A Legacy: The Sea and Verna Penn Moll

The business of excavating the history of these islands of the northeast Caribbean is a funny thing. Firstly, there is a paucity of texts that deal with the history of the British Virgin Islands. The most popularly known and read publications are perhaps Vernon Pickering’s A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands (1987) and the books and pamphlets published by Norwell Harrigan and Pear Varlack in the 1970s and 1980s. Isaac Dookhan did much important work on both the American and British Virgin Islands in the 1970s as well, yet many of these texts have fallen out of print and are very difficult for the average person in the BVI to put their hands on. Given this dearth of widely available historical texts, and many other disparate reasons, much of our history continues to subsist in local legend and oral tradition. It is telling then, that when perusing academic documents in pursuit of my doctoral degree, much of what I found had been written by non-locals whose work had access to university and publishing networks.

As with the rest of this region of the world, discussions about history invariably lead us to the sea. It floods our eyes when we think of the large and painful waves of migration to this region throughout history – namely the voyages of Columbus, the Middle Passage, the period of East Indian indentureship, arguably concluding with the turning of the tide with the Windrush generation following the second World War. As Brathwaite wrote in ‘The Cracked Mother’:

And why do the waves come here
riding from allotted lands

M NourbeSe Philip and Zong!
M NourbeSe Philip and Zong!

It is difficult at times to think of the torturous path through which bodies were brought to the new world, and much poetry has been written attempting to write through those wounds and memories. Indeed, the Middle Passage dominates sections of Brathwaite’s The Arrivants (1980) and Walcott’s Omeros (1990) while a single Middle Passage voyage is the birth point for NourbeSe Philips’ Zong! (2011). For the most part, in Caribbean literature the sea operates as the nightmarish portal connecting the New World citizen with his precolonial past. But that is not the sea’s only possibility – and I can think of a few exceptional poets who embrace it differently. I am not certain how relevant the fact that they are all women might be or what that might say about the boundaries of my reading. Immediately, I think of the sea and fluidity as presented by Dionne Brand in No Language is Neutral (1990) – as embracing an alternative poetics and politics of gender and sexuality, a new and brave way of understanding the world. Similarly subversive is the use of the aquatic and the submarine in the poetry of Lorna Goodison in Turn Thanks (1999). That work is full of images of women working the trope of washing – clothes, children, bodies – culminating in ‘My Mother’s Sea Chanty’ where Goodison (with thanks to Kincaid) in a dream sequence transforms her deceased mother into a sea nymph.

As has been the case in the previous entries of this space, it has been my mission to write Virgin Islands literature into the empty spaces of the canon. With this in mind, as we can identify the centrality of the sea in the work of numerous Caribbean poets, there should be no surprise that we find similar themes in the work of Virgin Islander poets. In the introduction to the work of Alphaeus O. Norman I previously presented at much length, the power and violence of the sea is integral to Norman’s presentation of the natural world – the elements are there to be survived.

In her collection Legacy (1997), Penn Moll suggests a sea that is not one that is all rage and violence to be conquered, hers is a sea that is both mystical creator and sustainer of life. While she does not deny a sea that is imbued with a godlike persona, the agent of an apocalyptic violence on land, body, and memory – she carves out a space where the sea is full of a somber peacefulness. Legacy is comprised of poems where the sea is a stoic provider. ‘Pelican Dive’ opens the collection in a small fishing village on Tortola which could be any one of a number of small northern coast communities. Here, the sea sustains the village through a harmonious ecosystem where the diving pelicans are how fishermen find ‘where fishes beat / in schools’. In the best ways Penn Moll reveals herself as a properly sentimental and nostalgic poet. The men of this village of ‘the land of her youth’ have not lost their abilities to observe the natural environment and to find their place in it. In this land, there is not yet the modern haste of rush hour nor the concrete monoliths that have risen below the peaks of the island’s hills.

