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Poetry Archive: Tanya Shirley Reading from her Poems

Tanya Shirley

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The Poetry Archive

December 2012


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1 What I Learned in Grenada 1.16
2 To The Man Who Tends My Grandmother's Grave 1.53
3 Let This Be Your Praise 1.30
4 Montego Bay 1.40
5 Standing Outside the Circle 2.22
6 Dining at Customs 2.56
7 Immaculate 1.17
8 A Chant Against Fear 1.22
9 Breathing Art 2.06
10 Where is God in All of This? 2.05
11 Negotiation 2.02
12 The Distance between Us 2.07
13 Out of Body 1.02
14 Upon Meeting a Woman by the Name of Melba 2.11
15 My Christian Friend 1.27
16 Inheritance 1.57
17 A West Indian Poem 1.00
18 Roll Call 1.16
19 Grandpa in the Departure Lounge 1.57
20 Colour Me Dis, Colour Me Dat 1.21
21 Journey 1.03
22 The Power of Prayer 0.23
23 Some Lessons You Never Learn 0.46
24 Waiting for Rain 2.24
25 Guinep 1.06
26 Victorian Romance 0.55
27 Sunday Ritual 2.04
28 The Shifting Ground 1.32
29 Matie Shall not Conqueur 1.49
30 A Long Story 1.35


Total length of the recording 43.37


Tanya Shirley is a startlingly bold writer with a particular gift for highlighting the telling detail in her vivid and arresting poems, which variously contain portraits of lovers, colourful eccentrics and family snapshots that capture the elusive magic of childhood memories. Born in Jamaica, she graduated from the University of the West Indies, Mona, where she now teaches between time spent in Europe and the United States. Her debut collection, She Who Sleeps With Bones, was a Jamaican bestseller in 2009.

Her idiosyncratic female poetic voice freights many of these poems with a hot and sexy eroticism which is at once intensely private and more expansive, as we embrace some mysterious general truths about identity and desire. She writes ‘rude' and ‘rootsy' poems with the same attention to craft and truthfulness apparent in other poems of intimacy which articulate deeply felt responses to family loyalties, love and loss. She knows about spiritual and physical love and has no time for the shallow moral niceties which treat the subject like luscious forbidden fruit, somehow known about but steadfastly denied. She is a quiet revolutionary unfettered by considerations of dreary good taste, and writes about sexuality with wholesome directness and deceptively careless abandon, characteristics more usually found in male Caribbean poets.

Elsewhere she focuses on the eccentric or self-obsessed, crazy or God-obsessed, who perform the sacred ceremonies in life - whether of food, hygiene or religion - with utter dedication, like comical Miss Gloria at customs, returning to an unwelcome American exile with forbidden fare, or long-suffering Melba, the prayerful Clarendon woman. Even Shirley's dead grandmother is ceremoniously rearranged like a living old doll with Bible in hand, seemingly quite ready to be spoken to, before the "self-appointed professional mourner" can start her howling, doubtless in the hope that the old lady might hear. But the poet herself appears most radiant in her secular devotions to God, "humming/ Marley's "Three Little Birds", acknowledging that navigating the contingent, the quotidian, through the "simple act of living" is praise enough.

There is a tincture of Caribbean prehistory in Shirley's occasional forays into historicity: mentions of slave branding; detailed instructions for curses and spells; the conundrum of being blessed or burdened with clairvoyant wisdom. These are recurrent themes in her poetic response to the Diaspora and the struggle to recover or reinvent identity and a sense of belonging. On a personal note she is particularly good at a very specific kind of un-belonging in ‘Sunday Ritual', a confessional poem which touchingly describes her homesickness at college in America:

Just for remembrance, I talk patwa to the furniture.

Tanya Shirley is a poet with an urgent need to tell stories and in doing so help to shore up and preserve a wider shared identity. She has also dug deep into her emotional life and brought rare trophies back, "like a pirate's treasure". In the unsentimental clarity of her reading we can hear the strangely hypnotic cadences of someone who has "lived in broken places" yet survived to tell the tale.

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