Wednesday, July 2, 2008

“Part of an Age, or All Of Each Day”?

“Part of an Age, or All

 of each Day”?

Poet Brian Chan offers this crystal of existential choice to the Guyanese reader who during the (post)colonial period was stuck with the (pre)determinisms of Comrades Burnham & Jagan; and who with outward bound options shrinking these days might feel still fettered inside our national narrative of assiduously going nowhere.

Of course, the past still lingers, and History continues to undress itself for the scrutiny of hoary academic over^seers. But Chan has had his fill of “the past” and its recent restorations:

        So the legacy of Englishness

        and its weapon of the left-unsaid:

        colonies abandoned to a mess

        of incestuous whispers and stammered

        tributes to indifferent ghosts by numb

        men pretending hard          (from Compensation)

It is never flattering to discover that, years after Independence, habits of truth-concealment, of bathing the memory of the dead, persist in our nation. It seems harder still for the Guyanese citizen to step past so much distress & dysfunction of our own making; tough to correct & manage that facing-forward backward nation-drift.

But given the patterns of frantic migration over the years, just who is the Guyanese citizen? and where does his soul reside?

These issues are at the heart of a new collection of poems The Gift of Screws (2008) which, after years in private circulation, has finally been released by its Peepal Tree publisher in England.  

They are strange, hard-to-reach poems. They seem at first reading to be striving for a self-obscuring complexity. They owe a little to the colourful, nation-mapping explorations of Seymour, Carter, Harris and McDonald; they’re modernist in sensibility and cerebral in that hyperspatial Palace of the Peacock way.

Guyanese readers would have to give up so much that might be considered essential to survival today – give up old ethnic antagonisms that see evil & its minions in the other race; give up dead hero worship, though as Chan says WE LIVING are only as bold as we entertain our ghosts”; give up the sex for favours exchange, narco-business runnings, street and public service modes of disregard.

Give up “words”, too, (“anything said can mean anything else/ and nothing can mean anything at all.”) for they only provoke the vapours of the barely-literate; or the blandishments of those Heritage gatekeepers who feed you a porridge of sad “memory” and separate “pride” but keep you locked in.

Martin Carter (b. 1927) once faced a similar dilemma. As living in Guyana became insupportable back in the socialist-experiment days he wrote of “the bafflement of speech”, the poet’s state of being confounded by the prescriptive thunder of political discourse. (He would have been silenced again and forever by the snarl & cold verdict of guns in the hands of those east coast/wild west phantom bandits). Carter eventually gave up and sank into gloom, shaping then publishing elegant lines out of misery.

Brian Chan (b. 1949) does a kind of inner retreat, slipping off into a world he has built around him. You could call it his dream space, his alternate reality. His poems suggest you could do the same with tools of the imagination – construct your own ark of salvation; or share his dream space if you like.

You’d be hard put to recognize his world the way Ian McDonald identifies places on the Essequibo coast as sources of self-transcendence. And it might be uncharitable to locate it floating in fine mists somewhere over the rainbow; or up past those epiphanic rapids of Mariella in Wilson Harris’ hinterland where, as they used to say in the 60s, ‘every thing is everythiinng’.

Chan strips away any tangible “local” or “landscape” identifiers. There’s an abstract anywhereness in his trimmed-down lines. Poems are filled with generic “fences”, “caves” “deserts”, “leaves”, “wind” and “ghosts”, so resolutely has the poet chosen to turn away from what is culturally discordant or ideologically confining outside his gate.

“Fences” and “caves” become metaphors for secretive habits, hidden biases and fears – colonial residue swimming like hookworm in the nation’s culture.

And yet, paradoxically, the image Chan chooses to define his existence is “the mud crab”, which makes him a sideways-moving creature or creation of Guyana. Not so much loving our mudland for its mud as accepting its reality. Since we did not inherit the mixed blessings of pristine-white, tourist-attracting beaches, he might be saying, we have only our hands, our imagination and our abundant green land.

For a mudcrab poet this could be a solitary, unpretty existence, “a loneliness of focus”; but that identity (with its “freedom from fetters”) once compelled him to get on with his task (“my real work of breathing”) as a citizen of a nation still slip-sliding on mudflats of coastal vanities.

