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Janet Naidu, Sacred Silence, Hertford, Hansib, 2009,
pp. 104, ISBN 978-1-906190-33-0

Reviewed by Frank Birbalsingh

Guyana Journal, February 2010

Sacred Silence is a third collection of poems by Janet Naidu who emigrated from her homeland of Guyana to Canada in 1975. Like her previous poetry collections - Winged Heart (1999) and Rainwater (2005), Sacred Silence considers themes mainly of love and loss in the context of migration, and the struggle for fresh identity in a new land. But the three volumes are not identical: poems in this third volume appear more steeped in spiritual meditation than those in the first two.

Sacred Silenceconsists of fifty-nine poems divided into four sections. In several poems in the first section - “Fields to Seashore” - the persona speaks from a vantage point in Canada and introduces us to remembered scenes of life in rural Guyana. In “Selflessness”, for example, we are shown the rough and ready life of an Indian peasant family as the mother, “honoring her duty,” (p.30) gets up early in the morning to cook paratha and sada roti with “bare hands” (p.30) while the father prepares for a long day of hard labor “on the backdam [plantation].” (p.30) In “Cane Dust at My Feet”, a woman sweeps away cane dust “on a clean mud floor” (p.37) before setting off with a heavy basket of vegetables on her head to sell in the market.

Clearly, these rustic, plantation folk scrape the barrel to survive; and their plight is heightened by the strangeness of their indentured background evoked, for instance, in “A Deeper Ocean” where the persona imagines a female ancestor newly arrived from India in: “red and gold bodice, // nose ring, foot ring and silver bangle”. (p.36) - dress which almost mocks the harshness and penury of actual living conditions in Guyana. Pin-pointing her own South Indian heritage, in “Movements”, the poet reflects on indentured Indians who traveled to the Caribbean from the South Indian port of Madras: “Departure and arrival// fills me with endless yearning// from the shores of Madras// to the green fields of Demerara.” (p.40) The point is that the yearning stays with her even in Canada.

There is a slight change of pace in the second section of the volume, “Silk on the Clothesline” which switches to eleven poems on love. Yet it is more the loss of love rather than the happiness, satisfaction or joy it might bring. There is the possibility of happiness in some poems, for example, “We Meet by the Seadam”, “Gentle Beginning” or “Beloved”, but in most poems lovers seem temperamentally cautious, and speak as if they half-expect their love not to last. The impression they give is not of happiness or joy, but of a joint dividend of sadness and wisdom gained through love. Often love seems as much of a struggle as sheer survival proves for indentured laborers in the first section: “My Cold Encounter” could not provide colder images of snow and thick fog at night, followed only by: “fleeting love”, (p.53) and although “Beloved” carries a glimpse of: “lingering in pure joy”, (p.59) it too repeats images of fading, transience or decline, for instance, either of: “autumn leaves in the wind” (p.59) or of: “autumn leaves // now floating in the river.” (p.59)

The loss, transience and unsatisfied yearning that emerge from the first two sections of Sacred Silence, blend smoothly in the third “The Heart of Survival” which gropes for wisdom through spiritual meditation: “I thirst for wisdom - for something // glistening in the ocean // like morning sun // in timeless wonder.” (p.68) True to the real life multicultural context of her Canadian workplace, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, where Naidu promotes diversity and equity in employment, the poet draws on worldwide sources for sacred texts or concepts, whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, in her quest for wisdom. “Relinquishing” suggests an answer to her quest: “Time is all I see - an illusion // of wind and sun in the water // bringing a message already within.” (p.72) This perception - that wisdom is an intuition that comes from within to satisfy her nympholepsy or yearning for the unattainable - is what Naidu's poems prescribe as the “sacred silence” of her title: a stillness inside her that may reveal answers, illumination.

Poems in the final section “Pond and Waterfall Singing Deep” wrap up the collection neatly. They reproduce much of the meditative and largely sorrowful reflection that reinforces a general tone of sober contemplation running throughout the text. It is a tone of balanced awareness or calculated, controlled acceptance: “I wash my pain down the sidewalk // aware of my own mortality.” (p.97) Naidu's personae accept rather than grumble over or rail against the evanescence of love, or of life itself.

But it is more than acceptance, as we see in the last poem of the volume “Contentment” which carries a revealing line: “Gratitude rises out of life's gifts.” (p.99) In addition, other lines mention “devotion” and the ringing of temple bells. Thus, for all the unsatisfied yearning we have seen in her poems, all the transience and evanescence, Naidu's prescription of gratitude within a structure of devotional (temple) ritual in “Contentment” clinches the idea of sacredness in her title; for despite human limitation, she seems to suggest, we should not simply be grateful but offer devotional (sacred) praise for what we have.
With three collections of poems already under her belt, Naidu has clearly established a name for herself among a growing number of female Indo-Caribbean writers who have emerged in the past couple of decades. She began writing in Guyana where, in the early 1970s, she joined a literary group that included Rooplall Monar who later became the supreme chronicler of Guyanese plantation society in fiction, and Mahadai Das, one of the first Indo-Guyanese women to excel as a poet. Today, besides her own writing, as President of the Pakaraima Guyanese Canadian Writers and Artists Association, Naidu continues actively, in more ways than one, to promote Caribbean literature in Canada.

Frank Birbalsingh is Emertus Professor of English, York University, Toronto, Canada.