Loretta Collins Klobah muses on Time and History in Narrative Poetry

Loretta Collins Klobah muses on Time and History in Narrative Poetry

My new poetry collection, Ricantations (Peepal Tree Press, 2018), includes poems in various forms, set in geographies ranging from Britain to Mexico, but the majority are narrative, often linking history to the current moment in my island home of Puerto Rico. Folding marvellous, monstrous and mythic elements into the everyday, not all of the poems’ stories are told solely in a linear sequence. Several experiment with manipulations of time that render eras permeable and the past a palpable part of the present. Ishion Hutchinson has referred to the poetic creation of a “blurred timeline.”[1] In this brief essay, I share with you some of the ways that my recent poems shape narrative time, sometimes taking cues from Caribbean modes of time and spirituality.

The opening poem in Ricantations, “Night Watch” traces shifts in working class life from an economy based, in part, on U.S sugar mills to an underground drug trade economy, (as well as modes of youth hypermasculinity), by referring to our multiple sightings of a large, flying gargoyle in 2010 and, more recently, the image of the gargoyle in reggaetón music, drug cartels, and the popular imaginary. Uncannily, he was first sighted at an abandoned sugar mill. I shift from present to interdimensional time through ghostly animations to suggest how the gargoyle senses the hardships of cane field and mill workers decades ago, the repercussions still impacting us:

… the gargoyle glimpses ghost girls playing

stick ball with a splintered fence post. He sees the way

a ghost son avoids the mandibles of the harvesting machine

as he carries a warm lunch in a fiambrera to his father

in the cane fields, or coffee and cheese,

or only coffee, if it was all to be had.

A poem about my deceased mother, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and treated with electroconvulsive shock therapy in a state hospital, “Come, Shadow” uses gateway time, a brief opening of the portals between the ancestral world and that of the living, as well as possession, to impose the past on the present: “…she is detectable in my peripheral vision,/ everywhere in my head—annunciation”.[2]

In “Blue Stone,” a graffiti mural of a bullet-drilled, fractured stone head of a goddess painted two years earlier marks gateway time, portending the stray-bullet death of a 15-year-old girl in the location: it “called the bad shot/ to this zone just as surely as vèvès / painted in ash and cornmeal call gods.”

Line by line, “Naranjito” erases time and the domination by coffee barons and their scions on a mountainside where an artist, using shades of green, paints the pueblo back into the naturescape, leaving behind only a few forgotten artefacts.

“The Flying Wallendas in Puerto Rico” portrays a high wire walk by funambulist Nik Wallenda, whose great grandfather, Karl Wallenda, fell to his death on our island forty years ago. The narrative proceeds in reverse time, like a film being rewound at high speed.[3]

“Vieques, 1961: The Filming of The Lord of the Flies” intertwines two distinct narratives, drawing upon the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris’ application of quantum time, to consider the conjunctions when Brooks began to film boy actors, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba filled the Vieques military hospital with casualties during the same week.

Other poems about colonies within our colony, set in a butterfly farm, leprosy colony, prison, research monkey island, and the psychiatric hospital explore the differences between incarcerated and liberated time in their narrative styles. Dream time (“Night of Charcoal Sky and Sea”) and morphing/ shapeshifting (“La Monstrua Desnuda”) are used in other poems to link past and present, meditating on continuities and shifts in (oppressive) social forces.


[1] Ramakrishna, Prashanth. An Interview with Poet Ishion Hutchinson. The Believer Magazine. https://logger.believermag.com/post/an-interview-with-poet-ishion-hutchinson


[2] Kwame Dawes’ poem “Horns” creates “stop-time”, “in the space between the blink and the light” where spirit presences, creatures with horns, walk amongst us, unseen by most. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58853/horns


[3] John Murillo’s “Upon Reading that Eric Dophy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” is another example of a poem narrated in reverse time. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58805/upon-reading-that-eric-dophy-transcribed-even-the-calls-of-certain-species-of-birds