To mark the anniversary of Martin Carter’s passing in December 1997, Gemma Robinson looks beyond the historic landmarks and considers Carter as he was writing forty years ago.
Writing these annual essays on Martin Carter, I have been drawn to observe important anniversaries: landmark publications that have shaped Caribbean literature, political events that reverberate even now. This year I challenged myself to look for a Carter anniversary that might normally go unmarked and see what we might learn from the work he produced then. So what, I asked, was Carter writing in 1975, forty years ago? 1975 has never been thought of as a key date Carter’s life and work. He went to the University of Essex in England as a writer in
residence, but it is not clear that the residency was a very productive time. Carter never wrote about the experience of being at the University, despite the dynamic Latin American Studies programme that occasioned his invitation. Of the poems that we can date there are four Carter poems written in 1975: ‘Whence Come They’, ‘There is No Riot’, ‘Two in One’, which all appear in Poems of Succession (1977), and ‘Bent’, which was not published until 1980 in Poems of Affinity. However, the pleasures of Carter’s work have never been found in its bounty but in its eloquence. In that sense 1975 was a fine year for writing, and the poem ‘Whence Come They’ can be heard in many different ways.
In concluding his review of Poems of Succession, A. J. Seymour quoted the poem in full:
Whence come they, these urgent visitants
who do not warn of their coming?
How long has each been waiting
outside this door, this house, this room
silent and invisible, always waiting,
always there, impatient and enduring
the deaf ear, blind eye, idle hand
and distracted heart? I hardly know
how to say thanks. But I am grateful
to be so glad that they never went away.
Seymour, who was interested in the riddle-like qualities of Carter’s poetry couldn’t resist reading the poem and solving it: ‘Among the visitants, poetry has always been waiting on the revolutionary vision and still waits.’ Based on the clues in the poem Seymour sensibly guesses that this is a poem about poetry. ‘Whence Come They’ prioritises the unnamed ‘they’, and seems to encourage the discovery of their identity. But this is not what the questions in the poem demand. Constituted by two questions and two statements, the poem never explicitly suggests that the identity of the ‘visitants’ will provide any answer to the poem. Carter is interested more in asking where ‘they’ come from and how long have ‘they’ been here, yet he does not even answer these questions. Instead the poem ends with a statement about the need for an expression of gratitude, an expression which the poet cannot fully offer.
This deferral of answers and statements that are demanded by the poem can seem stubborn, particularly when the poem can be read as a reply to William Morris’s ‘The March of the Workers’. William Morris’s late nineteenth-century Socialist work provided Carter with an example of revolutionary verse. The title of the PPP’s journal, Thunder, came from Morris’s poem and was quoted as a banner on every issue: ‘Hark the rolling of the thunder! / Lo the sun! and lo thereunder / Riseth wrath, and hope, and wonder’. Appearing in Morris’s Chants for Socialists (1885) the poem tracks the rising collective consciousness of the ‘workers’ and their ultimate victory over ‘ye rich men’: ‘On we march then, we the workers, and the rumour that ye hear / Is the blended sound of battle and deliv’rance drawing near’.
In ‘Whence Come They’, an older Carter revisits ‘The March of the Workers’ and draws on its vocabulary, and its questioning impulses. Here is a source for Carter’s poem:
What is this, the sound, the rumour? What is this that all men hear,
Like the wind in hollow valleys when the storm is drawing near,
Like the rolling on of ocean in the eventide of fear?
‘Tis the people marching on.
Whither go they, and whence come they? What are these of whom ye tell?
In what country are they dwelling ‘twixt the gates of heaven and hell?
In quoting directly from ‘The March of the Workers’, Carter could have tuned his poem to Morris’s ‘blended sound of battle and deliv’rance’, but ‘Whence Come They’ is more syncopated in its accompaniment to Morris.
A marching poem can reveal the rhythmic possibilities of a riddle when it is used to promote a pattern of call and response, and the first stanza of ‘The March of the Workers’ offers us a neat example. Question: ‘What is this [. . .]?’ Answer: ‘’Tis the people’. The ‘urgent visitants’ are as insistent as the marching workers, but what makes Carter’s poem syncopated is the focus on one of Morris’s secondary questions. In ‘The March of the Workers’ Morris swiftly deals with his question, ‘whence come they’, and moves on to answering another before the line ends: ‘Forth they come from grief and torment; on they wend toward health and mirth’. Yet Carter grasps a sophistication and complexity in the question (and answer) that Morris passes over. While Morris strides out his goal of battle and deliverance, Carter registers the silent power of persistent (even sacred) attendance.
‘Whence Come They’ may be as socially driven as ‘The March of the Workers’, but the move from the goal of deliverance to the patience of attendance and the power of visitation, offers Carter a way to confront impediments to revolutionary belief (‘the deaf ear, blind eye, idle hand / and distracted heart’) without having to sacrifice hope. But even if the poem is not socially driven, Carter offers us a lesson in reading and writing riddles. In his unpublished notes from 1979, Carter continued his study of riddles and evolved a twelve item list entitled ‘Dimensions of the Riddle’. The first point he makes is: ‘A riddle is the result of the effort to include the inclusible to bursting point’. ‘Inclusible’ is a new word (recalling the includible and the inclusive) and it shows how Carter was building for himself a mode of writing whose defining feature was its pressurizing expressivity. If Carter viewed riddles as driving comprehensiveness to a limitless conclusion (to ‘bursting point’), his poetry in 1975 was pushing in the same direction.
To return to ‘Whence Come They’, poetry and social revolution are plausible glosses for the identity of the ‘urgent visitants’, but the poem offers no limits for their identity. Indeed Carter’s notes on riddles reconfirm that his interest did not lie in the discovery of particular answers, but in characterising a process of thinking. In Item 2, Carter writes, ‘a riddle differs from a detective story in that which the detective story mis-directs, the riddle re-directs’. Item 3 reminds us that ‘focussing of attention is one function of the riddle’. The identity of the visitants is, therefore, less important than the redirection of thought and the focussing of attention. In this sense Carter’s visitants are closely associated with the poet’s frame of mind.
Their attendance upon the poet and his surroundings is ‘impatient and enduring’ – a visitation which insistently provokes ‘the deaf ear, blind eye, idle hand / and distracted heart’ to hear, see, touch and feel. This sensory invocation cannot confirm any new-found freedom, but that is consistent with the technical lessons which Carter draws from riddles, for surely with the best riddles we remain impatient to solve them, and their questions remain enduring.
Thinking laterally, it might be helpful to consider the relationship between Kamau Brathwaite’s neologised ‘Arrivants’ – the new world travellers of the Caribbean – and Carter’s insistently temporary, but in fact no less permanent, ‘visitants’. In his trilogy Brathwaite explores the terrors, pleasures and dilemmas of arrival (in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Europe, in the Americas). Carter interrogates how the temporary visitants have become permanent. Both use nouns that elude particularized space, time, race, class, and gender even as these absences force reflection on them. It would not be too fanciful to provide a Caribbean gloss of ‘Whence Come They’ and describe it as a condensed poem about Caribbean origins and identity. But that would be limiting: Carter wrote for the past, present and future. In his notebook Carter wrote that riddles were questions and answers that had to be asked and stated ‘inexhaustibly’. ‘Whence Come They’ is one of those inexhaustible riddling poems, written during a year that we have overlooked, but beating out a rhythm for our times nonetheless.