E.M. Roach The Flowering Rock
Landeg White, Poetry Review
Eric Roach’s posthumous collection is, for this reader, a humbling book. I knew him briefly in the 1960s and was not the only one who, dazzled by the emerging Walcott and Brathwaite, dismissed this elderly schoolmaster from Tobago as altogether too ponderous, a more than minor Yeats. It was easy for such figures, published only locally, to appear as symptoms of the colonial disease, not part of the cure, and Roach made matters worse by romantically championing the peasantry when everyone else in Trinidad was going crazy spending the oil money.
Now, eighteen years after his suicide comes this Collected Poems, assembled by Danielle Gianetti from his manuscripts and the little magazines and introduced by Kenneth Ramchand. It’s a stunning collection, a lifetime’s work and a paradigm of the development of colonial writers of his generation. He begins in 1938, writing as Merton Maloney, filling imported forms with local materials - sonnets on Immortelles and Winifred Atwell, pentamenters on Christopher Columbus, quatrains on poetry’s international ‘stairway’. They provide the solid foundation of craft for the poems of his maturity. From the beginning, too, his subject is the history written on his island’s landscape, not just Columbus, but the ghosts of Carib and Arawak, the long inheritance of slavery and the beginnings of political struggle. He believed passionately in a unique multi-cultural Federation and that belief provides the base for the assault in his final poems on the betrayals of that vision: ‘what’s all my witness for? / why do I wear the poor folk and the years? / eh brother what’s the score?’
In a sense, then, this is a volume to be read backwards, beginning with what he became. The sequence ‘Littering Earth’s Centre’ ranges fiercely over history, religion, politics, and literature in its review of a West Indian scene in which, through the jagged precision of the verse paragraphs, Roach still insists on the redemptive power of writing. Most amazing of all is ‘At Quinam Bay’, where he returns to the scene of Columbus’s landing in Trinidad, imagining not only the navigator ‘sick in flesh and sick at heart’ and the ‘cargoes of sick slaves’, but also ‘The slavers’ crews. / Years afterwards they could not eat / for smelling filth and hearing groans / nor love a woman in a bed’. Then he writes his own epitaph:
He’s seen and known and done too much;
bone-weary as Colon himself,
soul-wretched as the slavers’ crews,
Will the sea yield him quiet death.
Wake him ghost of the despairs
of all the dead who trafficked here?
Soon after, Roach travelled south to Quinam Bay, drank the insecticide he had brought with him, and swam out to his quiet literary death. Shameful that it took such an ending to make some of us take note of this unforgettable craftsman and poet.
This review relates to the book
The Flowering Rock: collected poems 1938-1974
by Eric Merton Roach