Earl McKenzie, A Bluebird Named Poetry: Linked Poems, Stories and Paintings. Kingston: Arawak Publications, 2012. xii + 145 pp.
REVIEWED BY STEPHANIE McKENZIE
EARL MCKENZIE'S A Bluebird Named Poetry: Linked Poems, Stories and Paintings is an interesting mélange of poetry, paintings, short fiction and biographical reflections. The book is fairly evenly balanced between the different art forms, with just a bit more space given to McKenzie's paintings.
The most interesting thing about this book is the manner in which it makes one consider the relationship between different genres, in this case, biographical notes, paintings and poems. McKenzie notes in his preface that the word ekphrasis is the name for poetry written in response to visual art, and he also makes the following comments:
I do not know if there is a name for visual art inspired by poetry. I also do not know if there is a name for linked poetry and visual art produced by the same person. What I have been pursuing seems to be a probably nameless sub-genre of this phenomenon.
I hope to pursue the links between my painting and my philosophy in a future work. As a lover of Socratic dialogue my hope is that this book will contribute something to the conversation about the inter-relationship between the arts, (ix- x)
Indeed, A Bluebird Named Poetry suggests there is such a conversation to be had.
Most notably, there is a solid connection, at times, between paintings and poems: sometimes, titles of paintings become, or have been taken from, poems, and McKenzie has understandably placed paintings near their corresponding poems. This is the case with the poem "Today and Tomorrow", where the line "For I have climbed the patterns of its trunk" reveals itself as the title of the painting found on the next page, and with the poem "The Wind" whose line "when the wind blows" provides the title of the painting on the preceding page. What is more interesting than direct connections between poems and paintings, however, is the connection between personal anecdotes (biographical reflections), which become artistic pieces in their own right and which bear their own titles, and corresponding poems and paintings. So often the life of the poet and artist is effaced by the critic when responding to an artist's work (this is what academies have trained us to do), and McKenzie underscores the details of his life and frames his artwork with an understanding of his biography. In an anecdote entitled "The Roots of Memory", McKenzie explains that when he had moved to the United States to pursue his education he "found that [he] could not paint there, for [he] seem [ed] to need the visual environment of the Caribbean in order to do so" (47). Interestingly enough, the poem which follows, "Untitled Painting", is one of the strongest poems in this collection, and with a spare and sparse style characteristic of most of McKenzie's poems (which seems to share a relation with the visual), this poem refers us back to a consideration of how flora, fauna and geography grow the minds and sensibilities of artists:
My brush followed the heart-shaped
curves of anonymous leaves,
and flourishing flowers remembered
and the play of light on firm
but nearly forgotten stems,
and the thick snake-skin stalks
of a plant that once bordered
my mother's garden.
And in the peace of painting quietly,
I acknowledged dark boulders
on a green hillside
to bush-covered hills
and spiritual mountains
and the optimism of a pure sky. (49)
Sometimes, though, it is not the relationship between art forms but simply details in McKenzie's anecdotes which are rich and which perhaps shed light on the governing spirit of this book. In his biographical note "Art of Steel", McKenzie prefaces the paintings of "burglar bars" which will follow - Ornaments Against Evil, Between Us and the Night, and Renaissance of Dread - with the following comments:
When I returned to Jamaica after my studies in North America one of the first things that struck me was the ubiquitous presence of burglar bars on houses. …