providencia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22 Summer Offering . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23 Man’s Worth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 THE BONE UNDER THE ALMOND TREE Bone 1. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Survivals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mysterious Body. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bone 2. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mercedes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Discovery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Enchantment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gemstone . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

i


Bone 3. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fathers and Sons. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Wounds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fever-grass and Peony. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Encounter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sibling Rivalry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bone 4. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

38 39 41 42 43 44 45

VOZ DEL MANO La Voz del Mano . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Sheets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Orpheus’s Boy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ash . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Shango and Me . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Rondeau for the Nureyev Nude . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Curl Speaks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

49 50 51 52 53 55 56

PROVIDENCIA Caribeño . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Picture-scape . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ancestry. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Desire . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Efficiency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Map to the Pirate’s Treasure is Woven into the Women’s Hair . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Boat Ride Around Providencia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Lesson. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Truce . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Excursion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ritual . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

61 63 64 65 66 67 73 74 75 76 78

ABOUT THE POET . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .81 ABOUT THE ARTIST . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .82

ii

PROVIDENCIA


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

MANY THANKS TO the editors of the following journals in which these poems—sometimes in earlier versions—first appeared. The Midwest Quarterly: “Desire,” “Survivals,” “La Voz Del Mano,” and “Discovery.” Chagrin River Review: “Haiku: Winters in Southside Jamaica, Queens.” Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language, and Culture: “Ritual.” Crab Orchard Review: “Beauty Salon” and “Truce.” Long River Review: “Isla Providencia,” “Gnosis,” “Found,” “Enchantment,” and “Shango and Me.” Many thanks to the Covenant Insurance Company Summer Fellowship, a Creative Works-in-Progress Summer Grant from the Aetna Chair of Writing at the University of Connecticut, a Woodrow Wilson Mellon Mays Travel and Research Grant for travel to Providencia, Colombia, and grants from the Social Science Research Council, which all permitted time to write and revise the manuscript. Special thanks to V. Penelope Pelizzon, who never gave up on me and who saw from the beginning that writing this book was my destiny. Huge thanks to my partner, Peter C. MacKay, who always gives me the space and time to create. I now know that with love and respect, all things are possible. To my editor, Gabrielle David, for her elegance, her unwavering belief in the book, and for seeing all the things I couldn’t. To my former student and graphic artist, Holly Turner, who helped me to visusalize the perfect cover design. To the finest teachers and mentors, Janet Feldberg, Kimiko Hahn, John Weir, June Bobb, Amy Tucker, Ferentz Lafargue, Marilyn Nelson, Lisa SánchezGonzález, Sherod Santos, Lynne McMahon, Andrew Hudgins, Phillis Levin,

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

v


Beth Ann Fennelly, C.D. Wright, Sharon Bryan, and Darcie Dennigan. To my outstanding advisors for their patience, generosity, wisdom, and insight, Ellen Litman, Cathy Schlund-Vials, Margaret Breen, and Lynn Z. Bloom. To the friends I have made on my journey: Jennifer Holley Lux, Amber West, Joe Welch, Marcus Rummell, Jon Andersen, Denise Abercrombie, Bruce Cohen, Siobhan Landry, Ken and Emily Cormier, Suzy Staubach, Emily WojcikThurston, Chandra D.L. Waring, G.K. Phillips, Lynn Giza, Aura Burgos, Gloria Figueroa, Jason Courtmanche, Amy Nocton, for all of her help with my Spanish translations, Luis Alberto Archbold, Jacqueline Lazú, Miller Oberman, Christiana Pinkston-Betts, Sue and Randy LaCoille, Charlie and Debbie Cazeault, George and Tina Swift, Deb and Barry Ayers, and Donna and Dave Wilson. Finally, and especially, to my large family. To my parents, Teresa Mercedes Shah and Hermes Delano Forbes, for giving me life and for allowing me to grow. To my stepmother, Luisa Elberg-Urbina, who told a shy six-year-old that he had the fingers of an artist. To my grandmother, Aillen Robinson, who told me stories and taught me that I needed to listen to learn and to learn to listen. To my sister and brother-in-law, Rose Marie and Naji Kharma, who listen and care. To my aunt, Ofelia Robinson, who traveled with me to Providencia and helped me to feel the island’s pulse. To my dearest friends, Dinamary Arvelo, Yariel Diaz, and Kendra Hill who never let me quit even when I felt worthless. To my aunts and uncles, living and deceased, for guiding me along the way: Lucia and Wilfrid Desir, Stella and Tommy Kallicharan, Alberto Forbes, Rodrigo Forbez, David Forbes, Tirza Robinson, Jim Robinson, Heriberto Robinson, and Norberto and Maria Robinson. To my cousins, many of whom were the first friends I ever had: Georgina, Diana, Eileen, Xiomara, Tatiana, Marjorie, Bianca, Norberto, Jr., Jennifer, Stephanie, Chris and Alison. To Eugene, Kristin, Michael, Nicole, Greg, Kelly, and Sam MacKay, thank you for taking me in as a family member. f

