Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John Agard Guyanese born British Poet Awarded Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry

Guyanese, John Agard, awarded Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 

December 22, 2012 from Kaiteur News
 Buckingham Palace has announced that the poet John Agard is to be awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2012. The Guyanese  born poet joins many  distinguished British poets  including WH Auden, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. 
 The decision was made by the Poetry Medal Committee headed by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It was based on Agard’s most recently published works, Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009) and his collection of poems for children, Goldilocks on CCTV (Frances Lincoln, 2011).
The Guyana-born poet is the only second black writer to receive the award, after the Trinidadian born Derek Walcott who won in 1988. The award was founded by King George V in 1933 at the suggestion of the then Poet Laureate John Masefield. The scope of the award was extended to include writers from the Commonwealth in 1985.
Agard joins other distinguished recipients of the award including WH Auden, John Betjeman, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Les Murray, Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Spender and RS Thomas. Last year it was awarded to Jo Shapcott
Carol Ann Duffy said of the decision: “John Agard has always made people sit up and listen. He has done this with intelligence, humour and generosity.
“He has the ability to temper anger with wit and difficult truths with kindness. He levels the ground beneath all our feet, whether he is presenting Dante to children or introducing his own (Guyanese) culture to someone who hasn’t encountered it before.”

One of Agard’s most popular poems, Half-Caste, featured on the GCSE syllabus for many years. It is a wry analysis of racial prejudices and misconceptions.

Agard commented: “When told the news out of the blues on the phone by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, I couldn’t believe my ears and it took a little time to sink in. I am delighted as well as touched to be in the company of such names as Charles Causley, Norman MacCaig, Gilian Clarke, Stevie Smith and Derek Walcott.”

Agard grew up in 1950s Georgetown, Guyana. In 1977 he moved to the UK, and he has lived in Lewes, East Sussex, since 1978. He is a poet, performer and anthologist and has published many books of poetry both for adults and children.

The medal will be presented to Agard by the Queen in 2013. (telegraph.co.uk)

Note: John Agard was a member of a group of writers and artists who produced the literary Magazine " Expression" in Guyana from 1966-1970.

From an article written by N. D. 'Wyck" Williams : "A little-known post-Independence group did emerge in Guyana, a generation of writers and artists that sustained each other in the rancorous 70s and has gone on to make its mark in the world. Victor Davson, Brian Chan, Janice Lowe, Terence Roberts, John Agard formed the nucleus of that group. What bound them together was a preoccupation with the future of a newly Independent Guyana."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Poems for Music Lovers (& their iPods)

[Back when radio ruled the waves, the BBC, main tunnel from the world to Guyana, brought to our shores “Greensleeves” and Victor Sylvester. Lacking creole traditions like Trinis with Christmas parang, I longed to hear pop maestros of string instruments.

They sent down Cliff Richard, The Shadows, “Telstar”, well you know. And those cool girls from Jobim’s Ipanema. And dazzling 60s riffs by the Eagles and Jimi Hendrix. Those were the days Ravi Shankar turned sitar friendly.

Back then (I think) I heard Victor Uwaifo (“Guitar Boy”) four times, his scratchy Nigeria picks too many oceans far for channel shipping.

The good news is I found the tunnel’s end: on dials of the //www. Guitar music streams from every sunken port in the globe. Now I can watch Uwaifo’s video, “Guitar Boy”! the two barefoot dancing girls! his guitar licks couscous steamed in 70s highlife.

And hear this: what must be the gold coast of string harmonies rocks by the rivers of Mali, in the diamond fingers of (the late) Ali Farka Toure; Toumani Diabete.

Where were you all those years, guitar fathers? What trade winds blocked this young heart access to those kora waves, ces vieux jams? Radio Ghana. Desert moons. The faraway missed years.

Tunneling protocols, I know. Old pirates ♫] – W.W.

Emily’s Nectar, Pablo’s Guitar, Miles’ All

At the bottom of the sea,
a stone screams. At the stone’s heart,
silence spawns the blue word
the blue note, the blue blue.

(From “Fabula Rasa” by Brian Chan.)

Real Slow Jazz

Voices taking time to make
time feel

both tauter
and stretchier that we would

know from the limping clock,
the pace of the heart sure

beyond the need to run across
bridges of love, statements

of the tension between spark
and flame, spirit and flesh,

the tears of gods only men,
of men brimming with light.

