Ian on Sunday
December 12, 1999
On December 13, two years ago, Martin Carter died. You know how it is when suddenly there is low voltage and the lights flicker low. So it was when he died the soul-light of the nation dimmed. Without his presence it has become that much more difficult to see the truth clearly in the surrounding gloom. I wish to remember Martin in this column and to do so I reproduce the greater part of an article I wrote on the first anniversary of his death. All I wrote then I feel even more certainly as time passes and his greatness as a poet and a thinker grows more deeply entrenched in our consciousness and in the history of Guyana.
It seems hardly any time at all since Martin died and yet it seems a long, long time. When death seems like that it is because every day the death is still heavy in our lives and because simultaneously the time before the death seems agonisingly far and irretrievably lost. It is the feeling anyone has when someone close and deeply loved for a long time dies and you know at once and forever with a thud of dreadful loss that the world for you will never be the same again, never so good, never so true, never so comprehensible. Some essence, some pith has gone and will not return.
Martin's death was one of those rare deaths when the loss is seen to grow heavier as time passes. Heavy for the nation it certainly remains. He was Guyana's greatest poet. That is simply said but somehow not half enough is said in saying it. In his poems he always told the truth about himself and his people and the world so we all came to trust his words beyond all others. Why do you think Martin Carter was, and is, quoted by every sort of person in every kind of situation? The truth is that his poetry verified all manner of things.
There is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke about an antique marble torso of the god Apollo the beauty of which impresses on the onlooker for all time the need to change one's life forever. "Du musst dein Leben andern," the poem's central line proclaims, "You have to change your life." To this day I read Martin's poetry remembering he once told me about that poem and that line.
I never recognised in Martin a revolutionary figure in the generally accepted sense of a harsh and ruthless breaker of moulds. Perhaps he did not want to show that side of himself to me when I first met him soon after I arrived in the country in 1955 to work in Jock Campbell's Bookers. However, he always had a calm certainty that structures superficially strong which did not fit the basic needs of ordinary people were doomed and I remember him often spelling out his feelings eloquently about this when we spoke together in those days long ago. Seamus Heaney's lines sum up what I remember of Martin's convictions on this score:
"What looks the strongest has outlived its time, The future lies with what's affirmed from under."
He was modest and dismissive of his role but of course I knew he had been one of those who were foremost and most creative and inspiring in conceiving and bringing forth the birth of a new kind of Guyana. Years later I copied out in my journal some words of Ines Hernandez in her "Open Letter to the Chicanas" which reminded me of the kind of revolutionary the Martin I had met in those days seemed to be:
"To be revolutionary is to be original, to know where we came from, to validate what is ours and help it to flourish, the best of what is ours, of our beginnings, our principles, and to leave behind what no longer serves us."
And I often felt when I experienced Martin, in his moods of embittered loss of faith that what led him into his despairing depths was his unsparing knowledge that the people for whom he had written his poetry and composed his lucid, far-seeing editorial-essays seemed to find it impossible to leave behind what no longer could possibly serve them with anything but desolating ill - mutual racial hostility, class division, raw political animosities and almost brutish individual incivilities. He saw that his people could not seem to exorcise the demons of divisiveness and it made him despair.
Certainly in all his utterances he never ceased to bear witness to a reality from which the public might want, or might be persuaded to want, to turn away. He wanted no one ever to flinch from truth. That is to be a hard taskmaster and is what it takes to be a true poet.
Martin's death was one of those rare deaths when the loss is seen to grow heavier as time passes
I cannot remember Martin, nobody could possibly remember Martin, without remembering his wife Phyllis, generous-hearted to a fault, brave for Martin throughout his great life. He would have been less without her, who can doubt it. Tim Hector of Antigua saw the integrity of the poet and the man shine through above all in the love of his wife:
"It was a rare pleasure to be at their house, and you knew in the profoundest way that he and his wife had created a home and a habitation, with little or no models to go by. It was their own creation. There was no affected stylisation about the relation between Martin and his wife. Each day it was spontaneous, natural, entirely free of imitation, with its own intimations of a love deep and abiding."
When Martin died I thought about the man I had known for so long and tried to capture for myself the aura which surrounded him, the unique impression which all who met him felt in his presence. It was not just the effect of the unforgettable poetry he had written. I cannot find better words than I used then to express my sense of Martin's presence:
"There was an unique seriousness in Martin which captured one's attention and love. It was a deep seriousness about his task in life, about life itself, about life's meaning, that went beyond anything I have felt in anyone else I have known. The task of the poet is sacred, one's integrity is sacred, the loyalties of love and friendship are sacred, the rights of men are sacred and are too often abused, the wonder of the world is sacred and why is it that it is so often neglected?
A counter-aspect of his abiding seriousness about such things was the bitterness and despair he felt and often expressed about the brutishness of men, the extraordinary superficiality and hollowness of public affairs, the spiritual desolation that seems to have entrenched itself everywhere, the plunge of the world into hatred and ignorance. All this I write may make him seem a heavy and humourless man. Far .from it. He could laugh and carouse with the very very best of the laughers and carousers. But there was that core of seriousness about the sacred, the sacredness of the word, the sacredness of the works of man in the world, that never left him and that I will never forget".
And now for this column two years after he died I will add one memory. It is of dining one night with Martin in the company of Miles Fitzpatrick, David de Caires, Lloyd Searwar and Rupert Roopnaraine. It was not long before he died. Martin had not fully recovered from the stroke he suffered but still he could be eloquent and now he gave us a magnificent burst of talk in praise of the Irish poet Yeats. He ended by calling for someone to read Yeats's poem Among School Children which he said was perhaps the greatest poem ever written. Miles went to get Yeats's Collected Poems from his library and Rupert found and read the great poem most movingly. And forever I have this picture of Martin in his seat leaning forward thumb pressed to his cheek and fore-finger at his forehead, tears coming to his eyes as the poem came to its marvellous end.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples