Sarah Beckett, Britishborn, European-educated, Caribbean artist, poet
and film-maker, belongs to a tribe I privately think of as the cascadura
set—named after the fable told by Sam Selvon in one of his short stories
when a woman feeds her foreign lover local cascadura fish which prevents
him from ever leaving these islands.
We, I, every immigrant who has arrived here and simply never left, are
more lover than family to these islands. The idea of going back becomes
a nostalgia we live with. But small things shoot into our bloodstream,
stay in our hearts—the line of immortelle trees, the heart-stopping poui,
the nuances of the language—a biting, affectionate humour, the picong
which makes no one a stranger.
A man, love, her Trinidadian husband brought Sarah here as a bride. He
is back in Europe but she’s still here digging foundations— teaching at
UWI, exhibiting at Carifesta, designing for the Notting Hill Carnival,
exhibiting her experience of the Caribbean—from the walls of the
Trinidad Oval cricket grounds and the Hyatt Hotel to the US, Europe, the
On a burnt orange dusk at the Country Club this past poui season I first
heard Sarah read her poems on Albert Camus, the French-Algerian Nobel
Prizewinning author, journalist, and philosopher.
Her poems suggested hours of musing and ultimately inhabiting the
philosopher. They took us into the heart of France, its history and its
soul. But it was the Trinidad poems that made me recognise in her, part
of a cascadura set. I felt my heart deepen and soar, a luxurious silk
crush of emotion, on hearing her read this:
Bamboo Cathedral, Trinidad / No bronze or marble here. / This
aisle of dusty earth / meanders under arced / bamboo, pillars
pale / as eau-de-nil soar / to rooves of leaf and sky.
Wind blows us along / among dry leaves that swirl / and furl
around our feet. / We walk beneath green domes / of broken
light, our fractured histories / laced between our fingers.
Tree frogs whistle plainchant. / Blue tanagers trill counterpoint /
for Bach, translated into birdsong.
17 Minutes in Blue
We bounce over waves into / a blue trumpet note of noon, /
sun’s fingerprints on our skin / a cloud-errant overhead. Our
pirogue / ‘Sweet for Days’ sits low in the water, / pushes forward
like a small otter / towards the Bocas and smiling dolphins /
rising from their watery kingdoms. How can we not smile back? /
Cradled in our shell of sunlight / we’ve simply kicked off our shoes
/ to stand barefoot in perfect accord / with a round blue world,
/ stepped out of the cities of tragedy / to dawdle among dolphins
romping / in an up-sidedown sky laid like a caress /
across sapphire depths.
The boatman knows the route like he know he knees, / his legs
are masts planted on the deck. Eyes half-closed / he steers us
back, wind-waves roaring in our ears / towards a small lump of
green, tiny deep-water / cove, a crumbling jetty. Seventeen minutes
in blue / from there to here—a bird sings us in / on a waterfall
note from major to minor.
I approached her then, a halting conversation culminating in an
invitation to dinner by Sarah. The night was ringed in a spell near her
studio with paintings bold, intricate, subtle. We talked late into the
night in candlelight in her little garden to a chorus of frogs and
insects and the lady of the night wafted in from somewhere.
Every meaningful conversation in Trinidad, no matter what the subject,
has its prelude like a kind of shame, like a moment of silence for the
backdrop of a country daily mourning its young bullet-riddled men—the
source of a careless governance.
But Sarah wouldn’t be drawn into it that night. When I asked her what
made her stay all these decades even after her children were grown and
her husband migrated, she said, deflecting, disingenuous, “birdsong.”
Later when she sent me this poem, I understood what she meant.
Clouds are walking over the hills / invisible birds palaver in
the banyan tree. / At dawn we are the only travellers climbing
round ghost-mountains / embroidered with Love-vines. Ferns fan
out like poems / but can’t quite hide the blight of Coca Cola signs
/ jammed between the poui and bois canot / on the road to
rain trying out a tune / like panmen playing for love in an
empty room. / Light slaps us awake—sapphire between black
leaves. / Clouds close in again confusing the trees, the road runs
for cover / blurs blue up the hill to a door that opens to sky / a
tree bending into the wind, rain coming in like a lover. / Quietness
folds around us at this point of arrival circling the past. /
unseams the silence fringed by the surf’s gruff undertow. /
Clouds sidle in, steal the horizons of our histories, / parachutes of
fog full-bellied with past griefs / collapse over boundaries, shroud
the trees, / reduce geography to the space between us / calm as a
painting in tones of grey / at our table with two mugs of tea.