GUYANA UNDER SIEGE
Derek Walcott: The
Fragments of Epic Memory
FELICITY is a village in Trinidad on the edge of the Caroni plain, the wide central plain that still grows sugar and to which indentured cane cutters were brought after emancipation, so the small population of Felicity is East Indian, and on the afternoon that I visited it with friends from America, all the faces along its road were Indian, which, as I hope to show, was a moving, beautiful thing, because this Saturday afternoon Ramleela, the epic dramatization of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, was going to be performed, and the costumed actors from the village were assembling on a field strung with different-coloured flags, like a new gas station, and beautiful Indian boys in red and black were aiming arrows haphazardly into the afternoon light. Low blue mountains on the horizon, bright grass, clouds that would gather colour before the light went. Felicity! What a gentle Anglo-Saxon name for an epical memory.
Under an open shed on the edge of the field, there were two huge armatures of bamboo that looked like immense cages. They were parts of the body of a god, his calves or thighs, which, fitted and reared, would make a gigantic effigy. This effigy would be burnt as a conclusion to the epic. The cane structures flashed a predictable parallel: Shelley's sonnet on the fallen statue of Ozymandias and his empire, that "colossal wreck" in its empty desert.
Drummers had lit a fire in the shed and they eased the skins of their tables nearer the flames to tighten them. The saffron flames, the bright grass, and the hand-woven armatures of the fragmented god who would be burnt were not in any desert where imperial power had finally toppled but were part of a ritual, evergreen season that, like the cane-burning harvest, is annually repeated, the point of such sacrifice being its repetition, the point of the destruction being renewal through fire.
Deities were entering the field. What we generally call "Indian music" was blaring from the open platformed shed from which the epic would be narrated. Costumed actors were arriving. Princes and gods, I supposed. What an unfortunate confession! "Gods, I suppose" is the shrug that embodies our African and Asian diasporas. I had often thought of but never seen Ramleela, and had never seen this theatre, an open field, with village children as warriors, princes, and gods. I had no idea what the epic story was, who its hero was, what enemies he fought, yet I had recently adapted the Odyssey for a theatre in England, presuming that the audience knew the trials of Odysseus, hero of another Asia Minor epic, while nobody in Trinidad knew any more than I did about Rama, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, apart from the Indians, a phrase I use pervertedly because that is the kind of remark you can still hear in Trinidad: "apart from the Indians".
It was as if, on the edge of the Central Plain, there was another plateau, a raft on which the Ramayana would be poorly performed in this ocean of cane, but that was my writer's view of things, and it is wrong. I was seeing the Ramleela at Felicity as theatre when it was faith.
Multiply that moment of self-conviction when
an actor, made-up and costumed, nods to his mirror before stopping on
stage in the belief that he is a reality entering an illusion and you
would have what I presumed was happening to the actors of this epic. But
they were not actors. They had been chosen; or they themselves had chosen
their roles in this sacred story that would go on for nine afternoons
over a two-hour period till the sun set. They were not amateurs but believers.
There was no theatrical term to define them. They did not have to psych
themselves up to play their roles. Their acting would probably be as buoyant
and as natural as those bamboo arrows crisscrossing the afternoon pasture.
They believed in what they were playing, in the sacredness of the text,
the validity of
Consider the scale of
We make too much of that long groan which underlines the past. I felt privileged to discover the ibises as well as the scarlet archers of Felicity.
The sigh of History rises over ruins, not
over landscapes, and in the
And this is the exact process of the making
of poetry, or what should be called not its "making" but its
remaking, the fragmented memory, the armature that frames the god, even
the rite that surrenders it to a final pyre; the god assembled cane by
cane, reed by weaving reed, line by plaited line, as the artisans of Felicity
would erect his holy echo.
Deprived of their original language, the
captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting
fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but
to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued
by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of
places accepted like Felicity village or Choiseul. The original language
dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an
ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the
same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making
his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity,
even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing,
elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience,
this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal
vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed
but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack,
the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the
And here they are, all in a single
A culture, we all know, is made by its cities.
