Poems for Any Nation
Wyck Williams, Book Shelf; guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com
Fabula Rasa is Brian Chan's second volume of poems. His first book, Thief With Leaf, won the Guyana prize in 1989. This collection is subtitled 'a book' and consists of 140 poems, some of them so short they strike the reader as apostrophes, "sketches of essences" as he puts it; or wallet snapshots of moods or domestic scenes as in 'To A Wife' which begins: "Your obsession with your duty makes/you customs officer/to my love: I have nothing /to declare of it to you".
The temptation is to flip through the snaps but that would be a mistake. Chan's poems demand double takes or careful reading, for his tightly packed images have important things to say about the Guyana that is his homeland and the Canada that is his adopted home.
Guyanese, for instance, driven by racial suspicion, stirring and tasting the stew of majority/minority politics, might be intrigued by his 'Notions of a Nation', a poem that proffers 10 possible shapes. Here's one definition of a nation:
A space other than the room we
Are sitting in, talking about the
Other we will never be but are.
A problem somehow to be solved
By our Achieving a Consensus
Then turning back to our unsolved lives
The poems are suffused with the notion that our differences are illusory. Transplanted to new Guiana worlds, enslaved and indentured, Africans and Indians are in essence kindred souls if only we would reach down and pull out of our entrails the corrosive myths and fears that set us apart. Chan's poems are therefore dreams he would have us 'read' then awake from and recognise our interconnectedness. Nothing new about this, as readers of Wilson Harris might attest. The assertion will not find resonance with merchants of ethnic pride eager to sell us their readings of history, their war cries of cultural uniqueness.
Some might point to Chan's own ethnicity and smirk at the calibrated distance that lets him pick on absurdities, or stay away from disenchanted crowds burning tyres in the streets. Still, you can sense some of Martin Carter's stoicism and anguish in his tight lines. Some of the poems come off as neat solipsistic tricks; so bent on not taking sides, they seem to offer only a sour turning inward. What they do reflect is impatience with what Chan sees as the same old jockeying for ethnic pride of place in a land of displaced peoples.
Surprisingly when he turns inward he shows us no individual fires of his own. The poem 'Desire' suggests that even if one sheds group identity personal ambition might prove just as futile. "Desire," he writes, "fuels itself/burning itself to ash/whose embers wait for the wind".
You get the sense, though, that survival for this poet requires the freedom of the imagination to disengage from the gridlock of tensions and simple choices and join the world. Some of the titles and dedications offer clues to the alternative world Chan feels he must inhabit if his poetry is to thrive, not shrivel. It's a world peopled with the jazz musicians Monk, Mingus, Sonny Stitt, as well as Sym-Ra Bhatti, Bernardo Bertolucci, friends in Europe, and "Medieval monks and other Modern men". On the surface, cosmopolitan tastes.
It is tempting, then, to label his poems as home-rejecting, escapist laments; easy to declare: he didn't stick around like Martin Carter. But the poems are fuelled by a sense of Chan not having left home at all. He may be domiciled in Canada but as he reminds readers in his first collection of poems: "Chan, too much/of Guyana, is no longer 'Guyanese'/though still in p.j.'s/long after teatime".
If he must speak directly to ethnic conscripts anywhere getting ready to go to the polls or to the barricades he forgoes the dissolving metaphors, the dovetailing tendency of his lines for trajectories of clear statement. This from 'Vulgar Row' might be his cautionary challenge to the comrades he never left behind:
Rather than devour each other to two tails
Like two whips, stand on opposite sides of a wall
And shout together.
This review relates to the book
by Brian Chan