This is Not a Defense of Poetry
Ishion Hutchinson on Vision, the Sea, and the Poetics of the Caribbean
The following remarks were originally delivered at the the Oslo Poesifestival 2016.
A defense of poetry is a contradiction in terms. The honor to speak this evening, which I accept with great humility, though inevitably unnerving, I will use to contradict myself with some vignettes, as if through a glass darkly, in light of that beautiful, abstract theme-word, “visions.” What is vision is in part the same question as what is a visionary; who is performing the visioning; towards what end: and that is the trajectory I wish to amplify in this talk. I hope not to leave you as confused as the end of When We Dead Awaken.
The title of my talk is “The Bearings of the Island.” It is snatched from the first sentence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The phrase is resonant for me due to a certain bounty of my background that is at once simple and strange, the sea. I grew up above that inexorable axis on which everything turned in my hometown, Port Antonio, a harbor village hemmed on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. Port Antonio has had its modern fame in the swashbuckling character of the Australian-born movie star, Errol Flynn, who in 1946, when he docked his yacht in the bay, trumpeted like a latter-day Christopher Columbus, “Here is a place more beautiful than any woman I have ever known.” His pronouncement brings Auden’s powerful definition of the sea to mind: “The sea . . . is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.”
In Flynn you have the tone of the marauder, the romance colonial empires derived from and it was this flourish which launched Hollywood briefly into Port Antonio. The rich flocked there and created an outpost of tropical pleasure, where women more beautiful than Flynn ever knew, women like my grandmother—women who would have been slaves three or four generations before Flynn’s arrived on his Zacca—became the exotic backdrop to this fantasy. Suddenly, they were natives, extras for the silver screen’s one-dimensional vision: banyan skirts and madras, ponderous women.
But that was before I was born, and the era of Flynn has passed away like smoke, leaving Port Antonio splendidly antiquated, most of its shores lined with skeletal coconut trees, leafing through days without interest or self-importance, its incessant calendar of rain and sun by the sea.
When the sea was not in our direct vantage, it fell like fragments of silhouettes into our lives, imperceptible from moment to moment, and was hardly ever acknowledged in conversation, unless it was to prophecy rain or the greater calamity of hurricane, when clouds would darken into cancer above the water. But to me the sea, whether dark or bright, was the town’s mirror by which I knew my reflection. Other faces crammed into it, phantoms whose blurry features resembled mine, staring at me with confounded eyes. I was anxious and unable to name them. And this paranoia intensified in me due to the rote of cruise ships that, on occasion, came with tourists. Other times the slenderer banana boats came; their very glide secrete the word merchant. But they never stayed long, so the bay between the peninsulas would tingle like a wound whenever one vanished beyond the sea’s pale of topaz infinity, to other worlds from which I emerged and to which I belonged and out of which I was irrevocably an exile, into my world of light.
A sensitive child-seer into whom the sea beat the language of my blood, I felt unique in this pain.
I was mistaken in this belief, of course. This inner conflict of dispossession was, and remains, a shared ancestral and historical yoke. Tragic conditions brought us to the island. No, not “conditions”—for the conditions were, and remains, the terrible consequences of, put accurately, the tragic visions of European colonial imperialism that stirred the slave ships to the island. Often I saw them like a silent montage, a visible harmonious pageant, bearing the muted tumult of uprooted tongues wailing in their purgatorial hulls.
“The sea revises itself and outlasts empires.”
Sometimes my eyes contracted, too, and I would catch something else that deepened a coastal shelf of grief and love inside of me, someone walking before the lynchets of waves, increasing as they receded, unfinished in thin curdles that never reached the villas in the cliffs with the rich-flowered lights and cacti out of rocks: a maid in her uniform, bent into a figurehead at the lilac and rose hour, walking, not looking back.
Why did the star-apple blood smell rage in my eyes, then?
The violent visions of European ideal of progress have long culminated into a metaphysical prison, one that has to be met with purgation through the terror of beauty, through a process of radical re-visioning.
To be a visionary, I think, is to “walk in the light of inward heroism,” a phrase the 18-year-old James Joyce wrote to Ibsen when Ibsen was on the threshold of death at the beginning of our last century. “Inward heroism” is the defiant condition present in the Caribbean character, like the maid (anonymous, one of many) walking before the waves, a condition V.S. Naipaul dismisses when he writes his famous, brutal proposition: “We live in a society which denies itself heroes.”
