[Book Review] Dancing in the Rain by John Lyons

John Lyons (Author), John Lyons (Illustrator)
Peepal Tree Press, 2015
Poetry collection, ages 9 and up

Dancing in the Rain, a collection of poems for children by John Lyons, moves readers through a plethora of sensory details and experiences associated with the world of the child. Through a thematic focus on the art of dancing, which is maintained throughout the entire collection, Lyons presents a series of childhood events and encounters with the Caribbean’s natural and supernatural worlds.

The culture, customs and landscape of Trinidad and Tobago are used as a frame to position the world of the child, but the world of the imagination, as captured through a creative display of sights, sounds, tastes and emotion, can be appreciated by children across the globe.

The poems are organized based on different aspects of Trinbagonian identity and culture, and celebrate and inscribe particular historical traditions and legacies of the Caribbean experience.

The poems can therefore be placed in various categories. There are poems about foods indigenous to Trinidad and/or the Caribbean like the Gru-Gru Bef, the mango, and the sour-tasting hog plum; poems featuring supernatural or mythical figures in Trinbagonian folklore; poems which zoom in on very simple childhood episodes; poems which celebrate the Trinbagonian landscape; poems about animals; and poems about popular cultural events in Trinidad and Tobago, such as Carnival.

By using these focal points, Lyons attempts to insert that which is usually overlooked, unappreciated or barely recognized. By centring these cultural aspects, Lyons offers Caribbean children a moment to experience and celebrate their identities and cultures. At the same time, the situations and emotional texture of each poem encourage the use of the imagination and zoom in on the universal experiences of children from multiple backgrounds. 

The symbolic use of the well-known Trinidadian Carnival, such as in the opening poem ‘Carnival Jumbie’ helps to convey freedom and happiness, and the child’s identity is affirmed through her participation in the event. Through this opening poem, Lyons provides the young reader with important historical details but lightens the burden of this history through the use of humour and the poem’s scintillating dance-invoking rhythm. For example, after evoking important symbols like the silk cotton tree (which invokes the memory of slavery), and the need to acknowledge ancestral spirits, the poem shifts to focus on the Jumbie anxiously anticipating jouvay and “steelban music to breakaway,”

The idea of freedom pervades the collection. In the poem ‘Carnival Dance Lesson’, the self-confident voice of the child persona, who insists that “you can dance like me”, demonstrates the empowerment the child receives through this cultural event in which all children can “have some fun”. Freedom is also effectively characterized by a carefree sense of play which allows the child to both witness and experience the Caribbean landscape, whether through the imagination or by being physically present in this space. The concept of play is strongly present throughout the collection. The poems not only capture the playful trait of the child, but also celebrate it as playing a major role in the child’s experience of freedom.

The very title, Dancing in the Rain, encapsulates the notion of freedom. One of the significant messages Lyons seems to be sending is the idea that the child’s experience of happiness is dependent on how free he is able to feel as he journeys through life. This freedom is largely represented through the childlike sensibility and sense of imagination which run throughout the poems. Rain, which is certainly not typical of Caribbean weather outside of particular rainy seasons, is usually used to signify some kind of sadness or tumult. The child’s perception of rain however, is somewhat different from the adult view of it, and Lyons artfully employs this perception as a kind of blueprint through which to see the world he has constructed. The child’s perspective provides an untainted perspective of the world and establishes an outlook which sees all things as possible.

In the book’s eponymous poem, ‘Dancing in the Rain’, it is the “warm rain” that causes the children to “squeal”, although the rain “stings”. The rain brings turbulence to the natural flow of life: the clothes have to be taken off the line, the “yard cocks” have to seek shelter and the “charcoal black” sky darkens the atmosphere. Yet, the children welcome the opportunity to “pull off [their] clothes” and dance in the rain. The idea of dancing in the rain is therefore a metaphor for finding enjoyment and using movement to produce joy, even in times when the “brightness” of the sun is not present.

Music offers a means of escape from stagnancy or rigidity, and the poems are suffused with a sense of the musical. Music is depicted as being a part of the poetic, but is also seen as an alternative mode of expression which encourages the act and art of dancing, and enables an intermingling of worlds. Melody allows for greater expression and breaks through barriers which words are unable to conquer. In the poem ‘Prankish Gnome’, for example, it is “the music of garden bird” which allows the child to envision the “gnome” in the garden “dancing happily among the stars.”

