Thomas Wolfe famously wrote “You can’t go home again.” On the flip side, we never leave. The latter defines the theme of Trinidad poet Jennifer Rahim’s “Wherever I go….”

I have a liking for poetry of surface simplicity, yet iceberg subtlety offering multiple nuance.

A good poem is when everything functions: structure, rhythm, diction, imagery, etc. In this sense, all worthy poetry is ecological, each element an integral contributor to the welfare of the whole.

Good poems suggest, lending them universality.

When done well, their texts rewrite themselves, speaking to us continually in varied ways beyond spatial and temporal boundaries.

In all these aspects, Rahim’s poem does not disappoint.

Wherever I go…

there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

We are to the very end
a naming not our own,
though we leave to find

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know,

like a small beach
has the ear of the great sea

and a trillion ebbs
are never without returns.

This flow is the staying,
though we depart.

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle

like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

I like the unusual way Rahim integrates the title, an adverbial clause, flowing like the poem’s ocean ambience, into the lines that follow, setting up the poem’s structural elements.

That this clause ends in ellipsis, is significant, suggesting still more to be said. Reflection lies at its core.

While not specified, this is a poem about leaving home and its consequences.
That Rahim is from Trinidad may lead readers to impose boundaries on its meaning, i.e., the diaspora. Yes, emigration has been a norm for Trinidadians, 400,000 of them living in the USA; another 80,000 in Canada and 23,000 in the UK. Trinidad’s most renowned writer, the late V.S. Naipaul, resided in the UK.

Two notable novels of our time depicting the immigrant mood superbly are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and India’s Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad.

But the poem transcends restriction to migrants in its nuance.  A well made poem coalesces its formal elements into meaning.  It is its own text.

Read this way,  “Wherever I go…”  becomes universal, topophilia, or love of place, its theme.  As Alastair Bonnett comments in his Unruly Places, “Place is a protean and fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. We are a place-making and place-loving species.”

The poem’s structural elements are binary in their conception,
three introductory tercets, followed by couplets offering amplification through simile and metaphor. In both sections, sea referents prevail, unifying the poem.

Irony pervades the structural prelude: “we leave to find”

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know.

“Ring” in l. 3 suggests encirclement or entrapment. We cannot elude our origins that birthed our identity.

The amplifying examples defining this sense of dislocation are embedded in specific sea imagery in the subsequent couplets, suggesting the tidal flow of remembrance: “This flow is the staying,/though we depart.”

The small beach and echoing of sea landscape hint at constancy and safety.

Then comes the poem’s magnificent concluding oyster analogy defining the enduring strength of remembrance:

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle
like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

Intriguingly, ellipsis concludes the poem, mirroring the ellipsis of the opening and its thematic, “Wherever I go…”

A unified poem in all its informants, we now understand more fully the persona’s opening musing:

Wherever I go…
there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

Archetype abounds.  Islands often represent sanctuary; the sea, the timeless and maternal. Rahim’s poem is from her new poetry collection, Sanctuaries of Invention.

The oyster has a maternal aspect, pregnant as it were with a grain (seed) becoming a pearl.

The pearl referent, however, is double-edged. In mythology, looking back imperils. Memory can embellish, recalling Proust’s sober observation, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

And yet as Homer underscores in his epic saga of the archetypal migrant, each of us requires his Ithaca.

–rj