vi

PROVIDENCIA


PREFACE

NEWS-CARRIER, troublemaker, paquetero.(1) In my grandmother’s patois, she would often warn me not to be the news-carrier of family secrets: “Dem na need fe know we business.” When I was around my many cousins, I often instigated arguments or feuds that carried on for years, while I observed silently from the periphery; a troublemaker indeed. At gatherings with my friends and colleagues who were from the Spanish Caribbean, I was told that my stories and anecdotes were raucously over-the-top and that I either reveled in or created scathing gossip, yes, a shit-talker. My intentions were never to be malicious or to hurt anyone or to be blatantly disruptive, but rather to engage in dialogue where there were silences, to tell good stories with dynamic characters and scenes and to try to find the truth. As I began to write poems and to think about and develop my poetic voice, the more I realized that these monikers were vital to my understanding of the types of concerns that I was addressing in Providencia. In many of my poems, the male speaker acts as a shape-shifter of family myths and secrets. He is like a clay potter, carefully manipulating and molding language and imagery in order to produce an artifact of words. The title of my book comes from the mountainous Caribbean island of Isla de Providencia or Old Providence that is part of the Colombian department of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina. It is also the birthplace of my maternal and paternal grandparents and my mother. As a child, Providencia was an island I had difficulty finding on most major maps and atlases. My second-grade teacher once asked the class to find the country or state of our parents’ birth on the big classroom map. I knew that my grandparents were born in Providencia, Colombia, a small island off the

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

ix


eastern coast of Nicaragua, but they had never pointed it out to me on a map. I sat in my seat in the center of the classroom and watched as my fellow classmates pointed out Jamaica, Haiti, Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi; all of these places could be easily found. I walked up to the map that declared in bold, block letters “THE WORLD,” and began to search for Providencia. I looked south of Jamaica, east of Nicaragua, west of Colombia and found nothing. I began to panic; my face turned bright red and the top of my head began to itch. I remembered I had sometimes heard my grandparents say “Providence,” using the English name of the island, so I searched again and found nothing. Some of my fellow classmates looked at me questioningly and some even called me a liar. I didn’t know what to say or to think, so I remained silent the rest of the day. When I came home, I did not tell my mother or grandparents about what had happened at school. I was humiliated by my classmates, and it was my family’s fault. I began to think that maybe Providencia did not exist, that my family was lying to me. Or if it did exist, surely it was an unimportant place. The older I became, the more my grandparents and parents talked about this mysterious and mythic place, but I was gradually developing very little interest in Providencia. It was not until years later when I traveled to Barbados to conduct research for a paper on the Jamaican novelist Michelle Cliff, that I came into contact with Providencia in the most unusual way. I wandered into a souvenir shop and found a map of the West Indies and the Caribbean. In neat script next to a tiny green dot off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, I saw the words: Isla de Providencia. As my anecdote above suggests, the shifting quality of the island of Providencia as it moves from family nostalgia to childhood myth to geographic fact is one of the central tensions shaping my early life, and it’s one that Providencia explores. Providencia’s geographic ambiguity; its 200-year history between British and Spanish colonial powers; the major political battles between Nicaragua and Colombia over which nation has rightful ownership; the native English-based patois spoken even though Spanish is the official language; the island’s ethnic diversity, with inhabitants claiming West African, European and of course mainland Colombian ancestry: all these factors suggest that the island itself can be seen as a symbol for shape-shifting. Shape-shifting permeates the very history of the island. As anthropologist Lucia Desir notes, English Puritans came to the island in the seventeenth century to create a new and pious community. Yet the island’s ideal location meant that pirates, slavers, and smugglers had their own agendas. Soon, the Puritans’ utopia became a pirate haven, a stopping point on the slaving route,

