Crossroads and Unholy Water

by | Oct 13, 2000

Crossroads and Unholy Water, Poems by Marilene Phipps, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

ARILENE PHIPPS’ FIRST full-length collection of poems, Crossroads andUnholy Water, is sure to draw the same attention that won her the Grolier Poetry Prize in 1993. Also a painter, Phipps uses words like brush- strokes to create a sensory feast. Phipps masterfully gives her characters and scenes life with creative and colorful imagery, creating such a vivid impression that it becomes ingrained as part of the reader’s own memory, not just as an impenetrable telling from hers. This is because her poems do not
describe superficial scenery; rather, they delve into the raw emotion underlying it.

The world of Crossroads and Unholy Water is a very real world. It is a sphere of beauty, to be sure, but it does not fall into becoming a picturesque cliché. When Phipps mixes in Creole phrases (not to worry she either translates or implies their meaning in the next few lines), she lends authenticity rather than exoticism to her poems. Phipps authority is largely derived from her experience. Though not all the poems are autobiographical, they are about a world she truly knows, having grown up in Haiti.

It is a distant world from her world here at Harvard, where she has been a Harvard Univer- sity Bunting Institute fellow, a W.E.B. Du Bois Institute fel- low, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions. Phipps has also been a Guggenheim fellow, and Transition magazine will publish a new short story by her in its December 2000 issue.

In her poems, Phipps usually focuses on the female characters, often in an original way. She has a way of exploring, and perhaps developing, the female character in the background while leaving the dominant male in the foreground unattended. At the same time, the female’s character is illustrated and defined in relation to her male counterpart. In “Elzir’s Advice,” a man’s death serves as the occasion for Elzir, a woman, to pass on a ritual to his widow. “Caribbean Corpses” is another example. Emmanuel’s funeral is used as a setting for his three grand- daughters, his son’s second exwife, his own widow, and final- ly his daughter, to act. In “Ti Kiki” and “Sunday Knife,” the prostitutes (the former on her first night and the latter semiretired), and not their customers, play the central role.

Crossroads and Unholy Water is crafted in three parts, the first of which is Caribbean Begin-nings. This set of poems draws from Phipps’ childhood experi- ences in Haiti and is particular- ly rich in stimulating imagery. Phipps has a knack for describ- ing a person or scene as if serv- ing a banquet, one delicious image followed gracefully by another. The first poem, “Man Nini,” is replete with beautiful similes. The section reveals a privileged life, with extravagant parties, and at the same time a fascination with the family’s more humble servants.

Then Life in Nerèt, the sec-ond part of the book, moves into a less innocent phase. It starts with “Pigs and Wings, a poem in which the miracles and hopes of childhood are left in the past, and only the ques- tions remain. With this loss of innocence, the poems in Life in Nerèt are about violence, full of the vulgarities and sufferings of life. This set of poems is less autobiographical than Caribbean Beginnings; it describes the other Haitian world: the world of the slums and poor immigrants; the world of prostitution, hunger, and disease. Death pervades the entire book, but it is nowhere as prevalent as in Vigils, the third section. Death, whether impending or having arrived, is present in every single poem of this section. The deaths of humans are couched between the first poem and the two last ones of the set, which narrate the violent deaths of animals frogs, a bull, a snake – at the hands of humans. Perhaps this serves to remind the reader that while the human condition is to face death, it exists in a con- text in which we also kill.

The passage between the three parts of the book, along with the constant presence of the passage into death, suggest a meaning for the “crossroads” in the book’s title. Perhaps, the “unholy water” alludes to Phipps refusal to dress things up. Conflicts, emotions, senses, are not clouded with efferves- cence; she presents them as they are. Phipps insists not on pro. faning the sacred, but on demystifying it to show how it is already profane.

Fall 2002


Emilio Juan Travieso is a junior concentrating in Social Studies.

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