Fameless hours

Anu Lakhan on In the Kingdom of Light, by M.G. Smith, and At Home the Green Remains: Caribbean Writing in Honour of John Figueroa

In the Kingdom of Light: Collected Poems

by M.G. Smith, ed. Wayne Brown (Mill Press, ISBN 976-8168-07-2, 197 pp)

At Home the Green Remains: Caribbean Writing in Honour of John Figueroa, ed. Esther Figueroa (Caribbean Quarterly, ISBN 976-616-007-4, 196 pp)

These two volumes bookend the literary life. M.G. Smith’s collected poems are those of a young writer filled with the sense of a universe that is still mostly about himself, and the bright, sharp words he will use to describe it. The anthology in memory of John Figueroa (including some of his verse) befits an older writer’s contributions — not just his own writing, but his nurturing of many other Caribbean talents. More specifically, these volumes bookend what sometimes seems the unfortunate cliché of a West Indian literary life. The young poet abandons his work before it can reach maturity (indeed, before it is barely out of adolescence). The elder lingers on with a sense of all that his verse is not, a sense that surely cannot be eased posthumously by a collection in which his work is often overshadowed by the greater voices he helped into being.

M.G. Smith’s In the Kingdom of Light has been a long time in the making. These poems were written more than 60 years ago; many of them are published here for the first time. And Edna Manley’s somewhat curious preface, written in 1984 though only now published, suggests that the idea of a collected edition of Smith’s poetry was in the air for almost 20 years before this volume appeared.

Manley, a celebrated artist and wife of Jamaica’s first premier, was the editor of Focus, the magazine that gave a home to many of Jamaica’s young writers in the 1940s, including Smith. A preface from her is therefore not remarkable. But it cannot be but a little strange to introduce a book made up largely of love poems you inspired. Odder still is that, in spite of his admiration, Smith seemed not to have trusted his beloved to write her preface on her own, and actually offered a paragraph to get her on track. Gallantly, he takes pains to absolve her of any knowledge that she is the muse.

Born in Kingston in 1920, Michael Garfield Smith grew up in the optimistic and energetic 30s and 40s, alongside Basil McFarlane, Roger Mais, and Philip Sherlock, as Jamaica was building the momentum that would take it into independence with an identity profoundly its own. Landscape and nation and a love that cannot be fulfilled: these were Smith’s favourite themes when he began writing poems as a schoolboy — as they have been forever the favourites of young writers. That Edna Manley, 21 years his senior and den mother of all pre-independence Jamaican artists, was the muse of his loss-and-longing poems only makes the sentiment slightly more interesting. Nor is the deified landscape surprising in a poet aware of his country’s awakening. The remarkable thing is that the existence of a handful of profoundly elegant phrases can render the ordinariness of the rest a matter of shock. Smith was a man who, when he got it right, got it right, as in “These Golden Moments”, the collection’s final poem:

Remember too
How all the gold that flows
From this mad heart
Would not be gold nor flow
Apart from you,
But the song silent
And the singer dead
And madness sitting
By her sacrifice.

The nakedness of these last five lines is testament to an enormous courage: both to express this emotional honesty, and to have written them against the ornate tradition that the poet grew up in. That Smith did not come to eminence in his poetic career has perhaps less to do with the limitations of his skill and more with those of West Indian literary society. His nascent writing possesses an innocence, simplicity, and idealism that might have grown into something more rarefied had he more encouragement (or bullying, if that was necessary) to persevere.

In his introduction to In the Kingdom of Light, the Trinidadian writer and editor Wayne Brown provides a meticulous set of notes for reading Smith. More than that, Brown offers up his considerable understanding of Jamaica, the Manleys, and the West Indian literary milieu to create the context in which readers (most, undoubtedly, for the first time) meet the poet. “Dawn”, Brown suggests, was Smith’s favourite noun — a fact that can be little contested. Indeed, dawn is everywhere, along with light, water, trees, singing, darkness, love, and other words denoting things that are new, emerging, and growing. Smith’s dawn is a marker not just for his personal journey, but also for Jamaica, for what Manley describes in her preface as “the hope, the faith and the sense of the dawning of a free world that was sweeping Jamaica” in the time of Smith’s writing.

In 1946, the year he decided social anthropology was a better idea than poetry, Smith was only 26. He went on to achieve international renown for his anthropological work in the Caribbean and Africa, and after stints at University College, London, the University of the West Indies, and the University of California at Los Angeles he ended up a professor at Yale. He continued to write verse occasionally, but the work collected in this volume is almost entirely from the first quarter-century of his life. He died in 1993.

