‘The People’s Poets’: Years of Fighting Exile
Laurence A. Breiner, CRNLE Reviews
Peepal Tree Press, under Jeremy Poynting’s direction, is at the moment the most important press for the dissemination of West Indian poetry. The mere commitment to poetry is impressive enough these days, but the range of Peepal Trees catalogue is impressive in its own right. The press has for example made a unique and commendable effort to bring forward poetry by West Indians of East Indian heritage. In recent years it has published at least half a dozen collections worthy of attention: Sasenarine Persaud’s Demerara Telepathy, Rupert Roopnaraine’s Suite for Supriya, Mahadai Das’s Bones, Cyril Dabydeen’s Islands Lovelier than a Vision, and Rooplall Monar’s Koker. These poets are quite unlike one another in many respects, yet as a group they make it possible to think meaningfully about the lineaments of a distinctively Indo-Caribbean aesthetic. Peepal’s vigorous promotion of young writers has by no means been at the expense of established authors, or of a group too often forgotten, writers familiar from anthologies and periodicals who have not previously published in book form (Ralph Thompson, Earl McKenzie).
Amid this plenty, I will here focus on some books most likely to be of immediate interest to the general reader, a handful of volumes of ‘collected poems’ by older poets. Though Roach and Figueroa belong to the same generation, they cut very different figures. Born in Tobago, Roach never went further afield than Trinidad; he remains the preeminent poet of Caribbean earth and of the people who flourish there despite harsh climate and harsher history. By contrast, the Jamaican Figueroa has worked abroad and travelled widely, but has always regarded himself as Antillian, writing as the urbane poet of a creole Caribbean. The other two poets, born in the mid-Thirties, come from the generation of emigrants, and both have long lived outside the Caribbean, Slade Hopkinson in Canada, Milton Williams in Britain.
Milton Williams is the least familiar among these four poets, though he has published two previous collections (1958 and 1979). Years of Fighting Exile reflects his concerns over 30 years: the unfolding tragedy of Guyana, the chronic pain of exile in England, a persistent anxiety about his poetry. It must be said that the poems are uneven (not so surprising in a collection of some 45 poems that span three decades), but the force of William’s voice is distinctive and appealing:
I cannot live without love, without danger.
Who comes with me a furlong, comes with me to face weapons.
Who cuts the earth from under my feet
will die dustless - a mirage upon the wind.
(‘A Legend of Our Dust’)
His most famous poem, ‘Iron Punts Laden With Cane’, links him to such West Indian poets of the late 1940s as George Campbell and A.N. Forde. The great influence and inspiration, however, is Williams’s fellow-countryman Martin Carter (of whom he writes ‘I discovered you, making you discover and nourish me’), and Williams has a remarkable ability to write poems that seem not imitations of Carter’s work but extensions of it. To say that a poem such as ‘Sometimes a Man’ or ‘Careful, Brother’ might be mistaken for one by Carter can hardly constitute a complaint!
There are prayerful poems and poems of rage under extreme pressure, but Williams writes that what made him a poet was perhaps ‘his mother and unrequited love’, and some of the best poems here express a fine admiration for women; over and over Williams’s poems originate in the unexpected grace of a woman’s breaking in on his preoccupations - as early as age fourteen according to ‘Sister Alno’. The opening of ‘Encounter’ is representative: ‘She stood in the tube beside me, a crystal pond, / grey strands among black hair, rain clouds. /... I received her into me like a new truth.’ The diction of these poems is often Biblical and they are charged with a redemptive force which may be what carries Williams past his pain to this: ‘My role is to know and express loveliness. / Praise the lean scythe of beauty that unbounds me’ (‘Voices, voices’).
This review relates to the book
Years of Fighting Exile
by Milton Vishnu Williams