Preface to a Memory of Dominica


Brick 103

Night, Maracas–St. Joseph, Trinidad, 2019

In 2014, I walked the streets of Roseau, the capital of Dominica. I roamed like a lost mariner in the ebbs and flows of people caught up in the business of living. I’ve been meaning to go back, but that Dominica is gone forever, I think. These photographs of locks are from that walk through a place I had never seen but have always known somehow. I was on my way home from America, and these were my waypoints, all seized up and rusty. These locks— with names like Santiao, Lion, Thunder, and Wolf Dog—possess their own mythology, their own secular lore. I make no attempt to decode them here. In time, I know, they will be more than what I would want them to be, perhaps the preface to a grand memoir of missed opportunities. An allegory, you might imagine, of a human seeing. Or better, returning from a land of closed doors, I might recall an epic of locks and what they hold, the vast intricacies of their known and unknown chambers, their inner mechanisms, keepers of their own camera obscura.

In time, yes. But not then.

A story about images and how they came to be, being more than they are in the beholder’s eye and heart? About a long, aching love?

Yes, in time. But not then. It was simpler then.

 

Morning, Mahaut, Dominica, 2014

Before you go looking for clichés in a place you do not know, here are some things to remember. First, over-thinking is a preamble to regret, so you must be quick. When I say that you must take your time, I mean that you must hurry. How should I explain what I mean?

Have you known some secret beloved? Have you loved? Loved with no return? If you have, you will know this: when loving, the hours will seem long. Do you remember? They will seem to go on for miles and miles, stretching, for ages, between you and your secret beloved. The deception will trick you into waiting too long to say what you might have said. (You will wait in vain, eventually, to love.) Resist that. Nothing will wait for you. Minutes (no longer minutes to you) will appear to be as still as the lazy house cat that spent its hours watching the blackbirds dance on quivering tension wires, their tails raised up, wings stretched down below the line, necks cocked, their poison-dart beaks broken open in song. Seconds, though they age in your hands, will seem fresh. They, too, will dry up and pass. Their fragrance will fade.

Time, always passing, will leave you eventually. Years have already gone by.

Know, with all your loving heart, that the long hours are short, shorter when loving. Like you, none of it will last because that is the way of things. Do not grieve, for grief, unlike longing, is a luxury that people steeped in the symbolic cannot entertain. There is no time to waste for people like us. We must get on with it.

What does this mean, then, to hurry up and take your time? It means that before things fall apart and time turns completely from memory to forgetting, you must hurry and gather up what pieces you can. (I am writing from memory and am feverish, if you must know. You, too, are a person of scattered pieces, so this frantic act of gathering will not be unfamiliar to you.) Hurry, before you forget everything, before you forget what you lacked the courage to say and to do. Because that, too, will matter before the end. Grind them up, these pieces of time remaining, with a mortar and pestle. (To grind, turn your hand clock-wise; do not pound as you would with the chadon beni leaves but like you would with bay leaves or nutmeg.)

Smell.
Pour the grounds into an enamel cup, if you have one (the older, the better).
Add hot water.
Let it steep and sink to the bottom.
Sit with it.
Let the enamel warm your hands, the callus on your palm, at the base of your ring finger. Stir.

Drink.

The steam will smell of her words and her perfume. It will move like she does, like the onset of tabanca, but that is only your imagination. In reality, it is just your old heart breaking open again.

Drink.
Run your tongue along the rim of the cup.
Feel the smooth blue-black marks, won from its one too many wars.
Wonder what chips the enamel.
Rub the grounds against the roof of your mouth. Swallow. They will feel, at first, like grains of sea sand in your throat. Like stones and glass on a beach you believe you alone have found.

Swallow.
Watch the blackbirds dance.
Then get up, rinse the cup, and put it off to the side. Let it drain. Go bathe. Get dressed. Get ready to take what remains of your time out on the road with you. Take note of where you are. This is life and loving on an island. But it is more than that. Your granular exploration of a city begins at a distance. You must approach it from some way off, where you can take in the full expanse of all it has promised and all that it cannot deliver. Use this knowledge to save your life. Or mine.