Another first morning
home, impatient for the sunrise - a broken sleep. Darkness at five,
and the drapes not worth opening; then, in the sudden light, a cream-walled,
brown-roofed police station bordered with short royal palms, in the colonial
style, back of it frothing trees and taller palms, a pigeon fluttering
into the cover of an cave, a rain-stained block of once-modern apartments,
the morning side road into the station without traffic. All
part of a surprising peace. This quiet happens with every visit
to a city that has deepened itself in me. The flowers and the hills are
easy, affection for them predictable; it is the architecture that, for
the first morning, disorients. A return from American seductions used
to make the traveller feel that something was missing,
something was trying to complete itself, like the stained concrete apartments.
Pan left along the window and the excrescences rear - a city trying to
soar, trying to be brutal, like an American city in silhouette, stamped
from the same mould as
In serious cities, in grey, militant winter
with its short afternoons, the days seem to pass by in buttoned overcoats,
every building appears as a barracks with lights on in its windows, and
when snow comes, one has the illusion of living in a Russian novel, in
the nineteenth century, because of the literature of winter. So visitors
They know nothing about seasons in which leaves let go of the year, in which spires fade in blizzards and streets whiten, of the erasures of whole cities by fog, of reflection in fireplaces; instead, they inhabit a geography whose rhythm, like their music, is limited to two stresses: hot and wet, sun and rain, light and shadow, day and night, the limitations of an incomplete metre, and are therefore a people incapable of the subtleties of contradiction, of imaginative complexity. So be it. We cannot change contempt.
Ours are not cities in the accepted sense, but no one wants them to be. They dictate their own proportions, their own definitions in particular places and in a prose equal to that of their detractors, so that now it is not just St. James but the streets and yards that Naipaul commemorates, its lanes as short and brilliant as his sentences; not just the noise and jostle of Tunapuna but the origins of C.L.R. James's Beyond a Boundary, not just Felicity village on the Caroni plain, but Selvon Country, and that is the way it goes up the islands now: the old Dominica of Jean Rhys still very much the way she wrote of it; and the Martinique of the early Cesaire; Perse's Guadeloupe, even without the pith helmets and the mules; and what delight and privilege there was in watching a literature - one literature in several imperial languages, French, English, Spanish - bud and open island after island in the early morning of a culture, not timid, not derivative, any more than the hard white petals of the frangipani are derivative and timid. This is not a belligerent boast but a simple celebration of inevitability: that this flowering had to come.
On a heat-stoned afternoon in Port of Spain, some alley white with glare, with love vine spilling over a fence, palms and a hazed mountain appear around a corner to the evocation of Vaughn or Herbert's "that shady city of palm-trees", or to the memory of a Hammond organ from a wooden chapel in Castries, where the congregation sang "Jerusalem, the Golden". It is hard for me to see such emptiness as desolation. It is that patience that is the width of Antillean life, and the secret is not to ask the wrong thing of it, not to demand of it an ambition it has no interest in. The traveller reads this as lethargy, as torpor.
Here there are not enough books, one says,
no theatres, no museums, simply not enough to do. Yet, deprived of books,
a man must fall back on thought, and out of thought, if he can learn to
order it, will come the urge to record, and in extremity, if he has no
means of recording, recitation, the ordering of memory which leads to
metre, to commemoration. There can be virtues in deprivation, and certainly
one virtue is salvation from a cascade of high mediocrity, since books
are now not so much created as remade. Cities create a culture, and all
we have are these magnified market towns, so what are the proportions
of the ideal
This is the visible poetry of the
If you wish to understand that consoling pity with which the islands were regarded, look at the tinted engravings of Antillean forests, with their proper palm trees, ferns, and waterfalls. They have a civilizing decency, like Botanical Gardens, as if the sky were a glass ceiling under which a colonized vegetation is arranged for quiet walks and carriage rides. Those views are incised with a pathos that guides the engraver's tool and the topographer's pencil, and it is this pathos which, tenderly ironic, gave villages names like Felicity. A century looked at a landscape furious with vegetation in the wrong light and with the wrong eye. It is such pictures that are saddening rather than the tropics itself. These delicate engravings of sugar mills and harbours, of native women in costume, are seen as a part of History, that History which looked over the shoulder of the engraver and, later, the photographer. History can alter the eye and the moving hand to conform a view of itself; it can rename places for the nostalgia in an echo; it can temper the glare of tropical light to elegiac monotony in prose, the tone of judgement in Conrad, in the travel journals of Trollope.
