It feels like a morning for poetry. Cool as rain, cutting as razor. Poetry that syncs with the soul, tempered by mood and tailored to taste.
After the extended bout of political excess, this morning-before is thirsty for the clarity of Art’s truth as prescription for hangover.
Perhaps you, too, have your poems. A cache of them, tiny or grand. Maybe even one singular poem that clears the head, eases the throb in the temples and relaxes the rhythm of a panicked heart.
It might be that classic that you learned in primary school. One like Longfellow’s own call to poetry in The Day is Done:
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Or maybe, on this morning-before, you want yours on the upside. Poetry to rush the adrenaline, steel the determination and focus the mind.
Poetry like Ernest Henry’s “Invictus”, popularized by Morgan Freeman in the film of the same name:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Whatever your preference, pull them out and bring them on.
For a people whose best ideas are often best expressed in the idiom of calypso, however, Derek Walcott’s The Spoiler’s Return could be the definitive political poem.
What could better describe our politics than Walcott’s “Is carnival, straight Carnival that’s all/the beat is base, the melody bohbohl?”
Written in 1981, amid the rising tide of political futility, the poet invokes the gifted calypsonian in a slicing critique of the society as seen from his perch on Laventille Hill. A glimpse:
Is crab climbing crab-back, in a crab-quarrel,
and going round and round in the same barrel,
is sharks with shirt-jacs, sharks with well-pressed fins,
ripping we small-fry off with razor grins;
nothing ain’t change but colour and attire,
so back me up, Old Brigade of Satire,
Since Walcott wrote The Spoiler’s Return, T&T has been a hotbed of change, limited largely to the changing of governments. The flush of hope in 1986, when the PNM’s 30-year hold on government was finally broken by the NAR, dissipated under innocent assumptions about political change.
Almost another 30 years later, we are much less sanguine. We now have greater experience in changing governments but still struggle with the task of changing ourselves in order to change the political system and the society.
Some of the disappointment is captured in Wesley Gibbings’ The Shore of Dying Dreams which mourns receding hope. Here are two verses:
of every day and night
the remnants of our lives,
smuggled in by the creeping tide,
lie still and abandoned on this lonely beach
on this tiny island.
Near the empty conch shell
where the groping waves cannot reach,
there’s an old shoe.
Sole lost to uneven pavements
where the promise of work
disappeared with the sun and the hope he once wore.
Gibbings himself reached for the Chilean, Pablo Neruda, when asked for a poem for today. No joke, the Neruda poem he chose is titled “The Eighth of September” with its climax of mysterious expectancy:
This day, Today, was a brimming glass.
This day, Today, was an immense wave.
This day was all the Earth.
This day, the storm-driven ocean
lifted us up in a kiss
so exalted we trembled
at the lightning flash
and bound as one, fell,
and drowned, without being unbound.
This day our bodies grew
stretched out to Earth’s limits,
orbited there, melded there
to one globe of wax, or a meteor’s flame.
A strange door opened, between us,
and someone, with no face as yet,
waited for us there.
In this country of “boundless hope and prayer”, however, Neruda’s “someone, with no face as yet” is quite likely to be Yeats’ “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi”, the “rough beast” that is slouching towards us.
It is the image most often invoked when, like Yeats, we feel “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” This is the fear that has been consuming Leroy Clarke, for one, who has been raging against the society, pleading with us to get serious.
These few lines from his current work What de Pavement Say captures the casual brutality of the place:
Under it all, a simple human need stirs
A no-nothing-morning stillness that is ancient
Rests on the rind of motionless palm fronds
Easy as a stroll, no breeze, easy on the fret.
Good morning Sistuh… How you doing?
Breds, you don’t want to know, nah!
De man take the little money I make
From De business I does run, and gone!
Last week my son get gun down and he dead…
The quest for change calls to mind Vahni Capildeo’s “Outside.” In this poem, it is the box that comes sharpest into focus and locks us inside a chain-link of “x’s”, nullifying the very idea of thinking outside the box. So it is with change. It is the trap of cliché.
Whichever way tomorrow’s election goes, the challenge for us will remain the same: change. Not as cliché but as a fundamental condition for creating a new Caribbean mind, freed from the colonised imagination and capable of seeing our own possibilities from a whole new perspective.
In Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom, Lloyd Best wrote: “Change is a slow process; it is the consciousness built by work and life today which will tell in the politics of tomorrow.”
The process of change doesn’t start with the politics, it starts with us. The politics will follow.