x

PROVIDENCIA


and a major thoroughfare for the smuggling of various forms of contraband. (2) And this shape-shifting continues into the present day. Currently, the island’s population of 5,000 depends for its income on tourism, deep-sea diving expeditions by marine biologists, studies on the flora and fauna, and drug running. During the process of writing and revising my poems, Providencia gradually became more than an enigmatic geographic, historic, and ancestral site from which I am a generation removed. As more of the poems emerged, it became clear to me that the island functioned in my mind as a symbolic “homeplace” that invited both imagery and formal strategies of shape-shifting. I began to realize that I was writing my poems with a “trickster” sensibility and aesthetic. My identifying with the trickster comes in large part from my readings of other influential poets whose work embodies trickster themes and strategies. In some cases, the parallels between my literary models and my own personal experiences are striking. For example, in her “biomythography” Zami, A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde discusses the Grenadian satellite island of Carriacou, her mother’s birthplace, and her own connections to it. I echo Lorde’s narrative consciously both to pay homage to her influence and to suggest how I, too, am engaged in capturing familial stories about my ancestral island. As I read and re-read the works of Lorde and also Michelle Cliff, I was amazed to discover the parallels that existed in our early lives in grammar school. In Zami, Lorde notes that she was unable to locate the satellite island of Carriacou in the Goode’s School Atlas, or in the Junior Americana World Gazette, or on any map at school or in the library. She began to believe that her mother’s “geography was a fantasy or crazy or at least too old-fashioned, and in reality maybe she was talking about the place other people called Curaçao.”(3) Years later, at the age of twenty-six, she wrote a detailed comparison of atlases and found that Carriacou appeared only once in the Atlas of the Encyclopedia Brittannica, which always “prided itself upon the accurate cartology of its colonies.”(4) Meanwhile, in “Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise” Cliff notes that her third grade teacher asked the class, “Was anyone in this class not born in the United States?”(5) Cliff says that she is from Jamaica, and while she does not need to point this island out on the map, the fact that she is not visibly black becomes the focus of her teacher’s and classmates’ scrutiny. She then begins to fill “their silence with rapid lies.”(6) Like Lorde, I could not find Providencia on the school map in the second grade, and I didn’t see it on a map until I was twenty-one. Like Cliff, I was put on the spot by my teacher, and while I never had to fill the room’s silence

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

xi


with lies, I was called a liar. The more I worked on Providencia, the more I saw that my experiences and search for identity connected me to Lorde and Cliff rather than to male Afro-Caribbean poets like Derek Walcott or Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Moreover, more so than with the male poets, I identified with the risks Lorde and Cliff took in writing about sexual as well as ethnic and racial identity. Their writings moved me on many levels, and I wanted to do the same. Growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Southside Jamaica, Queens as a mixed-race boy with light skin and “good hair,” and discovering at the age of ten my attraction to men, I understood that I was different. At home, I was chastised for being terrible at sports, and for being overly sensitive, or “outlandishly dramatic.” In both the public and private realm, I was an outcast. I felt a loneliness that, as Thomas Glave writes in his Introduction to Our Caribbean, was “the most painful, inexpressible loneliness: one that, as the years passed me from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, grew increasingly agonizing.”(7) I soon began to realize that this agonizing loneliness was a highly disruptive force with one likely result: my destruction. I turned to reading and to writing poetry as a means of transforming this negative force into a positive one. The title of my book not only pays homage to my ancestral island, but also illustrates the fact that writing the book, as the word “providence” denotes, was my destiny. As I was putting the poems in order, I began to realize that there was a psychic force behind the project as a whole. For instance, out of my maternal grandmother’s twelve grandchildren, I am the closest to her. I was the ninth child she raised. I spent most of my time after school and on the weekends in the kitchen with her, and I listened intently to the stories she told me about her life in Providencia. The incantatory nature of her patois, the cadence of her words, the images she evoked became poetry to my ears, and I tried my best to replicate the same nuances in my own poems. As I wrote and revised the poems in Providencia, I noticed that a literal shape-shifting occurred, in not only the poems, but within me as well. I once felt like an outsider in my family and in the neighborhood I grew up in, but it wasn’t until I was a graduate student that I found a space that allowed me to discover who I was as a scholar and poet. But there were battles I still had to endure, such as being the only gay person of color in many of my graduate seminars. I doubted both my creative and academic writing abilities, and felt that I wasn’t worthy of obtaining a Ph.D. The trickster became a symbolic and literal figure of strength and survival for me as a poet. It is my hope that the poems in my book will extend the lineage of the trickster figure that has

