Limestone is the epic poem of Barbados and a major development in an indigenous Caribbean poetics. Drawing on the folk music of Tuk, Anthony Kellman invents his own forms of Tuk verse to write the story of his island from the destruction of the Amerindians to the present day.
Part one uses both invented characters and actual historical persons such as Bussa and Nanny Grigg, the leaders of the 1816 slave revolt, to explore the epic of loss, survival and reinvention in the lives of the African slaves.
Part two is set in the post-emancipation period up to the twenty-first year of independence. Through the voices of those who led the struggle against colonialism -- Samuel Jackman Prescod, Charles O’Neal, Clement Payne, Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow -- Kellman explores their inner anguish over the slow pace of advance and the inevitable compromises with external power. And as the queues of would-be emigrants at the American consulate lengthen, the island asks: when a White business class still dominates the economy, who has benefited from the people’s struggles of the past?
Part three is set at the end of the twentieth century and tells the stories of Livingston, a young musician, and Levinia, an Indian-African Barbadian schoolteacher who has migrated to the USA. Their stories explore the complex relationship of contemporary Barbadians to their homeland: deep attachment and an equal frustration over the absence of opportunities.
Limestone constructs a vision of Barbados that encompasses suffering and achievement, heroic struggle and the setbacks of born of self-interest and timorous compromise. Above all, Limestone is never other than a poem: a vast treasure house of images, sounds and rhythms that move, entertain and absorb the reader in its world.
A review by Sasenarine Persaud:
This is a book which spans the history of Barbados, from the arrival of the Europeans to the beginning of the 21st Century. Readers of West Indian literature will think of Walcott's Omeros at the mention of "epic." Kellman's latest book takes its place alongside Omeros without any fanfare; and, yet, at the same time, Limestone arrives with more than fanfare -- a companion CD, which contains many of the lyrics in his epic rendered by the poet, who is also a musician and an exponent of ""Tuk"" music indigenous to Barbados and based on ruk-a-tuk band music.
It is not surprising that one of the major characters in this epic, Livingstone, (there are all sorts of allusions here) mirrors some of the events and places from Kellman's life. At least, there is no mimicry of Greek fiction passed off in poetry as Barbados. Kellman went to England as a musician and sang and played in clubs there. So does Livingstone. Kellman returned to Barbados before making his way to Georgia, where he is a professor of English and Creative Writing. Livingstone, or "Livvy", as he is called by his mother, returns to Barbados for his mother's funeral. Then there is Levinia, who like Kellman, migrates to Georgia, the 'deep south' in the USA, before, thirsting for her island, Barbados, to which she returns with increasing frequency.
The poet splits his poetic persona/experience between the man, Livvy, and his psychic self, the woman, Levinia. One goes to England and returns to a life-giving island, the other goes to the USA and also returns to that island. The poet's characters, like the poet, returns again and again to Barbados. The book is divided into three parts. The first part consists of short three-line verses; the second of freer, and longer verses of uneven length and lines that often rhyme; and the third part of four-line verses.
Limestone was more than ten years in the making; Kellman had written about starting this work while I still lived in Toronto. Of course, there is a pattern in the structure, and a reason for this ghosting not merely the history of the natives the Europeans met and decimated on their arrival to the island, or the slaves they brought from Africa, and the loves and betrayals and revolts of those slaves and, later, their descendants in an independent nation, Barbados, but the music as it evolved in a fusion of European and African forms and structures, with echoes of Amerindian rhythms.
This is a complex work, which ends in a throwback to a transcendence to another time and place, reminiscent of early Wilson Harris in his masterpiece, Palace of the Peacock, a novel haunted by the music of the Amerindians of South America and the boy-man, Carol, playing a human bone flute. In the closing pages of Limestone, Livvy does not get the girl, Levinia, whom he meets in a chance encounter on Brandon Beach created and re-created again, again--or does he? You have to read again and again, as you have to do Wilson Harris. And yet you don't need to. As in Harris, meaning is in the music and music has a meaning that transcends the logic of language. The music of these words and rhythms haunt long after the last words are read: ""or sandboxes' leaves falling on sand. /These hard symbols mirrored their ruins, /their grim histories, a truth that hymns/ every living woman, living man.