These travellers carried with them the infection of their own malaise, and their prose reduced even the landscape to melancholia and self-contempt. Every endeavor is belittled as imitation, from architecture to music. There was this conviction in Froude that since History is based on achievement, and since the history of the Antilles was so genetically corrupt, so depressing in its cycles of massacres, slavery, and indenture, a culture was inconceivable and nothing could ever be created in those ramshackle ports, those monotonously feudal sugar estates. Not only the light and salt of Antillean mountains defied this, but the demotic vigour and variety of their inhabitants. Stand close to a waterfall and you will stop hearing its roar. To be still in the nineteenth century, like horses, as Brodsky has written, may not be such a bad deal, and much of our life in the Antilles still seems to be in the rhythm of the last century, like the West Indian novel.
By writers even as refreshing as Graham Greene, the Caribbean is looked at with elegiac pathos, a prolonged sadness to which Levi-Strauss has supplied an epigraph: Tristes Tropiques. Their tristesse derives from an attitude to the Caribbean dusk, to rain, to uncontrollable vegetation, to the provincial ambition of Caribbean cities where brutal replicas of modern architecture dwarf the small houses and streets. The mood is understandable, the melancholy as contagious as the fever of a sunset, like the gold fronds of diseased coconut palms, but there is something alien and ultimately wrong in the way such a sadness, even a morbidity, is described by English, French, or some of our exiled writers. It relates to a misunderstanding of the light and the people on whom the light falls.
These writers describe the ambitions of our unfinished cities, their unrealized, homiletic conclusion, but the Caribbean city may conclude just at that point where it is satisfied with its own scale, just as Caribbean culture is not evolving but already shaped. Its proportions are not to be measured by the traveller or the exile, but by its own citizenry and architecture. To be told you are not yet a city or a culture requires this response. I am not your city or your culture. There might be less of Tristes Tropiques after that.
Here, on the raft of this dais, there is the sound of the applauding surf: our landscape, our history recognized, "at last". At Last is one of the first Caribbean books. It was written by the Victorian traveller Charles Kingsley. It is one of the early books to admit the Antillean landscape and its figures into English literature. I have never read it but gather that its tone is benign. The Antillean archipelago was there to be written about, not to write itself, by Trollope, by Patrick Leigh-Fermor, in the very tone in which I almost wrote about the village spectacle at Felicity, as a compassionate and beguiled outsider, distancing myself from Felicity village even while I was enjoying it. What is hidden cannot be loved. The traveller cannot love, since love is stasis and travel is motion. If he returns to what he loved in a landscape and stays there, he is no longer a traveller but in stasis and concentration, the lover of that particular part of earth, a native. So many people say they "love the Caribbean", meaning that someday they plan to return for a visit but could never live there, the usual benign insult of the traveller, the tourist. These travellers, at their kindest, were devoted to the same patronage, the islands passing in profile, their vegetal luxury, their backwardness and poverty. Victorian prose dignified them. They passed by in beautiful profiles and were forgotten, like a vacation.
Alexis Saint-Leger Leger, whose writer's
name is Saint-John Perse, was the first Antillean to win
this prize for poetry. He was born in
The fragrant and privileged poetry that Perse
composed to celebrate his white childhood and the recorded Indian music
behind the brown young archers of Felicity, with the same cabbage palms
against the same Antillean sky, pierce me equally. I feel the same poignancy
of pride in the poems as in the faces. Why, given the history of the
Later, in "Anabase", Perse
assembled fragments of an imaginary epic, with the clicking teeth of frontier
gates, barren wadis with the froth of poisonous lakes, horsemen burnoosed
in sandstorms, the opposite of cool Caribbean mornings, yet not necessarily
a contrast any more than some young brown archer at Felicity, hearing
the sacred text blared across the flagged field, with its battles and
elephants and monkey-gods, in a contrast to the white child in Guadeloupe
assembling fragments of his own epic from the lances of the cane fields,
the estate carts and oxens, and the calligraphy of bamboo leaves from
the ancient languages, Hindi, Chinese, and Arabic, on the Antillean sky.
From the Ramayana to Anabasis, from
A boy with weak eyes skims a flat stone across the flat water of an Aegean inlet, and that ordinary action with the scything elbow contains the skipping lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and another child aims a bamboo arrow at a village festival, another hears the rustling march of cabbage palms in a Caribbean sunrise, and from that sound, with its fragments of tribal myth, the compact expedition of Perse's epic is launched, centuries and archipelagoes apart. For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.