The phrase is tangled in the mangrove of its own genius, expressive of a thoroughly educated colonial mind that sees horror and pessimism everywhere, where, in truth, there is radiance. There is the radiance of self-reliance and self-actualization through and after slavery, Emancipation and the modern malaise called Independence. There is radiance in the banal that is not the torpor of servitude. The radiance is an anguished kind of nobility. Like when, for instance, the sea is locked in amber at noon and all is still, except for a fisherman sitting on his beached, upturned boat, repairing his fishing net; that mundane webbing is emblematic of Penelope’s spiritual resistance and whatever other mythical origin hard to name or even identify because it has been obscured by colonial history, but still enacts its presentiment and we have to see this fisherman as I have seen him, the way Joyce says Ibsen sees “with large insight . . . with the sight of one who may look at the sun with open yes.”
The sea revises itself and outlasts empires.
Let the poet go through a million failures to get the exact shape of the dimple crest in his grandmother’s cheek while she rests, half-asleep in her lattice veranda chair, tired from hanging laundry, her stocking cap pulled back on her forehead to show its copper waves going into the foam of her hair; in front of her the sea light is trembling on the zinc shanties with the dateless light of poetry. “The more personal, local, peculiar, of its own time a poem is, the nearer it stands to the centre of poetry,” writes Schlegel. I would go further and say that human moments magnified over the historical do not lessen the complicated involvement with history, and that is the revisionary poetics which makes a subject more than an image caged in rhetoric. It turns a subject into an event.
This is why I reject any vision which states that the poet speaks for his community or tribe, both as an insult to the poet and to the community or tribe. What such vision demands is an annihilation of personality and doing so would be to perpetuate one of the first tenets of the colonial order: the extinction of the individual. The demand is arrogant and requires that the poet commits the second worse sin of all, provincialism.
I should be clear that I am not advocating nor do I care for a poetry of the merely personal, of inchoate individuality. But, in contrast, I mean personality as presence, one which is alert to voice and its characteristics and the visible and invisible surrounding of the local terra firma; one for whom writing is a way to be “in concert with strangers within oneself,” to use Wilson Harris’s striking phrase. I mean the personal of when the lyric-self significantly approaches what John Berger describes as the “will to preserve and complete, to create an equilibrium, to hold—and in that ‘holding’ to hope for an ultimate assurance—that this derives from a lived or imagined experience of love.” Love, the lurching spirit prow of poetry.
Visions in the context of any traditions, it seems to me, is borne on an authoritarian pedestal, sepulchral as Roman marble: it achieves its formal contours and is celebrated in the airy domes of museums or in the gusting thoroughfares of the literary canon. Rarely is it left out of doors to the elements—of sun and sea—which will gradually alter its perfection, until it dissolves into what it aims to imitate. Where it does alter it becomes ruins. But it emerges from the ruins, held whole again by subjugating asbestos. Its achievement is in its solidity as a monument which is erected wherever conquests are made. It speaks the one language of the conquistador: power, and responds only to the awe of terror and its special brand of terror is to turn one passive, to paralyze one with its elegiac, Parnassian cloud.
Visions calcify culture into egotistical civilization, which Aimé Césaire condemns as “that projection of man onto the world, that stamp of man’s effigy on the universe”; but Césaire also praises, too, at a different pitch of distinction, that “true civilizations are poetic shocks: the shock of stars, of the sun, of plant, the animal, the shock of the round globe, of the rain, of the light, of numbers, the shock of life, the shock of death.” The motto is one and the same under the spirit bow of poetry: Le dur désir de durer.
All these are shocks of time and time on an island of the Caribbean is what I would called genesis in medias res; a space within which the Old World, as it is known, picks up in the middle of the unknown New World, unaffected by metropolitan time. An island, in reality, comes closest to what Coleridge means when he speaks of poetry as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Derek Walcott puts it succinctly in his luminous epigram, “poetry is an island which breaks away from the main.”
