By Valerie Knowles-Combie
Althea Romeo-Mark’s collection of selected poems, If Only the Dust Would Settle, is the outgrowth of a series of poetry readings, commissioned by VITA (Verein fur Interkulturelle Treffpunkte und Anlaufstellen), an “umbrella organization that focuses on the integration of immigrants in Switzerland.” Romeo-Mark’s introduction explains that her poems are connected to a personal essay.
“A Home with Endless Space” (7), a very significant construct that reinforces the meaning of “home” and “space” to the author’s primary theme. While her poems are divided into five sections, Romeo-Mark’s skillful allocation of each poem develops the theme while simultaneously highlighting pivotal episodes in her life, which clarify and support her message. The five sections may be classified as periods of transportation or transition, which finally lead to transformation. As a self-declared “immigrant”, Romeo-Mark weaves the fabric of her professional and social lives into her cultural experiences, which result in an insightful collection of poetry and prose. Her introduction to each section describes the author’s journey from her birth in Antigua to her present status as a Swiss citizen, while the poems trace her movements and growth.
Romeo-Mark’s inclusion of a German translation of each introduction and poem makes her work more accessible to a wider group of readers, primarily those of her adopted home: Switzerland. This bilingual collection conveys a strong message as it portrays the author’s attempted assimilation into various cultures and her ultimate Swiss acculturation and citizenship.
In the first part of the collection: “The Caribbean Scene”, Romeo-Marks autobiographical essay introduces the Caribbean and the author’s attempts at assimilation, even though she claims possession of a nomadic spirit, “which makes her conclude that she is a ‘perpetual outsider” (9). These attempts are further described through the seven poems that follow. First, she introduces some traditions of her Caribbean heritage. The poem “Graveyard Sagas” (“Friedhof Sagas”) details some Antiguan/Caribbean traditions related to funerals. Not only did “Men gather at a nearby bar; / drink straight rounds of rum/ in honor of the dead” (15), but as the funeral procession went “through the town/…each shop/ closed its door” (15).
Traditions are often combined with proverbs, more commonly known as Caribbean wise sayings, such as is depicted in “West Indian Wisdom” (“Westindische Weisheit”): “Don’t ever point at a graveyard?…/ Bite you’ finger quick / before it rot and fall off” (20). This poem rekindles memories and invites the readers to reminiscence about some of the wise sayings with which we have been raised. The funeral proceedings have changed significantly, so that a millennial would think that the present environment surrounding the funeral has always existed. Today, the burden of the funeral with its accompanying accoutrements is assumed by the undertaker, which removes the community involvement as had been observed during Romeo-Mark’s autobiographical essay. Her references to traditions rekindle memories for her contemporaries, while they educate younger readers about the practices and traditions that were observed then.
Magda in the eponymous poem “Magda”, is the portrait of a typical Caribbean woman whose “life is church, / her son, Raphael,/ a collection of hats/ paraded on Sundays/ and Cuthbert, the husband she mostly hates” (26). Her priorities are clearly defined, but the reader knows the true ranking.
Romeo-Mark imperceptibly progresses from childhood to maturity by the selection of her poems. She also includes anecdotes of her culture, which revive images of a period in the past and a kind of usage that is slipping from the language and from people’s experiences.
It is not surprising that Part II is titled “The American Scene”, which introduces us to the author’s relocation to the United States Virgin Islands and her subsequent graduate work on the US mainland. It is significant to note that the introduction of the second section begins thus: “Escaping to the USA…” (38). This prefigures the author’s life that she describes as “nomadic,” which will later require her to escape from Liberia to her safety. The author connected very readily with African students who became her friends. She writes: “Although we came from different sides of the world, I felt at home with them. We shared a common spirit, a cultural bond and were not fettered by the past. We shared common foods, for example, cassava, plantain, yams, and Anansi stories” (38). That bond would lead to a closer affiliation with Africa.
The descriptive poems portray an American landscape that includes the flora, fauna, and uninhibited people who openly display their affection or lust as in demonstrated in “The Kiss” (“Der Kiss”). “She sucked his lips/ lingers as if, siphoning life….We turn our heads away, / pretend haven’t seen/ their tongues tango” (44). Her unstated embarrassment is a typical behavior, vestiges of her Caribbean heritage, which required proper decorum at all times with no public display of affection. Is this the poet’s unstated comparison of the great disparities between the apparent modesty of the Caribbean and that of the United States? Her use of alliteration adds a special dimension as it creates images of dancers’ gyrating bodies as they perform the tango.
In the final poem in this section, “Can I Borrow Your Smile?” (“Kannichmirdein Lacheinborgen?”), the author conveys an image that rekindles memories of Ellison’s Invisible Man. She writes: “ I am/becoming/a ghost” (48). Not only is she ignored, but there are serious implications that negatively affect her life. She is not undeterred, however, as she expresses further in the poem: “I must stoke up/ my flagging spirit/ battered/ and cold/ from long journeys/ filled with/ blistering winters” (48). The poet hints at the resilient spirit that refuses to give up in despair. Her spirit may be “battered”; she may be chilled by the “blistering winters” she has experienced, but the indomitable spirit of her forebears buoys her on. It is this spirit that reappears throughout the collection, a prediction of the poet’s experiences and the final outcome.
