As diverse as our stories may be poets are nevertheless in the process of creating a single art, some trace of what we were able to accomplish with our language before we inevitably canceled each other out. Eventually, through lurking, inescapable age, or cataclysm, our poems will become a cloud-system of facts, gestures toward a style of some sense of what poetry was and can be, and therefore an indication that we lived and felt compelled to make art with our grammar and syntax. Like a mood—in the musical or painterly sense of it—a mood of what we made, an excavation of words in this increasingly post-word world. All of our poetry en masse will point back to ourselves as one mass: the forensic indication of a civilization, a nugget cragged deep inside the mountain of the mess that we’ve made. I have been late, so late, to make sense of it. And, at times, making sense of it is an act, an intent, at other times an inheritance. I have spent my life far more invested in how the self makes itself than in how the self has been made. But for a change of pace, here now are a few words about how I have been made so that maybe, when the cloud passes, you’ll see a bit of my shape in it.
My parents were both born in Antigua in the same year as Jamaica Kincaid. My father in March. My mother in August. That would put Jamaica’s May birthday in the middle. My mother is from St. John’s and went to Hill School. My father is from Potters Village and went to Pilgrim High, his sisters went to Princess Margaret. They weren’t originally from Potters, they were from Freemans and moved to Potters to be closer to the city. My mother, to this day, speaks of my father as a country boy and herself as a city girl, this despite Potters and St. John’s being a few minutes away from each other. Ladies and gentlemen, Antigua: it is truly a small place.
At some point, in a classic fit of 1970s restlessness, my parents decided to move from Antigua to New York City. A number of my family’s relatives had already moved to the U.S. and my parents were ambitious and curious, so they ended up making the move as well. My mother was, at that time, eight months pregnant with me. I was born in Harlem Hospital that November and given my father’s first name. He had been named after both Rowan Henry, a prominent lawyer on the island who was murdered under the strangest of circumstances, and the great Guyanese cricketer Rohan Kanhai. My mother then added Ricardo instead of my father’s middle name of Anderson. She’d always liked the name “Cardo” but thought the full name “Ricardo” was more appropriate. It was perhaps my first stroke of good luck: “cardo” in Spanish means “really, really ugly.” And then, to keep people from getting my name backwards, my mother tacked an “s” onto the end of my last name. Just like that, I was invented, less a new branch on the tree than a branch broken off and stuck in the ground to grow into its own thing. I was irreducibly a New Yorker, born in the new November cold across the street from the Schomburg in Harlem Hospital, the space that remains the tactile beginning of myself.
In the beginning was this surface. A wall. A beginning.
Tonight it coaxed music from a Harlem cloudbank. It freestyled
A smoke from a stranger’s coat. It stole thinned gin.
It was at the edge of its beginnings but outside
Looking in. The lapse-blue facade of Harlem Hospital is weatherstill
Like a starlit lake in the midst of Lenox Avenue.
Tonight I touched the tattooed skin of the building I was born in
And because tonight is curing the beginning let me through.
And everywhere was blurring halogen. Love the place that welcomed you.
I love where I’m from but, like I said, that love feels random and I—as I am made of love—feel, in turn, random.
This love feels random. An invention. Like how Ralph Ellison’s citation of Heraclitus as the source of the axiom “geography is fate” was an invention. Heraclitus never said that. But it sounds too good not to be true. But then I remember that Jonathan Galassi was born in Seattle and no one seems less Seattle than Jonathan Galassi. But still, geography . . . is it fate? I love where I’m from but, like I said, that love feels random and I—as I am made of love—feel, in turn, random. If my relatives had moved from Antigua to Toronto I would simply be Canadian. Still, with the same language, the same bridge between their accents and my lack of one (or my accent and their lack of one?). New York was no metropole for Antigua. It was a British colony until 1981. But when I asked my parents why they didn’t move to London, wouldn’t that have been more on-the-nose, they told me that when Antiguans who moved to New York sent letters back home they had money in them and when Antiguans who moved to London sent letters back home they were asking for money in them.
The wintered trees shine white in the white sun
Daydreaming of West Indian dawn—,
Of palms that line the bright back of a beach,
The mazy green hem of a paradise
My parents knew as “home” or “here,” conceived
Me there to think their hearth far off
From the Yankee blood in my heart because
Geography is fate and here is mine,
The winter, the nude trees like splintered spears
Souvenired to earth by the fallen
In the promise of coocoo coocoo coooo
And, eventually, again, the stirring
Bloom, and the evergreens down the dirt road,
All one, up the mountain path, toward the sun.
