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The Woolgatherer

Written by Funso Aiyejina for Trinidad and Tobago Review on no date provided

Born in Trinidad in 1923, Cecil Gray had a long and distinguished career as an educator in the West Indies before retiring to live in Canada. He has collaborated with Kenneth Ramchand to edit a number of anthologies of West Indian poetry and fiction which have been instrumental in the dissemination and popularization of West Indian literature and contributed to the democratization of the literature curriculum in the region. With the publication of The Woolgatherer, Gray who had hitherto only published few individual poems in journals, has confirmed that he is not only an exponent and promoter of other people’s creation but that he is also a creator of a substantial body of works in his own right.

The Woolgatherer is a wide ranging collection held together by a strong autobiographical strain. The use of the autobiographical is not unusual in West Indian poetry. Both Walcott and Brathwaite have demonstrated the range of poetic possibilities inherent in the autobiographical details of their lives and their milieu. Gray’s subject matter ranges from the nature of childhood experiences through the nature of the education of his generation, family relationships, race issues and exile to a full-throated celebration of Walcott’s Omeros, in which he sees love sustaining every image and serving, 'ike communion, every word on the page.' Poems about childhood experiences capture the spontaneous spirit of the young poet-persona and demonstrate the purity of the child’s soul before the voice of society begins to point it in the direction of socially engineered prejudices such as racial bigotry (see 'Coals').

To fully appreciate the essence of the biographical impulse in this collection, the protagonist must be treated as a proto-typical colonial whose experiences and reactions are representative of the plight of subject people. 'A Story' locates his protagonist within a colonial context where education and the book culture are essential tools for social mobility. In this poem, the further the protagonist moves away from the 'room in a chopped-up building/ up a low hill' towards the room 'up wooden steps' round the corner from the Public Library, the closer he is to beginning a new life. To aficionados of West Indian poetry, 'A Story' cannot but recall Walcott’s vision in 'Laventille': 'To go downhill/ from here was to ascend', which articulates the sentiments that, for the inhabitants of the hill, the route to upward mobility is a downward movement, towards the city below, or that, having attained the limit of poverty, there is nowhere else to go but upwards. The absence of such multiple implications in 'A Story' and in many of the poems in The Woolgatherer is one of the shortcomings of the collection.

Given the centrality of books and formal education in the protagonist’s life, a number of the characters endowed with heroic stature in this collection come from the classical world of Greece, as well as from the schoolroom. 'Miss Maingot' is, for example, an expression of gratitude to a teacher who taught the protagonist and his class the magic in/of words. Miss Maingot is equated to a fixed lighthouse from which 'flashed signals making the way brighter'. But Gray is not unaware of the significance of out-of-school knowledge and the power of non-formal structures of education. He, therefore, remembers games played after school in 'Spinning Tops' and the knowledge acquired from his godfather in 'Shoeing'.

'Shoeing' is one of the poems in this collection dealing with personal relationships. There are others about or to the poet’s children and wife. In this poem, both the godfather and the context of his life as a blacksmith are vividly recreated:

…His place wedged the corner 

Of Maraval and Tragarete. As I remember 
it was just a big tent, wide, low-spread. 

Through a flap I would enter out of the sun 
and feel like a swimmer deep at the bottom

of thin, blackish darkness like smoke. Things 
were thick shadows with fuzzy, blurred edges, 

except for the vision of Hell in the centre 
where coals in a circle burned salmon-red 

in a trough-like box the noose of the bellows 
went in. Later, out of the air, they cleared.

The blacksmith is recalled in images which marry the mundane to the divine: 'My godfather was the colour of brass and laughed like a god.' Gray captures the mystery of the smithy, the dexterity of the blacksmith and the almost human bond between the horse needing a shoe and the blacksmith. The visiting godson would help with the bellows and be rewarded at the end of the day with 'a dollar or so to get whatever I wanted.' While appreciative of the cash gift, the poet reveals that he considers the contact (between experience and innocence) to be of much higher value. For him, this contact contains the signposts that will lead him to a life of fulfillment and a joy in his future vocation:

But richer than that was a gift no one counted.

I wished as a man I would always enjoy what I did
that my arm would always lilt straight, not crooked.

This presentation of the blacksmith as a god-like figure and as a pointer, both in a ritual and a literal sense, recalls Camara Laye’s image of his blacksmith father in his autobiographical African Child and Brathwaite’s grandfather in 'Ancestors' or uncle in 'Ogun'. Other poems in The Woolgatherer which acknowledge the child’s debts to his ancestry/parents include 'Roots' ('poets and historians/ talk a lot about heritage'), 'Ancestor' ('Pain, like a spear in his side, never left him.'), 'Ironing', 'Some Days', and 'Sewing Machine' (these poems are tributes to grandmother-hood and the ability and determination of mothers to keep 'on stamping hot irons on danger'…).

Gray pays a great deal of attention to details and nowhere is this quality more evident than in those poems which evoke specific landscapes, especially in those poems which are set in Port of Spain ('Curfew, Port of Spain', 'Courtyards') and Jamaica ('Jamaican Christmas'). But although Gray’s poetry is capable of surprising and charming us with lines like 'lifting like Atlas the stones of these islands/ from the indifferent slap of the ocean' ('Omeros'), 'Two English critics, accents heavy with pounds/ of patronage they can’t spend in England…' ('Carnival Sunday Jump-Up') and 'pirogues with their names lettered,/ as if by crabs' ('Returnings'), there is a general tendency towards the literal and the expected. There is a tentativeness of craft in this collection which is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the many poems about creativity in this collection, the poet seems to be anxious to caution against any attempt to regard his poetry as serious poetry. In 'Only An Osric', Gray casts the protagonist in the role of a minor character who is called upon to serve as an umpire at a duel, to play his 'handkerchief with courtly style' and to call a hit when there is one. Cast in the image of a minor character who is remembered when the play fails but tolerated and promptly forgotten long 'before the/ tumultuous applause' for the major characters 'cracks and dies' on successful nights, Gray seems to be alluding to his role as an editor engaged in the promotion of West Indian literature and implying that the applause is often reserved for the writers and not the editor. Applause or no applause, Gray is convinced of the need to play his part. In 'A Small Request', there is a suggestion that these poems originate from the poet’s desire to record his private feelings and emotions for private consumption rather than for public scrutiny: 'I give you these poems/ to keep safe/ where the world cannot treat them/ like orphan waifs.'

The Woolgatherer is promoted on the blurb as a collection which provides 'the richest kind of autobiography: tentative, questioning, multi-layered and shot through with vivid memories' and as being informed by 'a refreshing astringency of vision, a cathartic toughness in the way Gray’s poetry confronts remembered humiliations of childhood poverty, adult disappointments and mature regrets.' Given the quality of some of the poems in this collection, these are well deserved accolades. However, when examined against the background of Derek Walcott’s and Kamau Brathwaite’s deployment of the autobiographical as keys to unlock complex philosophical, psychic and metaphoric vistas, Gray’s often literal recall of experience may caution against such a comprehensively ecstatic assessment, and lead to an acceptance of Gray’s own assessment (at least with reference to the less successful) of these poems as 'unfinished' products presented with the hope that 'a real poet/ could use them as notes.' ('Letting Go').

This is a review of The Woolgatherer

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