'The People’s Poets' : E.M. Roach, The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 1938-1974
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 Tree’s 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.
E.M. Roach has been for decades a familiar and highly-regarded West Indian poet, his work widely if very selectively anthologised. But he published no volume of poetry during his lifetime, and hopes for a collection have been long deferred. Only now, twenty years after his death, can he really be seen as a major West Indian poet. The Flowering Rock brings together nearly 200 pages of poetry: over 100 poems, more than 20 of them never published, along with many others so obscurely published as to be inaccessible.
Kenneth Ramchand’s Introduction offers a dense, insightful overview of the poet in a mere ten pages. And kudos to Danielle Gianetti, who did the daunting bibliographic work underlying this collection. One example of the task she faced will suffice: some readers may notice unexplained discrepancies between the chronological 'Table of Contents' and the 'Sources of Published Poems'. In fact a few of Roach’s poems can nowadays be seen but not read; the microfilm of the Trinidad Guardian is often illegible because of folds and blurring. It is thus too bad that the collection sometimes includes only one of two closely related poems or versions of poems (e.g. 'Lady by the Sea' but not 'A Reed for My Rime'), and only one of the two distinct versions of 'City Centre 70'. 'Homestead' is probably Roach’s most famous poem, so it would be good to have all three of the substantially different forms in which Roach published it. But this does not pretend to be a critical edition, and readers should be more than satisfied with the feast of poetry provided. The anthologized poems 'I am the Archipelago', 'Homestead', 'March Trades' can now take their places in a larger context, amid Shelleyan poems of aspiration, and quite different poems of door yard and field and village green. Now it is possible to trace the difficult passage of Roach’s life as a poet. The early poems reveal experimentation with a variety of voices before the familiar one emerges. The consistent, almost parsimonious development of his imagery becomes apparent. One can see how a vision of regional federation and cultural unanimity ignites the ecstatic politics of the 1950s poems, and how, in the aftermath of Independence, the fierce poems of the 1970s bitterly confront the shattering of that vision.
Through virtually all these poems sounds the high, unmistakable, empowering voice of the mature poet, heard here at the end of the previously unpublished 'Legend of Daaga':
Oh, resurrect the legend from the soil
And see his courage statued in the sunlight
And feel his spirit solider than granite.
I stand to say he’s fed my hungry love
And given a stature to my hollow clay.
In the song’s womb the hero is reborn,
The slave-bones dance to freedom’s singing drum.
This first publication of Roach’s poetic corpus is quite simply a major literary event.
This review relates to the book
The Flowering Rock: collected poems 1938-1974
by Eric Merton Roach