To Sweeten Bitter

by Raymond Antrobus

copyright ©Raymond Antrobus 2018

My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead I carry it like sugar

on silver spoons
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica
past the flaked white walls
of plantation houses
past the canefields and coconut trees
past the new crystal sugar factories.

I ask dictionary why we came here –
It said nourish so I sat with my aunt
on her balcony at the top
of Barnet Heights
and ate saltfish
and sweet potato

and watched women
leading their children
home from school.
As I ate I asked dictionary
what is difficult about love?
It opened on the word grasp

and I looked at the hand
holding this ivory knife
and thought about how hard it was
to accept my father
for who he was
and where he came from

how easy it is now to spill
sugar on the table before
it is poured into my cup.

Notes on the Poem

"To Sweeten Bitter", a selection from 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, creates poignancy through sharpened sensory cues, largely taste and touch. Does it, in turn, achieve what the title suggests? A son is struggling with his memories of and feelings for his father. The poem opens with a telling image, an intriguing link to the poem's title and an unbalanced equation, establishing a wistful and uneasy undercurrent in just two brief but pointed lines: "My father had four children and three sugars in his coffee" As he delves into his emotions, the son uses a dictionary that is an annual gift from his father as his anthropomorphized guide to his feelings and to sensations associated with them. The word "nourish" evokes warm recollections of shared meals and the taste of "saltfish / and sweet potato" - connections with comforting things. The word "grasp", in contrast, captures the harsh touch of a beautiful knife handle, which segues to a declaration of frustration. The sugar presumably meant "to sweeten bitter" is initially treated as something precious, borne "on silver spoons". However, it seems to be something squandered and possibly maudlin by the time we reach the final stanza: "how easy it is now to spill sugar on the table before it is poured into my cup." Is the bitterness still there? In fact, have attempts at sweetness actually been further embittered, essentially reversing the poem's title?

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