Where peace and concord dwell,
Whose smiling beauties quell
The soul’s inquietude.
O fold thy child
Unto thy bosom warm;
My care-worn spirit charm
With music undefiled!
What thoughts sublime
Thy pageantry calls forth
Of life and death and birth,
Of beauty and of time!
How sweet at morn,
To see high heaven’s arch,
Made glorious with the march
Of Phoebus’ bright return;
To see his rays
Come peeping through the trees
And hear rich symphonies
Ring through the woodland ways! [. . .]
In heat of noon,
How sweet it is to lie
‘ Neath leafy canopy
And hear the wren’s shrill tune
At eve how sweet
To see the herons home,
And out the young birds come
Their parents glad to greet!
[. . .]
J W Chinapen
Baling and throwing
among green canes from rusty punts,
their sweated faces
show how many days and nights have passed
between cane roots and black streams,
sunburnt trashes and parched earth,
wearied days and restless reality.
Their hands and limbs are but frag ments
that walk and bathe,
when sun shines, rains fall and drivers shout.
Who can tell when midday meets
their rest – they eat, they talk? [. . .]
Again and again they will bale and throw,
curse and rest among green canes
and black earth, wishing, wishing …
Me ah wan ole man
Meh come hay lang lang time ago
Deh bring me hay, deh seh me guh guh back
With plenty money
But me still hay.
This land, it gat me sweat in am
Massah seh wuk, me wuk
He seh plant rice, meh plant am
Meh bruk me back
Meh get cramp a meh foot
Meh finga nah even fit fuh scratch wan match
Meh get ole and grey […]
De night a me wan
Whey me guh guh?
Whey me guh guh?
Me a wan ole man
Me ah wan ole man.
Seeta T Mohamed
What can Guyanese poetry tell about 100 years since the abolition of Indian indentureship? It can reflect decolonisation; it can tell a post-colonial tale about 100 years of human development, about 100 years in the evolution of Caribbean poetry, and demonstrate concerns in the history of Guyanese East Indian literature.
These three selections are historically instructive. The first, “Albion Wilds” gives a vivid and true picture of the Indian poetry of British Guiana in the first quarter of the twentieth century. “Creole Gang” and “Ole Man” are both by contemporary writers, although both poems are more than 25 years old. They reflect a different generation, different post-colonial thinking, but oppose each other in approach, form and style.
In 1917 when Gladstone’s indentureship scheme was abolished and the last ship landed with Indian immigrants, British Guianese of the ilk of J W Chinapen would have been rallied by the call of Joseph Ruhomon for cultural and social upliftment. By 1920 when the scheme actually ceased, Chinapen and the Ruhomons (Joseph and Peter), were producing poetry very much like “Albion Wilds”. C E J Ramcharitar Lalla was just a little bit ahead of his peers in terms of independence of form/style/poetic preoccupations.
However, it must be noted that in spite of the earth-shaking work of Leo (Egbert Martin) 30 years before, this colonial Guianese poetry was no different from what was being written in Jamaica and across the West Indies. A good look at Chinapen’s “Albion Wilds” will reveal the colonial quality of close imitation in the poem. The language is the pseudo-poetic versification of a fashionably archaic English borrowed from nineteenth century England. Similarly, there is the preoccupation with landscape and nature purloined from the Romantics with a strong echo of Keats.
In observing that there were no recognisably Guyanese references in clime, vegetation, birds and natural environment, one notices that it is about the wilds of Albion. That is a well-known sugar plantation and village on the lower Corentyne, Berbice, but nothing is recognizable; there is no sense of local place. Then one remembers that Albion is the oldest known name for Great Britain. Further, it is still a poetic name and reference, so, its use by poets is a “poetic” reference, not to anywhere in Guyana, but to the UK. (Derek Walcott – “Albion too, was once a colony like ours.”)
Rooplall Monar has the distinction of having considerably advanced Guyanese East Indian literature since Sheik Sadeek. In the 1980s he produced real reflections of estate life in Backdam People (short stories), Janjhat (novel) and progressive treatment of a local sensibility in Koker (poetry). “Creole Gang” is vastly different from “Albion Wilds” in that the setting can be recognized as the estate in Guyana. It is a more modern style of verse, somewhat natural and free of lofty poetic pretensions. There is consistent post-colonial quality even in the descriptions of the unmistakable landscape of the estate integrated with hardships of existence.
“Ole Man” takes all of that a bit further, confirming the direct treatment of the plantation life as done by Sadeek and Monar. The further step taken is the use of Guyanese Creole, and a creditable rendition of that language as well. There is a dramatisation of where an indentured immigrant finds himself after years on the Guyanese estates. It also has strength as a post-colonial poem.
There is an identifiable persona with references and language that define him. The poem is a very critical comment on indentureship that uses dramatization and point of view in unobtrusive fashion.
It was published under the name Seeta T Mohamed, but the author is now very well known as Dr Seeta Shah Roath.