xii

PROVIDENCIA


been so aptly explored by critics Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Lewis Hyde, and Lori Landay, and that has been voiced so creatively and powerfully by my poetic inspirations, Audre Lorde and Michelle Cliff. The works of Lorde and Cliff and my own poems, illustrate that trickster tropes are still active. Currently, there is an interest in new formalism, along with many younger poets exploring ethnicity and sexual identity in their work, and I can only imagine that there will be more poetry investigating trickster tropes in the future. Despite the fact that the trickster is often viewed as negatively disruptive, he wittingly introduces important knowledge to society. f — Sean Frederick Forbes September 12, 2013 ENDNOTES (1) A loose Spanish translation meaning “shit-talker,” or exaggerator. In a Hispanophone Caribbean context, it could also mean “liar” or “trickster.” (2) Lucia Desir, Between Loyalties: Racial, Ethnic, and National Identity in Providencia, Colombia, 113. (3) Audre Lorde, Zami, 14. (4) Zami, 14. (5) Michelle Cliff, The Land of Look Behind, 40. (6) The Land of Look Behind, 40. (7) Thomas Glave, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, 1.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

xiii


Island Voices: Providencia and Queens, New York City


An Oracle Remembering Providencia’s Formation Now I am a gentle voice in the wind, barely audible in a violent storm. But once, I walked earth imbued with power that could scorch the sun. Days before the explosion, the earth’s core whispered in my ear how it envied the dark ocean depths. Trouble began at sunrise with rumbling underwater tremors; my pulse throbbed for hours, blue veins bulging, white smoke puffing out of my open pores thousands of feet into the air, as if to say: breathe in the burnt dust, sulfur, and salt. And so I did, my expressions turned lyrical: raised eyebrows, blossoming pupils, triumphant nostrils. Slimy ochre sand bubbled from the ocean, slowly hardening. I was lifted above, its jagged peaks tore into my feet

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

9


and soon I was drained of blood. Waves’ steady ripples surged through me, utterances of a new language so charming. The earth’s core spoke solemnly that my fate was to be a tender voice in the wind, that the land would always feel my former body’s pulse. I was to oversee the hundreds of years of erosion necessary to sculpt the figure of a man’s head from the sea.

10

PROVIDENCIA


Errand, 1949 Aillen in Providencia

The main road is a dirt road. From Lazy Hill to Town it’s more than an hour on foot, but she refuses to ride side-saddle on her brother’s horse. She’s wearing open-toed high heels, her thick black hair’s twisted into a fat chignon, her silky floral dress clings to her stomach. The women notice the slight bulge, anticipating the disfigurement of motherhood for her, while their husbands crave the perspiration gathering in her cleavage. She walks into the bank, her dusty suede heels sparking hard against the tiled floor, sweet and sirenic. She spends fifteen minutes writing a telegram to her husband in Curaçao. She pictures him kissing his mistress and shoves the form to the clerk. He reads the line, That barren woman will lose her scent. STOP. Come back.” She sees the clerk write this down on a separate piece of paper knowing he will give it to his wife later. She pays the fee, refuses to thank him, and slowly leaves the bank, cautious as a freed slave.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

11


Arrival in New York, 1961 As the plane descends, she allows the seat belt to shift and lie across the bandage of her hysterectomy scar, a welcoming pressure to end the seven-hour flight from Bogotá. Her lanky daughter exits the plane first. She lags behind and worries about her lone suitcase with her wedding photo and week’s worth of clothes for the both of them. He does not notice his wife. Ten months have passed. He embraces his only child, wraps her in his gray tweed blazer and adores how much she resembles him. When he sees his wife’s short hair he kisses her with scorn. She smells tobacco and rum on his breath and knows he has an American woman on the side. Later he walks her to the grocery store. She refuses to take his arm. His heart does not bloom a violet iris anymore, and they taste fury in their mouths.

