RIP Edward Baugh 1936-2023

We are saddened to learn of the death of yet another giant of Caribbean writing and letters. It was a shock to realise that Eddie Baugh was 87. In his later years, he was always so spry and engaged that he seemed indestructible. For over fifty years he made an outstanding contribution to the postcolonial development of Caribbean writing, as a critic, a university teacher and administrator, actor, public orator (at university graduations), a literary biographer and as a very fine poet. It was always a huge pleasure to meet up with him in Jamaica, usually in the company of the late Ralph Thompson and Mervyn Morris. He was always a great supporter of Peepal Tree, and unfailingly kind and generous in his manner. 


With others, like Kamau Brathwaite, Ken Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr, Derek Walcott and Sylvia Wynter, he was an early articulator of the decolonising direction of Caribbean writing in the 1960s and 1970s (West Indian Poetry 1900–1970: A Study in Cultural Decolonisation (1971) and Critics on Caribbean Literature (1978)), invariably a perceptive reviewer (he was an insightful and supportive critic of Garth St Omer when others were inclined to dismiss his work as nihilistic), and his biographical/critical books on Derek Walcott and Frank Collymore are models of elegance, economy and clarity. I remember listening, years ago, to Eddie reading his poetry along with another fine Caribbean poet. With the latter, there was that awkward silence after a poem ended because his listeners were never quite sure that the poem had ended. With Eddie, there was never that problem. It wasn’t the matter of some obvious couplet but the fact that his poems were always masterpieces of shape and direction. Where the power came from was from the subtle tension between surface and depth. The poems have all the clarity that marks everything that Eddie Baugh wrote, along with a flawless ear for the music of verse. As the former actor and UWI orator, Eddie’s public reading performances were always a joy to listen to: meticulous in enunciation, perfectly paced and sonorously voiced. And what depths those calm surfaces concealed. Eddie Baugh’s poems indicate a childhood on the other side of town to Bob Marley, but he shared with Marley the art of writing that was “Light like a feather, heavy as lead” (“Misty Morning”), that recognised that “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” (“Trenchtown Rock”). It’s too soon to attempt a proper summing up of what Eddie Baugh left us in his poetry and critical studies, best for now to share a few of his later poems, and one “Nigger Sweat”, a favourite from years ago. They all come from Black Sand, which Peepal Tree published in 2013.

by Jeremy Poynting

 

BLACK SAND

 

If the poem could open itself out and be wide

as this beach of black sand, could absorb

like black sand the sun’s heat, and respond

to bright sunlight with refractions of tone,

nuances that glamour would miss, if this

could happen, if the poem could yield

like black sand, if you looked patiently,

polished stones that fit in the palm

of a woman’s hand, could be cool as the sand

where the wavelets splash over her feet,

if the poem could be open like this beach to the breeze,

like these trees that have known great winds,

if the poem could be wide and open, like a love

that is larger than desire, larger than fear,

if the poem could be patient and wide as this evening,

this beach of black sand expecting the night

without fear, the moon lifting over the sea,

the largo of sunset spreading over the city

as the jagged, wounding edges of our unworthiness

are worn down by forgiveness, wave after untiring wave…

 

 

A NINETEENTH-CENTURY PORTRAIT

 

When Mister Robert Scarlett, master

of Cambridge and Druckett plantations, stood

for his portrait, the good man made a point

of having his personal slave-boy, Oliver,

beside him, waist high, holding his game bag,

with which he’d ride to hunt wild hog

and the occasional runaway. At his other side

his favourite dog. How well the boy’s

dark visage serves design,

matching the dark of the trees to cast

in relief the pale, proprietorial white.

Those were the good days; they didn’t last.

After the slave revolts of 1831

great houses, factories, everything was gone;

only the family tomb remained.

And what of Oliver? History has left

no afterword; a boy in a picture,

a period-piece, on which poets may stretch out a fiction.

 

TELLING THE TIME

 

At 3 a.m. the old woman gets out of bed,

puts on her Sunday clothes, and proceeds

to walk about the house. Alarmed,

we cry, “Grandma, where you going?

Day don’t light yet!” She replies, “The man

coming to take the house.” The house is hers;

the mortgage is discharged. But she

knows something we have to learn:

there’s always a man coming to repossess,

and he picks his time.

