Holding the strain
Mervyn Morris on the life and poetic achievement of Wayne Brown (1944–2009)
Wayne Brown in his early twenties. Photograph courtesy Mariel Brown
I first met Wayne Brown late in 1966, when I returned to the University of the West Indies to be warden of Taylor Hall. He was one of the outstanding personalities on the Mona campus, his brilliance widely recognised and sometimes resented. I was struck by his intellectual confidence and amused by a verbal playfulness I still consider characteristically Trinidadian. He was already committed to the special importance of the imagination, and wittily dismissive of anyone, including some of his teachers, who seemed to have other priorities. His early poems are often, at least in part, about creativity. “Something’s underground alive” (“The Approach”). The persona in “Remu” (a tide race) declares:
I would write poems like mainsails drawn
up the bent masts of motor schooners
floundering in the remu’s flow:
held clear of that chaos, but quivering,
holding the strain below.
He knew that the poet is not always in conscious control: the creative process (as in “The Thought-Fox”; Wayne often recommended Ted Hughes) requires watchful waiting. In a nicely ambiguous line (in “Soul On Ice”) the persona is “the landscape shimmering, waiting for words.” In “Light and Shade”, the poem
. . . is a wall.
Or maybe a string
Of mountains, out of whose blue haze
may yet come (if I am patiently dumb)
Hannibal, swaying slowly as his elephant sways.
In “The Witness” the “black nut in the surf” represents the poet, “that stranger by the sea” who is
. . . your memory,
that each sunset moves among
the jetsam of the tribe, the years,
widowed past grief, yet lingering . . .
When Dennis Scott, Tony McNeill, Wayne, and I, in unplanned meetings in the warden’s house, discussed each other’s draft poems, Wayne would be more emphatic than the rest of us. He could be very challenging, not just about details in a poem, but sometimes its aesthetic assumptions. Even when I didn’t agree with what he was saying, the force of his attention was an energising compliment. I didn’t know it at the time, but he may have been remembering what he saw and liked in Derek Walcott’s approach: “a certain high seriousness that doesn’t have time for tact and caring about the person’s feelings, but deals with what’s on the page; that’s unstintingly generous if you think they deserve it, and unstintingly critical if you think they don’t.”
People who have been in workshops led by Wayne have spoken warmly of their usefulness. He led with authority. He was firm about requiring, inter alia, that members of the poetry workshop master the basics of metre — as a preliminary, if they chose, to writing good free verse — and that each week they learn by heart a great poem he had assigned. There was resistance from time to time. He recalled a “passionate and very loud” disagreement with a newcomer who questioned the value of learning poems by heart. “Next week,” he told the man, “you will recite this poem or you will leave my house with your money.” Wayne could be combative, and unforgiving. Gratuitously disparaged by one of the founders of the Calabash Literary Festival, he parsed the public apology and, though he would publicise the annual event in the Jamaica Observer literary pages, which he edited, he never once attended, though urged by friends to do so. He treated the suggestion with patrician disdain.
Until I read Kenneth Ramchand’s piece in Fifty Caribbean Writers (1986) I knew very little of Wayne’s life before Mona. He was born in Port of Spain on 18 July, 1944. His father, Kenneth Vincent Brown, was the first black chief justice of Trinidad and Tobago, and son of the first black attorney general. His mother died giving birth to him. He lived with an uncle and an aunt until he was sent to boarding school at nine years old; from then until he was sixteen, “home was the boarding school during term, with visits from the family on weekends”; at sixteen he went to live with his father, “who treated him like an adult and sometimes like a boarder.” Which makes me recall some lines by Wayne I memorised while he was still at Mona: “My father lives in a house of stone. / His house is almost empty.”
As a child, Wayne often spent time at an uncle’s holiday home “on the wild and windy coast.” His deep connection with the sea and sea creatures is evident in many of his poems. As in “Mackerel”:
. . . somewhere, hanging in streams
of light, some ice-blue Purpose
keeps in quiet its
given over, all
over, with easy fins,
to the timeless surge of the sea.
In sixth form at St Mary’s College he was influenced by his English teacher, Fr Quesnel, who “made his pupils write poems in different stanzaic forms and modes and using specified metrical patterns.” It was he, Ramchand tells us, who first mentioned Walcott to Wayne; and he gave him a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems. After leaving school, Wayne went to work as a sports journalist at the Trinidad Guardian, where Walcott was covering the arts. Walcott talked with him, lent him books, and encouraged him to read Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes. A friendship developed. “It became normal,” Wayne said, “for me to take a poem hot off the typewriter down to Derek and hear what he had to say about it.”
Wayne came to the Mona campus in 1965. He married Megan Hopkyn-Rees in 1968 and they divorced in 1981:
… the sentence stands. We never found
words in which we could both live.
