Between the waters and the silence
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
January 30, 2005
...water would be the best gift
if it could be wrapped.
And so it comes, a fundamental beauty, ...
a summoning freshness in everything.
An arid heartland springs alive;
water is love, it clears and shines:
clemency for a wracked land.
These lines from the poem Rain appear in one of the important new books that took prominent place in the flowering of Guyanese literature during 2004 when several new works were released both in Guyana and abroad by different publishers. Ian McDonald's latest collection, Between Silence and Silence, was actually published in 2003 by Peepal Tree Press to join the unwavering stream of publications of poetry, fiction and non-fiction that has flowed from that publishing house in Leeds, England, run by Jeremy Poynting and his family. A significant number of titles was printed over the past years, and when some of them are launched at an event planned for 2005, it will underline the truly great contribution made by Poynting and Peepal Tree to Guyanese literature in general, and to this particular bloom of new books launched in 2004.
The lines from the poem quoted are full of praise for rain creating its "pools sweet with lilies," its "freshness in everything"; they tell us that "water is love" bringing "fundamental beauty" to "a wracked land." But these images bear no resemblance to scenes in Georgetown, the East Coast and West Bank of Demerara in the Guyana of January 2005. The pictures of the moment are of displaced people in severe discomfort, wading waist-deep in murky flood-waters seeking escape from the unwholesome pools that rose up in their very living rooms. It is indeed "a wracked land," laid waste by continuous heavy rains and disastrous flooding, nothing like the refreshing springs and the optimism of the poem.
This is, however, only one of the moods, the several celebrations, observations and lamentations in a book characterized by an accurate reading of life reflected from the eye of an accomplished poet. It converts a range of human apprehensions, sensitivities, adversities, celebrations and delights into enduring poetic experiences. In a previous collection, Essequibo, winner of the 1992 Guyana Prize for Poetry, McDonald revels in the landscape and the rivers of a wild natural heritage, but more than in any of his other books, Between Silence and Silence is a praise song for nature's beauty, as is articulated in Rain.
Yet, by no means does it avoid the inevitable, the unwelcome or even the unpleasant and the despicable while it reverberates with celebrations of the abundance of life. Neither is this cross-section of states and living experiences new to McDonald, whose greatest tutors have always been autobiography, an indulgent appreciation of the biodiversity of Trinidad and Guyana, and a slight sense of guilt. The states and the life are there in his one major play, The Tramping Man, which has been published in an anthology, and his novel, The Humming Bird Tree (Heinemann, 1969), which, of all his works, has enjoyed the most attention. It was filmed by the BBC in 1992 and was only recently republished by Macmillan. All the tutors are evidently at work in that novel, as they are in the other books of poetry, Mercy Ward (Peterloo, 1989), and Jaffo the Calypsonian (Peepal Tree, 1994).
In this treatment of multiple experiences, McDonald makes some straightforward admissions as in the introductory poem, which also serves thematically as a summary of his concerns in the many selections throughout the volume. Its title is Still... and it begins the book dramatically in the middle of an argument with the poet conceding the prevalence of the inevitable and the unwholesome:
Yes, it is as you say.
But let us get just one thing straight:
there is beauty in the world -
He then admits that while we are surrounded by beauty, it "will have an end," and he revisits that theme many times in the volume, as in It Passes. Alongside the undeniable beauty, the poet recognizes the ugly and the tragic in such poems as On the Headland, The Sand Truck Driver, We Do Not Stop for Strangers and Betrothal. It is this realization that informs those selections that reflect upon middle age with frankness, unrelenting brutality, and even humour. McDonald has that extraordinary capacity to dramatize his intimations of mortality with a tone so comfortable that it eschews resignation, transcends regret and is much more profound than prosaic acceptance.
Such dramatization is very meticulously crafted in Middle Age where he schemes to get it right. It is laced with sensuality if not eroticism, while its pace is perfect for the narrative of an ageing man, a former rake surrounded by temptations he can no longer pursue. Here McDonald exhibits a confident command of rhythm and rhyme which support each other. He manages to celebrate fertility, birth, his family, the life of his sons, the beauty of nature, ageing and death all as part of a continuing cyclic rite of passage with so much to praise that the mournful seems displaced. That quality of combination is compacted in It Passes.
In the quick-silver light
a humming-bird passes, ...
My wife cradles a new-born child.
Night leaves behind a tender wind
like a song once heard.
I wish I did not have to die.
Just as Still... serves as an effective prologue to Between Silence and Silence, the poem from which the book's title is taken gives it a satisfactory end. In this final selection, Between Silence and Silence there Should Be Only Praise McDonald returns to the subject of rain, this time presenting its other side, a graphic picture of flood-waters that almost describes the disaster in Guyana.
Should there be a great flood
whole cities would be cast on the fierce water,
floating, drifting down to an ancient sea;
men and women shouting at the windows,
carrying children to the rooftops,
whimpering in the bleak wind's fury.
Desperate swimming as the houses sink;
life's comfortable arrangements awry
and lost. ...
Under the dark sky, much pointless activity -
Friend, it is past the time when tears matter:
between silence and silence, there should be only praise.
Here, the poet's concerns are so universal and true, they also touch the larger and more horrendous tsunami disaster in the Far East. Even his assertion, quoted earlier, that "water would be the best gift/if it could be wrapped" may be applied to the stricken flooded Guyanese communities where there is water, water everywhere, with scarcely a drop to drink. This universal quality, this applicability to human experience about which it was never written, but about which it will always be written, is a consistent quality of good poetry. It is there in the real preoccupations of Between Silence and Silence, Ian McDonald's newest book of poems, which may be considered his best.