So, I grew up in New York in a house that was Antiguan, constantly visiting my Antiguan relatives and going to church at the United Moravian Church on 127th St. and 3rd Avenue. Somehow, the Moravian denomination had a strong presence in Antigua. And just about every Antiguan in New York seemed to go to this one church. The services were pretty much high Anglican. I’m still not sure what Moravian had to do with it. Also, this is where my sense of my family tree went up in flames. Because everyone was Auntie or Cousin or Dada. To this day, a casual conversation with my family can at any point lead to the discovery that a person I spent my life thinking I was related to was actually not related to me at all. The leaves fall from the tree, but the tree is still there. Anyway, being basically a high Anglican church the Wesleyan hymns were nonstop. At a funeral, we would all rise and sing “It Is Well with My Soul.” I still have the memory from my childhood of my parents, both excellent singers, belting this in harmony as I stood waist-high between them, my father’s baritone like a swath of suede being brushed to show its darker side and then my mother’s mezzo-soprano sweeping back against the suede swath to reveal its lighter side, back and forth, back and forth with it is well with my soul, my parents—after a childhood of being dragged to church now as secular as a Saturday night in Vegas—singing of the soul like Catholics surrounded by a sea of other Antiguans, people they grew up with across the ocean, now in a church in Harlem.
It turns out that, well, this didn’t happen. I found this out two, maybe three years ago. One of the foundational memories of my life didn’t happen. Or, at least, not in this way. Maybe they didn’t harmonize (According to my father, my mother’s a terrible singer, which when I thought about it is kind of true. I wouldn’t say she’s a terrible singer, but is she going to harmonize with someone?—I mean, even if she could, knowing my mother like I do, she wouldn’t have any time for that). Or maybe my father wasn’t there. As a child in Potters he had to go to church four days a week, often twice in the same day. He hasn’t made much of an effort to go to church since then, besides which he hates crowds. But even as I write this the memory is intact. I remember it.
And herein lies the problem: my mind has always been ahead of me. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I love to make things up because I don’t. I wasn’t trying to make anything up. It’s just that the stories happen. They’ve always happened. They’ve always been rhythmic. They’ve always been mythic. They’ve always, now that I think about it, sought to salve something that I didn’t know was hurting.
And this is so because I am and have always been belated.
I am a New Yorker. I barely feel American. I don’t feel that these two things contradict each other.
I am a New Yorker. I barely feel American. I don’t feel that these two things contradict each other. I grew up in an Antiguan house. Ate Antiguan food. Made the mistake of getting my father a Mighty Sparrow album once only to have him tell me that Sparrow sucks and why didn’t I get him a King Short Shirt album. But people who looked like me who weren’t related to me weren’t Antiguan. (Correction: I knew plenty of people who looked like me and weren’t related to me at the United Moravian Church but I thought they were related to me.) They were from everywhere else. In school, when we would read books by black authors there would inevitably be the church moment where something churchy would happen, all that would be missing was a flashing neon light reading “A.M.E.” or “Church Moment” that would hurtle you back to the American South via gospel, and I would feel like that was interesting but that I was reading something that was so far from what I had going on. The weirdest moments would be when the teacher would call on me—because it was the ’80s and teachers would call on the black kid to authenticate the moment—and I would look at my teacher like she was fucking crazy. Look, I have no idea, ok. I mean, yeah, I get it but I don’t have much to add from an existential point of view. If you want to get some Eliot or Donne out then maybe we can talk because the Moravians up in Harlem are rolling all high Anglican, sorry.
And then there were the Jamaicans.
I somehow ended up with what linguists have told me is a completely neutral American accent, so perfect in its flatness that it can’t be taught. This, coupled with my name, leads people to not have any idea where I’m from. However, once a hint of the Caribbean has been figured out I, like everyone from the English-speaking Caribbean who’s not from Jamaica, was usually identified as being from Jamaica. I consider this akin to living in New York, telling people I’m a writer and them assuming I’m from Brooklyn. Jamaica has always loomed so large, large like the Greater Antilles Island that it is. Large like Marley’s shadow. No one ever hears a Caribbean accent and asks, “Oh, are you from Antigua?”
This, then, is the story of how my blackness placed me where I wasn’t from. My Caribbeanness placed me where I wasn’t from. And my passport placed me where I wasn’t from, because let’s face it—and it’s not just now—New York and the majority of the rest of the country are barely the same country You’ll find more laws in common between two different Western European countries than between New York City and Baton Rouge.
