Speak, memory

By Anu Lakhan

The Scent of the Past: Stories and Remembrances, by Wayne Brown
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1845-2315-3-8, 384 pp)

On the Coast and Other Poems, by Wayne Brown
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1845-2315-0-7, 112 pp)

Wayne Brown

Wayne Brown. Photograph courtesy Mariel Brown

At first, I wanted little enough to do with him. I took one of his first writing workshops in the early 1990s in Port of Spain, in the ever-dusty rooms of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s steadfastly deteriorating Old Fire Station building. A teacher, yes — enough; a mentor, no — too much. I wanted no mentors. But Wayne had a neat trick of getting what he wanted — or what he wanted for you — in spite your ideas to the contrary. Dead two years now, and more in conversation with my work than I’d allowed in life.

The Trinidadian writer Wayne Brown moved to Jamaica in 1997, and died in his adopted country in September 2009. More than a year after his death, Peepal Tree Press has released collections of his prose and poems: The Scent of the Past: Stories and Remembrances and On the Coast and Other Poems. He worked on both books as he knew he was dying. “My father was magnificent in the year of his death,” says his daughter, filmmaker Mariel Brown. I have to believe this to be true. However else this magnificence might have shown itself in his personal relationships — or in his understanding of himself, his time, his world — to commit energy and discipline to details, to revisions, during the unruly, disruptive business of dying must have been extraordinary.

Many of the stories in The Scent of the Past will be familiar to regular Brown readers. Some appeared in his newspaper columns, others in his previous collections The Child of the Sea (1989) and Landscape with Heron (2000), both also subtitled “Stories and Remembrances”. The insistent use of “remembrances” is more than a Brownian quirk. In the overt sense, that is what these prose pieces are: memoir-esque, as reliable or unreliable as memory. More precisely, his memory. And since memory will always filter, there is neither apology nor argument for what is fact and what has reshaped itself with distance and time.

“Funny how the past takes place in the rain,” he writes in the poem “Round Trip Back”. A single line; a very nice summation of The Scent of the Past. Precision, ever Brown’s forte, builds the language of the pieces, as indeed it built the reputation of the writer. But there are also the mists and hazes of things not entirely solid. If there is a wistful turn, a low keening in the sound (not the words, now, the sound) of the prose, it is neither uncertainty nor vagueness, but a well-justified sense of the ephemeral in which memory holds us. No one ever said the past was changeable. It is the lens we fuss with, as we try to bring into focus our subject, that must shift.

In his writing workshop I took twenty years ago, Brown offered the taut, Spartan prose of what I still see as the perfect vignette. Seeing so many of his stories together, I marvel at how many words there are. Almost the opposite of what he taught. Almost, but though they be many, few of the words or descriptions miss his mark. He strung longer and longer sentences, but the tightness (and rightness) stayed. The poetry — never absent from his best work — was able to sustain itself even as the blocks of story grew larger and denser.

Readers more familiar with his socio-political newspaper columns might protest there had long been a great many words in his sentences; and endless, sinuous sentences some of them were, at that. But few newspaper readers want stories. And, Reader, before Wayne Brown started In Our Time — the column which ran, in several newspapers in both Trinidad and Jamaica, from 1984 until not long before his death — few West Indian writers dreamed the daily newspaper column could be a literary medium.

“Cissy the Doberman” is an oldish story. It is not as well known as “Landscape with Heron”. I don’t see it drifting into instant importance like “The Toco Band”, which, because of its giant embrace of death and life and self-awareness, is unlikely to escape the awful title of “swan song.” Nonetheless, in “Cissy” some of Brown’s adamant truths (they weren’t merely themes, you see) show at their best. He describes the frenzied attentions of Cissy’s male partner:

He was one hundred-plus pounds to her sixty-five, so she soon learnt in self-defence to meet his charges as if they were mortally intended, and at such times would turn into a whirling dervish, snapping and biting him till he yelped or bawled, before — easily taking the pain into the spacious happiness of his love, since such love is merely vivified by pain — throwing himself upon her again.