(from “Fabula Rasa” by Brian Chan)

- (with Joanna Rychert, after Galcynski)

Death? You’re most welcome but

I’d give anything once
more to saunter through town
at last without a care,
humming Brahms’ first Ballade

under windows where fire-
flies buzz their own shocking
songs with perfect timing
and heart, lit from within

like floating rooms of light
which the noonday shadow
in men slowly invades
with ranks of solid ghosts.

What if it’s impossible
in my zigzag way to
give life some shape
as other, straight-line men do?

What if the world’s only
as green as girls baking
cakes and crows using fresh
sprigs to build old old nests?

(from “Fabula Rasa” by Brian Chan)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Poems for Guyana’s First Lady (& Her Man)

[Where to turn, in your heart of sudden darkness, when you’re locked out the bedroom, and mosquitoes in waiting swarm over that kneeded body shivering in Sati’s nighty? To sniffing cross-eyed bloggers in heat for scandal? Or columns in newspapers sworn to protect the entitlement of the nation’s First husband?

The shame of that. His wretched country. The shame.

Suniye! There’s another way out: just two clicks through the forest; past the bastard’s cave, the victims backtracking. We choose our mates, not our unruled desires. So be a tigress, lady. Turn again to poets who understand one night you’d scratch or knock on Hillary’s door; ask to come in] – W.W.

For Jane Siberry

But tenderness is hard
to inhabit. Skins and masks
to be shed. Every act is
a pretence of yesterday’s.
The pain of love, what more, what?
These stirrings of raincloud.
(from “Fabula Rasa” by Brian Chan)

To A Wife

Your obsession with your duty makes
you customs officer
to my love: I have nothing

to declare of it to you even
though the most secret pouch
of my heart is full of this

golden drug that you once discovered
and seized for no reason
but that it made you feel full

of power. But love overbears itself,
can’t stand the weight of its
own fruits of repetition

and sleep. Yet I hope mine can still move
you before you become
one more warden of the jail

where love locks itself, itself to think
free, a captive serving
life, an artist of escape.
(from “Fabula Rasa” by Brian Chan)


fall off their clouds
of care to become fools
who walk tightropes and fall
off cliffs only to learn
how to turn into safe
burghers who step sideways,
around and back or not
at all, till they fall off
their rugs of calm to turn
shocked back into angels.
(from “The Gift of Screws” by Brian Chan)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sexy Voice You Could Trust?

If you’re a bookstore browser who likes reading first pages or paragraphs before buying, here’s an interesting challenge. The opening sentences from book # 1(A Mercy, the latest novel by the American author Toni Morrison): “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.”

And here, the opening paragraph of book #2 (Molly and the Muslim Stick. by the British/Guianese author David Dabydeen): “Once upon a time – the night of Wednesday 26th October 1933, when I was fifteen – it happened. It. It. The dripping down my thighs. Sticky, then thickening to treacle. As bloody as flesh from Leviticus.”

If you put aside the authors’ reputation and your book spending limits, the choice still seems difficult. You might wish to escape headlines of world economic woes. There’s so much chatter, so many messages streaming at you through headsets or hand-held devices. You might long deep down for a full-bodied text or voice you could trust.

Those opening lines from Molly and the Muslim Stick (2008) with its fairy tale overture, the promise of modern-day horror wrapped like sticky confection, could be the welcoming hand to lead you away.

The American writer Mark Twain once said, “What you have not lived you cannot write about.” Toni Morrison might decline a response to that; but David Dabydeen would beg to differ. His altruistic research skills have been hard at work over the years, scrutinizing oil paintings, reconstructing stages & events in imperial past history with praise-winning results: Turner, The Counting House, A Harlot’s Progress, to name a few.

This time around Molly invites you to consider the case of a woman who has been sexually abused by her father.

Amazingly she endures. She goes to college; she becomes a teacher and travels to Guiana, spreading her tale with gush and acrimony even as her behavior spirals into the obsessive right before your eyes. Or right before your ears. For Dabydeen urges you to listen to her voice, and follow her travels from abuse to compulsion as filtered through his high class-accented prose.

In Part I Molly sounds like an improbably heroic survivor. Her family history is laid out in sharp, short sequences. You feel as if you’re sitting beside her, turning the pages of the family album. Here she is evading her mother’s miscarriage (“I was snug in her womb”); and as a teenager in the local library, “reading productively – the legends of Greece and Rome, the lives of great historical figures.”

Her father, the abusive brute who once shoveled coal in Accrington, Lancashire in the 1930s, invites his pals home to get jolly with his daughter’s body (“from the age of fifteen into my twenties”). Here’s Molly again, an emblem of uncanny female forbearance: “When the pals departed, Dad would come and lie beside me, seeking the shelter of my swollen breasts, and I would listen to the drip drip drip of his guilt along my thighs”.)

