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U. of I. poet's new collection fetes islands' artists, musicians, shamans

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Laurence Lieberman
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Laurence Lieberman again beckons readers to explore the islands that have bewitched him for more than 40 years in “Carib’s Leap: Selected and New Poems of the Caribbean” (Peepal Tree Press).

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In his new volume of poetry, Laurence Lieberman again beckons readers to explore the islands that have bewitched him for more than 40 years.

“Carib’s Leap: Selected and New Poems of the Caribbean” (Peepal Tree Press) is the poet’s third retrospective homage to the Caribbean – from its sea floor to its mountain tops and eventually to its core, the people.

Lieberman, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1968, has published 14 collections of poetry and three volumes of literary essays. His poetry has appeared in every major venue for poetry in America, and since 1971, he has served as the poetry editor of the University of Illinois Press.

His love affair with the Caribbean began in the 1960s when he was hired to create the English department at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas. Since his first stay there (1964-1968), he has visited each of the islands that produced and nurtured his UVI students, and written about his adopted world – so far literally and metaphysically from his youth in Detroit.

Organized geographically, the poems in the new collection sail from island to island, finally mooring on tiny Carriacou, north of Grenada, where Lieberman celebrates with 10 new poems the isles’ musicians, dancers and artists, philosophers, historians and shamans.

On Carriacou live masters of the “big drums,” Winston Fleury and Sugar Adams, whom folk music scholar Alan Lomax field-recorded in 1962, and legendary dancers Matilda and Aunt Collie – just a few of the larger-than-life characters who have shared their days and nights, food and drink, stories and personal mythologies with Lieberman, who well into his tenure at Illinois, felt compelled to study a second discipline, anthropology. He has been fusing the two fields ever since.

“Carib’s Leap” – published in England in December and now available in the United States – begins with an exploration of the mythos of the waters surrounding the islands of the Caribbean and ends with the mythos of the drum and its equally magical, indeed transformative, powers. “That one drum / beat ruled their lives, it fed their nation / faith & they thrived / on the music riffs …” and “All / diverse or opposed views were – in Carriacou – / fused in the one / note, that single drum beat, a twin of the human heart / beat – that miniature / of the Voice of God in You … , “ Lieberman wrote in “Song for the Stone Face,” the first poem in the Carriacou sequence.

Dreams also beat in the heads of the Carriacou Islanders, directing them to acts both persuasive and profound, and disability insists and persists in this world and these poems.

In “A Hemiplegic’s Romance,” a series of strokes ended Adams’ drum mastery, but a forgotten drum, long buried in a forest shack and resurrected by Fleury, magically pulled the drummer out of his paralysis, if only temporarily.

In the poem, Adams is visited by a “surprise breakout” of restored ability on the goatskins, suddenly able to work his “full range of pyrotechnics …” The drum’s power also moves Adams’ former dance partner, Matilda, now stroke-afflicted and confined to a wheelchair. From a distance, she hears “Sugar walloping / de drums,” and orders her granddaughter to “Quick, wheel me to him.”

Then, “Popping / from her chair, she spun into her best dance pirouettes, / soon rollicking at Sugar’s side like a nymphet / of sixteen…. Following his last drum thumps, they would both droop / into torpor, lame again.”

Death, too, is a frequent visitor in this collection.

The title poem, “Carib’s Leap” weaves two contemporary death stories with the legendary mass suicide in 1651 of some 40 Carib Indians, who jumped off “Leapers Hill” and gored themselves “on the horned rock pinnacles / below” in Sauters Bay, rather than accept domination by foreign pursuers.

In the poem, while visiting the town cemetery high above the bay, Lieberman and a local man, Pali Wali, volunteer the stories of their mothers’ recent deaths. Their personal narratives alternate with the story of the mass suicide. The men hear a gull’s cry: “… the prolonged shrieks / may be Caribs adrift on the wind updrafts, or perhaps / they may be our two mothers, in chorus, / quavering it’s allright we, too, are at peace spared life’s / last terrible / nonsense here we are O we do continue / just as you last remember / us only sons / our beauty intact you know / how it grew ever stronger in Age peaked ….”

Lieberman described “Carib’s Leap” as a “profoundly important poem” to him, dealing, as it does, with his coming to grips with his mother’s death. However, the poem’s birth was unlike anything he had ever attempted – unmanageable, contrary and obstinate.

In fact, “how tricky and how difficult and how strange it was to write that poem because it was not behaving right at all. It was doing all the wrong things,” Lieberman said. “But it was so important to me that I had to keep pushing along even though I knew it was not going to work.”

It was as if he was writing two different poems, he said.

“It felt as though they should remain separate, but they kept insisting on intercepting each other, crisscrossing, and I didn’t know why.”

At some point, he made a discovery: “whatever it was that I was struggling to do in the poem, or trying to find, couldn’t happen, because the poem ended before I got there. Luckily, I decided to let the poem decide for itself where it wanted to go and where it wanted to end, instead of pushing it with my will toward the goal I had originally set for it. It was as if the images in the poem finally created the meaning that I couldn’t find in an intellectual way.”

In addition to starring in this volume, “Carib’s Leap” also is included in the just-published “The Hopwood Awards: 75 Year of Prized Writing,” an anthology of work by former Hopwood Award-winning students at the University of Michigan. The poem also will appear in a second anthology – “Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad” – to be published by the new Ninebark Press early next year.

The South Carolina Review recently featured Lieberman’s long new poem, “The Illimitable Line: Lessons of the Wax Pen.” In the same issue, James Ballowe celebrates Lieberman in the opening essay, “The Reinventions of Laurence Lieberman.”

Lieberman continues to write poetry because he’s “in love with the process,” he said. His work as an artist, he conceded, “is a search for my soul.”

“I think that any artist becomes committed to discovering his or her mythology, and often I have felt like I’m cheating a little bit because I’m trespassing on the mythology, if you will, of cultures that are not mine – the cultures of various Caribbean nations that I’ve been visiting one after another. And yet, in some secret indefensible way, I feel that I’m connecting with my compatriots in spirit.”

Lieberman said he will continue writing about aspects of the Caribbean. He is working on a series of poems based on his many conversations about myths and legends with former chiefs at the Carib Indian Reserve on Dominica.

The poet also will continue sharing his work with “the audience I feel is with me.”

“I think most of us who have been artists for a while have a handful of people out there, very few maybe, who we feel have been following us every inch of the way, so to speak, and will know if we’re still taking risks.

“We want to always be finding new thresholds, challenging ourselves to go beyond where we’ve been, so that we’re not just falling into a lackadaisical self-imitation.”