Jaffo the Calypsonian

Written by Chris Searle for Liberation on

A huge gulf of cultural experience separates the two Trinidadian writers Ian McDonald and Ismith Khan. Whereas McDonald, a white man, knew privilege, comfort and Cambridge (where he captained the University lawn tennis team) Khan’s Muslim grandfather was a militant rebel shot down by the colonial authorities in 1884, and Khan, himself, grew up in a house opposite Woodford Square, known as the ‘university’ of independence, agitations and speech-making.

McDonald’s poems are moving and memorable portraits of Trinidadian people, forged by the penetration of human love. The title poem of Jaffo the Calypsonian is an anthem of Caribbean cultural stamina and pride - the portrait of a dying calypsonian, his throat destroyed by cancer, his titanic determination forcing his fading human energy to crash out his tunes on a hospital bedpost. The detail of McDonald’s verse descriptions: of a bullock pulling a loaded cart up a hill of dirt, of a cursing charcoal seller ‘his spit blazing in the sun’, a canecutter using a knife inherited from his rebellious ancestors to ‘cut the emerald ancestral cane’ - are all affirmations of Trinidad’s ebullient life and its people ‘who are a flame, not easily put out.’

There is nothing esoteric or inaccessible about McDonald’s poetry. It is as strong and human as the people who are its subjects, their lives reflected in the zest and equality of the poet’s words. As he watches a group of children playing in his adopted city of Georgetown in Guyana, he reflects: ‘Black child, yellow child, brown child, white/ They all the same if you looking right.’ And McDonald does ‘look right’ - with insight and empathy, and a determination veined with sensitivity that can bring opposites together to show what people could be - like the child whose ‘fist clenches like a young rose in his sleep.’

A beautiful collection this - poems for our lives to help us love and know each other better.