There was an Antiguan I grasped onto when I was young: S.D. (Special Delivery) Jones. He was a wrestler in the WWF. He wasn’t a star, or a card, but he was more than a glorified jobber. I know this about him: that he wasn’t only Antiguan but also hard to categorize. When I’d hear his introduction—“And his opponent, from the island of Antigua . . .”—I don’t know, it wasn’t about representation, I just liked hearing someone sing it: “. . . from the island of Antigua . . .” You don’t say that in real life, you know. “Where are you from?” “I’m from the island of Antigua.” No. There was no drama behind it. It was a fact. Except it wasn’t a fact for me. Technically, I’m not from Antigua. My father, if he were editing this, would cross out “technically.” My mother, who’s perfected a style of objection in which it sounds like she’s going to be terse and then suddenly monologues with great philosophic vigor and borderline contempt, would rev up a response to my being Antiguan always with the same four words: “give me a break.” On and on they’d go, talking at the same time, yes, harmonizing.
And yet, they have never called me American. And they have gone to great strides to remind me, constantly, that I’m not African American (which, by the way, I already knew because of the church sermon thing I kept running into in DuBois, Hughes, Hurston, Baldwin). But what am I then? They’d say I was born in New York. I love New York. But New York isn’t a nation.
It was around this time when everything caved in around me, as far as what I am is concerned.
“I had no nation but the imagination.”
“I’m either nobody or I’m a nation”
“Next we pass slave ships, Flags of all nations,
our fathers below deck too deep, I suppose,
to hear us shouting. So we stop shouting.”
I started reading Derek Walcott. There are three aspects of Walcott’s work that immediately made sense to me: one, his sense of exile as an existential metaphor; two, his imagination being innately pictorial; and three, his devotion to sound as an idea. Put these three aspects together and you have a displaced person intensely seeing, listening, and being literal about it—which, ironically, is where the metaphor comes from, being literal until literal breaks. Many of us are here to talk about Derek so I’ll keep this brief and simply add that Derek’s work gave me a model, especially in Shabine, for being both from a region and exiled from it and seeking reconciliation in the ut pictura poesis of the imagination. I appropriated what, as Wallace Stevens put it in “Of Modern Poetry,” was the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice. New York, I realized, was always going to be my Caribbean—that curt collection of islands would have to do.
I started to make sense of my vocation, which was always poetry.
But first, the question.
When did you know you wanted to become
A poet? No one believes this question.
No one listens for the answer. It’s one
Of those habits of people forced to live
Together on a spinning rock, the pale
Blue dot a wince in the wide attention
The dying light seeks out from ice giants
Dull and firm in the dark, under polite
Lights, midst rows and rows of people who ask
When and why about poetry, of she
Who forgets to ask something that was,
I realize later, part of the poem,
The part where it all comes together, and,
Having come together, finally sings.
I never mind it when it comes. And it always comes. But I don’t mind it. “How did you become a writer?” Or, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” Or, “Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?” Something like that. Where does this question come from? Why is it ubiquitous? And what is its purpose and function?
Iris wants to be a writer and does the right thing: she devours books. Many of the authors she reads are dead. She reads their biographies. And no matter how much they sanctify or savage their subject, there is a barrier. Some of the authors she reads are still living. She reads their interviews, maybe a memoir or two, she reads an autobiography and wonders why it isn’t a memoir, she reads a memoir and wonders why it isn’t an autobiography. And no matter how much they clarify or cauterize their subject, there is a barrier. Of course, this barrier is as insurmountable as the Gate that closed on the Garden of Paradise. It is unscalable and endless. Deep in her heart, Iris knows this. But when finally she has the chance to ask a writer anything, she asks this. “How did you become a writer?” Or, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” Or, “Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?” Something like that.
And the writer answers.
I read a magic book. And it influenced me so much. When I opened it, flames shot from the pages, the spine smelled like lilac, honeysuckle, ginger root, and thyme. It taught me the four ways of the procrastinating tiger and told me to climb the Marrah Mountains. All of that happened and I became a writer. Something like that.
Iris, half-listening. She’s never seen a single flame from a single page of a single book she’s read. She is enacting the role of the listener. The writer, the role of writer. These are theatrical distances from the truth.
The truth being that fiction spurs the question and the answer. We are all born telling stories set to rhythm and rhymes. It is how we first understand the world. What we perceive and conceive is melodic truth. Then we reach a certain age where it is socialized out of us. You stop saying how your day is going through song. You stop explaining that you’ll have the lasagna because you love lasagna through song. You wish to have friends. Or simply not get beat up. You turn the tap off. Sometimes it’s too late to turn it back on. Sometimes. Sometimes that happens at twelve. Sometimes that happens at thirty-three.
