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Between Silence and Silence

Written by Nicholas Laughlin for Caribbean Beat on no date provided

Between Silence and Silence

'Between silence and silence, there should be only praise,' writes Ian McDonald in the final line of the final poem in his new collection. A statement of both moral imperative and aesthetic faith, it aptly summarises this rich, wise, beautiful book, contemplating love, desire, and gladness, fatherhood and friendship, and all life’s other praiseworthy gifts, all of which must fade into the silence of dusk.

From what the book jacket calls 'the vantage point of later middle life' (the Trinidad-born, Guyana-resident poet is in his early 70s), McDonald celebrates the sheer goodness of being alive, the pleasures and freedoms of remembered youth; but the great truth of time -- it passes, and consumes all -- is a constant presence. Between Silence and Silence is a frequently joyous book, but it is ultimately an elegy, and the gentleness of McDonald’s tone only emphasises the ferocity of his attachment to a world that must end: 'Remember how love burns / before flesh and bone are parted / . . . Fire-falls, the dying of the day, / and then the intensity of the night.'

Elsewhere, McDonald reminds us that 'Silent’s anagram is listen'. Some of his best poems begin simply with the act of listening, of readiness to be astonished, of paying attention. And surely no other West Indian poet has been so attentive to the world’s actual and potential beauty -- 'as when the hawk with sheathed wings / plummets in the morning air' -- except perhaps Walcott (always at once our greatest exemplar and our greatest exception). But the master most clearly recalled by the music of McDonald’s poems is Yeats -- the later Yeats, his style stripped clean, 'cold and passionate as the dawn'. Yet whereas Yeats struggled in his final poems to achieve a saint’s detachment from the chaotic cycle of life, McDonald embraces that chaos, 'the endless fate of man', certain that the world, transitory and broken, is still an undeservable blessing.

This is a review of Between Silence and Silence

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