[It. It… Drip drip drip. Readers are reminded to bring their own rhythmic breathing to Dabydeen’s prose. There’s the history of English Literature running softly like the Thames through all his fiction; but not much music in his British/Guianese bones he can truly call his own.]

You might anticipate harrowing developments, demons to be fought off, Molly’s young life “devastated” by all that has happened to her; plus some small hope of redemption (Molly meeting an older man who reminds her of her father, a kinder man.) But that would be so second-tiered, so third world. Dabydeen’s novel responds to a higher aesthetic calling; and that body of Molly’s manages to tidy itself and attempt a surreal resurgence of spirit.

She escapes her house of sexual helplessness; she redefines desire; and, packing as much “joie” as she can in her ravaged “vivre”, she goes off to college.

There she makes new friends, Corinne and Terrence, and attends lectures on Keats and Wordsworth. Her overridden appetite opens new folders. Terrence becomes her partner in torrid (or torrid depictions of) college sex and purging college introspection.

We learn she has a hip problem and must now walk with a stick. Her father dies. Her walking stick starts talking to her: “You’re no more than a fond and hopelessly failed woman.” Molly talks back to Stick. There are pages of ranting & disarray (locked up in a boarding house, or wandering the streets) – valuable grist, to be sure, for literary scholars in waiting.

As the narrative gathers momentum Dabydeen gets into a short-story rhythmic stride, his images moving fast, sketching and plumbing new depths in Molly’s self-devolution. Keeping pace depends on how willingly you give in to Molly’s voice which can be wearying at times with its troubled insistence; though there are discursive intervals as Molly and her friends probe the strange gelatinous substance that now owns her life.

Her doorbell rings often. People leave mysterious packages or deliver messages. Molly had talked as if her behavior were “predestined”; so when a stranger out of nowhere appears at her doorstep – a half-naked, shivering boy-man, exuding an unwashed “alchemy of aromas” – she becomes infatuated with him (“He’s harmless, poor thing, and far from home.”) and his aura of transpersonal convergence.

The stranger is from Dabydeen’s Guiana. He speaks a language that requires translation. He’s taken in, cleansed of his jungle residue and christened Om (not Adam.) After much enriched conversation it becomes apparent that the novel, which has been doing a hop, skip and jump – from Nov. 1918, through two world wars, across cultures and over memory ditches – will follow a narrative arc that takes Molly to Guiana. She arrives on the shores of Demerara in Jan. 1957.

On the surface her mission is to search for Om. She has been stirred by the “injustice of his deportation” (there are other imperatives embedded in her violated and off-centred “consciousness”.) Soon Molly’s issues are no longer prosaic, or even psychosexual. Guided by the author’s own pedagogical imperatives the novel transitions into metaphysical adventurism, its higher purpose realized in letters sent home like blog posts from a delirious English patient.

The letters describe swift passage through Georgetown; a journey to Om’s village up the Demerara river, passing through Edgar Mittelholzer’s Kaywana territory (“We left at dawn, the engine chugged and sputtered and smoked and cut off and started again”.) There among Mittelholzer’s Amerindians – in scanty loin cloth and feathered headdress, going about their river routines and unobtrusive semi-mythical lives – Molly finds moments of quietude; then moments of uncertainty, until Om appears.

Weeks of lazing in a hammock – “the women bring me food…I drink from the calabash as from a sacramental cup” – encourage wonderment about Walter Raleigh and those earlier journeymen who searched for El Dorado; dreamy observations about the jungle and its natives (the Amerindian cassava “liquor fermenting in my mind”); and “dream states”, since at this point her body’s tender history of abuse & seduction seems no longer important.

And then this invitation: Om wishes to take Molly to a Guiana waterfall. It’s a chance, since she’s travelled this far from the screwery of the past, to reconfigure her life trajectory, redeem the ‘poor thing’ of her soul. Will she come?

Aha, some readers will snap: we know where this is going: a boat crew will take her deep into Wilson Harris’ hinterland, into Wilson Harris’ marvellous inscrutability – the Palace? exalted insight & true understanding? Well, not exactly. There is no boat crew this time. Nor is Om, the mysterious Guianese deportee, in any mood to defy the language boundaries of the novel.

When it’s all over – in a giddy swirl of finale imagery – you might think: how extraordinary! Molly and her creator working their prose off in an art house of intricate fiction: inviting you to marvel at a curious case of female self-absorption: framing issues so that you start thinking of women you know, or met once, whose lives have been singularly messy.