And what does that breakage sound like? Take this late poem by Walcott, since I have invoked him. In it we hear how he defies its Virgilian or Augustan coolness with subtle varying of Antillean cadence, syllables set down with such caring, careful love we hear and feel a negative voice cleansed of bitterness, widening into the evocation of grace. The poem, at its core, is a prayer.
Keep vigil with it now in my voice:
No opera, no gilded columns, no wine-dark seats,
no Penelope scouring the stalls with delicate glasses,
no practiced ecstasy from the tireless tenor, no sweets
and wine at no interval, no altos, no basses
and violins sobbing as one; no opera house,
no museum, no actual theatre, no civic center
– and what else? Only the huge doors of clouds
with the setting disc through which we leave and enter,
only the deafening parks with their jumping crowds,
and the thudding speakers. Only the Government
Buildings down by the wharf, and another cruise ship
big as the capital, all blue glass and cement.
No masterpieces in huge frames to worship,
on such banalities has life been spent
in brightness, and yet there are the days
when every street corner rounds itself into
a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase,
canoes drawn up by the market, the harbour’s blue,
the barracks. So much to do still, all of it praise.
Revision is literature as resistance. Poetry, whose spirit is reciprocating and anarchic to a greater degree, ignites the re-visionary force because of its “devotion to abandoned or exiled or obliterated myth,” Césaire again. What happens in the Janus-double of revision, therefore, is a bond of redemption with survival in an attempt to shatter the psychic structures of the oppressive order.
There are innumerable great examples of that kind of revision in reggae, but one significant instance, for me, is actualized with sharp hydraulic energy splintering the monument of the English language, is a poem called “Mabrak,” by the Jamaican Rastafarian poet, Bongo Jerry. The elemental tongue of patois, that sphere of daemonic utterance, punctuated with quick shafts of sunlight and rain breaking off broad thunderheads in the distance are alive in the poem, which itself is charged with the biblical heritage of prophecy alive in Rastafarian revolutionary ideology.
Two things though before I read Bongo’s poem.
First I want to, perhaps unjustly, set it against this remark by Eliot: “The aim of the poet is to state a vision, and no vision of life can be complete which does not include the articulate formulation of life which human minds make.” Vision here is expressed in the bureaucracy of prose. It mounts the imperial idea of eloquence—“articulate formulation”—which often denies voice and agency to the so-called inarticulate.
And second, I will not go into the confluence of traditions behind the poem, so the reading may sound a bit like glossolalia and that’s the strange effect the poem is after; the prophetic apocalypse in it is serious and deliberate and I only wished I were not such a poor reader to channel its fury:
Is the future brightening
For last year man learn
How to use black eyes (wise!)
Babylon plans crash
Thunder interrupt their programme to
BLACK ELECTRIC STORM
How long you feel fair to fine
(WHITE) would last?
How long calm in darkness
When out of black
come forth LIGHT?
How long dis slave caste
When out of
The BLACK FUTURE
Enlightening is BLACK
Hands writing the words of
For black hearts to feel.
MABRAK is righting the wrongs and brain whitening HOW?
Not just by washing out the straitening and wearing dashiki ting:
MOSTOFTHESTRAITENINGISINTHETONGUE so HOW?
Save the YOUNG
From the language that MEN teach,
the doctrine pope preach
HOW ELSE? MAN must use MEN language
To carry dis message:
SILENCE BABEL TONGUES; recall and
recollect BLACK SPEECH.
Cramp all double meaning
And all that hiding behind language bar, For that crossword speaking
When expressing feeling
Is just English language contribution to increase confusion in
delusion, name changing, word rearranging
ringing rings of roses, pocket full of poses:
SAR instead of RAS
Left us in a situation
Mek plenty African afraid, ashamed, unable to choose
BLACK POWA (strange tongue)
Never be the same!
Never again shame!
