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Volume 23 Nos 2 & 3
f June September, 1977
Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden.
7. Resistance Poems: The Voice of Martin Carter
Edward Kamau Brathwaite
24. The Clown in the Slave Ship
31. The Snow Virgin: An Inquiry into V.S. Naipaul's 'Mimic Men'
38. Claude McKay's Jamaica
Rupert and Maureen Lewis
54. The Isolated Self in West Indian Literature
66. Slade Hopkinson on Slade Hopldnson: in an interview with
W. Errol Bowen
77. "Dream on Monkey Mountain" and the Popular Response
80. Parable II
82. Ganja Lady
84. Ripening with Walcott
VOL. 23 NOS. 2 & 3
91. Other Exiles by Edward Kamau Brathwaite
103. The Guerrillas by V.S. Naipaul
Maureen Warner Lewis
105. Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Novel by Michael Gilkes
The Naked Design: A Reading of Palace of the Peacock
by Hena Maes-elinek
Commonwealth literaturee and the Modern World
by Hena Maes-Jelilek, ed.
Sandra Pouchet Paquet
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
Hon. R.M. Nettleford, O.M., Professor of Extra-Mural Studies (Editor).
Lloyd Braithwaite, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Sidney Martin, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., Cave Hill, Barbados.
Roy Augier, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., Mona, Jamaica.
J.J. Figueroa, Professor Caribbean Center of Advanced Studies, Puerto Rico.
G. A. O. Alleyne, Professor, Department of Medicine.
Lloyd Coke, Department of Botany, U.W.I., Mona.
Neville McMorris, Department of Physics, U.W.I., Mona.
Janet Liu Terry, Associate Editor.
All correspondence should be addressed to:
Department of Extra-Mural Studies,
University of the West Indies,
Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
We invite readers to submit manuscripts or recommend subjects which they
would like to see discussed in CARIBBEAN QUARTERLY. Articles of Caribbean
relevancy will be gratefully received.
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A SELECTION OF CONTENTS OF PAST ISSUES
Vol. 14 Nos. 1 & 2
Walcott and the Audience for Poetry
Dialect in West Indian Fiction
The Unresolved Constitution
Jamaican Folk Music
The Caribbean Artists Movement
The Predicament of the Artist in the Caribbean
Notes and Commentary:
1. The Fine Arts
2. Walcott on Walcott
3. The Jamaica School of Art and Crafts
4. Sparrow and the Language of the Calypso CAM Comment
5. Bennett on Bennett
Folk Themes in West Indian Drama
The Dream on Monkey Mountain
The Dance as an Art Form
The Little Carib and West Indian Dance
Towards a West Indian Criticism
The Waiting Room Wilson Harris
Controversy A Correspondence
Vol. 18 No. I
Planning for Rural Development in Jamaica
Guyana's "Green Revolution": Social and
Ecological Problems in an Agricultural
The Role of Mini-Research Stations in
Increasing Farm Productivity in the Caribbean
Poem After the Carnival
Peasant Movements & Agrarian Problems in the West Indies:
Part 1 Aspects of the Development of the Peasantry
Part 11 Aspects of the Present Conflict
between the Plantation & the Peasantry in the West Indies
The Development of Small Scale Farming:
Two Cases From the Commonwealth Caribbean
Canada Sugar and the Commonwealth Caribbean
The Economic Situation of the Commonwealth Caribbean
Vol. 18 No. 2
Attempts at Windward/Leeward Federation
The Advantages of Economic Integration in the Windward and
Political Aspects of Integration of the Windward and
Small States in the International Society: with Special
Reference to the Associated States
The Grenada Declaration 1971
Statement on Grenada Declaration
Carifta and the New Caribbean
Review by Keith Hunte & Leonard Shorey
Vol. 18 No. 3
Reappraising the Sixth Form Idea
G. R. Coulthard &
Bonham C. Richardson
D. T. Edwards
George E. Eaton
S. Lestrade & Ralph
Vaughan A. Lewis
D. Venner, V. A. Lewis &
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Lloyd W. Brown
a Jamaican University of the West Indies graduate is now
Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of
Southern California. He teaches and does research in
English and American Literature and specializes in Liter-
ature from Africa and the Black Americas.
Jamaican novelist and writer, holds the post of Secretary
of the Creative Arts Centre at the University of the West
Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
was born an East African from Kampala, Uganda. He
was educated at Makerere University and Leeds Univer-
sity, England. He holds the post of visiting lecturer in the
Afro-American Studies Program at the University of
lectures in English at the University of the West Indies,
Mona, Jamaica and researches West African linguistics
and cultural survivals in Trinidad. She is a leading mem-
ber of the African Studies Association of the West Indies
is a lecturer in the Department of Government at the
University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
playwright, poet, actor and teacher.
is Assistant Publications Editor at the Institute of Social
and Economic Research at the University of the West
Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
lecturer in the School of Education at the University of
the West Indies, Mona has special interest in the Teach-
ing of English. She has previously published on Edward
Brathwaite in JET.
is a 33 year old Caribbean writer. He has had poems
published in VOICES, BIM, SAVACOU, TAPIA and
other journals in Canada.
is a lecturer in the Department of English at the Univer-
sity of the West Indies, Mona. She is at present doing
graduate research work on George Lamming.
is senior lecturer at the Department of English, Univer-
sity of the West Indies, Mona.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite Reader in the Department of History, UWI, Mona, is
Editor of Savacou, Journal of the Caribbean Artists
Writers writing about writers can be an incestuous and self-indulgent affair. This
issue of Caribbean Quarterly will hopefully escape the charge of literary in-breeding
and self-indulgence. But the risk has to be taken for it is important that the tradition
of serious criticism that is developing with respect to Caribbean arts and letters should
have the benefit of serious inputs from those who have had their life-and-being in the
Caribbean and have shared the anguish and multi-dimensional perceptions of the
artist-self and his society. Degeneracy into a cultural chauvinism or into a provincial
and exclusive inner circle of mutual admirers must be avoided at all cost but so must
that threatening reluctance to accommodate a generosity of spirit a disease far too
evident among Caribbean personages when dealing with talented colleagues in their
midst. The legitimacy of metropolitan assessments sometimes made on the basis of
canons of 'lit-crit' nurtured in English Literature academic courses therefore receives
continuing support from those who can never be sure that they will not be the victims
of indigenous grudge born of the now legendary inferiority complex of a colonial
But neither a vestigial colonial insecurity and a lack of professional charity nor
some misguided patriotism has prompted the contributions contained in this issue. Let
us hope, then, that critical integrity coupled with a genuine knowledge and sensitivity
will help throw further light on the work of a few of the region's major literary figures.
The contributors have, all in their individual ways, viewed the writer in his relationship
with his audience as well as in the conversations he has with that audience about
reality mediated by social forces (the political activist would use the word "struggle")
and by the artistic-intellectual languages of comprehension available to both writer and
It is Rupert and Maureen Lewis who bring a Marxist analysis to Claude McKay's
conversations about a reality that was clearly mediated by social struggle in the
ex-slave crown colony of Jamaica he knew. For to them McKay's classic Banana
Bottom depicted the conquest of the social attitudes of snobbery, self-contempt and
middle-class estrangement from the peasantry in a society that was beset by sharp
racial and social antagonism in the years before the Second World War. McKay's
"understanding of the prime social and political direction needed in the struggle for
democratic rights in the Caribbean" is further seen as this Jamaican writer's most
valuable contribution to the thematic content of West Indian literature.
The spirit of revolutionary consciousness was to persist among later West Indian
writers like Martin Carter of Guyana whose last but one major work The Poems of
Resistance is the point of critical departure for Edward Brathwaite, who is himself one
of the Caribbean's contemporary literary giants. Dr. Brathwaite's observation of
Carter's optimism in the midst of the anguished realities of colonial rule is itself a
pointed declaration of commitment to a region that must be called home. Carter "is
one of the few authentically optimistic English-writing Caribbean poets" declares Dr.
Brathwaite. "Not a personal optimism, based on a private garden-plot, although there
is/was that too; but a more general political anticipation of and confidence in the
future of anti-colonial struggle." For "Martin Carter expresses the post-war West
Indian certainty that the former colonial territories would soon attain political
independence, and that there was, or soon would be, a national identity of which we
would all be proud." But Carter is no political hack with the mistaken identity of a
poet-preacher. His actual imprisonment by the British was to add great texture to his
proven poetic insights and to the artistic-intellectual languages of comprehension that
he could help craft for ease of communication. Dr. Brathwaite receives the message in
what he feels to be Carter's new rhythms and new shape of expression which seemed
to co-relate in line and language with the barred, controlled, formal cell and structure
in which he found or imagined himself. In the latest years Carter, according to Dr.
Brathwaite, was to have his "continuing anger of compassion and his music of love"
fused and welded together "in a style of word that makes his work unique."
If the reality that Carter celebrates is mediated by social struggle, that which Vidia
Naipaul bares is seemingly informed by private passion, if not contempt. Another
novelist in the person of John Heame says of The Mimic Men; "it is a good book with
a despair so isolate, with a privacy so armoured against any intrusion of society, that
we can do no more than concede the unremitting integrity of its pessimism." But even
the retreat by the protagonist from the reality of society to the reality of individual
artistic action (writing) which is seen as "a process of life", demonstrates that there
has to be something from which to retreat. If as John Hearne says the discovery of
life-giving creative artistic work is here "anodyne" and "aspirin" one is forced to
conclude that the society of the mimic men is at least a headache. There is no escape,
then, from the mediation of social forces.
Naipaulian isolation besides being tragic is therefore suspect as Lloyd Brown, in
discussing the Isolated Self in the West Indian Literature, avers. Mr. Brown prefers to
dwell on the paradox of the "hero isolate" as but another contradictory omen of the
West Indian search for cultural certitude and a collective consciousness. Isolation
becomes pursuit rather than flight. It is, indeed, a process of identification since it
encourages that intense introspection which leads to the discovery of self. "One senses
the infinity of things within the finite worlds of self and islands." The works of smith
Khan and Derek Walcott are here given special focus in this regard.
It is this quest for self-discovery and self-creation that becomes the theme of
Edward Baugh's review of Derek Walcott's Sea Grapes, (see "Ripening With Walcott").
"The self-portrait", he writes, "emerges as an interplay between the man's recognition
of weaknesses and deficiencies in himself and a definition of ideal strengths, values and
virtues, by which he seeks to determine himself."
Such weaknesses and strengths are the very stuff of Samuel Selvon's revelations of
the West Indian colonised man. According to Peter Nazareth, .The Lonely Londoners
and Moses Ascending demonstrate an authentic West Indian consciousness through a
humorous style which employs irony by way of the incongruous juxtapositions of
situations in the life of the modem colonised man. Humour, allegory and a capacity
for compatriots, whom he neither despises nor romanticises, place him in contrast with
a Naipaul, for example, and render him a graphic and empathetic storyteller of the
travails of colonial man adrift in the Motherland.
Three writers speak for themselves in this issue of writers on writing. A short
short-story entitled Parable II by Velma Pollard and a poem, Ganja Lady by Roger
McTair are direct products of the creative imagination. But no less insightful is the
interview by Wenty Bowen with the ailing Slade Hopkinson whose youthful brilliance,
personal courage and dogged determination have filled a still short lifetime with a
corpus of significant poems and not undistinguished plays. With his intimation of
mortality which offers a new reality and the love and care of family which helps in his
quest for peace, he can now say with conviction: "I'm not simply in pursuit of fame or
artistic excellence or anything like that. Those motives are finished and done with."
But his act of writing has become in his own words "an act of spiritual clarification."
Our writers, in seeking to find their individual selves, have given such a classification to
an entire region of souls who are in a process of progressive decolonisation. The debt
to them all our writers, that is is a very real and may well be a lasting one.
THE VOICE OF MARTIN CARTER
Martin Carter (b. Guyana, 1927) is one of the few authentically optimistic English-
writing Caribbean poets. Not a personal optimism based on a private garden/plot,
although there is/was that too; but a more general political anticipation of and confi-
dence in the future of anti-colonial struggle. Like Campbell' and Reid2 in Jamaica,
Telemaque 3 in Trinidad, the early Walcott 4 in St. Lucia, Seymour in Guyana, Martin
Carter expresses the post-war West Indian certainty that the former colonial territories
would soon attain political independence, and that there was, or soon would be, a
national identity of which we would all be proud. This would be based on love/pos-
session of landscape, as expressed by Derek Walcott:
We do not ask a landscape of tall chimneys, there
Would be a greater need of blasting again the air.
If we know anything, we know we can have a better
Island, bright as advertisements let it lose its litter
Of hovels, hunger, and let there be no loss of anger
Infectious in the peasant, which is the worse danger.
Almost impossible and absurd the distant love for
England. Love is here, and luck under your
Feet; the world is green outside, you rot in roomss
and/or on mass consciousness, as in AJ. Seymour's
They are all heroes,
They make history
They are the power in the land.
And the children grow
Force their way out of the slums into the professions
And stand up in the legislature.
Today they hope
But to-morrow belongs to the people.6
Carter himself has little of landscape at least in the physical sense of local colour -
in his poems. In his work we have no poems about, and few references to Georgetown
houses, Stabroek market, kokers, rivers, etc., that we find in Seymour; no sense of the
world-creating jungle that pervades the poetry of Wilson Harris. 'Old Higue'7 is his
only folk poem and one of his weakest:
Old higue in the kitchen
peel off her skin -
mammy took up old higue skin
and pound it in the mortar
with pepper and vinegar.
"Cool um water cool um
cool um water cool um"
But from his first published booklet, The hill of fire glows red (1951), No. 4 in Arthur
Seymour's Miniature Poets series, we find the then only 24 year-old Carter already
centrally concerned with anti-colonial political action, and the dynamics of revolu-
I tell you
this is no magnificent province
no El Dorado for me
no streets paved with gold
but a bruising and a battering for self preservation
in the white dust and grey mud.
I tell you and I tell no secret -
now is long past time for kneeling
with clasped hands at altars of poverty.
How are the mighty slain?
by this hammer of my hand!
by this anger in my life
by this new science of men alive
everywhere in this province!
thus are the mighty slain!8
The people's destiny is to destroy the bastions of power and privilege. But Carter,
coming clearly from an area of some privilege himself, is still able to preserve, at this
stage, a sympathetic tension between the opposing forces:
Do not stare at me from your window, lady
do not stare and wonder where I came from -
born in this city was I, lady
hearing the beetles at six o'clock
and the noisy cocks in the morning
when your hands rumple the bed sheet
and night is locked up in the wardrobe.
My hand is full of lines
like your breast with veins, lady -
so do not stare and wonder where I came from -
my hand is full of lines,
like your breast with veins, lady
and one must rear, while one must suckle life ...9
One gets the feeling, though though one can't blame him bliss was it in that dawn
to be alive that Carter was at this point rather pleasurably seeing himself as the
people's revolutionary poet; their cultured street preacher:
If you see me
looking at books
or coming to your house
or walking in the sun
know that I look for fire!
I have learnt
from books dear friend
of men dreaming and living
and hungering in a room without a light
who could not die since death was far too poor
who did not sleep to dream, but dreamed to change the world.10
and it was rather 'nice' was it not, to be so recognized by the common man:
I am most happy
as I walk the seller of sweets says "Friend"
and the shoemaker with his awl and waxen thread
reminds me of tomorrow and the world.
happy is it to shake your hand
and to sing with you, my friend"
It is the voice of Revolution without the Revolution. And yet, better this hope, lilted
voices, out of the morass of colonialism, than smugness, ignorance of reality, direction-
lessness or alienation:
This is my hand
for the revolution ...
that night there will be thousands of torches
from the hospitals the lame will come
the mad will be sane again
for the revolution.12
The poems that make up The hill of fire glows red were published (1951) soon after
the formation of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), an anti-colonial alliance (East
Indian and African; Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham) committed to constitutional
independence from Britain, national integration and development under Marxist/so-
cialist principles. Carter was himself a member of this party which was, in the words of
one of its historians, 'the first organization with real political party credentials ever to
have existed in British Guiana.'13
In 1953, the PPP won an overwhelming victory at the polls the last, as it turned out,
to be held under the old Crown Colony system. Not tomorrow but now, all at once
seemed to belong to the people. But Cold War conquering US was not so sure or too
happy. Jagan's 'doctrinaire' Communist programme was seen as a soft-under-belly
South American threat. Local and expatriate Guianese Big Businesses couldn't have
agreed more. Within six months of the popular victory, the constitution was in suspen-
sion. British troops patrolled the country, the PPP government was splitting and out of
office, and Carter (along with certain other militants) was in detention camp with, as
his friend and colleague Sidney King (now Eusi Kwayana) put it, 'a strange hedge of
barbed wire and a gate of bayonets.'4
This is what they do with me.
Put me in prison, hide me away
cut off the world, cut out the sun
darken the land, blacken the flower
stifle my breath and hope that I die!15
You think of green mornings
Naked children playing in the rain
And fishes swimming in a pool.... 16
It is not easy to go to sleep
When the tramp of a soldier marches in your brain
You do not know whether to sleep or wake
When a rifle crashes on the metal road ... 17
With this imprisonment, Carter's poetry enters its second and for many its finest
phase. The young fiery optimism of The hill of fire disappears as sudden as a match
blown out; and in its place is anger and a thickening sense of waste in The kind eagle
(1952), The hidden man (1952), and Poems of resistance (1954): 18
So was I born again stubborn and fierce
screaming in a slum.
It was a city and a coffin space for home
a river running, prisons, hospitals
men drunk and dying, judges full of scorn
priests and parsons feeling gods with words
and me, like a dog tangled in rags
spotted with sores powdered with dust
screaming with hunger, angry with life and men.19
I stretch my hand to a night of barking dogs
feeling for rain or any dropping water:
But the wind is dark and has no shower for me
and the sky is old and keeps no comet for me.
I stretch my hand to a night of weary branches
feeling for leaves or any twig of blossom:
But the branch is withered with no green leaf for me
and the stalk is brown and has no petal for me
and sleep is time that hides me from my labour
and rest is death that rids me of my panting
and dogs and branches and dim rooms of distress
are living worlds that populate my dark.20
The 'Letters from Prison', then, and the extracts from the two poems just quoted,
illustrate Carter's description of and reaction to his detention. From here, he appears
to take two courses. One set of poems, coming to metal grip with his environment,
may be said to be his prison carvings:
Iron gate, the terrible hands of a clock
a calendar with days scratched off and buried,
slant roof of slate black as the floor of tight cell
is not a prison, nor a convict shelter.
A prison is go back, go back, go back
lash of two things, shell which is the heart
and heart which is the shell the hollow tear21
These lumps of hardened air
invisible drums are beating at my head:
I hear drum drum drum
loud drops of wax falling from time's black candle22
It is in this group that we come upon the fine controlled images of:
Sky blue, grass green, glittering noon.
Dust white, bones naked, hopes barren beautiful world!
No mark, no madness like this sanity ...
City moon clad, black tree domestic, dreary doormouth gaping
earth no mother, sky no father, space no home in comfort:
No mark, no madness like this sanity23
is air dust and the long distance of memory
is the hour of rain when sleepless toads are silent
is broken chimneys smokeless in the wind
is brown trash huts and jagged mounds of iron.24
But there is also a shift in the contrary direction another understandable (?) reaction
to imprisonment the drift into dream and (false) rhetorical hope: into images of
resurrection and monumental cosmos: 'the kind eagle soars and wheels in flight'.2s
I make my dance right here!
Right here on the wall of a prison I dance!
This world's hope is a blade of fury
and we, who are sweepers of an ancient sky,
discoverers of new planets sudden stars
we are the world's hope26
O wherever you fall comrade I shall arise.
In the whirling cosmos of my soul there are galaxies of happiness
Stalin's people and the brothers of Mao Tse-tung27
O come astronomer of freedom
Come comrade stargazer
Look at the sky I told you I had seen28
It is as if, comparable to the moment, mentioned above, that the young Carter, in his
red of dawn, saw himself in the role of revolutionary; that now, at a time of reversal of
those dreams, he saw himself in the role of victim29 or sufferer:
It is not easy to be free and bold!
It is not easy to be poised and bound!
It is not easy to endure the spike!
So river flood, drench not my pillar feet30
Ego becomes foremost:
In the burnt earth of these years
I dip my hand, I dip my hand:
I plunge it in the furies of this world.
I splash the pool that feeds my painful flowers
I find the lake whose source leaks from a river.31
O beauty of air like a glad woman!
O fringe of grass always so ever green!
O sloping ocean, sloping bed of love!
O trophy of my search! O human guide.
Each day I ride a wild black horse of terror
but every night I lock him in my bosom...32
Although you come in thousands from the sea
Although you walk like locusts in the street
Although you point your gun straight at my heart
I clench my fist above my head; I sing my song of FREEDOM!33
These last two poems are clearly propaganda or ideological pieces, written in anger at
the arrival of British troops, come to support the imperial take-over of the constitu-
You come in warships terrible with death ...
I know your finger trembles on a trigger
And yet I curse you Stranger khaki clad.
British soldier, man in khaki
careful how you walk
My dead ancestor Accabreh
is groaning in his grave34
But fortunately, even though the pressure and perhaps even the temptation must have
been there, Carter, in The kind eagle, even though he gives us rhetoric, seldom gives us
such plain bad verse. Compare, for instance, the gun/heart image, quoted at 33 above
with say, 'This is the dark time, my love':
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the stranger ...
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.35
It is in the gun aiming at dream, rather than heart, that the cool source of poetry
resides; and Carter's is no exception. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss his self-re-
garding rhetoric too quickly, since it is an essential part of his political stance which in
turn is/was an intimate component of his poetry. Further, as we shall see, it is this very
rhetoric which is at the base of his finest achievements, when he attains a tension/equi-
librium, in his own words, both poised and bound.
The movement towards this begins in 'Till I collect'36 where we find, perhaps for the
first time, a reticence or countervailing gesture coming to confront the erstwhile
The fisherman will set his tray of hooks
and ease them one by one into the flood.
The net of twine will strain the liquid billow
and take the silver fishes from the deep.
But my own hand I dare not plunge too far
lest only sand and shells I bring to air
lest only bones I resurrect to light.37
In 'I am no soldier'38 we see its development because here the reticence of ego (im-
potence of incarceration) is caught and released within a tactile circumambient
Now the huge noise of night surrounds me for a moment
I clutch the iron bars of my nocturnal cell
peeping at daylight
There is a dark island in a dark river
This is intensified in 'I come from the nigger yard' with
It was me always walking with bare feet,
meeting strange faces like those in dreams or fever
which connects with but is extended into
And there was always sad music somewhere in the land
like a bugle and a drum between the houses
voices of women singing far away
pauses of silence, then a flood of sound.
But these were things like ghosts or spirits of [the] wind .39
What is even more remarkable is that Carter's prison experience gave him not only new
A prison is go back, go back, go back40
I hear drum drum drum
loud drops of wax falling from time's black candle41
earth no mother, sky no father, space no home in comfort42
but a whole new formal shape of poem: 'You are involved' 43and 'Death of a slave'44:
which correlate in line and language, with the barred, controlled, formal cell and
structure in which he found or imagined himself:
This I have learnt:
today a speck
to-morrow a hero
hero or monster
you are consumed!
Like a jig
shades the loom
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!45
And it is in 'Death of a slave' that Carter first reaches the kind of metaphorical
equilibrium which, given the kind of poetry he was writing then, is one of his most
significant achievements. The poem does not begin like 'Death of a comrade'46 with
his typical long, singing: 'Death must not find us thinking that we die.' Instead there is
the rare (as in 'Involved'), sparse:
Above green cane arrow
is blue sky -
Beneath green arrow
is brown earth -
Dark is the shroud of slavery
over the river
over the forest
over the field.47
'Slave' here is a prisoner to oppression of man, history and landscape, finally of time.
But he is also implanted in the landscape and through his heart and seed of blood/
death comes to possess it:
In the dark earth
in the cold dark earth
time plants the seeds of anger48
So that the death of the slave creates life, while time (in which this death is subsumed)
creates anger. Anger and life are therefore equated, and from here on, ('This is another
world), the poem begins to move into outer and inner time, outer and inner space, in
a cycle that becomes, like Harris', both eternal and seasonal, universal and particular in
Day passes like a long whip
over the back of a slave ...