Later, another truth:

She was terribly thin now, but in the morning light she looked more fine-boned than ever; and as she delicately lifted her muzzle, inquiring of the air, he saw that she had grown beautiful. Merciful life, the man thought, that can make us shine so at the end.

In his arms she was a lightness, part Cissy, the other part a memory of Cissy.

Throughout The Scent of the Past, there is a pervasive awareness and calm on the matter of mortality. People age, humblingly or with pride, it makes no difference — Brown shies away from neither. People and dogs and ideas and love live and die; he watches them steadily and takes the measure as he sees it. Love and desire can be, in shifting proportions, ebullience and aching. Longing is always just longing. And tying all these stories together is an idiosyncratic generosity. No platitudes for the bad situations, no reining in his impatience when it shows; but, somehow, there is acceptance for a world of frailties and stupidities that is rare. It is not easy to be both honest and generous, but here it is.

For all that, or perhaps because of all that, there are flaws. An imperfect book, an imperfect man. There are some tremulous experiments in style and a few questionable inclusions. But my favourite flaw is a particular act of repetition. Like a nervous twitch Brown could never get rid of, many of the stories carry a sense of the inevitable. No, not like an obvious ending — that would be unforgivable. An idea or situation or woman finds a place in the narrator’s head and then, like the best trained of soldiers or the most bloody-minded of fools, he can fathom only one outcome. This is a strange thing to find in a writer of such expansive imagination; in a man of such expansiveness. Maybe more of us are attached to this particular string than care to admit: to want something so much in the moment of first wanting that the only way to survive the wanting and waiting is to insist that fulfilment will follow.

“Landscape with Heron” gives that wish-fulfilment fantasy its most overt articulation.

At the time, he’d had the sensation that everything had paused, before sighingly resuming again . . .

So this is the one, he’d thought, standing beside her; thinking it with no especial excitement or elation; with, if anything, a small click of relief. And he later told himself the surprising thing had been that he’d been so unsurprised.

The man in the story never discovers the woman’s name — she who is the one. Not the night at the museum when she asks him if he can see the heron in the painting called “Landscape with Heron”. Not when he goes back, days later, to interrogate the museum curator about the woman’s identity. Not while he tidies up his single-man’s home, expecting her imminent arrival and input on matters of domestic comfort. Not (though it becomes a kind of background over time) through all the years of living in indecently small and incestuous Trinidad. Yet the idea of her pervades his life. Even after he accepts he will never see her again, he can think of her:

“Ah, you,” he said aloud with infinite tenderness and regret. And he waited a little longer, as though listening.

The longing is the simplest part of the story. Here there are layers of seeing, of consequence, of impression. Here are layers of things that cannot be described or ascribed. Now for the magic and the bridge: Brown, the writer ever vigilant, would know all the things the man in “Landscape” doesn’t know and didn’t ask. It is hard to write that much not-knowing.

Just as a sense of the inevitable scatters across these pieces, so too a lingering uncertainty as to what is real (where real = true) and what isn’t. Because so much of the writing is concerned with the goings-on of a man of Wayne-like form and inclinations (and voice — always that unmistakeable deep, near-gruff sound), a reader is inclined to think it is all about him and it is true. But is it? And does it matter? Just as the past has its many filters, and a fallible memory does not make a thing insincere, the blurring of fact and fantasy is not merely irrelevant in Brown’s work, it is part of its grace.

Editor and writer Donna Benny, Wayne’s former partner of many years, helped ready some of the stories in the collection as the manuscript’s date with the publisher drew near. Wayne had another date — less decided but slightly more inevitable — so he did what he could to ensure that the work got the attention it needed, whether he’d be there or not. Benny’s light, smoothing touch is a fine example of the service that can be performed by that invisible and oft-reviled figure, the editor. It is a significant lesson to younger writers (younger, older, novices, gods): find and keep a good editor. There’s only so much of your work you can see; then you need someone else to look.

