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.

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