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The Poetry of Balwant Bhagwandin


Reviewed by Marilyn Stephanie Browne

When I first came across the existence of this collections, I couldn’t resist wanting to know more. Living on the West Coast sure has its benefits. Good weather and exquisite food immediately come to mind, but, sometimes, the great distance separating us from the East Coast also serves as a cultural wedge. More so, for those of us who, often, are not afforded the opportunity to meet and greet other writers from Guyana and the Caribbean Diaspora. Despite the L.A. Times Annual Festival of Books and other literary festivals which nourish our souls here, New York still promises more with its cornucopia of both fresh and seasoned Guyanese and Caribbean talents.

The poet’s Guyanese identity stirred my curiosity, and so I set about finding him while on a recent trip to New York City. A single phone call enabled me to locate him and, in our short, but enjoyable tete-a-tete, I promised to buy and read his book.

In his first-published book of poems, Wild Flowers, Balwant Bhagwandin hones an impressive body of work which has produced, in turn, a powerful political and social stance. Pre-eminent in his works are Birth of a Nation, Progress, The Doorkeepers, Alien Resident, O Mother of the Ghetto, and the Immigrant arrival series I-XVIII. Like his other poems, these constitute a vast set of imperatives for the reader to always bear in mind.

Showing no substitute for his didactic nature, and, sometimes, vitriolic overtones, Bhagwandin has a distinct and venerable voice which does not only reveal to the reader his epiphanic insights into life and its dark underbelly, but also sounds the alarm for those, perhaps, who cannot speak for themselves. In the poem Wind, sand and stone, Bhagwandin ponders why promises of politicians to their people/ . . . are written in sand/ and spoken on the wind/ with the speed of sound/ and the substance of shadows. Later, in the same poem and in a strong showing of his conviction in his craft, Bhagwandin argues that it is the poets who sculpt their words in stone [not only literally, but also figuratively] in the hope that, ultimately, the truth will be revealed.

In another example of a fragment in Native, Bhagwandin challenges the criterion for one becoming a bona fide native in his adopted land, imploring: How much blood must one bleed to be[come] a native? And, in Approaching Fifty, he again questions [presumably] his own immortality and final transcendence into the, seemingly, unknown afterlife: Is there a heaven? Am I bound for hell? This line of questioning permeates his poetry in, generally, open-ended narrative. He does not draw conclusions for his readers. Instead, he poses the questions and leaves the readers to dig deep within themselves for answers.

Unlike the first-timer who easily succumbs to the temptation of producing poetry written in a mostly solipsistic vein, Bhagwandin has taken his inquiries into other dimensions. His far-flung range of thematic interests not only include the brutishness and folly of wars as in Sarejevo, and By Order of, but also his eco-consciousness in The Song of the Manatee, in which he pleads for this placid and unique creatures preservation; the attempts at assimilation and the feelings of illegitimacy that immigrants encounter in Aliens, and Alien Resident; the personification and imperfections of the I in Rough Draft; the intense dislike for the inclement East Coast weather to which he is still acclimating in winter of 95; and the heart-thumping, yet delicate topic of love gone awry in –Parenthesis– and Petals of Love. Bhagwandin spares no effort in extending his poetry deep into the complexities of the human mind.

A common motif running alongside the themes is the loneliness and disillusionment Bhagwandin’s characters face in Wild Flowers. Many are fellow immigrants who in their self-imposed exiles, attempts at assimilation, and deep sense of loss at having left their homelands are confused. Indeed, with the turn of each page, the reader can easily empathize with these characters and be awakened to the sense that this poet sees the world not as the safe haven it should be, but as the unsettling place it really is.

Bhagwandin’s political and social concerns are not static and are reflected in the settings of his works. With the strike of a key, he moves from El Dorado in tides of history, in his native Guyana to the one bedroom affair, with the Cockroaches in New York City, to the O.J. trial in Los Angeles in October 5, 1995. When this poet is not condemning hatred and the unnecessary shedding of blood in Sarajevo, he is creating his own metaphysical space and time tackling other large-scale issues in a Kabir[esque] fashion, while leaving indelible impressions on the conscience and [hopefully] a greater understanding of the world we live in. The title poem, Wild Flowers, and two others, Nightmare and Carpe diem, are good examples in which the poet uses these explicit dynamics to make his arguments.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book. For a first-time published work, this poet writes more like an old bard who has already ratified his poetic station in life than a novice who is still testing the waters. Balwant Bhagwandin has answered his true calling, and I trust that his prowess and vigor continue to abound and crystallize into more artistic bliss. A word of caution, though. The layers and depth to some of this poetry are not readily available to the casual reader. One must be willing to spend quality time in the company of this Master and his Wild Flowers to grasp the true depth of the poems. I look forward to more.

(Bhagwandin’s new book “i hear guyana cry” follows in a similar vein, now lamenting the harshness in his native country – Ed.)

Marilyn Stephanie Browne, M.A. (English with a specialization in Rhetoric and Composition). Born in Great Troolie Island, Essequibo, and raised in Bartica Guyana. Currently livse in North Holllywood, California.
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