The poem ends “The American Scene,” where the poet seems to have barely survived though “battered and cold” (48). The journey motif recurs as she talk of “long journeys” and “blistering winters” (48). The poet juxtaposes this section between “The Caribbean Scene” of her birth, growth, and maturation and the “Liberian Scene.” Her enlightenment comes with a price she seems unable to afford, but she needs a positive flavor in her life. Thus, she borrows a child’s smile because she does “not wish to steal” (48). A child’s smile is unrehearsed, guileless, innocent. The poet infers a return to her innocent childhood, a period of rebirth, which she experiences later in life. This is an excellent way to transition to the next phase of her life.
During “The Liberian Scene.” The poet “felt at home” (50). She saw similarities between Antigua and Liberia not only in the foods, but in the stories and traditions. She became so entrenched in the Liberian life that she states, “although I was born in Antigua, Liberia was more of a home to me than Antigua ever was. I lived there longer than in my birth home. Liberia connected the past of my African ancestors to my present. It connected a Virgin Islands past (in Wilmot Blyden) to a Liberian past. These pasts created a fascinating history, which I share.” (52)
Unfortunately, that idyllic life soon changes with military coup followed by other coups that forced the family to seek refuge in a more stable environment.
The poems in this section register a different tone, a sinister message with revolutionary overtones. In describing the Liberian Coup of 1989, the poet invokes the lyrics of the late Bob Marely’s song “Get up, stand up/stand up for your rights” (62), but death carnage are the results.
The title poem “If Only the Dust Would Settle” (“Wennnur der Staubsichlegte”) describes The Liberian Civil Ware 1989 – 2003. The poet graphically describes the survivors’ experiences during the civil war. As they reminisce on those times, their “laughter camouflages pain “(66) while they describe their harrowing experiences. “They stumbled over the dead/ while fleeing to safety, marched long/across borders, battering searing sun/ and battering rain, skirted dogs/ devouring the flesh of swollen corpses” (66). Through it all, their resilient spirits willed them on. “Despite the horrors that drove them/ from their land, some crave home/ where they were their masters, / would surrender beautiful houses/ for huts in their villages” (67). The settling of the dust would revive their hope, but will the dust ever settle?
At the beginning of part IV: “The British Scene,” the poet claims that “England was a temporary home” (70), which is reflected in the two poems in this section. They also reflect the difficulties experienced by the family whose status has been reduced to that of refugees. Despite the change in location and status, the grief for lost friends and home, the poet realizes that she and her family are among the fortunate ones who have lost their “independence” (73), but they are still alive. She captures her sorrow and embarrassment cloaked in images of “soft silk memory” (76). Here again the poet resorts to alliteration to portray an image of apparent contradiction. And yet the journey continues. The image of the “nomadic” life reappears, but resolutely, the family moves on. The author’s experience becomes more credible today when the news focuses on refugees, primarily those from Syria, victims of the political upheavals in their homeland. The words stated by the immigration officer over two decades ago resonate today “Everybody’s coming to Switzerland” (78).
The final section brings the author full circle, not literally, but emotionally. She is resigned to her fate and is more accepting of Switzerland as her home. Is her poem “Castaway” (“Verlassen”) an autobiographical reflection of her status? Has she transitioned from a nomad to a “castaway”?
The poet summarizes her status beautifully in “The Familiarity of Strangers” (“Vertrauheitunter Fremden”) when after describing the behaviors of various people, she realizes that “People burst out of cocoons after a few beers,/ turn into butterflies, take wing in the unity of exclusion” (84).
The final poems in this anthology of selected poems present a paradigm shift in the poet’s mindset. The light tone and the hints of a dialect in “I becoming Swiss” (“Ichwerdezur Schweizerin”) describe a contented mind basking in the cultural appendages of the Swiss and even hinting at self-deprecation. As I read the poems, I detected a progression that led me to Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. While there was no explicit statement of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance, the tone of the poems leads the reader to detect a progression beginning with her denial poet and her family are robbed of their comfortable life and even descend into refugee status. The bargaining is followed by depression, and finally acceptance. In the last poems, no longer does the poet unburden her sadness or depression, but she revels in her transformation. She recounts the many way she is adapting to the Swiss lifestyle in her diet: “I find myself eating raclitle and fondue” (86). Her forms of disclosures have also changed “…and if strangers/ come up to me and want to chat friendly/ I think they batty, especially if they want/ to talk ‘bout family. It’s too personal, you see./ I getting irritated when people not on time./ Before I never used to mind./ I don’t call out to me friends in the street/ ‘ cause it’s not discreet” (86). Socially, her life has changed and she “can even understand a little Swiss German” (87). This is a definite sign of her acceptance of her fate. The dust is settling, and having experienced the earlier stages of grief, the poet experiences a transformation that is obvious even in her writing.
Althea Romeo-Mark’s book of selected poems If Only the Dust Would Settle autobiographically portrays her life through art, poetry, and prose. Each section describes the author’s life and the poems demonstrate the author’s emotional state. From the Caribbean to the United States, on to Africa and Europe, Romeo-Mark makes herself vulnerable as she presents the episodes of her journey while simultaneously demonstrating her resilient spirit.
Whether you speak English or German, you will enjoy learning about the poet’s very rich life and experiences. Her brief historical documentation of her many homes triggers interest in learning more; thus, this book will prove to be didactic as well as entertaining. It seems as if the dust, indeed, will settle as she and her family settle into their chosen paths. This brief anthology will appeal to a wide cross-section of people by virtue of the author’s experiences and her adroit manner of capturing and relating them.