Ever now communicate for now I and I come to recreate:
Sight sound and meaning to measure the feeling
Of BLACK HEARTS- alone-
MABRAK : frightening
MABRAK: black lightening
The coming of light to the black world: Come show I the way
Come make it plain as day now- come once, and come for all
And everyone better come to RAS
For I come far, have far to go from here:
For the white world must come to bloodbath
And bloodbath is as far as the white world can reach; so when MABRAK
LET BABYLON BURN
LET WEAK HEART CHURN
BLACK HOUSE STAND FIRM: for somewhere under ITYOPIA rainbow,
AFRICA WAITING FOR I
The exacting rhythm concatenates a new nobility in the spirit Tasso outlines, that “the poet’s objective takes him beyond simple, or even sophisticated, mimesis—beyond imitating existing forms into copying the perfect eternal forms . . . the poet can penetrate and thus express the secrets of creation: and by so fashioning literary analogues of God’s creation, the poet identifies himself as a true visionary who both views ‘the sacred forms’ and perceives mentally what the design of God is.” This is essentially spoken from the clouds, not in verbal utterance but comes unbidden to us like Nashe’s line: “Brightness falls from the air.”
I want to bring into focus near the end in a far too summarily manner the greatest visionary novelists in the Anglophone Caribbean tradition of 20th century fiction, whose superb re-visionary faculties have interrogated handed-down vision and have empowered Caribbean narratives with strange and unpredictable cosmic reality. His name came up earlier in my remarks, the Guyanese poet and novelist Wilson Harris. Harris was a land and hydrographic surveyor of the forests of Guyana, and his fiction has the precision of looking through a theodolite, where first things appear oblique, but then in the arc of a second, intensely brilliant. The enigmatic tension in the texture of his language retains strong traces of the pre-Columbian peoples of the Caribbean, enmeshed with the post-Columbian, in a vivid, irreducible fiction that sustains, in his own words, “an involvement with the past that is equally an involvement with the present, even as the present becomes a threshold into the future.” No other fiction from the Caribbean has haunted me more. Take just the opening passage of his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, published in 1960 which depicts in a dense phantasmagoria a triple death:
A horseman appeared on the road coming at breakneck stride. A shot rang out suddenly, near and yet far as if the wind had been stretched and torn and had started coiling and running in an instant. The horseman stiffened with a devil’s smile, and the horse reared, grinning fiendishly and snapping at the reins. The horseman gave a bow to heaven like a hanging man to his executioner, and rolled from his saddle on to the ground.
Nothing is taken for granted. The language creates a music that fuses landscape and character, and makes us witnesses of what is actual and the multiple possibilities our imaginations will have to work out. Further, Harris has said “that one’s craft has to be linked in some way with some unconscious force, some sacramental energy that has been suppressed and lost.” What I have been contending is that a wholeness of vision is incomplete—insufficient, even insipid—without revision, and revision is a constant revitalizing force attending to what has been suppressed and lost. Then, to close on a rather bold note, I will read a poem called “A Surveyor’s Journal,” which I wrote about ten years ago and dedicated it to Wilson Harris—who is 95 years old this year. In it I am attempting a sacramental bow towards heaven, striving to hold the mind’s elation of having grown up by the sea where my ancestors call out to me on shore.
I took my name from the aftersky
of a Mesopotamian flood,
birdless as if culture had shed its wings
into a ground vulture on the plain.
Beneath the astral plane, a war-ripped sail,
rigged to its mast a lantern and a girl
who swayed and stared
off where the waves raced backwards.
I begged her in signs. She jumped
overboard, arms sieving seaweed, eyes netting home.
Dear Ivy, you live in my veins.
Spurned flesh, I couldn’t bridle
the weathervane’s shift; it turned and turned
into a landfall, and I, panting panther,
sleek carnivore of the horse-powered limbs,
ran from a reign of terror.
All my despairs in green rain, on leaves
I prayed to the mantis, head wrapped
in white, reading the “Song of God”
over a bowl of beef. Afterwards,
I hemmed into my skin this hymn:
O lemming souls of the mass migration that ended in drowning
O embroidered heart and marigold wrists that brushed the copperbrown field
O cargoes that left the dengue jungles and ended on the yellow fever shores
O compass points that needled the new to the old, stitching meridians into one tense
O reflecting telescope that spied the endangered specimens
the vertical man vs the horizontal man,
those who lost their surnames
to the sea’s ledger, beached up on the strange coast,
waiting for the Star Liner
to cross that imagined Mesopotamian water,
the ship’s bulwarks in sleep,
weighed down a spirit-bird,
my calm, to never flounder,
to walk holy and light on this land.