Echoes in the bone
By F.S.J. Ledgister
After-Image, by Dennis Scott, ed. Mervyn Morris
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230241, 96 pp
What’s human about us is what we create, and it is what we create that endures. That’s the one lesson the poet teaches. Reading this selection of Dennis Scott’s last poems — chosen by his friend Mervyn Morris and published seventeen years after Scott’s death at fifty-one — that lesson is borne in with extraordinary force. This is a book of poetry marked by both love and death, and Scott’s coming to grips with both. While it was put together from what Morris in his note of acknowledgment calls “a wealth of manuscripts,” it contains at least one previously published poem, as well as verse written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, up till the author’s departure from life.
Scott was one of the most important Jamaican poets of the early post-independence era, along with Morris and Anthony McNeill. Born in 1939, he was as close to a renaissance man as it is possible to be: poet, playwright (best known for An Echo in the Bone), dancer (a founding member of Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theatre Company), and teacher (in Jamaica, in Trinidad, and at Yale University in the US). His poetry has previously appeared in Morris’s anthology Seven Jamaican Poets (1971), and in the stand-alone collections Uncle Time (1973), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Dreadwalk (1982), and Strategies (1989). His death at a relatively young age, his lyricism, and his sense of multiple heritages, have, perhaps, served to place him at a distance from younger Caribbean readers with less sense of connection to the complexity of tradition than they should have. This book does much to correct that.
Dennis Scott. Photo courtesy Peepal Tree Press
After-Image is bracketed by death. From the title poem, which begins the collection, and which weaves together metaphors of plant and machine under that punning title, to the last poem, in which death is presented as an editor who will “justify all” (again, a pun) but containing also the image of a black hole (“The event- / horizon collapses” — Scott was a science fiction fan, and allowed a younger version of myself to use his collection as a lending library), and concluding with an unpunctuated, unfinished line, which also seems to be a satisfactory ending point.
Death does not simply set the bounds of the book, it is present throughout. A poem about a murdered Cuban student activist of the 1920s, Juan Antonio Mella, becomes a meditation about death in the abstract:
I’ll sing you a song under my breath:
the name of the president is Death.
Another famous figure is celebrated in “Cortège”, a description of the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr, that manages to evoke the civil rights leader, the struggle he led, his commitment to nonviolence, his most famous speech, and his home town, without once mentioning his name.
But death is not the only presence. There are poems containing simple, direct observations of life. Poems about love, both emotional and physical. Poems about sexuality, which may or may not involve love. Poems about politics. Some are extraordinarily direct; take, for example, “A Colonial Affair”:
Let us practice, for want
to do today,
The short, epigrammatic poem “At Different Speeds”, on the other hand, is both a simple vignette — the writer caught at a traffic light as a woman bearing a load on her head, a cow, and a tick-bird all pass at the same moment — and a poignant statement about life continuing even as the writer’s ceases.
Scott does not lose the capacity to surprise. His poem “Third World Blues”, a brief meditation on his Caribbean creole identity and the way it blends Africa and Europe, is a sonnet containing octave and sestet. But it is a sonnet with an unconventional rhyme scheme, neither Shakespearean nor Petrarchan (the rhyme scheme is abbaccca cddcee); thus, perhaps, taking the European form and giving it a different, Caribbean, shape. This formalism is a shock, given the rhythmic freedom of most the work collected here, though it is by no means the only poem with a formal structure in the book.
The equally formal and most enigmatic “Unicorn”, with its odd echoes of Robert Graves’s White Goddess, is, perhaps, the most unusual and most atypical poem Scott ever wrote. Its closing couplet is a paradox as strange as any in literature:
For where’s the wind I thought would always blow?
Gone. Every beauty but this breath will go.
Perhaps just as Gravesian, though certainly not formal, is the shorter “Minos”, which looks at the myth of the Minotaur from the point of view of “the king with kind hands” at the centre of the labyrinth.
Family, Scott’s role in it, his relation to it, plays a major part in this book. There are poems addressed to his wife Joy that are intensely private and personal. To read them seems almost unseemly; almost. There are poems to his children, including a selection of four numbered poems to his son, which are more painful in their intensity than those contemplating his own passage.
Yet his eye does not falter. He sees with clarity the world around him, and it is something that is worth celebrating:
— And suddenly the eye
examines wet leaves, penciling
their fragile paper weight
on the lawn’s green table, fluent lizards
writing their sentences of joy,
a green bud’s stamp
posted on twigs, a mail-box red flower’s
We seem to have strayed into the land of e.e. cummings, or perhaps Wallace Stevens, but we have not left Dennis Scott territory behind. He may have been seated at a desk in Connecticut, but his sensibility remains Jamaican.
There are poems in Patwa in this collection — “Version” (which, if memory serves, was first published back in the 1970s), “Letters To My Son: V”, and “Tie” — and one, “Whassimater — You Don’ Know Me Name?” in an African-American voice:
But look, don’t call me
brother. Use my name. And,
Yet who was Scott to call? At one point, he listed himself as one of those “who trespass against dying,” but such defiance could not last. In the short terza rima poem “Summersong”, he sees summer inevitably turning to autumn; and even in summer, “the year is half-past living.” While lying in hospital, in “Scene”, he takes note of the moment:
Rain slants to the street.
Nurses talk outside my room
voices like soft earth.
He seems perfectly Japanese in his patience and his tone, as if he has turned a painting by Hokusai into words. Defiance has turned to fatalism, but he can still observe, and simile comes to him with practiced ease, even as the inevitability of death becomes clear to him. It is the rain falling on the soft earth.
And fate, after all, is fate; one fact none can avoid. In “Goodbyesong” he reminds the reader “We always knew” just what was to come, “So / no sadness.” There is, I suspect, just a hint of schoolboy Tennyson in the mention of the sea which follows.
Had he the chance of a few more years of life, the poems collected here hint at directions in which Scott’s work could have developed. He might have moved further towards the new formalism, and done something to creolise it. He might have moved closer to African-American culture or forms of expression, or he might have found ways to assert his Caribbeanness while remaining a professor at Yale. I find myself horrified by the thought that I, who always looked to Dennis as a wise elder, am now older than he was when he died.
Almost every poem in this collection has the shadow of approaching death upon it. And yet there are moments of simple happiness and love, for his wife, for his children, for the world he sees, that have the true intensity of passion, the smiling vision and understanding that, along with a sardonic realism that was never far from the surface, marked his best work. I read these poems, and I hear Scott’s voice, speaking, as he always did, the truth.
F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.