 

Late Morning, Mahaut, Dominica, 2014

The apartment was only a hundred yards or so back up the road from where I stood waiting for a minivan to take me to the city. I could still see the balcony and the yard. There was, in that hundred yards or so, an aunt whose name was the same as my mother’s, a view of the concrete house across the way with the top half of its back door open, the empty cardboard barrels addressed in bold black-markered letters and numbers, the door, the sink, the sofa where I’d spent too many hours walking around in my head. Enough. I’d been standing out there for a while when I saw it. Even in the early mornings, vehicles dance like mirages on the grey asphalt that seems to stretch all the way to Portsmouth. (I didn’t know yet that the road would bend like a long, discarded rope, a rope left on the bow of a pirogue run aground on the coast, or the coast itself.) I forget what I imagined in that moment. I hailed the minivan in the usual way and got in.

In America, I had learned to miss the sound of us, to expect nothing to happen in the space between our words (a space filled, here, with sounds of the village, groaning through the day, resuscitating itself in the drone of passing cars, a woman’s laugh, a man’s complaint, an open drain). I lived above a deli in Syracuse, in something like a storeroom. No room for self-loathing. No space for sound. But climbing now into the minivan, its doors opening even before it stopped, I could hear the passengers talk. (A starched schoolgirl to her harried mother, an expiring man to an expired woman, a morning drinker to himself. All of them talking: about forgotten lessons or forgotten youth.) Hearing them and forgetting that the dust in my lungs was from my own vanity, I longed for something old and industrial to happen in me. Forgetting that I, too, had settled like dust in the hardened lungs of a history that still struggles to breathe on its own, I longed for the memory that would make their language mine. I knew the song, but the lyrics—the lyrics escaped me. Their words were smooth. Mine were laden with spikes and shards. They’ve done such damage. If only there had been some grease at the hinge of my jaw, some oil between my teeth and tongue, between my words, which spun like bearings so near my awkward lips, I might have done better than “Morning, morning.” We still repeat things in the Caribbean, that much I knew. Repetition in the midst of so much forgetting. “Morning,” others responded in a chorus.

We arrived in Roseau a few minutes later, joining the queue of other minivans, their drivers and touts ensuring the chaotic exchange of incoming passengers for outgoing ones. I’d see them again later. I crossed the road.

 

Afternoon, Roseau, Dominica, 2014

This is a Caribbean city. No place on earth so eager to outpace its past, marking time with an insistence so fierce it buries itself where it should have long taken root. It will take a step in some cosmopolitan direction but will not stay. Unless you walk in a Caribbean city, you will only think you know what love is, what loss feels like on a scale beyond the singular borders of your body, beyond the instinctive concern for your own preservation, but you do not. It is only after perfecting the pounding staccato of domino tiles on old varnished tables that you will begin to feel like you belong here, in this city by the water. Between losing, then winning, among the drunk and the sober, you remember that there is no place like where you are in this moment. Too early for the hard rum, we nail shut the various victories and disappointments collected throughout the day and commit our losses to silent nods, black bottles, a cigarette near the door. A guild of diggers and builders, teachers and crooks. An elegy.

Only there: among the hundreds who ignore you and your awkward questions, among those you can be comfortably invisible with, where you and your newfound people can be silent by force and disruptive by choice as you grind yourselves to dust, where you wait for a Carnival like only those who believe in resurrection can wait, where you can endure the pathology of belonging with smatterings of grace that stain your spirit like canal water on a shirt or sheet or blouse blown off its line. Only there, and in no place else on earth, will your unanswered love find its measure.

