If you have followed the Caribbean literary scene recently you will probably have come across Vladimir Lucien, either in print or in person. Young, brash, outspoken and unapologetic, he’s brought a considerable dose of fresh air—a heavy gust rather than a gentle breeze—into the intimate and at times complacent circle of tropical literati. Around Lucien even the most elementary rules of behavior, the most self-evident instances of conventional judgment, seem to be there for the sole purpose of being questioned, or even challenged. But if he has chosen to play the role of goad, he has only been afforded that luxury on the back of his impressive (and impressively successful) debut collection of poems, Sounding Ground (2014).
Published by—who else?—Peepal Tree Press and winner of the 2015 Bocas Prize for Poetry, Sounding Ground is a thoughtful, evolving and neatly balanced collection that travels—on its own, regardless of whether or not the reader wants to embark on the journey—from an introspective world of recollection to a critical (but not yet extrovert) observation of the problematic world outside. Even before that, though, this is a book that pays tribute to the setup that enabled Lucien to produce it, an affectionate gesture by a budding author to those before and around him—from the first-page acknowledgement to the epigraph by C.L.R. James and the dedication to his father, his mother, ‘Kita, Zion and John Robert Lee—who made not only this specific work possible but who actually turned Vladimir into Vladimir.
Split into two sections, Sounding Ground begins with the deliberately impressionistic “Interior” part, which in turn opens with one of the best poems in the collection, “Sambo I”, the portrait of a man, presumably Lucien’s grandfather, to whom it is dedicated, which in its choice of words conveys more about the speaker’s feelings toward Sambo than about Sambo himself. Throughout the “Interior” section of Sounding Ground Lucien continues to paint a fragmented but coherent picture of a narrator we can safely equate with the author. The people and things singled out at this stage gain prominence because of the mark they have left on the poet, the tale of his great great grandfather from Antigua, the wisdom of his grandmother, married to “a man’s man,” the aroma of bush tea, that “simple kind of obeah”, the liberating flavor of Ital food, which “does not taste of death,” the tales of school-day encounters with the principal, the fascination with tjembwa, the vernacular in St. Lucia’s French patois for obeah.
Indeed, Lucien’s recurrent use of informal constructions and local lingo, both featured with sufficient restraint not to alienate the foreign reader, are central to the collection’s objective and play a pivotal role in grounding it deeply within its Caribbean context. Peepal Tree Press, a British publisher, has appended a brief glossary of terms at the end of the book, a two-page guide for the uninitiated reader, but this proves to be little more than a formality as Lucien’s sensitive style shines through even without reading the explanatory notes. More telling are the epigraphs Lucien chooses to add to roughly every other poem in the first section of Sounding Ground, mostly dedicating them to someone close to him (either literally or metaphorically) or drawing inspiration from previous authors, most notably Aimé Césaire, whose Tragedy of King Christophe provides a piercing setup to “The World of Flat Things” by alluding to “the pain of a man who doesn’t know by what name he is to be called, what his name links him to.”
“Interior” takes up approximately two thirds of Sounding Ground, while the final third is gathered under the subsection “Coast”. The tone of the poems comprised in “Interior” differs drastically to that evidenced in “Coast”, where, to begin with, hardly any poem is preceded by an epigraph: at this stage Lucien is no longer writing for others, he is now writing for himself. Consequently, there is an urgency in the final section of Sounding Ground that cannot be felt in its opening pages, a sense of dissatisfaction, of indignation even, that is inevitably reflected in the evolving rhythm of the poems. From “the impossible / huts of squatter settlements / where children become / the negative elements” in “Mi Jean” to the heartfelt lines of “For Jorel” which maps the anxious wait of a mother for her young Jorel, who should be scolded “because dying was an adult thing / to do”, Lucien becomes bolder in his delivery.
As he steps out of the comfort zone of his own mask, Lucien falls, perhaps inevitably, into the occasional spell of juvenile angst, writing home in “Reduit Beach”, for instance, to share his frustration with the system (which mirrors his father’s own awakening from its deceptions in “A Picture”). But there is room in Sounding Ground for this and other indiscretions because rather than a static product this is a dynamic piece of work. Indeed, as you go through the pages, through the poems in the book, you can almost hear, quite literally, Vladimir growing, his poetry maturing. Nowhere is this more palpable than in the final tandem of poems that close the collection, “Ebb I” and “Ebb II”, in which Lucien’s discomfort with the establishment, the social arrangement of St. Lucia, translates into a form of “dread” he cannot shed, the kind of troubled consciousness that likely feeds his confrontational character and that hopefully will drive him to craft his next collection.
Over the past two years Lucien has quickly and controversially built a reputation as a twenty-first century agitator, with trademark Facebook rants and impudent blog posts. This too, in all likelihood, is part of the process of maturing that so beautifully flourishes in Sounding Ground. Appearances to the contrary (perhaps) I do feel there is value in antagonism, although more often than not I would personally opt for temperance. But if antagonism is the fuel that sets in motion the engine of Lucien’s creativity, then I will happily take his jibe in stride in lieu of more of his poems.
Published in the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday February 20 2016.