For the love of Georgetown
Joanstown Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
October 26, 2003
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Michael Gilkes’ Joanstown (Peepal Tree, 2002) is one of the most important recent books of Guyanese poetry, and this is recognized in the fact that it is the most recent winner of the Guyana Prize (2002). It is the first-published collection by a poet who has been writing for quite a while and who has been engaged in other creative fields besides poetry. His career as an academic was mostly rooted as reader at UWI, Cave Hill, but he has also lectured at universities in the UK, including Warwick, and was lecturer and later visiting professor at the University of Guyana. Gilkes is one of the Caribbean’s leading literary critics and dramatists; a foremost director, playwright, actor and film-maker. He is also known for his development of multi-media interpretations of the region’s literature and culture.
Although the concerns of many poems in the book are universal, the major preoccupation is Guyana. To a large extent it is the Guyana of an exile who left the country in 1961, but has really never left. The poetry expresses a deep-rooted love, a commitment and a concern for the state of the nation. These are all interwoven in the subjects and the way they are treated by the poet. The first point of interest in this treatment is the use of the name “Joanstown” for Georgetown. It sounds like “Jonestown”, a name that Guyana may never live down, and for which it is still notorious around the world. But Gilkes is celebrating a more positive memory whose complexities cannot be treated in this brief introduction. Love of the city/country is played out in the love of a girl named Joan McDavid, whom he later married. A description and love of her are tied in with the description and love of the place of his birth and early life.
The poem printed here, “the town”, illustrates this well. It is the first part of a suite, “Joanstown”, which gives the collection its name. This opening sequence of the book has six poems about the city of Georgetown including portraits of “The Lighthouse”, “Water Street” and poems set in the district of Kingston, where Joan lived.
The second important observation about this portrait is that it is a Georgetown of the past, preserved in the memory and the love of the poet. But what is striking about it is that it is not dated and manages to communicate a strong contemporary topicality in what the poet has to say about time, change and the present problems that have crept into the city during a period of more than forty years. This is subtle but unmistakable in the way “The Town” ends after a lengthy description of a city of romance and idyll, preserved in the memory of the poet.
The gift of double vision was Joanstown’s bequest.
Everything he saw was cursed and blessed.
The lighthouse beam patrolled our evening skies :
A lighthouse match hissed once and snakes of flame had entered
The city has changed because many of the magnificent wooden buildings representing an architectural heritage that gave the city beauty and character have been destroyed by fire. Gilkes calls it the “treasury of wood. (The treachery of wood!”). But it has also changed because it has grown complex and accumulated myriad problems that have corrupted it, as expressed in the poet’s biblical reference.