Laureate of nowhere

Laurence Breiner on the poetic faith and despair of Eric Roach

Eric Roach

One of the few surviving photographs of Eric Roach. Courtesy Laurence Breiner

Trinidad is nice, Trinidad is a paradise — but the country has not been very lavish to its poets. They tend to get lost somewhere between the novelists and the calypsonians. A good indicator: amazingly, there has been no general anthology of poetry from Trinidad and Tobago since the modest Papa Bois in 1947. An ambitious anthology projected in the 1970s never materialised, though we have Gordon Rohlehr’s massive survey of the scene, the title essay in My Strangled City (1992), which was to have been its introduction. Evidently, this was planned as a collection only of writing since Independence.

Looking back, it can seem that between the Second World War and Independence there was no active poet in Trinidad but the adopted St Lucian Derek Walcott. But for readers who lived through those days, there was no question: the leading native poet, the man with his finger on the pulse of the epoch, was Eric Merton Roach. Born in rural Tobago in 1915, he does not seem to have travelled beyond Trinidad and Tobago, devoting himself at various times to teaching, journalism, and the civil service. An ordinary life, but one lived through an extraordinary period of West Indian history, from the oilfield riots of the 1930s through Independence and the February Revolution of 1970. And fairly steadily through that period, from 1938 to 1973, Roach published poems deeply engaged with the events around him.

Roach is one of the region’s craftiest and most political poets, in a class with Claude McKay of Jamaica and Martin Carter of Guyana. Admiration for his work comes from a distinguished and diverse spectrum of writers from Trinidad, including Anson Gonzalez, Gordon Rohlehr, Ian McDonald, Kenneth Ramchand, and Wayne Brown. Despite that support, it is characteristic of Roach’s story that his collected poems did not appear until 1992, almost twenty years after his death. When Peepal Tree Press published that book — The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 1938–1974 — the reviews often began with some variant of the question, “why didn’t I know about this before?”

What (apart from living in Trinidad) accounts for Roach’s low visibility? In fact, he himself felt invisible, beneath consideration, in the last years of his life. The only time his own name appears in the poems is in this harrowing pun in one of his descriptions of the “doctor politics” of the 1970s:

handouts and handcuffs,
the circus guarded with tear gas and guns.
all that goes free are rats and roaches;
all left of liberty is abuse of power

(“Poem for This Day”)

This was not a late development, however. Some fear of going unnoticed haunted Roach throughout his career. He often seemed to be caught in the wrong time or the wrong place. In the 1950s, his most productive decade, he watched talented contemporaries turn away from writing poetry, or emigrate, or both: chief among them George Lamming, Wilson Harris, Cecil Herbert, and H.A. Telemaque. Committed to the Caribbean, and sure (in those days) of his talent, he worried whether poetry could survive in the Caribbean climate (social as much as meteorological). Out of his isolation he explicitly questioned the defectors. “Did ever season murder song?” he asked Herbert in “New Year Poem for Cecil Herbert” (1953). A year earlier, he had asked Lamming this:

Why were we born under the star of rhyme
Among a displaced people lost on islands . . . ?
Here we are architects with no tradition,
Are hapless builders upon no foundation

(“Letter to Lamming”)

A pioneer who was consistently and forthrightly addressing issues of race and colour in verse as early as 1950, Roach still managed to be perceived as out-of-step. In the 1950s, he was criticised as too strident, too black. In the 1970s, he was not black enough, an “Afro-Saxon.”

Roach published frequently, but locally, and so only began to win international recognition in the mid-1960s. But he chose that moment to stop publishing poetry for nearly a decade. There were reasons for his silence, certainly, both personal and political, but the effect was predictable. The shortness of public memory was already apparent when newspaper reports of his death in 1974 all identified him solely as a playwright. The devoted and extensive article on Roach that Cheryl Williams published in Tapia was already an attempt to regain attention for his work, and ironically it appeared only days after his suicide.

