And did those feet . . .
By Vahni Capildeo
University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose,
by Martin Carter, ed. Gemma Robinson
Bloodaxe Books, ISBN 1-85224-710-X, 320 pp
Martin Carter (right) in a prison van with Cheddi Jagan in 1954. Photo courtesy Nigel Westmaas
The personification of the energy that drives away darkness with its pure illumination and loving wrath, yet that also embodies the darkness’s bloodiest dark, is the goddess in Hindu cosmology. Another of her aspects is her identity as the personification of the power of speech: syllables properly pronounced are thought to vibrate with the sacred essence that is within even the most ordinary, delusory, or carelessly spoken reality.
What does this have to do with the work of Martin Carter, the late Guyanese poet (1927–1997), one of the most influential and beloved of the generation of West Indian writers who emerged in the 1950s? Why begin in this way?
There are two stories, and four aspects, to the answer.
The first story is about the male god-consort who attempts to escape the goddess: but everywhere he turns, however widely he walks in the universe, he encounters her again and yet again, in form after form, not the same and the same.
The second story is about being a teenager lying on the floor at breakfast time in a living room in a house in Port of Spain in the summer of 1990, hearing heavily shod feet thudding up and down the street and gunfire from the hills, and the conversation during that breakfast time, the voice of a scientist reciting poetry enough to get us through the day — poetry he had by heart: Martin Carter’s.
University of Hunger, Gemma Robinson’s edition of Carter’s collected poems, includes 169 poems, yet, as Robinson notes, “is not the complete poetry of Carter — given the uncatalogued nature of his papers and his own often improvised working practices, the discovery of more work is likely.” When I began to think of writing a “review” of University of Hunger, I felt, in a small and human way, like that god-consort in his re-encounters. For wherever I turned, inwards in my mind or outwards to the world, the language I lived with for conceiving world and mind, no matter how imperfectly I now make use of it, grew up not so long ago in the light of Martin Carter.
So here is the first aspect of the answer to making a beginning: it is still unusual for a Caribbean critic to find her- or himself writing about an unquestionably great writer — technically great, and great in inspiring others — who is also local, and lives within living memory.* In that situation, what becomes of the distance, the mischievousness, the multiple perspectives that would allow our intelligence to play acutely in its practised ways over the subject? What do we have to disagree with? Or how can the critic in the reader be — fired? Time and again, analysis, suddenly breathless, looks up and has to sit down, sinking into personal reminiscence. Critical silence takes on its most special forms: quotation of the poet’s own words with the gift of an adjective laid on the prose ground before them, “genuine”, “true”. (This — of course, not only this — can be seen throughout the many essays and responses in Stewart Brown’s invaluable collection, All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2004.) When Kendel Hippolyte writes, “I must read him for the sense of being which rises off the page into my life. When I think of the being of a poet, the quality of personhood I aspire to and the way in which poetry and person interact to create a certain desired state of being, a quality of inner life, it is Martin Carter who rises quietly in the mind, like grace,” the idealisation is not an avoidance of active intellectual engagement. It is the acknowledgement that, for Hippolyte the poet, Carter represents a source of refreshment that is immanent and cannot be turned back upon for purposes of reflection.
The relatively early anthologisation of Carter’s poems and their inclusion in the curriculum means that many readers-become-writers learned of the work in the classroom, then went on to read further, but with those words and that thought already working in their pre-critical memories, formative of the spirit and the mind. But is that not quite dangerous — to feel that one knows someone, or something of that someone, without really knowing him or it? How to make a critical space? Rupert Roopnaraine, in one of his several tributes, writes:
It occurs to me
As I rest from serious work
That in the alphabetical arrangement
Of the books on my shelf
No poet stands between
My Carter and my Brecht.
It is of some interest though
That Blake comes before
Donne with Dante after.
Why does Roopnaraine say that it is while resting from serious work that he looks at Carter’s place? Can it be a kind of “New World” shyness before the possibility that one of “our greats” is also, and easily, one of the “greats” of that crazed and crazy-making ponderous complex of examination-worthy monuments, English literature? Can it be that Carter’s political commitment, spiritual vision, lyric gift, and critical intelligence are so powerful and so selfless that it already seems trivial to attempt anything that risks looking like an assessment, a placement? Asked to criticise, do we simply wish to sing in our islands, as in the very early nineteenth century Blake sang in his island of his formidable predecessor Milton:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
Blake’s own poem communicates the realisation that the finest tribute to a great predecessor is the attempt to enroll in his enterprise and carry it on:
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
But what would this mean: to take up Carter’s torch? That one word “England” distracts me from hearing the transferable truth in Blake’s exhortation, for it brings me back to place, and I know that, in terms of place, during his lifetime Carter was banned from Trinidad (banned from where his words, still speaking directly almost four decades on, made an unbelievable moment tolerable for this reviewer), and at various times jailed, beaten, or made into a governmental face in Guyana. And now Carter the man is no longer alive, where do those precious words live?
