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.