But Molly, for some readers, might prove too author-fondled, too scholarly indulgent a model for our seriously knocked up times.

Whether you’re enchanted or unmoved by the fevered running of Dabydeen’s prose depends. In a surreal sense that river of allusions & images always in spate through his fiction has begun to resemble a factory of allusions & images supplying his fiction. Still, you can rest assured Molly & Dabydeen, like open-collared celebrities at a conference table, would be happy to take your comments & questions.

You could say, for instance, you consider Molly and the Muslim Stick a bloody marvellous book. And that with all its subtextual moanings & heavings, the grim, incredible sex, you had a bloody marvellous, uprumptious time with it. Molly for one would be pleased to hear you say that.

Book Reviewed: Molly and the Muslim Stick: David Dabydeen: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, England: 2008: 179 pgs.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Outsider Poet in Residence

Macmillan (Education) Publishers continues its student-friendly series of Caribbean writers with Selected Poems: Ian McDonald (2008). As a book destined for classroom handling and study it would seem an admirable choice.

The front cover carries a retro-young photo of the author – wavy-haired, open-collared and pensive as a cricketer – that might flutter a few Sixth form student hearts. The back cover prepares you for a poet with “an open heart” who writes about “Guyana’s characters and events, its landscape, traditions and myths”. There’s an effusive biographical introduction by Edward Baugh, Emeritus Professor of English at the UWI, himself a poet of Jamaica.

It should all make for high student participation and exciting teacher lesson plans.

Interest will be keen on McDonald’s roots: born in Trinidad (he began writing poetry in the sixth form); entered Cambridge University in 1951 (where he captained the Cambridge lawn tennis team); joined the Bookers Group Committee in Guyana in 1955, and eventually became Director of Marketing and Administration for the Guyana Sugar Corporation. He has lived in Guyana ever since.

“So poetry was not his first and only occupation, his mission in life,” someone might ask, pushing for comparisons with native son Martin Carter even before the first poem is read. “And we don’t have too many intertextual connections to hunt down for homework, as in T.S. Eliot’s Poems.” Nor are the poems as overwrought & dream-enraptured as the poetry of Wilson Harris with its skydiver’s view for a scholarly few.

Flipping through the pages students might discover the poem: “A White Man Considers the Situation” with these opening lines:
Perhaps it is time to retreat from these well-loved shores.
The swell heaves on the beach, angry clouds pile:
The surf is ominous, storms are coming.
I see I am a tourist in my own land:
My brutal tenancy is over, they all say

At this point there might be a puzzled classroom silence. An imaginary, brooding student, indifferent to assignments & grades, could be drawn.

What is this thing, the poet’s life? why in Guyana are they constantly “considering the situation”? what is “the situation’? when did the “surf” on the beach turn “ominous” for this G/town poet? And whazzup with “tourist in my own land”? “my brutal tenancy”?

Around these adolescent questions creep thorny grown-up issues. Was poet McDonald ever “involved” or “consumed” like other Guyanese poets and non-poets? Did his “intellectual authorship” at any point raise the slightest suspicion? And why is he not a hyphenated (as in ‘Indo-Guyanese’) poet? How come he’s free to be unflinchingly his name? like the intrepid newspaper-builder, the late David de Caries? unencumbered men, sure of themselves, with a greenhouse passion for the arts & literature?

Unsettling, not always relevant questions.

They invoke a level of inquiry and analysis not usually encouraged outside classrooms. Or if engaged, rarely handled with intelligence and care. Our divided constituents prefer their “achievers” (with thin skins or swelled heads) to wear laurels or titles of office like tribal headdress: not to be sullied by “sensational” talk, nor probed by “biased” thinking. While character flaws and ethics questions get covered up in communal & colonial hush hushness.

Besides, there’s so much else in the collection to engage student interest, much more transparent, eminently teachable stuff.

The accessible sensory images, for instance: “In the green pool where the milk-bit cascadura is caught at morning/I meet my girl whose breasts have the scent of the sun-dried khus-khus grass.” Quotable, comment-provoking insights: “Most life is ice-melt/bells through sea-mist/dark coming home and hurrying.”

And there’s McDonald’s camera-eye for “characters” and scenic places (colonial and fading now); his Schomburgk-like search for a port of entry into the heartland of his adopted home; for a place to lose his alien-resident virginity, which finally he finds under “the star-entangled trees” of his well-loved Essequibo.