Incredible as it may sound, there is no archive. It is absurd to think that, as if in some age before common access to print or even to writing, we have Carter or some version of Carter-shaped thought running in our memories; the Caribbean and human landscape in and of which he wrote has not disappeared; yet the papers themselves exist without a well-thought-out and permanent national place where they can be safe and readily accessed. Carter’s heirs, and scholars such as Robinson, do what they can, but there is only so much that individuals can do to conserve a physically fragile inheritance without the funding and institutional backing that give assurance of some relief from the fate that all words must meet in time.
Who will organise this? Robinson’s edition of Carter has found a good hearing in Britain’s socialist press; but who are the readers of Martin Carter? Stand up, all concerned . . . There is the second aspect to answering this review’s personalised beginning . . . It is not enough for our poet to be loved and quoted. He is our ancestor and in his afterlife he needs practical care.
At the very least, this collection deserves a place of honour on our shelves. We can trust the care it takes of Martin Carter’s enterprise. For Robinson herself has taken nothing on trust, investigating all sources in so far as possible. Like any good editor, Robinson — a British Carter specialist at the University of Stirling — is something of a detective as well as a curator and connoisseur. Her extensive researches on Carter have tracked his orbit through a galaxy of other writers and languages; and she is a fine close reader. Robinson’s love of Carter has also brought her to the regions of which he wrote. Her critical edition benefits from that rare combination of bravery and thoroughness, realism and sensitivity, both in her commentaries and in the judgements of editorial practicalities. She uses the confines of her paperback wisely, giving enough information for the reader to understand the poet and the evolution of his perceptions within the political, historical, and artistic processes of twentieth-century Guyana — and she positively resists the splitting of poetry versus politics versus biography that might be more convenient for certain kinds of critical treatment, but seldom happens in a working poet’s life.
Robinson’s edition is so much more than a textual cleaning-up or an introduction to a poet who still could be better understood as well as better known. The whole web is patiently traced. Her notes in themselves make for fascinating reading, almost like the factual books that nowadays sometimes displace fiction in the fashionable lists. The lucky reader can find out how the condition of quite specific areas of Asia, Africa, or Europe impinges on Carter’s revolutionary consciousness; and, because of the needs for annotation of individual poems, these international narratives appear as colourful interweavings between other information specific to the very varied aspects of Carter’s Guyana-in-poetry. For this reader at least, it is sheer delight to have so much ignorance removed that had blocked access to the poems. Any of the pages at the back of the book would provide examples: say, the notes to “Two Fragments of ‘Returning’”, where I learn exactly what material whips were made of — on slave ships, which is different from in Caribbean workhouses; that the Dutch territories’ term corresponding to “Maroons” is “Djukas”; something about clothing, green plantains, rivers; Amerindians’ ability for sophisticated animal mimicry; “global population movements”. Earlier on, in notes to a tender love poem, I get the names, dates, details for colonial struggle and cultural reorganisation in Indochina, in Africa . . . love-in-the-times-of, indeed . . . These interweavings are more suggestive than many readings. They are almost enough on their own to dismiss critical squeamishness or squabbling about what is personal or political. This kind of scholarship, in its commitment to the wholeness of the work, is the counterpart to the poetry’s commitment to the potential wholeness of human life.
Another remarkable way in which Robinson’s critical edition amounts to a poetic response to Carter is in its realisation of local detail. In this, it stands alongside A.J. Seymour’s commentary on two of Carter’s poems, “I Come from the Nigger Yard” and “University of Hunger”, where Seymour restlessly imagines — explains — the species of prose reality surrounding Carter’s gritty lyric instances; Seymour writes in more smells, sights, sounds, and characters, but with a generalising tendency, one could expect to find something like . . . Comparable too would be Roopnaraine’s film project, The Terror and the Time, where Carter reads his poems from Guyana’s Independence struggle era, the 1950s, to Roopnaraine’s scenes of Burnham’s 1976 Guyana. Some details in Robinson’s notes are the standard explanations for readers unfamiliar with the environment or any similar environment — the two seasons of the year, power cuts known as “blackout,” the firing of the sugar cane in preparation for harvest — and as such are on the same level as the useful notes on literary allusions, mythico-religious background, or Creole usage, i.e. the editorial must-haves (all too often the editorial ought-to-have-hads, but that is another question and fortunately not a question for this book).
