Glorifying African survivals

The month of August is usually given over in the Caribbean to the commemoration of emancipation.  Several elements of the African cultural presence are given prominence even as one acknowledges that they have waned considerably and are still not fully understood.  In considering this one remembers the Trinidadian poet Eric Roach as an interesting case, and as a writer who has expounded on these matters.

Roach was one of the first strong voices raised against the development of new, radical forms of poetry in the Caribbean around 1970.  He was highly critical of the publication that virtually announced these new developments.  The literary periodical Savacou Numbers 3 and 4 anthologised the first collection of then experimental work among new and rising poets as well as established bards whose work was beginning to reflect the oral traditions and the creole languages.  Roach denounced the very important dub poetry and the political contexts with which much of this new verse was preoccupied.  He complained that they were wallowing in the “murky waters” of race, blackness and slavery.

His outbursts provoked a firm response from critic Gordon Rohlehr who reaffirmed the position that Caribbean verse was developing in its own identity and confronting new realities with the appropriate use of new forms.  These needed different yardsticks for assessment from conventional English poetry.  Roach in the early seventies seemed disillusioned about the poetry and perhaps the politics.  Like Roach, other Trinidadian poets, playwrights and novelists responded in their own way to the rise of Black Power, Africanism and revolutionary politics out of which came the 1970 attempted coup in Trinidad.  These included Earl Lovelace and Mustapha Matura.  But Roach was obviously troubled.  Whether or not the two are related, not long after these developments, by 1975 he committed suicide.

However, Roach had written on the very themes that he denounced in 1971.  What is perhaps his major full-length play, one of his few, Calabash of Blood, reflects slavery and its aftermath.  He wrote a poem Hard Drought in solidarity with the history of the work of Uriah Butler, the struggles of the working class and the bloody rise of trade unionism in Trinidad.  He expresses disappointment with the later ‘heroes,’ politicians who inherited that work, like Eric Williams, seeing them as betrayers of the working people.  He glorified the spirits of the survivals of African religions and revolutionary heroes such as Toussaint.

What is more, he did all of this in good poetry.  Reading some of it and more of it, one is increasingly impressed by his craft, thinking he perhaps deserves a better place in the hierarchy of Caribbean poets than the one he has been credited with.  Hard Drought has some remarkable lines within the very hard emotive lamentations and denunciations that are so prevalent in his work, both poetry and criticism.  He felt these things deeply and expressed them with passion.  What is revealed is that he saw the powerful culture of African vestiges in Trinidad dying and was moved by it.  He felt they were losing not only knowledge and understanding, but significance and respect.  He expresses these lamentations just as emotionally in the poem Verse in August which does not read as if it was written by the same man who dismissed the rising radical poetry of 1970 and was so greatly disturbed by it.

In Verse in August Roach celebrates the cultural traditions that flourished after emancipation such as the traditional drums both religious and secular.  He mentions the bongo, a dance with its peculiar drum rhythm, known as the dance of a death ritual performed at funerals.  It has disappeared and contemporary generations have neither a knowledge of it nor an interest in those kinds of traditions.  He glorifies the kalinda, another drum ritual with accompanying songs performed as an accompaniment to the stick fights, all of which have faded but are now subject to attempts at revival in Trinidad.  Even the language, the patois, or French Creole is hardly used but has a strong continuity in the contemporary speech.  Roach praises the heroes of the stick fight, the courage and valour exhibited in the gayelle.

These were linked with emancipation because they were embraced and performed on August 1 before those traditions waned.  Roach immortalises obeahmen and worshippers in the traditional religions.  But the poem ends with a bitter remark “what’s all my witness for?” He feels a deep sense of loss for heroism, strength, identity and tradition, crying down the lack of respect and appreciation.  Yet he uses a modernist form of verse still fairly unconventional at the time he wrote.  His turns of phrase are sometimes startling and the overall tenor of the verse is progressive, occasionally hovering dangerously close to the very styles that haunted him.

Verse in August
For Frank Collymore


knock drum
draw bow
on fiddle strings
let rhythm jump
and catgut screech
let all time jig
a kalinda and reel
these august freedom days
let dead bones rise
and dance their own bongos

who’ll dance my death farewell?
who’ll trample me a rhythm on my grave?
‘bongo macedonia
viniway viniway bongo’
not my tall sons
they have not seen nor heard
that macabre rime of death
and if they did
i could not answer their disdain
they have inherited another season
in this uprooted suburb
of folk from villages and slums
where dusks brood secret hatreds
and faces are tight shut
from love and friendship.
[. . .]

i saw br’angas once
kneel under killing blows
his poui warding death
’mumma, mumma.
you son in de grave arready
he down in de grave arready’
he rose from that
his fierce eyes bleeding vengeance
his squat thick body leaping
the stick flailing,
the drums choked on a note
and his foes fled.

rum drums and singing men
gambash in the gayelle
carray!.ah bois garcon!
ah ah! ah ah!
‘hooray horrah cutoutah
how much hero you kill in arima?’
bloodshed on freedom day
rum drums and broken heads.
ah august kalindas!
all that long ended
but i have it still
a bright splash on the mind.
[. . .]
the days stand up to bless me
as i die
bedded on my dying century
dreaming the century’s youth
in a good place that’s gone
among the folk i loved
while my own death
howls from a mangy dog
haunting these barren streets.

what’s all my witness for?
why do i wear the poor folk and the years?
eh brother what’s the score?
is the game won or lost?
will i know now
at the breaking bitter last?
do old men know?
Eric Roach

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