A death at Christmas – last memories of AJ Seymour

At lunchtime on December 18, 1989, AJ Seymour (AJS) phoned to ask me if I would be very kind and pass for him that afternoon to take him to the Guyana Prize Awards Ceremony at the Cultural Centre. The old man was always courteous. He took no favour asked for granted. I said of course I would be delighted.

The Guyana Prize Awards Ceremony was exactly the sort of event which AJS had been inspiring, encouraging, assisting, contributing to, sponsoring, god-fathering, and often single-handedly creating for his people for over 50 years. His distinction was solid and lasting as a greenheart tree. Growing and alive, it was beautiful. Even cut down it would last as long as forever lasts.

At the Cultural Centre I went on the platform with AJS and we sat next to each other waiting for the President to arrive and the Awards Ceremony to start. I told him the latest issue of Kyk-Over-Al, No 40, badly delayed at the printers, was about to come out at last. He leaned over and pressed my arm. “That is wonderful. Ah, Ian, Kyk, what a time that was!” Forty-four years before, in 1945, he brought out Kyk No 1 and for the next 16 years virtually alone he regularly edited and sometimes almost entirely wrote one of the two most important literary magazines in the West Indies, thus incalculably ministering to the region’s cultural life, the region’s artistic self-confidence, and even the region’s political development.

The President was a little late. Before he arrived, AJS turned again to me and asked a strange, sad question:

“Ian, do you think people still feel I serve any purpose?” He was serious and intent.

I was silent, what else could I do? Is this what the old age of our great men comes to, that it can ask such a sad and terrible question? Are we to blame, who come after? I searched desperately for some sort of reply:

“Arthur, you represent all that is the best in our lives.” The words were wholly inadequate, but he seemed satisfied.

“Thank you. I am glad.” He had that deep courtesy, the carefulness not to hurt others.

During the Awards Ceremony AJS sat stately, intent on the proceedings. Rex Nettleford gave his address: Seymour and Nettleford, matching stars in the West Indian firmament. Al Creighton gave the judges’ report: excellence must rule. David Dewar, accompanied by the Police Force Band, sang “Salute to Guyana” and AJS leaned over and whispered: “Lovely, lovely.” The President presented the awards.

But as time went by I thought AJS began to look a little agitated. He looked through me once or twice as if watching something far, far away. When Martin Carter, a Prizewinner, came to read his great poem “Returning” AJS leaned forward, concentrating, then turned towards me:

“That is Martin Carter. I published him in Kyk. He is the finest young poet.”

At the end of the Awards Ceremony AJS looked worried. As the President got up to leave AJS turned to me and said he had lost his purse. I said I did not think he had brought a purse. “I have lost my purse.” I asked him what was in the purse. “A few poems.” On the stage for a while I helped him look for the lost purse of poems, but we did not find it. I went with him up the aisle towards the exit, holding his arm. His steps were slow. His face was serious. A gallant old gentleman, smart in his dark suit and well-tied bow-tie, he went slowly out of the Cultural Centre he had graced one last time.

In the car outside I offered to take him home, he looked so tired, but he wanted very strongly to go to the supper the Vice-Chancellor was giving in honour of the Guyana Prizewinners. I should have taken him home. On the way to the supper, in the car, I think now I know exactly when the killing stroke hit him. We were talking about Jacqueline de Weever, his much-loved niece in New York, and I had asked him what she was doing now. He began to reply, “She is teaching…”and lost the thread suddenly and never again found it. I did not press him. He was tired and to be forgetful was his privilege. We shared the silence. At the Vice-Chancellor’s he had to be helped very slowly up the steep stairs.