Night comes from down river
Like a thief -
Night comes from deep forest
in a boat of silence 49
And yet, by the time the poem comes to its close, Carter has done even more than
this; for he has contracted the life of the poem back to the image of the dying slave
and is able to re-enshroud the verse with an apparitioned end-stopped finite sense of
death; the enormous root and wheel of time, hidden under the body of its blood:
The slave staggers and falls
his face is on the earth
his drum is silent
silent like night
hollow like boat
between the tides of sorrow.
In the dark floor
In the cold dark earth
time plants the seeds of anger50
It is in this context, with this background, that we can come to 'University of Hunger',
regarded by many as Carter's finest poem, with its long surf-like confident lines, and
its epigrams moving within them like coralline resistors:
They come like sea birds
flapping in the wake of a boat
is the torture of sunset in purple bandages
is the powder of fire spread like dust in the twilight
is the water melodies of white foam on wrinkled sand.
The long streets of night move up and down
baring the thighs of a woman
and the cavern of generation.
The beating drum returns and dies away
The bearded men fall down and go to sleep
the cocks of dawn stand up and crow like bugles...
O long is the march of men and long is the life
And wide is the span.s5
Yet, ten years later, this fine extended hope was in ruins. The political optimism of the
50s had never come to life. Each Caribbean territory of British rule had decided -
some reluctantly, some selfishly, the rest because they had no choice: one from ten, as
Eric Williams had said, leaves nought to continue the difficult process of decolonisa-
tion on their own. There would be no federal West Indian nation, but the old colonial
fragments, each flying its own strip of flag. Within the wider Caribbean, too, there had
been failure. Cuba under Castro, had dared to bum the nest of the high-flying
American eagle; the West Indies had joined the boycott against the incendiaries. In
Guyana, where this fear of communism, brought nearer, many thought, by the pre-
sence of militant Cuba, had already crippled constitutional development, there was
further regression. The 1955 factional split in the once-nationalist PPP, had become
two parties, Jagan and Bumham, based on race, on slave and indentured servant. So
instead of fighting the oppressor, the country began to fight itself. By 1962, nothing
less than a race war was raging in the country. The politics of hope had become the
politics of hate. Carter, traumatically bewildered and wounded, held on to his original
PPP/nationalist/anti-imperialist comradeship for as long as he could; resigned, retired
(1956), but re-appeared when Burnham's 'African' party came to power in 1964. But
it wasn't the man who had written 'Tomorrow and the world' 52 and 'Cartman of
dayclean'. 53Now it was
All, all who are human fail,
Like bullets aimed at life,
or the dead who shoot and think themselves alive!54
In 1971, the Minister of Culture, as he had become, resigned again from power. For
many, he long before that had resigned himself from poetry.
This, as we shall see, was/is very far from being the case. But between, Poems of
Resistance (1954) and Carter's next published sequence of poems, Jail me quickly (a
set of five that appeared serially in New World Fortnightly late in 1964 reprinted
together in NWF 34 (1966) ) there appears to have been the most dramatic loss of
faith yet recorded in our literature. There is, of course Aim6 Cisaire's revocation of
communism in 1956. But Cesaire has gone on, since Lettre a Maurice Thorez, to write
most of his major plays,55 in addition, among other pieces, to the collection of poems,
Ferrements (1960). Carter, on the other hand, has written very little:
True, was with them all,
and told them more than once:
in despair there is hope, but there is none in death.
now I repeat it here, feeling a waste of life,
in a market-place of doom, watching the human face!57
It is a measure of the difference in their worlds. Cesaire, the expatriate gallic creole,
can make a creed of rhetoric. For the native Caliban, sooner or later the line and image
have to match the ruined stone and language of the environment.
This is why we were so interested in those tight cellular poems in Poems of Resistance.
From 'You are involved' and 'Death of a slave', Carter had a choice: towards imagismm'
and perhaps a more direct correlation with experience; or a continuation of the long
rhetorical line: marvellous vehicle for hope, fire and anger, but less efficient in the
aftermath of ash and ruin. But habits and old skills, gestures of past successes, die
hard. And Carter, although acutely aware of the changes in both his inner and outer
self, seemed unable or unwilling to vouchsafe the pristine mask
O rain and fire, hopeful origins!
O rust and smoke, only enduring end!
I almost stumble underneath the waste
While squandered daylight mocks my deep remorse ...58
Behind a wall of stone beside this city,
mud is blue-grey when ocean waves are gone ...
And I have seen some creatures rise from holes,
and claw a triumph like a citizen,
and reign until the tide!59
Is this really Carter's voice or is it, as he himself puts it, the 'childhood of a voice':
The familiar white street
is tired of always running east,
The sky, of always arching over.
The tree, of always reaching up.
Even the round earth is tired of being round
and spinning round the sun 60
We do not know what really 'happened'; but in terms of his poetry, we are aware that
by 1964 Carter had, for his own purposes retreat? disguise? failure of his own
rhetoric? acquired a persona; borrowed a voice:
think you I do not know
that love is stammered, hate is shouted out
in every human city of this world?
Men murder men, as men must murder men,
to build their shining governments of the damned.61
The music, the associations here are with that other young/old disillusioned/hopeful
revolutionary, W.B. Yeats:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude .. 62
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
That ceremony of innocence is drowned;
That best lack all conviction .. 63
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?64
Carter's creatures rising from the holes, clawing a triumph like a citizen, and reigning
until the tide ('Black Friday', see above), have clear, close connection with Yeats' 'The
second coming': 'The blood-dimmed tide' (above), and the 'vast image out of Spiritus
Mundi', that rises out of the desert sands. There is nothing more specific than this; but
the echoes are there. Compare Carter's
Now there was one who I knew long ago
And then another to whom I paid respect:
The first I would salute, the second praise
But all is gone, all gone, the murderer cried65
With the Irishman's
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words ...
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.66
My explanation for this is based on the notion of sympathetic models. There is much
in the early revolutionary/colonial Yeats that would have attracted Carter; and the
Irishman's later old-man's impotence theme, would have tolled bells in Carter's
post-1962 disillusionment consciousness. Also, they were both great bards, great
creators of rhetoric.
But the significant thing is that Carter does not appear to reach back and across to this
literary connection until after 1962: at a time when, instead, one would have assumed
him to be moving closer and closer into his own thing. Why this was/was not
happening can only be a matter of conjecture, without some intimate knowledge of
My guess is connected with a point I made earlier, to the effect that Carter's work has
dealt little (directly) with his landscape: physical and socio-cultural. In formal terms,
there is no nation language (dialect), no 'nancy forms'; (compare, for instance, Carter's
'Old Higue' with Wordsworth McAndrew's; or even better, with a poem like Lorrimer
Alexander's 'Moongazer'). When the bottom fell out of the (international) long-lined
rhetorical world, there were only two possibilities: a development of the survival
structures like 'Death of a slave', or a reversion to sympathetic models. With his
non-dialect literary education and instinct, the latter was perhaps the most certain
choice for Martin Carter. It gave us the single voice crying from the pages of Jail me
And how to leap these sharp entanglements
or skirt this village of the angry streets?
How utter truth when falsehood is the truth?
How welcome dreams how flee the newest lie?67
Now, crossing the divide towards 50, Carter will begin to write his most difficult,
probably his most beautiful poems; his what he has in fact called Poems of
succession.68 Not now from the hill of dawn, the running streets of noon, the after-
noon of prison; but from the greenless, almost wordless wilderness itself:
Trying with words to purify disgust
I made a line I simply can't remember:
For hours now I've poked through memory
A desperate child in a jam-packed garbage can.
It should have been a line with nouns and verbs
Like truth and love and hope and happiness
But looking round it seems I was mistaken
To substitute a temple for a shop.
To see a shop and dream of holy temples
Is to expect a toad to sing a song.
And yet, who knows, someone may turn translator
When all these biped reptiles crawl again.69
In Savacou 3/4 (March 1971), there is even evidence of a return to the survival model:
In the premises of the tongue
dwells the anarchy of the ear.
In the chaos of the vision
resolution of the purpose.
And I would shout it out
differently it it could be sounded plain.
But a mouth is always
muzzled by the food it eats to live.
Rain was the cause of
Birth was the cause
But life is the question
asking what is the way to die.70
From this kind of utterness, most West Indian writers would have turned back from,
or gone on into un/peaceful silence. Carter's irake is that out of the existential residue
of his illuminations, he is still creating stark from ash.
If these are riddles, riddles write themselves
and where we end no starting indicates:
Your eyes that sparkle teach me how to mourn
for all our deaths are certain as our births.
And making this today I test the burden
then free myself, but not to weigh you down
what we call wings the birds can give no name
to heaven is their flight, on earth our sin.71
Or as he says in 'Proem':
Not, in the saying of you, are you
said. Baffled and like a root
stopped by a stone you turn back questioning
the tree you feed. But what the leaves hear
is not what the roots ask. Inexhaustibly,
being at one time what was to be said
and at another time what has been said
the saying of you remains the living of you
never to be said ...72
By any standard, despite the few qualifications one might retain, this is a major
achievement: a poet writing so plain, so true, so nearly harshly peaceful, that con-
ventional criticism hesitates (so little has been written on this man) for lack of models
of procedure. Our critics deal with dance (the 'life' of the poem) or dancers (the poet
as maker). But with Martin Carter, how can we know the dancer from the dance...
EDWARD KAMAU BRATHWAITE
1. See George Campbell, First poems (Kingston, 1945).
2. V.S. Reid, New Day (New York, 1949).
3. See H.M. Telemaque, 'In our land', in Caribbean Voices (ed. John Figueroa) 1, p. 58 (1971),
and other anthologies. See also some of the poems in Scarlet (Georgetown, 1953)
4. Derek Walcott, 25 Poems, (Port of Spain, 1948)
5. Derek Walcott, 25 Poems (Bridgetown, 1949) p. 19
6. AJ. Seymour, The Guiana Book (Georgetown, 1948) p. 42
7. Carter, The Hill of fire glows red (British Guiana, 1951), p. 5
8. ibid., p.3
9. ibid., p.4
10. ibid., p.9
11. ibid., p.ll
12. ibid., p.14
13. Leo A. D6spres, Cultural pluralism and nationalist politics in British Guiana (Chicago, 1967),
14. Introduction (p.2), Poems of resistance (London, 1954).
15. 'Letter 1' Resistance, p.10; all references are to the 2nd edition (1964).
16. 'Letter 2' ibid., p.12
17. 'Letter 3' ibid., p.14
18. The kind eagle and The hidden man, both published in Georgetown in 1952, are subtitled
'Poems of prison', and 'Other poems of prison', respectively. The pages of these books are
unnumbered. Poems of resistance was first published in London (1954) with an introduction
by Sidney King (see above), and again in Georgetown (University of Guyana, 1964) with an
introduction by Neville Dawes. It is interesting to note that Carter's first 'Poems of prison'
were published a year or so it seems before he actually went to prison unless, of course,
there is an error in their dating.
19. Resistance, p.21
20. 'I stretch my hand', The hidden man (G'town 1952). There is no pagination.
21. 'Who walks a pavement', The kind eagle (G'town, 1952). There is no pagination.
22. 'O where to hide', ibid.
23. 'No madness like this sanity', The hidden man.
24. Resistance, p.l
25. 'The kind eagle' from The kind eagle; reprinted as 'The knife of dawn'. Resistance, p. 16.
27. Resistance, p.4
28. ibid., p.5
29. For Carter's discussion of the artist as victim in Caribbean society, see Man and Making -
Victim and Vehicle, The Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures, Fourth Seres, (Georgetown,
30. Resistance, p. 16; the version in The kind eagle reads 'drown not my pillar feet'.
31. 'O human guide', The kind eagle.
33. Resistance, p. 26
35. Resistance, p. 17, my emphasis
36. The hidden man; Resistance, p. 24
37. ibid., my emphasis
38. Resistance, p.3
39. ibid., p.20
42. The hidden man
43. Eagle; Resistance, p.18
44. Resistance, pp.6-7
45. Eagle; Resistance, p.18
46. Resistance, p.8
47. Resistance, p. 6
49. Resistance, p.6
51. Resistance, p.2
52. Hill, p.10
53. The hidden man; Resistance, p.25
54. 'Black Friday 1962', New World Quarterly, no. 34 (1966), p.21
55. Christophe (1963); Une saison au Congo (1966)
56. This essay was written before Carter's Poems of succession (1977) which suggests that Carter
was writing, though not publishing very much.
57. 'Black Friday', op. cit.
58. NWF(1966), p. 23
59. 'Black Friday', op. cit
60. NWF (1966), p. 25
61. NWF (1966), p. 22
62. W.B. Yeats Collected Poems (London 1952), p. 232
63. ibid., p. 211
64. ibid., p. 245
65. 'Conversations', MS dated August 1965
66. Yeats, op. cit., pp. 202-3
67. NWF (1966), p. 23
68. Martin Carter, Poems of succession, New Beacon Books,POS 1977, 117 pp. This most welcome
collection (appearing after this article was written) contains selections from nearly all Carter's
published pamphlets and sequences: The hill of fire glows red (1951), The kind eagle
(1952), 'Returning' (1953), Poems of resistance (1954), 'Poems of shape and motion' (1955),
'Conversations' (1961), 'Jail me quickly' (1963), plus 41 poems written since 1963 repre-
senting some, but by no means all, and certainly not all the best of the poems that Carter has
been writing recently. Also missing are selections from To a dead slave (1951) and The hidden
69. 'Conversations', op. cit.: printed in Succession (p. 64) where Carter dates the sequence 1961
(cf. n.64, above).
70. 'Occasion', Savacou 3/4 (1970/71), p. 171. In Succession (p.85), the title is 'The mouth is
71. 'Anonymous', New World Quarterly, Guyana Independence Issue (1966), p.67
72. Succession, p. 9
THE CLOWN IN THE SLAVE SHIP
As how yam and saltfish become part of the English scene with the coming of
the blacks, so hundreds of little Indian shops have opened up all over the
metropolis, and the Englishman no longer has to risk a perilous voyage to obtain
the spices of the East; they are right here in the high street.'
The colonial chickens are coming home to roost, labour following capital to the
metropolis and bringing griots with it. One of these griots is Sam Selvon from Trini-
dad. Selvon's first novel about the colonials in England was The Lonely Londoners,
which told the story of Moses Aloetta and Sir Galahad, named thus by Moses for
coming to England with only the tropical suit he was wearing and five pounds. The
desires of the colonials then were modest. As Galahad said after a racial rebuff: "We
are not asking for the sun, or the moon. We only want to get by, we don't even want
to get on."2
In The Lonely Londoners, Selvon told his story in the artistic representation of
Trinidadian dialect to create the authentic West Indian consciousness. But when con-
fronted by politically-conscious black Britons, breathing the racial atmosphere of the
Commonwealth Immigration Acts, dealing with a Pakistani smuggling racket and an
illiterate English assistant, the whole situation and corresponding consciousness get
more complex. Selvon's method of dealing with this new "chaos" is to let Moses write
his own story in the mish-mash of the various English languages he is heir to: the
formal prose style of the Victorians, the language of popular American films, the
Trinidadian dialect that stubbornly clings on, and his understanding of "correct"
English English. His references come equally from pop songs and garbled Greek
I can justifiably claim to be more knowledgeable than most when it come to
working evil hours, for it was not by winning the pools, nor spotting the missing
ball, that I came into the fortune to buy the house. It was by the sweat of my
brow, so do not jealous me, dear R., now that I can afford a few little luxuries,
such as having a white man as my au pair. (pp. 15/16)
This style is humorous because of its apparently incongruous juxtapositions. But
the incongruity is only apparent. It is true to the life of modem colonized man, and if
it appears chaotic, there is unity in this meeting of disparate elements in the colonized
consciousness. Living in England has added its English values to the juxtapositions.
Another point I would like to make in passing, is the lack of social graces in
Galahad. Note the invasion of my castle, note the intrusive, aggressive entrance,
the brash, vulgar greeting, the annexing of a seat without invitation. But note,
way and above his ill manners note, I say, the stab at my Achilles heel! I
actually wince. (p. 47)
The story begins when Moses says he has had enough of being exploited by land-
lords. But he is no black power revolutionary, unlike the black Briton Brenda, trying
to overthrow the system. Even Galahad's political consciousness has changed since the
days he only wanted to get by, as shown in his style, both sartorial and linguistic:
He arrived in his Black Power glad rags. Starting from foot to head, he have on a
pair of platforms, yellow socks, purple corduroy trousers, a leather belt about
six inches broad with a big heavy brass buckle and some fancy, spiky chunks of
metal studded in it ('That's my weapon. Look.' He haul the belt right out of the
loops and wield it like a Viking. 'I will slaughter a white man one day.') He have
on a pink shirt. On both hands, he had on a battery of chunky signet rings,
wearing them on unconventional digits. Round his neck he had a heavy chain
like what peasants in Trinidad tether their cattle with. And on top of his head,
he had on a navy-blue wool cap, pulled down over his ears.
'Correction. It is our problem. You can't sit on the fence. Those who are not for
us are against us. Stand up and be counted, Moses! When the revolution moves',
he went on, 'the first to go will be those like you who refuse to live with the
times. When I first come to Brit'n you was a different man, Moses. You was like
a leader, and all the boys would listen to your advice.' (pp. 17/18)
Moses is not stupid. Note his comparison of the chain of Galahad with the chain the
peasants in Trinidad use to tether their cattle. This is humorous but it also shows
Moses' consciousness of home and makes us wonder if Galahad really has more free-
dom than before. But Moses is aware that a change has taken place. He says:
Blessed be the coming of this new generation of Black Britons, and blessed be I
that I still alive and well to witness their coming of age from piccaninny to black
beauty. It is a sight for sore eyes to see them flounce and bounce about the city,
even if they capsize on their platforms and trip up in their maxis. Be it bevy or
crocodile, Woman's Lib or Woman's Tit, they are on the march, sweeping
through the streets. You see one, you see two, you see a whole batch of them.
There are no women in the world who could shake their backsides like a black
woman. God might give white girls nice legs and high bobbies, but when it comes
to backsides, our females are in a class by themselves. It may be that they inherit
that proud and defiant part of the anatomy from toting and balancing loads on
their heads from the days of slavery. But however it come into being, it is good
to look at. Like how you see an ordinary girl tits jump up and down if she is
running, thus a black backside merely pedestrianizing. And it is not only up and
down, but sideways, and gyrating in circles, and quivering and shivering in all
manner of movement. It is not their coming to look at, but their going. It is after
they pass you and you turn your head and look that you realize what a great
experience you are experiencing. White window cleaners and navvies digging up
the road want to drop everything and follow the pied pipers. Men no longer
contemplate blonde and brunette and redhead, but seek the delights of brown-
skin, octoroon and ebony. Instead of the pale pink landscape to the foot of
Mount Venus it is a dark and dusky journey filled with unexpected pleasures.
The tide is turning, yes sir. (pp. 21/22)
Although Moses is waxing lyrical about black backsides, he is actually singing the
praises of the political change that has taken place in the consciousness of Third World
However, when it comes to direct political commitment, Moses is cynical. He says
to Galahad, "I will tell you one thing that I have learnt in this life. It is that the black
man cannot unite. I have seen various causes taken up and dropped like hot coals. I
have seen them come together and then scatter like when you pitching marbles and
you hit a set of them in the rings and they fly off in all directions."3 Unlike his Biblical
namesake, Moses refuses to get socially involved. All he wants is to become a landlord
himself and move out of "the basement brigade". He buys a house and moves into the
penthouse, leaving the rest to Bob, his white Man Friday, an immigrant from the
From the heights, Moses begins to suspect vaguely that there are strange goings on
below him. Moses tries to stay uninvolved, but the whole Third World gets into his
house. For instance, Bob had given Brenda the basement with the aim of seducing her.
She becomes the coordinator of a black power party in her basement room. Ques-
tioning Bob one day, Moses finds that his tenants come from Barbados, Cyprus,
Africa, Australia, and:
'Two Pakis. Faizull and Farouk.'
'Hello!' This was disturbing. 'Did you check their credentials?'
'Man, they might of landed in Brit'n by fishing boat!'
'They pay their rent regularly.'
'Black Power in the basement,' I muse, 'and Pakis in residence -
no wonder my house is under surveillance!' (p. 39)
Knowing all the publicity about illegal Pakistani immigrants, Moses begins to snoop
on the two mysterious Pakistani tenants. He steams open a letter for Faizull and reads,
"IF LANDLORD NOSY EXTERMINATE HIM" Though Moses tries to back away
from the situation, pretending he knows nothing, Faizull admits he is involved in a
smuggling racket, using Moses' house for the new arrivals. He makes Moses an offer -
receive money for housing immigrants or the alternative. Moses chooses to cooperate.
Moses Ascending is a series of comic reversals. Most of the reversals come from the
dialectic of Moses' actions: in trying to avoid certain situations, he takes action which
brings about the very situations he fears. For instance, trying to stop Brenda's black
power activities, he gets caught up in a demonstration, gets arrested, and is only freed
by the Party and turned into a martyr. Snooping on the Pakistanis to find out if they
are running an immigration racket, he finds out that they are indeed running a racket
and he is forced to get involved in the racket or else (though a share of the cut softens
his resistance). Angry that both Bob and Brenda have read his manuscript Brenda
seduces Bob into showing her the work Moses writes to Bob's girlfriend, Jeannie in
the Midlands, to ask Bob to come back to her. He succeeds, and then finds he cannot
run the building without Bob. The result is that Bob comes back with Jeannie, the
relationship between him and Moses no longer that of servant and master. One day,
Moses is caught by Bob "soaping Jeannie's back"; Moses offers Bob the penthouse in
compensation. Moses has let the white man become his master.
Moses receives a sudden shock when he discovers from Brenda that Bob cannot
read. The disinherited British colonial consciously took English culture very seriously.
He was taught through the colonial structure that the English ruled because they were
culturally superior. In actual fact, back home in England, the average Englishman
moved through English culture subliminally. Therefore the confrontation between
Moses and Bob over the latter's inability to read is another comic reversal:
'A-for-apple?' I say coaxingly.
Bobbie looked at me blankly.
'B-for-bat?' I try again.
'What's up with you?' he ask. ..
'You'll have to excuse me', I say sarcastically, 'it is the first
time that I have come across a fully-fledged white man in this
day and age and who does not know that A is for apple and B is
for bat.' (p. 138)
The roles are reversed between the two: the colonial in the Mother Country is now
the English teacher while the white man is the barbarian.
That is not the last of the reversals. After Moses gives his penthouse to Bob, Brenda
blackmails him into exchanging his flat for her basement, saying that if he refuses, she
will talk about the trafficking of illegal Paki immigrants and his cuckolding with
Jeannie. So Moses is back at the bottom, his ascension leading to a descent. But he is
not finished. At the end, while Bob is being taught English by Galahad, Moses is
scheming to climb back to the top by catching Bob in flagrento delicto with Brenda.
Unlike that of his compatriot V.S. Naipaul, Selvon's humour is not a cynical dis-
tancing from a despicable people: it is a sensuous perception of the people, warts and
all. Both authors are aware of the colonial mystique of the Mother Country, both
know that the reality turns out to be very different, and both put this discovery into
the mouths of a narrator of a novel who is, for a few moments, an alter-ego. Moses
All these things was like another nightmare. You does find yourself wondering if
white does live like this, and have similar experiences. When I was a little boy in
Trinidad, the old ones use to tell the children to try and live and behave like
white people, and I used to imagine that white people live in Paradise, and it was
so nice there that they didn't want no black people to enter and muddy up the
water, because they wouldn't know how to comport themselves and appreciate
the goodies. (p. 88)
In Naipaul's The Mimic Men, Ralph Singh says of London,
Here was the city, the world. I waited for the flowering to come to me. The
trams on the Embankment sparked blue. The river was edged and pierced with
reflections of light blue and red and yellow. Excitement! Its heart must have lain
somewhere. But the god of the city was elusive. The tram was filled with individ-
uals, each man returning to his own cell. The factories and warehouses, whose
external lights decorated the river, were empty and fraudulent. I would play
with famous names as I walked empty streets and stood on bridges. But the
magic of names soon faded. Here was the river, here the bridge, there that
famous building. But the god was veiled. My incantation of names remained
unanswered. In the great city, so solid in its light, which gave colour even to
unrendered concrete to me as colourless as rotten wooden fences and new
corrugated iron roofs in this solid city life was two-dimensional.4
The exposure of the colonial lie leads Naipaul's alter-ego to see an emptiness in the
metropolis. But with Selvon the emptiness is only apparent: if one really looks, he
says, one will find real people living there. He lyrically describes the work done by the
black people while the whites are asleep:
What is that heavy footfall on the cold damp pavement before the rest of the
world is awake? What is that freezing figure fumbling through the fog, feeling its
way to the bus stop, or clattering down the steps of the sleepy underground at
this unearthly hour?
