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Years of Fighting Exile

Written by Prabhu S. Guptara for British Book News on no date provided

Milton Vishnu Williams was born in Guyana in 1936, and has lived in Britain since 1960. He belonged to a circle of Caribbean poets that included Wilson Harris, Ivan Van Sertima and Martin Carter, but he decided to leave Guyana when its nationalist movement split along ideological and racial lines. His subsequent despair at the happenings in the Caribbean, as well as his very varied experiences in Britain mark his poems, which have appeared in Stand, Presence Africaine, Kyk-Over-Al and other international journals.

Two previous collections of Williams’s poems have been published, Pray for Rain (1958) and Sources of Agony (1979). The best of those poems (at least, I take it that they are best in Williams’s estimation) are included in the forty-six brought together here. The overall impression made by these poems is patchy, lumping the transcendent with the mundane, and the heterogeneity does not always work, as in the following stanza:

I know only hoe, shovel, and plough;
rice, sugar, hemp, cotton, tobacco, salted meat and pork.
I know only the ball of emptiness and the wound of sorrow
distilled to me from my birth like the flavour of rum.

Other contrasts work better, for example in the way the highly personal poems sit facing the political and social ones.

After twenty-five years in Britain, the radical optimism of fiery poems (such as ‘The Well of Love’) has retreated under the onslaught of painful experiences. New sources of agony have kept alight an awareness of cultural loss and personal hurt. Williams shares with us his realization that he has been powerfully dulled by the world’s perception of him as a failure.

The work of young black writers is going through a patch of popularity and some of it is exciting. Peepal Tree Press need to be warmly commended for collating the work of an older black poet, and for taking the risk of publishing a writer who has lived in the shadows. Williams’s journey from hope to disillusion parallels the experience of many other black people, old and young; but he retells that journey with sensitivity and maturity. In that lies its chief value.

This is a review of Years of Fighting Exile

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