Conventional Poetic Structures: Tradition in Gardening in the Tropics

In the poetry collection Gardening in the Tropics, Olive Senior instructs readers in the traditions of the Caribbean, like the traditional uses of Annatto and Guinep in her poem ‘Annatto and Guinep’ and the traditions of immigrants in her poem ‘Stowaway’, while abandoning the conventional poetic structures of meter and rhyme in most of her poems. She emphasises the importance of Caribbean traditions in order to teach readers and to highlight the effect a lack of tradition poses on the region today. However, in some of her poems in which she stresses the theme of tradition, there is evidence of these poetic structures, as seen in ‘Marassa: Divine Twins’ and ‘Meditation on Yellow’.

In the poem ‘Annatto and Guinep’, found in the section ‘Nature Studies’, Olive Senior teaches readers about the traditional uses of the plants, without the use of meter and rhyme. Senior starts the poem by saying that in today’s society, no one appreciates Annatto and Guinep like those before did. She lists the various ways they were used before in an attempt to teach readers the customary uses, ‘Country people one time used annatto/ to colour their food […] As for Guinep: that’s worse./ Only children confess they love it.’ She explains how those before cherished the two, and again, she lists the various ways they were used by the Arawaks. She urges readers to ‘give a thought’ to annatto and Guinep and to remember our ancestors before us as we use them. In the end, she references the traditional Taino story of the Sun and the Moon. Despite the lack of conventional poetic structures, Senior was still able to relay the importance of these traditions to the readers. These traditions highlight the effect colonialism and neo-colonialism has on the Caribbean today; we focus more on items from countries abroad, like apples instead of guinep, which makes us forget our roots.

Similarly, the lack of conventional poetic structures is also seen in her poem ‘Stowaway’, even as she highlights the traditions of immigrants. The poem details the travel of a stowaway as he ventures to a ‘promised land’. A stowaway usually faces dangerous situations as they are onboard the vessel illegally, and are constantly fearful of being caught. In the first line, the immigrant says, ‘There’s this much space between me and/ discovery,’ indicating he is close to being caught by a crewmate. This was a traditional way Caribbean people used to get to the United States. They would board vessels illegally, hide for days without food and water, and if they did not get caught during the journey, they would make it to the country. By highlighting this dangerous tradition, Olive Senior emphasises the colonial mindset and the effects neo-colonialism has on Caribbean people; they would rather brave perilous journeys to reach the United States than stay in their region. She does not use rhyme or meter, as these poetic structures would give the poem too much rhythm and minimise the seriousness of this tradition.

However, in some of her other poems, like ‘Meditation on Yellow’, as she explores Caribbean traditions, meter and rhyme are present. In this poem, the persona expresses the frustration and hardships she and her ancestors have always experienced because of foreigners. It is almost like a tradition of the Caribbean people to serve others and to be oppressed by foreigners. In the first part of the poem, she details the slavery and injustice the Indigenous people endured by using trochee meter, ‘But it was gold/ on your mind/ gold the light/ in your eyes/ gold the crown/ of the Queen of Spain…’ In the second part of the poem, she lists the ways Caribbean people serve foreigners by using anapest meter, ‘I’ve been slaving in the cane rows/ for your sugar/ I’ve been ripening coffee beans/ for your morning break…’ In the end, the persona finalises that the Caribbean people just wants a break from the constant slaving after foreigners by using rhyme, ‘…making me feel/ so mellow/ in that Caribbean yellow…’ By using meter to discuss the traditional injustices the people faced, the persona’s frustration was perfectly emphasised, while using rhyme brought a rhythmic feeling to the poem. Senior even alludes to a traditional Taino female deity Attabeira, ‘…our mother Attabeira.’ In the poem, she describes the tradition of slavery in colonial times and post-colonial times, with the use of conventional poetic structures, and notes the similarities to the readers to show that Caribbean people have always faced oppression.

Moreover, in her poem ‘Marassa: Divine Twins’, she tells readers of the African traditions while using conventional poetic structures. These African traditions have impacted the Caribbean culture and still do. Senior teaches readers about these traditions through their deities, one being the Haitian Marassa twins. The twins are identical and mirror images of each other, yet they are opposites that complete each other, and this is reflected in the poem. They speak as one in the poem, often confusing readers as they relate their life using the anapest meter, ‘I am day you are night/ You are left I am right…’ This stanza gives the poem rhythm and makes readers feel as though the twins are playful children. Rhyme is also seen in this stanza with the words ‘night’ and ‘right’, which adds to the rhythm. This poem, like the other poems in this section entitled ‘Mystery’, teaches readers about African traditions that are still present in the Caribbean. She describes these traditions in this poem by using the conventional poetic structures to create a rhythm that is often present in the African culture.

Although Senior strays from conventional poetic structures in most poems, she still conveys her teachings of Caribbean traditions in an effective manner. Senior said in an interview, ‘Poetry matters because it is a tool for helping us to discover who we are.’ These poems emphasised traditions in order to teach Caribbean people about their heritage; some poems in her collection even use conventional poetic structures to do so.

Motifs in Gardening in the Tropics

“I want my writing to present Caribbean people as real people, with dreams and hopes and fears and courage…” -Olive Senior. In the first section of her poetry collection, Olive Senior explores issues of migration and diaspora in an attempt to paint the Caribbean in a new light to the world. She thematically details the effects colonialism and post-colonialism has on the Caribbean in all of her poems in this section, and she unites them through one shared motif. The motif in ‘Traveller’s Tales’, therefore, is traveling, and this is seen in three of her poems: ‘Meditation on Yellow’, ‘Caribbean Basin Initiative’ and ‘Stowaway’.

In the first poem, ‘Meditation on Yellow’, the persona expresses the frustration and hardships she and her ancestors experience because of the traveling of foreigners. In the first part of the poem, she details the arrival of the European colonists, “At three in the afternoon/ you landed here at El Dorado…” With their arrival, they brought slavery and injustice to the Indigenous people, and the persona expresses how they felt, “Had I known I would have/ brewed you up some yellow fever-grass/ and arsenic…” The persona then goes on to explain, in the second part, the present day Caribbean, where nothing has seemed to have changed. In a Jamaican hotel, she explains that tourists travel to the Caribbean, where the locals have to serve them, just as their ancestors served foreigners, “…you can take tea/ at three in the afternoon/ served by me.” There are many phrases from the first part repeating in the second part, just as this phrase “three in the afternoon”. This repetition links the past injustices with the present-day slavery. She recalls that not only have colonists been traveling to the Caribbean, but so have slaves, “…but I’ve been traveling long/ cross the sea in the sun-hot…”, alluding to the Africans and Indians traveling by sea to become slaves in the Caribbean. She finalizes that the Caribbean people just wants a break from the slavery and the foreigners, “I want to feel mellow/ in that three o’clock yellow.” The traveling motif is therefore used in “Meditation on Yellow” to highlight the fact that the Caribbean people have always been oppressed and treated like slaves by foreigners traveling to the Caribbean. She describes slavery in colonial times and slavery in post-colonial times and notes the similarities to the readers, in order for them to understand and empathize with the Caribbean people.

In “Caribbean Basin Initiative”, the persona describes the rough journey Haitians often experienced when traveling by water to reach the United States. The poem is a play on words, as the Caribbean Basin Initiative was initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1982 as a way of stimulating the economy of the entire Caribbean, especially through increased trade with the USA. Haitians often traveled on rafts and boats in an attempt to migrate to the United States, and the persona recounts the dangerous route, “So many passengers/ we listed; so much/ drifted our numbers/ kept shrinking…” He explains how many of the travelers died in the waters, and those who didn’t die were found by the marines, “We were/ seeking the Gulf Stream:/ it is we who/ are found/ Reclaimed”. After they are captured by the marines, they are then sent to Guantanamo Bay and are forced to travel by sea again to Haiti, “They’re shipping me home”. In the end, he says that they will try to reach the United States again by traveling by boat on the water, “Like limpets we’ll cling/ on craft that ply/ in these waters/ where our dreams lie.” The traveling motif is dominant in this essay, as the Haitians would try over and over again to reach the United States. They would brave the perilous journey in an attempt to migrate to another country, where they thought their dreams would be fulfilled. Olive Senior attempted to highlight the effects of neo-colonialism in this poem; the Haitians would rather go on dangerous journeys to reach the United States than stay in the Caribbean. This makes readers reflect on their thoughts on neo-colonialism and their views on the western world.

Similarly, “Stowaway” details the experience of an immigrant who boards a ship without paying in order to go to the United States. Stowaways normally face dangerous situations; as they are not legally on board, they go days without water and food and are constantly fearful or being caught. In the first line, the stowaway says, “There’s this much space between me and/ discovery”, stating that he is close to being caught by the crew mate on the ship. This highlights the dangers immigrants go through just to reach “the promised land” of the United States, and it also emphasizes the colonialist mindset and the effects of neo-colonialism in a post-colonialist world. “Till then, I let my thoughts go. Dangerously – / I dive deeper into this/ fault, this/ undeclared passage.” This line in particular describes the torture the stowaway immigrants experience. They go insane, “I let my thoughts go”. Metaphorically, their thoughts are like divers of the sea; it spirals downwards and goes deep and the immigrants eventually lose themselves. The motif is used again to create empathy and to highlight the effects colonialism has on the Caribbean people presently; they brave perilous and deadly journeys en-route to what they perceive to be a better life in a foreign country.

Traveling is a motif in the poems of “Traveller’s Tales” that is used to explore the effects of colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism. Particularly in “Meditation on Yellow”, “Caribbean Basin Initiative” and “Stowaway”, Senior uses different personas to create empathy and to make readers understand the effects of colonialism on the Caribbean people better. According to Jordan Stroke, Senior effectively “…negotiates the complex exchanges between colonial, post-colonial and global and describes the contradictory impulses within current theory toward identities grounded in regional and historical particularities and toward identities that are forever deferred by movements of trains-national exchange.”