It is the black man. He is the first passenger of the day. He is the harbinger who
will put the kettle on to boil. He holds the keys of the city, and he will unlock
the doors and tidy the papers on the desk, flush the loo, straighten the chairs,
hoover the carpet. He will press switches and start motors. He will empty dust-
bins and ashtrays and stack boxes. He will peel the spuds. He will sweep the halls
and grease the engines. (p. 12)
Moses gets so carried away that he concludes that if racial violence breaks out, it
will not be because the black man is oppressed but because "the white man going to
realize that the black man have it cushy, being as he got the whole day to do what he
like, hustle pussy or visit the museums and the historical buildings, what remain open
to facilitate him (yet another boon) and close-up the moment that he, the white man,
left work."5 But the novel does not glorify the black man and put down the white
man in absolute terms. We note that the indispensable assistant to Moses is a white
man. In fact, there is no simple opposition in the novel of black versus white or
colonial versus colonizer. While the English tend to think of all foreigners as the same,
Selvon finds humour in the confrontation of the various colonials on home soil.
Snooping on Faizull and trying to get information, Moses pretends he is doing
'What I really want is your views on current affairs. How does the Pakistan
community react to Black Power? What about that story I read about, how chaps
who ride motor-bikes got to take off their turbans and wear crash helmets?'
'That's the Sikhs.'
'Well, whatever you call them.' I wave it aside. I wasn't going to divide up the
Asian races, research or no research. Besides, I know that English people so
stupid that the whole lot of Orientals and Blacks is the same kettle of fish as far
as they are concemed.(p. 58)
Later, after Faizull exits:
'Tell me something', Brenda say when he went away, 'have you got Indian
'Not that I know of', I say.
'I've noticed a predominance of orientals in the house of late.'
'They come and go', I say truthfully. (p. 91)
Selvon's humour reveals the complexity of reality for colonial man. But when Selvon
chooses to write without humour, he tends to become one-dimensional. His story then
lacks complexity: everything becomes predictable, the characters behaving the way
they do not because of any dynamic but because the author wants them to play their
part in the plot. For instance, Those Who Eat the Cascadura6 is the story of the tragic
love of a Trinidadian peasant girl for a visiting Englishman. The coming of the white
man, the love and the tragic separation are prophesised by Manko, the local obeahman.
Thereafter, everything happens according to this formula. When the story takes a turn
that looks improbable or irrevelant, the author steps in to move it along. For example,
describing a dance of the peasants, the author says, "Like a great many customs, this
one had borrowed bits and pieces from others until it was nothing like the original
version. Many people did not know or care about the reasons or authenticity of rites,
and certain aspects were modified and magnified."7At the end, the girl is left trying
hysterically and melodramatically to cheat her fate by getting her lover to eat the
cascadura in the hope that, according to the legend, those who eat the cascadura will
Paradoxically, it is when Selvon writes humorously that he comes closest to
allegory. Moses Ascending is a larger statement than just the story of one man. The
novel is full of implications peeping round the edges of Moses' consciousness. It is no
surprise that his ascent actually leads to his descent because Galahad had told him that
the building was a house of cards practically due for demolition. The political activists
fare little better: the famed "black power" visitor from the States says all the correct
radical things but absconds with the Party funds, leaving his Mercedez behind. Moses is
back to the business of trying to survive, done in by the whites, the browns and the
blacks but most of all, himself. Nothing seems, to have changed for Third World
man. As Moses says when he is being arrested, it was like they were "in the hold of a
slave ship." 8
Yet something has changed. Brenda jeers at Moses that his manuscript is "ignorant
and unschooled." It is precisely because he is "ignorant and unschooled" that Moses is
able to authentically tell the story of colonial man adrift in the British isles. The
colonial chickens have come home to roost, telling it like it is. Moses has ascended.
1. Sam Selvon, Moses Ascending, Davis-Poynter, London, 1975, p. 59. This article incorporates a
shorter review published in World Literature Today (formerly Books Abroad), ed. Ivar Ivask,
University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter 1977, pp. 150/51.
2. Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londones, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1956, p. 97.
3. Moses Ascending, p. 49.
4. V.S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men, Penguin, London, 1967, p. 19. See my chapter on Naipaul, "The
Mimic Men as a Study of Corruption", in Literature and Society in Modem Africa, East African
Literature Bureau, Nairobi/Kampala/Dar es Salaam, 1972 (U.S. edition entitled An African
View of Literature, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1974) The chapter has
also been published in Critical Perspectives: V.S. Naipaul, ed. Robert D. Hamner, Three Conti-
nents Press, Washington, D.C., 1977.
5. Moses Ascending, p. 15.
6. Samuel Selvon, Those Who Eat the Cascadura, Davis-Poynter, London, 1973.
7. Ibid., p. 107.
8. Moses Ascending, p. 43. Andrew Salkey in The Adventures of Catullus Kelly, Hutchinson,
London, 1969 shows us that we are still in the hold of the slave ship by using a different literary
technique from Selvon. Salkey's colonial's story is very readable because it begins by appealing
to all the Third World reader's anti-English, anti-colonial prejudices. It is only near the end that
the reader realizes he has been hoaxed. Everything he has been reading in the novel is a fantasy
in the form of a sexual fantasy, since the desire of the colonial for the white woman has its
real basis in exploitation rather than a sexual relationship. All the women who seduce Catullus
Kelly in fact represent various temptations and pitfalls waiting for the gullible, "radical" colo-
nial. The reader shudders to discover who the fascist was all along. The Adventures of Catullus
Kelly is an Anancy story in novel-form.
THE SNOW VIRGIN: AN INQUIRY INTO
V.S. NAIPAUL'S 'MIMIC MEN'
Until I read V.S. Naipaul's Mimic Men, I had held the conviction that the two most
pessimistic novels in the English tongue were Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, and
Pudd'n' h'd Wilson..by Mark Twain. Crusoe is, of course, a protean achievement: one
of such endlessly reverberating significance that it is almost unfair to set a minor work
by a major writer Twain beside it, or to match a major work by a good writer -
Naipaul against one of the most profound and perennially troubling exercises of the
imagination ever offered for our response by a primary genius. Robinson Crusoe is an
historical figure against whom we have to measure our places, our attitudes and our
very perceptions of the world. He is a progenitor whose genes and blood we all share.
Huckleberry Finn may be nearly so. Give him and Nigger Jim another hundred years
on the Mississippi and we'll know ... But Pudd'n' hf'd Wilson and the absurd injustice
he exposes because of a casual hobby only to establish an even more absurd, far
crueller injustice does not dwell in the magnificent tribal moralities of Huckleberry
Finn and Nigger Jim. In the end, he is an accident looking for a place to occur with
consequential accidents occurring on his discovery that the white child is really a slave
child and the white free twin really a black slave. It is a good book but, in the end, it is
a record of private despair.
And Mimic Men, similarly, is a good book with a despair so isolate, with a privacy
so armoured against any intrusion of society, that we can do no more than concede
the unremitting integrity of its pessimism. Set both books against the amazing courage
and enormous pride of Crusoe on his island against his unshakeable conviction of
doing the right thing and we begin to see the difference between the merely lonely
and those who, in real isolation, manage to create a moral order that waits only on
people to fill it. And yet, as I suggested at the beginning, Naipaul may well have earned
a distinction of sorts in that he has hammered out from God knows what personal
wounds, disappointments and betrayals, an authentic work of art without a shred of
hope, without a hint of the possibility that, one fine morning, we may discover a
communion of souls, as a group of cold, half-naked hominids once discovered the
communion of fire.
I have titled this essay, tentatively, The Snow Virgin for reasons you may or may
not agree with at the end. But I could have called it, with equal justification, The
Refugee. For it is the story of a series of nearly hapless journeys, down roads
crowded with similarly hapless creatures who share only a sense of terror, through
landscapes that are either squalid or positively dangerous. The destinations are
uncertain, although there is, at times, a manic urgency to reach them, a hope (never
quite believed) that at the end of the journey there may be, if not a great good place,
at least a place of rest and a kind of peace. But it is not peace, really. It is solitude that
is sought in a world designed to hurt all those who do not hide.
As Singh, the narrator, says early in the book, when he is beginning the labour that
will help him to get through the next fourteen months without going mad with the
memories of the chaos from which he has once more escaped:
"I do not now wish to become involved in battles which are irrelevant to
myself... My present urge is, in the inaction imposed on me, to secure the final
emptiness... I like the feeling of impermanence ... I scarcely see the houses
now and never think of the people who live in them. I no longer seek to find
beauty in the lives of the mean and the oppressed. Hate oppression; Fear the
Oppression, all oppression, whether on a small domestic scale or in our larger
political exchanges, is hateful because it is a betrayal of trust, a breaking of what
should be an ideal social contract. The oppressed are to be feared because oppression
deforms and warps. Their revenges are terrible because they cannot forgive themselves
their own ugliness: the ugliness and deformity into which they have been fashioned
like freaks grown in a bottle for a circus side show, or children carefully mutilated by
the Beggars' Guild so as to stimulate our conscience into an extravagant offering when
we see the poor maimed little wretches thrusting the stumps that were once whole
hands into your face.
For Ralph Ranjit Kripalsingh Singh R. the great betrayal of trust, the first
irreparable breaking of contract, may lie in
"the overthrow in three continents of established social organizations, the un-
natural bringing together of peoples who could achieve fulfilment only within
the security of their own societies, hymned by their ancestors .. ."
Europe, Asia and Africa: these have, in a gigantic and impersonal conspiracy,
defrauded Singh of what might have been his fulfilment; shipwrecked him in the slum
of Isabella with its "horrible man-made landscape"; ensured that any other journey he
takes will end in shipwreck also; condemned him forever to relationships that can only
be fraudulent or cruel, sterile or grotesque. He lives on the edge of an imminent
starvation. And, in the end, the only thing that salvages him from the most horrible
death of the spirit is that he can write about his emptiness and perhaps even more
important write about himself writing about his emptiness. For this, finally, is what
saves Singh from disintegration: his discovery of writing as "a process of life" .. This
is not 'Art for Art's Sake', which is a proposition of dubious validity, but which is, at
least debatable. This is art as anodyne, as aspirin.
This is not the dread charge given to us who write by, say, a Fielding, to gather our
strength for the struggle against the stream of life. To make of life, as Faulkner
believes it can be made, something that is always is, never was.
It is a definition above all, vastly different from Walcott's Another Life, in which a
character in his fashion as fictional as Ralph Singh uses the accumulated anguish
of roughly similar experience to celebrate, to believe in the possibility of, "one man"
from a "future clouded with cataract" who will stagger "towards his lineaments."
For, ultimately, what has wounded Ralph Singh, 'the Cripple', beyond any hope of
repair or even reconciliation is not the accident of an historical encounter between
three continents Europe, Asia and Africa and the subsequent, mimetic squalor
this encounter has created in the "horrible man-made landscape" of Isabella, but the
unfulfilling, random duels without honour or exhilaration that occur outside Isabella
in the world that should be great but is only Isabella magnified and subject to
Singh is a totalitarian, a perfectionist, who has been wounded by History itself. A
virgin raped unceasingly by the very fact that he must share the world with others. His
world of sex, for example, is the first great confidence trick practised on him. He
dreams of immaculate beds, after the act, without semen stains. Although he leads a
very active sexual life throughout most of his forty-odd recorded years, he never gets
below the breasts of his partners. Breasts, whether mammalian and nourishing or
painted and exciting, are where his sex stops. The coarse, moist and absorbing cunt
would involve him in necessary relationships with which he would rather not cope. I
know all of Singh's women from his mother to Lady Stella from the face to the
breast; but I do not know their stomachs or where they bifurcate in hairy lips below
the stomach. Singh rests his head on the nourishing globes, but cannot bring himself to
penetrate and impregnate Isabella, the city, the world in which he would wish to be
both possessor and possessed.
He is a snow virgin, melting in the hot violation of a History to which he cannot
For a brief moment, his first snowfall in London imposes a sort of immaculate
beauty on that bombed out, crumbling city. And in the near lunatic terror of his
isolation, he consoles himself with a vision of himself as one of the horde of Aryan
horsemen, riding from God knows where the North Pole perhaps under a sky
threatening a snow that will fall and obliterate the ugliness that stretches to the very
end of an empty world.
The vision is not surprising. The mythical nomad finds corners of beauty and a
simple order such as the green, ice-cold stream under the great snowy mountains. He
enjoys if that is the word I want the austere and utilitarian companionship of
those like himself; wanderers who will voyage forever in search of the small securities
of the camp by the stream under the mountains, or of the old cocoa plantation in the
hills of Isabella. Refuges for those who cannot endure the litter, the decay, the less
than perfection that begin to accumulate, fester if you like, around both permanent
dwellings and in the relationships of those who inhabit them.
Singh, it seems to me, seeks the appalling and perverted purity of the desert an-
chorites in the early centuries of Christianity in Egypt. He deludes himself when he
tells himself at the end that he has achieved the fourth stage of development of the
good Aryan male: that of recluse. There is no tranquility in his reclusion and
withdrawal. No real raised consciousness of self. Only the cessation of a private pain
that has come about because a book can't talk back, need not be a search for an
always elusive meaning but simply a confession.
Beware Singh beware Ralph Ranjit Kripalsingh! The fourteen months immure-
ment above the white page. The hiding places you have found have now served their
temporary purpose. You have tried every device from dreaming of mythical journeys,
to renaming yourself, to building a glass house which can be destroyed easily and so
demands no real responsibility on your part you have tried all down to the great
impiety of writing a book to relieve your anguish rather than give conscience to the
anguish of your race! Further, increasingly desperate journeys lie ahead of you as the
pain-killer of the completed and published Mimic Men is eliminated from your system.
The end of the last of those journeys can only be a sordid madness or, if you are lucky
and seize yourself in time, a suicide.
You will have observed how directly I have addressed Singh, in the above passage.
This personal involvement, this near angry apprehensiveness on my part about his
future is the real measure, I believe, of Naipaul's brilliance in fashioning a work of art.
To write a book about a writer is always a risk. To write a book about a writer
writing himself into an experience that has left him spiritually paralysed is not only a
risk: it is a demonstration of skilled courage that few could or should attempt. You
operate there on the thinnest and highest of wires, keeping balance against gusts from
yourself that you cannot possibly anticipate. And if you fall if your book disinte-
grates then there is little dignity or high drama in the failure. Bathos, sentimentality,
falsity of character are what you are left with at the end of eighty thousand useless
Singh may be the metaphor for all the appraisals Naipaul has made about the West
Indian creature and his mimic, absurd relationship to a ruined but still powerful world
outside but Singh is not Naipaul. And any reader who approaches the life and
surprising adventures of Ralph Ranjit Kripalsingh as an autobiography under wraps, as
it were, or as an extended essay in social and political anthropology decorated by
dialogue and narrative, is going to miss the significance completely. Mimic Men is a
work of art. Not a "process of life", as Singh fatuously suggests at the end, but an
elemental amalgam which life must absorb, subject to enormous pressures and event-
ually recognize as a singular, indispensable artifice without which life could not con-
tinue. It is irreducible. It is, in Faulkner's phrase. It endures in the perpetual present
tense, and no statistic, no social or political development can erode a facet of its
How then does Naipaul force, from his artist's gathering, such a quantity of
malleable, untidy material into "the process of life" and emerge with a diamond?
As always, we must find the technique, the devices, the approaches to banality that
justify the novel, the poem and the play.
This search for form is the artist's greatest (and indeed unique) obligation. Others,
even the great mathematicians, juxtapose fact against fact and emerge with a new
formula which is pretty well unrepeatable. Some, like the great historians, pile fact
upon fact, interpret what they have piled, may rest unchallenged for thousands of
years like Thucydides, but have little room for manoeuvre in their subservience to
conventional narrative, to Time as it is commonly apprehended and to space as it is
Only the artist, the poet, novelist, painter, sculptor, dramatist, must take as his first
given that there are nine billion ways of beginning an artistic experience and that
any of these ways, for any one work, can be the only right one. If we consider it, E =
mc2 was the only way in which Einstein could have come to terms with Relativity:
there were no alternatives open to his inquiry any more than there were alternatives
open to Marx once he defined the nature of Surplus Value, or to Freud once he had
established the contentions between the Super-Ego, the Ego and the Id.
But for the artist, there is always the moment when he must select from the trivial
and commonplace and commonly experienced and establish a form that is not true to
life as it is known but which shocks life out of its customary approaches.
Only the artist can sustain the sort of inquiry that Melville did in Moby Dick from a
three word premise or declaration of "Call me Ishmael". Only the artist can begin, as
does Joyce in Finnegan's Wake, the story of a dream in the middle of the last sentence
or, if you prefer, end the story with the incompleted first sentence.
In brief, only the artist has in his gift that incantation of Once upon a time, by
which Time is made to stand still while he finds the form that determines, in Tolstoi's
words, "the place where all rays meet or from which they issue ... (a) "focus",
Tolstoy goes on to say ... "not to be completely explained in words."
"What" asked Goethe, "is a novel but a peculiar and as yet unheard of
event? .. much of what passes as a novel is no novel at all but mere narrative .. ."
And it isNaipaul's apparently arbitrary, beautifully controlled and shuffling presen-
tation of events, sequences, observations and even small phrases that makes The Mimic
Men not just another Caribbean narrative of a hero in cultural trouble but gives it a
dimension to quote Singh himself "of greater fears."
From the first premonition of shipwreck in his boarding house in London, to the
shipwreck of marriage, through the closely navigated, damnably dangerous landfalls
and departures of his childhood, to the set and purposed disaster course of his political
venture, Singh is more than a type vulgarly chewed and spat out by an island as tawdry
as Isabella. He is, truly, a hero, a Jacob, in an universal contest with the angel of a
History he cannot accept. It is the human condition he finds wanting. The human
condition everywhere. Isabella and its people are merely convenient metaphors for the
fact of life he faces alone, at the end of his book, as wittingly or unwittingly he readies
himself against another departure into a greater aloneness, a deeper despair.
Which is why I suggest that the abrupt and sometimes confusing shifts in linear
evocation represent the only and audacious method by which Naipaul could have
established "the place", Tolstoi speaks of, "where all rays meet or from which they issue:'
Ralph-Ranjit-Kripalsingh, R.R.K. Singh, Ralph Singh, Singh R.: the broken,
shuffled man, is the joker who turns up in every pack in Isabella; in England; in the
myths of his Aryan ancestors; in the future into which he is about to carry himself like
the immediate source of an epidemic to which we are all vulnerable, by which we are
all to a greater or lesser degree infected.
He is a terminal case. And there is a certain nobility in the deep, bone-sadness with
which he recognizes this. There is a certain grace in his refusal to pretend that we can
live in any other fashion than that of the marooned and bereft.
His stem refusal to portray any character other than himself in depth is a mark of
this nobility and grace. Except for Sandra, and to a much lesser extent the Negro,
Browne, and Singh's grandfather, no character is developed in The Mimic Men. They
are all cinematic 'stills' flashed as backdrops on his desperate, desperately honest
migration into understanding of himself.
All the other people in his life fill a space on that terrible white snow screen against
which he must preserve himself inviolate, but they vanish at convenience. His very
sense of compassion, which must not be overlooked, is based on his feeling of outrage
that the people are being violated. Does he ever stop to ask himself whether violation
may not be a better condition than the chastity he values with such obsessive and
It is Sandra, the wife, after all, who violates his privacy by forcing him to propose
to her, and who for a little while saves him from madness. It is Lady Stella, in the
honest abandon of her love-making and her attempt to quicken the dead child in him
with the nursery rhymes he never knew, who most nearly brings him to the realisation
of a touching, reciprocal, smelly life where you barter and share your imperfections,
instead of riding on into virgin territory where imperfections will be but trivial ex-
crementa to be washed away by the clear-green, ice-cold streams and buried under the
next fall from the snow-heavy mountains.
There is more that I could say about The Mimic Men. Another essay, alone,
depends upon its use of language. For the only time in his use of our infinitely flexible
common tongue, Naipaul is deliberately difficult, cerebral. The most pellucid of West
Indian writers muddies the stream with intent. He sets a task, to the reader, to cut a
way through to the final meaning, as he does in none of his other books.
For the first time, we see Naipaul up against language as forest through which we
both must hack a path.
It is significant that the last realized character in The Mimic Men is a pair of hands,
seen only from behind a pillar, rejecting most food as Garbage but killing a cheese with
Here is Ralph Singh's doppelganger. The creature who has reduced himself to what
will barely sustain life, who has cut exchange between himself and life to a sliver of
protein, and who is seen behind a pillar as only a pair of "well educated hands."
Life is Garbage. Language is Life.
Naipaul may be right.
But who could make love to such a life?
From Snow Virgin to Garbage Disposer the progress is marvellously and con-
The language proves it. Only our instincts say: No, there is a larger hope as there is,
surely, a larger fear.
CLAUDE MCKAY'S JAMAICA
This essay attempts an analysis of McKay's attitude to class and colour conflicts in
Jamaican society at the turn of the century. The issue of his social attitudes is im-
portant given the strong sociological content of his literary output and the abundance
of reminiscence and biographical material in his fiction. Source material for this
analysis derives largely from McKay's Jamaican writings: Songs of Jamaica (1912),
Constab Ballads (1912), Gingertown (1932), Banana Bottom (1933), and My Green
Hills of Jamaica (1946).
Part I of the essay sketches the socio-economic basis of Jamaican rural society and
McKay's status within this context. Historical data, supported by evidence from
McKay's texts are brought in to bear out this exposition. Part II presents an analysis of
McKay's ideological and social perspectives, relating these to his portrayal of character
and of social interaction in his fiction.
In some ways, McKay's perspective of social relations in Jamaica was coloured by
comparison with his experience of racial oppression in the United States and Europe.
The starkness of racism in America in the 1910's, particularly in the South with its
lynchings and race riots, not only led to McKay's temporary involvement with the
communist left in the United States and Britain, but also convinced McKay that, by
contrast, Jamaica was a social paradise: "a beautiful garden in human relationships."1
This opinion was assisted by the fact that during McKay's boyhood the peasantry was
in a state of quiescence. Following on the armed repression of the Morant Bay peasant
rebellion in 1865, the revolutionary movement of the rural poor fizzled out in various
revivalist movements, among them that of Bedward, between the 1890's and the
1920's.2 The 1910's was therefore a period of relative calm in which great effort was
made by the British colonialists to win the support of a section of the better-off rural
dwellers through limited legal and parliamentary reforms and social improvements.
This was aimed at weakening indigenous rebellion for democratic changes, with the
black middle-class serving as a buffer against the masses. The quiescent impotent mood
of thL peasantry is captured in the following lines from Songs of Jamaica:
"We've got to wuk wid might an' main,
To use we han' an' use we brain,
To toil an' worry, 'cheme an' 'train
Fe things that bring more loss dan gain;
To stan' de sun an' bear de rain,
An' suck we bellyful o' pain
Widouten cry nor yet complain -
For dat caan' do.
"..... We must strive on to gain de height,
Aldough it may not be in sight;
An' yet perhaps de blessed right
Will never conquer in de fight -
Still, whe' fe do? ..." 3
Thus, despite McKay's favourable generalizations of Jamaica, his writings, beginning
from his first published poetry, indicate a society beset by sharp racial and social
antagonisms. "The social life of the colony was rooted upon shade and colour pre-
judice." 4 This was precisely because "the transition from slavery to freedom" in the
British Caribbean "was not revolutionary"; there was, unlike Haiti, "no revolutionary
destruction of slavery 'from below' in 1838." Thus, "the capitalist economic system
only slowly grafted itself onto the plantation economy and evolved out of it. For these
reasons racial prejudice, racial hatred, racial contempt and oppression by whites
against Africans, the preservation of a racial social estate system 5 as the organizing
principle in every area of social and cultural life ... was necessarily the main form
which oppression took after emancipation .. ." 6 One result of this plantation legacy
was absenteeism: "The property of Palmyra was owned by a Lord Penhryn who lived
in England and never visited the island of Jamaica. He had an agent in Jamaica who
collected his money and forwarded it to him. There are many such properties
in... the West Indies.. ."' (Green Hills, "My new life with my brother ").
