Tomorrow and the world

Nicholas Laughlin on reading Martin Carter while following the Egyptian revolution

Egyptians holding a poem celebrating the new era of Egyptian history; photo by Joseph Hill

Egyptians holding a poem celebrating the new era of Egyptian history, 12 February, 2011. Photograph by Joseph Hill, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license


11 February, 2011

For most of the past eighteen days, I’ve kept Al Jazeera’s website open on my laptop and Martin Carter’s poems close at hand.

Cairo is six thousand miles from Port of Spain. I have never visited Egypt. I have Egyptian acquaintances and colleagues, but no close friends. I know only a little about the social and political contexts of the recent events there — though I know far more now than I did three weeks ago. But like multitudes of others around the world, I have been held rapt by the mass demonstrations that broke out on 25 January. I’ve watched as closely as I could while hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Egyptians marched into the streets, demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, an end to state oppression and official corruption, and the right to speak freely, vote freely, live freely. I’ve watched while the protestors took possession of Tahrir Square in the middle of Cairo, and defended themselves against armed Mubarak supporters. I felt the currents of hope and fear charging their defiance. I too watched in consternation on the night of 10 February as Mubarak, with frown and wrinkled lip, stubbornly repeated his refusal to step aside. And I watched today as he fled the capital, resigning via proxy, and euphoric celebrations broke out in Cairo, in Alexandria, in dozens of cities where no TV cameras rolled.

The Egyptian revolution — as the protestors call it — was remarkable for its speed, its relative peaceableness (blood was spilled, but the mass carnage many feared never happened), for the protestors’ sheer idealism, the democratic pulse of a movement without obvious figureheads, and its moral force, the clear opposition of good and evil. That moral force explains why so many of us watched so intently. To bear witness, even from a great distance, seemed both a duty and a privilege. But we also watched because of the aesthetic power of this uprising, its poetry, and — a Yeatsian phrase — its “terrible beauty.”

To describe the demonstrations as an aesthetic phenomenon is not to reduce their political urgency or subtract from the real peril faced by the protestors. For many of us, there is an immediate, a visceral connection between ethical sense and aesthetic sensibility. In the most basic way, we experience a noble act as beautiful, a vicious one as ugly. (The idea is at least as old as Hume.) The faces of individual protestors in Egypt, captured in still and moving images and transmitted across the world — young and old, women and men, in secular or religious dress — were often lit with the passionate beauty of righteousness and risk. The breathtaking panoramas of Tahrir Square, thronged with uncountable thousands of citizens, were a political declaration, but also a spectacle of beauty, of a kind understood by poets and propagandists alike.

There were practical, strategic reasons for occupying and defending the square. But it was also an act of aesthetic imperative, a compellingly beautiful symbol. Egyptians asserted their claim to possession of their city and their country, and asserted their right to define tahrir, liberation, their right to the meaning of that word — as poets do with their vocabularies and their realities. And the square was also literally full of poetry. Writers and musicians joined the barricades. The mass of citizens sounded not only with shouts and slogans, but with poems and songs.

For eighteen days I’ve kept Al Jazeera open on my laptop, watching these images and hearing these sounds of steadfast hope, six thousand miles away. And like a reflex gesture I reached for Martin Carter and have kept his poems at hand, in mind, on my tongue.

no matter where I turn
the fierce revolt goes with me
like a kiss . . .
like guardian at my side
is the fight for freedom

(From “Shines the Beauty of My Darling”)

In the poems of the later Carter, the “metaphysical” Carter — his poems of the 1970s and 80s — I’ve long searched for and often found companionship. They are thinking poems, lyrically restless: dense, contemplative, questioning and doubting. But in these astonishing eighteen days I’ve sought instead Carter’s insurgent poems of the early 1950s, of The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951) and Poems of Resistance (1954) — the angry, optimistic, imperative poems of Carter’s anti-colonial protest. “It is the season of oppression,” Carter wrote, “dark metal, and tears . . . the festival of guns.” These poems are documents of specific historical events: the struggle for self-determination and self-government in British Guiana, frustrated by colonial authorities fearful of socialist thought allied with nationalist fervour. In this “dark time,” the British government suspended the constitution of Guiana, British troops occupied Georgetown, Carter and his colleagues were jailed, and an ethnic rift opened in the plural People’s Progressive Party, setting the stage for Forbes Burnham’s ultimately dictatorial two-decade regime. The poems Carter wrote from the heart of this turmoil are plangent declarations for freedom and justice, exploding with images of fire and faith, brotherhood and blood.

