Image Credit: Peepal Tree Press, 2017
This article contains references to sexual assault and abortion.
Shivanee Ramlochan is a highly successful Trinidadian poet. She first burst onto the poetic scene in 2017 with the critically acclaimed Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting, and let me tell you, it is quite some debut. Although her work is less well known in the UK, it is through series like this one that I hope to tackle this. Poetic voices as strong as hers simply cannot be missed.
I first came across Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting in bold black ink on a required reading list. It was to be read for a module in which I was fortunate enough to have been lectured by Vahni Capildeo, another prominent poet from Trinidad. When I picked the book up, I was intrigued but wasn’t sure what to expect. It was different from anything I had previously read.
However, it’s safe to say that once I had finished reading the short seventy pages, any expectations that I could possibly have had going into it were undoubtedly exceeded. I was completely transported and deeply disturbed.
The voices of women, queer, and non-binary people are at the forefront of this powerful poetry collection and it could not have a more appropriate title. It truly is haunting. But, I say this in the best sense of the word: the poetry is haunting in that it is thought provoking and had the ability to move me deeply. The words on each page are not to be forgotten. They demand a permanent place in the back of your mind and rightly so.
Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting is a collection of poetry that I would urge everybody to read. Months after having read the book for the first time, I still feel moved by Ramlochan’s poignant yet powerful words. They are impressive because they are bold and I envy the strength of character behind them.
Ramlochan tackles the unspoken. In particular, the issues that women have been profoundly shamed by society into never openly discussing. The carefully crafted open conversations that run deeply throughout, go further than merely touching upon issues such as rape and abortion. They are faced head on. Ramlochan plays upon society’s negative messages, beginning the poem On The Third Anniversary of the Rape with: “Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station. Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.”
The references highlighting the difference between what we are taught (the myth of the minotaur in school) and what we are not, are striking. In the end, the poem relays a final and empowering message, “ Say he took something he’ll be punished for taking, not something you’re punished for holding like red thread between your thighs”. Ramlochan rewrites the common discourse of society and is unapologetic in doing so.
Speaking in an interview with the Forward Arts Foundation, Ramlochan’s advice to anybody starting out with poetry was, “ Be open to pain”. It is through her willingness to share and voice painful experiences, including those of other people around her, that both men and women can be, and have been, empowered through her work.
Reading the poems, you can feel the pain at the heart of each one. The words evoke a visceral reaction. Some of the poems in the middle section of the anthology, The Red Thread Cycle, which document instances of sexual assault and survival, made me cringe and want to close my eyes. I stopped to think about why I had reacted this way and I feel that it’s society's unwillingness to openly discuss such topics that can make them difficult to face up to. Although these issues can be hard to comprehend, we mustn't shy away from them. Ramlochan’s words are not easy to read or digest but they are vitally important.
Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting was a pleasure to read, despite the subject matter being the total opposite. The words of marginalised and previously unheard individuals are intricately woven together to form an empowered collective voice. At the same time, not one of those individual voices is lost. Ramlochan gives a voice to those who so desperately need to be listened to through poetry that is both eye-opening and soul-destroying.