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Poetry and nationalism
Over the last few months, many treacly stories about the wondrous emergence of our Carnival state have been told and sung. But I’m pretty sure none of those stories included the one that ended on April 17, 1974, when a man born in Tobago in 1915, made his way to Quinam beach, drank a bottle of weedicide, and swam out to sea. The man was Eric Roach; he was a poet. The story is important for two reasons: first, if there were any academy or institution capable of conferring the title, Roach would be the national poet of Trinidad and Tobago.
The second reason is that it was an elaborate, eloquent suicide, and the omission of its message and moral is a grave, but unsurprising, failure of those who have crafted the ideative backdrop of what independence means. Roach killed himself out of frustration and disillusionment—the eloquence in the suicide is that he did it at the beach where Columbus landed. This was his way of addressing history, saying, as he would in one of his last poems (Hard Drought):
…count me among the numberless dead
this grisly century.
I’ve eaten so much history that I belch
boloms of years to come.
Drunk each day’s carnival
I leer and squint at time telescoped
In Jesus’s spear-cleft side.
We shall not build
A kingdom of this world that is not ours.
It’s a grisly story—of his death, and his vision of his presence—but, as anyone looking at the news today would realise, it was and remains a prophetic one. This signals to us that among the many other things he was, Roach was also (as Pound famously said) one of the antennae of the race: the artist whose gifts allowed him or her to sense the future. And what Roach saw, like what other great Trinidadian artists of the time saw (Vidia Naipaul and Derek Walcott, who lived here from the late 50s to the early 1980s), was not comforting.
But these visions of doom are not valuable in themselves. When intimations of pain and ruin are given artistic shape and discipline, they’re known as “tragedy” and the tragic mode is an indispensable element of a nation’s personality and self-image. Without that discipline and skill to transform misfortune into tragedy, all you have is violence and noise, which perfectly describes what passed for our 50th anniversary. (If Roach was even mentioned in the list of heroes provided by the government, it escaped my notice, but read on.)
Because so little is known about Roach today, and at this moment where the national imagination is as open as it’s going to be for some time to figures of epic scale, Roach’s work deserves to be at least acknowledged—if only as an antinomy to the distressing parade of unfortunates who are paraded as heroes.
Roach’s poetic output from 1938 to 1974 is collected in the book, The Flowering Rock. An excellent biography by Laurence Breiner, Black Yeats, was published in 2008. Both books were published by Peepal Tree. Roach was also a playwright and journalist.
A journey through Roach’s poems is like a journey through the evolving consciousness of Trinidad and Tobago. The poems begin in the pastoral, and move through the gravelly road of struggle for self-realisation, romantic yearnings for the ideal, frustrated love, and finally they record the disillusionment of sham independence. His pastoral exuberance bursts from the early poems, like For Freedom (1944):
Look brother, the day dawns!
Look how the edges of the vast dun clouds
Are tipped with silver!
Look how one shaft climbs the sky!
Not many poets could bring off this plain-spoken awe so convincingly. But the awestruck pastoralist evolves, by 1950 (The Flowering Rock), into the Romantic:
Oh, from gaunt rock
As white as sanctity
The lily blooms;
Essence of darkness is
Too pure for fragrance
The distilled stone
The still voice of the skeleton.
And by Independence (1962), the Romantic has become a disillusioned visionary (The World of Islands):
A difficult country to inherit;
guilt is humid in the glittering air;
Grafted at every branch the human wood;
Blooms a bewildering scent, fruits bittersweet.
Small samples of poems do no justice to the talent, the subtleties of perception, and the terrible sense that what is happening to us now was visible from as early as the 1960s. But the samples forcefully suggest that there’s much to learn here.
Roach is one of those rare artists whose life and work mirrored each other, and achieved a grand scale. Roach died in pain, but refused to succumb to an insignificant death, and mere anger.
He chose instead to die with an intricate emotional gesture, which, like his work, has the ability to allow us to feel feelings we haven’t felt, see things we haven’t seen, and consider life and death in terms of more than inevitability and loss. I don’t know how this will play in the triumphalist nationalism many people seem to need. But for those interested in the value of art, and are mature enough for the unpalatable conclusion that defeat is inevitable even for the most noble of souls and causes, the fact that Trinidad and Tobago produced a mind like this is something to celebrate.
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