2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars
wry and reflective, 18 July 2011
Continental Shelf comes 24 years after Mama Dot and nearly a decade since Bloodlines. In that time Fred D'Aguiar established himself as a poet of energetic rhythms and fragmented narratives, drawing on a fondly recalled Guyanese childhood and on his experiences of racism in Britain.
Continental Shelf's major section is Elegies, a meditation on the 2006 massacre at Virginia Tech University (VTU), where D'Aguiar teaches. He has been memorialising the dead since Mama Dot. 1998's Bill of Rights refracted the Guyanese Jonestown massacre of 1978 through the narrative of a young man who had joined the cult to escape racism in London, while Bloodlines examines slavery through fictionalised voices of D'Aguiar and his ancestors.
Unlike his two previous single-poem volumes, in Continental Shelf D'Aguiar writes in his own voice and includes a preface of the short Guyanese childhood poems Local Colour, and a Guyanese coda, Continental Shelf.
The poems in Local Colour are a delight. D'Aguiar recalls a rural world he can make sense of as in the opening imperative Bring Back, Bring Back:
... my grandparents, mere tadpoles
Swished around in their parents as nothing more
Than wishes thought up in fields, while minding
Indolent cows, sheep or goats or while poised
Over washing on a ribbed scrubbing board
Nevertheless, the village is not a safe place. A caiman that D'Aguiar treads on crossing a trench is `unlucky to miss me / miss lunch by inches'. A boy nearly drowns in a shell pond. An aunt rescues the poet - not yet in his `terrible twos' - as he dangles on a second-floor window ledge. But the funeral in Local Colour is D'Aguiar's grandmother's not a child's.
Elegies is different. D'Aguiar opens with twelve sonnets vividly recreating the day on campus at VTU when he learnt of the shootings. As he struggles to find meaning, the stanzas loosen, the rhyme lessens. It is best read fast. There are heartfelt but weak lines about Erin, a student of D'Aguiar's killed by the shooter:
Erin, queen of the court and brightest light in the room,
You are a bride now and death is your bridegroom.
D'Aguiar lacks distance: he has never been so unguarded. It sounds harsh, but in Elegies D'Aguiar writes best about himself, not about Erin, nor about her classmate, the killer dressed in black:
...He said little, lingered
A lot, wanting something or not much.
He did not stand out in a crowd, unless you
Thought a man dressed like that, who hovered,
Merited attention. He did not.
At the funerals D'Aguiar's thoughts return to himself, to Guyana and to slavery:
No man up above to invest in...
No place to go after I perish
But the grave or my ashes sown
Over the Demerara which catapults
Into the Atlantic which flows
Back, back, back to Africa
Where ancestors walked head-in-air,
But earlier they dragged knuckles
There, and were captured there,
And packed in ships in shackles:
An old story without a loving God
D'Aguiar writes powerfully about how he now looks at his own children, eventually mocking his increased protectiveness towards them:
I want our children so safe I'd
Rewind the clock until they were unmade
And separated in our separate bodies
We don't let them develop; they remain
With puppy fat and hair on them so soft
We call it bumfluff
I missed the energy, the intensity and the adopted voices of his earlier volumes but I enjoyed this wryness, this more reflective D'Aguiar. It is good to have this new work.