Between the title poem and other poems in the collection, Michael Gilkes sets up a dialogue about memory and experience through time. ‘Joanstown’ celebrates, in the voice of both younger and older selves, the interweaving of a loved woman and a place. The elegant Georgetown of the 1940s, with its ‘cross-stitching of avenues, bridges, canals’ is transfigured by the presence of the beloved as she becomes the city’s embodiment. The very concreteness of the recreation of a time when happiness came so easily, and of the genesis of a marriage whose seeming perfection leads to hubris, is made the more moving for the reader by the framing awareness of its evanescence.
But there are other frames that transform the experience of loss into the consolations of art. In exploring the ancient hinterland of metamorphosis behind metaphor, Gilkes puts change at the heart of life. There is the transformation by love’s fire of the lumpen boy, the class clown, ‘a quasi-Quasimodo humped over a wooden desk’, into the transfigured bridegroom whose ‘body... floated towards the organ loft’, or of the town’s zinc roofs which ‘curled like leaves’ over the burning city, or of Joanstown’s innocence inverted in the horror of Jonestown: ‘carnage in paradise’.
Another frame uses the base elements. In Guyana, fire and flood represent a constant cycle of destruction and renewal. This offers a rich source of visual metaphor but also brings to the poems a sense of time beyond the linearity of loss. The mud, rivers and rainforest of Guyana give birth, for instance, to the iridescent imagination of Wilson Harris, the ‘steersman’ whose example Gilkes so gracefully acknowledges.
There are poems of lyric grace, intellectual playfulness and ironic wit; poems where Gilkes brings a painter’s eye to his descriptions of both urban Guyana and its rainforests. Carefully sculpted sonnets, dramatic monologues, a pithy Creole letter and a calypso narrative show the range of Gilkes’ voice, revealing him to be not only one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished critics and dramatists, but a poet of major accomplishment.
Joanstown won the 2002 Guyana Prize as the best collection of poetry.
Read a poem from this collection
Michael Gilkes was born in Guyana in 1933 and left in 1961, but has never strayed far from Guyana and the Caribbean. He is one of the region's foremost literary critics and playwrights, as well as an actor, director, film-maker and university lecturer.