Wastage of human labour due to the ill health and ill-treatment of slaves, sundry
acts of sabotage to estate equipment by the slaves,7 marronage, lack of technological
innovation on the part of the planters, inefficient land usage, squandered capital -
these and more contributed to the internal decline of the semi-capitalist system of
agricultural production in the New World. This system was too outdated to compete
with that of beet sugar production in late 18th century Europe. The British Govern-
ment therefore dismantled this obsolete economic system by depriving the slave--
owners of their human property in 1838. Furthermore, to allow business-like
capitalists to re-equip and re-organize bankrupt estates, the British Parliament set up a
special court, in London, to dispose of them. This meant that encumbered estates were
made available to the British bourgeoisie at ridiculously cheap prices. Such would have
been the background to Palmyra Estate, one hundred acres of which were later leased
by McKay's elder brother, U'Theo.
In Banana Bottom, however, McKay deals with the locally based plantocracy by
depicting the Adairs and the Glengleys. The founder of the Adair clan in Jamaica was a
Scotsman, here an example of the hypocritically 'philanthropic'8 landowners, who,
having bought an estate, freed the slaves sold along with it, but sold them in turn small
sub-divisions of the land, retaining ten acres for himself. Several generations after his
time, this land is planted out in banana and sugarcane. In addition, the Adairs are
involved in small-scale animal husbandry and have branched out into commercial
activity by running the village grocery.
McKay is reticient about how, from a poor immigrant, Busha Glengley rose to be a
wealthy landowner,9 but Glengley represents a latter-day plantocrat. Like the former
slave-owning plantocracy, Glengley is a large-scale estate owner who harbours idle
land. Slaves have been replaced by a large number of labourers. Some are "transient
workers", apparently itinerant, landless proletarians who work for wages. Others are
small-farmers 10who sell their labour on a seasonal basis. But another source of labour
for the plantocracy derives from peasants and artisans imported from India and, to a
lesser extent, China at the expense of the African peasantry." Driven largely by
famine, these Asians were tricked and forced into contract labour under near-slave
conditions in the West Indies. Not that labour was unavailable here, but the Asians
were specifically brought in by the planters to depress the wages demanded by the
ex-slaves and their descendants whose freedom gave them the right to sell their labour
for cash payment.
The proletarians (the Asians, the roving farmhands and the landless peasants) and
the bourgeoisie (the absentee and resident landlords) represent the two socio-economic
extremities of Banana Bottom society. The bulk of the society comprised the petty
bourgeoisie of varying economic and professional categories. There was "the lesser
local elite" well-off shopkeepers, Civil Servants, the clergy, professionals, medium-
scale farmers and cattle-raisers. The peasantry was also petty bourgeois in that it
owned property and/or it possessed craft and artisan skills. In either case, it did not
consistently need to sell its labour, and was not only self-employed, but could itself
hire labour. From among the peasantry came people in small-scall commerce petty
shop-keepers, horse-dealers. Members of peasant households also went into service jobs
as maids, coachmen, draymen, shopclerks, estate foremen and overseers. The latter
category did not, in the non-industrial rural setting of the 1910s, constitute a working
class properly so called, in that its members had family or individual land holdings to
fall back on in case of any eventuality.
The bulk of the petty bourgeois were peasants. This broad stratum was economi-
cally the most vulnerable to natural disasters like drought, earthquakes, hurricane and
flood, since it lacked sufficient money to recuperate. Such failure meant penury and a
change in economic status from landowner back onto plantation labour with its
semi-feudal arrangements of wages, wages in cash and kind, tenantry and tithe. To
maintain and improve their landed status and the social privileges it ensured, in the
political context, the peasantry "worked miracles with the axe and pick, the fork and
hoe, tilling the most difficult pieces of mountain land, bringing green growth out of
stony forbidding hillside patches, eking out funds to buy the crown lands that were
cut up for small proprietorship striving and struggling against descending to the
coolie level of the plantations, which to them was like a return to chattel slavery."12
Peasant farming was deeply caught up in the export trade. Only the poorest were
involved simply in subsistence farming; for the middle and rich peasantry supplied
their homes as well as the internal market, and also engaged in cash-crop production:
bananas, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa. As a group their yield exceeded that from the
plantations. For although owning a small proportion of the total land acreage, they yet
worked the overwhelming percentage of cultivated land.13
The rich peasant was rich in relation to the peasantry, poor in relation to the
planter. But the former was of course better able to cushion any economic blows than
the smaller-scale farmer. Among these rich farmers in McKay's fiction are Jordon Plant
and Deacon Lakin, just as were McKay's father and elder brother in real life. Jordan in
Banana Bottom owns over one hundred acres "of banana and sugar-cane and his
sugar-mill and dray-and-five-mules and a saddle-horse."14 He is acquisitive as regards
fertile land. He employs labour to supplement his own, and, like Deacon Lakin,
rewards his employees both in cash and kind. He acts as guardian for poor boys whom
he boards at his home in exchange for their services. This economic standing had
political significance, for McKay wrote that his father "was one of the few peasants
who possessed enough worldly goods to establish himself, as a voter."1 s He was
prosperous enough to be engaged not only in agricultural production, but also in
manufacture, for his sugar mill allowed him to be involved in the initial stages of the
refining process. Such economic standing had further social significance. Such men
were community leaders and church deacons.
This was the social and economic stratum McKay knew best, and it is the outlook
and dilemmas of this class that he portrays in his Jamaica writings. Of the poorer
sections of the peasantry he spoke from observation, and with some sensitivity. Thatch
roofs marked their poor dwellings; they are the higglers in his picturesque and lyric
Jubilee market scene. But Sue in Gingertown (before she marries) is the closest we
come to the agricultural labourer in his fiction. Sue works her small plot, and once a
week carts her produce and that of her neighbours to market. However, it is in the
direct speech of McKay's early poetry that the reader is truly acquainted with the
harsh and immediate realities, physical and psychological, of the poor peasantry. His
first piece in Songs of Jamaica bears evidence of the closeness and concomitant small-
ness of the peasants' plots:
"De bush cut done, de bank dem we deh dig
But dem caan' 'tan' sake o' we naybor pig,
For so we moul' it up he root it do'n,
An' we caan' 'peak sake o' we naybor tongue."16
Several poems take up the theme of physical toil and the precariousness of nature:
"You tas'e petater' an' you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
You want a basketful fe quattiewut,
'Cause you no know how tufff de bush fe cut."17
"De pickney coming' up de hill,
Fightin' wid heavy gou'd,
Won't say it sweet him, but he will
Complain about de load:
Him feel de weight,
Dem watch him gait;
It's so some of de great
High people t'ink it sweet
Fe batter in de boilin' heat." "
"You come from mountain naked-'kin,
An' Lard a mussy! you be'n thin,
For all de breadfruit dem be'n done
Bein 'poil' up by de tearin' sun!
"De coco couldn't bear at all,
For, Lard! de groun' was pure white-marl;
An' through de rain part o' de year
De mango tree dem could' bear."19
The outlets from these harsh conditions included revivalism, emigration to the city,
and emigration overseas, particularly to Central America. Those going to Kingston
went into service jobs. Girls became maids20and prostitutes.21 Boys became trade
apprentices, chauffeurs, waiters in big hotels and cabarets. Or they joined the army or
Of the overseas emigrants, the most indigent were recruited as contract labourers
"to the Central American jungles where their labour was indispensable to break the
virgin soil for the vast banana and cocoa plantations that the Yankees were
making." 2But it was the Panama Canal which "was the big hope of the poor dis-
inherited peasant youth of Jamaica ...""23Such migrants raised money for their boat
fare to the Canal Zone through sale of their assets. "Among the older heads of Banana
Bottom and other villages there were some who had sold their cows or horses, even
their land, to go to Panama during the first Canal Enterprise of the eighteen eighties to
try their chance."24 "24,300 people went to Panama... in 1883-84 alone... net
migration to Panama alone between 1881-1921 was 45,000; to Cuba 22,000, and to
the USA ... 45,000. In all total net emigration from Jamaica between 1881 and 1921
reached the fantastic figure of 146,000 people."25
"It's the Panama Canal", said Priscilla. "Our
Negroes are not the same after contact with the
Americans. They come back ruder."
Bita replied, "But they make more money there,
though. The least two dollars a day, they say.
And here they got only a shilling ..."
"And a loss of eight times eighty in native
worth. They come back hard-drinking and strutting
with bad manners, loud clothes and louder-jewellery."
"I don't like it", continued Priscilla. "Times may
be hard here and our black folk terribly poor. But
I like them better so than when they come back
peacocks from Panama." (Banana Bottom, pp. 34-5)
The reader ought not to be deluded by the pseudo-identification and surface friend-
liness of "our black folk", "our Negroes." Prissy Priscilla is an English woman, as
distinct from her husband who is a white creole. She is therefore more uncom-
promising in her assessment of local culture and conditions than is Malcolm. He
displays the creole's ambivalence, and perhaps because McKay was sympathetic to this
class of person (as we will show later) he downplays the role of Malcolm in the novel,
since for the purposes of his theme he needs to have Bita, his heroine, at polarity with
a character who is the mouthpiece of British colonialism.
The self-righteousness and hypocrisy of Priscilla is emphasised by McKay's creating
her a wealthy woman. One notes then her grudging admission of the oppressive eco-
nomic conditions for the majority: "Times may be hard here and our black folk
terribly poor", and her further arrogant endorsement of the status quo: "But I like
them better so .." It is important however to understand Priscilla's orientation in its
class and historical perspective. Priscilla is a member of the English bourgeoisie, with
an abolitionist background, who has come to the colony through marriage. She
therefore belongs to that stratum which is convinced of its right to impose its will
upon all other classes. Her attitudes are not exclusively racial, but derive from her
economic, political and cultural sphere of influence. In this connection it is useful to
refer to an incident between Walter Jekyll and a Governor of Jamaica which McKay
recounts, without analysis. The Governor (Olivier), having made a request of Jekyll, as
one Englishman to another, was refused. Jekyll granted the same favour, unasked, to
McKay. Questioned on this afterwards Jekyll declared: "That's English middle class
bad manners. No person of my class would ever say that to me. We just cannot stand
them because they never know when to say the right thing." McKay however
countered, "But Mr. Jekyll, how can you tolerate me? I am merely the son of a
peasant." "Oh," said he, "English gentlemen have always liked their peasants; it is the
ambitious middle class that we cannot tolerate."26
The kernel of Jekyll's hostility to the middle class was that he saw them as poachers
on the preserves of the aristocracy. Did Jekyll/Squire Gensir feel, as upstart Busha
Gengley did,27 that the peasantry ever imagined encroaching on his social and legal
privileges or coveted his economic power-base, his attitude towards them would have
been quite the reverse. 28 For the revolutionary peasant breaks with his conservatism,
giving a political slant to his religion and reinterpreting his traditional customs. But
Jekyll, like Gensir, is interested in culture outside the context of politics or economics.
To him the customs of the peasantry are quaint, and quainter even because the
peasants are African. As a gentleman, living off money from inheritance and invest-
ment, these native peasant customs divert him from his boredom and give him
occupation as an amateur anthropologist, a task, in itself, of undeniable value.
Jamaican Reverend Lambert, on the other hand, would have none of the "transplanted
African fairy tales" and dialect ditties. He sees the unprogressivee' and backward
aspect to Gensir,29 but his basis for this judgement is racist. Both men, in their own
way, are extremists. Lambert is concerned exclusively with upward mobility, which in
the socio-political context already analysed, meant anglicisation and contempt for
non-European culture. Gensir would have the peasantry remain a permanent museum
It is mainly religion and its conservative policy toward indigenous culture that
separate Gensir from Priscilla. Her moral attitudes derive from orthodox Christianity
and are in some respects outdated. She espouses the Victorianism of Arnold's
'sweetness and light', and the moral rigour of a Wordsworth. But the public school to
which she sends Bita has by the turn of the century lost its evangelical orientation, and
has began to reflect the democratic influences of the contemporary period Fabian
socialism and feminism. Priscilla therefore represents the old imperial vanguard, still,
like Kipling, convinced about the metropole's permanent supremacy in world
economy and its civilising role. It is here that Priscilla's attitudes take on their racist
hue, and it is to deflate Priscilla's racial (and personal) arrogance that McKay has her
give birth to a hideous, screeching imbecile, and that at the moment of Priscilla's
downright rejection of Africa, its people and culture, she comes to identify her own
child with the obscenity and grotesquerie she sees in African sculpture.
Guided and directed by the official policy of this colonial bourgeoisie, the educated
native is led towards a rejection of Africa, a rejection of indigenous traditions, a
rejection of its racial group, and of its peasant origin. McKay shows the propagandist
direction of this education not only through Priscilla, but also through the literary fare
available to colonials, and also significantly through the moral and cultural direction of
the churches. Where, during slavery, the Anglican (Established) Church aligned itself
politically with the plantocracy to stifle the slaves, the non-conformist (Free)
Churches threw in their weight to procure, through parliamentary means, the
liberation of the oppressed. In the post-slavery period, however, the Established
Church wins members by its tolerance of peasant diversion while the non-conformists
cramp the indigenous cultural expression of the masses in order the better to anglicise
The assimild to this religious and cultural imperialism is the agent of the colonial
power. He occupies, not a dominant, but yet a crucial, slot in the colonial hierarchy.
Priscilla's recognition of this fact together with her tolerance of the limited career
outlets available to the intelligent black male are revealed in her remark, ..... it is a
pity that the Canal is swallowing up some of our best native lads who might be better
here, using their talents as preachers and teachers." 30 Of the same race and the same
class (originally) as the peasantry, the assimild is equipped to play a leadership role
towards the masses. The latter's lack of education and their conditions of life mean
that their political and economic horizons are narrow, so that, as McKay shows, they
fall under the influence of those towards whom they feel socially subservient. They are
politically naive to the extent that they look up to Victoria as their personal mother
and benefactor. Their illiteracy means that they cannot themselves manipulate the
language of the colonizers and that they come to be dependent on the village teachers
and preachers as interpreters and spokesmen. They are technologically backward, and
their cultural lives revolve around the rumshop, dances, and the churches. Individ-
ualistic in defence of their property interests, they are disorganized, so their collective
strength and potential are not fully realized.
The assimild is allowed to rise out of this social situation in order to interpret,
favourably, the ruler/benefactor's world-view to the masses. This is the basis of
Priscilla's expectation that Bita would finish up by being "English trained -and
appearing in everything but the colour of her skin." 31 For she had "received an
education to make [her] see and do the correct thing almost automatically." 32 To the
British ruling class therefore, "the hope of the colony" lay in the "type" like Herald
Newton Day (herald the new day) and Bita. It is interesting to note that Day is as
priggish, as tedious and "inevitable" a character as Jane Austen's satiric pen could have
created. But it is in his reactions to his peasant background that his snobbery is most
telling. "....our common mountain people... are so rough and coarse ... they
haven't had the chance for real refinement and progress like us townspeople."33 The
basic racism of his education is then summarized in "look at us Negroes... The savage
brutish state we were in both in Africa and in America before Civilization aroused us.
We owe all we are today to progress."34 He, like Priscilla, perceives Africa as
nothingness, if not as evil, ignorant of the fact that certain African societies possessed
the economic and political base for technological advance independent of Europe.35
Yet another "reverend black man", a Member of Parliament, is depicted as traitor
to the masses. His background? "He had been picked up straight off of a plantation by
the missionaries and educated for the ministry", and had eventually married an
Englishwoman. He was the most vocal supporter of the colonial regime's plan to
abandon the qualifying exam for the Civil Service in favour of entry by selection. This
would in fact "limit the minor Civil Service posts to the light-coloured middle classes
and bar aspirants from the black peasantry." But the reverend "derided the idea that
Civil Service posts should be given to peasant youths fresh from the huts, who
possessed no "background" but were clever enough to pass the examinations. Civil
Service candidates, he said, should come from respectable and refined homes."36
One of McKay's principal aims in Banana Bottom is to depict the conquest of these
social attitudes of snobbery, self-contempt and middle class estrangement from the
peasantry by creating of Bita a foil to types like Herald Day, the "sintiminious"
Lamberts and to the Black Member of Parliament. It is his most valuable contribution
to the thematic content of West Indian literature. For McKay to have written like this
in the 1930s is demonstration of his acute understanding of the prime social and
political direction needed in the struggle for democratic rights in the Caribbean.
"la morale du jugement se moque de la morale de
"the dictates of the mind are rejected by the
dictates of feeling"
This is the vindicating epilogue to Bita's choice: social and cultural identification
with the Jamaican peasantry, and acceptance of Africa. But the imbalance and over-in-
dulgence suggested by Pascal's dictum lies at the root of McKay's principal failure in
the novel. Because he always defended the idea that art sprang from the emotions and
was unconnected to the reason, he pursues his theme without sufficiently exploiting
techniques that would make Bita a convincing personality.
Banana Bottom is largely set among events of McKay's boyhood and incorporates
McKay's assessment of those times. Comparison between Green Hills and Banana
Bottom bears this out. And one of the novel's main strengths is that the social milieu is
so live and fully realized. But the reverse of this is that much of the novel is taken up
by reportage of social relations, of rural life in particular, and of Jamaica in general.
Because of this ever-present commentary, McKay sometimes slips into digression, as
when, in the novel, he discusses farming problems. The authorial voice which
dominates these sections speaks in accomplished English and in well-modulated phrase
lengths. Occasionally there is high-flown diction but this is sufficiently counter-
balanced by a conversational and relaxed tone which saves the prose from turgidity.
These formal patches and the accompanying semantic archaisms ("depended" -
"hung") reveal McKay's educational background as a British West Indian reared on the
19th century English prose masters, through their novels and essays and through the
Apart from social commentary, several incidents in the novel are also dominated by
reportage. But where there is dramatisation, McKay has some splendid dialogue and
sparkling repartee (though apart from use of genuine Jamaican Creole, his dialect
effects are attained sometimes by Afro-Americanisms, at times by mere spelling). His
extensive use of similes taken from the rural environment and way of life attests to his
intense familiarity with the landscape and people. The detailed visual quality and
Keatsian sensuousness with which he endows the tropical flora and cuisine are indeed a
memorial of his love for the homeland and a credit to his own powers of retention.
These, then, are the stylistic strong-points of Banana Bottom a valuable socio-
logical record of the age, sharp sensuous recall of environment, and well-turned
Standard English. The characters are interesting, some even comic, and as individuals,
memorable. But his portraiture of Bita is unsuccessful.
Bita emerges as more the protagonist and less the person. When she is not a
shadowy portrayal, she behaves 'out of character' sticking her neck out over un-
likely issues. For though enclosed in a socially conscious world, she alone seems to
have escaped the weight of social inhibitions.
Tabitha (the cat kittenish, seductive, flirtatious) lives up to her name and to
McKay's ironically self-defeating interpretation of the black personality. This ideology
became one of the cornerstones of primitivism and of negritude, both influential
artistic schools of thought. It, in fact, however, originated in the 19th century
philosophy of social Darwinism which was used to justify the penetration of Europe
all over the world. Derived from Darwin's biological theories of the survival of the
fittest and the evolution of the human species, it was later deduced that some races
developed ahead of others. The Caucasoid race, among which was to be found the
nations involved in extensive exploration and exploitation of the world's natural
resources and of human labour, conceived of itself as occupying the highest rung on
the ladder of 'natural development.' The reason for these achievements was that the
race had evolved past exclusive indulgence of the instincts. Instead, these had been
superseded and subjugated by "the principle of Reason, of Order and of Measure." On
the other hand, "irrationality, inconsistency and superstition" were considered as
"characteristic of the African and Oriental races." 7 A major spokesman for English
imperialism comments succintly on this difference: "The African Blacks have been
free enough for thousands, perhaps for ten thousands of years, and it has been the
absence of restraint which has prevented them from becoming civilised." On the other
hand, "Our own Anglo-Saxon race has been capable of self-government only after a
few thousand years of civil and spiritual authority."38
Cast in this ideological role, then, Bita is ruled by her senses and by intuition. Just
as old Mrs. Woolsely, the plantation-owner of McKay's home village, sees even the
educated native as falling prey to "the old Adam",39 so too does Priscilla think this of
Bita. And likewise does Banana Bottom's authorial voice refer in various ways to the
black's susceptibility to "the sweet snare of the flesh." And all throughout Banana
Bottom, McKay makes a dichotomy between the rational empiricism and techno-
logical slant of the Caucasian world, as against the spontaneity, vitality, and visceral
quality of black culture. In fact, here is one of the evidences that McKay never
outgrew Jekyll's influence. He records in Green Hills that Jekyll felt "that modernism
and industrialism were ruining the world" 40and even ends this autobiography with the
assertion, "The world will not be split between the forces of capital and
labour.. .but... between the all-conquering dominating force of American
mechanism or materialism and those countries which cling to their traditional
values .. ."41
So McKay clearly found himself caught in the contradiction where he opposed
technology but saw that the Jamaican peasants could benefit by having it at their
disposal. 2In order therefore to avoid the irreconcilable contradictions of his rejection
rejection of technology and his acknowledgement of its usefulness, McKay needed to
concentrate on the black man's/peasant's cultural behaviour. Bita, we see, lives largely
through her emotions. She and the peasants have a frank, even blase, attitude to sex -
nobody is embarrassed or upset even about rape. Bita laughs with a heartiness that
involves her whole body. Reminiscent of a tropical 'Lucy', she identifies with nature
by plunging naked into a stream. She is aware of the beauty and seductiveness of her
body, and responds to the throb of the drum. She flirts with any male she finds
physically attractive irrespective of his cultural and intellectual level. . the pure
joy that Bita felt in the simple life of her girlhood was childlike and almost uncon-
scious. She could not reason and theorize why she felt that way. It was just a surging
free big feeling."43
To create this 'thesis' of a character, McKay declines offering psychological insights
into Bita at important crossroads of her life. How did little Bita feel about her "rape"
(McKay's inaccurate word)? In what precise ways did her English schooling shape her
thoughts, attitudes, predilections? McKay spends a few lines skimming over her rela-
tionships with her school mates. No reference is made to her teachers or to the wider
British community. What sensations did she experience travelling through Europe,
with a white upper class foster-mother, and touring the most impressive artefacts of
European culture and those brought 'home' through Europe's conquests? Only a
close-up of this background could allow us to understand why she retained her creole
intonation of voice. But grammatically she speaks Standard English with creole or
English pronunciation, may we ask? Therefore, how do the villagers react to her
speech? Would it not have been likely that many of those less educated than Bita
would have introduced hyper-corrections into their speech in order to approximate
more to her speech? after all, a socially acceptable model. On the other hand,
McKay simply indicates a once-and-for-all conquest of the villagers' suspicion, hostility
and reserve towards Bita's cultural accomplishments. Hardly true to life! What psycho-
logical processes make Bita, with her linguistic orientation, able to fraternize so closely
with the exclusively dialect-speaking Tack and Hopping Dick? What is Bita's reaction
when Hopping Dick publicly backs out of marrying her? What interests do she and
Belle Black share that they should be such friends? What is the actual substance of the
conversations and relationships between Bita and educated and/or socially aspiring
people in the environs? McKay's only concession to credibility is to state baldly that
Bita was sometimes overwhelmed by the emptiness and loneliness of her life at Banana
Bottom.44 All this amounts to there being no emotional basis for the reader to believe
that Bita Plant, transplanted from a prospering peasant home to a rural English manse
for two years, and to English boarding school in Britain for five, apparently, could be
content to return to her father's home to live, and furthermore, to eventually marry
her father's drayman. Not that this is totally impossible, but that the factors leading
up to this are most unsatisfactorily dealt with. As a matter of fact, we are given no
insight into the nature of Jubban's relationship with his employer, Jordan, which
would naturally affect his relationship with his employer's daughter. But it suits
McKay's purposes to conclude by making some generalizations about the quality of
Bita's married life she had dismissed the idea of "romantic love", she had grown
used to Jubban's reticence and brusqueness etc. etc. etc. So did Jubban have no more
complex reaction to his Pascal-reading wife than pure love?