In a Caribbean city, there is nothing so open as a locked door, nothing so obvious and vulnerable as a city’s memory of wishing it were more than it is. Every allegory is there. In the peeling paint, the rusted mesh, there was your shipwreck and your sugar. Your history in broken hinges. I wonder, What is a locked door to a passerby who knows better than to go in?

You can only fall out of love in a city like this. A city like this can only leave you, even though (having grown tired of taking your time in chipped enamel cups) you are the one who will walk away from it. Thank God for that. Though you know only atheists can thrive here, give thanks. Our pains, done too well, can look like art. Hurt, a kind of privilege. Neglect, an ironic luxury. But there is nothing to lose in a city like this. To walk in a place where all you can do is fall out of love is to love that place more completely, without condition or expectation. To be lost in it is a prayer answered, even if you cannot pray in this unforgiving heat. What time you think you have in this city is no longer yours (no, your time still courses through your bluish veins, making its way through your half-open heart, your overthinking brain, bound for forgetting as it escapes your pores and your panting steps). This city, you will find, has no owner. It is you who belongs to it. In time, you will become one of its open secrets, always as busy as your pride (your shame) will allow.

Stop for a minute.

Have a drink at the bar on the corner of somewhere and something. Listen to the expats boast of knowing your city because they see their bones in the cobblestone and brick, the story of their lives ground into the mortar. Do not complain. Your envy will teach you patience. Soon, you will find the domino drummers drumming. Your ancestors will manifest in newer skins, and your fury will find the accompaniment it seeks. You will learn the song and will sing its lyrics aloud. In time, you will write one of your own.

And in time, you will dance to it, like a blackbird. It will be as if your imagined wings will turn blue in this late-afternoon light.

 

Evening, Sans Souci, Trinidad, 2019

Photography is the art of lost opportunity. It is the art of questions that go unasked, of answers that languish and dry up. It may be other things, but it most definitely is that: a chronicle of loss. It is the art of seeing and of missing—a reflection on what is no longer there. For this reason, photography, as far as you and the camera are concerned, will always be as much about yourself as about what you think you see. It enables the materialization of myth. We are people of myth and symbol, you and I, so this should come as no surprise. From the heated air around our dry earthen skins through to our bones, through to what we cannot see, to our stories and secrets. To our learned spirits, which can appear gold in the mornings and blue later in the day. See how the shapes and remnants of our aspirations dry up and bleach in the sun or look black in the upturned mud? See how the cuticles on our fingers and toes turn to paste when we stay too long in the river? How our misbehaving hair kinks and writhes in the driving rain and the uncaring heat that always follows it? (We are a wet-season and dry-season people, still.) See how even the circumstance of weather—of light and heat, wind and water—can lend itself so faithfully to our being? The photograph, a crude extension of the art, is a rough allegory of the seer and what has inspired him. The right of all seers, I suppose, is to make of things what we will. It is an affordable sovereignty.

Until the winds shift and we change course. Painfully, suddenly. I am remembering my secret beloved. And I am remembering things that may have disappeared, may have been dragged into oblivion: not the locks, or what lay within and behind them, but the people I never knew and those I could never know. People I could never forget. I wonder, is it blasphemy to forget who you could never know, to raise the waterlogged spirit of a people you have never seen? And are these photographs less like allegories and more like incantations to the cataracted eye? In time.

The vaulted ambition of an epic that would stand and curse empires—old and new—loses its sting for simpler remembrances. The sharp urgency subsides to a whisper. I still have an arsenal buried in my chest, but I am remembering what I cannot properly imagine. There were the heavy rains, the wind, the darkness. Too much. Too long. The unspeakable erasures. Too much. Too long.

The truer loss, truer than any photograph.

I say these things as if I knew then what I know now. You’ll forgive the pretense, won’t you? We are Carnival people, after all.

Brick 103

Kevin Adonis Browne is a Caribbean American photographer and writer. His work is a transdisciplinary discourse on the legacies of light and being in Caribbean culture. He is the author of two books: Tropic Tendencies (2013) and High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture (2018).