By Gemma Robinson
To mark the anniversary of Martin Carter’s death in December 1997, Gemma Robinson looks at the ways in which Carter writes about crisis.
At the beginning of 1955, Martin Carter predicted that this would be a ‘year of heart searches, a year of doubt and genius’. Living in a state of crisis, trying to end imperial control, and hoping to stay true to the ‘movement of the people’, Carter wrote in Thunder that this was not just a ‘time of crisis’ but ‘a time of crisis’. In pathology, the crisis is the turning point in the development of disease for the better or the worse. Carter saw 1955 as the defining moment for his country: it could be a turning point for the liberation movement that had defined his adult life.
He reigned eighteen months and Carter had written: ‘Let us not be fooled by the fraud of the trained colonists. Instead let the national capitalists, the landlords, the local businessmen, the peasants unite against working-class-led Imperialism and ram it as a vicious comoud out of our territory. It was another crisis point. Carter’s heart searches in 1953 spoke of his fears about imminent divisions in a country where he believed social justice, redistribution of power and loyalty across different groups were possible. It was a belief in radical unity across race, gender and class. But what Carter would learn, and as we have learned all over the world in 2020, is that we live repeatedly in times of crisis, and at times.
Carter saw poetry and politics as a whole, finding the consistency between their ambitions. In a short article published in 1974, he wrote:
For being a poet and trying to be one; and get involved in politics which is what we all do, whether we realize it or not, is trying to get a bigger life; deepen the relationship we have with each other; explore one another’s ability to respond to those challenges of being and the thinking and spirit we proclaim as we exist.
Entitled ‘Apart From Both’, the piece was commissioned by the Guyana Institute of Research and Social Action (GISRA). Here Carter sees politics as another way of describing social action and social organization – something that no one can opt out of. Poetry is something to strive for, but poetry and politics are based on effort: ‘to seek a greater life’. And there’s more: they’re both connected by a focus on relationships and curiosity to understand ourselves and each other. However, this is not fixed: the challenges of ‘being and thinking and spirit’ change as we change our ways of existence.
If Carter’s concerns seemed to move us away from the material world of printed music and purely political party, this would be in line with the aims of GISRA. Founded by the Jesuit Father Michael Campbell-Johnston, GISRA’s work can be seen as part of larger movements in 1970s Liberation Theology. Twinned in its attention to the struggles of faith and justice, Liberation Theology campaigned for and defended the rights of people who are uncertain – living in crisis – to have ‘more life’, and it is no accident that Campbell-Johnson’s biography is titled Just Faith, Jesuit Striving for Social Justice.
Carter’s coordinated efforts to face the challenges of his time can also help us understand the poetry and politics that followed throughout his career. ‘Seeking more life’ is closely linked to other expressions of achievement and opportunity. ‘Is there more to life than this?’ we may ask in times of struggle. Carter’s expression feels deliberately open, placing us firmly in the puzzle of ‘being and thinking and spirit’. How should we understand our place in the world in terms of who we can be, how we can think and what we can believe?
These were not just abstract questions. Carter did not seem to have been happy in his recent role as Minister of Information and Culture and in November 1970 resigned from his technocratic appointment. The news made the front page, The Guyana Graphic quoted that he said he wanted to live ‘simply as a poet, staying with the people. . . I will not go hungry. I have friends. . . I have nothing more to say now. I believe in human decency. I believe in people ‘. Phyllis Carter’s comments were reported the following day in the Sunday Graphic article:
When Martin is happy, I’m happy. If he is happy with his decision to leave the Cabinet, I am happy about that decision. After all what matters is that a man is happy in what he does. Martin was clearly unhappy. . . I have lived through many years of crises with my poet husband. Even while he was in government, things for me were pretty much the same. Now, it’s simply a continuation of the life I’ve been living with as a poet. . . Those who know his virtue need no enlightenment, from his contributions to society as a poet.
The ‘many years of crises’ are worn lightly here by Phyllis, and her repetition of Carter’s status as a ‘poet’ is pronounced. In a 1969 letter, CLR James wrote to Carter: ‘I hope you have not shied away from writing poetry completely’. He had not done so.
Carter had discussed a new collection with John La Rose and Sarah White, the founders of New Beacon Books, in early 1970. This collection became Poems of Succession and included a substantial new set of poems called ‘The When Time’ . Carter’s previous publication was back in 1964 – a series of poems called Jail Me Quickly that captured the bursting energy of the time. Alissa Trotz and Arif Bulkan have argued in this newspaper ‘As a Guyanese, we have never found a way to comprehensively account for the legacy of the 1960s’. In light of this, we can understand the concern of CLR James. When the poems were finally published what would Carter’s poetry look like? Was ‘The When Time’ going to replicate the anger, distress and disappointments voiced by Jail Me Quickly (1964) so eloquently and destructively? His last poem concludes: ‘Even the round earth is tired of being round / spinning around the sun’.