The more adventurous student is bound to make comparisons with regional poets. With Derek Walcott, for instance. Both men grew up in an education era encircled by European culture. In Walcott’s case the great man has reportedly built a silo of metaphors culled from his readings in great literature. The publication of his Omeros is perhaps its finest emblem.

McDonald’s world Lit immersion is more evident, students will note, in his newspaper Arts columns at the core of which he references the work of writers he admires (and sometimes urges readers to recite aloud): Czeslaw Milosz, William Blake, Zbigniew Herbert. In his Selected Poems, however, you will not come across Greek-named fishermen. You’ll find a gallery of local-named characters: “Jaffo the Calypsonian”, “Yusman Ali, Charcoal Seller,” Nurse Sati Guyadeen, Manuel Perfection.

And, stretching comparisons beyond exam rubric limits, students will remark on Walcott’s painterly approach to verse, the rich indigenous textures of his canvas. While in McDonald’s collection, they might argue, it’s more a case of apertures and lens, a tourist excitement at capturing with Kodak clarity unusual behaviours in wide river regions. For this task, a pleasing dexterity of tone and image is his poet’s way.

McDonald is not a fortunate globe traveler. His Essequibo is evidence of his accepted geographical limits. When he isn’t sounding off in the newspapers on IMF or EPA or “the truth about life” issues, he is your earnest daytripper to our forest Interior; the sports devotee who returns to grounds of high endeavour for a new day of Test cricket.

Still, that clever CAPE student is bound to make a prediction: one day we may refer to Ian McDonald’s Guyana the way people talk about Ian Fleming’s Jamaica.

Selected Poems is a valuable record of the poet’s productive life from the 1950s to the 1990s in Guyana, a well-organized collection for teachers to work with. Many poems are filled with the kind of arresting material you’d find in a spare novel – anecdote, exoticism, melodrama, neatly-imaged anguish. Non-students could read the collection as an antidote for all that’s absurd and substandard in our social fabric; or as McDonald’s conversations with himself, or with poet friends, in a country where public discourse is often crass & blame-throwing. The temper of our times.

There’s little trace anywhere of Martin Carter’s all-consuming search for modes of “involvement” in our nation’s affairs.

Instead McDonald assumes a committed observer’s perch: not taking political sides; if troubled, treading softly like a blogger in slippers (“Affairs in the young Republic do not go well./ Problems weigh like stones on every man” ); offering elegiac – and cloying, sometimes bemused – lines that usually lament loss and deformities in our human capital: those Mercy Ward patients trapped in “recurring routines” & “strange dreams”; our Georgetown of “no beauty”, no havens of refinement; host now to a grid of policy generators for whom the nation & its people are stubborn unfinished chapters in a doctoral thesis, wanting always sympathy, unending sacrifice, time.

Some Arts page readers have been tempted to steeuupps at his airy Sunday musings (the Stabroek columns have developed a powdered puffiness over the years); but the measure of McDonald’s pledged allegiance should not be taken lightly.

In a Republic of (B minus) power players & frequent power failures, our guytimes of desperate oil-search and routine barbarisms, there’s the often ignored conundrum: cherish or perish the poet, that wayfarer of unfiltered truth who volunteers his creative and working life in service to our new dominion. The McDonald for our nation.

Book Reviewed: Selected Poems: Ian McDonald: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2008: 121 pages.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cry Tough: Alton Ellis (1938 – 2008)

A brief report in the NYTimes (10/17) on the death of Jamaica’s singing legend Alton Ellis – the editors must have sensed there was Times reader interest in his career and passing – gave snippets of personal information that always hits readers with surprise, filling in gaps of knowledge for those C/bean music fans who know only his old-style music and the pleasure it gave.

Among the bits: born and raised in Trenchtown, like Bob Marley; lived in Middlesex, England for nearly two decades; cause of death, multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer; one of the exponents of 60s rocksteady, “a sweeter, slower sound that formed the bridge between the hard-driving brass of ska and the rebel reggae that Marley later spread”; father of more than 20 children; and financially robbed of revenues for his music over the years (the last two details not as entirely unrelated as they may seem).

For students arriving at the UWI (Mona) campus Ellis and rocksteady music were a form of initiation into the island’s vibrant music culture. Waking to morning sounds would never be the same for this music lover.

In Guyana in the 60s you woke up to the radio of imported music (from India), pleasing in its own sentimental-retro way; evoking ethnic-rural reverie; and uplifting spirits for the working day in villages and cane fields. In Jamaica at sunrise on cold Mona Heights mornings Marcia Griffiths (singing “Feel like Jumping”) suddenly felt just right. Her clear, buoyant songs still pop up to spin on my turntable of memories.