McKay's simplistic handling of emotional interaction derives from his simplistic
depiction of inter-class relationships. In depicting the behaviour towards Bita of
Jubban and more widely of the Banana Bottom villagers, McKay does not thoroughly
and consistently portray the intricate ways in which social relations are affected by
economic differences. In the same way, in his comments on Jamaica, we see that there
are glaring inconsistencies in his assessment of the interrelation between racial op-
pression and economic factors. Although in 1920, when writing for the English
leftwing newspaper, the Workers' Dreadnought, McKay could say of the United States
"that the Negro question is primarily an economic one",45 the bulk of McKay's
writings shows a focus on race and on so-called inherent racial characteristics of
thought and behaviour than on economic relations between classes. This is because
McKay was a democrat, not a socialist in any consistent sense. His socialist views were
eclectic, and acquired largely through association with leftist litterati and journalists
during his years of exile. He read very little of Marx and apparently none of Lenin.
Any analysis of social reality from a socialist standpoint was, in McKay, super-
fcial and ad hoc, and this is particularly obvious in his observation of social life in
Jamaica. Thus he could sometimes make no connection between the personal wealth
of certain racial groups in the island and the general deprivation of the majority. "The
greatest drawback in the island was its extreme poverty ... the landed mulat-
toes... and they were the middle class of the island, possessing most of its
wealth." 4 Although he makes Busha Glengley and Marse Arthur typical of the
cultural attitudes and economic self-interest of the plantocracy, he nowhere indi-
cates a realization that the wealth of this class is consolidated precisely though their
money, the legal preference they enjoy in acquisition of valuable land, and because they
buy the peasants' labour cheap. This looseness of analysis in respect of economic
relations spills over into his political analysis of their role. "I have always cherished a
real respect for near-white of Jamaica. They have sometimes been accused of callous-
ness, not doing much about the poverty of the blacks but some of our best political
leaders for the betterment of conditions have come from the near white class...
They have never exploited the blacks... They have never pretended that their lighter
skin was better than the black skin and that they should pimp on the misery of the
blacks." Further on he modifies this by admitting to "a little friction existing between
the blacks and light mulattoes ... of the lower middle class." 47
The fact is, that in a framework where the social hierarchy extant under slavery
remained intact after Emancipation, colour was .a privilege enjoyed by mulattoes in
proportion to the lightness of their pigment. Those mulattoes, therefore, who in-
herited or acquired the economic supremacy of the British planter and mercantile
elite, wielded the political leverage of their predecessors. The fact that this class was
largely local born appealed to McKay's nationalistic sentiments, but he did not come
to grips with their deep-rooted slave aster-like prejudices and their desire to continue
the old regime, with themselves at the helm. Certainly, self-interest caused them to
agitate for reforms in the colony, but not an end to colonialism. And the black middle
class who, as McKay shows, were given a limited chance to make it in the system, were
in a position to feel that things were generally getting better. This is why McKay is so
sympathetic to Malcolm Craig, who though white, is local born. This accounts for the
dominant social attitudes which emerge from the Gingertown story, "The Agricultural
Show". Here McKay describes a tangled web of interrelationships circumscribed by
class and race and colour and legal status of birth. The piece stops short of being a
narrative and remains a depiction of situation clearly, a true event. However, the
social role of Matthew Bright, the black pharmacist, is telling. Clearly patterned after
U'Theo McKay, this big brother emerges as an enterprising and talented man, who
besides conceiving the idea, does the donkey-work to launch an agricultural show. But
what McKay highlights about the show is that it provides an occasion for the rural elite
to go through their social manoeuvres with Austenian finesse. McKay is so fascinated
by it all, that Matthew becomes increasingly peripheral to the event. Further to this,
McKay the narrator, McKay as Bennie, and Matthew himself are quite satisfied at
Matthew's having been brought to the Governor's notice. Typical of the petty
bourgeois of any colour all these three personae are so flattered by this glimpse of
greatness that neither perceives Matthew as having been used as a convenience, and as
being patronised. With the result that Ma Bright's grassroots assertion of triumphant
Africa at the close is out of keeping McKay's social direction in the story and seems a
feeble counter point; at the same time, dialectically, this conclusion is McKay's own
assertion of militant black consciousness.
These contradictory attitudes were bred in an environment where it was such a
struggle for people from any stratum of the peasantry to climb "onto the rim of the
professional class." ... many black boys had pushed up out of the canefields from
under the fat spreading bananas and forced their way into clerical and scholastic
places." 49And the precariousness of their middle class position is everywhere
reiterated by McKay and comes across principally through his imagery. He several
times refers to the peasant level as a "pit" out of which the mass yearned to ascend.
For reasons of economic pressure, class and colour discrimination, legal prohibitions,
and moral sanctions, McKay everywhere indicates that "some of the best" of the black
professional middle class "were always getting shaken off back upon the mass."50
Such a stratum, itself largely descended from the house-slave/slave-artisan, con-
tinued after slavery to depend for its upward mobility on individual acts of patronage
from the upper class and the church, or on the political reforms of the ruling class, as
we see in the case of McKay himself. Without the chance intervention of Jekyll in his
life, his destiny at least his literary talent would have gone in quite a different
direction. And in turn, his personal loyalty to Jekyll forever blinded him to Jekyll's
patronising attitude clearly evident in his Green Hills account intermixed with
Jekyll's love/concern for him. That Jekyll's attitude should have been paternalistic was
unavoidable, given Jekyll's class, the fact that he was English and England the
colonizing power in question, and the degrading social relations in the West Indies
dictated by a history of racial and slave/master polarities.
Claude McKay's fiction presents a picture of West Indian life in the 1900's from the
perspective of the evolving black middle class. The fact that his opinions about
Jamaican social reality are sometimes contradictory can be traced to his colour and
class background in a Jamaican context.
For example, McKay's class position in Jamaica made him favourable to the
philanthropyh' of the mulatto and white plantocrats, and at the same time highly
sympathetic to the black peasantry. The root of this ambivalence lies firmly in McKay's
background that he grew up in a British colony, that he came from the peasantry,
that his father was a prosperous farmer, and that his family therefore occupied leader-
ship status in its rural community. A brother was in 'buccra' army,51 another wasa
produce agent for an American monopoly, his elder brother was a qualified teacher and
later became a progressive prosperous farmer. We have already discussed the role which
this black middle stratum played under the colonial regime a role made more am-
biguous for McKay because of the family's open acknowledgement of and pride in its
It may be useful too, before concluding, to isolate some of the factors which in-
fluenced McKay's shifting social and political attitudes. McKay's perspectives reflect
the instability of the social and economic fortunes and alliances of the peasant-derived
middle-class. 52 This instability gives rise to individualism a characteristic which was,
in McKay's case, reinforced by other factors. One was that he was largely a self-made
man. Secondly, he never outgrew the imperialist philosophy of social Darwinism with
which Jekyll's cultural liberalism was insiduously connected. Thus, he rejected as
European, systematization and discipline. As a result his personal life was characterized
by wander-lust and instability.
All this is not, however, to deny the sophistication and intellectual depth he
brought to West Indian fiction in the pre-nationalist phase of our historical and
cultural development, and the perennial quality of his insights into the issue of cultural
and ethnic awareness and self-pride, not to mention his vivid depiction of the social
mores of early 20th century rural Jamaican life.
RUPERT AND MAUREEN LEWIS
1. Green Hills, 'The great revival'. As pagination in the ms. is erratic, location is indicated by
2. See Alston Chevannes, "Jamaican Lower Class Religion Struggle against Oppression", M. Sc.
thesis, U.W.I., 1971.
3. Songs of Jamaica, Kingston/London, 1912, pp. 28, 29.
4. Banana Bottom, a Harvest book, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, p. 296. Further page references
are to this edition.
5. The system of social estates is a social hierarchy made up of categories of people who have
differing privileges and rights in law, as seen under slavery and feudalism.
6. Don Robotham, Our Struggles, Workers' Liberation League, Kingston, 1975.
7. Cf. Monica Schuler, "Day to day resistance to slavery in the Caribbean during the 18th
century", African Studies Assn. of the West Indies Bulletin 6, Dec. 1973, pp. 57-75.
8. Cf. Robotham, op. cit, p. 66 where he shows that land sale to ex-slaves afforded the landowner
of sizeable profit over the purchase price he paid for the land, and furthermore involved the
peasants in indebtedness over generations.
9. He dismisses this as a "Gingertown tale", and indeed appears to deal with it in the story of
Busha Glengley's rise in "The Agricultural Show" in Gingertown.
10. Many of the small peasants did not own any land. To procure land, they rented from large
landowners and rich peasants in plots of, in McKay's words, (Green Hills) "from two to five
11. Cf. Banana Bottom, pp. 236-40. What with hut tax, mule tax, and inequitable land acreage
tax, the weight of taxation fell on the peasantry rather than the large landowners. The Asians
were brought in to work on the estates of the latter; but the bills for the whole immigration
exercise were met out of the Government Treasury.
12. Ibid., p. 239.
13. Cf. Robotham, op. cit., pp. 62-63.
14. Banana Bottom, pp. 74-75.
15. Green Hills, The death of my mother.'
16. Songs of Jamaica, "Quashie to Buccra", p. 14.
17. idem., p. 13.
18. ibid., "Fetchin' Water", p. 42.
19. Ibid., "A Midnight Woman to the Bobby", pp. 75-76.
20. Cf. Gingertown, "When I pounded the pavement."
21. In the first chapter of Green Hills (no title) McKay records that his childhood girlfriend,
Agnes, died a prostitute in Kingston.
22. Banana Bottom, p. 238.
23. ibid., p. 293.
24. ibid., p. 66.
25. Robotham, op. cit., pp. 46-47.
26. Green Hills, "I meet an English gentleman." Jekyl's "best friend in London was the private
secretary of King Edward VII, his oldest brother was a governor in India and many of his other
relatives were members of the British government and closely associated with the great banks
in England." Idem.
27. Banana Bottom, p. 130.
28. Green Hills, "I meet an English gentleman": "He was disillusioned with British liberalism, yet
he did not believe in socialism or any of the radical.parties of the day. He always said to me
that the British upper class would know how to handle radicals and that Lloyd George who
was the famous liberal radical then, would finish up as a Lord."
29. Cf. Banana Bottom, p. 301.
30. ibid., p. 35.
31. ibid., p. 31.
32. ibid., p. 45.
33. ibid., p. 170.
34. ibid., p. 171.
35. Cf. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdevlpd Africa, Bogle, L'Overture Publica-
tions/Tanzania Publishing House, London/Dar es Salaam, 1975.
36. Banana Bottom, p. 235.
37. James Ngugi, A Grain of Wheat, Heinemann African Writers Series, 1968, p. 62.
38. J. Anthony Froude, The English in the West Indies, London, 1887, p. 125.
39. Green Hills, "The Woolseys."
40. ibid., "I decide to come to America."
41. ibid., appendix.
42. Some bourgeois writers conceive of the machine and technology as an abstraction divorced
from the economic realtions of capitalist society. Socialist analysis goes as follows: "The
machine is intended to lighten labour. Under capitalism, however, it increases the intensity of
labour to the utmost. This has a disastrous effect on the worker, wears out his organism,
reduces his ability to work makes him an early invalid. The machine per se is a faithful helper
of man in his struggle for the mastery over the forces of nature. Under capitalism, however, it
is a terrible weapon used by the exploiters in their st ruggle against the exploited ... In raising
labour productivity the machine multiplies social wealth. But under capitalism all the fruits
yielded by growing labour productivity are reaped by the capitalists, who use machinery to
make the worker a pauper". L. Leontyev, A Short Course of Political Economy, Progress
Publishers, Moscow, 1968, p. 80.
43. Banana Bottom, p. 41.
44. ibid., p. 123.
45. From "Socialism and the Negro", quoted in "Claude McKay in England, 1920", Wayne
Cooper & Robert Reinders in New Beacon Reviews, ed John La Rose, New Beacon Books,
London, 1968, p. 9.
46. Green Hills, "I meet an English gentleman."
47. ibid., appendix.
48. Banana Bottom, p. 54.
49. ibid., p. 9.
50. ibid., p. 54. How similar is the testimony of C.L.R. James of Trinidad in relating his family
history! His paternal grandfather was "a pan-boiler on a sugar estate, a responsible job... in
those days usually held by white men. This meant that my grandfather had raised himself
above the mass of poverty, dirt, ignorance and vice which in those far-off days surrounded the
islands of black lower middle-class respectability like a sea ever threatening to engulf
them ... My grandfather went to church every Sunday morning ... wearing in the broiling sun a
frock-coat, striped trousers and top-hat, with his walking-stick in hand, surrounded by his family,
the underwear of the women crackling with starch. Respectability was not an ideal, it was an
armour. He fell grievously ill, the family fortunes declined and the children grew up in the
unending struggle not to sink below the level of the Sunday-morning top-hat and frock-coat."
Beyond a Boundary, Hutchinson, London, 1963.
51. From Songs of Jamaica, "A Midnight Woman to the Bobby" we glean that the law enforce-
ment agencies were identified with the white colonial presence.
52. Cf. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, ed. E.H. Can, Penguin Classics,
pp. 1334: "The peasantry does not constitute a single class, for under capitalism it is con-
tinually splitting up into classes... The 'middle' peasants form an unstable stratum. Many of
them are ruined in course of time; they ... eventually seek work as agricultural labourers or as
factory hands; others...gather wealth, become 'master peasants', hire agricultural
labourers... they are transformed into capitalist entrepreneurs." McKay's biographical Green
Hills adequately bears out this process of differentiation among the peasantry in early 20th
THE ISOLATED SELF IN WEST INDIAN LITERATURE
In George Lamming's second novel, The Emigrants (1954), a Jamaican carpenter
offers one of the more enduring definitions of West Indian identity: "England, France,
Spain all o' them, them vomit up what them didn't want, an' the vomit settle there in
that Caribbean Sea. It mix up with the vomit them make Africa vomit, an' the vomit
them make India vomit, an' China an' nearly every race under the sun .... It beginning'
gradjally to stir itself, an' you can understand' what happen if you imagine you vomit
take on life an' start to find out where yuh stomach is." This is not the most elegant
definition of its kind perhaps, but Lamming's carpenter does represent a major tradi-
tion in West Indian literature. He perceives the West Indian identity as a group con-
sciousness which transcends the isolation of geographical and ethnic sources by trans-
forming all these diverse beginnings into a discrete but unified whole. Accordingly, the
experience of isolation per se is inherently suspect or tragic. Frequently the isolated
self is an ego that has been cut off from the West Indian reality by a cocoon of racial
apathy and colonial self-hatred. Conversely, the West Indian will realize a total
selfhood only through the experience of a group consciousness only when he rejects
a destructively individual isolation by confronting, and accepting, the diverse realities
of his history and of his "stomach" sources. In Lamming's first novel, In the Castle of
My Skin (1953), the Black West Indian is offered as an example of this argument.
Trumper, a young migrant from Barbados to the United States, achieves a triumphant
awareness of self when, unlike his apathetic compatriots at home, he discovers "his
people" in the harsh realities of America's racial conflicts: "He had found something
to cradle his deepest instincts and emotions. He was a Negro and he was proud. Now
he could walk in the sun or stand on the highest hill and proclaim himself the blackest
evidence of the white man's denial of conscience."
The remarkable feature of Lamming's thesis is not his emphasis on the group ideal
as such. The need for, and the inevitability of, such an emphasis is only too clear in the
kind of racial context within which young Trumper discovers his racial pride, or in the
fragmenting history which the Jamaican carpenter describes in The Emigrants. But
what is note-worthy is the vigorous optimism with which Lamming postulates the ideal
of a group awareness based on an easy communication between each nascent con-
sciousness and its social environment not only in these two novels, but also in
Season of Adventure (1960). This is the kind of optimism that we encounter in the
group consciousness themes of some major West Indian authors. Victor Reid's New
Day (1949) celebrates the "new day" of an ethnopolitical awareness which will trans-
form Jamaican (and, implicitly, other West Indian communities) from colonial
societies into independent states. And this optimistic prophecy (already fulfilled, in
part, by the independence of the larger islands) extends, symbolically, to the rhetorical
design of Reid's novel; for the Jamaican dialect in which Reid writes assumes an ease
of communication between reader and narrator which externalizes the easy fruition of
ethno-political solidarity within the novel itself. By a similar token, the sociological
themes of Roger Mais' reformist novels are rooted in the writer's implicit faith in the
possibilities of human communication and co-operation. And this is the faith that
intensifies his presentation of the brutal Jamaican slums in The Hills Were Joyful
Together (1953) and Brother Man (1954).
In Austin Clarke's novels this kind of communication remains only as an unfulfilled
possibility. But he is sympathetic to the group consciousness ideal. His heroes are
tragic because internal weaknesses and external circumstances have prevented them
from realizing that communication with other selves which transforms and transcends
individual isolation. Rufus in Survivors of the Crossing (1964) and Milton Sobers in
Among Thistles and Thorns (1965) are tragic isolatoes because they cannot com-
municate their ethno-political ideals to their Baibadian communities. There has not
been a complete breakdown of the communications ideal, of course. Clarke is at pains
to present us with examples of ethnic and socio-economic philosophies easily com-
municated. Rufus' dreams of revolution have been nurtured by descriptions of North
American affluence in letters from a friend in Canada; and Milton's dreams of Black
pride have been inherited from his father's description of Black America. But it is not
enough that Rufus and Milton, each in his own way, have achieved a certain measure
of self-awareness in ethnic and social terms. The full realization of self can only be
attained within the context of communicating these new insights with others, with
apathetic or treacherous peasants who reject Rufus as an outlaw, or with an unimagi-
native mother who blocks Milton's dream by removing him from school to work in a
stone quarry. Obviously Clarke cannot be accused of the overly optimistic vigour with
which Victor Reid, or even George Lamming, pursues the group ideal to its easy
fruition. But, at the same time, neither does Clarke reject the corollary view of isola-
tion. To be isolated is, ipso facto, to be a tragic failure. The isolated self is the futile
However, this sceptical view of isolation is neither as complex nor as controversial
as another view which has recently pre-occupied critics of West Indian literature. On
the whole, there has been strong interest in the literary treatment of individual isola-
tion in positive, or at the very least, in ambiguous, terms, particularly in the works of
V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, and Ismith Khan. Gordon Rohlehr, for example, claims
that isolation and non-identification are the only alternatives left to Indians in
Naipaul's Trinidad, because the other choices a decaying Hindu tradition and a
Philistine colonial society are so obviously unacceptable. These unacceptable choices
are symbolized, respectively, by the Tulsis of Hanuman House in A House for Mr.
Biswas, and by the urban life-style of colonial Port-of-Spain in Miguel Street. Thus in
rejecting Hanuman House and Miguel Street "as two sides of the greater nightmare of
being an Indian in Trinidad [Naipaul] seeks the freedom of the independent personal-
ity and makes the difficult choice of exile and dispossession." Gerald Moore,
Cameron King, and Louis James have examined the castaway (Robinson Crusoe)
archetype in Derek Walcott's poetry. Moore sees the archetype as a symbol of the
Caribbean islander's creative isolation: "Walcott is the solitary man, the castaway, who
must learn to know the island upon which chance and history have stranded
him ... he is both a spokesman for a generation endeavouring to throw off racial and
colonial inhibitions in the reminder of the loneliness imposed upon them by space and
time. It is their very loneliness, their exclusion, which forces self-discovery upon
them." King and James see the Walcott castaway as a paradigm of the artist in society
- and in this regard their conventional thesis of the artist-in-isolation is comparable
with Gordon Rohler's view of the isolated self in Naipaul's fiction: Mr. Biswas "turns
to his paint brushes and tries to create something against the emptiness" whenever he
is "attacked by the sense of life as meaningless." Kenneth Ramchand also interprets
the isolated self as the alienated artist when he examines the isolation themes of Ismith
Khan's The Obeah Man: the physical and emotional isolation of Zambi (the obeah
man hero) from his Trinidad society is "the painful condition of art."
But how pertinent or comprehensive are these views of the heroic isolato in West
Indian literature? There is little doubt that in emphasizing the positive image of the
isolato in writers like Walcott and Khan the critics do draw attention to a hitherto
neglected tradition in West Indian literature. But there are still crucial questions to be
answered about the very nature and definition of isolation, and about the writer's
treatment of the isolated self. Gordon Rohlehr's remarks on Naipaul's isolation theme
raise both questions. Granted that Naipaul's heroes share their creator's notorious
revulsion at Trinidad's nightmarish alternatives, it does not follow that isolation as
such is a panacea in his novel. In A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) the rebel-hero does
reject both the claustrophobia of the decaying Hindu tradition and the soulessness of
Trinidad's colonial society. And his perennial quest for a house of his own is bound up
with this double rejection. But Mr. Biswas' voluntary isolation, and the succession of
houses by which it is symbolized, is still conceived in basically negative terms. His
quest is really a flight, and the isolation which he seeks at the end of that quest is a
mere escape a welcome escape indeed, but as an act it offers little of permanence or
creativity outside of itself. Significantly, his earlier attempts at house-building all end
in failures. And even his self-congratulatory tribute to the final achievement of a
permanent house is couched in negative terms: the house symbolizes his escape from
the suffocating atmosphere of Hanuman House and from the noisy bustle of society at
All of this implies that Naipaul conceives of isolation merely as exile. And it is
revealing that even Rohlehr is constrained to use terms like "exile" and "dis-
possession" in describing Naipaul's artistic, and personal, choice of isolation in
preference to the "soulessness" of West Indian society. For the point of Naipaul's
brilliantly unsparing irony is not that isolation is a transcendental good in itself, but
that even this non-identification, even this conscious denial of one's human environ-
ment, is preferable to being enmeshed in the nightmares which constitute that environ-
ment. As for Mr. Biswas' role as the archetypal artist in isolation, this too is limited by
the corrosive logic of Naipaul's irony. As Mr. Biswas himself realizes, his monumental
achievement in life is the acquisition of a house not art. And his earlier dabblings in
art are all make-shift devices of escape, pending that final achievement. In effect,
Naipaul's concept of isolation is no more positive than that of those writers who stress
the pre-eminence of the group experience. And notwithstanding the satiric triumph of
Naipaul's concept, this kind of alienation should not be confused with the trans-
cendentalism of a certain image of isolation.
The creative treatment of isolation is based on the view that isolation is more than
mere flight and non-identification. Indeed, it is a process of identification: it en-
courages that intense introspection which leads to the discovery of self. As Gerald
Moore remarks apropos of Walcott's castaway, loneliness and exclusion enforce self-
discovery. Or, in the words of Walcott's own castaway Crusoe,
Pleasures of an old man:
Morning, contemplative evacuation; considering
The dried leaf, nature's plan.
The contemplation of "nature's plan" leads to the scrutiny of man's role within that
plan: "We end in earth, from earth began./In our own entrails, genesis." And, in turn,
this awareness of man-in-nature brings us to his self consciousness as artist-creator:
If I listen I can hear the polyp build,
The silence, thwanged by two waves of the sea,
Cracking a sea-louse I make thunder split.
But Walcott does not limit the role of self-consciousness to the artist. In fact the
isolated artist is really an example of the creative self-knowledge of all castaway,
Godlike, annihilating godhead, art,
And self, I abandon
Dead metaphors like the almond's leaf-shaped heart.
And, in ethnic terms, the White Robinson Crusoe, colonial overlord of the innocent
Friday, has ironically become the symbol of West Indians whose self-identification is
bound up with their history as castaways from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Interestingly,
the castaway image of the West Indian's historical sources is comparable with
Lamming's jolting vomit metaphor. But the analogy ends there. For in Walcott's poem
the isolated castaway converts his status into the kind of self-identification which is
not possible outside the group experience in Lamming's fiction.
