Amerindian heritage among the poets
Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
September 28, 2003
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Of contemporary Guyanese writers who have themselves treated the Amerindian heritage, novelist and theorist Wilson Harris is foremost. Tumatumari and a whole series of fiction are located within the setting and subject of this heritage, while many other books are informed by the myths, ethos and environment even when their focus is different. Melville’s Ventriloquist’s Tale is, itself, another major achievement in its exploration of the ethos and its cosmology.
For the poets, Ian McDonald provides a veritable preface in the poem ‘Amerindian’ in his prize-winning collection, Essequibo. It is the first to appear in the book, somehow acknowledging the general association of the hinterlands of Essequibo with Amerindian communities, while making a statement reflected by other poets - the place of Amerindians in the very genesis of not only the social history of Guyana, but of its landscape and geomorphology.
I think of woodskins, I think
Of quick arrows. I think
Of things Indian. And still
I think of their bright, still
Summers when these hills
And meadows on these hills
Shone in the morning
Suns before this morning.
Although the poet lists the obvious first things in the repetition of “I think of”, the poem makes the point that clearly there is more in the history and the heritage of the country’s indigenous peoples with all that they inspire.
The best poems are not the merely descriptive, the superficially obvious, or the politically correct, but those that capture the inexhaustible dimensions of the heritage and environment. In such works the heritage finds itself dissolved into the veins of the literature and the imagination of the poets. This quality is also to be found in the work of Mark McWatt, whose poems perform a profound engagement not with the ethos, but with the language of a sensibility tutored by an environment which is the habitat of Amerindians and a landscape that he shares with them. McWatt grew up in interior locations and his residence and travels there have left an indelible influence on his preoccupations.
His first collection was called Interiors, but with a sense of place that is more than geography. His explorations include the notion of “interiors of the mind”, which he continues in a second collection, The Language of El Dorado, exemplified by the poem ‘Heartland’. This is contained in
Although it often seems we live
so that reason can erase
the numinous glyphs of love
inscribed in every landscape,
there is something there,
that is the central spider
in our web of dreams,
that weaves the net of Eldorado,
that launches the drunken boat...
There is something,
other than the setting sun,
that catches the river afire.
There, again, is that ageless presence referred to by McDonald, Harris and A.J.Seymour. McWatt articulates a close relationship between landscape and sensibility, while exploring the ethos in an allusion to the ancient Amerindian writing in the “glyphs of love” as well as references to myth.
In a broader context, Michael Gilkes also engages myth in ‘Coubaril’, from his prize-winning collection, Joanstown. This echoes the several Amerindian legends, which contain an explanation of cosmology. Set in St. Lucia, where Gilkes has lived, it is the tale of the hurricane season, incarnated through the god Hurrucan (a patois gloss for hurri - ‘cane’) and his wife Hewannorra (Arawak name for the island called St.Lucia), while in other poems his concerns are similar to those of Harris and McWatt.
A.J.Seymour’s poems were only recently collected in a volume edited by McDonald and Jacqueline de Weever. It makes available his many ‘Amerindian’ poems including the widely anthologised ‘There Runs A Dream’, which is among his very best. His famous ‘The Legend of Kaieteur’ and ‘Amalivaca’ reflecting myth, legend and even oral history are now to be found all in one place. But the most accomplished of this group are ‘Morning in the Rupununi’ and ‘Shaman’, which are more interesting for craft.
Although ‘Shaman’ stands out, its ending is weak because of its simple stereotype and limited quality which limits both poem and people. Like the “strong and quiet men” in ‘There Runs A Dream’, it does not go beyond the picture of the gentle, innocuous beings described in Sir John Squire’s ‘There Was an Indian’. But it is, otherwise, a very strong poem. It contains that indelible influence that flows in the veins of Guyanese literature. It is a good example of the intellectual product and the imagination of those Guyanese poets who communicate the Amerindian heritage in whatever they shape.
Crouches in my pen
Who shapes my poem
This shaman too
Resides within my lens.
The shaman frames
Timehri that communicate
Signatures moving in the skin of
Yielding their jewelled soul
Invested with warm affection.