12

PROVIDENCIA


Friday Evening Papa loosens his belt on Jamaica Avenue, two blocks from home. 5:25. He strides quickly, coins chime in his right pants pocket. 5:30. Grandma’s done with supper, but the ackee and codfish’s burnt. She rushes to scoop up the golden layer with a spoon. The boy’s in the cellar reading Ovid instead of tying bundles of old newspaper for recycling day and sweeping the floor before Papa gets home. 5:35. Papa enters the house, the iodine stench hits him. He sees that piles of newspaper aren’t tied at the front door. The belt’s in his right hand. Grandma stands at the stove. 5:37. She sees the belt. They argue and her curses rattle the house. The boy’s hiding behind the boiler until Papa’s belt, like a braided bullwhip, smacks his legs. Glowing into hate, the boy’s eyes hold him shamefully captive. Papa climbs the stairs, enters the bedroom locks the door. He looks at the hazy numbers on the alarm clock. 5:40. He strips down to his boxer shorts, sits on the bed and looks at the metal buckle. He bites down on the metal like a horse on a cold steel bit.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

13


Epistle on Adoration November 13, 1987 To: Father Joseph Hines, Principal Re: Notes on a new student Father, I am worried. He entered classroom two weeks ago. Every day, a hoodlum walks him to and from school. Have mentioned this to his mother; displays little concern. Does she not understand the danger? How easily a small child can be influenced? Father, he claims his family comes from an island called “Providencia,” or “Providence.” No such island is marked on the classroom map. He searched for five minutes for this island, then became hysterical. Constant travel has perhaps caused certain delusions. I told him he believes too strongly in family myths and stories. Father, he hissed this blasphemous question to me: But you want me to believe in God when I can’t see him? I punished him. He stood in the corner for an hour with his hands on his head. I cannot say I trust in my abilities to guide him. How to teach him modesty? Humility? Submission? Chastity? To find his place? What, Lord Father, I am to do in the presence of such a child? As I write these notes, the Latin word prōvidēntia, meaning foresight or precaution, comes to mind. Providence, when capitalized, means the Christian God who foresees the protection of his creatures. I think about his tiny fingers rubbing the onyx beads of his rosary, diligently murmuring prayers with closed eyes, soon his cheeks begin to flush, he is elsewhere, Father. Sincerely in Christ, Sister Madeline

14

PROVIDENCIA


Haiku

Winters in Southside Jamaica, Queens 1

My grandmother praised the deep silence of winter: drug deals forced indoors. 2

No summer drive-bys or innocent neighbors lost to dull black semis. 3

We live on a block of ten row houses, can hear every goddamn sound. 4

Eight in the morning. My boots should crunch snow instead of pink topped crack vials. 5

Hey, yo, curly top! You gotta sister? Bet she’ll gimme some fine trim. 6

Grandma prays for me to fail the ghetto before puberty begins. 7

Damon approaches me. Asks if I want to make a large roll of cash.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

15


8

Christmas Eve. Best friend shot dead. Closed casket. Barely a face left on him. 9

Morning, purple sky. Two drug dealers escort Mom to the train station. 10

Damon slams me up against a brick wall. Whispers he likes boys my size. 11

Boy, you betta get your hide home. Your Grandmama worried sick ‘bout you. 12

Grandma delivers plates of ackee and codfish to every drug house. 13

Spark of a fired gun in cold night air. Damon holds my trembling right hand. 14

Grandpa spends every winter with his lover in Providencia. 15

Neighbors wonder why we’ve never been robbed, even though Grandpa’s not here.