The subjects of colonialism and group experience bring us to two other aspects of
Walcott's complex isolate image. First, its multiple archetypal roles as the individual
isolated self, the alienated artist, and the castaway West Indian underscore the
limitations of the view, by Cameron King and Louis James, that Walcott's castaway is
simply the artist in isolation. In fact, not only does Walcott invest his isolate image
with multiple roles and identities, but he also successfully implies that this multiplicity
is more than a rhetorical technique. It also evinces the complex nature of the isolated
self in contemplation the intensity of feeling and the breadth of view which enable
the isolated personality to perceive itself, simultaneously, as the paradigm of the artist,
the castaway West Indian, and all alienated, isolated beings. In short, Walcott's image
explores one of the paradoxes that are characteristic of the contemplative isolate in
"Castaway" the experience of isolation initiates and intensifies an awareness of con-
nections connections within nature, between the individual and nature, and between
the individual and his own self-perception. In the act of "contemplative evacuation"
Robinson Crusoe traces links between excrement and soil; the decay of excrement in
earth invokes the "dust to dust" cycle of perennial creation, death, and re-creation
("We end in earth, from earth began"); and, finally, the biological analogy of an
eternal cosmos gives way to the eternal, god-like creativity of the mind which creates
and populates worlds in its isolation. The contemplative isolato discovers not only his
selfhood, but also the links between that self and its universe. This brings us to another
paradox, for the discovery of a crowded, interconnected universe takes place in soli-
tude one senses the infinity of things within the finite worlds of self and island. Or
in metaphorical terms, the "eye" of the perceptive isolate sees infinity in the horizon,
even as the beholder stands within the symbolic enclosure of the beach and sand:
The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel
Of a sail.
The horizon threads it infinitely.
The images of the castaway's starved eye leads, in turn, to yet another paradox, one
which has been oversimplified in recent discussions of Walcott's theme. The isolation
which has generated the self-discovery and the knowledge of others has also en-
couraged a yearning, a "devouring" need, to communicate one's perception to a newly
discovered universe. But, ironically the very modes of perception which he owes to
isolation separate the castaway from others. Hence not only does isolation engender
perception, but, in turn, perception intensifies one's aloneness. On an ethnic level this
means that the castaway imagination of the West Indian artist separates him from the
very conditions and groups with which he yearns to communicate. In "Crusoe's
Island" Walcott's poet persona observes,
Now Friday's progeny,
The brood of Crusoe's slave,
Black little girls in pink
Walk in an air of glory
Beside a breaking wave,
Below their feet the surf
Hisses like tambourines ....
And nothing I can learn
From art or loneliness
Can bless them as the bell's
Transfixing tongue can bless (Selected Poems, pp. 84-85)
Curiously, Gerald Moore detects the ironic paradox of using the White Crusoe
archetype to symbolize the inherited, or enforced, isolation of contemporary West
Indian Fridays. But Moore optimistically oversimplifies the complex relationship
between the castaway and society when he argues that "Caribbean man" may now
"escape his loneliness" through the language with which he "reaches out to address the
world, announcing his membership of the human community that once denied it"
(The Chosen Tongue, pp. 21, 25-56). For the point of the closing lines from "Crusoe's
Island" is that there is no communication on any of these related levels of isolation
and discovery between self and the others, between artist and society, or between
the West Indian castaway and his colonial world. The Black progeny of Crusoe's slave
is transfixed by a colonial culture which is not only symbolized by the (vespers) bells
of Crusoe's religion, but is also, in fact, a religion. But unlike the isolatoes, in, say,
Clarke's fiction, the failure of communication between Walcott's isolated persona and
his world does not mean disastrous failure for the isolated self. On the contrary this
non-communication has the paradoxically ironic effect of reinforcing that trans-
cendental self-awareness which initially inspired the longing to communicate. So that
although there is none of that easy communication which Moore attributes to the
castaway's situation, neither are Cameron King and Louis James quite justified in
assuming that non-communication is itself a liability or a sign of inadequacy.
The final resolution of the poem seems, on the contrary, to treat this non-com-
munication as an ironically triumphant confirmation of the isolation which brings
awareness. The urge to communicate is still there, and always will, since this is the
essence of one's humanity. But the failure to communicate really confirms one in that
very knowledge of self and experience which has erected a barrier between the isolated
ego and others. And the transcendentalism (rather than inadequacy) which informs
this self-image of the castaway may be inferred from the tell-tale description of the
world around him. The little church-goers are transfixed by colonial culture and
religion, or by the religion of colonial culture. And the word "transfixing" ambi-
guously connotes (1) the emotional atrophy of an hypnotic spell and (2) the violent
destruction, the impaling, of the human psyche by the colonial system. From this
point of view, the poet's self-deprecatory remarks about his art are not an admission of
intrinsic inadequacy as King and James allege. These remarks are really an ironic
assumption of the colonial viewpoint in the church-bell world from which he is
isolated and which perceives his awareness-in-isolation as a crippling fall from Grace -
and as a crazy profanity:
I have lost sight of bell
Of heaven, of human will,
My skill is not enough,
I am struck by the bell
To the root.
Crazed by a racking sun,
I stand near my life's noon ...
Art is profane and pagan,
The most it has revealed
Is what a crippled Vulcan
Beat on Achilles' shield (Selected Poems, p. 84)
Moreover, throughout all of this the West Indian condition remains a microcosm of
the paradoxical, and complex, relationship between all isolated selves and an in-
different world of transfixed minds and atrophied emotions. Alienated from the
godheads of convention, the castaway's love for a truly human world is intensified by
the isolation which initially generated his new insights; but the inevitable rebuff con-
firms him in a triumphant view of his aloofness from what turns out to be his child-
hood world of cruel indifference:
Craftsman and castaway
All heaven in his head
He saw his shadow pray
Not for God's love, but human love instead ...
Oh love, we die alone!
I am borne by the bell
Backward to boyhood
To the grey wood
Spire, harvest and marigold,
To all whom a cruel
Just God could gather
To his blue breast, his beard
A folding cloud ....
I can never go back (Selected Poems, pp. 82-84).
It is necessary to grasp the complexity of Walcott's castaway, not only because he is
the best known exponent of the image, but also because his treatment of isolation
sheds some light on the role of the isolated self in the curiously neglected novels of
Ismith Khan. Khan is briefly discussed by Kenneth Ramchand who, as we have seen,
interprets the isolation theme of Obeah Man as the portrayal of the alienated artist.
But, as with Walcott's castaway, the isolated self in Khan is more than the alienated
artist. In both Jumbie Bird (1961) and Obeah Man (1964) there are multiple images of
the contemplative isolato which are comparable with the paradoxes, and the trans-
cendentalism, of Walcott's archetype. The Jumbie bird after which the first novel is
named actually introduces Khan's isolation theme in the prologue.
The Jumbie bird called in the Calabash tree, it darkened the night with its
The night was filled with curses and oaths... hurled at the unseen bird, its
twee-twee-twee calling a message of death ....
Bird go away... you who are cast-out of the stone bowels of your mother's
insides. Bird go away .. you are the bastard child of devil and whore ... drown
your calls in the bottom of the Caribbean Sea... do not come perched in the
Calabash tree with tidings of death crouched in anonymity. Muffled voices in the
pillow-sacks ... sure that it was not for them, hurled curses at the unseen bird.
Come out here if you are devil or whore. Come out here if you are spirit or
stone .... But the Jumbie bird sat in the Calabash tree on Frederick Street along
Woodford Square ... came night after night with its message of death and its
twee-twee-twee, its melancholy cries of twee-twee, twee-twee-twee.
The bird is the West Indian castaway, "cast out" from its mother's bowels and now
associated with the other symbols of the West Indian's castaway history the Carib-
bean Sea (the Middle Passage terminal of African slavery) and Trinidad's Woodford
Square (a monument to the colonial official who helped to administer the migration of
contract labourers from India). Secondly, as an outcast the Jumbie bird represents the
artist's experience of rejection: like Walcott's "profane" and "pagan" poet, Khan's
artist-symbol bears the hostile labels of a fearful world ("bastard", "devil", "whore").
Moreover, as with Walcott's castaway poet, the Jumbie bird unites the roles of
alienated artist and anti-colonial rebel: the sleepy apathetic heads on the pillow-sacks
reject the bird's message of their own psychological death as colonials. There is a
telling irony here. Death is a paradox in the West Indies: (a) the death of those dreams
which lured Indians to the lush plantations of the Caribbean (b) the colonial death of
feeling and humanism in the mythic paradise of the islands, and (c) on even a physical
level, the paradox of death in the tropical wealth of life re-enacts a cruel historical
irony the deadly lash of the slave-driver's whip on the vigour of life.
In no place but the tropics are life and death so close. There is a violence that
shifts from hour to hour. In the mornings, as the first rays of warm sunlight
touch the grass of Woodford Square, the dense dew tumbles into the earth. Soon
after there emerges a powerful pungence of the earth in its convolutions as the
rich moist air escapes, carrying with it the heady odour of purple poui, the sickly
scent of a calabash that exploded its thousands of sticky seeds...
But in an hour or two, the great amber ball of the sun flies down from the skies
and lashes its whip at all this vigour. The morning grass that stood firm now
withers and turns brown (p. 193).
Finally, the death-in-life irony is concentrated in the physical image of the Jumbie bird
itself in the calabash tree a messenger of death in a tree symbol of life.
The nature and substance of the bird's message links its castaway and artist roles
with yet a third. The paradoxes of the death message are really intrinsic to the
universal ironies of contemplative isolation, to the. manner in which the isolato is cut
off from humanity by the very intensity of his human awareness. And the bird image
dramatizes this sense of alienation. But, like Walcott's castaway, the Jumbie bird image
is enhanced, rather than depreciated by the apathy of its surrounding community.
Thus, despite all the curses of abuse and rejection, the Jumbie bird's symbolic presence
in the prologue is justified by the narrative experience of the novel as a whole: the
isolated bird of the prologue introduces the isolated selves of the main plot.
The narrative itself centers on three generations of the Khan family Kale, his son
Rahmin, and his grandson Jamini. Kale, one of the original immigrants from India, is
busy with plans for a back-to-India movement. Rahmin shares some of his father's
revulsion of Trinidad, but having grown up in the Caribbean he cannot identify with
Kale's repatriation schemes. And in the third generation Jamini is even further
removed from the Indian memories of his grandfather, although he is very fond of
Kale himself. The novel's isolation themes are therefore based on the migrant's sense
of dislocation. The novelist promptly establishes this link between the Jumbie bird
symbol and Kale Khan the Indian castaway in the Caribbean. Thus the Jumbie bird's
"twee-twee-twee" in the prologue is echoed by the identical rhythm of the "knock-
knock-knock" that summons Rahmin and Jamini to Kale's room downstairs. The fact
that Kale lives alone in a separate room reinforces the parallels with the Jumbie bird,
and with the isolate archetype in general. Kale belongs to the Khan household, but he
is separate and alienated from it. Similarly, he is alienated from the Trinidad which has
become his permanent home; and although he belongs to the repatriation movement
he hates India itself. His isolation is therefore more than the rhigrant's usual nostalgia
for a former domicile. He is completely alienated from the human condition. "He
hated India from which he had fled, and he hated Trinidad to which he had come to
find a new life... he was a man who walked the night with no-one ... he saw the
world and kept it to himself' (pp. 8, 9).
It is noteworthy that Kale keeps his perception of the world to himself, because
this trait indicates that as an isolate he should be distinguished from the poet-persona
of Walcott's "Crusoe's Island". When Kale does attempt to communicate with his
world he does not emphasize all of those brutal truths which he perceives about
himself, his history, and the human condition. He does not emphasize the hopelessness
of the poor, cast-off Indians in Woodford Square as a microcosm of human helpless-
ness as a whole. Neither does he discuss the inherent futility of planning to return to a
country which he hates, and which had no place for him and his kind. He disguises his
real hatred for India, and the totality of his isolation, by indulging in the heady
rhetoric, and self-deluding schemes of repatriation. In effect, the treatment of Kale's
character indicates that Khan is presenting us, not merely with another contemplative
isolate, but one who is afraid of his aloneness. Hence Kale's earlier pride in walking
"alone" gives way to a sense of "horrifying loneliness" when a visiting Indian official
shatters the repatriation movement by announcing India's official policy of in-
difference (pp. 200-201).
The tragedy of Kale's disillusionment, and eventual death, does not lie with his
isolation as such. It arises from his inability to accept the lonely identity of the
castaway or the Jumbie bird. There is no doubting the penetrating insights which he
initially derives from his isolation the tragedy of used-up old Indian labourers who
live on dreams of repatriation, the chicanery of the colonial scheme of things, the
sense of universal futility and absurdity which seems to be summed up by the frustra-
tions of back-to-India schemes, and by the colonial's holiday ritual of obeisance to the
imperial power. But when Kale attempts to communicate with his world he does not
concentrate on all the unsparing truths of his isolated perception. Unlike the Jumbie
bird or the Walcott castaway he attempts to flee from his isolation in order to join the
world and its remaining illusions. His involvement with the repatriation movement
implies that he is in full flight from the dark "anonymity" of the Jumbie bird's
isolation. Thus when the inevitable rebuff comes, when the Indian official strips away
the illusions of repatriation, Kale is unable to transform the rebuff into the kind of
transcendental aloofness which characterized the Jumbie bird or castaway. Having
presented the Jumbie bird as a symbol of the triumphant possibilities of isolation,
Khan now measures the strengths and weaknesses of his isolates against these possi-
Rahmin is forced to confront the realities of isolation much earlier than his father.
He cannot indulge in self-deluding dreams about India. At first, his financial and
artistic failures as a goldsmith dramatize his inability to cope with his sense of emo-
tional and social dislocation. Thus the crippled bar-fly of a neighboring tavern
becomes a grim symbol of his own inadequacy: "He had seen himself as the cripple,
and the hopelessness of his life threatened him now" (p. 153). Rahmin eventually
accepts, or seems to accept, isolation by emphasizing the uniqueness of his role as
goldsmith-artist. As he admonishes his son Jamini, "you have to look and look till you
find that one work that make for you, a work that it ain't have nobody else in the
whole wide world could do like you" (p. 223).
Khan does not allow us to be very confident in Rahmin's final view of isolation. Its
basis is rather suspect the easy rhetorical confidence that results from a fortuitous
upsurge in his business, rather than from the introspective sources of the con-
templative isolate. But, nonetheless, this does imply some progression from one
generation to another. We have progressed from Kale's fierce rhetoric of self-delusion
to Rahmin's lipservice to the Jumbie bird experience. In the third generation it is
Jamini who fully accepts isolation as a fact of life generally, and, in particular, as a
creative consequence of contemplation. He gains this knowledge from as early as his
first love-affair: "He was learning that he was alone, locked up within himself; that
everyone was locked up within themselves and quite alone. You saw their outer
surfaces only. In the shops and stores, in the Square on Frederick Street, they saw
each other's faces, but never got to know that great sea in all its darkness, . and so
would Lakshmi she would always be outside the grasp of his mind" (p. 57). Jamini's
experience with Lakshmi actually demonstrates one other paradox which Khan
examines in the isolation theme it is the irony of being strangers even during
intimate relationships, of being locked up in our individual selves even as we attempt
to reach out to one another.
The "outer surfaces" which Jamini sees in personal relationships are symbolized by
the ubiquitous carnival masks of Obeah Man. Throughout the carnival celebrations
which are the novel's setting, Khan's characters usually interact on the superficial
surfaces of casual sexuality. And in a symbolic unmasking scene, Zampi the obeah man
exposes the lonely self which is "locked up" behind the mask of a reveller: "the
beast's mask was ugly, grinning, and vicious, yet inside the front was an exhausted
man .. there under the grotesque mask was the man's face, covered with sweat; tears
were rolling down the folds of his cheeks, then he started sobbing like a child."
It is appropriate that Zambi performs the unmasking, because his heroic stature in
the novel arises from the fact that he accepts isolation as a creative experience. As an
obeah man he combines the roles of folk doctor and philosopher. His self-imposed
exile, as an hermit, from the carnival flesh-pots of Port-of-Spain emphasizes this isola-
tion as a form of perception. In this regard he combines all the familiar traits of the
contemplative isolate, including that role of alienated artist which Kenneth Ramchand
has described (The West Indian Novel, p. 137). But he also represents Khan's charac-
teristic interest not only in perceptive isolation as such, but also in the isolato's ability,
or willingness, to accept this isolation. When Zampi does visit the carnival he is not
fleeing from the isolation of exile. He is responding to the castaway's human need to
communicate his alienated perception to others, especially to his former girl-friend,
Zolda. His efforts to lure her away from the desperate conviviality of carnival are
really attempts by the isolate to share his insights, to break through the outer surfaces.
He is not completely successful. Zolda's initial decision to return with him to the hills
is based on the assumption that his only motive in coming to her has been sexual
longing: "she wished to throw herself in his arms, to have him possess her with
lightning bolts that would scorch her loins" (p. 186).
Kenneth Ramchand criticizes Zolda's erotic decision as "arbitrarily contrived" (The
West Indian Novel, p. 127). But this "contrivance" seems to be more apparent than
real, and it can be traced to those "outer surfaces" with which Khan's characters mask
their isolation from each other. Zolda's feelings at this point are suspect because she is
so obviously reacting on the basis of the carnival's desperate sexuality in effect, on
the very basis which has made the carnival so repulsive to Zampi. And this irony
merges with the larger irony which informs Zampi's perception of society: Zolda and
himself are still "locked up" in their individual selves even at this moment of recon-
ciliation and apparent understanding. Consequently, the arbitrary contrivance of
Zolda's decision is not a narrative defect, as Ramchand argues, but a logical outcome
of the novel's ironic structure. But it is also important to note that this is not her final
resolution. When she goes beyond the sexual surfaces of her relationship with Zampi,
she herself begins to acquire these ironic insights. Thus, in her final moments of
anticipation, she perceives her exile with Zampi, not as a guarantee of instantaneous,
total unity, but as an experience in the paradoxes of perceptive isolation: "Let love
live like a lonely lost thing locked up in the heart. It will surface, shine, and see itself
again ... She felt that there was a gap between them that she wanted to fill in" (p.
192). Khan offers no assurance that the gap will be filled. Like Zampi, Zolda now
recognizes that in the experience of the isolated self, love, and the desire to com-
municate, are counterbalanced by the persistent separateness of individuals in general,
and by the special isolation of castaway and Jumbie bird. She is beginning to trans-
form the terrified loneliness of the masked reveller into the sophisticated awareness of
the perceptive isolato.
LLOYD W. BROWN
1. George Lamming, The Emigrants (London: Michael Joseph, 1954), p. 67.
2. George Lamming, In the Castle of My Skin (London: Michael Joseph, 1953), p. 299.
3. Gordon Rohlehr, "The Ironic Approach: The Novels of V. S. Naipaul", in The Islands in
Between: Essays on West Indian Literature, ed. Louis James (London: Oxford University
Press, 1968), pp. 133, 138).
4. Gerald Moore, The Chosen Tongue: English Writing in the Tropical World (New York: Harper
and Row, 1970), p. 20.
5. Cameron King and Louis James, "In Solitude for Company: The Poetry of Derek Walcott", in
The Islands in Between (p. 98).
6. Gordon Rohlehr, "The Ironic Approach: The Novels of V.S, Naipaul", in The Islands in
Between (p. 137).
7. Kenneth Ramchand, The West Indian Novel and Its Background (New York: Barnes and
Noble, 1970), p. 126.
8. V.S. Naipaul, A Home for Mr. Biswas (London: Andre Deutsch, 1961), p. 8.
9. Derek Walcott, "Castway", in Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Co., 1964), pp.
10. Cameron King and Louis James, "In Solitude for Company: The Poetry of Derek Walcott", in
The Islands in Between (pp. 98-99).
11. Ismith Khan, The Jumbie Bird (New York: Ivan Obolensky, 1961), p. 5.
12. Ismith Khan, The Obeah Man (London: Hutchinson, 1964), p. 134.
SLADE HOPKINSON ON SLADE HOPKINSON
in an interview with W. Errol Bowen
Slade Hopkinson is a West Indian. Poet, playwright, actor, director, he happened to
be born in Guyana on November 3, 1934. He lived there until 1947 when with his
mother and sister, he moved to Barbados They lived in Barbados from 1947to 1952
when he moved to Jamaica to attend the then University College of the West Indies.
He lived in Jamaica from 1952 to 1961 and worked there, both in the theatre and
professionally. In 1961 he went down to Trinidad for the first time, and lived there
until 1965, when, thanks to the good offices of a number of friends in the Theatre
world, among them Derek Walcott and Errol Hill, he was awarded a Rockefeller
Foundation Scholarship to Yale University Drama School where he planned to do a
Master of Fine Arts Degree with his major in Playwriting.
Because of his background in the theatre, Yale agreed to let him complete the
programme in two rather than the usual three years. However, due to many personal
motives which he later regretted, he left Yale and returned to the West Indies after
only one year.
Returning to Guyana in 1966, he worked as a lecturer in English at the University
of Guyana, but left there in 1968 for Trinidad where he became a secondary school
teacher at St. George's College in Barataria He worked there happily until 1973 at
what had been his original professional occupation in Tinidad.
But let Slade pick up the story ...
Slade: In 1972 it became clear that I was a victim of chronic renal failure. I was not,
at that time, so deeply into the disease as to have had my chances of survival
threatened at the moment. But by early 1973 my life was definitely threatened and I
had to get a move on or I would have died in short order.
The Government of Guyana very kindly I'd like to think because of my service to
the Arts proposed to send me anywhere in the world I could get treatment for my
condition, and it turned out, fortunately, that I could come to Jamaica.
I say fortunately, because not only is Jamaica relatively close to Trinidad, but also
my wife, and for that matter my daughter, are both born Jamaicans.
So I returned to Jamaica in 1973 and spent a lot of time in hospital during that
year. I was eventually rehabilitated by my excellent doctor there, who incidentally is a
fellow Guyanese. I entered hospital late in April 1973 and I was capable of returning
to professional work in September 1973.
WB: What have the various areas you have lived in contributed to your development
in the theatre?
Slade: There is a conflict in my emotions between the continental landscape and
problems of Guyana, which admittedly I first left when I was twelve years old but
returned to for two years in my adult life; between Guyana pictorially, aesthetically
and politically; and the islands, which are surrounded by the blue Caribbean Sea, et
cetera, and which are sandy or of limestone and have a different quality of vegetation
and have a different kind of inhabitant.
When I say conflict, I'm anxious not to be misunderstood. I don't mean conflict in
the psychological sense, I mean I have lived in two different areas which are, although
for purposes of geography and cricket, are labelled the West Indies, nevertheless
present two different kinds of geographical, and therefore cultural, being.
WB: Is this difference of "cultural being" as you put it, an important influence on
your development in the arts?
Slade: I think so, yes, because I alternately hanker for the forested, tropical richness
and difficulty of Guyana, on the one hand, and on the other for the more delicate
beauty of the islands. But I am a total West Indian nationalist and will have no
absolute stances taken against Guyana or the Caribbean by anybody while I'm around!
WB: First and foremost I think you are acknowledged as a poet.
Slade: I do not know how the acknowledgements go these days. Earlier on I used to
be acknowledged as an actor, and then I started to get some acknowledgement as a
director. These days, judging from people's responses to me, I'm acknowledged as a
playwright and a poet. I am indeed all of those things. As to how I acknowledge
myself I do not know. They are all things that I have done or used to do, and some of
them, like writing poetry, I still do.
WB: What in essence do you try to capture in your poetry?
Slade: I do not know. I do not know what makes me write poetry. Certainly when
I'm writing a poem I have a totally different attitude from when I'm writing a play.
When I'm writing a play I am attempting to appeal to an audience who, I hope, will
come and see the play and have some sort of and I am trying to have some sort of -
impact upon them.
When I'm writing a poem I really could not care less who reads it or who likes it, so
long as it satisfies certain internal standards and demands which I set myself. This may
be the reason why, having written a large quantity of my poems; I work and work and
revise them till I can revise them no more and then I put them in my drawer. I only
publish them if somebody writes me and says you know have you any poems that
you care to publish? And then I look through what I have and send a poem or two.
But I do not have the same kind of interest in the public impact of my poetry as I have
in the public impact of my activities including that of playwright in the theatre.
