July 6, 2022

Country of Warm Snow by Mervyn Taylor

Shearsman Books, 2020

Review by Hilary Sideris

Mervyn Taylor’s most recent collection of poems is about contrasts and contradictions, as its title, Country of Warm Snow suggests. Taylor, who grew up (and spent the pandemic) in Trinidad, has lived in New York City for many years. He often crafts poems out of conversations, distilling the music of everyday speech with a Trinidadian accent. Full of gratitude and respect for common people who go about their business and know their trades, Taylor’s poems shine a light on the lives of immigrant Black and brown people in our wealthy city, and don’t shrink from naming the racism that curtails and endangers their lives.

“One homeowner calls us foreign, says we pee on/ her flowers,” says the speaker of “Begging A Lodging,” which takes place on a Flatbush evening with a half-moon “lodged between/ two walls.” A number of events happen in this poem, including the speaker’s neighbors calling the police because he and fellow musicians are playing – “When they come,/ we let the light-skinned guy speak for us” – but it’s the image of this evening sky that stays with me:

Tonight, the sky seems smaller, cut into rooms that
share a kitchen, a bathroom at the end of the hall.

The experience of immigration can be one of shrinkage rather than expansion.

“That first winter,/ you said the snow looked warm,” Taylor writes in the title poem, which concludes:

And, now someone’s promised you

a cot in a basement, you grin with
delight, as if the offer has redeemed
whatever wrong was done to you (54).

The poem celebrates the simple pleasure of having a place to sleep, while evoking the trauma of adjustment to a country that looks warm and inviting from afar, but for those who migrate with little or nothing, is a harsh, cold place.

“The Blast” which recounts an explosion caused by a burst pipe, levels the playing field for people from different backgrounds as it rips through a Manhattan neighborhood where worlds meet – African boys selling fake bags, shoppers, dogwalkers, and a young cyclist struggling to outride an asbestos cloud, “her face powdered white” (29). The blast transforms a splendid summer day “that made riders/ exit the subway a stop early and stroll,” into a nightmare that ends with a crowd gathering near a woman in hysterics “going round and/ round inside one of the revolving doors” of Macy’s, unable to resist the irksome human need to observe, in a crowd and from a safe distance, those worse off than ourselves.

In “Status” the speaker converses with “Sheriff, the African tailor on Flatbush,” in whose mirror he sees himself. Taylor the poet marvels at Sheriff’s skills, considering that “the space where he sews/ is like a cupboard// his four countrymen// squeezed in behind him,” evoking the tight spaces in which so many desperate (and captured) humans have traveled and dwelled. In his mirror, the poet finds himself imitating Sheriff’s accent and repeating the name of his home, “a word so wonderful I say it again—Conakry,” the capital of Guinea. As they talk about the new immigration laws, the space between them diminishes: “I have no idea what/ his status is,” the poem concludes,

…I only know that when
I stand before the mirror, my old suit

looks new, and that I would hide him
in my house, and feed him whatever
kind of soup it is they love over there (9).