The crux of both his distinctiveness and his tragedy is one remarkable decision. Roach chose to put down his bucket not in his native Tobago, nor in Trinidad, but in another country, the Federation of the West Indies. He declares this allegiance repeatedly, in lines like these:

So from my private hillock
In Atlantic I join cry:
Come, seine the archipelago;
Disdain the sea; gather the islands’ hills
Into the blue horizons of our love.

(“Love Overgrows a Rock”)

In retrospect, this choice can look quixotic to us, since we tend to forget that the Federation ever actually existed, but at the time it was a plausible act of faith based on reasonable political expectation. Let me be clear: Roach was not just writing in support of the Federation (as did some other poets); he was positioning himself as its voice. It was a visionary gamble that, as far as I know, no other writer even considered risking.

Many of the poems display similar audacity, especially poems on sensitive subjects. This, after all, is the poet who celebrated the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 with some very pointed advice about what she should do with the colonies. The boldness is already patent in “To Learie” (1939), the first poem he published in the Trinidad Guardian and the first published under his own name. This is a praise-poem for Learie Constantine, and Roach provocatively shaped it as a Miltonic sonnet. This choice invokes not only the prestige of the sonnet form itself, but also Milton’s characteristic use of the sonnet as an instrument of civic and even partisan utterance. This poem aspires to make a very public gesture, and Roach’s reach for the highest available poetic style here is particularly notable, because he is writing in direct competition with celebrations of cricketers in contemporaneous calypsos. On the common turf of public utterance, Roach asserts his sense of the difference between lasting poetry and ephemeral popular verse, and at the same time insists on equal access for poets like himself to the nation’s business.

It is worth noting, apropos of Roach’s invisibility, that although the Guardian is the nation’s newspaper of record, this important poem is one of a handful not included in The Flowering Rock, because no clear copy of it could be found. Luckily, Gordon Rohlehr, who must keep everything, quotes the whole poem in one of his essays, apparently from a hard copy.

Even after his political disillusionment, Roach’s audacity survived; this is the kind of thing he wrote about Eric Williams, in a poem perhaps prudently not yet published at the time of his death:

Our love that gave him life lies dead and stinks
in hatred. And this invalidates a king,
negates a man. Inscrutable Shango
of the unfailing phallus drenches him
in faeces.

(“The Pharoah’s Eye”)

Roach at heart always remained a man of the dooryard and the village, but as a poet he had global instincts, a hunger to be widely heard and heeded. He saw the Federation as presenting him with a resolution for the dilemma of his generation, in the form of an opportunity to vastly expand the “horizon” of his audience while staying at home on the “private hillock” of his island, rather than emigrating. If the Federation had succeeded, he would have been its national poet, with a bronze statue on the grounds of the now-vanished capital. But it failed, and Roach was suddenly the laureate of nowhere. In the furious and despondent poems of his last years, Roach tried to reposition himself uneasily as the poet of Trinidad — indeed, of Port of Spain.

In addition to his federalist politics, Roach’s enlightened aspiration for wider horizons expressed itself in another way. More than any of his contemporaries, he saw the potential of radio to enlarge the audience for Caribbean poetry. In the period from 1949 to 1955, he was among the most frequently broadcast poets on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme, and he seems to have been the only one who actually wrote about the power of poetry transmitted on the airwaves (read, for example, “Beyond” or “Letter to Lamming” with radio in mind). Ironically, it was the brief reality of the Federation that foreclosed his radio exposure, since it naturally meant the end of the BBC’s colonial service. Radio in the Caribbean region was not equipped to take up the mission of Caribbean Voices, and Roach apparently made no attempt of his own to break into local radio. Sound recording became commercially viable too late for him to recognise its potential for his poetry; apparently, he made only one recording, a reading of “Caribbean Calypso.” It was not until the late 1960s, the period of Roach’s silence as a poet, that Kamau Brathwaite successfully pioneered this medium, which has been a boon to such poets as Louise Bennett, Bruce St John, the dub poets, Lorna Goodison, and most recently Edward Baugh. As that short list indicates, recording is still underused by West Indian poets outside Jamaica.

