Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Under the Moon and Over the Sea: A Collection of Caribbean Poems

Ed. by John Agard and Grace Nichols, Candlewick Press (2002), Illustrated by Catherine Felstead, Jane Ray, Christopher Corr, Satoshi Kitamura and Sara Fanelli.

The reviews I do on books by Caribbean authors are some of my favorite. I think there is something about the Caribbean landscape that provides a lot of strong and unique material for the picture book form. As someone who grew up in a Caribbean island I am haunted by the visual and language landscapes I discovered in Under the Moon and Over the Sea.

Under the Moon and Over the Sea is a gorgeous illustrated anthology of over 50 Caribbean poems by 30 authors edited by John Agard, a Guyanese-born playwright, poet and children's author and his partner Grace Nichols, also originally from Guyana. The pair now live in the UK and, in the past decade, have been creating some of the most well-known books of Caribbean poetry for children from their diasporic vantage point. They are the editing/writing team behind such gems as No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock: A Collection of Caribbean Nursery Rhymes and Caribbean Dozen: Poems from Caribbean Poets.

Between the beautiful sunset red board covers of the book (i.e., under the dust jacket) you will find classic Caribbean poems such as "The Fringe of the Sea" by A.L. Hendriks (Jamaica,) "Listening to the Land" by Martin Carter (Guyana,) and "Jamaica Market" by Agnes Maxwell-Hall (Jamaica.) There are also a few poems by relative newcomer Lynn Joseph, a Trinidadian author, also in the diaspora, that I recently discovered after coming across and having moments of transcendent nostalgia with her book, Coconut Kind of Day. I particularly like Joseph's fun poem "Night Songs" which uses onomatopoeia beautifully to evoke the symphony of Caribbean night creatures.

The editors, Agard and Nichols, have also put in their two cents, including poems of their own. Agard has a rather heavy piece, "Old World New World," which uses symbolic language to explore colonialism. You can argue that the poem is too complex for a children's book, but personally, I can see the value in including such a poem in an anthology for younger readers. In her poem, "My Gran Visits England," Nichols achieves a delightful parody of "There Was a Naughty Boy," the well-known poem by English great John Keats. Most Caribbean children of a certain generation would be familiar with Keats' poem because we all read it in our Nelson West Indian Readers at school. Nichols also has a short poem that I like called "Mama-Wata," a lyrical piece that reads like a fireside tale:

"Down by the seaside
when the moon is in bloom
sits Mama-Wata
gazing up at the moon
She sits as she combs
her hair like a loom
she sits as she croons
a sweet kind of tune
But don't go near Mama-Wata
when the moon is in bloom
for sure she will take you
down to your doom."
-Grace Nichols

These are just a few examples. There are also poems of all sorts and moods by the likes of James Berry (Jamaica,) Faustin Charles (Trinidad,) Wilson Harris (Guyana,) Valerie Bloom (Jamaica) and Dionne Brand (Trinidad) who just happens to be my third cousin although I've never met her ha! The thing I enjoy about Under the Moon and Over the Sea is the range of literary forms. There are not only poems in the traditional sense; the editors have also included a splendid mix of proverbs, Afro-Caribbean and Amerindian folk sayings, prose and songs. For example, the well-known song "Coconut Woman" by American musician Harry Belafonte is transcribed in this book. Also, did I mention that the book is divided into five sections with lovely poetic titles and stylized introductions? For example, the first section is titled "Once the Wind Said to the Sea" and has poems rich with marine themes and imagery. The other sections explore the themes of nature, food, spooky nighttime tales and immigration.

To put the icing on the cake, Under the Moon and Over the Sea is truly a visual feast. Each section is done in the style of one of the book's five illustrators, who are mostly based in the UK. Illustrator Cathie Felstead captures the theme of the sea in dreamy pastel blues, cheerful line-and-watercolor cartoons, and even a lovely mixed-media collage that recalls Matissian abstraction. The lyrical visuals of dolphins, fish and seaweed work swimmingly (ha!)  to evoke the teeming beauty of Caribbean seascapes. The section "See Full Moon, Hear Jumbie Story," with its magical, folkloric poems, is befittingly illustrated by well-know British illustrator Jane Ray whose work typically features characters from fairy stories, myths and biblical tales. She renders Afro-Caribbean folkloric figures like Anasi the spider and the legendary Ebbeeleewee with an evocative, dreamlike quality.




Christopher Corr is also in his element; his richly colored and busy gouache paintings use a flurry of bright pinks, oranges, yellows and sky blues to evoke the vibrant flora and fauna of the Caribbean landscape: jeweled parrots, flaming sunsets, the dark blue night sky, hibiscus flowers, lizards, coconut trees and rolling hills.



Satoshi Kitamura, known for her multicultural illustrations, renders Caribbean foodscapes in unsaturated watercolors and quirky perspectives and Sara Fanelli's playful and inventive style works well with the more lighthearted poems of the last section.

 


 


I can't think of anything to not like about this book. Well, it would have been nice if the illustrators, like the authors, had been individuals with Caribbean roots. Does one have to live and move within a certain landscape in order to truly understand and appreciate it? Are Caribbean-born illustrators any less in danger of of mythologizing and exoticizing Caribbean visual landscapes than foreign illustrators? Maybe not. I guess I'm just patriotic. In any case, Under the Moon and Over the Sea is a book I plan to hoard and enjoy for a long time.





Summer Edward is a Children's Literature and Publishing Consultant. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children's writers. Learn more about her here.

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