2022 Bermuda Biennial

A Poetic Response

2022 Bermuda Biennial

Amidst the vibrant artworks gracing the walls in the 2022 Bermuda Biennial stand three custom built tables. Step closer and you will see that each one displays a selection of poems, marking the first time that the medium has been included in the exhibition and providing Bermuda’s vibrant community of writers with a new platform. 

The selection was overseen by Richard Georges, the first Poet Laureate of the British Virgin Islands and the Department of Culture’s 2022 Writer-in-residence. Eleven poets were chosen, each with a unique approach. 

“The theme of the 15th Biennial of the Bermuda National Gallery is A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future., an apt prompt that remains at the centre of these fine literary submissions.” says Richard. 

“If we were to take up one of the many vocabularies that these works gesture towards and trace the cartographical qualities of these poems, we would discover each poet turning towards the liminality of the spaces they inhabit, of the realities and histories they recall, document, or imagine.” he adds. 

The 2022 Bermuda Biennial. Photographs throughout by Brandon Morrison.

“The poets here are searching the contours of language to discover another subtextual and submarine truth. In Alan C. Smith’s lyrical prose-poem 2059: Devonshire Dock, that truth is literalised by an eco apocalyptic vision. It is a function of a global outlook to a ubiquitous issue to flatten, to similarise the ways in which different communities grapple with the problem. Smith begins from a point of nostalgia, the areas of the map that we recognize, the words and ideas and images we find familiar: ‘There was a time this dwindling pile / of shattered stone used to be a pier’ this is juxtaposed and challenged by the foreboding vision of a lessened or lessoned island that has been devoured by the rising sea.

That ravenous sea reappears at least twice, once in Ajala Omodele’s Middle Passage Atlantic in ‘the crossing’ yawns ‘open-mouthed, frothing / and toothless’ as it swallows the sick and the young alike. The ocean here, has taken on the spirit of the atrocities that occur upon it, and operates as an ethereal abyss, an ending and a nothingness, a ‘madness’ that the stolen must endure and survive. The boat then too, mirrors the island, and is here an avatar of horror, of separation, loss, and disconnection.

2022 Bermuda Biennial poem Brood by Jessica Lightbourne.

In this way, Smith’s shrinking island, the ‘needle narrow stretch of land’ resonates, not just with the horror of the loss of the foothold of hope in the void, but of the growing ‘still encroaching waters’. Andrea Ottley’s sea is the same, must be the same as the first sea, but her ocean is a playful participant, ‘laughing along the shore’, as much setting as character amidst the wide family of birds and the tapestry of music they make. If Ottley’s sea laughs, then the sea has both mouth and humour – it is not a stretch for us then to assume that it may also have its own language, just like the boastful white-eyed vireo

It would be a mistake to sweep these poems into the neat box of ecoliterature, as for most, the environment is not merely an ends of its own, but a necessary participant in what is overwhelmingly a collection of work that concerns itself primarily with the psychic trauma of loss. Nancy Anne Miller’s suite of poems flutters in the space between the artist’s eye and the page or canvas amid the ever-present threat of interruption by water (sea, rain, and even ink), a humming, a returning wave.

2022 Bermuda Biennial poem proud. by Liana Nanang.

But perhaps what Miller senses is truly an echo, a word we have forgotten but Yesha Townsend still searches for. She says that ‘all of June is a broken loaf’, but perhaps it is the chain (of islands? Of bondage?) that has been broken over the ‘hundred and a hundred and a hundred years’. Townsend returns to that echo, searching for it on the tongue of Sally Bassett and in the creased pages of Shakespeare. Sycorax is long gone before the curtain rises for the first act of The Tempest, but she haunts the conscience of the islander in the audience. But ‘let’s say hiaro is fire’.

As much as their words slick and slice the tongue in equal measure, these poets echo the canons of the archipelago and the continent. They embrace the duality of the in-between space that every island and shore represents, knowing full well that when we dwell on the threshold of the marine and the terrestrial, the past and the now, the living and the dead we claim neither and we claim both.

The poet’s burden remains the same after this noble celebration of art. They will continue to mine their vocabularies, the shifting contours of their tongues, bodies, and histories, searching for the right words that must make us right.”

– Richard Georges, Poet Laureate, British Virgin Islands.

The 2022 Bermuda Biennial is on display through to the end of the year.