I never turned my tap off. I just always read and wrote poetry. And if someone wanted to fight me about that then we were going to fight. I was on a journey. I needed to make sense of it somehow and there was no mirror. Everything felt like I came after it. This included not only Antigua. But my own name.
My parents never call me Rowan.
I’m Ricky, from Ricardo.
But not Ricky Ricardo.
I’m also the first Phillips in my family.
My mother decided Phillip, my father’s
Family name, sounded too much like a first name.
(In America, at least).
Rowan Phillip would lead inevitably
To Phillip Rowan. That was her story, and she’s sticking to it.
For the record, that’s an Old Norse first name,
A Spanish middle name,
And one of those faux-English-faux-Dutch-sounding last names
That’s really Greek for lover of horses.
“Rowan Ricardo Phillips”:
Another of those names that straddles seas in the sails of unseen
Ships. Still, it sounds typically West Indian to me.
And like “the West Indies” indefinite.
An indefinite noun in an indefinite poem.
It took me a while to accept it.
As I’d told you earlier, I’m not even really a Phillips. That’s an invention at the whim of my mother (and still a touchy subject among the Phillip clan, especially the aforementioned aunts who went to Princess Margaret). Years later, I would meet Caryl Phillips and he would tell me that he, too, is a Phillip turned into a Phillips. And, of course, he too is from an island so small it sometimes appears on a map and sometimes doesn’t. And he, too, loves soccer or football or soccer too much and tennis just enough and has his inherited city. This is the part where I should say that I was heartened that I wasn’t the only one, that I wasn’t alone. That would be untrue. I was again belated but by this point I had learned to love it. What moved me more, much more, than having someone with whom I shared an experience was the fact that I had learned to cull the power and poignancy of being belated, being the second or third, a layer in the palimpsest. After all, don’t we fetish firstness. And isn’t it poison for the poet? Have we not killed Phillis Wheatley’s poetry with firstness: so eager to say she was the first “xyz” that the poems become an afterthought? And when Milton writes that in Paradise Lost he is doing “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” he’s actually doing what Torquato Tasso first did and when is the last time you read Gerusalemme Liberata. Poetry is belated experience represented as immediate experience, music for when the music is over.
Poetry is belated experience represented as immediate experience, music for when the music is over.
And then there is Jamaica.
Life’s concentric circles span from the self and yet are alien to the self. The torque of gravity from having been here, wherever here is, whatever this is, pushes against reality altering its shape. We are rocks tossed into the black water of the cosmos, blind to our beginnings. The nascent ripples of a rock simply span out from the first fact of is. Those first ripples, the event horizon, are the strongest—and the most foreign. We become, at some point, aware of ourselves, seeing the wide reach of the motion of things, the thin and distant lines of it. By this point the rock is gone, we look to the center and see nothing but stillness; we certainly don’t see ourselves. At some point, we go from being the rock entering the water to the rock being submerged to rising on the other side of our lives looking at the rock entering the water. I can’t tell you when I wanted to be a writer, because I have always written, which is different from being a writer. I like to forget, sometimes, that I’m a writer. Honestly, I never like to remember that I’m a writer. I prefer just to write.
But I remember reading Jamaica Kincaid for the first time and then the second time, once in school and then right after outside of school and thinking about being a writer for the first time. She spoke to you about the difference between seeking freedom and seeking happiness. After all I have told you about Antigua, I knew from early on that Antigua had its great writer. I felt a great freedom and a great happiness. As random as the pieces that have made up my life were, Derek, Caz, and Jamaica threw me out of the crib. They had those pieces covered and I began to write about other things: deep space, myth, Coltrane, snow. I let it all go: my island, every island, I let them go. I traded in my loneliness for solitude and embraced the difference between the two. I learned, like a poet must, to live in the gap between the two. And so I do: flickering between loneliness and solitude, Antiguan and New Yorker, Phillip and Phillips, more neither than both because being both feels so utterly modern and naïve. Letting go of that. Risking being nothing not for its own sake but to discover what comes of it. This is the prologue of poetry. This is how the mind truly travels and changes. This is the imperceptible border of the poem, the sense of it that orbits and re-tunes the cold blue world.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Circuit (FSG, 2018), Heaven (FSG, 2015), and The Ground (FSG, 2012). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in New York City.