December 14, 2008 | By | Filed Under Features / Columnists, The Arts Forum 

‘I do not sleep to dream but dream to change the world’

One can begin to consider the poems of Martin Carter by quoting him with reference to his own view of art: “…for the theme of all art has remained the same through the centuries, the theme of the human condition as this manifests itself in all its many-sided complexity” (Edgar Mittleholzer Memorial Lectures, 1971).

In those same lectures Carter said: “I want to suggest that we have arrived at the point where we can say that the concept of identity is a cultural concept.

I prefer to assume that all of us would allow the anthropological definition of culture as a way of life and a mode of being to stand. If this is so, then the question of identity as a cultural concept takes upon itself a historical dimension”.

Carter’s creative energies were fuelled by his deep and abiding concern for the dispossessed people of colonial Guiana and his insightful observations on issues of culture, history and identity are now more than ever pertinent and fundamental to the nature of our existence and survival in contemporary Guyana.

Carter’s words continue to have resonance among us: “Our history has not prepared us for the encounter with the modern world and this is one reason why discontinuity is the only continuity we know”.

Disillusioned with the colonial education system but seeking a path in life in the colonial civil service, Carter (like a good many other full-blooded British Guianese youths who desperately wanted freedom from the confining colonial shackles) found his cause in the very early 1950’s in the People’s Action Committee, a reactionary movement led by a young Guyanese dentist, Cheddi Jagan, and his American-born wife, Janet.

This soon became the People’s Progressive Party and included Forbes Burnham for a while until Forbes broke away in 1955 and formed the People’s National Congress.

Carter was a member of the executive of the PPP; he wrote its fiery Thunder editorials and party Manifestos. Those were the heady days of hope and optimism in British Guiana when freedom seemed like an achievable goal worth struggling for. The career of the budding poet, not unsurprisingly, became inextricably intertwined with politics and ideology.

Dr. Jagan started his struggle for social justice from the mid-1940’s and had successfully campaigned for universal adult sufferage. Martin’s very early poems reflect the mood and promise of the times.

His four collections, viz: The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951); The Hidden Man (1952); The Kind Eagle (1952) and Returning (1953) were steeped in hope and optimism, if they were an unequivocal rejection of the brutalised human condition, of colonialism, its ambiguities, and its iniquities.

They groped for rich raw material in Guianese mythology and history (“Old Higue” and “The Blood of Quamina”) while stabbing at the imprisoning class barriers, speaking out against stark poverty, injustice, naked and hungry children, and the dehumanisation and degradation of human existence among the labouring masses.

Carter wrote such stirring words as ‘I do not sleep to dream/but dream to change the world’ (in “Looking At Your Hands”) — words which became catch-phrases in the struggle.

His words were far from soporific — they spoke of his anger: ‘How are the mighty slain?/by this hammer of my hand!/by this anger in my life!’ (in “Not I With This Torn Shirt”).

Martin’s poems were of a surprisingly wide range of tone and moods, some of them lyrical and elegiac. “Three Years After This” spoke of the slaughter of five labourers by colonial police at Enmore in June 1948: ‘a lorry rolls-/steel helmets rifles bullets bayonets blood/and five men bleeding on the innocent grass…

Carter it was who made the dispossessed peasants: the niggeryard dweller, the cartman of dayclean, the fisherman setting his tray of hooks, the seller of sweets and the shoemaker with his awl, his African and Carib ancestors, into literary heroes.

He it was who “educated us into the habit of thinking and proposed for our consideration a politics of decency rooted in the moral sense” (see Rupert Roopnaraine, Stabroek News, June 8, 1997).

The suspension of the British Guiana Constitution by the British Government in 1953 brought Martin Carter to prominence for his courage and his defiance of an iniquitous system.

The PPP Party had won 18 of the 24 seats in the general elections but was ousted out of government shortly afterwards on allegations of Communist leanings.

Martin’s intervention in the colonial conversation earned him arrest, detention and imprisonment twice for flouting restriction of movement orders and out of the infamous events of 1953 came the Poems of Resistance.

Anyone who has grown up through Guyana’s turbulent history and partisan divisions cannot fail to identify with Carter’s life and his poetic discourses.

Martin became a poet through political unrest and fifty years later departed this life two days before the 1997 general elections with the country still in unrest — perhaps his final rejection of the mayhem in his “strangled city”. Typical of his life, his funeral service was marked by noisy political protests outside the church.

At the closing of the millennium Martin was already a national icon, a legend in his own time while his poems have become ever more relevant to our still young and fragile democracy.

Carter’s anguished concern for the human condition and, indeed, his passionate commitment to the ideals of freedom have produced some of the world’s most hopeful, tortuous, despairing and intensely private poems.

The Poems of Resistance include the poignant, seminal poems, “The University of Hunger” and “I Come from the Nigger Yard”, which have become symbols of the collective grief and hurt of the Guyanese nation and of oppressed people everywhere. They speak of a global wound that never heals and what rings through the poems of this period is the poet’s defiance:

You come in warships terrible with death
I know your hands are red with Korean blood
I know your finger trembles on a trigger
And yet I curse you — Stranger khaki clad

. . . . . . . ..

