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Poet's latest collection inspired by paintings of three Caribbean artists

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Laurence Lieberman
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
In Laurence Lieberman’s latest collection of poetry, “Hour of the Mango Black Moon” (Peepal Tree Press, England), he again communes with Caribbean people, cultures and histories.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Like the mangoes that splash across his beloved spiritual home in the islands of the Caribbean, the poems in Laurence Lieberman’s latest collection are colorful, lush, seductive and rich with cultural and restorative qualities.

In his new book, “Hour of the Mango Black Moon” (Peepal Tree Press, England), the Detroit-born poet once again communes with Caribbean people, cultures and histories, but he takes a different direction with this work.

This time Lieberman draws his inspiration from the paintings of three of the Caribbean’s finest living artists. In so doing, he has produced a meditation upon, and love song to, these artists and their paintings, but also to the world that won his heart early in his literary career.

Lieberman, a professor of poetry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of 12 collections of poetry and three volumes of essays. All but a few revolve around the Caribbean, which he came to love during his four years in St. Thomas (1964-1968). He had been recruited there to launch the English department at the University of the Virgin Islands. His poetry has appeared in every major literary journal, and he has garnered many prizes. Since 1971, he has served as poetry editor of the U. of I. Press.

In “Hour of the Mango Black Moon,” Lieberman pairs his poems with 18 color paintings: eight by Stanley Greaves, six by Ras Akyem and four by Ras Ishi.

The title poem interprets and expands on Greaves’ painting “Morning Mangoes.” In this vibrant and fanciful work of art, two stylized figures, a man and a woman, are taking part in an ancient Guyanese celebration. Standing knee-deep in the ocean at daybreak, they peel, eat and share their mangoes. Over their shoulders and balancing precariously on the horizon is a mango-shaped black moon.

Mangoes figure abundantly, in fact, in this work. The celebrators have
mango-shaped heads, necks, arms, hands, torsos and thighs. Peeking out from the man’s cap is a mango leaf, and the woman sports a headdress of sliced mangoes garnished with leaves.

One of Lieberman’s most humorous lines – in a book chock full of humor: “Their globular / limbs are composites / of elongated mango shapes. You are what you eat….”

Still, one senses that in addition to other things – purification, perhaps, or communion with nature – the mango rite has another strong component: sexual. In many cultures, the exotic fruit is revered for its varied medicinal properties. For example, mangoes are believed to act as a mild aphrodisiac and to be capable of curing female disorders.

In “Hour of the Mango Black Moon,” as in most of the collection, Lieberman has expressed his poems typographically; one finds, for example, orb-, hourglass- and
snake-shaped poems.

One critic has said: “Lieberman’s poems look and act like Marianne Moore’s syntactical precisions mated with Roethke’s nervous green world of passion. He has the grace to make his voyage into the eye of the world and back a communion for the reader.”

Lieberman has been writing poetry about the Caribbean since 1980. In 2001-2002, while a poetry professor at Illinois, he won a fellowship that allowed him to study a second discipline at the U. of I. He chose cultural anthropology.

Armed with the tools of the anthropologist, Lieberman began immersing himself in Caribbean art. He conducted long interviews with Greaves, Akyem and Ishi, borrowed their paintings or copies of them, interviewed curators, consumed the art criticism that pertained to these artists, and the relevant literature on Caribbean cultures and histories.

Finally, he engaged the aid of storytellers, oral historians and friends who would serve as guides, both literal and figurative, leading him to the wellspring.
“They are just wonderful teachers,” he said. “To me they contained the essence of their vibrant communities, and shared that vital lifeline with me.

“I was lifted out of my limits of heritage, and I was privileged to join the soul of this extended family of mentors. It is my great good luck and blessing.”

Lieberman said he tends to “privilege” the oral historians’ word over the sources that they sometimes challenge, but he makes every effort to get his facts right.

“I try to maintain a kind of journalistic integrity concerning the history.”

While Lieberman’s poetry of the Caribbean is not targeted for the tourist market, it could be, because it is intellectually and aesthetically persuasive.

In addition to plumbing the depths of these exotic and accepting cultures, Lieberman concedes he is searching for answers that are much closer to home.

“I guess that I’m partly trying to learn something about myself. My own personal identity is tied up in this.”

Lieberman explained that “every artist is constantly in search of his own private mythos. Defining that personal mythology is central to the adventure of one’s ongoing work.

“But I had no idea when I was first looking at these paintings that they would, as if by divine intervention or by accident, fate, what have you, suddenly become accessible to me as part of my ongoing mythology.”

As an example of this process, Lieberman described his first encounter with Greaves’ art – a close encounter as it turned out, since the figure was standing just inside the artist’s door in Bridgetown, Barbados, when Lieberman arrived to interview Greaves.

“I almost stumbled into it,” Lieberman said.

The sculpture, titled “Peas for Eldorado,” instantly captivated the poet, so he began firing questions about it to the artist, also a poet.

“And he started rattling off a litany of images that were in his vision of the lost city of Eldorado as he was making this sculpture, sharing with me the chain of associations that had informed his vision as he worked on it. And I was so taken with this revelation that I felt it became a part of me and then it branched out into my own associations, personal experiences of seeking the lost city of gold, so to speak.

“I often tell my students to let their writing be grounded in their own personal experience as much as possible, but to never feel that their experience should be limited necessarily to what has directly happened to them.

“I also talk to them about my experiences with oral historians and how often the stories that they tell me become so vivid for me that I feel as if I had experienced them directly – and indeed I have, by being touched by these people who act as a kind of conduit to me.”

Thus, like the mango-eaters, Lieberman has sustained himself on, and become one with, the cultures of the Caribbean, and they have become his muses.

“Some people believe that every artist becomes born a second time, has a second enlightening. I fell in love with the cultures of the Caribbean. They have been a leading passion in my life.”

Even so, writing poetry – even poetry about his favorite topics – is hard work.

“There are painful stretches where I feel lost and I’m not sure that the work I’ve been doing will come to anything, and then when I find the form of the poem – both the form on the page and indeed, the shape of the vision in my imagination – when it finally takes hold and I begin to see that, by golly, it looks like it’s going to work, there is no more fun in the world than that. It’s an absolutely thrilling moment.

“But there’s a lot of sheer agonizing drudgery and a lot of failing – and knowing you’re failing – along the way until you get to those places. Which is not to say that the process of failing in itself isn’t rewarding, because it is. The joy in the work is not just the finished product or getting to a place where you know it’s working.

“It’s the whole gamut of the adventure of finding the material, finding your focus, and taking the shaky steps toward a possible culmination.”

“Hour of the Mango Black Moon” is being distributed by Independent Publishers Group of Chicago. Lieberman’s “Carib’s Leap: New and Selected Poems” will be published in the fall by Peepal Tree Press.