‘In Nearby Bushes’ Kei Miller
ISBN 9781784108458, 76pp, £9.99
‘In Nearby Bushes’ is inspired by Jamaican police and newspaper reports of crimes where perpetrators escaped ‘in the nearby bushes’ or victims and criminal evidence were hidden ‘in nearby bushes.’ There’s an explanation of the collection’s title in a quote from Professor Anthony Harriott, ‘I make a distinction between “the nearby bushes” and “in the nearby bushes”… “In the nearby bushes” equals concealment, danger, while “the nearby bushes” equals a place of opportunity to do what one wishes to be hidden from others…’ The poems, however, are not wholly concerned with crime.
The first section ‘Here’, follows a poem, ‘Here Where Once Laid the Bodies’, that lists in tercets names of young men killed with a final solo line ‘& this are only some’, Here explores place and folk stories. In ‘Here Where Blossoms the Night’
The gentle meandering off into discourse on etymology contrasts with the violence of blade and blood; just as day contrasts with night. The ‘Love Bush’ ‘strangles trees’ just as a parasite feeds on its host; the worse violence is inflicted by someone who purports to love their victim. A beautiful island also conceals dark secrets.
Section 2, ‘Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places’ is described as a section of micro-essays that consider who gets to name places and create borders and also the spaces between borders. In ‘Sometimes I Consider the Nameless Spaces’
‘If sometimes is it possible to hear trees breathing, can you also hear them catch their breaths before the violence of place? Because isn’t place always a violence – the destruction of trees, the genocide of bees, the dislocation of birds, the cutting, the clearing, the paving, the smoothing, the raising up of cement like giant tombstones over the grave of all that was there before.’
Its lyricism belies the destruction being described, The use of passive verbs allows Kei Miller to avoid naming the perpetrator of the violence. Its tone a reminder that readers are not being lectured but asked to think. It’s also a reminder of newspaper reports that report the victim was killed rather than the alleged murderer took the victim’s life, the woman was raped, never the rapist raped. It sets up the final and longest section which gives the collection its title. ‘In Nearby Bushes’ is a long sequence which starts with a newspaper clipping about the discovery of a body of a young woman in a shallow grave after dogs were seen fighting ‘in nearby bushes’. The clipping is repeated four more times as erasures; text greyed out but still visible and chosen words kept in black type offering a different reading or perspective on the story. By leaving the remaining words visible, rather than redacting them, it shows how important words and emphasis are, how a story can be spun to suit the teller. Throughout the sequence, the bushes become a motif, concealing what people don’t want to deal with. In part VII.I,
‘If you could move over the breadfruit leaf – the one that has turned the colour of what an uncle who migrated calls “autumn”, you would find a skeleton. The skeleton of an SUV. Hidden just so, under a simple leaf. And it would not surprise you, the magic of nearby bushes, this turning of things into nothing.
The SUV, once green, has turned the colour you refuse to call autumn. After all! In every country, leaf drop and dead in the same colour. The vehicle is only the colour of dead leaves, as if it too has fallen, which it has.’
The rotting SUV could be a metaphor for the memory of the migrated uncle; present but buried, out of sight so out of mind. The newspaper clipping recurs too, in part XI.II, the poem’s narrator looks up the victim on social media,
‘It did not look like the picture in the newspaper, which wasn’t really of you, but of men in masks, the yellow investigative tape a backdrop of bushes – the bushes that held a body we could only imagine. I imagined the body of my cousin – my cousin who is still alive but who locks the useless doors so tight because she too had been dragged into nearby bushes. I did not know you. I do not know that my breath had any right to catch, or my heart to stop, or myself to wake up these past few nights haunted by the dream of you.
In the dream you are my cousin. In the dream you are a white deer. You stand beautiful in the dawn.’
An earlier poem has already told readers that deer are not native in Jamaica but a herd were brought to the island for display and some escaped. With no natural predators, they are thriving and move without fear. The poem does not name the breed or describe their appearance but they are white-tailed deer so the dream’s deer being white is an allusion to a ghost or angel which the murdered girl has become.
Despite death, she can still be addressed and spoken to and the poems in ‘In Nearby Bushes’ maintain a conversational tone throughout. Ideas are distilled through a mix of standard English and Jamaican patois, the use of second person creating a sense of intimacy, a one-to-one conversation. The casual address is underpinned by craft. Although ‘In Nearby Bushes’ shines a light in dark places, it does so with a note of hope: by knowing the negative, you can see the positive. It’s a collection to return to and rewards repeated readings.