Transmuting the ordinary to other

Jane Bryce on From Silence to Silence, by Ian McDonald


Issue No. 0 – May 2004

Jane Bryce on From Silence to Silence, by Ian McDonald

Between Silence and Silence by Ian McDonald (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-37-6, 100 pp)

These are Ancient Mariner poems. They arrest you with their clarity of vision and authority of tone, and compel you to stop and listen. As the title indicates, the poems in Trinidad-born, Guyana-resident Ian McDonald’s fifth collection situate themselves between the great moments of passage, the silences of birth and death, between which life is a chattering parenthesis.

Their stance is meditative, sometimes rueful, sometimes celebratory, but unfailingly ready to confront the big realities behind the curtain of detail that constitutes existence. Like all great poems, they embrace the tangles of paradox rather than tying neat knots. It’s this readiness to accept the essential ambivalence of things that gives the collection its distinctive, edgy quality.

There are signposts. The poem that opens the collection, “Still . . .”, suggests with its ellipsis that there is always more than can be said, and that we should read these poems with this in mind. Even when there’s agreement — “Yes, it is as you say” — there’s still room for manoeuvre — “But let us get just one thing straight”. And what that is, is the key to McDonald’s poetic vision: “there is beauty in the world”, as he demonstrates over and over again in images of razor-sharp intensity. In the poem’s last lines — “and the star-tree blossoms in the night / night that will have an end” — night, conventionally associated with death, embodies life, and night’s end — dawn — becomes a deeply ambiguous image.

The section titles provide further hints. “It Passes” is a series in which personal feeling is uppermost, devoted to the minutiae of daily domestic life, intimate relationships, marriage rituals, the joys of watching a young son discover the world for himself. “Middle Age” offers viewpoints on the process of ageing and the passage of time. “Archive” contains dramatic portraits of local figures whose lives might otherwise have gone unrecorded. “The Birth of Poetry” examines the roots of the poet’s own inspiration and the nature of poetry itself.

And, enclosing these, two poems that stand by themselves: “Still . . .” at the book’s beginning and “Between Silence and Silence there should be only Praise” at the end. This final poem moves between an apocalyptic vision of a flood engulfing the world and a nest of ants set floating on water by a fisherman. The analogy is clear: “No-one knows why / God maintains his kingdom without persuasion”. Human existence is not, strictly speaking, necessary to the circle of life, “the dark world of the forest and the river”. In this perspective, the poet admonishes, “Friend, it is past the time when tears matter”.

It is a long perspective, the retrospective of a thoughtful man able to mark time simultaneously to different rhythms. Again and again, the vivid, detailed, concrete image is infused with transcendent meaning, so that material and philosophical dimensions not only co-exist, but are so intertwined as to be inseparable. In “Greeneyes”, the poetic persona meets his girl by “this green and cascadura-haunted pool”, of which she is “its maker, meaner, who strips the tree to its diamond heart”, “the last dimension in the touch of sense”.

The poet’s long, loving familiarity with the landscape of Guyana is an unending source of such images. At night, getting up to see to his young son, “The sky is dark, / sea-wind blows in the rain; / . . . the star of Love riding in the clouds alone”; on the Georgetown sea wall, an iron pole is worn down by “sea-wind, sea-wind, / blowing for fifty years”. A river trip on the Essequibo produces this encounter (“Looking into the Eye of a Hawk”):

Sudden as its scream
I look into a hawk’s eye.
Young in a nest near,
it will not flinch
from the low branch.
Again, again the screech
its battle cry;
the hawk defies me . . .
Lustrous wings arise
in combat, not in flight,
even if it dies.
The inflexible beauty
stops me . . .
It was here before me,
that scream, that ancient eye.
Pass by.

What raises this poetry beyond the merely lyrical is a caustic undertow of hard-edged realism, even skepticism, which balances the sensuality and joyful spontaneity, recalling us to a recognition of other realities. In “Middle Age”, these realities are treated humorously, as the poet — “heavy with the stone of middle age, / the skin of all I touch is thickened” — accepts the loss of his sexual powers and youthful intensity. In the poem’s next section, even “This glorious girl in tight designer jeans” fails to move him as she shimmies by, though the narrator asks, “Why does it hurt like this? They look at me and yawn”. And when, in the last section of the poem, a young girl drags him out for a walk, “I force a virile-looking smile and leap up jauntily”. No one over 50 can fail to identify with his efforts to present himself:

There is an art in holding muscles tense
— the battle fought within is quite immense —
that makes the sag of stomach seem much less —
with care she’ll never know my lungs’ distress . . .
There is a knack of biting on the teeth
that sets the angle of the jaw just right
ensures the loosening jowls beneath
are not so unlustworthy to her sight.

But all in vain. She is only playing with him, and he is ultimately incapable of keeping up the pretence.

Your flirting eyes cannot behold
my heart fill up with ageless pain.
In dreams my steps go striding as of old
and I am powerful and young again.

This honesty and frankness, this refusal to take refuge in beauty, or poetry, for its own sake, rescues the poems from sentimentality and makes them instead profound statements of transience and endurance. In “The Weather in Shanty Town”, the poet counterpoises the poetry of “rain falling like white lilies on the iron streets”, with this clear-eyed observation: “No poets’ words for shanty town: the weather kills and cankers every day . . . / In shanty town the anger hangs like smoke, like fire. / The weather in those hearts is storm, the weather in those hearts is hate”.

The social relevance of poetry is always a delicate matter. McDonald’s is not, overtly, “political” poetry; it is far too honest and too personal for that. But it is poetry that makes you pause and think, as well as feel, and that is an achievement worth a lifetime’s work.

The love of words ripples across every page, but in one poem, “Spinster Ganteaume and the Birth of Poetry”, the poet traces this love to its unlikely origin, a childhood neighbour, who he remembers “always in long green dresses, / face bumpy with rosy unerupted boils”. The poem turns on the unexpected: the neighbour’s experience of waking up in bed with

oozing spider-webs of gold, dripping
luscious oils from ceiling cracks,
bright honey from the dark attic of her house,
rain of strangeness smearing her white sheets . . .

She runs from the “dark and golden” house to take refuge with the neighbours, McDonald’s family, where “A small boy sat and rubbed his eyes in wonder” as the bee-catchers are brought in and the bees smoked out of her attic.
Later, her thank-you gift of honey-comb prompts him to ask, “What transmutes the ordinary to other?”

Men transfixed by poetry,
what first transfixes them?
Memories of love, pain and mind’s awakening
the various beauties that overflow the years,
are not so strong for me as that attic full
of golden bees, the extraordinary honey-spill
the ropes of sweet, pearled honey-drops,
the bee-encrusted casket of the Queen,
a wheelbarrow arriving at our gate,
creaking, filled with honey-comb —
the golden hives that dripped on old Ganteaume.

The transformation of a pustulous spinster into a queen, of a house into a hive, of pollen into honey, of a mundane bedroom into a seeping sweetness — what a surprising, but entirely satisfying, metaphor for poetry.

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