16

PROVIDENCIA


16

Undercover cop busts Damon. Twenty to life, that’s the word at church. 17

She dreams he takes his woman to secret islands deep beneath the sea. 18

Grandma holds a lunch. Tells neighbors to befriend those kids they fear the most. 19

The blare of sirens, helicopter high above. Sounds I heard all night.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

17


Island Pantoum Tonight I’ll stop thinking I know Providencia. You’ll wear the hematite earrings that match your eyes. There’s incense ash on the floor, the air is bitter, and there’s a new moon out. You’ll wear the hematite earrings that match your eyes. Island voices whisper in the New York City breeze. A new moon is out. Tell me again how the Miskitus discovered the island. Island voices whisper in the New York City breeze: Stand a broom upside down, stick a fork in the bristles. Grandma, tell me how the Miskitus discovered the island. This is how to rid your home of unwanted visitors. Stand a broom upside down, stick a fork in the bristles. The Miskitus and slaves gave European objects power in order to rid their homes of unwanted visitors. Always, island voices always whisper commands.

18

PROVIDENCIA


Beauty Salon The sole visibly black grandchild, I suffered a Creole grandmother’s wrath. She’d grease my hair down with green Dax, grind the metal teeth through as I sat in the musty basement, a wooden clothespin with two cotton balls on both sides pinching my nose. She’d slap Ambi onto my face and when I couldn’t stand the heat or stench of burnt hair, she’d scrape the thick hard bristles against my tender scalp, from seeping roots down to the spilt ends. At fifteen I grew bushy hair, flared my nostrils in defiance, puckered lips, tanned myself into hard brown leather.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

19


Island Ghazal As a midwife my grandmother was once paid in honey. Against impotence she fixed elixirs with the secret fire in honey. Her younger brother had studied the myths: According to lore, he said, before his hunts, Cupid doctored his arrows in honey. Growing tired of her trade, she took on an ancient calling, named herself “matchmaker,” envisioned unions glued in honey. Her clients swallowed a teaspoon of nectar, a supplication to love; would she be called a bruja if she awoke the mystical powers in honey? She dreamt of a spirit playing guitar with brown quills for fingers and knew she’d have a grandson who’d write verses phrased in honey. Named Aillen after the Celts’ underworld demon, she listened to my musings about Hades: the gods ordered boats painted in honey. As a child, she told me my skin was smooth rich amber. She laughed as I drenched my winter-pale skin in honey.

20

PROVIDENCIA


The Burning My grandmother burns onionskin to end gossip: a gay grandson, a cheating husband, a depressed daughter. She drinks a cup of fever-grass tea, takes the onion in her right hand, tearing off the skin. She tells me the crinkles she hears are rumors; the onionskin is no longer; placing it on the burner, she lights the stove on high. The rumple of words die into weak ash. The precious smell of her private vengeance perfumes the kitchen for days.

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

21


Isla Providencia From his final trip to Providencia I asked my grandfather to bring back a piece of the island, so he wrapped a conch shell with three towels, deep in his suitcase among plastic jars jammed with stewed plums and orange rinds. A gift of hidden sources — make of it what you wish, he says, placing the common Caribbean souvenir in my lap, leaving me to imagine Henry Morgan discovering this shell, cupping it over his right ear, swaying to the sirens’ cunning whistles, declaring Providencia his final resting place. My grandfather tells me that a Lazy Hill woman’s dying wish was for a conch shell to be laid on her grave since she loved the mollusk’s tough muscle. I pretend I am a Carib warrior, inserting my fingers into the shell’s curved aperture, like Poseidon, wielding this weapon above my head against British and Spanish. How easy the turn to violence. The shell’s beige, pink and ivory no longer protective covering, but the blood and bone of pirates, Indians, slaves.

22

PROVIDENCIA


ABOUT THE POET

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES teaches creative writing and poetry at the University of Connecticut. His poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Midwest Quarterly, and Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language, and Culture. Providencia is his first book of poetry. f

SEAN FREDERICK FORBES

81


ABOUT THE ARTIST

HOLLY TURNER is a graphic designer from West Haven, Connecticut. She is a graduate of the University of Connecticut communication design program, and works full time as an Art Director in the advertising field.f

82

PROVIDENCIA


PROVIDENCIA by Sean Frederick Forbes  

[Available on Amazon.com] PROVIDENCIA, Sean Frederick Forbes’s debut poetry collection, offers deeply personal poetry that digs beneath the...

PROVIDENCIA by Sean Frederick Forbes  

[Available on Amazon.com] PROVIDENCIA, Sean Frederick Forbes’s debut poetry collection, offers deeply personal poetry that digs beneath the...

Advertisement