In this respect, Penn Moll’s poetic sensibilities are a distinct departure from A. O. Norman’s as covered in this space prior. While Norman examines the struggle of various unnamed men to become something more than themselves – something historic, Penn Moll is primarily concerned with nature in general and humanity’s responsibility to it. This view is reinforced by one of her recent publications, This Land: A Trust from God (2014) – a book of collected essays, many of which focus on environmental concerns.

Overwhelmingly, what the poems in Legacy point to, is a pastoral imagining of the British Virgin Islander way of life as well as a nostalgia that, when examined, suggests that these memories of her youth are in danger of being effaced from the collective consciousness of the islands.

A large part of that way of life as presented is the work of the fisherman, as opposed to the exclusively agrarian communities on the hillsides. ‘The Fisherman’s Nets’ dedicates itself to the documenting of that work:

A heavy evening haul
late for market
netted and pegged
the catch near shore
in the crawl
for cold storage.

What is interesting here, is that Penn Moll diverts the attention of the poem from the body itself although we recognize that it is bodies doing the work of the village. Instead, the work itself is central, a socialized ritual performance where persona and the individual have been excised and the only worth that remains is the value to the families of that community. Both of these poems, as is done in the other sections of this work, concern themselves with this business of recording this work of fishing as it sustains the small community. The sea provides food and fuels commerce for the unnamed bay area village. As such, it gives life to body, culture, and essentially for Penn Moll, it provides an anchoring sense of self, identity, and belonging.

However, perhaps even more interesting that this aspect of her work is the manner by which the removal of individual bodies in order to focus on fish and fishing begins to create a different kind of meaning. The lines that follow the previous excerpt begin to confuse whether it is just fish she speaks of. In a manner reminiscent of Brathwaite’s work, the enjambments above create phrases that are fractious in meaning. She writes: ‘netted and pegged / the catch near shore / in the crawl’ followed later by ‘splitting, gutting, / sea-salt corning’. The violence that must be routinely exacted on the bodies of the fish cannot help but begin to mirror the kinds of violence wrought upon the bodies of the enslaved on these shores. It is that sort of clever juxtaposition that confirms for me the value in continuing to re-read our local works and attempting to locate them within and against our estimation of the Caribbean canon.

To say the sea is ubiquitous in island life is a clichéd yet desperately accurate statement. On most of the islands in this formation, it is very difficult in the outdoors to lose sight or smell of the ocean. It dominates the vista and the smell of the sea spray travels far inland. Given the inability to ignore the sea and the sentiment of much of her poetry, the value of the sea is as a sort of recorder of not just history, but also the traditions and culture of these smaller shores of Africa.

Photo by Ed Gregory and used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo by Ed Gregory and used under a Creative Commons license.

The subsistence living culture that Penn Moll depicts in those two poems is no longer a reality here. There are very few full-time fishermen given how dramatically local society and economy has shifted over the past five decades. Despite this, my wife and I came across a beautiful image in Carrot Bay several weeks ago, that pulled my thoughts directly into the pages of Legacy. On the humble fishing dock there, a thin and stark concrete strip with few rusted brown slips, a barebacked fisherman stood untangling his nets. No less than five pelicans stood on the platform with him, jostling for the small fish he loosed and tossed toward them. It was nearing sunset, and the light that glowed around man and birds lent the scene a surreal air. It was a snapshot into the time that Penn Moll has recorded, where the sea is recognized as the metaphysical force of creation that it is and islanders understand and maintain our symbiotic relationship with it.

We are now constructed as a tourist’s paradise, explicitly presented as a place that Westerners can discover removed from the common beaten path for visitors to the Caribbean, and too often the image that I just described will be coopted into that problematic and consumerist image. This remains an important part of our not too distant history – despite the unspoilt Eden narrative – and importantly it is part of the legacy that Penn Moll seeks to preserve as the land of her youth has shifted about into something that no longer resembles the scenes she constructs.