There is a force of exultation, a celebration
of luck, when a writer finds himself a witness to the early morning of
a culture that is defining itself, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, in
that self-defining dawn, which is why, especially at the edge of the sea,
it is good to make a ritual of the sunrise. Then the noun, the "
This is the benediction that is celebrated, a fresh language and a fresh people, and this is the frightening duty owed.
I stand here in their name, if not their image - but also in the name of the dialect they exchange like the leaves of the trees whose names are suppler, greener, more morning-stirred than English - laurier canelles, bois-flot, bois-canot - or the valleys the trees mention - Fond St. Jacques, Matoonya, Forestier, Roseau, Mahaut - or the empty beaches - L'Anse Ivrogne, Case en Bas, Paradis - all songs and histories in themselves, pronounced not in French - but in patois.
One rose hearing two languages, one of the trees, one of school children reciting in English:
I am monarch of all I survey,
While in the country to the same metre, but to organic instruments, handmade violin, chac-chac, and goatskin drum, a girl named Sensenne singing:
Si mwen di 'ous ça fait
mwen la peine
It is not that History is obliterated by this sunrise. It is there in Antillean geography, in the vegetation itself. The sea sighs with the drowned from the Middle Passage, the butchery of its aborigines, Carib and Aruac and Taino, bleeds in the scarlet of the immortelle, and even the actions pf surf on sand cannot erase the African memory, or the lances of cane as a green prison where indentured Asians, the ancestors of Felicity, are still serving time.
That is what I have read around me from boyhood, from the beginnings of poetry, the grace of effort. In the hard mahogany of woodcutters: faces, resinous men, charcoal burners; in a man with a cutlass cradled across his forearm, who stands on the verge with the usual anonymous khaki dog; in the extra clothes he put on this morning, when it was cold when he rose in the thinning dark to go and make his garden in the heights - the heights, the garden, being miles away from his house, but that is where he has his land - not to mention the fishermen, the footmen on trucks, groaning up mornes, all fragments of Africa originally but shaped and hardened and rooted now in the island's life, illiterate in the way leaves are illiterate; they do not read, they are there to be read, and if they are properly read, they create their own literature.
But in our tourist brochures the
All of the
Before it is all gone, before only a few valleys are left, pockets of an older life, before development turns every artist into an anthropologist or folklorist, there are still cherishable places, little valleys that do not echo with ideas, a simplicity of rebeginnings, not yet corrupted by the dangers of change. Not nostalgic sites but occluded sanctities as common and simple as their sunlight. Places as threatened by this prose as a headland is by the bulldozer or a sea almond grove by the surveyor's string, or from blight, the mountain laurel.
One last epiphany: A basic stone church in a thick valley outside Soufri&eagrave;re, the hills almost shoving the houses around into a brown river, a sunlight that looks oily on the leaves, a backward place, unimportant, and one now being corrupted into significance by this prose. The idea is not to hallow or invest the place with anything, not even memory. African children in Sunday frocks come down the ordinary concrete steps into the church, banana leaves hang and glisten, a truck is parked in a yard, and old women totter towards the entrance. Here is where a real fresco should be painted, one without importance, but one with real faith, mapless, Historyless.
How quickly it could all disappear! And how
it is beginning to drive us further into where we hope are impenetrable
places, green secrets at the end of bad roads, headlands where the next
view is not of a hotel but of some
They are here again, they recur, the faces, corruptible angels, smooth black skins and white eyes huge with an alarming joy, like those of the Asian children of Felicity at Ramleela; two different religions, two different continents, both filling the heart with the pain that is joy.
But what is joy without fear? The fear of selfishness that, here on this podium with the world paying attention not to them but to me, I should like to keep these simple joys inviolate, not because they are innocent, but because they are true. They are as true as when, in the grace of this gift, Perse heard the fragments of his own epic of Asia Minor in the rustling of cabbage palms, that inner Asia of the soul through which imagination wanders, if there is such a thing as imagination as opposed to the collective memory of our entire race, as true as the delight of that warrior-child who flew a bamboo arrow over the flags in the field at Felicity; and now as grateful a joy and a blessed fear as when a boy opened an exercise book and, within the discipline of its margins, framed stanzas that might contain the light of the hills on an island blest by obscurity, cherishing our insignificance.
© 2001 Guyanaundersiege.com