By Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper
Derek Walcott, St. Lucian poet and playwright, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, and described as “lush in style”, is the Caribbean poet that I studied as an undergraduate student of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies years ago, which made me vociferously conclude – “I hate poetry!” Why was that the conclusion? I just could not figure him out. His words were truly poetic, and he was profound, and creative, and smooth, and carefully polished, and - did I say profound? So profound, in fact, that I became curious to discover and interpret the various layers of his work, decided to rise to the challenge his writings presented, and decided to enjoy, rather than bemoan his content and style. What opened up for me was a world of such poetic beauty, such poetic poignancy, that I am now a die-hard Walcott fan. As a professor of English today, I try to include something of Walcott’s whenever I can, because to meet him in the lines and stanzas he creates, is truly to experience something ethereal.
When I read Philip Paschalides’ poems, he too made me curious. I loved that his poetry was not immediately explicable, and I was immediately struck by his structure, the poems’ potential for multiple readings, and the diverse interpretations that his words evoked. A lawyer in the Cayman Islands, Paschalides did a Master of Arts in English Literature and Theology at the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He recalls that at age 16, some works of literature had “opened something up” in him, starting with the 1919 novel, The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. After graduating, he studied Law and went on to the legal career he today enjoys. However, the love of language, the need for structure, the ability to write effectively and to ‘read between the lines’ are common to both legal practice and poetic craft.
So, what does Paschalides write? Beautiful poetry. Beautiful poetry that makes you want to linger in reading them. Beautiful poetry that makes you want to linger in reading them, and that brings tears to your eyes, and tugs a smile across your lips, even as you sigh in soul-felt satisfaction. I admired these aesthetic qualities, as I read work after work. In “Beach combing before the Eclipse”, a poem penned in Little Cayman in 2019 following a solar eclipse, Paschalides reports that
The waves are childishly insistent,
a wet parade through which
big things grow small:
the stone and coral, and
the things we bought yet
lost a use for -
the sea makes no distinction. (lines 9-16)
The ironic and poignant statement that “big things grow small” is memorable, as somehow there is truth in its paradox. This truly poignant stanza is somehow eclipsed (yes, pun intended), by alliterations like “a brine of barmaids and beauticians” found in the poem “Press Release”, or by the fascinating fight to find the meaning in new words, such as those presented in “Observer effect”: “like a budding leaf on a galool/or that wad of khat on your cheek …/and you, before the Qalqad “. Then there is the dissonance of the poem “Homoiousios” that alludes to the Trinitarian controversies in the fourth-century Christian Church, over whether the Son and Father “are of one substance”, a position promulgated by the Nicene Creed and encapsulated as doctrine in 325 C.E., and which effectively ended the debate. Though written in 2014, this poem manages to capture the dissociation of the ‘and/or’ controversy that characterises the observer and the observed and which patterns the fourth-century controversy about the multiple – yet paradoxically singular – identity of the Christian God. In “Homoiousios”, the persona expresses his thoughts as he observes a stranger, waiting tables in a Manhattan restaurant in the early morning hours and concludes:
that is it
makes me watch
you. (lines 11-21)
Though different and detached from each other, the observed and the observer seem to somehow defy isolation, which makes one question whether indeed, fundamentally, we are all the same – or different.
Comparison to Keats
Like the poems of Romantic Poet, John Keats (1795 – 1821), Paschalides reflects thematic concerns like mortality, art, beauty, and delves into human experiences to discover hidden messages. In his poem “The Most Legendary Exhibition of all Time Now in its Final Weeks!”, the poet questions immortality like Keats does in his “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”. In his poem, Paschalides comments on the commercialisation of antique “remains” and builds his thoughts around the deaths of Pharaohs. Though written in Grand Cayman in March 2019, the poem creatively explores the devaluation of embalmed Pharaonic bodies and their burial accessories, in much the same way that Keats’ “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” bemoaned the ruin and devaluation of the Greek marble statues, leading both poets to philosophise and rhapsodise about immortality. What they both produce is “A thing of beauty (which) is a joy forever” – certainly a joy for me.
As I indulged in reading Paschalides’ poems, particularly resonant for me was “You rode with Abdul”, a 14-line poem – no, not a sonnet – that captures the idea of regret and the emptiness of small talk when one fails to crystallise truly meaningful dialogue with another human being. This poem reflects the genius of the poet in at times economically using scene and language – a seemingly simplistic journey, a simplistic observation – the absence of real talk, through which Paschalides explores the theme of missed opportunities:
a thousand conversations
of the kind
are simpler than
to turn and say
the words I have to
say to you (lines 7-12)
This poem also explores the notion that words deserve respect, and that it is important to use them properly – “they go unspoken one more time” (lines 13-14). This poem reinforces for me that there is so much I would like to capture about these works that it seems I have sadly not used the words to say all I want effectively. Thankfully, I will have another opportunity in our next article to explore the poignancy, structure, and interpretations of Phillip Paschalides’ poems in more detail. I can hardly wait!