reviewed by Charles Whalley
As introduced in a generous ‘Author’s Note’, the poems in The Groodoyals of Terre Rouge came from the poet’s visit to a friend’s family in Port Louis, Mauritius. The pamphlet is otherwise filled with bright photographs, paintings and collages inspired by the same trip, almost to the point of bursting. The same persons – their names and relationships given in a glossary – and same locations reappear throughout, giving the pamphlet a sense of unity and immersion. And the location is certainly exotic, with Mauritius’ colonial and linguistic history giving rich ground for some interesting poems.
The pamphlet has a playful wildness; take, for instance, the first lines from ‘Belle Mare’:
Beware bare feet in the war of pine nuts. Who aims better, who hits harder? Yu and I pick between coral and starfish. A fisherman strides over clear pools on tall basalt, bringing his prisoner, a spike-ball alien who calls for his starship, mouth mouthing my palm.
The wittiness in the image of the fish as a lost alien, or in “Yu and I” or “mouth mouthing”, is indicative of much of Cowan Montague’s style. This playfulness also often comes with a tone of naivety or artlessness which marks the pamphlet’s strongest lines. The closing lines of ‘Log’ are one example:
The minibus company has grown into a major service with seven buses and four charioteers. Dev and Jay do not drink; not Red Label, not sweet Johnnie Walker. But sometimes they do on Bank Holiday because then NOBODY wants to drive.
A similar example is in ‘Repossession’:
A marlin thrashes a lizard’s head hard on a rock. How that poor rubber man swings high and low. He is smashed!
Mauritius and its inhabitants are often presented as if the speaker couldn’t wait to find a ‘poetic’ or consistent way to tell you about them. It is infectious and colourful, and the poems are frequently very entertaining.
It is rare to find a pamphlet with so much colour and variety
Unfortunately, this wildness can sometimes go astray, as some poems are flung into obscurity almost as if out of impatience, like a child dropping a toy. ‘Texting Durga’, for instance, goes along with its toes in nonsense, with lines like “The beach sizzles in cider”, before ending on:
Will they drop their Nokias in wavelets of goddess piss?
It feels like the speaker got bored with where the poem was headed, or in even finding a direction for it to head, and so decided to kick it over instead. A similar thing happens in ‘Mystic Masala’, where an otherwise pedestrian poem about drawing a woman is bookended in the first and last lines by “a dark horse parade” and dodos, whose presence has apparently nothing to do with the rest. The exotic is heady and can sometimes distract a poet into pursuing exoticness on its own, mistaking obscurity for excitement. That said, we would certainly rather Jude Cowan Montague erred on the side of wildness rather than restraint.
In The Groodoyals of Terre Rouge, words taken from other languages – I think they are all from Bhojpuri – are found in many of the poems, and all glossed in the back. These are effectively (and necessarily) one-for-one counters; in ‘Pooja’, the reader won’t get much from “I swirl my dupatta” other than, as the Glossary will tell her, dupatta = scarf. It becomes dangerously close to thesaurus poetry, where ‘conflagration’ will be used for ‘fire’ for no other reason than it looking fancy. It is telling that one of the foreign-sounding words is, in fact, glossed as “I made this word up”; it is only the outward strangeness of the foreign words that is required. Even so, there is no reason why the use of exotic words is necessarily bad, although it perhaps becomes a question of frequency. In ‘Pooja’, the whole stanza runs:
I glue my bindi and oil my thin arms, I swirl my dupatta. Kangan jangling, my heart beats louder. Here in the house of my family I’m nearly ready, I’m nearly ready.
The high number of foreign words means these lines are flat despite their lexical freshness; we have to be told in the Glossary that the bindi is an “adornment with deep significance”[my emphasis], and we will have to take it at its word. All the foreign words make it hard for the poem to develop much mass.
There is a broader question in the use of the exotic. On the one hand, the unfamiliarity of the exotic brings the poet back into a relationship with the world such as that of a child (or a Martian), with new places, animals, words, experiences, taking the “glory and the freshness of a dream”. It is easy to see how a poet will find foreign places so inspirational, in the ready-made ostranenie of Mauritius. On the other hand, there is the objection of tourism, of reducing the lived experience of others to decoration whilst simultaneously retreating from the social and political realities of one’s own life, of using the exotic as a fabulous “escape from our carefully constructed selves”, as Adrienne Rich writes in her essay ‘Tourism and Promised Lands’. But I think the trouble with any political objection to poetic tourism on these terms is that suggesting someone is expropriating things from another culture, picking out elements without respecting their otherness, sneaks in the assumption that there is such a thing as an authentic expression, which is an assumption I don’t think stands up to much thought. The bindi, dupatta and kangan are always adornments, regardless of who is putting them on. (Perhaps the only justifiable objection is that poetic tourism exposes these adornments for what they are.) Cowan Montague’s strongest lines suggest naivety or artlessness because this best conveys the strangeness of the exotic, as to describe a lizard as a “small rubber man” or a fish as a “spike ball alien” is to express the poet’s position as “being unfamiliar/with the local flora and fauna”(‘Caterpillars (Baie du Tombeau)’), which is ultimately everyone’s position before the world.
The Groodoyals of Terre Rouge is a rich, patchy collection of poems, but open with its failings and exceedingly generous. It is rare to find a pamphlet with so much colour and variety. I suppose the test of Jude Cowan Montague would be whether she can write like a tourist when at home.