Lyons consistently presents two main conflicting forces: oppression and freedom. Through the juxtaposition of these two forces, the poet effectively pulls together varied layers of the child’s experience, and the diverse realities that have impacted or shaped the different worlds the child inhabits. At the start of the collection, Lyons establishes this image of freedom through the poem ‘Carnvial Jumbie’ which instantly pulls the reader into the musical world of Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso culture. This poem sets the tone for the collection because it introduces the idea that freedom occurs through movement, through action, and through dance. The calypso tune ─ “Jumbie jump high/Jumbie jump low/Jumbie jumpin to calypso...”─ is easily accessible to the reader through its rhythmic patterns. The alliterative phrases and the short-structured lines help to stimulate the interest of the young reader who finds herself quickly pulled into an irresistible melody.

Calypso, as a distinct musical form inherent in the structure of the poems, becomes a kind of language through which the child is able to communicate with all that is non-human, including ghosts and animals. Its presence helps to induce this sense of the fantastical in poems like ‘Woopsie’ and the ‘Agouti Story’, where the persona is able to connect with the animal and spirit worlds through the influence of the calypso. Literary sound devices such as assonance, onomatopoeia, and alliteration are used to maintain the rhythmic patterns in many of the poems. Various sounds associated with the Caribbean experience are also used to establish a sense of the musical. There are the animal sounds in poems such as ‘The Pig’s Boast’ and ‘Fowl Play’; sounds from the landscape that are created through the “tiptoe” movement “among dry bramble” in ‘Looking for Douennes’; or sounds associated with the imaginary, mythical world when the child persona hears the “nosily”, “rattling” bones of ‘The Climbing Skeleton.’

The motif of movement established in many of the poems is also deeply connected to the presentation of childhood experiences in the journey of the child. Through this motif, Lyons demonstrates the myriad ways in which dancing can be seen as moving: when “yuh…wine wid de riddum”; through the cut-loose movement of the fowl character in the animal, tale-based poem ‘Fowl Play’; through the “prancing” of the “prankish ghosts” in ‘Looking for Douennes’, and through the “candleflies moving about/lighting up and going out” in ‘Tadpole Comets’. Movement as dancing is also apparent in the personification of the willow and the wind in the poem ‘Natural Dancing Partners’ and even the beating heart of the child is described as dancing “wildly” in ‘Agouti Story.’

This motif of movement also appropriately reflects another common trait of the child, which presents itself both mentally and physically – children are always on the move. As is evident in the poem ‘Betty’s Breakfast’, where the child persona poses question after question to her mother regarding the chicken and egg cycle, the mind of the child is always racing with a sense of curiosity. Lyons captures this swift movement through his use of multiple rhythmic patterns. He shifts back and forth between a range of poetic forms, including the couplet, the triplet and the tercet, providing a lively set of rhythmic beats which imitate the fast-paced, fun-loving, adventurous nature of the child. Lyons honours this and other characteristics of childhood by using them as the nucleus for the situations presented.

The poems in Dancing in the Rain seem to be constructed through a set of ideas which centre on three main themes: continuity, sustainability, and inclusivity. A sense of continuity shines through in those poems that have an overt traditional or historical focus, which allows the reader to learn about Trinbagonian and/or Caribbean culture. The child is positioned as the agent of preservation. It is often the child persona, therefore, who not only introduces the various folkloric aspects and legacies of the culture, but who also helps to sustain them through the use of her imagination and his untainted mindset. Children are open to that which is different and that which might not be considered normal, therefore, they are more willing than adults to embrace and pass on the sense of identity presented in the “strange stor[ies]” and “strange music” being offered through the poems.

The idea of sustainability is invoked through the art form of storytelling which the child or animal persona in each poem uses to create and reinforce a sense of identity for both the individual and community. Finally, inclusivity is underlined through the poems’ focus on various forms of existence, including the human, animal and spirit worlds; elements of the physical landscape; and the folkloric presence in Caribbean culture. Continuity, sustainability and inclusivity become outcomes of childlike freedom, and interestingly enough, each of these factors also helps to preserve the freedom of the child and subsequently, the society.

Shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry Award (CLiPPA), this new collection of poems by John Lyons will certainly allow children to discover and affirm their personal and cultural identities as they learn to ‘dance in the rain.’

About the Author

Dr. Aisha Spencer is a lecturer in Language and Literature Education in the School of Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. She has lectured in the area of children’s literature, is a Caribbean children’s literature advisor for Lantana Publishing, has worked closely with Caribbean children’s authors over the years and has written articles and reviews on Caribbean children’s texts. She has been teaching language and literature for over eighteen years and is especially passionate about finding innovative material and pedagogy to help children and youth better connect with and enjoy all genres of literature. Her current research projects focus on analysing and evaluating children’s responses to literature in both elementary and secondary institutions across the Caribbean.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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