England and Nowhere

Written by Mario Relich for Lines Review on

The Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Derek Walcott should indicate that there are many other excellent West Indian poets, rather than that he is some sort of isolated genius. I deliberately say ‘West Indian’ rather than ‘Caribbean’ because Walcott’s supreme achievement, although other poets have prepared the way for him, is to make the term ‘West Indian’ in relation to Caribbean poetry in English completely justified. ‘West Indian’ poetry, as opposed to merely ‘Caribbean’, which simply refers to the region, is characterised by what another West Indian poet and novelist, Wilson Harris, called the ‘cross-cultural imagination’. It can be defined as poetry open to various cultural influences in order to arrive at new, and more mature than history has hitherto allowed, visions of what it means to be human. The poets under consideration here all focus on such visions.

...From Barbados, like Kamau Brathwaite, who may be considered Browning to Walcott’s Tennyson, Kevyn Alan Arthur, again like Brathwaite, displays a more Afro-Caribbean perspective in England and Nowhere, his first collection. Like Hopkinson and Roopnaraine, however, he is equally West Indian in cross-cultural sensibility. The title of the collection alluding to lines by T.S. Eliot, his poems are characterised by philosophical probings which are continually undercut by awareness of inexorable realities. The title poem itself, which subtly undermines Eliot’s view of human identity, is one of the most exciting, particularly in the following lines:

So since what I am is for anyone to decide
let me decide now, here, and once and for all,
that in such geographical terms I’m Amerindian:
them powerful squirts of Massa’s British blood
in these inky Afric veins are nothing to
that delciate stab of Amerindian gore
that makes me native in this hemisphere.

As far as I’m concerned, the above lines are very much a case of ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ Reading West Indian poetry, as Arthur’s onservations testify, along with the collections by Hopkinson and Roopnaraine, opens up new vistas in the re-exploration of human possibilities.