Other notes bring Guyana to more than generic Caribbean or South American life. When they make it known that “white marl was used to cover the roads of Georgetown,” there is a reverse poetic effect to Carter’s reference to “white dust,” or his metaphor for freedom, “a white road with green grass like love.” If what happens with Carter’s poems is that he travelled particular roads time and again and made poetry that could be felt by readers who had travelled other, very different roads (even, sadly, a reader careless of Guyana; for that is what it means for poetry to have translatable power — not all of its power necessarily translates, and its music may move the reader further into his or her territory instead of, or before, awakening the sense of interconnected particularities through a sense of universality), then what happens when Robinson’s notes are added is that we stand for a moment in the ghost of Carter’s footprints and feel that the roads of Guyana, whatever they are paved with now, have been — are — worthy of poetry, worthy of attention. With poems and notes in one book, we both know and experience more.
Robinson has followed up personal informants as well as the more academic paper trail. Consider the gloss to one phrase in “Not Hands Like Mine”, which appears like this:
silent people: George Simon suggests “it is necessary to be silent so that one hears the voices of the spirits. To this day no one really knows why the Amerindian speaks in whispering tones. The forest, savannahs, mountains, and rivers demand that they be approached in quietude and reverence. It is a code of conduct to walk in the forest silently” (private correspondence, 24 November 2005).
Such occasional voices speak prose poems in their wish to bring something helpful or exact to Robinson’s task and Carter’s œuvre.
The back of the book — traditionally scholar’s territory — proves to be another place where the poet himself is found, and not only in variant textual readings or editorial summaries of reconstructed or apparent compositional process. If we go looking for what information there may be on the poem “What We Call Wings”, we find Carter’s glad and courteous tones, addressing his fellow poet A.J. Seymour: “Your recognition of the significance of riddle in the poem fills me with joy.” How not feel that joy and rejoice with the poet? How then read Carter’s more inwrought or elusive poems in the negative light that some have done, looking for breaks in the enterprise?
Taking a long look back to the riddling and personal stories with which this review made its tentative beginning, I can see the third aspect to what was trying to be said. I shall try to say it again, this time quoting from Fred D’Aguiar’s “In Memory of Martin Carter”:
Traffic begins —
One giant bee. The morning, a rose,
Opens; Martin in everything.
Or, as one of Carter’s latest poems promises,
I will always be speaking with you. And if I falter,
and if I stop, I will still be speaking with you, in
words that are not uttered, are never uttered, never
made into the green sky, the green earth, the
green, green love . . .
(Number four in “Suite of Five Poems (2000)”)
If, for readers who grew up in his places and/or his words, Carter is everywhere and in everything, that is more than mirrored, it is lived out in the protean, infinite-seeming ability of Carter to enter into inanimate and animate, human and non-human, individual and collective alike — the dogs, the horses; the dead slaves and hidden or slaughtered Amerindians whispering to him in dreams; a butterfly, a tongue; people never seen by him, in not-to-be-visited nations with no alphabet in common with him but the “happier alphabet” that freedom might one day bring — and to make them live, more and again, in simple details and complicated forms that could speak to other imaginations.
What Robinson’s edition offers, in being as nearly comprehensive as possible, is — for the first time — the chance to see the span of Carter’s life’s work, and slowly to arrive at a new understanding of that totality, the physical book between one’s hands allowing the imagination to move between, weave and re-weave the times and spaces of the poems. Carter’s preference for publishing moderate-sized sets of poems, rather than strings of single poems followed by gatherings into the occasional larger book, has perhaps made the continuities in his work hitherto less visible than they here are. It was tempting to scribble “see pp 72, 76, 79, 101, 119” next to something on page 171, cross-referring ideas, images, rhythms, and phrases, until they became preoccupations, counterpoints, a universe of locutions (and, yes, that is a real series of pencilled numbers, which the reader interested in literary-critical riddles may pursue should she or he so wish). But the scrupulousness of the edition brought this reader at least back to a humbling sense of the subjectivity of literary-critical interpretation, which will not be offered here.
I would rather begin the ending with two more quotations.
“No Easy Thing” (dated c 1970s): the title itself could be the reminder that even the most compelling music — rallying cry or love lyric — even the hardest blaze of fragmented daily being gathered up to illuminate and release an imprisoned consciousness — do not result from authenticity, simply understood. They are effects brought about by the art of poetry. Yes, it is easy to memorise and recite these poems, and to recall them in moments of emotional need. But it is in moments of other mental and spiritual hunger, when attention is given to the details of the poem, that the poems come to life. Consider, without being lulled into a glow by the acoustic suppleness that half shrugs off its Renaissance style, the construction of meaning in the last two lines of the final stanza:
Do not be late needed and wanted love
What’s withheld blights both love itself and us:
As well blame your hair for blowing wind
As me for breathing, living, loving, you.