Since Roach disseminated his poems in local periodicals or on the radio, and published no book during his lifetime, one’s sense of him comes from the anthologised or otherwise reprinted poems. By that measure, the most familiar would include these: “Homestead” (which, however, exists in three different versions, including one with errors of a kind that suggest it was dictated over the telephone), “I Am the Archipelago” (though one widely circulated reprint accidentally deletes the last two-thirds of the poem), “Love Overgrows a Rock”, “The Flowering Rock”, and “Caribbean Coronation Verse” and its much longer revision, “Caribbean Calypso”. Some readers may remember a few lines from those poems — “I am the archipelago,” perhaps, or “Seven splendid cedars break the trades.” Roach, however, is not usually a poet of memorable phrases, or metaphors, or lines. Instead, his genius flowers in compelling stanzas, and the most characteristic poems, whatever their subjects, foreground the probing mobility of his thought. Shifting attitudes and reconsiderations play over the arguments of the poems like the shadows of passing clouds.

“Colour” (1947) provides an early example of how Roach’s underlying movement of mind can express itself in purely poetic effects. In the opening lines, a visual impressionism is created with radical economy of means:

The island world is filled
With the sky’s blues and ocean’s,
With the earth’s green and ocean’s,
The cloud’s white and the wave’s.

A few lines later, the interplay of sounds is used to similar effect:

Day passing on a pall
Of paling colours, ends
Like embers.

There is a clear affinity between those passages and a more substantive effect in the opening lines of “Legend of Daaga” (1953). Here, the poet urges his readers to hear the message carried by the mute stone that commemorates the execution of the slave rebel Daaga in St Joseph. A rapid succession of appositional phrases takes us through several different perspectives on the relation between poet and reader:

The stone preserves the taste of the spent blood.
Child, innocent of history, bystander,
Unaware of the unwritten hieroglyph,
Uncarer, foreigner, ignorant of grief here,
The waves’ despair, the threnody of streams,
Listen one moment to the rock-breaker,
The recreator, the reteller of legend.

In a final example, “Fugue for Federation” (1958), a poem staunchly supportive of Federation, is complicated by these lines (and some others like them):

Nations and islands, angry
Or lazing under flaming sun, swear
Harshly or dream languidly
Of good and gold-faced Demos
Coming careless as breeding,
Or bright and imminent as dawn.

As in the previous examples, the intellectual substance is carried by rhetorical effects. Conflicting attitudes towards democracy and political initiative show their faces here without being either resolved or dismissed by the poem. The poet grapples with his faith and his doubts, and the reader is made to share that experience through the effort of sorting out the cumulative effect of all the hairpin turns of those ands and buts. Passages like these, of which there are many, train us to find a path through the emotional volatility of the late poems — through, for instance, the bitter complexities of attitude towards Martin Luther King in “Blues for Uncle Tom” (1970).

Throughout his career, Roach explored the pathologies of race, and of colour, and even of nationhood, in poems that strenuously reconcile idealism and scrupulous probity. He insisted, against all odds, that poets had a significant role in West Indian society, and by the same token asserted, beginning with some of his earliest poems, his belief that an audience existed, and was listening. In this, he stands in stark contrast to Derek Walcott, for whom anxiety about audience is a recurrent, almost obsessive, theme. Unlike Walcott, Roach can cap his effort to cajole Cecil Herbert back to writing poetry with a serene assurance:

Each in his climate, artist, sage,
Adorns his time with act and thought; . . .
The day is still appropriate;
The stage is set, the audience waits;
Time never lets the curtain down

(“New Year Poem for Cecil Herbert”)

Who then is right — Walcott or Roach? Is there an audience? Perhaps it is time for Trinidad to adopt the laureate of nowhere.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2006

Laurence Breiner is a professor of English at Boston University. He is the author of An Introduction to West Indian Poetry (1998) and Black Yeats: Eric Roach and the Politics of Caribbean Poetry (forthcoming from Peepal Tree Press).