As his writing workshops in both Trinidad and Jamaica became something of an institution, Wayne the teacher became almost revered. In some cases, downright adored. His generosity, patience, and encouragement are what his alumni speak of. That is the safe, beautiful arbour he let them rest under. When they talk about the meticulous care he took with their work — his devastatingly close reading, his insistence on harder work, more reading, greater clarity — that’s when you know who was really paying attention in class. He set the bar high. Even when his own work didn’t meet it, it was still there, and he — and any writer wanting his help — had better not forget where it was. He set it high: read the great writers, read the West Indian writers, be deliberate, care about everything from the grandest image to the lowliest comma. Small risk — for any writer — of hitting your head on a bar set that high, but don’t pretend it’s not there. The only thing worse than that would be a genuine ignorance of its existence.

Wayne once told me he’d considered taking mathematics at A-levels, when he was a student at St Mary’s College in Port of Spain. On the first day of class, the teacher declared that parallel lines meet at infinity. Wayne (or this is how I remember the story) never went back. A brilliant mathematician might have been awed; a so-so one accepted it as given. A poet would have been terrified.

Columnist, journalist, essayist, teacher — this is how Brown is remembered by most. Odd, then, that he first gained recognition as a poet. On the Coast, first published in 1972, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. This new edition contains the original poems from that collection as well as some from 1989’s Voyages. It is still a very slim volume. The Jamaican poet and scholar Mervyn Morris, in his introduction, undertakes the surprising but almost reverential task of showing where Brown made fine, graceful changes to various pieces: changes in punctuation; the change or removal of a word. There’s something slightly precious about this kind of treatment, but since the poet himself had the diligence to make them, I don’t believe Morris’s pointing them out would have gone unappreciated.

“Essential” is the word that comes to mind. There is a mindfulness of what could be extraneous, and it is ripped out. Far greater poets than Brown have lacked the rigour and unsentimentality to do what it takes to give a poem its space. These poems are spare and lean in the way I often expected Brown’s prose to be. And, like other animals described as spare and lean, there is something hungry in them as well. All the abstinence that leaves the poems uncluttered must leave a longing.

All young men dream,
but, at thirty-five,
isn’t it time you learned?

What you can lose will be lost.

What they cannot take
from you is the pain
of loss, the enduring pearl of pain —

that is yours,
till you learn to live at last
without such punctual heartbreak.

Then they will take that too.

(“The Bind”)

Just as there is poetry in the stories, there are stories in the poems. García Márquez and Neruda. Harris and Walcott. Nabokov and Plath. Novelist poets and poet novelists: no mean company. Whether these, or any others of that magical pantheon, merged these arts intentionally or not, I cannot say. However, in Brown’s case (and I ascribe no judgement either way) I feel there was some consciousness — even self-consciousness — concerning style. Brown was, if nothing else, deliberate.

Squint with a more cynical eye, and deliberate can look a bit like derivative. There are many writers he admired, and you can feel the shadows and ghosts. For all their craft, there is an innocence to many of the poems. Sometimes it appears in an unguarded moment of homage. Sometimes — and how can you not expect it in a collection so full of yearning — it is simply the raw, sensitive bruise of a line. Unhealed, never to be healed. It’s the words he worked and reworked, not the moments. In those pieces, the writing feels young, almost too young. Perhaps there are things no amount of experience can polish.

Wayne died less than a month after my mother. It’s been quite a dying time since then. We are of that generation, a friend keeps reminding me. The generation of my parents — and Wayne — is keeping a pretty steady schedule. I field these deaths like a nervous mid-fielder: take it on the chest, redirect, and keep running.

Or maybe I will find myself on the brighter side of another story he told me. It’s a story he also told his daughters, but we heard it in different ways. When the last of his older relatives died, Wayne said, he felt as though he’d been left standing out in the sun and would never find shade again.

The terrible heat will kill me, I thought at the time, and again when my mother died. For his daughters, though, this story confirmed he’d survived the loss and the pain. He would be their shade. He, them, their family, would grow its own sheltering tree, and they too would be able to stand in a bright world, safe and unburned.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2011

Anu Lakhan is a writer of fiction, poems, and essays about books and food. She lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Her illustrated survey of Trinidad street food was a Gourmand Prize-winning book for 2010.