The poet’s companion
It is a remarkable quality of poetry that it is inexhaustible. Good poems are capable of new revelations, presenting you with new discoveries, fresh ideas each time you read them, so that you encounter things you never noticed before in the same poem when you read it again.
That quality is one of the particular characteristics of the poetry of Martin Carter and it contributes to his reputation. It is one of the reasons why he is regarded as such an exceptional creative talent and a master of language. Critic Stewart Brown describes him as “one of the great poets of the region, one of those revered voices who have chronicled the journey from colonialism to independence. .. It was too easy for a lazy critic to settle for a version of Carter as the anti-colonial radical who swore to use his shirt ‘as a banner for the revolution’… putting his cause before the necessary craft of making poetry.”
Yet it was that same cause that allowed Carter to address himself to such an inexhaustible range of different situations; to use the particular politics that has troubled his nation since its colonial infancy as a launching ground for larger, more important human and universal concerns. What the “lazy critic” thinks limits him has truly enlarged him and made his verse memorable. It is a factor that Brown recognised when he used a line from Carter as a theme and title for his book of critical works All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter.
And other causes fit comfortably, if not always happily, into his scheme of references, as the memory of his widow Phyllis Carter to whom her nation is still addressing expressions of mourning, and to Rex Nettleford, who followed her only five days later last Tuesday. Carter’s lines can do justice to Nettleford as they have done to other fellow artists in the very potently apposite verses he has dedicated to poets such as Eric Roach and Milton Williams, and personalities like Walter Rodney.
This universal, inexhaustible quality has made Carter very quotable and often quoted. The startling freshness, applicability and mortal truthfulness of some of his images which are among the best in the region’s poetry may be found in such lines as, “atop the iron rooftops of this city / I see the vultures practising to wait.” (Black Friday 1962). Several other writers and critics have drawn from Carter’s lines and used them as titles for their books and articles, as in Assassins of the Voice, which comes from Carter’s Rodney poem – “Assassins of conversation / they bury the voice.” Gordon Rohlehr named a book My Strangled City from Carter’s poem Not Hands Like Mine. He quoted from “Here, right at my feet / my strangled city lies, / my father’s city and my mother’s heart.” Rohlehr’s paper A Carrion Time takes its title from “A carrion time, dead eye of sheep. / No serious hand is ever steady.” in the poem Rain Falls Upwards. Grace Nichols called her novel Whole of A Morning Sky from the lines in Black Friday 1962, “ever since the whole of a morning sky, / glowed red like glory, / over the tops of houses”; and Rupert Roopnaraine’s film The Terror and the Time owes its name to the famous University of Hunger, “passing the ancient bridge / the grave of pride / the sudden flight / the terror and the time.”
Carter’s poems address themselves always to poets, self and audiences in that inspiring, enduring way. At this time they are ready to address themselves to his late wife, Phyllis Carter. She has always remained close to him through his high days of socialist and revolutionary politics in the early fifties, his equally highly charged poetry reading and discussion sessions of the sixties and thereafter. She has shown a keen interest in poetry and the arts and has been involved in and attended nearly every artistic and cultural event as a part of the small audience that haunts such things in Guyana. So Mrs Carter maintained a personal interest in the arts for which she was a patron and supporter. Her history and place in the artistic community made her a likely candidate for service on the Board of Castellani House and she was duly appointed in 2008. She therefore contributed in an administrative capacity to a rich and lively cultural programme.
Phyllis Carter’s history, however, was also closely related to the work and activities of her husband. She lent him support through the period of political crisis. She was hostess at their home in Lamaha Street during the many sessions of reading and discussions of poetry accompanied by animated arguments over philosophy and politics irrigated by generous sprinklings of rum. Among these stories is one about famous novelist George Lamming who was there for a few of these. The celebrated Caribbean luminary lost a few percentage points among his colleagues when it was discovered that he was in the habit of pretending to drink along with them, but was secretly emptying his glass on the floor in a quiet corner.
After Martin’s physical departure, his widow continued to be a consistent agent for the continued life of his verse. Apart from participating in every public programme of readings, presentations and discourse on his work, she was a source of information and facilitator of research as the guardian of his private papers and archival documents.
Carter wrote a few love poems, some of them unambiguously addressed to Phyllis. Letter 2 is foremost among them. It is one of his poems from gaol during his detention by the British when the British Guiana constitution was suspended in 1953. There are legends about how he wrote and smuggled verses out of his place of confinement. In this poem she is directly spoken to, but the poet is also dialoguing with others in a wider expression of solidarity mixed with his personal thoughts.
O my darling!
O my dear wife whose voice I cannot hear.
Tell me, the young one, is he creeping now
and is he well and mischievous as ever?
Or is the cloud so heavy on the land
too deep for him to see the wonderful sky?
I send a kiss to tell you everything
about to-day the twentieth in the distance.
And you comrade, you know
I cannot come to the city in myself
where a garden should be green in the light
they have planted sharp vines of barbed wire
and every footstep is a soldier’s bootstep
marching me down the corridors of silence.
O comrade, if I should try to come now to the struggle,
perhaps their iron garden then will bloom!
The scarlet flower bleeding on the vine
will be my corpse and you will never see me.
In another of this sequence of Poems of Resistance from British Guiana he makes direct reference to her part in the smuggling of poems and notes (On the Fourth Night of A Hunger Strike).
Today my wife brought me a letter from a comrade.
I hid it in my bosom from the soldiers.
They could not know my heart was reading ‘Courage’!
They could not dream my skin was touching ‘Struggle’!
In yet another, he asks her about their baby son, turning his memories and enquiries into hopeful wishes for a brighter future with his characteristic references to the spring of new vegetation and flowers in the poem For My Son.
These green references are in contrast to the consequences of the military occupation which tramples life and dreams in This is the Dark Time, My Love.
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.
It is the love or the loved one that seems to sustain the poet and the one he sees to be in need of comfort and solidarity. In another unnamed love poem that Stewart Brown explains was written in the 1960s but never published by him, the greenness and beauty returns in the things he searches for and associates with his lover.
Wanting to write another poem for you
I searched the world for something beautiful
the green crown of a tree offered itself
because its leaves were combed just like your hair.
The sea wind brushes and the light rains wash
and crystal jewels cling to every twig
while tender are the tears in lovers’ eyes
sleep all those tiny blossoms yet to bloom!
Outside my window, law unto itself
this tall green crown confirms an oath I swore
with mighty roots invisible in earth
and amongst seeds that war with God and die.
Phyllis Carter was a beauty in the poet’s life and he has immortalized her in verse. Although there are specific references to her in love poems, there are others with no specific indication; but there is always a common association of his wife with sustenance, comfort, and green things that bloom.