Remembering Martin Carter
Arts on Sunday
December 17, 2006
The Poems Man
Look, look, she cried, the poems man,
running across the frail bridge
of her innocence. Into what house
will she go? Into what guilt will
that bridge lead? I
the man she called out at
and she, hardly twelve
meet in the middle, she going
her way; I coming from mine:
The middle where we meet
is not the place to stop.
Martin Carter (ca 1960s)
Castellan i House, home of the Na-tional Gallery of Art, has firmly established itself as a place, if not the main place in Guyana, where the arts meet. It is the custodian of the National Collection, Guyana's heritage in the fine arts, but seems to have become the most prolific, consistent and energetic guardian of sustained activity in the arts in general in recent years. As a centre for the arts it is now very sharply in focus and in turn has most recently brought into focus a bridge on which the musée des beaux arts and the belles lettres meet.
The National Gallery is now hosting Persisting Dream, the abstract art (in acrylic and watercolour) of Derrick Callender simultaneous with the work of Stanley Greaves. Greaves' New Retro properly brings the fine arts and literature together and celebrates that famous meeting point in many ways. It puts on show poems in calligraphy, paintings, sculpture and drawings and is the work of an artist who has won major prizes in both art and literature, including major awards in Barbados and the Guyana Prize for Best First Book of Poetry. Yet, deeper than that, Greaves is himself a meeting point since he not only produces work in both disciplines, but engages the work and spirit of other writers in his art. He does that in his latest international exhibition Shadows Move Among Them, and is scheduled to give an illustrated lecture on the work from this exhibition dedicated to foremost Guya-nese novelist Edgar Mittel-holzer, author of Shadows Move Among Them. Castellani House will host this lecture on Tuesday, December 19 at 5.30 pm.
Connected to Greaves is another writer around whom there has been an important gathering of international focus and attention in the year 2006. Perhaps Greaves' most endearing engagement in this context is his close link with this writer, Martin Carter, whose poems he has interpreted in black and white pen and ink drawings, many of which are published in the Red Thread edition of Carter's Selected Poems (1997). International publishers, some of whom had declined to publish books on Carter in the recent past, seem now quite ready to do so. University of Hunger, Martin Carter's Collected Poems and Selected Prose edited by Gemma Robinson, one of the most dedicated and scholarly researchers on this poet, was published by Bloodaxe earlier this year. Hard on its heels was Poems by Martin Carter (Macmillan, 2006) edited by Stewart Brown and Ian McDonald whose consistent, committed and scholarly interest in Carter is common knowledge.
Mainly through the instigation of Elfrieda Bissember, Curator of the National Gallery, and David Dabydeen, one of Guyana's leading contemporary writers, Castellani House hosted A Martin Carter Evening on December 13, the ninth anniversary of his death. It was a programme of readings of his poetry in commemoration of his life and work. Professor Dabydeen, another important contributor to the new wave of Carter scholarship in the UK, gave an overall introduction while Miss Bissember, in many ways responsible for the gallery becoming a centre for the arts, introduced both the programme and the contributors. These were Phyllis Carter, Vanda Radzik, David de Caires, Al Creighton, Ian McDonald, Alim Hosein, Petamber Persaud, Sherod Duncan and University of Guyana students Keith Sampson and Josette Bacchus.
One of the poems selected by Mrs Carter to lead off the proceedings defined the programme as it does the poet and the man. That selection was The Poems Man, a poem whose date of writing is uncertain. Carter has said that he did not like to publish single or individual poems; he wrote them in groups. Poems Man was surely composed some time in the 1960s but is one of those Carter pieces that seems not to have been originally published in its group. It certainly appears on its own in some later publications. Yet it seems an extremely relevant piece.
The Poems Man speaks to Carter's ideological identification with the common touch, the language of his poetry, his identity as the popular poet and the place of the poet in general in a popular context. It is all of those although the work itself is not of any popular genre. The first point to note is that the poem dramatises a meeting between a twelve-year-old girl and the poet on the street in some community. She obviously does not belong to any elite, to any literary or academic circle, but to the so-called 'common people.' Yet she recognises the poet as a maker of poems in the same way she would recognise some itinerant tradesman, the coconut man or some celebrity. It is not considered usual for poetry to be so identified, or even to matter.
The second significant feature is the language. "Look, look, she cried, the poems man" is not strictly speaking standard English and is another of Carter's known habit to make subtle linguistic shifts into a Creole syntax. To call a poet a "poems man" is to use that Creole syntax and to suggest that the word 'poet' does not exist in the language or the thought of the creole speaker. Other more subtle suggestions, largely in sound and rhythm, may be found elsewhere in the poem such as the lines, "I the man she called out at" and "she going her way, I coming from mine." Similar features appear in other poems such as University of Hunger and Black Friday 1962.
Next, "the poems man" is an expression of innocence; innocent of the knowledge that a poet does not make poems as an itinerant vendor makes brooms. It is free and unencumbered by the weight of knowledge and responsibility of the poet, and even of the existence of the word 'poet.' The meeting takes place on a "frail bridge" suggesting vulnerability, impermanence or a threat to its existence. It is a meeting of innocence and experience, youth and maturity, the present (even the past) and the future. The poem also has Carter's characteristically paradoxical, contradictory line statements such as "the middle where we meet/is not the place to stop." The lines are perfectly balanced but work like two halves of a line with a caesura in the middle.
It seems representative of Martin Carter as a poet of the people with a popular voice. At the same time it communicates the complexity of his thought and the thoroughness of his craft. The poem defined the evening, which was a very successfully produced event in his honour.