It was not the decrepit fence, falling gate
I faced, that shouted that was the place. Just then
I remembered I was passing the corner
where they had told me he lived, just as his voice
snapped out my name like a bolt. Then he came, Lear-like
through the dark frame, with arms stretched wide to be hugged.
Once, we two were bound like brothers. The praises
his talents drew rose in his cup to the brim.
When I clasped that prized memory, did I clutch him?
I heard still, hearing him speak, the same sharp ring
of mind I knew. But bitterness burned his breath.
It cursed his critics, their morals, everything.
Only our friendship seemed safe. He reclaimed
the good years we shared, yeaqrs before confusion
dropped its sledge on his fingers and left him maimed.
Hearing rum’s weighted tongue I wished I could blame
him for letting the stage he had danced on melt
under him. But that was not how I felt.
We did not scream halt when he veered from the road,
did not sound whistles to stop that derailment.
From pain’s silent abyss my remorse bellowed.
All who allowed self-betrayal must bear shame;
must turn and pretend not to see the red flame
that sears his eyes now. Feeling its heat, I winced.
I had wished when we met that the years had rinsed
his heart clean of dark self-doubt, that stakes silence
pushed in had been shifted, the ache had got dull.
I had hoped his words would blaze brightly again,
that the flare of his pen woulod dispel despair.
But in his own dock he was still prisoner.
We sat on his step while Catelli steelband
went by. It was Carnival Tuesday. Pans
pounded out sweet sounds of joy. Yet a largo
wailing regret like a dirge in my head, rose
above the flouncing tempo of calypso
music. Whose strewn, crushed dreams ever arise?
I sat as long as draining futility
would let me bear it. Then with some thin filmy
excuses to leave, dodging barbs from those eyes,
this traitor squirmed an escape and left him there,
once more washing my hypocrite’s hands with lies.
I followed Catelli to help me forget
the irreversible rampage of time.
Helplessness knifed my chest like a bayonet.
But I staggered on with that gash kept secret.
Cecil Gray is a Trinidadian poet who has also written short stories, although he might be better known as an academic and editor. He gave long and distinguished service to the Univer-sity of the West Indies as a lecturer in Educa-tion and an administrator, mainly on the Mona Campus in Jamaica. But although he might have been a poet for as long, and had been publishing poems, his first collection was published quite late in his career.
He has written a number of poems on carnival, and the one reproduced here, Carnival Tuesday, is one of them, which he contributed to Kyk-Over-Al 48, the Special Issue dedicated to Richard Allsopp and edited by Ian Robertson, Ian McDonald and Vanda Radzik in April 1998.
Not surprisingly for a Trinidadian deeply involved in cultural studies, literature and language studies, his understanding of carnival is deep. Then, as a poet, he is able to bring that depth of understanding to the creation of the central metaphor of carnival that runs through the poem as well as to the crafting of the imagery that strengthens it.
Carnival Tuesday is a poem in which the persona crosses the expanse of time to meet an
old friend who has obviously been lost to him. But several unsettled issues throw a shroud over the meeting which the persona seems not too happy about. The old friend who used to be very talented and celebrated seems fallen on lean times, broken and in what appears to be straitened circumstances. The persona is uncomfortable, overcome by a profound sense of guilt and somehow feeling at least partly responsible for the fall of his friend. It is also a sense of betrayal for not only failing to help or save him, but seemingly having turned his back on him and now being insincere in his feigned joy at seeing him again.
All of these are revealed not just in the narrative of the poem, but in its images and its trueness to the season of carnival, since the meeting takes place on Carnival Tuesday in Trinidad. The very opening line is not lost here. The “decrepit fence” and “falling gate” suggest the poverty of this lost friend’s existence because of the ramshackle nature of the dwelling-place and landscape. More than that, however, it also suggests the decrepit state of the man himself, who had somehow fallen from grace, fallen in fortunes, fallen in circumstances. In addition, the persona “faced” this scene as if he was confronting the scene of his guilt.
Even a brief Shakespearean reference is appropriate. He came “Lear-like” to be hugged. Just like this man, Shakespeare’s King Lear was betrayed by those who were supposed to be closest to him. Moreover, he was partly responsible for his plight and reduced circumstances, and had sunk to a tragic state before redemption.
The depth of Gray’s use of carnival may be found in the following. Carnival has its origins in religious rites. The season
falls between Christmas and Lent, both Christian festivals, and Carnival Tuesday is also Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Gray makes full use of this since the Lenten period is supposed to be a rehearsal of Christ’s 40 days before Easter, a period during which one atones for ills and practices purging abstinence. The persona will, perhaps, use this period to reflect on his betrayal.
Gray then makes the most of allusions to Easter, to Good Friday and the crucifixion. He calls himself “traitor,” puts himself in the role of Judas, as well as of Pontius Pilate, “once more washing my hypocrite’s hands with lies.”
The poet then ends the poem with Trinidad carnival imagery. He jumps into the band behind Catelli to “escape,” just like so many revellers. Then when his guilty feelings “(knifes his) chest like a bayonet,” he recalls the Roman soldiers’ treatment of Jesus. Then he ends by staggering off behind the band, reeling from the injury, but at the same time feigning a movement like “chipping” or “palancing” down the road as carnival revellers do.