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July 14, 2008

Kei Miller's The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies

Writing about web page http://www.readysteadybook.com/BookReview.aspx?isbn=0954881125

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

I was just long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize with Kei Miller, a poet that I have a high opinion of. Here is my review of one of his early collections (published by my friends at the Heaventree Press) which appeared on RSB:

The epigraphs of Kei Miller’s debut collection, The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, come from the Bible (‘For out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water’ John 7.38) and from the revolutionary Bob Marley song, ‘Them belly full (but we hungry)’. Throughout the collection, the characters struggle to reconcile the contradictions of church and rum-bar, of religion and suffering, of seeming respectability and revolutionary struggle.

The first section is entitled ‘Church Women’, a sequence reminiscent of Lorna Goodison’s Guinea Women. Like Goodison, Miller creates matriarchs of grand proportions, yet Miller’s poems are not quite so benevolent. ‘Hats’ describes ‘a Sunday museum of felt’ in which ‘a boy will be wedged / between fat women’. Miller describes the boy’s view of ‘stiff circles of mesh’ as being like ‘satellite antennas’. The women’s Sunday headgear, redolent of aspirations and the desire for respectability, orbits the boy’s viewpoint. Miller explains the boy’s distance from the women:


And child-logic being ‘crowns
are chiselled from blocks of gold,
tattooed with ivy vines,
stippled with blue diamonds’,
the boy will not see the majesty
in these women;
he will not understand
their purple claim:

We not God’s children!
We are his wives.


The compound phrase, ‘child-logic’, recalls the ‘child-eye’ of David Dabydeen’s ‘Catching Crabs’ and as in Dabydeen’s poem, a mature narrator looks back on a child’s view of family events and happenings. In Miller’s poem, the young boy cannot envision the grandeur that the women imagine for themselves or their queenly, ‘purple’ desire for the regal. Yet the regret of the narrator’s tone shows a viewpoint that is both critical and loving and Miller reaches towards a reconciliation between the young, critical male and the magnificent mothers.

These poems are always based in the heart of the community and family and Miller reiterates the flawed yet admirable characters that inhabit it. In ‘Aquaphobia’, the mother’s act of teaching her children to swim by throwing them into deep water may seem unkind, but the narrator is adamant that ‘all / these years we have floated on her faith’. These women are heroic and inspiring. For example, ‘Noctiphobia’ tells how Miller’s grandmother was cursed to suffer six miscarriages, but through the ‘curse breaking magic’ of the number seven gave birth to a son. Yet some of Miller’s poems are more acerbic such as ‘This is an apology’ which functions as half-retort, half-lament for a Trinidadian woman whose experience of sex is only the permission of ‘just a few thrusts – / always, always in the darkness’.

If these characters represent the inhabitants of Jamaica, the physical landscape itself is invoked in the surreal vision of ‘In Dream Country’, in which the speaker of the poem becomes an instrument to gauge the strange happenings of an imaginary country. Like the act of creation in Genesis, the poem’s structure describes the formation of a place day by day. On Monday, Miller envisions lions escaping from the zoo, stampeding cows and horses and ‘old West Indian / writers knelt / behind feeble latches’. While the animals are full of life, movement and violence, the writers seem to be strangely passive and vulnerable. Tuesday’s matriarchal cow rejects both its offspring and the virile stallion father, yet V.S. Naipaul appears riding a ‘black lion’ proclaiming the fires that burn for Marley, Selassie and Rastafari. Wednesday is omitted as if something is lacking at the centre of Miller’s act of creation, yet Thursday brings further delights as the animals burn tyres, lament on TV-J and baptise themselves. Friday itself is invoked as ‘an abandoned child’, whose missing parents light ‘a candle for Derek Walcott’, while predatory animals and duppies ‘dance a careless bacchanal’ singing the lack of this chaotic country. The presentation of bizarre, difficult images works as an antidote to poetry’s sometimes careless evocation of place and nation and for this reason it is the pinnacle of Miller’s achievement.

The final section, ‘Rum Bar Stories’ reaches towards more modern inhabitants of Jamaica and it is structured with recipes for cocktails and alcoholic drinks. Each poem offers another story and while the characters here seem to be less bound up with the myth of community, they still have a certain authenticity. ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ is striking as it describes the lament of a barmaid. Watching a jazz singer, she thinks how he creates ‘clean purple notes / out of cancers’ and she sees in him the key to escape:


[He] really knew a place
where ain’t nobody crying
and ain’t nobody worried
and ain’t no men
coming in crusted
with a day’s leftover cement,
calling her whichever name
they chose that day […]

Like the earlier stories of church women, the barmaid has aspirations for an unreachable goal. The initial refrains are musical as they express the place of refuge so desired by the young woman, yet the monosyllabic phrase, ‘no men’, creates a change and the prosaic style that follows reveals how her aspirations conflict with mundane reality: the cement, the men’s demands, her own humiliation.

Lack and emptiness are themes that dominate The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, yet it is Miller’s self sacrifice, his devotion to the stories of others and his commitment to observing the happenings of the landscape that enable this collection. Referring back to his epigraph from John 7.38, Miller’s role is rather like that of the Holy Ghost creating a wealth of ‘living waters’ out of his own absence. Miller becomes the critical and loving deity of his own imagination, his own culture.


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