To new resident ears rocksteady encouraged curiosity about the source of its material, the creative island spirit – “tougher than the world,” as Ellis sang – that under the hardest destitution refused to wilt.

The music was not always at easy reach on island radio stations. You had to venture out – the way people once went out to jazz clubs – to venues in and around Kingston to experience that blast of grassroots energy. Before they became accessible on discs the Cedric Brooks’ horn arrangements & the drumming of Count Ossie were heard in afternoon ‘grounation’ settings barely advertised in the local media. The venues and the music left indelible imprints. Tourists and transients and accidental researchers found a path to the island’s soul.

Alton Ellis’ music was usually a short trip away, at dance venues. At the student union, an open-air venue on the ledge of a valley, curvy dance rhythms threatened to sweep you up & away in pleasure-filled balloons even as the taut bass lines held you rooted to the earth.

Ellis’ vocals, which sometimes strained at intense high registers, didn’t grip you in that honey smooth way Ken Boothe’s did; or Toots Hibbert’s with its gritty parish roots. His reputation rests on those classic dance hits. “Girl I’ve got a date” “Better Get Ready, Rock Steady”, “Can’t stand it” (that pounding big-boned bass) and “Change my Mind” defined for a 60s generation moments of unbelievable promise & pleasure.

Rarely did his music invite you to listen; though “Cry Tough (cause you know you’re getting old)” with its hint at human mortality, those anticipatory images of rice & peas and church bells (in “Ooooyeah, Sunday’s Coming”) and “Going back to Africa” demonstrated a range not limited to romantic sets and clich├ęs about “a girl to love”.

People muttered that Ellis perhaps had been too enamored of imported sound, doing covers of foreign hits and steering clear of disgruntled Rudie culture (“Rudie at Large”). It’s worth remembering that Marley would start in a fairly similar groove of apprenticeship, doing early covers before turning full-beard champion of the Rudie/Natty dreads railing against baldhead injustice.

And in fairness Ellis made those imported hits supremely danceable. Who would have ever imagined dancing back in the days to anything by Blood, Sweat & Tears until the Ellis blues-tinged version of “You make me so very happy”?

[Often submerged beneath the artist’s fame and consumer pleasure is Ellis’ struggle with unscrupulous promoters. That struggle, like that of the legendary Phyllis Dillon, and their eventual departure overseas, makes for heartbreak discovery. It’s a reminder of the callous side of the music industry back then: how it squeezed young artists dry of faith; left their field labours often unpaid. And the bitterness that would settle like salt in their souls.]

Jamaica’s music generosity of spirit, its talent for wrapping dance forms and song around themes of sorrow, memory, love and dread, is embedded in the island’s culture. The music was a catalyst for ambitious campus thinking back in the days. Student minds began to envisage an arc of shared human capital stretching over islands and sea and linking related territories. It would encourage the exchange of service and residency, clear roadways for a wider regional understanding.

Against that background a recent observation by author George Lamming sounds “profoundly” ominous. Based on the latest assessment the student body at the UWI (Jamaica) campus now comprises 95% Jamaicans. We have witnessed, he suggests, a return to that miscellany of (proud but) insular little states.

These are narrow, fallow times in the region, oui!

Ellis’ death coincided with a ‘groundings’ conference (10/16-10/18) on the Mona campus to mark the anniversary of the Walter Rodney street protests in 1968. It also recalled the island’s symbiotic relationship with a generation of Guyanese students.

Hurricanes and delusional behaviours have fogged up the windows that once allowed these two nations, Jamaica and Guyana, to view and enter each other’s territorial experience. Given the dance hall brand of island riddims (that seems stuck in chord-killing monotone); and considering the self-segregating cultural ignorance that appears to shape governance & “vision” at that sagging end of the regional spectrum, there seems little chance of reinvigorating that cross-fertilizing movement of minds & talent.

At least for awhile – and for a generation not dancing much these days – there was pulsing hope. Events of that 2008 October week will encourage reflection on what might have been, the possibilities for vital, lasting connections, the once soaring idealism.

Alton Ellis’ work might not attract the sometimes tedious and overlanguaged commentary of cultural scholars (an NY radio station paid a four-hour, all-music tribute recently); but the dance hits will endure.

And for a pre-Marley student generation (Hi, Carroll!) there’s an immovable cache of memories: those blissful (“Ooooyeaah!”) Saturday nights, the crisp October Sunday mornings; the ‘cry tough’ sound of Alton Ellis rocking steady, spurning the tick tock of reckoning time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

1823: Blood, Sex & Angst

1823 might one day come to be regarded as a hinge year in Guyana’s historical development, outsignifying other years and events, like 1834 in Essequibo, or 1763 in Berbice. And some good day when our nation is brimming with prosperity, and can boast a film studio and film-making talent, someone might secure the financing to make a movie or documentary based on events of that year.

