Autobiography, mortality and explosion of inspiration in McDonald’s latest collection

“The child is father of the man; 

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.” 

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

                         William Wordsworth

                         “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807)

Those immortal lines above by Wordsworth come to mind when confronting the overwhelming volume of verse that comprises Ian McDonald’s New and Collected Poems. This publication draws from several books and puts together in one collection the complete poetical works of this Guyanese (Trinidadian/Caribbean) writer. 

They are varied, deep, with a wide reach of interests and interrogations. There is also an overall preoccupation by McDonald with mortality. Therefore, when we remember Wordsworth’s famous lines, we may call McDonald’s collected poems “An Ode on Intimations of Mortality”.

The several poems are about life – life drunk “to the lees”, life lived expansively, life observed in the finest detail, yet life imagined and contemplated. But what is constantly remembered is life deciduous, transient and ephemeral. These poems elevate the ‘ordinary’, an unending dramatis personae of characters who walked the poet’s real and imagined world – village people, teachers, rakes and the righteous, the autobiographical, his wife and sons – to immortality in lines that will live forever. But the collection is dominated by the constant reminder of mortality.  

McDonald’s New and Collected Poems was published by Peepal Tree Press, UK, in 2018 and includes his poems from 1957 to 2017. It is his latest publication, following eight previous books of poetry, a work of fiction, a play, and two works of non-fiction. But he has also edited and co-edited several other collections and anthologies, including one of his greatest achievements – editorship of Kyk-Over-Al.

This 445-page volume contains a substantial collection of new poems – more than 100 pages of work not seen before in the book’s final section “New Poems”, which, with its various sub-titles, carefully and thematically divided, could stand on its own as a new collection. Critic and fellow poet David Dabydeen, on reading them before publication, remarked at the startling flowering of fresh poems turned out by the veteran writer at this advanced stage of his long career. Among these there are six sub-sections: 1. “Annals”; 2. “Lives”; 3. “Presences”; 4. “Specula-tions”; 5. “Questionings”; and 6. “Matu-rities”.

Even these groups of poems continue to present and question – to interrogate life in all its manifestations and from several different perspectives. As Dabydeen intimated, they are like a fresh explosion of inspired new work coming after eight published collections which are already “annals” – historical records of experiences, observations, personal testimonies and expressions of the imagination. Yet, the 100 pages of new poems startle as they are carried by McDonald’s command of language, the way he can imbue the commonplace with attributes worth mentioning, worth noting and saying something even more about human existence. They benefit from his detailed observation, his eye for images making the reader see things previously unnoticed, not really thought of before.

Autobiography is another important factor in McDonald’s poetry as it features prominently in “New Poems”. Yet it permeates throughout the whole book and is equally prominent in most of the other collections. As poets do, McDonald draws on his considerable experiences and variety of roles in order to shape poems, make commentary and communicate meaning. These move from the personal and the domestic – his wife, Mary (to whom he dedicates several collections) is a subject of praise, of even Petrarchan adoration and worship – a muse. He goes from family (his sons are also subjects) to his life as a sportsman from which we get much of great interest.

McDonald was a lawn tennis champion, playing at Wimbledon, captaining Cambridge, Guyana and the West Indies in the Davis Cup, playing in the Brandon Cup. In Guyana he was dominant on the courts for many years even long past the usual age of retirement. His poems about tennis, or even where tennis was used to reference other things, about sportsmen, and including about ageing rakes, add one of the truly interesting dimensions to many parts of the book.

McDonald has ancestral roots in Antigua, but was born in Trinidad of privileged parents who were fictionalised along with his early years as a boy in his novel The Humming Bird Tree (Heinemann, 1969). Vividly captured there is the colonial St Augustine in Trinidad and relationships between the privileged and the servant class. He attended Queen’s Royal College followed by Cambridge University after which he settled in Guyana, working at Bookers, afterwards the Guyana Sugar Corporation, where he rose to the Directorship of Marketing and Administration. 

He served, first as Co-Editor with A J Seymour, then as Editor after 1989, of Kyk-Over-Al. Additionally, he co-edited other publications such as They Came in Ships: An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry with Joel Benjamin, Lakshmi Kallicharan and Lloyd Seawar; Poems by Martin Carter co-edited with Stewart Brown; and with Jacquelyn De Weever, A J Seymour Collected Poems 1937-1989.

McDonald’s play Tramping Man (1969) was published in a rare Carifesta collection edited by Errol Hill and titled A Time and A Season (1976) following the hosting of the festival in Jamaica.  Like his novel, it is here that McDonald releases post-colonial currents since there is an underlying carpet of resistance to a colonial sensibility in the tramping man’s struggles with the authorities. It is a play of independence and liberation.

This outlook becomes evident sporadically in poems across McDonald’s many collections, all of which are reprinted in New and Collected Poems. These are Jaffo the Calypsonian (1994), Mercy Ward (1988), Essequibo (1992), The Comfort of All Things (2012), Between Silence and Silence (2003), and River Dancer (2016). Additionally, he did publish two sets of Selected Poems in 1983 and in 2008. He won the Guyana Prize for Literature for Essequibo in 1992, for Between Silence and Silence in 2004 and again for The Comfort of All Things in 2012.

Although a preoccupation with ageing, death and mortality runs deep across these books – particularly in Mercy Ward, and in Between Silence and Silence, where the very title echoes it, there are two other strong themes/ focuses. These may be said to counteract the more plaintive repetitions of man’s humanity, which are a celebration of life and the landscape.

Several of the poems are effused with the energy and the aggression of living, of adventure and exploration, of love and of lust. These poems invoke Tennyson’s lines in which Ulysses declares “I will drink life to the lees”. There are so many poems offered here that it would be impossible not to cover a cross section of human experience. As mankind struggles, the poet, like Walcott in Ti Jean and His Brothers, often challenges Christianity and its place among suffering humanity – in one poem he remarks ironically “God should play more”. Tied closely to this, but well above that dark side, is the celebration of landscape and rainforest particularly focused in Essequibo, in River Dancer and in the “New Poems”. Here McDonald joins Mark McWatt and Sir Wilson Harris if not in metaphysics, in journeys into the land. The rivers, the forests and those who inherit those terrains are focused by the poet. 

He is a pastoralist and a Romantic, in the way his poetic philosophy recalls Wordsworth, and expresses an overwhelming awe at Guyana’s interior hinterland, its mighty rivers, trees and birds. While this quality runs through the entire collection, it inspired the titles of two of them – Essequibo and River Dancer. There is even a concern for ecology and the devastating changes to the environment (climate change?) in reasons why “The Sun Parrots Are Late This Year”.

McDonald was conferred with a Doctor of Letters by the University of the West Indies for his outstanding service to literature and the arts in the Caribbean, just as he was also honoured by the Government of Guyana for the same, plus his years as a manager of the country’s sugar industry.  His weekly columns in the Sunday Stabroek demonstrate what is obvious in his poetry – that he is a master of description who can use words to transform the ordinary and commonplace into the sublime and make something significant out of what others might pass over as simple and of little consequence.  

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