Review by Lynn Houston
With Ishion Hutchinson’s recent win of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, it is perhaps time to have a larger discussion about the work of poets who are writing about their relationships to Jamaica. One such poet local to the New Haven area is Rayon Lennon, whose work has won a Rattle contest, among many other accolades. Tess Taylor, from the NBCC board, writes about how Hutchinson crafts “poetry [that] compresses witness” and that “concentrate fervor and anger.” Rayon Lennon’s collection Barrel Children has a little of both the poetry of witness and anger, but it also captures those moments when, despite economic hardships spawned by colonialism, we discover or create connections—sometimes unconventional ones—with other people.
The premise of Lennon’s collection is the experience growing up as one of the barrel children, like many children in Jamaica, whose fathers send items back home to them from America, where they have gone to be able to support their wives and children with better wages, but where they also often start new families are never seen again. The items they send back to Jamaica are shipped in barrels. One such barrel to arrive, Lennon recounts, is filled with books, shoes, a TV and a Walkman, and bags of rice and flour. Through the screen of the TV, Lennon’s speaker tell us, “I… look[…] at the TV like a window /into my father’s world,” as he finds some kind of connection to his absent father through the gifts. And these gifts also connect him to his neighbors who receive similar barrels.
Many of the connections Rayon Lennon explores in his poetry are fleeting, and many of them are sexual. From a young man’s loss of virginity to his maternal grandmother’s adopted daughter and homages to childhood sweethearts, to the interior monologue of a prostitute, Lennon’s Jamaica is both sensual and sorrowful, both a scene of innocence and one full of complex negotiations for survival, a world especially dangerous to women and children.
The true complexity of Lennon’s relationship with Jamaica is his status as an ex-patriate, one who lives somewhere lost in between both worlds, longing for both of them in ways he can never achieve—“Something / about the way you speak with your eyes / resurrects my lost mother’s love, my love / of Jamaica, my faith in heaven on earth” (“Navina”) or “Your touch is a butterfly, / your fragrance, a forgotten garden in my childhood” (“Megan”). His childhood in Jamaica is a lost love he can never quite find again, and this poetic response to that loss in Barrel Children involves poems of witness, anger, and sorrow, but also poems constructed around a kind of hope in this necessary fire that keeps burning in Lennon’s soul.