I watch my poems very very jealously and carefully, and do not let poems stray in
to print that I do not mean to. If a poem is not getting anywhere, well, after I have
hung around it for a few years, it will get torn up eventually. I have enough to publish
a book now. Indeed more than a book. I have not published a book of poems since I
was nineteen years old and presumptious. By now, I somewhat regret that because I
have a stack of my poetry that I think ought to be published.
There is a specific reason why I have not been publishing recently, and I'm sorry I
just have to say that. I can't elaborate on it. The reason itself is private. I do not know
whether the caveat under which I'm at present operating where publishing is con-
cerned, will apply forever. I shouldn't think forever, but I don't know. I don't think I
am going to publish poetry in the immediate future. But the poems are there. The day
I drop dead, my wife can just look in the secret drawer and hand them to whoever
wants them. They are there.
WB: This attitude to your poetry though is rather selfish. Certainly this must be a
unique feeling among poets. Or do you feel that most poets do feel their work is a
Slade: If you will pardon my saying this very arrogantly, I think all good poets feel so
about their poetry. All good poets of the lyrical or meditative kind. I can think of
certain poets to whom that would be an exception. Dramatic poets when they are
writing drama, or satirical poets when they are writing satire certainly write for a
public audience. But a meditative, or a religious poet, or a love poet, or a lyrical poet,
writes for some critical intelligence of one. Perhaps apart from himself. And once that
critical intelligence is satisfied he hopes for the best, in terms of what other people will
I do not need anybody to tell me which are my good poems, I know. And if people
tell me that poem is good and I know it isn't, or it needs further working on, then I
know that they are wrong. They can't convince me. My poetry is an act of com-
munication between me and myself. And if it is read by anybody else and appreciated
by anybody else, then that other person overhears a conversation between me and
myself, which is not really intended for the public, though I don't mind the public
looking at it.
WB: Are there any particular poets that you acknowledge as having some influence on
Slade: The influence may not be technical, it may be more psychological or internal.
But I certainly acknowledge the influence of a large number of poets. The West
Indians Walcott, Brathwaite, Martin Carter, Dennis Scott, Tony McNeill, Mervyn
Morris; a very large list of people. Aime Cesaire, the Martiniquan.
Of the non-West Indian poets there is of course, always, always Shakespeare. There
is Nicolas Guill6n. There is Pablo Neruda. There is Robert Lowell from the United
States. I really could go on like this for hours and hours.
There is William Blake. There are certain poets whom recently I've been reading
quite a lot of, particularly among them, Omar Khayyam in the serious translation by
Robert Graves. Not in the misguided and unfortunate translation by Edward
Fitzgerald. There is the brilliant poet and author Ferid-ud-Deen Attar. There is the
poet Jalaludin Rumi. A lot of these are perhaps not well known in the West Indian
world. They are Muslim Sufi poets in whom I've recently taken a profound interest.
I think my work, certainly my poems, reflect two parochialisms. There are the
Guyanese poems and there are the West Indian poems. I suppose they are obviously
written by the same person, but they are different because the landscapes in which
they are set are different.
The two plays for which I am responsible; for which I retain some measure of
aesthetic respect I say that because I have written plays which I do not respect
anymore the two plays are A Spawning of Eels; or as it has come to be known in
more recent times, Sala; and The Long Vacation performed in Jamaica under the
title Summer Dread. Those two plays also reflect the dichotomy I talk about.
Sala is a very Guyanese play and is best understood by an audience that is
familiar with Guyana, its terrain, its landscape, its problems and its psychology.
Summer Dread which was originally a sort of anonymous West Indian play, is now
set in an imaginary Jamaica which is called something else.
WB: What were some of the motivations that you had while writing Summer
Slade: That is a question which the writer or the artist is frequently asked. "Why did
you write this? Or why did you paint that? Or why did you compose that?" And it is
an unanswerable question.
A man creates because he can. And a man creates because he has this irrational need
If you mean in an external sense what are the things inside the play that I was
concerned about, well I can talk about that. But as to why I bothered to write a play
about it, that I really cannot explain. And I do not-think that any serious artist has
any ulterior motive beyond an artistic one, in producing a work of art.
I'm not saying that works of art may not have ulterior effects. They may have
political effects; they may even entertain people. But except for the straight artistic
prostitute who writes only to make money, or the propagandist who writes only to
influence people's views, it seems that any honest artist writes for reasons which are
inexplicable to himself or anybody else.
As far as Summer Dread is concerned, I was very interested in the conflict, still
present in the West Indies, between middle-class people; people who are middle-class in
their birth, in their upbringing, in their education, and in their outlook, who, because
perhaps of a seizure of guilt, become revolutionary in outlook. Or think they are
revolutionary in outlook.
I was interested in the West Indian conflict between that type of person, and the
working class person who, less literate about the political movements in the world,
nevertheless sincerely and from the inside appreciates the problem of suffering. And in
that situation you often get an alliance between the two. An alliance which, as far as I
can see throughout the West Indies has also invariably come to grief.
Now I am not making a value judgement as to who is right: whether the bourgeois
revolutionary is right, or the proletarian revolutionary is right. I do not know. All I
know is that the alliance between the two often comes to grief in the Caribbean
context and all that happens is that you get back to square one with nothing changed
except maybe a lot of people killed or maimed or hurt and the suffering of everybody
remaining precisely the same.
WB: It seems to me that Summer Dread is essentially about a revolution that failed.
Is there any intention on your part to indicate to your audiences at large a belief in the
inability of West Indians, West Indian leaders in particular, to bring about a revolution
of the type portrayed in Summer Dread.
Slade: Let me say very firmly here that I have no admiration for violent revolution
and totally abhor violence of all kinds. So I'm not setting up a violent revolution as
something which is desirable. 1 can see situations in which it is inevitable that is a
different thing from saying that violent revolutions are to the human race as necessary
as food. My view on that matter is diametrically opposed to the view of Marxists and
What I am saying in Summer Dread is that there seems over the modem history
of the West Indies to be a total failure on the part of the people thrown into positions
of leadership who are often better educated and better privileged in the area of
natural ability (though that can be questioned) there is a difficulty in these people
forming a permanent and understood and viable alliance with the under-privileged
masses beneath them. And there is a failure on the part of the leaders, so-called, to
understand that in any democratic situation, it is the so-called "followers" who lead
Leaders merely express in action, and use their privileges of education and ability,
to help to express in action the will of the people whom they lead.
I think there is almost nobody who holds any power in the Caribbean today, and
who has held power in the Caribbean over the past forty years (not nobody but a very,
very small minority of people) with the faintest notion of the truth of what I have just
said. And I think that this is one of the major political and psychological tragedies of
the West Indies.
Not only do the leaders insist on leading just like the colonial powers led before,
but the followers refuse to believe that they can operate in any way other than by
having their decisions made by other people, by the Government, by statutory boards,
by foreigners, by some form of thing that is alienated from them or that is abstracted
The people will not assume, or cannot, or have not been taught how to assume, or
have not developed to the point at which they can assume, the manhood which is
involved in saying that "I am making this choice about my life and I am an adult and a
human being and I am responsible for it."
WB: You seem to be implying from this play that a middle-class leader can't really
speak for or lead a revolution on behalf of working-class people. Is that in fact what
you are saying?
Slade: I don't want to make that kind of generalisation at all. Cuba would prove me
wrong wouldn't it? Castro is straight out of the middle-class.
WB: So in fact, are you saying that whatever the play might say, it's not necessarily
your own personal view?
Slade: That is true, you know, I'm not writing an essay, or a thesis. I put two or three
or four chaps together and see what happens. And what is true for this situation is true
for this situation. I don't pretend that it is universal. I can't say middle-class people
cannot lead working-class people. As a matter of fact I seriously wonder whether
anybody else but middle-class people can? I don't know. What I'm saying in Summer
Dread is that up to now in the English speaking Caribbean it hasn't worked.
WB: It seems though that in some senses, the working-class has become more
articulate, they know more what they want or need, or what needs to be done; or
maybe that the leadership, certainly in Jamaica, I think, is more concerned with the
working-classes than formerly ...
Slade: But boy, the ground that has to be covered is so much, there is no time to
WB: What is to be done?
Slade: Boy, I don't know. I don't know. I ain't no prophet, I ain't no politician. I
don't know what is to be done. All I know is that the whole bunch of us seem to be
badly educated. By which I mean inadequately trained for the job of survival in our
environment. That is what education is. We cannot deal with our reality. And that
includes me, and people like me. Sometimes I tell myself if I had two good kidneys
and a bit of money, what would I like to do? It's to get a piece of land somewhere in
the interior of Guyana and see what I could do with it. But then, when I hear myself
telling myself that, I say, boy, he must be being romantic. For of course, with my
background, I don't have the courage to follow that through.
WB: You've never thought of political activity?
Slade: Who me? Oh no. Never, never, never. Never ever.
WB: But this play could be seen as a political statement, even though you eschew
Slade: I realise that. But I was going to say I don't see myself as being a political
leader or being in the front, but I certainly have political views. I know the play can be
taken as a political statement, but to me, the person who has the last word in the play,
is a minor character, but a most important character, and that is the Preacher.
At the end he has a few lines which I don't want missed, about change, which has
to be an internal thing.
WB: So in fact, are you coming back to a religious position, are you saying that
politics say that to improve our situation there has to be a change in the system? Are
you saying that its not the system, its the individual who must change?
Slade: Well, yes, and he will change the system when he changes. It can't go the other
way around, I don't think. At least we have tried it and it don't work. I mean, a man
who is slothful under private ownership is going to be slothful under public ownership
too, I think. I mean, a slothful man is a slothful man. And by changing the system of
ownership you are not going to change him.
WB: But politicians are not merely trying to change the system. They are trying to
change our ideas about the system. And therefore if you accept the new ideas, you are
also changed internally.
Slade: Uhm. .. You know, finally I suppose both are necessary. The change has to be
internal as well as external, or both coincide, or both are the same thing. But you
cannot change the system unless you change the individual. But if the individual
changes himself, then the system will obviously change.
One of the problems of the extreme left version of socialism and communism is
that they seem inconsistent with certain aspects of human nature as it at present
stands. Now the socialist may say that our object is to change human nature. That is a
very desirable object but when you say that, the problem is... they are flying in the
face of human nature.
WB: Which aspects of human nature do you see them flying in the face of?
Slade: Private ownership. The desire, the instinctive urge to cooperate, which say,
bees have, and ants have, I do not think the majority of human beings at their present
stage of evolutionary development, possess.
Men cooperate consciously, having decided as a deliberate act of choice, that they
WB: Except that you may also be accepting individualist philosophy and the whole
conception of the capitalist world which says that we are individuals and the greatest
good is the individual working for himself I mean, society has not always been like
this surely. A feudal society was supposed to have been a highly cooperative society,
and even Marx admired, and in a sense regretted, the loss of this feudal cooperative
spirit that capitalism destroyed.
Slade: I do not accept the capitalist philosophy that the individual is all important. In
fact my own views, and you did touch upon this earlier on, but it eluded either you or
me, or I allowed it to elude you, my own views on the matter are religious, not
political. I do not think that the pursuit of life, liberty and what is called happiness,
are the only priorities of the human race. I think those basics are simply opportunities
that allow you to fight for something else. And that is not an escapist statement. I'm
not belittling the importance of life, liberty and what is called happiness. But they are
not ends in themselves. They are opportunities that you do something with, if you
know how, or if you care.
WB: You have always been religious?
Slade: No. Well, maybe yes. There was a period when I was a fierce atheist. But as I
now know, atheism is a religious point of view. I passed that long ago. That didn't last
much beyond twenty or so.
And then I graduated to agnosticism, and my present point of view is religious.
WB: Not formally religious though? Yes? What are you?
Slade: Muslim. Muslim, Muslim, not a Black Muslim.
WB. Of course. You did say you were reading the Muslim mystic poets. How does one
become a Muslim? Do you actually undergo a period of indoctrination in the religion
lke other religions require, or did you just read and accept the doctrine?
Slade: Islam is a very simple religion. Its basic credo is quite simple. In practice the
details are quite elaborate, and one is always learning. To me, one of the beautiful
things about Islam is its perpetual exercise of the intellect.
Built into Islam is the scientific spirit. In fact the Prophet Mohammed, Peace be
upon him, instructed Muslims to seek knowledge even as far as China. An attitude
which I think you will admit, is different from many other religions, which can tend to
be obscurantist. The Muslim is obliged to seek knowledge and is not prevented from
studying anything on the grounds that it will endanger faith.
Our attitude is that study will validate faith. So we are not afraid of science or
progress in any way. It's a very intellectually exciting ambience.
WB: Your family is Muslim too?
Slade: No. They are Christian. My wife is Anglican. My children are being brought up
as Anglicans, with I think, my cooperation. There is no conflict in the family. There
are certain differences, due to my fairly strict eating habits. There are things that they
eat that I wouldn't eat. Everything I eat they eat.
WB: Has your illness affected your outlook on life in any way?
Slade: Very positively. I wouldn't like you to print this unless you could phrase it with
the greatest discretion, but my illness has been the best thing that happened to me.
That sounds like a paradox. But as a result of the blessing of my illness, I understand
things that I never understood before. And I'd be afraid to be cured.
WB: Why do you say "blessing"? You know, you sound rather mystical now, like one
of those poets you are reading. When did you begin to see it as a blessing? Surely not
at the beginning?
Slade: Very quickly though. Very quickly.
WB: You were a Muslim before you were ill?
Slade: Yes, I have been a Muslim since 1964. That was the time of my earliest
WB: What led to your conversion? Were you proselytized?
Slade: That's like asking what led to my poetry. I don't know. I really don't know. In
'64 I became a Muslim. Shortly after that I lapsed. Not in belief, but in practice. But
always retaining the conviction. And coincidental with my illness, I returned. But I
had never really mentally left. So it wouldn't be correct to say that my Islam is due to
my illness. My Islam is eleven or twelve years old.
WB: To come back though, why do you regard your illness as a blessing?
Slade: It became a blessing, I think, after one accepted the inevitability of one's
death. I think that could be a blessing to anybody.
WB: You are conscious of Death as a constant companion.
Slade: Yes, yes. And I think that gives you a perspective on reality which you can't
have if you don't have that consciousness of death. I live with it ... Quite com-
fortably, you know. By God's grace, I think I am beyond terror.
So, you know, when I speak like this, some people misunderstand and think that I
am being morbid. But it's not morbidity at all. Quite the opposite. But to people who
regard death as a final end, or as something threatening or terrible, something horrible,
then it is impossible to even speak of it decently. It is regarded as an obscenity. I do
not share that view. So when I say I know I am going to die, I live with that thought
all the time, and that is my chief help. I'm not being morbid. Quite the opposite.
WB: How does your family live with it?
WB: They too are conscious of the imminence of death?
Slade: Oh yes. All three of my immediate family. They have grown to accept it. They
are not scared. They help me with my problems. I do very well, thanks largely to
them. But it's not something that we bother about. In God's good time, we will all go.
WB: I hesitate to ask this. Do doctors actually put a time frame on your illness, or is it
Slade: No. It is open ended. But the life expectancy is not high. If one went by
statistics, it can be quite brief. In Jamaica, of those being treated for kidney failure,
very few of them make more than two or three years. That is not so much in the
nature of the disease, or in the nature of the treatment, as in the psychological
difficulty of putting up with the treatment, and putting up with the restrictions.
It imposes upon you a form of life which many people find difficult to tolerate. By
God's grace, I don't. Consequently, most people if they catch me on a good day,
cannot tell that I'm unwell.
WB: What sort of restrictions?
Slade: Dietary chiefly. We have a low or no salt diet. Low potassium, which means
cutting down on fruit and vegetables, lowish protein, cutting down on meat, fish, milk,
beans, cheese; low fluid. No more than say three cups a day, preferably less. And
highish carbohydrate. You've got to get your calories from somewhere.
WB: No alcohol?
Slade: Well, preferably not. Because of the fluid. But as a Muslim I don't drink
That slightly Puritan statement should be explained by my saying that I have done
quite a lot of drinking in my time, so when I gave up drinking I knew what I was giving
up. It's not a case of alcoholic virginity. I do not drink at all now, but I did do my
WB: Your mobility is also affected?
Slade: Yes. All of us are anaemic, and incurably anaemic. It's not a matter of taking iron
tablets or milk. It is that the failed kidney does not to the same extent stimulate
the bone marrow to produce red cells. This means that all of us are more or less
This means that, well as I put it to my doctor, I can run a "hundred yards" for ten
or fifteen yards. After that I've got to stop. I swim. I'm moderately active. I can't
break any records. But I never could. So I don't really miss that. Don't ask me to lift
weights or to work eighteen hours a day for too many days in succession. One or two
would be all right. But there is enough zip to cope with life. I mind my family single
handedly, and still write plays and write poetry. I no longer act or direct. But I cope,
WB: Given your present situation then, what would you like to achieve in the future?
Slade: Ah.... Peace. That's about all really.
WB: You don't want to write X number of plays or make "this" kind of achievement
or "that"? You don't have a goal of that nature?
Slade: Oh, my goals are clear, and they include writing, though maybe, not any more
plays. I may not write any more plays. I'm pretty sure I'll continue to write poetry.
But again, not as an end in itself. That attitude, towards poetry, plays or anything else
for that matter, has firmly and irreversibly changed in my life.
If I write a poem, it has more and more become an act of spiritual clarification for
me and perhaps for one or two others who feel like me. I'm not simply in pursuit of
fame or artistic excellence or anything like that. Those motives are finished and done
WB: An end of egoism?
Slade: I hope so. That is easy to say. But I hope so.
Portions of this interview appeared previously in Xaymaca, the Sunday Magazine of the
Jamaica Daily News, 21 March, 1976 when Summer Dread was being performed in
"DREAM ON MONKEY MOUNTAIN" AND THE POPULAR RESPONSE
(A few questions)
In 1968, when I had returned to Trinidad from Guyana, and was working as an
actor with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, the group took Derek Walcott's play,
Dream on Monkey Mountain, on a West Indian tour. We visited Grenada, St. Vincent,
St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbados, spending three or four days in each island.
In that production, I played the part of Corporal Lestrade.
I cannot speak from personal experience about what it was like in Antigua. I had to
miss that stop because of the demands of the teaching job in Trinidad by which I
earned my daily bread. But certainly, that tour was one of the most inspiring ex-
periences of my life in the theatre.
Let me try to convey something of what the tour was like by describing what
happened in St. Lucia.
I did not stay continuously with the touring Workshop because, as I have said, I
also had to give something to my teaching job in Trinidad. My headmaster, Derek
Walcott and I had worked out a scheme by which I flew back and forth between
Trinidad and the islands in which the play was appearing, and the play was so
scheduled that I got in a reasonable quantity of teaching in Trinidad while also
working with the play.
On the day when I flew out to re-join the Workshop in Castries, St. Lucia, I was
met at the airport, as usual, by a contingent of the group. It was about half an hour
after mid-day when I landed.
This time, something had happened which necessitated Walcott's calling an urgent
meeting. The (I think) two official performances of the play, to take place that night
and the following night, had been sold out in advance. Sold out to the last seat. All the
people who wanted to see the play could not be accommodated at the two scheduled
performances. St. Lucia wanted to know what we could do: would we agree this was
the people's proposal to putting on a matinee that day, beginning at 4 o'clock?
Walcott had already consulted the rest of his cast on the point. But I had just joined
them, and he wanted to know whether I would agree. (The part of Lestrade is perhaps
no less physically and emotionally taxing than that of Makak).
What was involved was this: we would have to get the matinee advertised somehow
between, say, 1 and 4 p.m., play the matinee from 4 to 7 p.m., rest and have a bite
between 7 and 8 p.m., and then be fresh and ready for another performance that
would last from 8 to 11 p.m. It was going to be one of the most strenuous days that
any of us had ever lived through.
In the face of the demands of our potential audience, and the athletic demands on
our stamina as actors, we all agreed that we would do the matinee. The demands
challenged, exhilarated and, I suppose, flattered us. None of us was less than
absolutely enthusiastic about inserting that extra matinee into our already exacting
Walcott was, of course, triumphant and elated.
St. Lucia is a small island, and Castries, its capital, is a tiny town; so we had an
advantage where getting the news to the people was concerned. Spot advertisements
were put on the local radio station at regular intervals, announcing the matinee. We
had agreed to what the people wanted.
For that suddenly arranged matinee, the hall in which we performed was packed to
overflowing. And it was packed to overflowing for the night performance, and for the
final performance too. The people who came to see us perform Walcott's play, which
had a reputation among the educated, the fashionable and the chic of being powerful
but inaccessibly abstruse and high-brow, were the same people who, if the Workshop
had not been in St. Lucia at the time, would have gone to see the cowboy film that
was playing at the cinema opposite. This is not a piece of wish fulfilment. Half an hour
or so before every curtain time, I would go over to the cinema to buy a drink and walk
unobtrusively among the St. Lucians milling about the entrance to the cinema, and I
would always hear groups of people discussing their two options and deciding, many
of them, to give up the cowboy film for Dream on Monkey Mountain.
Now, admittedly, Walcott is a native St. Lucian who has made good; and St. Lucia
is extremely proud of the relatively large number of creative persons and intellectuals
it has produced, considering its size and level of development.
Admittedly, too, countries like St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada did not at that
time have a great deal of their own in the way of performing arts. There was, of
course, the St. Lucian Arts Guild, headed by Derek Walcott's brother, Roderick; but, if
my memory serves me, Roderick was away from the island at the time on scholarship,
and his absence must have affected the productivity of the Arts Guild.
The Trinidad Theatre Workshop's being in St. Lucia, and in St. Vincent and in
Grenada was certainly an event welcomed by what is known as "the mass of the
people." In those three islands, they came in huge numbers to see our performances,
and the halls in which we played were never large enough to accommodate all who
wanted to come in.
I am not suggesting that all these people "understood" the very great complexity of
the play in all its poetic and psychological detail; but they certainly knew "what the
play was about," in general terms, and they recognized the subject matter of the play
as having been taken from life as they knew it.
In Barbados, however, where our audience was more "coterie" second-
ary-school-educated, or university-educated, sedate, correct and middle-class many
professed to find the play impressive but inaccessible: they could not tell what it was
all about, though they admitted feeling its power.
This reaction has also occurred in Jamaica, in response to Carroll Dawes' very
It is surprising. Not the enthusiasm of the Lesser Developed Countries (as they are
called), but the pallid approval of the More Developed Countries.
Dream is, in part, about West Indian man's rejection of his home, and therefore of
himself. It is about the psychology of mental and cultural emigration the psycho-
logy of the "red"official who, in the play, is a mental and cultural emigrant to a
Europe of the mind; the psychology of the black bush recluse who is, in the play, a
mental and cultural emigrant to an Africa of the mind.
Isn't this question of the need to accept our home one of the most urgent and
practical ones of today? Makak, crazed by loneliness, futility and longing for psycholo-
gical status and self-respect, makes a dream escape from the prison of his island and
condition, from the condition of his island, and emigrates to a dream Africa. Finally,
within the dimension of reality, he re-migrates home to an island where he has been
freed from prison.
The dilemma is not unknown in the West Indies. The dilemma is not unknown in
Jamaica, where the country called by Lestrade "Africa of-my-mind" is emotionally
inhabited by people like the Rastafarians, and inhabited in a chic, trendy way by a
large number of fashionable lower, lower-middle, and middle-middle-brows.
Others like Walcott and Brathwaite, the poet maintain that none of us will ever
find fulfilment, and that none of the places where we live will ever be countries, until
each of us finds a way to accept home as home, and to start our construction with the
materials that we have, and that we have accepted and embraced.
Why then and this is the simple question I wish to raise for one moment why
the contrast between the way the play was received in the LDCs and the way it was
received in Barbados and Jamaica?
I do understand that when the play was brought to Jamaica by Walcott a few years
ago, it had a relatively enthusiastic following. I can't speak from personal knowledge
of that audience, but I shouldn't be surprised to discover that large numbers of them
were trendy, lower-middle and middle-middle-brows, followers of Walcott and other
approved things, who, miraculously, managed to escape being hit by the power of one
of the most ambitious, trenchant and urgent theatrical works that has appeared
anywhere in the Caribbean, English, French or Spanish speaking, in this century.