1823 saw the uprising of slaves on the Demerara plantations in what has been described as “one of the most massive slave rebellions in the history of the Western Hemisphere”.

It has inspired several books, the most acclaimed so far “Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood” ( 1997) by the Brazilian professor (History/Yale) Emilia Viotti da Costa. This book is recognized as a serious work of reconstruction, well researched, careful with facts and the nuances of relations among the many power players. But long before the publication of that scholarly work there was Ratoon (1962), a novel by Christopher Nicole.

Based on events of the same year Ratoon takes fictional liberties with the historical record. In an author’s note Nicole states that incidents described in his book were “based on eyewitness accounts of what actually took place”; but the main characters were invented.

The novelist like the professor attempts a many-angled chronicle of events, though for his purposes Nicole inflates the number of slaves involved in the uprising from the estimated 12,000 to a potential 20,000. Nicole’s fiction covers those history-altering days in prose that feels confident if at times distant from (to use George Lamming-like words) the profound implications of that human tragedy.

The locus of the novel is the Elisabeth Plantation House. It stands in an almost exotic setting, “in the centre of a carefully created paradise of soft green lawns, deep flower beds brilliant with multi-coloured zinnias, and borders of heavenly scented jasmine and spreading oleander bushes.” Beyond it, the slave compound, a vegetable patch; then the chimney of the boiling house, the canefields and irrigation ditches.

Readers get a sense of what life was like for slaves and slaveholders in East Demerara villages stripped now (though not completely) of their colonised character – Plantation Nabacalis, Plantation Le Ressouvenir, Le Reduit, Vryheid’s Lust, Mahaica, Felicity, Success.

We are guests at the August meeting of the Demerara Racing Club in Kitty, “a teeming, brilliantly coloured ant-heap, winning and losing, drinking and sweating, betting and gossiping”. At Camp House, the Governor’s Residence “overlooking the silt-discoloured estuary of the Demerara River” , we listen in as Governor Murray and Captain Bonning argue over what to do about rumours of slave insurrection, and how to deal with the insurgents. We’re curious as the young English missionary John Smith passes by “astride an emaciated mule, proceeding slowly up the coast.”

Nicole seems very much attuned to the speech rhythms of the ruling white oligarchy (“Ah, Bonning,” Murray called. “Resting your men. Good. And this is Packwood? Come inside with me, my man.”) He is on less certain ground with his “invented” creole-slave talk (“She done sleeping. And it time. She going feel them blows for she life.”) which often sounds invented, and might dismay regional linguists; though no one can be sure what creole voices sounded like in 1823.

Employing old-fashioned chapter headings (“There will be Great Alarm”, “An Army will be Assembled”) Nicole catches the state of heightened anxiety in the colony.

As the anti-slavery lobby gains momentum overseas, slaves hear rumours of freedom promised, freedom delayed. Planters offer quick reforms. They’ll do away with the whip as “an institution” of overseer control in the fields; and they’ll stop the flogging of women. But they draw the line at a proposal from that firebrand missionary John Smith (and his “over-conscienced preaching people”) to grant Sundays off to the working slaves. That would mean too many lost days of production. Their investment in estate and human property was already under threat with all the talk of emancipation back in England!

The central characters in Ratoon are born-in-Guiana natives: Joan Dart, daughter of a plantation owner Peter Dart, but not “representative” of Demerara white women. Unmarried (at twenty six) she had spent all her life in Guiana and had come to view Plantation Elisabeth as “home”. Then there’s Jackey Reed, “a young negro, tall and slim”, fascinated with the crusading ideas & energy of the young missionary John Smith. He adopts Christianity and joins the movement plotting the slave revolt.

Their dissimilar plantation-creole identities converge one fateful day. Jackey Reed makes a break for freedom but is pursued, captured and placed in the stocks by Peter Dart who, multiple heartbeats later, collapses and dies. In that instant his daughter must assume owner responsibilities.

Joan Dart had kept her father’s books; she had helped him run the plantation after his wife died. But at the moment when she must give the order for the branding and flogging of a runaway, she hesitates.

