E.M. Roach, The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 1938-1974
Geoffrey Philp, The Caribbean Writer
‘Exegesis, exegesis, writers
giving their own sons homework.’
Another Life, Derek Walcott
Poets also give their daughters and sons homework by writing poems with lines that assume a permanence close to perfection. Witness 'Homecoming' by Dennis Scott: 'These / hot and coffee streets reclaim / my love,' or 'Ancestors' by Brathwaite: 'A thin asthmatic cow shares the untrashed garage.' Add to this list 'Homestead' by E.M. Roach: 'Seven splendid cedars break the trades,' from his posthumous collection, The Flowering Rock.
The most striking aspect of The Flowering Rock shows the development of a poet from his early diffident lines, 'The year was a Shylock in its threat / To cut a foolish forfeit of our flesh,' to the robust:
Ask Brathwaite who sent him.
Ask him to write that poem of himself
streaming through the loins of slave on slave century on century
to this outpouring of his crafted verse.
The inclusion of juvenilia, pseudonymous work, and unpublished poems from manuscript in this collection adds credence to the belief that Roach was a major influence in shaping Caribbean letters. Quite often, the rarely heard voices or those heard only by peers add depth to the understanding of an era. Poets like Roach are the tremors, undetected at first by critical seismography that lead to the groundswell of appreciation by their contemporaries. By neglecting Roach, the region lost an invaluable opportunity to learn from one of its cultural heroes.
And Roach had a lot to teach us. Before the current fascination with First Nation peoples was fashionable, he had already leveled his rage against empire, 'Bright was their blood and bitter / Upon Spanish steel.' Before dub poets with their poetry of social consciousness, he had written: 'We are the lonely and lonely sidewalk sleepers-out. / Who shall aid us? Who shall shelter? Not the rulers of the land, / The majesties who lift the voice and never lift the hand?' Or before more recent poets with their paeans to the diaspora, Roach in 'Letter To Lamming,' had explored the trauma of exile: 'Forgive the dream that drags you back to islands / desiring your genius home again / Among the immortelles and poincianas.' He had moved beyond polemics to give us our most enduring images in 'The Flowering Rock':
This is our symbol
Beauty famous in the slum
The hungry boy who
tomorrow shall become
The country’s hero.
Yet despite the apparent bravura of these poems and his almost mystical union with his island home,
There is a mystery that grows
between them and the corn that grows
Between the sower and the seed
And earth that multiplies the seed
The elemental trinity
The shadow of death haunts these pages. There is an obsession with the daily round, the passage of time, the yearly reaping of friends: 'Death is my next door neighbour in this dawn,' and several poems, eloquent meditations on mortality, are dedicated to dead poets. The poet who could find elation outside his door, 'The forest flames! Look yonder in the vale / The forest flames! Look over the green hill / See the great immortelles like torches blaze,' could be driven to the depths of depression:
bone-weary as Colon himself
soul-wretched as the slavers’ crews
heartsick as any dying slave
he walks to bay
every dream he dreamed long drowned,
every love sunk underground…
The figure of the poet driven to despair is a tragic cliché, and, sadly for the Caribbean, Roach was not an exception. His work, art, and life were fused into a decision from which he could never return:
now sound is silence
a man has passed
into the heart of darkness.
This review relates to the book
The Flowering Rock: collected poems 1938-1974
by Eric Merton Roach