There is no need to step so far as to search for ambiguities in the cæsura of the last line — “living, loving, you.” Closer than that is the play with precise cause and effect. There is a little oddity in the order of meaning that enacts the waywardness and gentleness of lover and breeze: if “blowing wind” is to blown “hair” as “you” is to “me,” then, in terms of thought, the beloved is the very cause of the lover’s being, even though she may be placed at the end of the line as the direct object of one or more verbs. And, in the art of Martin Carter, this is not a question of opposed choices or the shifting of responsibilities; the hair, the wind, the thought, the syntax, “are about” intermingling.
The second quotation is of a poem in full, offered here not only as the poet may have intended, but for its oblique commentary on any enterprise of collection and interpretation — the perils and the necessities.
Till I Collect
Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights.
My mast of love will sail and come to port
leaving a trail beneath the world, a track
cut by my rudder tempered out of anguish.
The fisherman will set his tray of hooks
and ease them one by one into the flood.
His 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.
Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights —
My course I set, I give my sail the wind
to navigate the islands of the stars
till I collect my scattered skeleton
till I collect . . .
I did say there were four aspects to the difficulty of beginning any “review” of an edition of this poet. The fourth is an ugly aspect, and uglier still to say after the beauty of lines such as those quoted above. It would be a betrayal of the spirit of Carter’s work, as I understand that spirit, not to mention it. University of Hunger takes its title from Carter’s great “Poem of Resistance”. Who does not know the refrain? “O long is the march of men and long is the life / And wide is the span.” The poem is grim and glad with the tread of the miserable ones who arrived, arrive, in the long pilgrimage that peoples the world as we know it. Carter himself belonged to more than one kind of University of Hunger, as Eric Huntley recalls in his essay “No Illusions”, from All Are Involved:
[O]nce selected [as a candidate for the New Amsterdam constituency in the 1953 election] [Carter] decided to use the campaigning, as Eric Williams of Trinidad did much later, as a people’s university. Meetings held at the corner of Pitt and Main Street in New Amsterdam became a forum at which issues such as the World Movement for Peace between East and West, the liberation struggles for an end to colonialism, the history of the West Indies, the philosophies of ancient Greeks and Chinese and much more were discussed. Never once did Martin ask for the vote of his listeners, choosing instead to share with his countrymen and women his vast knowledge and insights of world history and religions. Of course, Martin could not have done all this alone; and by his side were Rory Westmaas, Herbert Thomas, Neville Annibourne, Jessica Huntley, Cheddi Jagan, Harry Lall, and others. New Amsterdamers had never before or since seen or heard anything like it.
Carter belonged, too, in the universal state of perpetual hungering: for even in that day when everyone is clothed and fed and equal, there will be something less tangible to nurture and to care for, if not quite satisfy . . . Every one of us belongs to Carter’s University. Whoever is attentive to his words soon will reason it out: each one of us comes from the nigger yard; and from the rice fields; and from both sides of the jail walls; from every imaginable and unimaginable place, and from under the shining governments of the damned . . . In the most fiery or brilliant of Carter’s poems he nonetheless seems to see by a kind of dark and inward light. There is the rightful fear of division, and plenty of blood, in this work. What there is not is that “hate speech” that (like other substances unmentionable in these clean pages) comes (or appears to come) from the gut. It is more than a disappointment that in the green lands where our poet’s feet trod, division should be broadcast. It is dangerous — dangerous as anything that becomes real while remaining untrue. Martin Carter could not have done what he did, alone. And from his 1955 essay “This Race Business”, Carter’s prose voice reaches and rebukes me: “Preaching is not going to help us very much, when all the raw causes remain. Be that as it may, however, one thing we must remember. Without racial cooperation in the face of . . . menace, we go nowhere.”
O long is the march of men and long is the life
And wide is the span.
* “He is unlike all the other Caribbean writers who have had their reputations made outside the region. We would not have been known or accepted in that way, had we not been accepted outside. Carter is one of the few, if not the only one, whose reputation was made inside the region and validated inside it, that did not require external validation. For most of the other writers their constituencies, in terms of their readers, required the validation as to whether it was a great book from the Observer or the Statesman or the Times or the New York whatever. That validation was necessary in terms of putting the seal of approval, ‘yes this is worthwhile, ours . . .’ on the work. And he never had that external validation, in a way it came from within and that is very unusual.” George Lamming, in conversation with Stewart Brown, quoted in All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, ed. Stewart Brown (Peepal Tree Press, 2004 ), p 316
Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to England in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns and Person Animal Figure.