At the same time Chan reveals a lofty but inclusive Guyanese way of “seeing”:

        “in your eyes, other of myself, you who would dodge

          the self that contains all,

         all on different stages of the fiction of the flesh,

         the flags of flesh we wave to one another, bridg-

         ing chasms between spills

         of identity, tags of separateness      (from In a Crowd)

Here again, as in a previous collection, Fabula Rasa, Chan brings to the nation the hope of coalescing our multiculturally-sliced, rancorous inheritance. He senses a subterranean longing in the lives of Guyanese to break out of ethnic enclavement, to toss aside the “fictions” and “flags”, the “tags” and “masks”. He sees a people worn down by the armor of tribal loyalty (“the weight of our mud and junk and dust”); wanting only freedom & newness, a productive lightness of being.

Chan lived through the fearful grandiosity that ushered in and celebrated our Independence in the 60s and 70s; and as a result he invites us to pay attention to “the sheer everydayness of our miracles”; how we survived the social & economic malaise that followed (and continues); forging through the insistent leveling of socialism, our resilience of spirit (or memory) intact even when Guyanese relocate to Richmond Hill or Brooklyn, NY.

His poems are hewn out of a self-effacing temperament. Even the titles eschew the grand entrance. They prefer like flowers of conversation simply to open up: “NO GHOST, like the ghost of what might have been/ for it is a lonely monster.”

If you start wondering with feminist concern whether there’s space in this poet’s world for women, some poems are dedicated to women; and, interestingly, the poem, To My Wife of Twenty Five Years in a rare burst of feeling honours the one who has been “my one elbower and hand-holder; compass and carriage.”

Chan shows his appreciation for their island of love “at whose midnight door I’m but the rapping wind/ while its oven, bed, roof and raft you remain/ under all clouds.” [Which might seem a lot to ask of any woman these days, to be “oven, bed, roof and raft”; plus “compass and carriage.” But in any event]

The Gift of Screws is stuffed with many terse poems which might be considered words sprinkled like water on nothing of consequence; and some squirrel-wary poems, the lines dovetailing neatly after a twitchy peek at the world. Most seem written with furrowed brow, allowing little humour, too serious to be simply enjoyed. Some read like anti-poems with omitted punctuation and with word-spacing and lines that run preternaturally free of literary expectations.

The shortest poem contains seven words. It’s a quickie of a poem artfully laid out on the page for reading then catching your breath: “AFTERWARDS   As before:   sated    emptied    waiting    to    begin.”

So how does this all add up? Is Chan an idealist who turned in and moved away, lifting his art & his vision above the rise and rule of mediocrity? A solipsist always in retreat, too far, too long removed from home to matter? Is he – like B. Wordsworth in VSNaipaul’s Miguel Streetsearching through postcolonial rubble for “the poem that will sing to all [Guyana] humanity”?

In this new collection Chan’s talent continues to unsettle and poke at those ethnic-safe habits of looking at ourselves. It is not the slighted talent of an immigrant poet drumming for respect on sidewalks in “multicultural” Canada. The Gift of Screws is Chan’s third book of poems. Volume for volume he is the most noncompliant poet to emerge from Guyana’s shores in recent decades.

If you put aside for a moment the sterling poetic claims of Wilson Harris the Obscure; if poetry in Guyana (the written, not the perishable, word) somehow survives the seasonal flood waters, the gangsterous forces bursting through our doors and piling up our ravaged souls, Chan will probably stand out as a bold, innovative voice. His poetry, clearing up the ethnic cloudiness in our vision, would help us see with unsquinting eyes again.

The Gift of Screws is an √©migr√©’s gift to Guyana’s new “developed” age, that next step in human advancement when we decide – shedding generations of colonial mistrust – to resist the drag down of transatlantic memories, those observances that now would ship us back to separate faraway times; when instead we embrace our common bonds; dare to inhabit our worlds as new men and women.

Chan’s word to the powerholders: can’t fly on one wing, yo!


Book Reviewed Gift of Screws: Brian Chan: Peepal Tree Press, England, England: 99 pgs. 2008