By Vahni Capildeo
Black Yeats: Eric Roach and the Politics of Caribbean Poetry,
by Laurence A. Breiner
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1845-230-470, 312 pp
In this impressive and much-needed book, Laurence Breiner sets out to present a study of Eric Roach “as a publishing poet . . . concentrating on how Roach in fact presented himself — or found himself presented — before the world of his contemporaries.” This means that while the work of Roach the Tobagonian playwright, fiction writer, and journalist exists as a sort of sunk context surrounding or permeating much within the scope of Breiner’s consideration, by the time page 279 (or page 297, for those who read endnotes) is reached, Roach stands forth from the crowd of named and unnamed tragic Caribbean figures who have pre-empted their natural time, forcing the sea to swallow them up (his suicide was in 1974) — to be known as himself, as much more than the author of the occasional anthologised federationist verse or the “hurt hawk” subject of posthumous tributes such as Wayne Brown’s [“For Eric Roach, Drowned (after reading the eulogies)”].
Breiner engages very closely in literary interpretation of Roach’s poetic texts. These texts are often quoted and summarised in the course of already dense argument. This reader, at least, sometimes had the feeling of suddenly bearing company with a scholar already plunged in conversation with a not-yet-present, implied reader. It would have been helpful to have a few key poems reproduced in full, especially as Breiner frequently calls attention to slips or discrepancies in the edition on which readers must depend, if they have access to it at all: The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 1938–74, edited by Kenneth Ramchand and Danielle Gianetti (1992). Breiner’s “Note on the Text of the Poems” shows his careful use of sources such as photocopies of transcripts from the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme, but asserts that his own is “not a bibliographic study.” Despite this academic modesty, Breiner’s endnotes so often list variant readings and identify misprints or even mistakes of fact (such as the misdating by two years of a poem), that it might have been valuable to split the endnotes into two sections, separating out similar textual information from more general commentary, if only (of course, not only) because the study of the poet and the edition of the poetry demand to be read together, and the best source(s) and form(s) for future quotations assessed.
Breiner’s study does not rest with awakening the reader to the perils of citation from secondary sources or rewritten primary sources. It goes further, making the reader wish to do Eric Roach justice in every way possible, accurate reading being one of those. Dense it may be, but Breiner’s prose is never less than readable. Chapter one, quoting the disillusionment and self-hatred expressed in the space of a 1965 autobiographical note supplied by the poet for a British anthology, opens its next paragraph not with commentary but with an outcry: “It is terrible to read, and knowing that he had in fact been publishing for twenty-five years before he ‘abandoned the writing of verse’ only makes it worse.” Is this a novelist’s technique or a scholar’s? Either way, the note of personal response recurs, not to excess, but just often enough to jolt the book and reader into an urgent relation with their frustrated dead. If the reader has accompanied Breiner through to the ninth and final chapter to find this analysis —
“Witness” is a crucial word for Roach in his last years. A witness has two pertinent attributes: he is receptive (he sees something) and he is effusive (he testifies). It seems to have been important to Roach’s thinking that the testimony is not necessarily verbal, though as a poet his own usually was: we can testify when we simply stand up to be counted. Being there, in the past, we witnessed, being here in the present, we testify. We witness (happen to see) by inadvertent presence, we testify by intentional presence.
— Breiner’s reader will find her- or himself shadowing both past poet and present scholar, written in as another witness to this concern with what could equally be called the “morality” or the “politics” of Caribbean poetry. For the entire study is an act of witness to Roach’s life and work. There is even a deep mirroring at the level of formal composition. With something akin to the pan-Caribbean geographical vision identified in so many of Roach’s poems — their variously significant archipelago or eyot or hillock, and vast or reef-bounded, breaking and broken sea — Breiner brings us to envision his study of Roach as curved in on itself, loosely crescented rather than ringed, with chapter seven recalling:
Solicitation to publish in England ought to have been empowering for Roach, but when the poem appeared in print he attached the despairing autobiographical note with which my first chapter began.
“Solicitation to publish”: along the way, Breiner evidences the story of Roach actually being a Caribbean poet in the sense of the draft and re-draft, year-to-year work of it. It is fair to say that, for this reviewer, the material conditions of Caribbean writers during Roach’s period (the 1930s to the 1970s) — quite simply, whether and when they were published or heard, how and by whom, whether they could physically or in print or via the airwaves speak to one another, and in what accents — emerged, in Breiner’s handling, as (depending on one’s stance) a different issue from the pure politics of Caribbean poetry. Breiner acutely registers the consequences of these material conditions — the empowerment, slant, or silencing, the freedoms and unfreedoms — which, because they are real if they are felt to be real in the mind that, stirred or halting, is trying to do poet’s work, could in a different vein of criticism be conceptualised in terms of the creative or spiritual. Breiner brings into focus how poems that appear individual may be re-workings of earlier published verse, telling therefore of a changed set of emotions and beliefs; less easy for the non-academic reader to reconstruct, so more important, Breiner traces which of Roach’s poems appeared in groups or closely associated, and where engagement with other poets (Lamming, Brathwaite, Walcott, but also the some of the no-longer-anthologised) underlies or surfaces in a lyric voice that spurs itself to be dialogic.
