Jamaican poet Olive Senior’s latest collection of poems Gardening in the Tropics is an impressive affirmation of Senior’s place as one of the most lucid of Caribbean poets writing today. It is her clarity of thought, her capacity to construct the clean precise line, and her direct commitment to political issues that make this collection such a welcome addition to West Indian writing. Gardening in the Tropics is a carefully constructed series of poems that are organized around a quartet of movements: “Traveller’s Tales,” a selection of poems that explore the pains and pleasures of immigration and constant movement by Caribbean people and, at the same time, chronicle the family history of one simple rural family through its varied experiences with hurricanes; “Nature Studies,” a cryptic series of witty poems that expand on themes of nature and the environment; “Gardening in the Tropics,” a tumbling movement of poems that make use of a natural speaking voice to convey the vicissitudes of living in a “third world space” under the dominating influence of colonial history and a present of imperialist exploitation of land and limb; and finally, “Mystery,” a homage to African deities that reads like a series of prayers echoing the praise poems of Brathwaite’s Mask sequence in his trilogy The Arrivants.
Described as they are above, one may get the impression that these sequences or movements are independent entities with no thematic or stylistic cohesiveness. But this is just not so. Senior makes wonderful use of echoes, thematic repetition, and an intelligence that is at once spiritual and pragmatic to create a very clear pattern of journeying and discovery in the entire collection. This collection is outstanding because of Senior’s ability to balance political advocacy, in poems such as “Meditations on Yellow” and “Amazon Women,” with profoundly intimate expositions of soul and heart, as in the impressive poem “Hurricane Story,” which tells the story of a mother who migrates to England to make a better life for her son, and the seemingly autobiographical and deftly ironic “All Clear, 1928,” which ends with the telling words: gold bought him a very young girl of very good family in Kingston. And they wed.