 

OBITUARY PAGE

 

I wonder why nobody can’t just die anymore.

Is either you “fell asleep”, or “made your transition”

or were “called to the Lord”, “or passed peacefully

away”. You never just die these days. Even

in death they have you posing. “Passed”?

So why him never stop? I was at home!

Well, listen me now: when time come,

just tell them other one them for me: Mavis dead.

 

SOUNDINGS

(For Kamau Brathwaite)

 

The woman quietly crying in the row behind me

that night at UCLA in nineteen-eighty-three

as you read, your fingers tapping the beat,

tapping her river-source of pain and release,

and I’m hearing the beat now as a chattel-house woman,

making tough ends meet, hammers an iron

spike into the ground in the open lot

outside my bedroom window in the already sun-hot

morning at Dover Gardens, to tether her one

Bajan black-belly sheep. Your word-sounds

connect them, sound through them, the one

who hears you and weeps a river of love

and the one who has never heard of you, but pounds

her presence into tough earth, connection

of spirits across oceans, across deserts, grounds

of resistance, resilience. The spirits approve.

 

 

IT WAS THE SINGING

 

It was the singing, girl, the singing, it was that

that full my throat and blind my eye

with sunlight. Parson preach good, and didn’t

give we no long-metre that day

and Judge Hackett make us laugh to hear

how from schooldays Gertie was a rebel

and everybody proud how Sharon talk

strong about her mother and hold her tears.

But the singing was sermon and lesson and eulogy

and more, and it was only when we raise

“How Great Thou Art” that I really feel

the sadness and the glory, wave after wave.

Daddy Walters draw a bass from somewhere

we never hear him go before, and Maisie

lift a descant and nobody ask her,

but it was the gift they bring, it was

what they had to give and greater

than the paper money overflowing the collection

plate. It was then I know we was people

together, never mind the bad-minded and the carry-down

and I even find it in my heart to forgive

that ungrateful Agnes for everything she do me

and I sing and the feelings swelling in my chest

till I had to stop and swallow hard.

Then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee,

How great thou art, how great thou art ...

and we was girls again together, Gertie

and me by the river, and then the singing

was like a wide water, and Gertie laughing

and waving to me from the other side.

Girl, I can’t too well describe it.

Was like the singing was bigger than all of we

and making us better than we think we could be,

and all I asking you, girl, is when

my time come to go, don’t worry

make no fuss bout pretty coffin

and no long eulogy; just a quiet place

where gunman and drug addict don’t haunt,

and if they sing me home like how they sing Gertie

I say thank you Jesus, my soul will sleep in peace.

 

 

NIGGER SWEAT

 

‘Please have your passport and all documents out and ready for your

interview. Kindly keep them dry.’ (Notice in the waiting room of the

US Embassy, Visa Section, Kingston, 1982)

 

No disrespect, mi boss,

just honest nigger sweat;

well, almost, for is true

some of we trying to fool you

so we can lose weself

on the Double R ranch

to find a little life.

But, boss, is hard times

make it, and not because

black people born wutliss;

so, boss, excuse this nigger sweat.

And I know that you know it

as good as me,

this river running through history,

this historical fact, this sweat

that put the aroma

in your choice Virginia,

that sweeten the cane

and make the cotton shine;

and sometimes I dream a nightmare

dream, that the river rising.

rising and swelling the sea

and I see you choking and drowning

in a sea of black man sweat

and I wake up shaking

with shame and remorse

for my mother did teach me,

“Child, don’t study revenge.”

Don’t think we not grateful, boss,

how you cool down the place for we

comfort, but the line shuffle forward

one step at a time like Big Fraid hold we,

and the cool-cut, crew-cut Marine boy

wid him ice-blue eye and him walkie-talkie

dissa walk through the place and pretend

him no see we.

But a bring me handkerchief,

me mother did bring me up right,

and, God willing, I keeping things cool

till we meet face to face,

and I promise you, boss,

if I get through I gone,

gone from this bruk-spirit

kiss-me-arse place.
 

These poems all appear in Black Sand: New and Selected Poems by Edward Baugh, published by Peepal Tree Press.

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