those who cannot read
will learn to read
for the revolution —
those who despair not
will be glad
for the revolution —
. . . I myself shall be so fiercely happy
that I will make my shirt
a banner
for the revolution

(From “A Banner for the Revolution”)

Carter’s early poems speak with ferocious sincerity of his “comrades,” “the people,” “the revolution.” For my Caribbean generation, words like these and the ideas they represent have lost their immediacy, their radical force. They can seem mere gestures of desperate nostalgia or fashionable postures, put on and taken off as casually as a Che Guevara t-shirt. “Freedom” too often sounds like a code-word of the neo-liberal world order; “the people” not an actual population of citizens, but a politician’s cynical abstraction. Yet in the streets of Egypt, the recurring chant has been: “the people want to bring down the regime.” In the midst of the mass euphoria after Mubarak’s resignation, Tamer El-Ghobashy, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, overheard a young Egyptian soldier crying into his mobile phone: “Mom, I want to celebrate with the people.” The Jamaican writer Marlon James posted this note at Facebook: “I never thought in my lifetime that these words would mean anything to me, but goddamn it, Power To The People.” As a fellow member of the post-independence Caribbean generation, disillusioned and jaded, I share his surprise.

As I watch events in Egypt, Carter’s poems connect to the ideals and emotions driving the protestors, their optimism and their courage, their willingness to sacrifice, and even perhaps to die. “We will not leave Tahrir Square,” the protestors said. “Wherever you fall comrade I shall arise,” Carter wrote. “Mankind is breeding heroes every day.” “I do not sleep to dream, but dream to change the world.” “All are involved! / all are consumed!” His words illuminate what “revolution” means to individuals caught up in these events. In turn, the facts of this uprising, televised to the world, restore meaning to the “revolution” of Carter’s poems. For this single reader, at least, the juxtaposition has recharged the poems’ moral force, renewed their rhetoric, refreshed their urgency.

This single reader is reminded, with a jolt, that real poetry is the most disruptive and the most radical of literary forms. Poetry deranges and complicates language in the interest of a higher sense, a denser comprehension; or it distills our most difficult emotions, unspeakable thoughts, and most intricate desires into words of devastating plainness.

“The central issue of poetry as of politics,” Carter wrote, “is the destiny of the human personality.” On the dark night of 10 January, the young activist Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote from Tahrir Square via Twitter:

don’t know what will happen. pre #Jan25 I could predict tomorrow will be like today and yesterday, we revolt to gain the right to [the] unknown

“The right to the unknown”: an apt and profound definition of true freedom and self-determination, their promise and danger, and a phrase with the depth and latitude of a poem. From the pages of my Carter, in the “Poems of Shape and Motion”, comes this response:

I was wondering if I could find myself
all that I am in all I could be.
If all the population of stars
would be less than the things I could utter
And the challenge of space in my soul
be filled by the shape I become.

The moral force of the Egyptian protestors — the Egyptian people — has toppled Mubarak. No sensible person inside or outside Egypt believes this great movement is over: now comes the long, very hard struggle to build a democratic society. As we in the Caribbean know too well, there is no guarantee the struggle will succeed, or that the forms and supposed institutions of democracy will produce a system of genuine freedom.

But for at least some of us watching from a great distance, the Egyptian revolution — or whatever you choose to call it — has already rejuvenated our sense of what “freedom” can mean. As I struggle to imagine a Caribbean future relevant to my aspirations, and to which my aspirations are simultaneously relevant, I too am recharged by the courage I’ve witnessed in the past eighteen days. And I’m grateful to find restored the original and immediate power of Martin Carter’s revolutionary poems.

I am most happy
as I walk the seller of sweets says “Friend”
and the shoemaker with his awl and waxen thread
reminds me of tomorrow and the world . . .
everywhere the songs of life are floating
like new ships on a new river sailing, sailing.

(From “Tomorrow and the World”)


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2011

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.