His first collection of poems, On the Coast — dedicated to Walcott — was published in 1972 by André Deutsch. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize the following year. Deutsch also published in 1976 Edna Manley: The Private Years, his biography of the sculptor whom Wayne had come to know while studying at Mona. In 1975–76 he was the Gregory Fellow in Poetry at the University of Leeds. When he returned to the Caribbean, the jobs he did included teaching literature at the University of the West Indies, in Trinidad and later in Jamaica. He edited Derek Walcott: Selected Poems (1981). Voyages, his second collection of poems (published in 1989), is dedicated to his daughters, Mariel and Saffrey. For over sixteen years he conducted creative writing workshops in various places, including Port of Spain and Kingston. He taught, finally, in the MFA programme at the University of Lesley in Massachusetts.
He was also a newspaper columnist. In Our Time, begun at the Trinidad Express in 1984, “was published in the Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Guyanese press over its lifespan — upwards of 3,500 editions,” in Lisa Allen-Agostini’s obituary account. Wayne wrote elegant columns of unusual range: hard-hitting pieces on Trinidadian politics; informed analyses of United States foreign policy and the presidential race; polemics on American politics and the Iraq war; sensitive recordings of personal experience, and responses to literature and culture; praise-songs to genius (such as David Rudder, Brian Lara, Usain Bolt); mood pieces; short stories. “I write about anything,” he said (in 1987), and “I use the techniques of fiction in writing these pieces.” Some of the columns are collected in A Child of the Sea (1989) and Landscape with Heron (2000), each subtitled “Stories and Remembrances”. A new collection, The Scent of the Past, is to be published by Peepal Tree Press.
Diagnosed with lung cancer, Wayne confronted his prognosis with resignation and humour. To at least two of his friends he declared that he had looked at death and found it “doable.” He went sailing as often as he could. He refused to give up smoking. To what he called his “valedictory workshop” in Jamaica he wrote, having journeyed to Boston to fulfil commitments to the MFA programme at Lesley University: “Y’all think I’m up here walking among the pine trees and thinking about the Hereafter, but I’m here bussing me ass with work.” “A month before he died,” writes Lenworth Burke, “at the end of one class, Wayne announced that each of us could take five books from one of his bookcases. There was a rush and jostling and at least one of us, I’m sorry to say, took more than five. He chuckled his disapproval.”
Wayne died on September 15, 2009. Most of the many tributes mentioned that he had been a poet, but the overwhelming emphasis was on his contribution as a columnist and a teacher of creative writing.
Between On the Coast and Voyages there is a continuity of concerns — love, time, history, race and class, self-discovery, sea, creative life — and the later poems are more assured. At least one of Brown’s personae has “travelled far and witnessed many marvellous things” (“Voyages”). But where, in the end, is home?
And I am an orphaned islander,
on a sandspit of memory,
in a winter
of bays. I have no home.
(“On the Coast”)
“The Dark Jurors”, which opened section two of Voyages, is opposed to history as stasis.
My dark jurors want to know
where I am from: but I am dumb,
finding no syntax to cement
these stones and distant stars,
nor noun but might mash up their monument
of suffering as history.
My jurors are patient. They offer me
a wide range of tongues, like duelling
pistols served on a rattling tray.
The “dark jurors” are peers of the persona checking his native credentials, “dark” suggesting that they (like him?) are black and also hinting that they do not understand. Their challenge makes him think in terms of language — “syntax,” “noun,” “tongues” — and the search is ongoing (“I am dumb, / finding no syntax . . . / nor noun”). The search is for a language to bring together ground-level reality (“these stones”) and “distant stars,” symbolic of imaginative longing; “stones” also suggesting a burden which may make the imaginative enterprise more difficult. The Creole inflexion in “mash up” — in contrast to the formal English tone of “cement / these stones and distant stars” — seems to mock the presumed language preference of those who favour “suffering as history,” with their solid, earthbound “monument” to stasis. When the poem goes on to say “My jurors are patient,” we have to wonder whether the sense requires an emphasis on “My,” to suggest a distinction between “My dark jurors” and these other jurors, the ones who offer him “a wide range of tongues.” But perhaps they overlap, and the poem ends in a simile of deadly contest: “a wide range of tongues, like duelling / pistols served on a rattling tray.”
Death figures less in Wayne’s poems than in many others’. But there are elegies in celebration of creative people: Eric Roach (“Quinam Bay”), Nabokov, Pablo Casals and Picasso (“Dead in one month, the two Pauls,” “Autumn Elegy”). The final poem, “The Briefing”, says goodbye for all of us:
May your flight be faultless and your hand
obey you at the last.
May you find your lost companions.
Brown sailing off Jamaica. Photograph courtesy Mariel Brown
Adapted from the introduction to On the Coast and Other Poems, a new collected edition of Brown’s poems, forthcoming from Peepal Tree Press.
This issue of the CRB also includes “Pan Session: Laventille”, a previously unpublished poem by Brown.
Mervyn Morris is the author of six books of poetry, including I Been There, Sort Of: New and Selected Poems (2006). He is professor emeritus of creative writing and West Indian literature at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.