It brings tears to my eyes to think how alone and puzzled and afraid he must have been at that dinner. People tried politely to keep him company, brought him drinks of red sorrel, helped him to food, talked to him comfortingly. Some instinct, an ingrained bravery of spirit, kept him going. But his mind was awry, his eyes were lost. By the end of the evening he was in a state of collapse, his left arm crumpling, and three of us had to lift him down the stairs and carry him to the car. He is heavy, I thought. It was a dark night, but the stars were piercing bright and it flashed in my mind to think how many lovely nights he had seen in his time and what poems he had made of them. All his life he had praised beauty.

Martin and Phyllis Carter came in the car with me to see him home. At 23 North Road, Martin – thank God for his burly strength – and I got AJS out of the car and to the door, which Elma anxiously opened for us, and up the stairs to the living room where we laid him down on a couch. He looked at us, but his eyes were lost. Elma loosened his bowtie and gently took off his jacket and his black-shone shoes and comforted him, told him that it would be all right now. Phyllis was there to help. We did not know what more to do. Elma said she would care for him, that it would be all right. After a while we left. Elma thanked us for looking after AJS and bringing him home safe. The Seymours are courteous, proud people. As we went down the stairs she was talking quietly to him, comforting him, telling him it would be all right. After all she had cared for him for 52 years. Later, I heard she hurt her shoulder lifting him. How could she have got him to his bed that night? She trusted God’s strength in her.

AJS was taken by ambulance to the Medical Arts Centre on Wednesday evening, December 20. The following day I visited him, bringing a copy of Kyk-Over-Al No 40, which Gordon Forte and just brought for me from the Maranatha Press. AJS lay sleeping I went up and called his name and he slowly and with hard effort opened his eyes. “Arthur, it is Ian here.” He nodded but could not speak. I showed him the new Kyk with Stephanie Correia’s beautiful “Chant to Mother Earth” inscribed on the cover. I told him it was a beautiful issue. He could be proud of it. I made myself think he tried to smile. He closed his eyes again and gave a weary sigh. I sat a while and thought about him and his great life. John Updike had written “What a good use of life, to have created one beautiful book”. And AJS had created scores of beautiful books. When I left I said, “Goodbye Arthur” but he did not respond. I carried the copy of Kyk with me to give to Elma. He had told me long ago that he always gave the first copy of anything he published to her.

The last time I visited there was no recognition. I sat by his bed and called his name but there was nothing. He slept, his breathing laboured, his head wet with perspiration, an old, good man going to his death. I sat by him and held his hand for a long time. Sometimes there was life in his fingers and I looked to see if he would wake but he did not wake. I sat holding his hand with my memories of him until it was dark, and I felt it was time to go. At first, he had been like a father to me and later I had been like a son to him. I closed my eyes and dreamed and said a

confused prayer. The best of his poetry would live forever. He must have known that. He was so many good things but most of all a poet. “Name Poem,” “Over Guiana, Clouds,” “Sun Is A Shapely Fire”, “The Legend of Kaieteur,” “For Christopher Columbus,” “There Runs a Dream,” “Tomorrow Belongs to the People,” “I Heard a Rooster Call.” Though he dies, they are imperishable. But then, sitting with him for the last time, hand in his hand for his comfort and for mine, as the dark came outside, it was not one of these great poems that came to me. Earlier in the year, on his 75th birthday, in a small gathering of family and friends, he had read a new poem to us lucid as sunlight, refreshing as the wind pouring through the windows of his Bourda home:

“Bless Father God, I pray,

The gift of my birthday,

This milestone – I alive

At age of seventy-five.

Bless, Holy Spirit, bless

With Thine own holiness

All that I do and say

As from Thy will today

And Jesus Christ, Thy Son,

May all His Grace be done.”

The clear, low voice of the great old man, the old poet, saying the simple, clear, shining lines had brought silence in the room then. Now, half-dreaming, hand in hand, beside the old man who could not any longer speak his clear and shining lines, I sensed the greatness of his spirit come near enough to touch and move me one last time as the greater silence gathered like a welcoming.

My dear friend Arthur died on Christmas Day, 1989.

Ian McDonald

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