My miserable Auntie, the one who always look like she dreaming used to walk with her
right hand cup halfway as if she constantly holding something; and since we always
say, "cho, she mad," I never ask her what she was carrying till the day after she come
back from two months with Aunt B and I notice her hand keeping straight at her side
like everybody else.
- Aunt May, what happen to you hand? I ask her.
- How you mean, what happen to mi han?
- You hand look straight. Not that same right hand you used to cup all the time since
She said Shhh. Listen, but don't laugh.
And she look round to see if anybody hearing. Then she start talk to me softly and say:
- You see, is a little child I was carrying right in my hand middle; small you know.
One little been pickny; like one of dem jumping frogs; only plenty smaller; and
every now and then if a take me eye off it, when I look again it shrink; and if I
walking in the house I feel it going drop out of my hand and into one of those
little cracks in the floor and disappear. So that's how I was walking with it cup in
my hand and all the time I fretting that it sure to fall out. You notice how when
a go to town where they have tile floor a still cup it but a never look down so
- So what happen now? You stop holding it?
- Girl, is a long story. Suddenly one day the child change into one good looking
little boy with a square face and smooth smooth black skin .... so bout two
weeks a watching at my side to make sure he following me everywhere. Till one
evening about three o'clock, I must be was gazing, for you know B place strange,
a just look round in time to see the little boy jump down inside a sink
hole . my heart leap, but you know, a didn't cry, is like I know that sink-hole
didn't go to the sea. I follow my mind. Just as if somebody was guiding me. And
a walk clear cross the town to where I think the sink-hole come out .... I find
the spot but not a sign of the child. Now you know how many years I been
walking with that little one in my hand and a never have a mishap and now this
one, so much bigger, go lost from mi now. I sit down at the street side with me
hand at my chin. Then I walk back to where the sink hole start, to see if it have
another place where it come out again. But a find myself back to the same spot
and a sitdown again. This time I ready to cry. Dus come, night start to fall. I sit
down at the street side with my hand on my chin and somebody come up and
pat me ... who you think? No the boy! not a word .... but with the matinee
ticket in his hand . no show the boy go; and reach back safe and sound ... I
said "Jeezas Christ" and I look up to heaven but not a word mi no seh to him
for afta we no talk.
But from dat, I don't even look down to see if anybody nex to me and as you
notice, is months now since I stop walk wid mi han cup.
Ganja Lady stands at Halfway Tree
shackled at the neck,
she rolls her eyes, strange
smiles on her lips, dread noises
in her throat,
days, nights she does not move.
At Papine her justborn child curled to her breast,
sons playing in the dirt and grass
the square shimmers, trucks, cars, carts roll past,
the child sucks content, the Ganja Lady stares
her hair unkempt, the world oblivious,
Over the wall a face appears
sweet as the moon.
Bogle stares, incredulous with rending hope.
Ganja Lady stands at his side
kisses his dry lips, caresses his damp neck.
Bogle gasps, his body drains
its fluids, spews its waste,
she cups the nappy
head in her hands, supports
the twisted neck,
eases the lids on his stunned dilated eyes
Nyahman grips the bottle high
tensile, stretched to awesome length, eyes
raking the hot street,
"Freedom!" the pose is eternal, carved
the bottle's venom shards in the street
Ganja Lady mutters: "Jah! Deliver I!"
Waist, backside, belly, hips
the drummer smiles, her moves
compel his hands, her feet tattoo
the dust, fire smoulders in her eyes
The goat is bearded, splitting its face
a smile mischievous as old men's memories.
Ganja Lady canters over Babylon
cross-legged, holding the horns, smoke
white and writhing covers her, streams from her locks
her feet, her hands.
BongoNyah hears the silent canter
feels its rhythm, sees the Ganja Lady riding
"Jah," he says, "Jah!" And smiles.
RIPENING WITH WALCOTT
Sea Grapes by Derek Walcott; London: Cape; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
To follow Derek Walcott's progress over more than a quarter of a century, through
several books of poetry, from feverish, precocious youth to mellow middle age, is to
follow a process of self-discovery and self-creation. Walcott's binding theme is Walcott,
the pursuit and delineation of a fictive character based on an actual person named
Derek Walcott. The self-portrait emerges as an interplay between the man's recognition
of weaknesses and deficiencies in himself and a definition of ideal strengths, values and
virtues, by which he seeks to determine himself.
This activity is no narrow or selfish introspection. To confront experience is, with
him, to confront his own reactions to experience, but so as to purify and understand
those reactions, to make himself worthy of experience. He contemplates himself in
order to bum through to a condition where he will lose himself in the greatness of
everything that is greater than himself, where he will be reconciled with all experience,
where he will
... have learnt to love black days like bright ones,
the black rain, the white hills, when once
1 loved only my happiness and you. (p.80)
This is, of course, the model, the ideal; the actuality is the day-to-day, poem-by-poem,
uneven, unending struggle to realise it, in life and on the page. The actuality is an
oscillation between polarities of mood, a manoeuvring between seeming opposites. So,
for example, in one poem he extols "the desert dignities of silence" (p.22), while in
... looks] forward to age
a gnarled poet
bearded with the whirlwind,
his metres like thunder. (p.93)
In a third we can see how the opposites, silence and thunder, are reconciled in para-
even love's lightning flash
has no thunderous end,
it dies with the sound
of flowers fading ...
till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven's head. (p. 71; my italics)
Such a silence, surely, is a kind of thunder. The same paradox was expressed before, in
Another Life (1973), in a similar image of an old poet, weathered by experience and
calm in the midst of whirlwind:
... I wanted to grow white-haired
as the wave, with a wrinkled
brown rock's face, salted,
seamed, an old poet,
facing the wind
and nothing, which is,
the loud world in his mind. (p.148)
The mind of this old poet had been prefigured long before, in the title-poem of
Walcott's first volume to achieve metropolitan publication In A Green Night (1962).
In that poem, the orange tree and the orange, the cycle of flowering and fruiting as
well as the sphere of the "full" fruit, symbolised the ideal of "the mind [which]
enspheres all circumstance." (p. 73) This ideal has governed all of Walcott's work. It
has taken various aspects, e.g. his cultivation of what he has called his "sense of
season" (The Castaway, 1965, p. 15), the condition of attuning oneself so perfectly to
the rhythm of life that one is reconciled to the inexorability of change, of pain and
cruelty and loss, while being keenly sensitive to them. So now he says (to himself?),
that is your sadness rings you,
but sadness is your season
like the apples, as you ripen
to a fullness that can endure
that blazing lie of summer; for,
at the core of passion, you've
always sensed the cold. (p.16)
What is strongest now is not the sadness which comes with the sense of cold, the "icy
intuitions/that seasons bring" (Castaway, p.45), but the ripeness and the fullness that
can endure them. Now, to be reconciled is to accept with a kind of joy the fact of
change, to be happy "that fine sprigs of white are springing from my beard." (p. 92) It
is to be able to set against the "blazing lie of summer", which dazzles us in youth, the
subtler sensitivity to the variegations of "grey":
grey has grown strong to me,
it's no longer neutral,
no longer the dirty flag
of courage going under,
it is speckled with hues
like quartz, it's as
various as boredom,
grey now is a crystal
haze, a dull diamond,
stone-dusted and stoic ... (p.94)
The short poem "The Morning Moon", which ends with the line about "fine sprigs
of white", begins by confessing the poet's long-lived obsession with change and mor-
tality, and proceeds to encapsulate his latest mood of grave and joyful acceptance.
Such acceptance includes accepting that no matter how ready one composes oneself to
be, one is never quite ready for the downward turning of time; grief always takes us by
You prepare for one sorrow,
but another comes.
It is not like the weather,
you cannot brace yourself,
the unreadiness is all. (p.85)
Nor does the mood of ripeness, of a calm and mellow acceptance, mean that we won't
hear any more the bleaker Walcott, the moods of ennui, frustration and despair, the
cynicism and the horror. The ripeness enspheres and transcends the phases of bitter-
ness, but still includes them. The vision of the ripeness and the transcendent calm have
now been caught, held, but this state of being is attainable only momentarily, as in
.... the great pause
when the pillars of the temple
rest on Samson's palms
and are held, held,
when the heavy rock of the world
like a child sleeps
on the trembling shoulders of Atlas
and his own eyes close,
the toil that is balance. (p.94)
Broadly speaking, the arrangement of Sea Grapes parallels the progression of moods
in Walcott's poetry as a whole, from sadness to celebration, though in the former the
latter was always present, while the latter is fuelled by a deep awareness of the former.
In the opening poem, "Sea Grapes", the protagonist/poet is a world-weary Odysseus,
condemned forever to fight (in himself) the "ancient war between obsession and
responsibility" (passion and duty, poetry and action?), and not really cheered by the
knowledge that others have suffered the same agony throughout history and literature.
Still, the question of shirking the fight never arises, and the poem sustains, beneath the
weariness, a fortifying sense of the continuity of human struggle and endurance.
"Sea Grapes" is followed by three poems about Frederiksted, a town in the U.S.
Virgin Islands, which describe a more or less typical, meretricious Caribbean tourist
"paradise" gone tawdry the New World "lost to vipers" (p.20) and to money, as is
made explicit in the very cynical "New World", one of a handful of Eden-myth poems
which also occur early in the volume and extend Walcott's interest in his idea of New
World man as "Adamic".
[So] when Adam was exiled
to our New Eden, in the ark's gut,
the coined snake coiled there for good
fellowship also; that was willed.
Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good. (pp.18/19)
A poem like "New World" leads naturally to Walcott's most directly political
poems to date. Some of these, if we include chapters 18 and 19 of Another Life,
which belong to the same period, are also his most vitriolic. "The Brother", "Party
Night at the Hilton", "The Lost Federation" and "Parades, Parades" (and the un-
collected "Commune" Tapia, 17 Dec. 1972) are curse-poems. They are political not in
the sense that they advance any ideology or party-line in fact they are anti-party -
but because they attack in straightforward invective, political con-manship and corrup-
tion, the betrayal of "the people" in the West Indies, whether the betrayers are the
entrenched, reactionary bosses and dictators, or bigoted and hypocritical radicals. He
"tongue-lashes" "the evangelical hyenas" (p. 22) and the "smiler next to you whispers
/brother" (p.23) as well as the "pimp Nkrumahs", "venal, vengeful party-hacks"
(p.26) and "ministers administering/the last rights to a people" (p.28). In "Parades,
Parades" he satirises the paternalistic petty dictators feasting on the adulation of their
Here he comes now, here he comes!
Papa! Papa! With his crowd,
the sleek, waddling seals of his Cabinet .(p.30)
"Dread Song" identifies these "bastard papas" (p. 28) even more pointedly:
Brothers in Babylon, Doc! Uncle! Papa!
Behind the dark glasses (p.33)
In "Preparing for Exile" he has a nightmare vision of a steadily encroaching police-
state tyranny, and in "The Silent Woman" he commemorates a Trinidadian middle-
class girl, Jean Miles, who had the courage to expose some of the corruption of "the
executives in business suits." All of these poems belong to the early seventies and
directly or indirectly express something of Walcott's reaction to a central political
event of that period in the West Indies, the abortive revolution in his adopted home-
But eventually, above whatever notes of cynicism or anger or terror or despair this
volume utters, there begins to rise dominant the note of joy, a solemn joy of life,
which resounds longest and sinks deepest. It rises in the face of pain and bitterness and
negation; it is mellowed and tempered by them. The progression is the same as in
Another Life, where eventually all the experiences lived through are reconciled and
"blessed" in the prayer-benediction-hymn to life which climaxes the poem in chapter
22. Walcott has earned his vision of ripeness and calm which reconciles all clashes and
confusions. He has earned, precociously no doubt, this latest mask, of the seamed,
gnarled, grizzled face of the old poet, which is a variation on the mask of the "old
sea-almond [tree] / unwincing in spray" (p. 93), the
going under the sand
with this language, slowly,
by sand grains, by centuries. (p.95)
Poems like "To Return to the Trees", "At Last", "Oddjob, a Bull Terrier", and
"The Bright Field" are "large" poems. In their comparatively short lyrical flights, they
attain the heights of human feeling. Firmly rooted in the personal and concrete reality
of the visible world of the poet's experience, they move upwards and outwards to a
visionary, world-encompassing dimension. Although, in typical Walcott fashion, they
depend essentially on a process of metaphorical associations, the matrix of metaphor is
not so dense or complex as before. Imagery tends to be stripped down to elementals -
earth, wind, sea, rock, tree, moon, light, dark, and so on. There is also a marked use of
repetition to produce an incantatory effect which heightens the feeling of epiphany
and celebration. These features are well exemplified in "Oddjob", which was occa-
sioned by the death of a pet dog that belonged to a couple, the poet's close friends, in
whose sea-side cottage the poet was staying at the time. The poem celebrates the deep
silences of grief-stricken love:
the silence is all
it is deeper than the readiness,
it is sea-deep,
is stronger than thunder,
we are stricken dumb and deep
as the animals who never utter love
as we do; except
it becomes unutterable
and must be said,
in a whimper,
in the drizzle that comes to our eyes
not uttering the loved thing's name,
the silence of the dead,
the silence of the deepest buried love is
the one silence,
and whether we bear it for beast,
for child, for woman, or friend,
it is the one love, it is the same,
and it is blest
deepest by loss
it is blest, it is blest. (pp. 85-86)
"The Bright Field" brings back to mind the famous "Ruins of a Great House",
written some twenty years before, and a comparison of the two shows how Walcott is
continuously working over his basic themes and yet not just repeating himself. Nor
does the new poem, even though it goes beyond the earlier one, supersede it. In both
we see compassion getting the better of anger and bitterness. There are similar key
words and images in both: rage, compassion, great house, the tolling bell (of Donne),
grave reminder of the ultimate one-ness of mankind. But whereas "Ruins" is primarily
about a West Indian's experience of trying to come to terms with the anguish of West
Indian history, "The Bright Field" is primarily one man's vision of his involvement in
mankind, in the commingled grief and glory of the human condition. But the vision is
authenticated in terms of the specific historical point of view of the poet, that is to
say, by his West Indian experience. In "Ruins" the imaginative energy of the poem is
concerned most with recreating the painful act of confrontation with history, while in
"The Bright Field" it is most concerned with recreating the glow of the one dying light
which illuminates and unifies all (seeming) opposites past and present, the crowd and
the individual, colonising conqueror and colonial victim, London and insignificant,
remote Balandra (on the east coast of Trinidad), the powerful technologically ad-
vanced world of conveyor-belts and underground railways with the agricultural,
pastoral and underdeveloped world of cane-field and bullock-cart.
The vision of this reconciling light is achieved, in the overall arrangement of Sea
Grapes as in the overall structure of Another Life, after, and no doubt partly as a
result of an imaginative return to his beginnings, to his St. Lucia. Another Life was a
confrontation of and homage to the St. Lucia which produced him. In the middle of
Sea Grapes he returns again, to resume the homage in a sequence of five poems
entitled simply "Sainte Lucie". Part II, untitled, is largely a plangently nostalgic litany
of the flora and the girls of the island, ending with as direct and final an act of
self-identification as we could wish:
O Martinas, Lucillas,
I'm a wild golden apple
that will burst with love,
of you and your men,
those I never told enough
with my young poet's eyes
crazy with the country,
moi c'est gens St. Lucie.
C'est la moi sorti;
is there that I born. (p.47)
The swift modulations of language, from standard English through St. Lucian patois to
a West Indian English equivalent, not only bring to an authoritative summation the
whole problem/richness of identity for Walcott, but also triumphantly answer his cry,
earlier in the poem, "Come back to me/my language." (p. 44)
The concluding poem in the sequence, "For the Altar-piece of the Roseau Valley
Church, Saint Lucia", is one of the finest in the book, and it treats again another
major topic from Another Life, the "homage to Gregorias." Gregorias was the name
with which Walcott has "christened" Dunstan St. Omer, the painter, his school-mate
and friend, whose early life and work he had sung in Another Life. But that account
had had to end with a "beaten", disillusioned Gregorias, one whose youthful dreams
for his art and his country had come to seem doomed to non-realisation. Now Walcott
provides the sequel of fulfillment to that story. For St. Omer has recently begun to
enjoy a resurgence of creative power and stability, and the altar-piece which Walcott
praises is one of a few such murals in various St. Lucian churches which mark this
latest period of St. Omer's career and constitute his most ambitious work.
The poem fuses the painter, the painting and the common folk of the Roseau
Valley who are represented in the painting. That fusion is a central point of the poem,
the inter-rootedness of the place, its people and its art. Walcott's vision of this ideal,
his mythologising of the Valley as his Garden of Eden, is tempered by his awareness of
the harsh and unenviable aspects of the lives of the painter and the people. The Valley
is a "rich valley", but it is also a "cursed valley":
ask the broken mules, the swollen children,
ask the dried women, their gap-toothed men ... (p.53)
But the curse, the harsh reality, no less than the "simple" faith by which the people
have endured, are all part of their nobility, and if we can see them with the eyes of
imagination, through the eyes of the artist who "signs" them with his own faith and
love, we shall be able to see "the real faces of angels", which is to say the faces of real
angels. In their humanity is their divinity. Here is the religious faith of the people
which Walcott had in earlier poems simultaneously envied and pitied (if not despised);
but now he does not set against it any cynical detachment of his own, neither pity nor
self-conscious envy; "it is there", the faith, as the painting "is there" (p.53) even when
"[n] obody can see it"; and when Walcott values the painting as something
which comes from the depth of the world,
from whatever one man believes he knows of God
and the suffering of his kind ... (p.54)
we feel that he has come to accept and to offer his own work as "whatever [he]
believes he knows of God/and the suffering of his kind."
Other Exiles Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Published by Oxford University Press,
London, 1975 pp. 52. Price UK1.95.
Other Exiles is a collection of short poems different in form and intention from
anything we have been offered by Edward Brathwaite before. If the Trilogy (Rights of
Passage: Masks; Islands) is public poetry in which the artist a conscious and mature
West Indian articulates a series of reactions possible to the West Indian persona at
home and on different epic journeys, Other Exiles is personal poetry, recording the
reactions of one young West Indian to realities within the Caribbean area and outside
of it. These distinctions however are necessarily imprecise; some of the selections in
the volume cannot be categorized in this fashion; one poem is sometimes many things.
But the predominantly private stance of Other Exiles bears a curious relationship to
the public stance of the Triology; one in a sense informs the other, or becomes the
other. It is perhaps in its important indications of a pattern in the poet's evolution -
of a particular process at work, that this selection is most significant.
There are no subtitles to indicate particular groupings; for these are separate poems
and there are no dates for exact chronological references. But as the individual reacting
to different phenomena reveals himself, connections form, subsections emerge.
"Machiavelli's Mother" surely belongs with "Judas of Barcelona" as bizarre reactions
to decadence and the church in Europe; "Doktor" and "Heretic" portray isolates on
that foreign scene; "Letter to Marchen", "Schooner", "New Year Letter" are intimate
and personal poems; "Blues" (in six parts) empathizes with Black America, our Jazz
Mecca and blood sister while "Labourer", "Comfort", "Builder" describe the con-
dition of the Caribbean "folk". "Lion" is a surprise full of youth and excitement felt
before only in very early Brathwaite of Bim and reminiscent of the mood of a Betjman
for example; and "Conqueror", the most overtly political of the pieces and the most
complex, anticipates the mood and the mode of the Trilogy.
It is not only in "Conqueror" however that the author of the Trilogy shows his
hand, for Other Exiles presents, essentially, embryonic reactions to life, embryonic
ideas and style patterns to be explored and refined later. In fact some selections
illustrate the process of refinement at work within the poem itself. Part four of
"Journeys" for example is already a refinement, in treatment on parts one, two and
three. What follows here will illustrate the process, tracing it, from poems in Other
Exiles to passages in the larger works. "Arrival", while it may present the young West
Indian new to his exile in Europe and the attendant feelings of alienation, holds as well
the beginnings of another arrival, described at careful length in Masks where the New
World black returns to his ancestral home. Compare for example the early description
of tentativeness and doubt:
His first feet arrived and stumbled over stones
took the wrong turnings, lost
then came his guts, flexing
his feet, feeding him confidence and appetite ...
he unpacked the wired apparatus of his eyes
so that he could assess not only surfaces
but doubts and coils: unreeled perspectives
could distinguish lies from solid ground ... (Other Exiles p. 6)
with the elaborateness of the later arrival with its uncertainties:
Firm fingers of shadow un-
mask me; my navel
Can you hear
can you hear me
of cheek, bone
wrapped with breath ... ("Sunsum", Masks p.66)
or the impressive picture of frustration in that new homeland:
I tossed my net
but the net caught
I dipped a wish
but the well was dry
beware ("New Ships" Masks p. 38)
In "Journeys" there are pictures and experiences to be enlarged and extended later.
The image of an old woman, vague and one dimensional in the memory of a young
man, comes alive in Islands as another old woman whose importance to the theme is
enough to warrant the poet's exploration of the collective unconscious so that we too
can recognize her. Compare:
he knew he remembered old women
who sewed old clothes by the lamp
but he couldn't remember the woman
who went to sleep in the damp
only her chair
in the comer, by the wattle under the hill
which spilled its birds in sun-
light all over the window-sill
with the precise images of "my father's mother" who:
.... sang us songs
('Great Tom Is Cast' was one), that frightened me.
And she would go chug chugging with a jar
of milk until its white pap turned to yellow
.... And in the night I listened to her singing
in a Vicks and Vapour Rub-like voice what you would call the blues
see wha' happen ... ("Ancestors", Islands p. 83)
In addition there is her husband, "my grandfather" and later, in the same sequence,
"my uncle" who:
... made chairs, tables, balanced doors on, dug out
coffins, smoothing the white wood out
with plane and quick sand-paper until
it shone like his short-sighted glasses. ("Ogun", Islands p. 85)
Note how intense and various is the stimulation of the senses in the later extracts.
The same young man remembers his early education and its anomalies in very
he went to the wrong schools:
was friendly with black faces
like his own, but was told their tales
were wrong; saw those who taught
him songs of what he ought to, what he ought
not do, take off their hats to the white
inspector's car. learn your books good,
good like him. ponds beauty cream
will lighten the skin and the black night longs for the moon
an old cracked face looks up from the well
and the dish run away with the spoon. (Journeys, Other Exiles pp. 3-4)
But this notion is distilled into sublimeness in "Nametracks" later where a different
jingle is allowed to play upon it:
say trap .. ("Nametracks" Mother Poem)
Note how the thematic development moves alongside a certain refinement in presenta-
The relationship between the more intimate poems of Other Exiles and the poet's
larger works is more often in style and mood than in theme, (Brathwaite's next long
work will probably extend those themes). The skill with which the poet forged them
suggests a kind of apprenticeship for subsequent pieces. "The Day the First Snow
Fell" exhibits a striking clarity of image and power of surprise achieved by yoking
unusual pictures together:
the day the first snow fell I floated to my death
of feathers falling by my window ...
Notice how that image contrasts with the more predictable presentation earlier in the
The day the first snow fell I floated to my birth
of feathers falling by my window ... (Other Exiles p. 7)
In later Brathwaite we find the same contrasting images over and over again usually to
make a significant point. In "New Ships" for example, the returning "stranger" des-
cribes first pictures of comfort and joy:
Mammies crowded with cloth
flowered and laughed;
Akwaaba they smiled
akwaaba they called
well have you walked
have you journeyed
to be contrasted later with pictures of uncertainty and fear:
I travelled to a distant town
I could not find my mother
I could not find my father
I could not hear the drum
Whose ancestor am I? (New Ships, Masks pp. 37-38)
It is the same naive joy in expectancy becoming doubt and fear in experienced reality,
that the poet transmits by developing images in a way we cannot predict. The simpli-
city of phrase camouflaging an intensity of feeling held tightly behind the lines fine
and striking in New Ships is used to convey a haunting sadness in the more personal
but you had travelled
braved the big wave
and the bilge-swishing stomach
climbed the tall seas
to come to me
ship was too early
or was I too late?
walking still slowly
(too late or too early?) (Other Exiles p. 33)
I walked in the bush
but my cut-
from the farm
but could not hear
beware (New Ships Masks p. 38)
And the sombreness that runs through the personal poems becomes in the Trilogy a
pervasive mood of discomfort sometimes bordering on misery. In these and in the