The Woolgatherer

Written by Howard A. Fergus for The Caribbean Writer on

This substantial poetry collection is a fitting and welcome celebration by Cecil Gray of a life-long contribution to literary education in the Caribbean. A respected anthologist, his poems have appeared in several reputable literary journals. Gray is a mature artist and his deft touch and inventiveness - especially his well-mined imagery, wry irony, rhythmic effects and honesty of thought and feeling - are stamped on most of the poems.

There is much to please in this anthology but one of my strongest impressions is the imagery, like so many golden nuggets so fresh and original, so powerfully apt, engaging on many levels; they sharpen his descriptions like new cut stones. In 'Curfew, Port-of-Spain', the town is emptied 'like a gourd'; there is a 'sharp report from guns.' In 'Jamaica Christmas' the plane touches down to a 'quick hard kiss of the land.' In 'Courtyard', cobblestones are as close-set 'as molars', and typically the dental imagery pleasingly recurs later in the poem:

the stones were extracted
by that sly dentist, change 
leaving the ground toothless
its breath full of dust

Something of Gray’s poetics is stated early in the book in 'Roots' where with a strong sweep of lines he eschews the cultural freight of ancestral bequest. The stuff of his poetry is his present life and locale:

I’m not interested in
toting more burdens than
ones the present straps on

These islands are all that
I have, that I want

Not being poisoned to the vein, he, like Derek Walcott, avoids, or thinks he does, the angst over choice between Africa and whatever else. In the next poem, 'Ancestor' he does not deny the historic link with Africa, but it has no special emotional claim on him. Capping the poem with characteristically cynical humor he avers:

Still, moving the pen on the page
and yoked by some rule to be honest, 
it is only my finger that hurts.

Many of the poems are narrative, brief autobiographical snapshots; and the poet’s personal involvement enriches them. Poems celebrate childhood, toys, play, teachers like Miss Norman and memories of his deceased parents kept not in identifiable 'cemetery allotments' but in the 'monstrance of my mind.' There is a strong ideological and didactic dimension to these poems and Gray does not hesitate to draw 'moralistic' conclusions, but his tough imagery prevents preachiness (sometimes barely), and the movement in the verse ambushes you into nodding amen. After vividly describing the blacksmith’s work in 'Shoeing', he concludes:

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

And in the lovely poem 'Sonny Ramadhin', cricket is played beyond the wicket, for the ball is 'an orb investing us with power'. Each aspect of Gray’s work on which I have commented may well be identified in other poets, but it is the total texture that is unique - his various verse-forms, his within-line rhymes, his brand of lines and run-on lines, which impart a fluidity to his verse, and his flexible attitude to rhyme. One gets the impression of a conscious search for a distinctive voice which is largely achieved. One of my favorite poems and one which exemplifies most of the techniques I allude to, is 'Funeral Serve'. This poem, like many others, is a lesson waiting to be learned:

…Nurtured appreciation
has no flame and love that grows
from tutoring is a dud without
much worth. It was a lesson
I had waited for.

My other favorite, 'Song of an Exile' must be haunting music to the ear of members of the Caribbean diaspora who sometimes yearn 'to shun the bite of winter’s white attack'. Gray’s poems should be anthologized for schools and colleges, and his cultural philosophy and aesthetics deserve wide scholarly debate. He says something fresh to Caribbean literature and culture.