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Between Silence and Silence

Written by Ian Dieffenthaller for PN Review on no date provided

In metropolitan circles, West Indian poetry is perceived largely in terms of Walcott and Brathwaite, the work of writers at universities and that of economic exiles now resident in former colonial centres. Yet the stuff of WI literature is still produced at home, in the silence wrought by the influence of the excolonial canon, but also in the silences that lie between these exiled voices. Ian McDonald's Between Silence and Silence is a fine example of one such work, denying the placelessness, which has become the badge of twenty-first-century West Indians; disavowing the central figure of migrancy forced upon West Indians by the post-colonial critic. Having moved out from the inarticulacy of the colonised space, McDonald has given up 'writing in the same continuum of Lowell, Roethke ... Plath' as Dennis Lee says, instead 'striving to hear what happened in words ... as you let them surface in your own mute and native land.' Indeed, in his ironic narrator mode, McDonald warns us: 'God save you, should you cross the path/of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath.' 

It was Thomas Merton, monk and mystic, who proposed that 'words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being', leading us 'no longer [to] trust entirely in language to contain reality'. But in the title poem McDonald has transcribed and augmented the words of empire such that 

Shadows pass, empires are cast down. 
Friend, it is past the time when tears matter: 
between silence and silence, there should be only praise. 

The book's four sections rehearse once more the themes that pervade McDonald's previous work, namely love, death, political anxiety, beauty in ugliness and his illumination of society through character vignettes. Now in late middle age, with ageing parents, it is death and the passing of time that loom large but these are nicely balanced with celebration of new life in an unexpected son and past life in society's heroes. 

'It passes', the first and for me, the weakest of the four sections, resolves itself around pregnancy and birth. It might be construed as an extended praise song under which direction McDonald's robust sentimentality could readily be channelled. A tighter edit might have helped, as, in the words of WI poetry's hardest taskmaster, R.J. Owens, realisation gives way to mere description in places. Nonetheless, the elision of the pregnancy of landscape and wife in 'Praise song for Mary', is a powerful device as it grounds words that could be read differently in England, quite clearly in Guyanese soil. In 'Greeneyes', the images are much more than local colour or exoticism - colour is inscribed in the landscape and its people: 

bay leaf, cocoa flower along its branch, white lillies... 
in them intricate as length and depth and colour, 
as time they last, you are the binder of their form. 

Section 2, 'Middle Age', is literally a record of life and death -- slow death in the form of parents and sudden shocking exit for the dog deliberately run down by the sand-truck driver outside whose window 'you may think you see/... smokestacks of the Central European plain, / the killing-fields of Pol Pot's paradise.' Yet in 'Fragments', `the piercing sense how good to be alive/ brings home to us the culminating truth/ life will be as good, but not for us/ soon.' And in 'Time out of Time', 'Peace settles here, / beauty rests... bamboos grieve and rustle/ Hibiscus flames/ by the old tomb.' Poet places placelessness firmly in the landscape: 

Here is love, balance, ease, 
context and perspective, 
certainty in valuable things, 

The third section, 'Archive', acknowledges our debt to passing heroes as McDonald did in Jaffo the Calypsonian (1992). Creole is used fleetingly and expertly to animate the characters in McDonald's landscape and record for the child who 'steps softly on the dust of' history, the importance of such people. As historians, McDonald maintains, 'we keep things which value others miss, /shadows of hands that have caressed us.' 

'The Birth of Poetry' is a more self-reflexive look at the business of poetry, its devices and figures. Slavery and cricket collide on the bat of Viv Richards in 'Massa Day Done': 'Like he vex, he slash, he pull he hook', resulting not in victory but comradeship: 'Almighty love be there! Almighty love boy./ We know from the start, he one o' we.' Poverty is paralleled with poor weather in 'Weather in Shanty town': 'Men sweet with food do not fear the weather', and his poet-historian role reprised in `Pear Wood Cup': 'too few things kept safe/ come down from the ancestors/ to teach us what is past and prized.' In the final analysis though, the poet says: '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.' 

'Candlestick Maker' and 'Poem' (for mentor A.J. Seymour) emphasise light and dark, birth and death: 'light will last forever now/ radiance in every tumbled grave'. We might well say that for West Indians at home, McDonald is dying proof of the sustaining life of West Indian poetry.

This is a review of Between Silence and Silence

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