Perspective on why Black lives matter, why human lives matter, why coronavirus has changed how we receive the energy called life is what Mervyn Taylor delivers in his 29 poems called News of the Living: Corona Poems from Broadstone Books. Remarkably, the Steiny Road Poet says initially scratching her head, Taylor dives in deep without shouting or setting fires. While there is the occasional parade from his Trinidadian culture, his approach is understated, sober, practical.
A CARNIVAL OF VIRUSES
We're planning to have the parade,
anyway, so as not to lose the revenue,
to have the bodies keep a social distance.
The music will say what we mean,
the stilt-walkers looking down will warn
us, if we get too close. It will be
a strange, interesting time: no foreigners,
only locals. We've discovered a new remedy—
vervine, and have added to our drinks.
Such is the trust we have in our
herbs, and festivals. We'll lower
the volume, of course, passing the hospital.
It's the lines "Such is the trust we have in our/ herbs, and festivals" that alerts the reader of News of the Living that this "we" isn't just denizens of the wider world. Taylor is specifically attaching to his birthplace while he telescopes and retracts to microscopic details throughout the collection of poems.
In "Corona Song," the second poem of this chapbook, Taylor reveals his method of approaching difficult subject matter. He describes children confined at their windows in the "dying season" singing a line from an old folksong—"every time you pass, you tickle me." On the surface, the line seems joyful, but further research reveals that the "you" is a child predator and this calypso folk song has many versions of what this pedophile is doing to this child. Taylor leaves until next year the image of children's faces "bright, like the sun over the Savannah" [the Savannah is the nickname of Queen Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad] where Carnival festivities are conducted, saying that "by then,/ I should have finished my own calypso." His calypso is his poetry and this is his method for addressing the things and actions attacking life around him.
Taylor introduces his theme of Black lives matter in his fourth poem "Lockdown" which is set in South Africa. An "old lady" speaks saying that under apartheid, isolation was not new to her community and that they were passing time singing about Madiba (Nelson Mandela). Because of Mandela, the hospitals, where the children of her community work, have to treat her and her friends. Still, the hospital is not a good place to go as Taylor ends the poem describing (without using the word proning) how these sons and daughters are turning patients on their stomachs such that they can only see "the plastic covers on the doctors' shoes,/ the bin in the far corner, overflowing." Taylor's use of understatement looms large, only the sickest patients are proned and those performing this act are certainly in jeopardy like the doctors of contracting covid-19.
In non-covid times, Taylor splits his time between Trinidad and New York. Steiny gets the idea from his poems that he travels a lot. Or barring travel, he is a news junky as his book title suggests. Mentioned, besides South Africa, are such places as Napoli (Naples, Italy), Guayaquil (Ecuador), Louisiana (where Gloria W. appeals to the governor for pardon after serving five decades for trying to rob a store with her son's toy gun), the metropolis where goon squads teargassed the mayor (Portland, Oregon perhaps?), infamous Hart Island (a little jut of land that is part of the Bronx) that serves as a potter's field for over a million dead. However, Taylor doesn't stop there. By the last poem "Epilogue," Taylor turns our attention to an asteroid called Covid-19 where in rides a man named George who has shaken up the entire planet. Of course this is George Floyd whose asteroid:
did not miss this time, opened a hole
in the heart of Minnesota, that lies
smoking like a barbecue pit on the
Fourth of July, around which folks,
having lost their appetite, seek
to rescue George from the flame.
Mervyn Taylor never has to say the obvious. Unless we have been living in an underground bunker without communications of any kind, we know the poet is talking about the Black Lives movement.
And one more thing, Taylor never uses the words race or racism, though we know this is what the people depicted in these poems are up against. In the book's title poem "News of the Living," Taylor introduces us to a super hero named Leta whose face is white (with flour) because she is a baker.
… Ah, Leta, I know you're
holding them all above water,
while the floodgates of this virus
open all around us. You'll convert
your house into boat, kitchen into
galley, beds into rafts, blowing into
the sails till your air runs out, then
fanning with your apron, fanning.
News of the Living by Mervyn Taylor is a rich read for those willing to take the time to hear the calypso.