Book Review: The Merchant of Feathers by Tanya Shirley

The Merchant of Feathers (Peepal Tree Press: UK, 2014) is the second collection of Jamaican poet Tanya Shirley, a young and infectious writer whose bubbly sense of humor brightens her presence and governs her verse. Split into three roughly equal sections, the collection leads readers in a journey, both individual and collective, that begins with shame and its various sources, explores self-consciousness and acceptance, and ends with praise and vindication. This makes The Merchant of Feathers sound like a ponderous book that deals with grand concepts, which at some level it does, but Shirley’s greatest accomplishment consists in her ability to rein in all form of abstraction, choosing instead to illustrate her points with concrete situations to which the casual reader can easily relate.


Shirley’s particular experience of shame starts—like so very often—with a neglecting and excessively severe father figure, with early childhood dreams shattered by the weight of reality, of social predetermination or even of her own DNA. The narrator of the early poems in “The Alphabet of Shame,” the collection’s opening section, adopts an intimate first-person voice, resentfully addressing her unsympathetic father, recalling the trauma of outgrowing her ballet-sized aspirations, rediscovering in the spaces of her childhood the traces of (post)colonialism and revisiting the process whereby so much accumulated anxiety was ultimately redirected against those around her.


Tanya Shirley. Photo: Peepal Tree Press.

The natural progression from here is, quite clearly, violence—and fittingly for a Jamaican collection, it makes its entrance into this book forcibly, threateningly, agonizingly. Like the chorus in a Greek play, a little impersonal ditty ironically titled “Sweet Sweet Jamaica” tells how “We cannot find our little girls / We cannot find our little boys / We search all day / We search all night” but “When we find them it is always too late.” Which translates in the vernacular as “The People Are Deading,” the title of the next poem in the sequence. This in turn gives rise to the urge to escape—to emigrate—to the first encounters with calamity, to the discovery of shame on others, of collective shame.


Throughout this journey Shirley’s verse is surprisingly transparent, almost a see-through conduit to convey a message, not quite prosaic but in some sense subordinate to the story told, too plain, or perhaps—one gets the feeling—too pained. But as the individual expressions of guilt and failure in herself and others become mirrored in the collective shortcomings of an unequal and palpably flawed society the process of redemption starts gestating within “The Alphabet of Shame,” within the very body of the narrator, in the shape of lust and sexual pleasure.


It is this transition which adds both spice and candor to the Merchant of Feathers, especially through the second section of the collection, “Standing Outside the Circle.” Simultaneously poignant, graphic and unapologetically humorous, the central portion of the book maps the narrator’s coming to terms with her own otherness as she becomes progressively more comfortable in her own skin, more aware of a similar sense of disenfranchisement in people around her.


As Shirley puts forward a catalog of those who keep her company in the peripheries of normality the reader is almost forced to wonder who exactly belongs inside the circle. The most obvious answer corresponds to the image that gives place to the metaphor, as a circle of women mourn her dead granny during her wake with an ostentatious, dramatic, even hypocritical display—a display that alienates the narrator and gives a positive spin on her condition as an outsider. By the same token in “Montego Bay” the narrator engages in a ritual of seduction with a man who is momentarily entranced but who will not stay, anchored—oppressed, one is almost tempted to write—as he is by the obligations of ordinary life: “a wife / to return to, school fees to be paid, the high light / bill, a roof in need of repair, an ailing father, the overgrown lawn, church on Sunday.” And yet, the feeling of out-of-placeness in this collection is not reserved only to those who toe the line. Instead, a hierarchy of otherness is established around the narrator’s level of comfort in the presence of strangers, some of which, such as the “hungry men” from “Poetry at an Overseas Prison,” are even a little too far removed from the ordinary.


Along with her particular social ladder, Shirley builds an emotionally charged account of the journey of a young woman unwilling to conform. This is where she clearly is most at home, where she allows her best poetry to flourish, where form and content are fully at one. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Away From Home”, the collection’s most accomplished poem by some distance, in which the adventurous rhythm serves to break the ponderous tone of the opening lines, allowing the more banal elements of intercourse to filter into the scene and to flip the mood on its head.


More amusing diary than instructive road map, The Merchant of Feathers repeatedly explores moments of fragility, insecurity and sexual exultation in a series of episodes that, a bit like life itself, seem to lead in no concrete direction. But lead they do, both conceptually and physically, through the pages, as it were, onto the final section of the book, “Let This Be Your Praise”—praise that is deed, deed that is a life, and a lifestyle that is carefully—if certainly not exhaustively—chronicled in a book that, to come full circle, is clearly praise. For Shirley turns out to be a deeply spiritual, if perhaps not conventionally religious, writer who finds in love, kindness and generosity traces of the divinity in everyday life. Thus, over the final few pages of her collection she acknowledges, among others, the man who tends to his granny’s tomb (and apologizes to her mad neighbor for not acknowledging him) in a display that is meant to be praise for that specific individual, to be sure, but that is also meant to emphasize the harmony of the whole.


Continuously meandering in and out of intimate anecdotes, The Merchant of Feathers makes up in personal insight what it lacks in coherence. Ironically this works in favor of the general postulate of the book, summarized in the poem that gives the final section its name: “and what is praise but the offering up of one’s self, / the daily rituals […] And if that is not praise, this simple act of living, if this is not / enough, then let us lie here and do nothing and see / What God has to say about that.”





Published in the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday May 14, 2016.

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