Given these last lines, what happens next in Carter’s poetry is remarkable. The zero sum game of social and racial divide, and polarizing winners and losers, continues to make its mark in its work, but in its poetry we do not read about the end of the world, or defeat ‘being and mind and spirit’ . Instead of Carter’s work gives us examples of how to continue, how to start again. Succession Poems have been described by Rupert Roopnaraine as a collection of ‘private wonders’. This is for sure, and in his poetic range we find a body of work that progresses from the personal to the complex. ‘For Milton Williams’ sees Carter addressing Guyana topographies and particular Guyanese friendships: ‘Rivers flowing up mountains for you / what streets there are, inevitable trails’. In ‘On the Death by Drowning of the Poet’, Eric Roach ‘Carter pivots between his empathy for Roach and his commitment to life’ that leaves the fragrance of white wax / frangipani glory, and pain ‘.
One of the most striking poems in the sequence is ‘For Angela Davis’. Dated 1971, he praises Davis ‘revolutionary work, and seeks to explain its importance in the poet’s life:’ a power / love that you cherish / that soothes my tongue / is given to speech / in the necessary workplaces / place freedom is indecent ‘. Carter emphasizes the ‘power of love’, but this is not the reluctance of race politics or Davis’s role in the Black Power movement in the US. It offers an extended metaphor about the importance of Davis’s work, weaving a vision of connected clouds, rain, trees, roots, into imagining a world:
hand contact with fruit
and the fruit of our promise
hope and prayerful love
and the triumph of effort
the pulse always beating.
The metaphor of life and growth extends in many directions. At one reading Davis is the ‘passion tree’ whose watering ‘roots’ will bear fruit, love and hope. Or maybe it’s rain (‘the happy result of clouds’) that helps nurture the ‘passion trees’. ‘Promise’ and ‘prayerful hope’ and ‘victory of effort’ are what Davis’ ‘power of love’ produces.
Throughout the poem, a refreshing role is given. At first ‘Rain blazes’, removing the poetic voice to think of Davis. Rain is the driving force of productive environmental growth and in the last verse is central to a hopeful covenant:
what do i want to do
is the order of the drying ponds
to wet your tired feet and
raise your face
to the gift of a roof
clouds owed to you.
Here the cyclical result of tropical rain is invested daily with the power of restoration and connection across America and beyond. And it is a connection in nature, connecting the human to the land and to the supernatural. The desire to be able to ‘command’ is not a power in itself, but a power to offer comfort and solidarity from afar.
In the early 1990s, Carter appeared on BBC Radio in the UK with Fred D’Aguiar and Grace Nichols and talked about the purpose of poetry. When discussing Nichols’ poem ‘Blackout’, D’Aguiar said, ‘If it wasn’t for the elegance of the writing, it would be a depressing picture’. Nichols had written touchingly that ‘a blackout is endemic to the land’. Carter replied, ‘Of course. She must free herself from exactly what she is saying, so that she knows it better for writing it and thus has acquired considerable psychological distance from the raw, empirical fact. In doing so, of course, there are two gains, I think ‘. He went on to list the proceeds: ‘One is for Grace as a person, and also for people who will read it and who would come to realize that it is possible to know it and not be defeated by it . Thus there is the possibility of victory through works of art; that art should not only be communication – the word everyone is talking about – but also a victory for the spirit ‘.
But what exactly is the ‘victory of the spirit’? Carter always leaves a lot of the work for us to do. I think the ‘victory of effort’ he writes about in ‘For Angela Davis’ is closely linked to the ‘victory of the spirit’. We may want to return to the fundamental challenges of ‘being and thinking and spirit’ in ‘Apart from the Two’, thinking about how we foster the associated processes of becoming, thinking and believing in the face of an unjust world. Victory of the spirit is then partly a belief that we can transform our conditions because we can free ourselves constantly through the imagination.
Fifty years after Carter wrote his poem for her, Angela Davis spoke of her ongoing anti-racist work: ‘It’s organized. This is the work. And if people continue to do that work, and continue to organize against racism and provide new ways of thinking about how to transform our respective societies, that’s what will make a difference ‘. In their work of poetry and politics, Carter and Davis encourage us to do our own work. They show us how we can commit to the effort, not be defeated by what we know, and find a way to continue. And as we conclude another ‘year of heart searches’ and look to 2021 we may remember Carter’s distinction between ‘time of crisis’ and ‘time for crisis’ as the defining moment. While the risk of things getting worse always remains, Carter’s work remains open to those other turning points that can lead to a better future.
Gemma Robinson is the editor of Hunger University: the Collected Poems and Selected Prose of Martin Carter (Bloodaxe).