By Mervyn Morris
Selected Poems, by Ian McDonald, ed. Edward Baugh
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-0-230-02871-5, 120 pp)
Born in Trinidad, Ian McDonald is now associated with Guyana, where he has lived since 1955: after reading history at Cambridge, he took a job with Bookers, eventually becoming CEO of the Sugar Association of the Caribbean. He is one of the Caribbean’s great contributors: lawn tennis representative, radio commentator on public affairs, newspaper columnist, editorial assistant to the West Indian Commission, novelist (The Hummingbird Tree), playwright (The Tramping Man), short story writer, anthologist, editor, poet, with four published collections, Jaffo the Calypsonian, Mercy Ward (which won the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1992), Essequibo, and Between Silence and Silence (Guyana Prize, 2004). Now his Selected Poems has been published by Macmillan Caribbean for McDonald’s seventy-fifth birthday. Edited and introduced by Edward Baugh, it is organised in three sections (1950s and 1960s, early to mid-1980s, late 1980s), a guide to the chronology of composition. (Mercy Ward was published before Jaffo the Calypsonian, source of the earliest pieces.)
The poems I like best are in the middle section of the book, selected mainly from Mercy Ward, which is centred on people dying in a hospital for the poor. We are introduced to patients (not all of whom are poor), staff, visitors, the drama of their interactions, the natural world that people in the ward can see and hear, and even the cemetery to which many will be consigned. The characters reflect diverse life experiences and Guyana’s ethnic range. Evaluative ironies pervade; but what comes through most consistently is the tightly focused emotional force of the poet’s compassion. Baugh tells us that the poem which “started and inspired the sequence was ‘God’s Work’, about a man . . . who had been the poet’s gardener and eventually his friend for many years, and who died a slow, agonising death.” McDonald does not allow being privileged to limit his sympathies or his relationships. In “A White Man Considers the Situation” the persona muses:
Almost certainly I will have to go from here.
The laagers of the world build higher, black and white.
And no one is to blame except my brother, me.
No one is to blame except my brother.
I am my brother; my brother is me. The persona does not “go from here,” and there are various indications of his commitment: “I decorate now my dark-skinned love / With hibiscus for her shining hair”; in “Betrothal” he is asked to intervene when a fifteen-year-old Indian girl he has known since she was born is resisting her parents’ choice of a husband for her.
Baugh tells us that when “Jaffo the Calypsonian” was first published (in Bim in 1955), “it struck a new and distinctive chord in West Indian poetry.” The poem, like others that followed, “used a very long line, unrhymed and rhythmically flat, tending towards prose and formatted in simple definitive sentences, with inventive turns of phrase and bold, clearly drawn images.”
“Jaffo”, honouring an underprivileged artist struck down by cancer, has always seemed to me remarkable in its focused respect, its hints of socio-historical context (“as if he told of old things, hurt ancestral pride and great slave-humour”), the accumulation of sensory detail (“rows of dark red bottles, in the cane-scented rooms”, “rough floors of rumshops, strewn with bottle-tops and silver-headed corks and broken green bottle-glass”) and the concluding image of the frustrated artist, dying in the public ward of the Colonial Hospital: “Until the end Jaffo stole spoons from the harried nurses to beat rhythm on his iron bedposts.”
A number of McDonald’s poems, early and late, follow a similar pattern. They centre on vivid figures who invite compassion or admiration: a rumshop girl, a mystic at a nightclub, stick-fighters, a cane-cutter, seine-pullers, a charcoal seller, a drunk, a murderer who rescues people from drowning, an English explorer in Guyana, the Main Street madman, a scholar-priest who once “meant to write,” a decaying loverboy, and so on. The early McDonald tends to point at their importance, as in “Our epics begin to form. / I know the great stick-fight is one,” or “Lives form around facts and the greatest lives around the greatest facts — / So the old men speak of bataille bois; their greatest fact,” or “On the sand under the loose-leaved tree I watch the seine-pullers: for me a romance.” In his later work, significance is more often left implicit, as in “Sing-Song’s Place”, about a popular barman made redundant by the new management: “Well, I hear they closing Parkview down: / computer working good, customer leaving fast.”
One strand of McDonald’s achievement is his unemphatic use of Caribbean vernacular. He is particularly successful when creating the appearance of knockabout versification. When a feud develops between Nurse Guyadeen and a preacher man,
He spends his hours thinking hard
And looking happy when he could shout
“Someone smell like pit-latrine
It must have to be Nurse Guyadeen!”
And Guyadeen giving as good as got
Lip match lip, hot for hot
And when she think he gets too fas’
She jam an enema up his arse.
But here and there a line will slip over the edge from knockabout, as in “The Last Classroom of Hubertus Jones”: “His wit unvarying as the texts he taught: / Mark him down five in scale from ten to nought,” where the omission of an article before “scale” seems clumsy, even if convenient for rhythm.
Many of the pieces are essentially praise poems: “between silence and silence, there should be only praise.” Poems toast the rumshop girl, “breast stuffing her blouse”; the girl decorated for a kiss (“Her body has the scent of sun-dried khus-khus grass”); Mary, “Rounded / O of love”; the poet’s memory of his mother; roses thriving in a surprising context; a son at baptism (“In the dark world / bathe him in light”); the mysteries of the Guyana interior — deep pools, forest paths, river-crossing moths (“The wild brilliance, the suddenness, the wonder”). The collection ends, meaningfully, with “I write this absurdly happy verse / to tell what it was like once forever.”
A sensitive poet-persona is foregrounded in a few of the early poems (such as “Decorated for a Kiss”, “Greeneyes”, “Pelting Bees”, “Poem on a Black Stone”, “On an Evening Turned to Rain”). In some of the later pieces, the poet-persona, more fully presented, is inclined to wax philosophical. The poems work best when, as in “Spinster Ganteaume and the Birth of Poetry”, significance is effectively conveyed through narrative or imagery. But from time to time there are reflections which do not seem necessary where they occur — as in “Man need not have been. No one knows why / God maintains his kingdom without persuasion.”
Especially as he grows older, the poet is constantly aware of mortality (“my own lines of age,” etc), but in the end he is underscoring positives — love and friendship and respect. “There is no limit to our love, / even death will set no limit.” In “Meeting Once a Year at Britnell’s”, a marvellous passage — simple, sure-footed, a triumph of tone — enacts domestic happiness:
A world away in dark, dazed Guyana,
I settle for the comfortableness of love,
a good wife’s caring, the miracle of sons,
a sea-wind murmuring in green trees.
There’s well-drawn tea on the veranda,
delicious meat patties melting on the tongue,
jobs to do for money, men from Porlock —
the poetry later, should there still be time.
What follows, however, weakly gestures towards “the spirit’s victories” and “wisdom’s final lesson,” and declares, grandly, “Truth does not die and we have savoured it. / The morning’s beauty lasts for all its time.” (McDonald settles for the word “beauty” surprisingly often for so experienced a poet.)
McDonald has written fine poems in every period of his adult life, though in some poems of real potential the craft does not seem patient enough. His great virtues as a poet are his notable narrative skills; a fundamental decency; a habit of respect and compassion; and openness to people, society, and the natural world, which he often renders memorably.
Mervyn Morris is the author of six books of poetry, including I Been There, Sort Of: New and Selected Poems (2006).