Prov­i­den­tial by Colin Chan­ner

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - Re­viewed by Bran­den Boyn­ton

In his de­but col­lec­tion of po­etry, Colin Chan­ner de­tails the Ja­maican Con­sta­ble, ex­plor­ing the his­tory, the power im­bal­ance, and the vi­o­lence of his na­tive is­land’s po­lice force. But Prov­i­den­tial is more than just an ex­am­i­na­tion of crooked cops; it’s a story of his­tory and class; a ques­tion of fam­ily and fa­ther­hood; the mem­ory of the clans we are born into; what it means to choose to stay or leave.

The ma­jor­ity of Chan­ner’s book deals with the his­tory and na­ture of the Ja­maican po­lice force. The open­ing poem, “Revo­lu­tion­ary to Rass”, lays out the sim­ple truth: “We don’t have po­lice here – we have rangers./Em­ployed by the land­ful against the land­less./ Paid to shoot to kill.”

Al­though the po­ems skip through­out time to flesh out the char­ac­ter of the con­sta­ble (“First Re­cruits” tells of the cre­ation of the colo­nial po­lice force dur­ing the Mo­rant Bay Re­bel­lion of 1865; “Civil Ser­vice” cov­ers his grand­fa­ther’s join­ing the force in the 1930s; “Oc­cu­pa­tion” re­lates the rise of Reg­gae and re­ac­tion against it in the 1960s), what re­mains con­stant through­out is the bru­tal­ity of the Ja­maican po­lice­man. Vi­o­lence is ev­ery­where in the po­ems, from bul­lets that tear flesh “like crepe pa­per,/bones like bam­boo frame” to the boy left “bro­ken on the hot pi­azza/khaki shirt and pants glassy/from the starch pressed in at home.”

The cul­mi­na­tion of this idea is ex­pressed in the poem “Ten­ta­tive Def­i­ni­tions” - short stan­zas writ­ten in a Ja­maican pa­tois tell us about killing (“Is nei­ther a art/nor a sci­ence, is a job.”), law (“Say it loud: ‘Laaaaa.’/The sound tell you/say it slack and stretchy./Hear the punch in ‘Shot.’/Clean.”), and death (“From you join/the force is on your marks./You must be set to go.”)

The vi­o­lent, bru­tal Ja­maican cop is nei­ther cor­rupt nor out of the nor­mal; this op­pres­sion and ruth­less­ness is com­pletely nor­mal place, it’s part of the job de­scrip­tion. But Chan­ner’s col­lec­tion isn’t just about the Ja­maican po­lice­man. Though the book is filled with mov­ing and haunt­ing po­ems about th­ese men, some told in their own voices, it is also dot­ted with pieces look­ing at Chan­ner’s own father: his days on and af­ter the force, how it af­fected his fam­ily, the in­her­i­tance of dis­tance and vi­o­lence left to Chan­ner, and what ex­actly fa­ther­hood means.

Per­haps the most af­fect­ing po­ems in the col­lec­tion are not those fo­cus­ing on the po­lice force, or on Chan­ner’s father, but on Chan­ner as a father him­self.

The book has sev­eral longer form pieces that peak up from the cho­rus of vi­o­lence much like Ja­maica push­ing out of the sea it­self. Largely, th­ese po­ems deal with Chan­ner look­ing back at his child­hood from his new home of New Eng­land, and won­der­ing how to raise his own son with an aware­ness while be­ing so re­moved from such an en­vi­ron­ment. There is an at­tempt to bridge the gap of his own lost father by be­ing a bet­ter one for his own son, ev­i­dent in the stan­zas of the col­lec­tion’s penul­ti­mate poem, “Know­ing We’ll Be Mostly Wrong”: “It’s the last day of the term. I am up be­fore him as al­ways,/ and not be­cause I am good,/ but be­cause he needs di­rec­tion, watch­ing,/coach­ing step by step into the sweet how/of sim­ple things, like get­ting up and get­ting dressed,/keep­ing track of time, check­ing off re­minders – /the small bits of habit that if mul­ti­plied/can bring him bounty.”

The poem sets up con­trasts be­tween Chan­ner, his son and his father, show­ing us the re­la­tion­ship be­tween two sets of fa­thers and sons, and the dif­fer­ences be­tween both a grand­fa­ther and grand­son that never met and the worlds that shape them. Ul­ti­mately, there’s not as much dif­fer­ence as one might think; par­ent­hood is es­sen­tially law en­force­ment: set­ting guides, try­ing to pro­tect and serve, hop­ing to steer those un­der our guid­ance to make the right choices, walk steadily. It’s a dif­fi­cult, of­ten los­ing propo­si­tion, as Chan­ner writes, “We be­gin to fail the se­cond we in­vest in the speck/ that makes the chil­dren. We do right,/know­ing we’ll be mostly wrong.”

Now avail­able at The BookYard, Mas­sade, Gros Islet.

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