Native Places

On the topic of native spaces in vernacular Caribbean contexts…

To accompany the images, I include a selection from Native Places, a photobook I self-published in 2006. I’m placing it here unrevised because it represents some of my earliest thinking about and articulation on the subject of visual rhetoric. While I’m aware that it’s not the most articulate of statements, no disclaimer will be forthcoming. For prudence sake, I’ve decided not to include the poems that accompany the photographs in the original, and I’ve also replaced some of the photographs with other more recent ones that I felt like sharing. I don’t believe the changes will matter much to the musings themselves (which, after all, is what I mean for you to read).

***

I have thought about it many times, the language of houses, and what that language would sound like if we could hear it.

I imagine whispers, rather than shouts.

Suggestions, rather than overt proclamations. Of course, the smiles that break in the midst of tears, or the emotional disarray that attends wanting to walk away and not having the legs for it, are all kinds of rhetoric. And I imagine the sounds of this disarray to be the sounds of houses as they fall apart in place.

But oh, if only they were people, the things they would say! There would be exhortations of joy, for sure. But also I think some regret would find its way in, as the reality of a building’s mortality tends to sober. So I imagine tones more sober than sharp when I think of what would be said. [The poems I have chosen to accompany these pictures reminds me of this. Taken from my unpublished collection, Dry Season, they speak of houses in some ways, in some ways speaking for them as well.]

I know it is a kind of arrogance, this power to imagine, which I exercise with impunity. Almost careless, really, complicit with my imperfect visions of what I think “ought” to be, ignoring the fact that I, as much as anyone, struggle to figure out what it really means “to be.”

Twisted logic, fortunately, leads me back to these houses. Not because they are honest. But because they do not have the privilege of self-deception. Unlike us, the humans who bring our selves to see them in their nakedness, these houses have a rhetoric that falls short of words, and of motives. And, in falling short, go so far beyond them that only a picture or two can suffice. I have thought about it too many times, perhaps.

And really, what I want is not to think about it.

Not thinking is a kind of Nirvana, a momentary bliss, a heaven. And somewhere in these houses, between the battered jalousies, the rusted galvanized roofs, crawling vines that smother, somewhere in them is a history. These houses do not speak. But somewhere in them is a rhetoric that does not evoke the Ancients.

Instead, Newallo’s face turned from troubled umber to smooth ebony as he lay dying among his children and grandchildren in the front room of his first house. Brother Austin’s children have run with heavy feet through the broken halls. Alfred revels in his cool eccentricity as he watches the paint glisten then dry on another handwritten sign. Ken takes his inheritance through another year. Dukes beat a path, generations old, from the fire engine red mailbox to the door; and the Cocoa House bears its thousand pound rafters, through a sporadic roof, up to the sun. Gutted houses shut up to sunlight, people, and talk. Spires, reminding long dead owners of their borrowed architecture. Cooling boards. Stained glass. Steps.

And I swear I have seen, at some point while staring at the bush-covered house on unpaved Easterfield Road in Tobago, a face looking back through the camera’s lens at me. I see my grandmothers on the concrete vestibules, understand that my mother knows by heart these frames that threaten to fade and bow to the latest modernity.

So, hurriedly, I look back.

Because I believe in spirits. I believe, as well, that houses have more spirits than is our wont to admit. And yet I know not to look back for too long, that I must live there in moderation. Because they are their own graveyards. Their address we can read along like headstones: 16 Caribe Street, San Fernando; 80 Easterfield Road, Mt. St. George, Tobago; Louis D’Or. Rest in Peace, we read, hanging our beliefs on antennas strung together with old telephone cables.

And then, after we recognize the tone of eulogy and uneasy praise, we find a way to make sense of the mostly unspoken, unuttered, unformed grace by imagining a rhetoric of houses.

What has brought me closer to my sense of home? Old houses. Houses that a year from now would not recognize themselves. I think, then, that it is our responsibility to recognize them, to see them and speak for them.

Is this nostalgia? Yes.

Misguided sentimentalism? Most certainly. But it is also an appeal to a common sense; that is, a sense we share as a people who are aware of our lives, our histories, the limbo sensibility that enables us to hold dear the architecture of our onetime masters. This is something we have in common, I think.

We must serve now as the foundations for the houses that kept us and keep us still. Through us, the imperfect mouthpieces for houses, it is possible for rhetoric to work. And if we listen close enough, we do not hear houses asking. Instead, we are privy to some strange, singular demand.

(from Native Places, 2006)

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