Bird of Paradise Lily


The fusion of the images of a bird and a lily is an example of how glorious language is, in depicting the world we live in. But, it is not the extraordinary and awesome power of language in this sense that I am after. Neither the mystery of metaphor nor how it is the basis of new word formation. It is not the intriguing manner of words in focusing our attention on aspects of the world that speak to other material features in distinct domains that I am examining. It is the nature and quality of the human voice, this gift of the vocal cords that is my concern.

The human voice can speak in a hushed tone, be intimate as in a whisper. It can soar and then do a somersault as it tells a story. It can enchant, charm, seduce or command and reduce to tears. To listen is to be enthralled, to enter into another situation, to participate in the invisible but influential web of narrative, an unseen structure that is yet durable and unmistakable in its force.

Sometime last year, in Port of Spain, Funso Aiyejina took me to Cascade to meet Earl Lovelace. Earl lives in a large house, built into the hillside. We sat on his verandah, which overlooked a sheer drop, enveloped by mango trees. So close to the city but quiet, secluded and immersed in bird call and cricket sound. He opened a bottle of rum but I had freshly squeezed lime-juice, the very best.

The talk started slowly like an engine rusty from infrequent use, a spluttering start, a misfire, a stalled attempt but then when the cobwebs and the sediment were all flushed out, a silky pure run of magnificent horse power purred. I learnt of the mutiny, of the need for a clean break from colonization, of the need for patience alongside the passing of irrecoverable time, essentially of the bad faith of politicians.

We left in good spirits for the West of the city, the Western Peninsula, past Westmoreland, with Belmont behind us. There were runners, cyclists, and also yachts. The breeze too was perfumed! The rich and important live here in condominiums, large detached houses, and the roads are merely thoroughfares, no aimless loitering or liming here, no corner shops, no stalls, only vistas and scenes, views.

On another evening, in different company, I ate at Veni Mange. Veni Mange is a Caribbean restaurant run by a pair of sisters, one of whom recently died, suddenly. It is a friendly place. Our waitress was a young woman, slim and bronze. She had exquisite, almond shaped eyes. Her smooth skin and her face had the quality of a mask. When she smiled, it was like a bird spreading its wings and puffing up ready to take flight. The face and eyes called out to be admired. But, she rarely smiled. She barely tolerated serving others. Her look said if you think that just because I’m serving you we’re on the same plane, you’re wrong! She walked back and forth, swinging her derrière in the African fashion, like a horse switching its tail one way then the other, slowly, deliriously slowly, suggestive but as if with utmost disdain for any admiration. Haughty is her middle name.

Nadila who served us the last time, came in from the pavement outside, where she had been holding court. She was about 5 feet 4 inches tall with a broad torso on tapered lower limbs. She wore her hair in an Afro, an uncombed Afro that she tugged at, and pulled for effect whilst she spoke, somewhat, like a European woman, who preens her hair this way and that, touching it and smoothing it and then starting all over again. Except that here the action was a tugging, a pulling, a flourished wide gesture of sweeping the hair in a bunch, and all the time staring you directly and provocatively in the eye.

The Caribbean accent is made for seduction. It soars and sings, it hangs in the throat, it is spat out in guttural stops, and then it wraps itself in warm oil and perfume, around your viscera before once again soaring in a final soprano waltz. Nadila exercised these dark arts as she told her stories of cricket at Old Trafford with sixes clapped gently like an after dinner speech and movement restricted in between overs. Her gestures, her arm across her not inconsiderable breasts, her laugh and energetic movements moving the story from mime to pantomime, and raising the action from soap opera to Shakespearean tragedy!

It was a performance that gave the evening a special color. It turned an ordinary outing into a private performance of improvised theatre.

Of course, the actual stories are important in these encounters. But, to ignore the cadence of the voice, the tone and music, the way in which the materiality of the voice coaxes or inveighs, rails against or endears is to miss the point completely. It is to miss the richness and beauty that is for free.

A clinical encounter has all the possibilities of what it is to reach out to another being. But, there’s much that obstructs the potential creative aspects of the interaction. For one, the demands of computer entries of information, the sterility of the clinical space for all the modern design and attention to atmosphere. Then there is fear. Terror, that the limits and boundaries of propriety will be breached.

Hence the voice is stilted, the words become anchors that weight the feelings down. And, the words too, are counted out, like a miser’s pennies. Further impoverishing what is already denuded.

But to use the voice and to listen is singularly human. Both the corrosive and the caressive aspects, the longing and the sorrowful tension in the timbre, and the lightness of hope balancing the harsh unforgiving dimension of despair. These can be listened for, accentuated or moderated as necessary. But listened to and understood.

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