A positive disturbing picture
Arts on Sunday
by Alim A. Hosein
August 25, 2002
This week we notice two responses to the current volatile situation of disorder, violence, racial and political divisions in Guyana. Each is different, yet they both place a focus on the modern tragedy that is the village of Buxton. One is a poem titled Mudhead, Painter by Michael Gilkes, poet, dramatist and academic, known for his direction of plays and films. The other is a new play, Is We Big People, by Guyana’s newest playwright and director, Fitzroy Tyrrell.
We deal here, with the poem. Gilkes has just returned to Guyana after a long absence and contemplates the situation that, according to the poet’s brief prologue, has caused some people to “say, despairingly” that the country “has gone to the dogs.” The poet gives a response that is highly coloured by irony and subtlety. It is the description of a painting, presenting a landscape that is typically Guyanese. The picture plays on the fact that Guyana’s reputation for mud and brown beaches has caused Guyanese to be known fondly across the Caribbean as “mudheads”. The picture is “pictoral not picturesque” because it is not an artificial concoction but a representation of the real Guyana. It is a plain picture devoid of romanticism and false beauty.
The verse is therefore descriptive, but charged with subtle connotations and a statement about Guyana, which gains strength from its ambiguity. At first glance, the poet seems to be showing that the country has not gone to the dogs: here is a mudland that is simple, raceless and industrious. It aims at the level of working people who could easily be one race or another and little boys plunging playfully together in the muddy water, who are as innocent in their nakedness as in their ignorance of ethnic differences.
Then comes the poet’s complication of plot. The area containing the twin communities of Buxton and Friendship on the East Coast is one of Guyana’s contemporary trouble spots. But the poet plays on the name “friendship” to suggest that once there was friendliness and unity there.
He dates it 1961. It is a painting that captures, freezes and preserves Buxton/Friendship as it used to be in the past. A painting is used because it captures that frozen memory of 40 years ago. However, it is also to be remembered that 1961 is also infamous as the year when the ethnic civil war that engulfed the country in the early 1960’s began. Many questions are raised. Was that why the poet left? Is he saying that friendship and racial innocence ended there, and the country’s problems began? Or is he pointing to the startling truth that this more positive face of Guyana exists or can exist or used to exist, with the even more shocking reminder that it existed right there in Buxton? Or is he lamenting that this picture immortalizes the real Guyana that Guyanese are annihilating today?
One of the intriguing things about poems is that they do not always answer questions; they challenge and disturb.
We present the poem from Michael Gilkes.
So my response to those who say, despairingly, that our country has gone to the dogs, is this poem:
Begin with a dark grey wash on this sky’s canvas.
Before it dries touch the belly of that cloud
with a wet brush tipped with black, then paint the deluge.
Let the paint flow in rivers like Orinocco
or Amazon discolouring an ocean to make beaches
of mud, not sand. Add a dewlapped lizard
drinking from the green teflon bowl of a lily’s
dinnerplate leaves, rain forming quicksilver necklaces
which break letting the bright pearls fall to make the lotuses
nod approval as the trench fills up with paint
the colour of mud. Paint a farmer, Indian
or African, shirtless, up to his calves in mud
labouring towards a bawling, mud-coloured cow
tied to a stake. Fur with green mold the Wooden
stilts of his crude house. Paint a hammock,
rice-bag or sugar-bag, under the house between
two stilts. Let the house stand marooned in water,
galvanize roof pouring. Pictorial, not picturesque.
(after the rain it will contemplate its own
limpid reflection). Paint small black and brown
boys naked in the rain, tins scooping
water up to throw in a muddy Phagwa
game, innocent and raceless as the genip-seed
buds of their childish penises. Name the painting
“Buxton/Friendship.” Sign it “Mudhead, Guyana”.
Date it nineteen sixty-one, the year you left.