Life cycle

By Ian Dieffenthaller

Artefacts of Presence: Collected Poems, 1964–2000,
by Anson Gonzalez
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1845-230-357, 242 pp)

Anson Gonzalez

Anson Gonzalez. Photograph courtesy Wesley Gibbings

Anson Gonzalez, like A.J. Seymour and Frank Collymore before him, is one of West Indian poetry’s greatest facilitators. The influence of their “little magazines” — respectively, New Voices, Kyk-Over-Al, and Bim — is so complete that it tends to obscure serious consideration of their own poetry. Gonzalez’s “collected poems” is thus a rare opportunity to think about his poems in the context of a culture he helped to create. That Gonzalez is conscious of context is evident in the book’s title; more and more, his poems seem to attest their presence as artefacts assembled from the nuts and bolts of the culture which supports him directly. The poems are undoubtedly as West Indian as any from the other Antilles, but the work seems to eschew the grand West Indian statement, issuing always from local ground.

The poems span three decades, and to my mind are representative of two and a half periods in the poet’s work. Gonzalez’s first phase begins immediately after Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence in 1962, and is centred on the Black Power revolution of 1970 and its aftermath. Weighed down by the political atmosphere, its landmarks are the birth of the New Voices journal in 1973, a joint collection with Victor Questel called Score, and Gonzalez’s Collected Poems 1964–1979. The 1984 collection Postcards and Haiku kicks off his second phase, leaving behind the satire for an immersion in spirituality and a search for new ideas through adopted forms such as the Japanese haiku and tanka. The 1988 collection Moksha: Poems of Light and Sound (moksha is Sanskrit for “release”) is central to this phase; Merry-go-round and Other Poems (1992), produced for Carifesta, summarises it. Following the demise of New Voices in 1993, the poetry took a new turn. Having always concentrated on the “central” things in life — society, family, politics, and teaching — Gonzalez began to root around the margins and sift through life’s ephemera in a search of a new direction, a process which was to culminate in the prose poems of the first decade of the twenty-first century — none of which are included in this collection, alas. Currently, Gonzalez is concentrating on his lit-crit booklets and re-issuing the early archive of the poetry of Trinidad and Tobago.

Artefacts of Presence consists of five sections, all untitled and deliberately alphabetised to defy chronological analysis. The first is an ars poetica, while section two contains Gonzalez’s love poems. Section three collects the shorter forms that grew out of Postcards, and section four could usefully be filed under the heading “cosmos.” It is a miscellany of local people and places, but all leading to the spiritual fulfilment sought out in Moksha. The book concludes with the poet’s most transparent attempts to define his Trinidadian culture. The bulk of his very early work is reproduced here, and it both informs and is illuminated by a clutch of poems from two decades later.

This fifth and final section is a good place to start, for those unfamiliar with Gonzalez. The poem “Cadence” (1969) predicts the Black Power uprising, while “Hey Alfie” (1971) describes its aftermath. Both employ a musical metaphor to take the temperature of the emergent nation. In the earlier poem, the rhythm of the developing society, symbolised by steelband music, is suspended in a political masquerade in which no one, government or opposition, is willing to show their hand:

Oh listen to that cadence
of suspense, of suspicion
and pause suspended
while the maestro massa
with arms upraised
freezes the status quo

The panmen panic as the maestro’s hand falls and cacophony ensues; “notes roll from the tarnished / instruments and are tossed / by the tympani.” Finally, the “quavers / of liberty quaver” and “disappear / down / drains” like the nation’s talent. The poem neatly captures the local stench of stasis and links it to the legacy of slavery (“massa” days) and to the island’s position in the Americas — the rapidly vanishing American dream is characterised by a shaky Statue of Liberty and Paul Simon’s “Sound of Silence”. In “Hey Alfie”, the music changes to jazz, but still the discordance remains, the nation

singing a song of blues
against brother
with no melodic pattern
but an echo
of explosions
on a slackskinned drum
drummed by a slack-
wristed drummer

Twenty years later, in “Gasparillo Remembered” (the verb dropped for this compilation), we witness the rise and demise of “King Sugar,” as Eric Williams styled it — an unnatural rhythm perhaps, seen to be stilled for good. But in embedding favourite childhood memories in the processing of cane, the recasting of the colonial cash crop as tourist decoration carries with it a real sense of loss — economic and personal — despite the hardships associated with ye olden days. This poem, better than any other in Gonzalez’s oeuvre, points up the competing forces of altruism and profligacy that inform the perpetual disequilibrium of the nation, and sugar symbolism informs the entire collection. Other poems satirising the political morass of the early 1970s include “Decision” and “Nationstate I” and “II”. Leaders are taken to task for their spineless hypocrisy, while the revolutionaries are portrayed as sloganeers, and entreated to “put off the mask of brotherhood” and guide the nation away from those who “ensnare our tottering country / in a net of self-destruction”.

For Gonzalez, the burden of repairing the balance of competing national forces lies squarely on the shoulders of the poet, and this theme runs though all his work. The first section of Artefacts of Presence explores the duty of a poet and the difficulties of writing, and the humble hope that

Sometimes their words would exceed
what society’s pressure could bear
and they would float upwards forming
into clouds, rainclouds that burst
as if brought by the ITCZ, and torrents
would wash away old fixtures, change the landscape.

If these poems offer hope, those in the second section admit the possibility that love, in all its facets, might also provide consolation “when carnival smiles are gone.” Gonzalez claims to write

in a nihilistic wonderland where
only the presence of a loved one
can give balm, and moisten
a heart grown sere and dry as dust.

The conquests and exploits of the stereotypical West Indian Lothario, are explored in depth in the 1970s tour de force “The Love-song of Boysie B”. This section of the book revolves around the contrast of carnal love with the spiritual or cosmic love aspired to two decades later. In juxtaposing both groups of poems, the earlier work is transformed: the reader is able to see that the sacred is only achievable via the passage through the profane.

Where the poems in the earlier sections prosper through metaphor and masquerade, many of the shorter pieces in the third section are spare, elegant, yet plain-speaking imagist juxtapositions. There are echoes of Pound and Japan here:

the golden poui drifts
softly on the silver dawn
a soul arriving

The mood is no longer didactic; whimsy alternates with a gentle probing, all “intimations of welcome for a wandering soul.”

On each plane
the learning continues . . .

In section four, the poet displays a willingness to be surprised by the bounty of the cosmos. Trinidadian literature abounds with celebrations of the spectacular poui and immortelle; Roach cites the cedar in defence against the Trades. Gonzalez instead marvels at the cereus, an epiphytic cactus which produces extraordinarily large fragrant flowers, usually by night. “Waiting for the Cereus” begins: “It’s no joke / we sat and waited / in the dim porch / surrounded by floral friends.” Later:

like patient children
we are rewarded
with that special sight
a once a year blossoming
of spirit at work.

Yet the passage to moksha — liberation — is not straightforward. The pain in the passing of life and the destruction of the hurricane contrasts with the renewal of a newborn child and the cleansing of a tropical downpour. Pithiness gives way to prose poetry; the conversational “I” cycles from autobiography through mythmaking; from wistfulness to laughter.

The cyclical approach to writing is present in much of the West Indian literature of the immediate postwar years, and Gonzalez is very much part of the canon. The ability to stand outside the immediate point-scoring of a newly postcolonial culture is a defining feature of writers like Lamming and Selvon, the famous exiles of that period. That Gonzalez is able to create distance from a base “at home” is unusual, so much so that one well-known critic has (mis-?) cast his early work as aloof. The language ranges from Trinidadian English to Trinidad Creole; English English is rare, so while most readers will marvel at the “glare from Walcott’s corrugated sea,” Trinis will always be blinded by it, as Gonzalez says, and their leaders remain prone to the cardinal sin of “doffing jacket and tie for sports coat, beads and scarf . . . wearing sapats and wolfing hops and pudding in public . . .”

Because of this re-cycling technique, it does not seem to matter that the book leaves off halfway though phase three of Gonzalez’s career. Indeed, in tracking back to the 1970s, the final section of this book secures the set as a snapshot of the author circa 2000. His musicality, self-deprecating humour, and restless casting backwards and forwards in search of nation and self have since coalesced into the predicted “work of spirit” that comprises his prose poems of the early twenty-first century. I look forward to seeing how the cereus blooms at the crossroads of dream.


The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

Ian Dieffenthaller grew up in and around San Fernando, Trinidad, trained as an architect, and acquired his PhD from the University of Birmingham. He has written on West Indian and West Indian British poetry for journals such as Wasafiri, Poetry Nation, and Mango Season. His book Snow on Sugarcane: The Evolution of West Indian Poetry in Britain was published in 2009, and he also edited and introduced Rivers of Time, the collected poems of Cy Grant (2008). He is currently working on an anthology of Trinidad and Tobago poetry.