Although you come in thousands from the sea
Although you walk like locusts in the streets
Although you point your gun straight at my heart
I clench my fist above my head: I sing my song of

Poems of Resistance also includes Poems of Shape and Motion (1955), Conversations (1961) and Jail Me Quickly (1964), this last collection addresses the racial disturbances of 1962 ‘when the sun and the streets exploded/and a city of clerks/turned a city of men’ (“Black Friday 1962”). After a silence of more than a decade, (during which Carter was Information Minister under the Burnham government for three years), he published Poems of Succession (1977).

Martin had become more reflective of the unyielding social reality, and many later poems had a strong metaphysical import while some of them probed questions of the poet’s craft. But in Poems of Affinity (1980) his indignation and despair reached its height in “Bastille Day – Georgetown”, composed to capture the events of 14th July, 1979 when Jesuit priest, Fr. Darke was murdered in the streets of the capital city while trying to take photographs of street demonstrations as Walter Rodney, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine and other members of the Working People’s Alliance, were brought to court to answer charges of arson.

In “Bastille Day”, Carter writes: ‘I have at last started/ to understand the origin/ of our vileness/and being unable to deny it, I suggest its nativity/In the shame of knowledge of our vileness, we shall fight . . .’. The following year, 13th June, 1980, Walter Rodney was murdered in the streets of the capital city. Martin wrote: “For Walter Rodney”: ‘Assassins of conversation/they bury the voice/they assassinate in the beloved/ grave of the voice, never to be silent . . . I intend to turn a sky of tears for you ‘.

Four Poems and Demerara Nigger (1984) and Bitter Wood (1988) and Four poems from Kyk-over-al Special edition (1993) complete Carter’s oeuvre.

However, although Carter is better known as the poet of resistance (because of dominant recurring images of “prison”, of “stamp foot” and “clenched fist” defiance, of blood and the fiery symbols of revolution), the truth is that his poems are steeped in a humanist aesthetic which encompasses the “many-sided complexity” he speaks of and which transcends the socio-political to cut to the core of the centrality of human experience.

Carter’s poems display a deep concern with refining the human condition but one can easily overlook the fact that there is a vein of love, an architecture of sensuous imagery, running through much of Carter’s poems, a certain fragility of feelings at the heart of the spirit of struggle and resistance.

His last poems are on the theme of love and freedom (“The conjunction” and “No Easy Thing” and “Horses”) — these love poems are very private and elemental to Carter’s being. Here is “No Easy Thing”:

I must repeat that which I have declared
even to hide it from your urgent heart;
No easy thing is it to speak of love
Nor to be silent when it all consumes!

You do not know how everywhere I go
You go with me clasped in my memory;
One night I dreamed we walked beside the sea
And tasted freedom underneath the moon.

Although written in the 1970’s, this poem was pubished in 1993 and one suspects it is precisely because it was “no easy thing to speak about”. This honest revelation about expressing emotions of affection comes from a poet who had told us earlier: . . . ‘think you I do not know/that love is stammered, hate is shouted out/in every human city in this world?’ (“After One Year”)

Martin’s earliest love sonnet, “Shines The Beauty Of My Darling” was published in The Hill of Fire Glows Red in 1951– an admission of the need for love and emotion even in hard struggle and resistance; the poem strives to restore the sustaining power of human relationships, a feature of his writing which guarantees its authenticity and timelessness:

If I wanted
I could make pictures of night
the map of stars above the mass of water
the mass of water underneath the stars
the beauty of my beloved
like a flower bringing dawn light into dark

Only very rarely is it possible to find in poetry the traumatised consciousness juxtaposed and struggling to be healed by the sheer and honest anticipation of love.

While behind the “illiterate door” of the jail in 1953, another love poem, majestic in feeling flowed from him which he named “This Is The Dark Time My Love” (Poems of Resistance):

This is the dark time, my love
all round the land brown beetles crawl about.
The shining sun is hidden in the sky
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow . . . .

Again, from Poems of Succession – The When Time, one is stunned by the depth of feeling of “My Hand in Yours”:

As in sleep, my hand in yours, yours
in mine. Your voice in my hearing
and memory, like the sound of stars
as they shine, not content with light
only. My fingertips walk on your face
gently. They tiptoe as a dream does
away from sleep into waking. In a tree
somewhere a bird calls out. And I wake up
my hand still in yours, in the midst
of the sound of stars and a far bird.

Perhaps Martin Carter’s early exposure at the Sprostons foundry had taught him how to be a wordsmith — how to fashion words with the toughness and muscle of forged metal. He declares: “I speak in metaphors”. At best, his language has been bold, brilliant, and oft-times terrifying.

Through his reckless metaphors and his succinct juxtaposition of words, the “Poems Man” has produced what the Russian critic Victor Shlovsky says all art must do: “to make new rather than merely making known”.

Even after four decades, one still feels a grab at the throat when reading Carter’s poems; one is again stunned by the suddenness of his metaphors and arresting images of his linguistic transactions.

Carter slipped away quietly on 13th December 1997. His poems about the love of freedom and the freedom to love have inspired us to pen one to his memory:

(for Martin Carter)

at the simmering moment just before noon
came a knocking on a distant door
and floated effortlessly on billowy cotton sheets
towards the invisible call
i tossed the fiery flame of half a century
to a shoreless sea
A pure white steed i mounted
and bolted through the wide and treeless expanse
to freedom at last.

Ameena Gafoor
A version of this essay appears in Kyk-Over-All No. 49/50 (2000).

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