The compelling tensions in Eric Roach, for example between an Antillean avatar of the Romantic idea of the natural or heroic poet — poet on the edge of a place that whispers historical blood, or of a non-speaking, sometimes mythologised community — and the political poet who feels the duty to make his words do something quantifiably or definably useful towards the work of West Indian federation, are admirably narrated in Black Yeats. It is to be hoped that companion volumes will follow, placing the poetry in the context of Roach’s work as a whole, work which is difficult to imagine if one does not already know it, so distinct is it while yet clearly the product of the same mind. A few of the questions raised in this volume could be answered differently by looking at the other forms in which Roach worked. Let us look at some examples. Breiner frequently asserts, and proves, the excellent point that, unlike many of his writer contemporaries, Roach was genuinely from a peasant background and unaffectedly spoke from an insider’s position when dealing with peasant life. (Breiner’s scope is sufficiently wide, and his common sense good, to ensure that the term “peasant” is given its more positive Caribbean valency, in contrast with, say, “slave.”) Breiner notes this self-identification at every level from Roach’s imagery (mud and harvest winning more attention than sea and seine) through to his overt declarations. However, he claims:
Roach . . . plainly regards himself not as visualising or describing the peasantry, but as one of their own speaking for them. Similarly Roach does not participate in the drive of West Indian poets towards increasing dramatisation, which originates in the writers’ discomfort with depicting the folk as mute objects of curiosity. Confident that he speaks for and from the village, Roach feels no obligation to provide his people dramatic (that is, distanced) speech.
Accurate representation of peasant life [was] something about which Roach felt little or no anxiety, as a poet . . .
This is all true, but is it true enough? “Black Yeats” in his poetry perhaps, Roach could half-transform into Synge or O’Casey when it came to writing plays. There is plenty of the descriptive, non-rhapsodic detail that Breiner occasionally finds lacking in the poetry in a play such as Belle Fanto (1967), set largely in a dooryard, with no winners among the landlocked or emigrant roles. When Breiner observes that Roach’s 1954 poem “The Fighters” treats of African-American boxers, not (as the poet Ian McDonald does) “the entirely indigenous stick fighters of Trinidad and Tobago,” absent is any reference to the strutting, crowing gayelle veteran in Belle Fanto. Is it possible that there is an aesthetic, not political or even self-conscious, motivation for the difference in texture and emphasis between Roach’s drama and his verse? Roach may just have been dividing his treatment of his subjects according to how he felt able to work in the different genres. Indeed, Breiner himself makes exactly this point elsewhere about the possibly complementary relation of genres within an oeuvre: “This contemporaneous willingness to use life experience directly in fiction reinforces the impression that Roach programatically excluded it from his poetry as part of his conception of the function of poetry.”
“Laurence Breiner shows how the swagger of the Trinidad Carnival figure of the Midnight Robber, with his characteristic exaggerations, might shake up the cadences of some of Eric Roach’s lines that otherwise risk being misread”
Looking outside the oeuvre, Breiner offers consistently brilliant readings of the models and styles against which Roach’s writing can be sounded. Breiner discusses Roach’s appropriation of classical music terms, or musical poetic terms: “cansonet”; “fugue.” He shows how the swagger of the Trinidad Carnival figure of the Midnight Robber, with his characteristic exaggerations, might shake up the cadences of some lines that otherwise risk being misread with a more negative or passive fall. He bravely takes on the issues of craft, orality, literature, and calypso, demonstrating the eventual alienation of the “Afro-Saxon” Roach, despite his integrity of diction, from (name them as you will) the poetic practice of the younger, Independence, “Black Power”, or Savacou generation.