It is a cathartic moment. With responsibility suddenly thrust upon her, Joan Dart begins to weigh issues of ownership, belonging (“Sugar and heat and mud were in her blood”), the moral welfare of slaves, and the plantation as “home”. Later when the leadership role is thrust upon him, Jackey Reed, too, is forced to grapple with issues: of duty to his race, the unchristian values of his “Congo” brothers who indulge “their Damballas and their cane rum”; and an eruptive desire for Joan Dart whose white body “behind the thin muslin” stands six feet away from him in the stocks.

The order to flog and brand is given, but the troubled new plantation owner pays an uncharacteristic visit to the plantation dispensary to view the flesh-torn body of her first flogged slave. It’s the start of a process she will try hard to reverse, the granting of personal identity and humanity to her father’s slaves.

After the first 100 pages – of Dart family dispute, slave restlessness, gathering clouds & screaming kiskadees – the weighty issues blur into background, and the revolt gets under way. It is the night of Sunday August 17, 1823.

Nicole switches reader attention between the clashing forces, tracking the shift in fortunes with movie-making craft. There are scenes & set pieces & torrid images of violence and battle and rape; the slaves celebrate prematurely, settling scores and drinking free rum. Slave-General Jackey Reed’s hope for an insurrection without casualties is quickly dashed. He argues with his co-conspirators (Gladstone, Obadiah, Quamina, Cato of Felicity, Paris of Good Hope) over tactics, and is alarmed at how quickly the slave will to fight evaporates after early setbacks.

The outnumbered whites rally to the sabres of Capts Bonning and McTurk. They, too, argue over tactics, about what might happen if they advance precipitously, or fail to rescue in time the white women on faraway plantations. Their fusiliers fall upon the hastily armed bands (who are convinced their superior numbers will carry the day), sabre blades chopping, the muskets raining fusillades of shot on routed slaves. With an eye for period detail Nicole sets it all down in pages of entertaining, episode-driven prose.

And as in old Hollywood movies where amidst exploding ordnance or circling Indians a hero takes time out to cradle the head of a dying man and share dying seconds of conversation, Nicole at the height of the insurrection has his conflicted couple meeting and slipping off to share tense moments in the canefields. At issue, whether they should commit fornication.

Joan Dart, fighting back a “spasm of shudders” in her thighs, reminds Jackey Reed he is six years younger, in her eyes still a boy; and for all intents and purposes still a slave. He reveals the lust he harbours for her, and the Christian faith that has kept these feelings locked away. In any case, he reminds her, he’s in control now of the plantation.

They argue back and forth for several pages, sorting through fears and desire, until Nicole’s pen decides the issue for them: “Her arms moved of their own volition wrapping themselves round his neck in a paroxysm of delicious agony”.

If there’s a governing idea in his “explosive bestseller” novel, Nicole points to issues of intercultural curiosity, evolving identity and individual freedom (albeit at an unformed, ratoon stage) that engulf the two natives of Plantation Guiana; and how easily an eruptive interest in “the other” can be swept away in the tide of “events”. Not that this is news to tribe-wary & warring Guyanese who still observe each other’s ways and means through averted plantation eyes.

First published in 1962, round about the time a self-ruling Guyana was teetering toward those US/GB-engineered “racial disturbances”, Ratoon is routinely mentioned among the best-known published works of Guyanese fiction. For some readers it might appear to trifle with grave historical matters. Christopher Nicole, its 1930 Guiana-born white author who resides overseas, must have had personal reasons for inventing & inserting his characters in the maelstrom of that pivotal year. The book is hard to find these days (back in the ‘60s it was available for US.75cts at airport bookstores).

To bring lyrical closure to the predictable course of events Nicole serves up an invented coda to remind readers his novel is not just about a doomed uprising and an impossible romance.

Captured and held hostage for awhile, weary and disheveled from lovemaking in the canefields Joan Dart is rescued by a Colonel Leahy (“How long have you been like this…? Anderson get a carriage… Damnation. Have a litter made, then, and I want four of your strongest men.”) But in the very next minute, on receipt of “an express from Mahaica Post” delivered by a horse militiaman, he places her under arrest for consorting with the enemy.

Readers interested in how the colonial justice system dealt with straying (repressed then impetuous) white women must get through the last 30 pages to see how that turns out; see if Joan Dart gets to go home again.

Those pages might also encourage the kind of discourse on ‘broader issues’ regional academics take pleasure in – ‘the whole question of the role and responsibility of native white proprietorship in C/bean society’. Though not a few might argue that Ratoon with its blood-heated inventions is not a useful place to start this inquiry.

Book Reviewed: Ratoon: Christopher Nicole: Bantam Books/St Martin’s Press: New York, 1962, 246 pages.