Tanya Shirley is a startlingly bold writer with a particular gift for highlighting the telling detail in her vivid and arresting poems, which variously contain portraits of lovers, colourful eccentrics and family snapshots that capture the elusive magic of childhood memories, and reveal those paradoxical truths which all families strive to conceal. Born in Jamaica, this talented young scholar-poet graduated from the University of the West Indies, Mona, where she now teaches between time spent elsewhere in the Caribbean and the United States. She was awarded an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland and has published work in journals like Small Axe, The Caribbean Writer, and in New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology (ed. Kei Miller) and So Much Things to Say: 100 Calabash Poets. She is a Cave Canem fellow and has participated in Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops and, more recently, read and taught at ‘Narrating the Caribbean Nation’, a conference-cum-festival held in the UK to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Peepal Tree Press. Her debut collection, She Who Sleeps With Bones, was a Jamaican bestseller in 2009, which reflects both the popular appeal and literary merit attached to these unusually frank and often highly personal poems.
Some themes in her work are less obviously shared with those of an earlier generation of predominantly male Caribbean poets, though the incantatory word list in ‘A Chant against Fear’, and the folkloric richness of the local fruit in ‘Guinep’ are familiar enough to readers of West Indian poetry. It is, of course, her very idiosyncratic female poetic voice which freights many of these poems with a hot and sexy eroticism which is at once intensely private and more expansive, as we embrace some mysterious general truths about identity and desire in the lusty adventures and phallocentric musings of Shirley’s several distinctive personae. She writes ‘rude’ and ‘rootsy’ poems with the same attention to craft and truthfulness apparent in other poems of intimacy which articulate deeply felt responses to family loyalties, love and loss. Indeed, Shirley understands precisely the need for as full and complex an emotional life beyond the family as within it. She knows about spiritual and physical love, along with the passing pleasure of casual sex, and has no time for the shallow moral niceties which treat the subject like luscious forbidden fruit, somehow known about but steadfastly denied. Moreover, her fecund imagination saves her bawdy erotic figurativeness from vulgarity, and simply plunges us in the often beautiful world of the flesh, though rarely of the devil. Perhaps the perceived sarcasm in her view of the Bible, the original Good Book’, as “really just a good book of poetry”, suggests her notions of heaven and hell are aesthetic ideas which lie in the joy and pain of present life, and not in an afterlife. She is a quiet revolutionary unfettered by considerations of dreary good taste, and writes about female sexuality with wholesome directness and deceptively careless abandon, characteristics more usually found in male Caribbean poets and their musings on priapic conquests.
Elsewhere she focuses on the eccentric or self-obsessed, crazy or God-obsessed, who perform the sacred ceremonies in life – whether of food, hygiene or religion – with utter dedication, like comical Miss Gloria at customs, returning to an unwelcome American exile with forbidden fare, or long-suffering Melba, the prayerful Clarendon woman. Even Shirley’s dead great-grandmother is ceremoniously rearranged like a living old doll with Bible in hand, seemingly quite ready to be spoken to, before the “self-appointed professional mourner” can start her howling, doubtless in the hope that the old lady might hear. But the poet herself appears most radiant in her secular devotions to God, “humming/ Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, acknowledging that navigating the contingent, the quotidian, through the “simple act of living” is praise enough.
There is a tincture of Caribbean prehistory in Shirley’s occasional forays into historicity: mentions of slave branding; painstakingly detailed instructions for rituals, curses and spells; the figure of the dream-thief; the doomed wretchedness of living with prophetic insight; the conundrum of being blessed or burdened with clairvoyant wisdom. These are recurrent themes in the poetic response to the Diaspora and the struggle to recover or reinvent identity and a sense of belonging. On a personal note she is particularly good at a very specific kind of un-belonging in 'Sunday Ritual', a confessional poem which touchingly describes her homesickness at college in America:
Just for remembrance, I talk patwa to the furniture.
This subtle psychological self-portrait is both affecting and memorable for its wider resonance, as are the several pen-portraits of the poet’s family. Those of her grandparents are fine poems, but that of her sister in The Distance Between Us is especially haunting. It is as if the oral history of an entire people resides in the quiet and unquiet lives of ordinary people, whose very existence traces the feint outline of some half-remembered time, some earlier romance and coupling, some other person’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams.
Tanya Shirley is a poet with an urgent need to tell stories, to preserve them and share them, and in doing so perhaps help to shore up and preserve a wider shared identity. She has honed her craft with intent, like any good writer who reads other writers and teaches literature, but she has also dug deep into her emotional life and brought rare trophies back, “like a pirate’s treasure”. She is an unusually perceptive poet of youth and age, of passion and resignation, and can write with a lover’s ardour and a granddaughter’s unqualified love. In the unsentimental clarity of her reading we can hear the strangely hypnotic cadences of someone who has “lived in broken places” yet survived to tell the tale.
Her recording was made for the Poetry Archive in The University of the West Indies, Radio Education Unit, (Kingston, Jamaica) in 2011.