Inexhaustibly, it becomes more evident that some poems are applicable to real social and political situations. Sometimes the poet addresses them to specific events or subjects, but they invariably manage to speak to issues, outcomes or feelings well beyond a specific intention because of the truths contained in the poetry.
Take Martin Carter’s “Bastille Day – Georgetown”, for instance, which came to mind because July 14 is a notable anniversary. Carter wrote the poem with references to incidents that took place in Guyana in the late 1970s, but the poem transcends those to have several important reference points that are dealt with in the work and may even be more important than the factual occurrences. They cover the poet’s humanitarian concerns and universal issues made more outstanding because of their historical allusions. The setting of the poem acts as a platform from which other preoccupations are explored.
July 14 is Bastille Day, a national holiday called La Fete Nationale, celebrated with sundry displays, official ceremony and public festivities in France. It glorifies the French Republic and expresses sentiments of liberation and republicanism, but it is the anniversary of a significant historical event that is said to have been responsible for France becoming a republic.
On that day in 1789 the famous “storming of the Bastille” took place in Paris during the French Revolution in the reign of King Louis XVI, and “Bastille Day” was first celebrated on the anniversary in 1790 when the people claimed victory over the monarchy which brought an end to the Revolution. The Bastille was a medieval fortress in which political prisoners were kept along with others who were incarcerated on the orders of the king and had no recourse to justice or appeal. The Bastille was therefore a symbol of the “absolute monarchy” and the ancien regime of royal authority which the revolutionaries sought to dismantle.
A crowd of people marched to the fortress-prison, broke in and freed the prisoners. Although there were only seven there at the time the act was of symbolic significance as a turning point in the revolution and has been known thereafter as a symbol of the rise of the modern French nation and, indeed, of the achievements of the revolution itself.
It also saw an end to feudalism in France. The day in history has therefore become venerated by revolutionaries and held up as a symbol of the rise of the people against tyranny, with popular victory, proletarian causes and with resistance generally. The storming of the Bastille has been elevated well above and beyond the immediate context of the historical occasion in Paris and the actual details of the event and always regarded as an inspirational monument of the class struggle everywhere.
It is that historical reference point that informs Carter’s poem and its title “Bastille Day, Georgetown”. A story has been told of how the poem came to be written, or how it came to be given that title. Martin Carter and others were engaged in one of their many sessions in a rum shop in South Georgetown. A major activity at these sessions was intellectual discussion about various topics including politics. The politics of the 1970s was dominated by the worst experiences of the PNC rule that carried over into the eighties, the resistance to it and the active suppression of dissent and free speech. Those were the topics in flow along with the rum at that South Georgetown session at which the evils of the regime and the hardships of the people were being analysed. An acquaintance of Carter, Ivan Forrester known as “Farro” came along and saw the group. When he heard the drift of the discussion which seems to be leading to the need for something to be done about the situation, Farro asked “but when shall we storm the Bastille?”
The symbolic storming of the Bastille would have appeared an appropriate revolutionary activity and would have been a ready and fertile metaphor among poets. Carter is said to have remembered this when putting this poem together. But the events on which it is based arose out of a public march of the people on the streets of Georgetown when they seem to have decided that it was indeed time to storm the Bastille. It was in the height of Working People’s Alliance (WPA)-led agitation against government actions. Three leading members of the party, Walter Rodney, Omowale and Rupert Roopnaraine were on trial, accused of burning the PNC Headquarters building and the mood of public resistance was high. There was a protest march in the city.
Carter’s poem is based on the murder in broad daylight of Father Bernard Darke, a Roman Catholic priest associated with the Catholic Standard news sheet, who was taking photographs of the demonstration. He was pounced upon and knifed to death on the street by a man suspected of being a member of the House of Israel and one of the political thugs belonging to a group infamous for attacking WPA public meetings. This happened on July 14, 1979, Bastille Day.
The poet would have seen it as ironic that on a day when people were marching for liberation, just as they did in Paris in 1789, “our Bastille Day” as he saw it, was a day when the society was demonstrating just how imprisoned the people were. They were in that condition because of how easy it was for one of them to have been enlisted to commit such an act — the cold-blooded murder of a priest in broad daylight — for “a pot of rice”. The poet saw in this act “the origin of our vileness”, meaning he was taking it above the immediate event and placing it in the context of a human condition. It is a tragic condition in which men could be placed in such low positions that they could be enlisted by their oppressors to set upon fellow sufferers in this way.
Carter expresses the same kind of “shock” and “denial” that he utters in an earlier poem Black Friday 1962 in which he condemns the racial disturbances and violence of man against man that fuelled the flames at that time. He is concerned with the states of humanity and their willingness to perform in a carnival of slaughter “and death designing all”. It is a mock performance in circumstances when people should be exerting these energies towards their freedom.
The recent commemorative activities for the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Walter Rodney would have given the impression that Guyanese society is still imprisoned by similar ironies. The celebration of a man whose life was dedicated to liberation of the people highlighted the depth of bitter divisions. There is a failure to unite in an atmosphere of destructiveness in an over-politicised culture that plagues Guyana even as the country pays tribute to a man who was martyred for the very cause of freedom and unity. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the WPA were partners fighting a common cause in the seventies and eighties, but 2010 finds the flames of disunity still ablaze.
BASTILLE DAY – GEORGETOWN
Not wanting to deny, I
believed it. Not wanting
to believe it, I denied
our Bastille day. This,
is nothing to storm. This
fourteenth of July. With
my own eyes, I saw the fierce
criminal passing for citizen
with a weapon, a piece of wood
and five for one. We laugh
Bastille laughter. These are
not men of death. A pot
of rice is their foul reward.
I have at last started
to understand the origin
of our vileness, and being
unable to deny it, I suggest
In the shame of knowledge
of our vileness, we shall fight.