they bury the voice
they assassinate, in the beloved
grave of the voice, never to be silent.
I sit in the presence of rain
in the sky’s wild noise
of the feet of some who
not only, but also, kill
the origin of rain, the ankle
of the whore, as fastidious
as the great fight, the wife
of water. Risker, risk.
I intend to turn a sky
of tears, for you
During the month of June in Guyana, two things are remembered – the birth of Martin Carter and the assassination of Walter Rodney. The nation’s greatest poet was born on June 7, 1927 and the internationally acclaimed scholar, historian and political leader was assassinated at the height of his most effective period of political activism on ‘Black Friday’, June 13, 1980.
There are several links. Carter and Rodney shared common ground in humanism, politics, radicalism, a proletarian disposition, and in literature. All of these links between the historian and the poet are distinctly present in poetry, and are most effectively expressed in the poem “For Walter Rodney” by Martin Carter.
Rodney is a known authority in post-colonial history, acclaimed for How Europe Under-developed Africa and The History of the Guyanese Working People. His claims, his actual work, his influence and contributions to creative literature are much less emphasized, but they exist. The Groundings With My Brothers was not only an expression of the times when it was written (1968 – 1970) but was a shaper of them. It came out of Rodney’s experiences interacting with the working class population in depressed areas of Kingston in 1968. It was a very influential document in the national (and regional) consciousness, but it also wielded significant power in a developing West Indian literature.
Rodney was not acknowledged as a creative writer, but he did produce works that have some claim as creative literature, though their main area would have been history – Kofi Baadu Out of Africa and Lakshmi Out of India. They are texts about the history of immigration into British Guiana by Africans and Indians, somewhat fictionalised and creatively written to appeal to younger readers and instruct them about the history.
His “groundings” in Kingston as a Marxist, an activist and conscious Africanist in the heights of the Black Power movement in the western world was at the core of the discomfort felt by the conservative and politically right-wing JLP government in Jamaica, which expelled him from the island on October 16, 1968. That expulsion triggered political, social and cultural shock waves that reverberated across the Caribbean, giving rise to new literature and consciousness. There was a much smaller response to his assassination in 1980 in his native Guyana.
The sense of outrage and protest was greater internationally. There were outpourings of tributes in poetry. Actual collections were printed including one published by Bogle L’Ouverture in London introduced by Andrew Salkey with a foreword by David Dabydeen. It is largely an unremarkable volume with outpourings that are more emotional than poetic. It does however, include the work of serious poets such as Carter, Dabydeen, Eddie Kamau Brathwaite, John Agard, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jan Carew and Stewart Brown. A more accomplished collection was published in Nigeria by the Positive Review group then led by Wole Soyinka at the University of Ife.
Many poems were written, often by the foremost poets of the region. However, it eventually led to a kind of fashionable, superficial production of “poems” by all sorts competing to mark their names in the register of the radical, the intellectual and the concerned. These came to be known as “Rodney poems” after a satirical piece by Jamaican poet Edward Baugh in which he created the term. However, Mervyn Morris took it up ironically with “My Rodney Poem” dedicated to Baugh and in memory of Rodney. These were truly accomplished poems that led the proper collection of excellent poems dedicated to Rodney which includes those by Brown, Johnson and Carter.
Carter’s “Rodney poem” demonstrates his connections with the historian in many ways and is one of the most serious and truly excellent poems dedicated to him. Firstly, Carter was involved in active, radical politics of a proletarian and socialist ilk from the 1950s and for most of his life thereafter. He was a prominent member of the PPP and was incarcerated during the British occupation of 1953. He succeeded Janet Jagan as an editor of the PPP theoretical organ Thunder through the 1950s. He was appointed Minister of Information as a technocrat between 1967 and 1971 under the PNC. But in the late 1970s to the 1980s he was actively engaged in public protests and agitation against that same party and government – overtly on the streets and subtly in several poems. He was a sympathiser of the WPA, the party founded by Rodney.
However, contrary to what has been erroneously believed by many, his earliest poems were not political. He started his poetic career with groups of poems such as “The Kind Eagle” and “The Hill of Fire Glows Red” first coming to notice around 1951. He continued to put out these groups with no political content through “Poems of shape and Motion” in 1955 and “Jail Me Quickly” in 1962. His first book of poetry Poems of Resistance from British Guiana, which gave him the “political” label was in 1954 and after that he had different approaches to politics.
His political writings are to be found in Thunder, including what he wrote under the pseudonym “M Black” when his job barred him from political involvement. But in the 1990s he told Vanda Radzik in an interview that he no longer saw politics as of primary importance. He never looked at any engagement as either politics or art, but that always there was a “conjunction” – something “and” something else, which he expressed in the poem “Conjunction”.
And true enough, his poetry has always had, even some of the most obviously political verse, a higher overarching design that transcended the immediate politics. It is “profoundly humanist” as expressed by Eusi Kwayana. Two poems, “Bastille Day” and “For Walter Rodney” demonstrate this adequately.
“Bastille Day” protested the outrageous daylight murder of Father Bernard Darke on a crowded street in Georgetown during a protest march on July 14, 1979. In it, Carter alluded to the popular rising in France – the “storming of the Bastille” in Paris on July 14, 1789. But it was equally concerned with the human condition and a kind of inherent vileness that afflicted his nation. The action carried out by a few murderers suggested “our vileness” and a grave concern for flawed and tainted humanity.
Similarly, Carter turned the murder of Rodney in Georgetown into a deeper wound inflicted upon mankind and a universal tragedy. It was the assassination of “the voice” – representative of human expression. It was a strike not against one man, but aimed at the whole humanity, stifling freedom and existence and the ability to speak. Like Mervyn Morris in “My Rodney Poem”, Carter was the universal humanist, and Rodney was the same – concerned for decent human existence, quite over and above popular politics.
The poem has a central metaphor of rain. Rain is associated with “pathetic fallacy” – when the elements of nature seem to be in sympathy with tragic human circumstances, such as happened to mark the impending assassination of Julius Caesar – “when beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (Shakespeare). The common symbolism is for rain to accompany sadness and to imitate tears. Carter used it with that significance, but is even more profound.
The elements react to the assassination – the heavens “blaze forth” and the poet observed “the sky’s wild noise” – thunder and precipitation. He alluded to mythology and magical belief in “the origin of rain” expressing as myths do, an explanation of the cosmos.
The poet Carter was expressing his feelings at the loss of Rodney, but he turned personal grief into a larger universal response to a great violation. He turned it into “a sky of tears” – true to his central image of rain – and to the way the poem invoked the natural elements, the cosmos, the great universe, in expressing this mourning, which was larger than the individual, that is, not one man – but humanity.