by Ken Puddicombe

Review by Romeo Kaseram in Indo Caribbean World

‘Unfathomable’ a journey into fluidity, uprootedness

Puddicombe, Ken. Unfathomable and Other Poems, Middleroad Publishers, 2020.

One of the key takeaways in Ken Puddicombe’s Unfathomable and Other Poems is an unsettling undertow that captures the reader, who having put a toe in to test its flow, is quickly swept away into the deep.

Thus, it goes without saying that for prospective, discerning readers, hardly any effort is required to penetrate beneath the surface of Puddicombe’s remarkable and intuitive word- crafting: that with each immersion the reader is suffused right away with the poet’s reflexive evocation of spaces that constantly speak to fluidity, instability, and trauma.

Notably, given the volume’s free-style narrative, its flow remains uncomplicated; it does not overwhelm, even as it makes known the unstable, fluid world that is the poet’s original place of landing, which is Guyana.

Indeed, with Puddicombe’s Guyana fluid and unstable, it means the reader discerns right away the poet is on a complicated journey. It is a quest for meaning that takes the reader along on many undercurrents; and having come to the end, the reader washes up on shore wondering whether the ground beneath the poet’s feet will ever achieve stability; and it is not only wonderment about the poet, but of the reader too, who while uplifted, like the poet, has discovered similar uprootedness.

Here is a hint to braver readers: if a successful text is meant to uplift, Unfathomable does just that, but adds more by taking the reader down into its disturbing depths. And here is yet another hint to its unpacking – that to begin rising to the surface in appreciating Unfathomable means deployment of key concepts from the post-colonial toolkit of the challenging literary theorist and critic, Homi Bhabha.

Among Bhabha’s devices of flotation are hybridity, unhomeliness, ambivalence, and the liminal; but not right now – this is only a direction offered to readers willing to plumb even deeper into Puddicombe’s uplifting text.

But for now, right away in one of the volume’s early poems, ‘2. I Am Who I Am’, it is noted how the poet’s assertion, “I am from Guyana” is quickly destabilised by its following lines: “Once called British Guiana/The Land of Many Waters and/ The towering Kaieteur”.

It is in enunciating this moment of identity where Puddicombe makes evident the fluidity that courses throughout the text. It is an early evocation of how the liminal limits identity in its assertion of belonging in a landscape that cannot be pinned down. So the poet’s assertion, “I am from Guyana”, even as it is enunciated, in a breath is taken away, made “unhomely”, and quickly dismantled as a rooted firmament. The colonial “British Guiana” is then shapeshifted with a name change, undoing the rootedness of “Guyana”, the emergent impermanence of its unmoored nomenclature an implicit indicator that both worlds have collided, one historic, the other modern, and are now hybridised, with the poet ‘unhomed’ and a liminal presence between the two.

A further erosion of not belonging in a fixed space that is solidly Guyana is accomplished with what is a ‘literal’, literary, and fluid undoing, with the land itself untethered inside an oxymoronic naming construct, being simultaneously solid and liquid in the same breath as “The Land of Many Waters”.

This is followed by an even more uncontrolled, layered fluidity, the metonymic, towering Kaieteur Falls becoming yet another representative confluence of land mixed with water, with its attendant image being a fast-flowing landscape that is eternally without shape, and coursing downwards in its untameable flow.

It is out of this fluid mix-up of land and water, where colonial and post-colonial historical pasts metamorphose as a hybridised formation, Guyana now ‘The Land of Many Names’, where the narrative arc sets out on its quest for discovery of the poet’s identity. It is in poem ‘2. I Am Who I Am’ where the ground is broken on what is an emergent crisis of hybridisation: “I am the sum total of generations/Who came long before I took my first breath. /I am the product of east meets west.”

Also, the antecedent generations are part of the encompassing fluidity that makes a solid identity formation elusive, where immigrant flows of people who sailed across the ocean converged, and were immersed at this site of fluidity in “The Land of Many Waters”: “They came from England”; “They came from India...”; also, “They braved a long voyage across the sea”, and where, following arrival, they fashioned the sum total of a new genealogical construct making up the ambivalent form that has shaped the poet today.

Thus, what this reader interprets the poet to be saying is that Guyana, or British Guiana, or “The Land of Many Waters”, “The towering Kaieteur”, ‘The Land of Many Names’, is a compound mix of land and water, and in which is immersed an even more complex admixture that is a multiplicity of lineages of many peoples who came, and having arrived, swirled in, and became intermingled in a land awash with many cross currents to create a new, sum total of ancestries.

It is such that the narrative arc in Unfathomable sees the poet encountering episodes of trauma at sites of fluidity where instability constantly emerges, at times suddenly, and where solid footing is always tenuous; and at times, it is replaced with disorientation and the vertiginous. Thus, in poem ‘4. Falling’, the poet says, “I was falling. /Slowly, helplessly, down, down, down. /And there was nothing I could do. The swirling waters of the Punt Trench /Below, the bridge above /Where I’d been sitting seconds before. /I wasn’t sure how it happened: Whether I’d jumped or been pushed, /But I knew I was falling.”

If the vertiginous is disorienting, then the moments of trauma are chilling, as it is an evocation of an existence filled with precarity and the claustrophobic. Such is the evocation in poem ‘6. Drowning’: “I hit the water with a resounding/ Splash. Went down, into the deep, /Murky, swirling pit of the Punt Trench /Into regions I’d never imagined existed. /I groped around the depths. /Locked in a dark room, unable to see...”

Yet even this is just touching the surface when compared to the horror when the young poet discovers precarity can quickly make mortality emergent, the youthful narrative voice in the volume’s signature poem, ‘3. Unfathomable’ fluid with a voluminous, Kaieteur-like flow of elegiac foreboding following the death of a friend.

The moment of passing itself is chilling as it is traumatic, the landscape inimical and deadly when the liminal worlds of the fluid and solid collide with crushing consequences: “I saw those eyes, those cat-eyes /That could dazzle and awe. The shock /On Lincoln’s face as he sensed /What was about to happen /As the punts closed in. His teeth clenched. /His bones crushed mercilessly /As the water turned crimson.”

It seems fitting to end with a final comparative to another and similarly profound literary explorer of identities that are ‘unhomed’ in spaces of hybridity, ambivalence, and liminality. This is eminently notable in the oeuvre of the late German novelist and scholar, W. G. Sebald, whose novelistic, peregrinating form is informed with poetic insertions of images, a metaphoric technique that is similarly employed by Puddicombe in Unfathomable.

While Puddicombe’s insertions occur more than halfway into the text, are refreshing, and alas! too few, each of the faded black & white reproductions is worth its weight in gold for its visuality and evocation of the ephemeral, the one constant river that flows eternally throughout this disturbing text.

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