By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2015 NGC Bocas Lit Fest Blogger
“As I walk through a bazaar on the beach
where vendors sell fruits, fried fish, fragrant oils,
calabashes, hemp dresses, natural juices,
a woman walks out of the waves:
“I must read your palms, O woman of magic.”
She pulls me down into the sand,
sits behind me, my back against her chest.
She puts my palms like cups into the cups
of her palms. We sway like sea-grape branches.”
-from “Message in a Dream”
The spirit and intention of these, the poems that both stridently and sagely announce Tanya Shirley’s second collection of poems, are reminiscent of 2014 OCM Bocas Prize longlisted title, Malika Booker’s Pepper Seed. As in that equally resonant work, the women in Shirley’s verses engage with their immediate Caribbean landscapes with bravery and an ancestral resilience. These similarities draw light to the significance of contemporary feminisms in Caribbean poetry, but there is no derivation in Shirley’s verse. Her voice is entirely her own, and in its sensual gaiety, its willingness to voyage through battlefields and playgrounds for inspiration, emerges a prismatic, complicated Jamaica and many of the forthright, mantle-bearing women who inhabit it.
Praising the poet’s versatility in a review for Kaieteur News, Glenville Ashby calls Shirley’s variations on subject and tone “literary shape-shifting at its best,” saluting the turns of her poetic explorations as “loud and edgy; comforting and sublime; sacred and profane, while using colour, tone and cadence with precision.” The poet brings her stern attentiveness to the worst of society’s faults, in poems like “The People are Deading”, in whose grim territories “even teeth looked like dried blood and you couldn’t see anybody’s soul in the slant of greedy eyes.” In the softer yet no less impactful strains of poems such as “Grace”, suffused with the rapturous consolations of carnal love, the speaker plummets into “days when all sounds lead me to your voice… when everything is your skin and I tongue books and trees and strangers.”
“But the merchant of feathers is now a woman selling softness in these hard times, stretching rations to feed the multitudes”: so declares the second titular poem of the collection. In these lines are the manifesto of Shirley’s modern-day, fire-tested heroine archetype, she who reckons against Jamaica’s natural and human wrought disasters, distilling some respite in even the most blood-spattered of dancehalls. From battered, beautiful men to brutalized children, in the tender grave-tending hands of a family friend, and the clamorous wails of lovers and brawlers, The Merchant of Feathers offers hope amidst the horrors of home.