To criticise Breiner is not to disagree with, but to praise him. He is the sort of strong and exciting interpreter who inevitably provokes the reader to argue, answer back, learn, and reconsider; to gift pencilled footnotes to this book’s generous information, or bring fresh likenesses to set with or against the comparisons. Remaining with the idea of sound, to which Breiner is especially sensitive — poems on the page do not stay mute for him — let us look briefly at two such provocations. Commenting on the voice and technique of “For Freedom” (1944), Breiner remarks:
Roach’s free verse ingeniously achieves closure without any sense of formal constraint by grouping assonances in the second strophe in a way that merely suggests rhyme (the sequence of terminal words “dawns” / “gone” / “free” / “song” / “harmony” / “intensity” / “freedom” / “dawn” / “born” implying AAB ABB AAA).
Here are five of these lines, as cited by Breiner:
’Twas such a dawning when a century gone
The slave men were set free,
When fields were cradles rocked with song
And woods were hung with a wild harmony,
And the winds hummed joy’s deep intensity.
Here this reviewer wishes that Breiner could have pointed out that in most Trinidadian and Tobagonian accents there is a stronger pronunciation of the “n” in “gone” than in Received Pronunciation English, and that the long, pure vowel of “free” finds a better, wilder, or more upbeat match with “harmony” and “intensity” in these local accents, which shift stress towards the third syllable of these words and do not swallow or cut off the “y.” This is a wish for more of the same. It is not an unnecessary wish, for Breiner’s book may well be used in educational institutions where students are without sure knowledge of Trinidadian or Tobagonian native speakers, let alone those of the older generation. (Presumably this is the readership who sincerely would need the first endnote to Breiner’s preface, which begins: “Trinidad and Tobago are two separate and very different islands which now form a single country, officially called ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ but almost invariably referred to as ‘Trinidad’” — a South African university graduate was recently overheard asking whether Trinidad was ruled from Jamaica. Perhaps the power of Federation would indeed have been a prerequisite for individual states to be adequately known . . .)
Now for a second example. Remarking how the poem “March Trades” makes the “most striking use of rhyme” in “the very prominent passage on history in the third and final section,” Breiner quotes:
Make all ship-shape
In stubborn Colon’s simple way,
In the black slave-traders way,
In buccaneer and pirate way,
In the sturdy sea tramp’s way,
Make all ship-shape.
According to Breiner’s analysis,
These four successive lines end with the word “way” for rhetorical reasons, and so chime without constituting “rhyme” in the usual sense — the repetition functions as a kind of suspension, a marking of time behind the solo flight. But it is noteworthy that the long “a” vowel sound of “way,” so common in rhyming poetry in English, does not occur at the end of any other line in the poem; indeed, only one other line ends in any vowel at all — interestingly enough, the final line of stanza one, already noted for its closural force on other grounds.
If this level of detail is acceptable, this reviewer wishes Breiner would close in even more upon the sounds at play. For the long “a” vowel actually is present. It is present at the beginning and end of the stanza, in “shape,” but literally comes up against a stop. It might be taking it too far to see this as Roach’s poem’s resistance to an easy rhyming sound from the English tradition. It is perhaps not taking it too far to appreciate the “closural force” (to borrow Breiner’s phrase) of placing “a” with a stop before and after the sequence of “a”s permitted free sounding.
Breiner writes with the American critic Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” in mind. He sometimes ascribes to Roach a greater degree of intentionality, or arrives at a readier diagnosis of anxiety, than this reader would agree with (the phrase “chronic refusal,” say, as in “Roach’s chronic refusal to distinguish ‘I’ from ‘we’ suggests that the technique may be intentional,” does not seem to allow enough for the self-contradictoriness and drift of a composing mind). But the argument is thorough and productive. If a supplementary (not competitive) paradigm may be proposed, sparagmos — the dismemberment of the hero and casting forth of his elements into the elements of his environment, as happened to Orpheus when torn apart by the Bacchæ, his limbs scattered and his head sent still singing down the stream — could be seen as a natural mode for Roach. A critic contemporary with Roach, Northrop Frye, defines sparagmos thus: “Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganised, or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire.” From the Orphic example it is clear that there is as well a kind of ecstatic generosity to this theme. The Christian communion, referred to in Roach, is allied to sparagmos. In the light of this, Roach’s words can be re-angled, read beyond their proper sense as a text about emigration, written into a long cadence reaching down the years past his horrifying death and his obstinate achievement, finally not unredeemed if we can pick up his sounds:
…..If I go out as I came in, across Atlantic,
…..Become adventurer, world will know me
…..Feeling my footsteps on the latitudes,
Clocking my cadence down the long meridians.
It is through his literary skill as writer and reader, working with his historical knowledge, that Breiner establishes his interpretations of Roach’s evolving sense of self as a federationist poet, and the tragedy of this rural Tobagonian whose voice did not find itself heard in time for the times according to which it launched song and endeavoured speech.
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 (2003) and Person Animal Figure (2005).