In At Home the Green Remains, what haunts the reader is a sense of John Figueroa’s own regret: that a life so full of writing and teaching, of friends who shared his passion, and a wife who supported his efforts, could not bring him the poetic achievements that he wished for. This is a regret he painfully and openly renders in “Birthday Poem 1970”:

The summer that brings me
My fiftieth year
Brings me also
Yet another unfinished poem
A certificate of merit
Or two
No silver gold or bronze

Fifty years of not quite
Gaining anything
(But weight
And a chance of understanding
What it means to be nearly third
Best, regularly)

Born in 1921, the year after Smith, and also in Kingston, Figueroa would share Smith’s contemporaries and the vision and passion the artists of that generation had for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Figueroa was in England during the post-war years, at the time when Henry Swanzy’s Caribbean Voices programme on the BBC was giving the world its first taste of V.S. Naipaul, Sam Selvon, and George Lamming. But it was back at the then University College of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, that he would make his mark as an educator.

At Home the Green Remains is edited by Figueroa’s daughter, Esther — a filmmaker currently based in Hawaii — and published by the UWI journal Caribbean Quarterly. The book’s tributes and reminiscences remember Figueroa as a dynamic teacher, a spirited and relentless conversationalist, and someone who “had known everyone, been everywhere and seen it all first hand”. This collection proves that oldest of Caribbean tenets: it shows we still have respect for our elders. And if Figueroa is not to be remembered for his own poetry — or only in small part — then these tributes that have poured in from family and friends, among them some of the region’s most celebrated writers, are the most fitting way to honour him: as a facilitator, a teacher, and a supporter.

Unfortunately, a fair amount of what should really have been left as private correspondence to and from those who mourned Figueroa’s passing in 1999 encumbers what might have been a slim volume of powerful and moving tributes. The dross of these shared regrets, and the compensating emphasis on his religious and family life, take away from contributions like Derek Walcott’s poem “Nearing Forty”, originally published in The Gulf and dedicated “for John Figueroa”, Walcott’s old teacher:

. . . you who foresaw
ambition as a searing meteor
will fumble a damp match and, smiling, settle
for the dry wheezing of a dented kettle,
for vision narrower than a louvre’s gap . . .
until the night when you can really sleep,
measuring how imagination
ebbs, conventional as any water clerk
who weighs the force of lightly falling rain . . .

Here, “Nearing Forty” is accompanied by three pages of earlier versions, reproductions of Walcott’s handwritten drafts; a deft tutorial on the sharpening of an idea into something masterful. At Home the Green Remains also offers poems from Louise Bennett, Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh, and Honor Ford-Smith. There are three from Pamela Mordecai — one stark and gentle, one candidly savage, one hilarious (concerning a woman named Fina who receives the word of god via an unlikely apostolic squirrel) — and a short story by Olive Senior.
But it is the Trinidadian-Guyanese writer Ian McDonald’s “A Simple Man” that reins in all the scattered expressions of loss or regret or praise that are proffered in these pages.

A man like this should be remembered,
his work the pith and core of life.
He should be reckoned when kings are called.
I write it down so he live
At least a while beyond his fameless hour . . .
This story of a simple man who lived
In a place unheralded, one ordinary hour.

Better this: better to celebrate a man whose real influence reached far beyond his own literary achievements than to commit such a talent to the fate expressed in “Birthday Poem 1970”.

Better this: better to celebrate a man whose real influence reached far beyond his own literary achievements than to commit such a talent to the fate expressed in “Birthday Poem 1970”.

The value of In the Kingdom of Light and At Home the Green Remains is not only in the contribution of the individual works and writers, but in the place of each book in the developing story of West Indian literature. Whether either of these collections will assume a place among the region’s classics is as unimportant as it is unlikely. The history of writing in the Anglophone Caribbean is a short one: maybe a century of work (not including slave narratives and some colonial exotica), with the real action starting only just after the Second World War. In short, it is a limited body of work from a small place with few people. The existence of books like these proves our commitment to the development of the literature. We do not yet have the luxury of history, distance, or mass; we are still too close to the creative products and their creators to do much but offer our support and encouraging criticism (so much easier to be flat-out disparaging about something you’re far away from). These are worthy books. No, not as good as really good books — but important still.

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), May 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.