Phyllis Carter recalls Life with `the poems man’
By Ruel Johnson
July 4, 2004
`Martin Carter possessed not only a lust for life but a passion for writing. His wife remembers sometimes Carter sitting up suddenly in bed, the light on and when she asks him what the matter was, he would reply simply, “I just got a word I wanted. I coming back.”
`I remember in those days we had some very good friends who would come and we would all go out, even if you had to walk. In those days you either had a cycle or you walked and we go to the seawall; sometimes someone would carry a guitar and you walking and singing and you could walk home at one o’clock in the morning. It was a different life, completely different.’ Mrs. Phyllis Carter
HE WAS Guyana’s most renowned poet, an icon of colonial resistance. His words echo over and over again both within our private lives and our unfolding history.
Though heralded by scholars and politicians across the Third World, the most apt description of Martin Carter – the only one he seemed to give some credence to – was the title given to him by a child, and which he recorded in a poem: “the poems man”…lower case “p” and “m” and all.
“The first major set of poems, Poems of Resistance, is 50 years this year, 50 years since it was published,” says Phyllis Carter. Her Lamaha Street home, the one she and Martin Carter shared until his death six years ago, is an inhabitable artifact, a living and lived in piece of Guyanese history, even only if for the simple fact that in one corner - like a shrine - is a framed original photograph of the poet.
But there is much more than that: there is the yard that seems as ageless as the furniture which occupies the spacious living room and dining room areas; there are the paintings by Aubrey Williams and Robert Forrester; there is the study in which he wrote and read.
“Of course before that, in 1951,” continues Mrs. Carter, “there was Hill of Fire Glows Red, the miniature poems.” She goes on to list much of Carter’s work during the post-independence era.
Last month, was National Poetry Month, as designated by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. The reason Minister Gail Teixeira gives for making June National Poetry Month was that Martin Carter was born in this month. There were three excellent readings at the Umana Yana, organised by literary ‘spokesman’ Petamber Persaud in collaboration with the Ministry, at which the attendance could have been better, as well as the press coverage, but the readings were excellent; enhanced all the more by the fact that Phyllis Carter, in what was a rare act, read one of her husband's poems.
Last week, the Sunday Chronicle paid her a visit in order to get a glimpse at what life was like with the poet.
“First of all,” says Mrs. Carter, “we were married for 47 years. How did we meet? Well, he was very friendly and I had three brothers who were his friends though they all went to different schools. We lived on at Ogle on the East Coast at the time and these boys would all ride up from Georgetown and I remember that he was among them. I knew him since I was about 10 or 11 coming there. He was five years older, five years my senior."
She relates all this in that precise, clipped yet unaffected English peculiar to Georgetown’s middle-class of a couple of generations ago. Her manner is calm and matter of fact.
"We knew each other for a long time," she continues, "and, you know, as the years went by, I took a look. We were married when I was about 21, he was about 26. I was nursing at Mercy Hospital. It was 1953.”
Tim Hector, longtime friend of the poet, wrote in a tribute after Carter had died that, "integrity shone through in his person, in his love of good talk, good company and the good times which these two add up to make. And above all in the love of his wife. It was a rare pleasure to be at their house, and you knew in the profoundest way, that he and his wife had created a home and a habitation, with little or no models to go by. It was their own creation. In its own right, a West Indian creation. There was no affected stylisation about the relation between Martin and his wife. Each day it was spontaneous, natural, entirely free of imitation, with its own intimations of a love deep and abiding."
The very first year of the Carters’ marriage was, to quote the poet himself, “a dark time, my love.” Phyllis remembers when Martin Carter was imprisoned in 1953 along with other PPP members Sydney King (Eusi Kwayana), Rory Westmaas, Ajodha Singh and Bally Lachmansingh.
“At that time, we were living with his mother and sister; I don’t think any of the brothers were home because they were qualifying abroad.”
She produces a well-preserved nine-year old copy of BWEE’s in-flight magazine, Caribbean Beat and opens up to a feature article on Martin Carter.
“As a matter of fact, this is why I brought out this book for that reason. There he is with Cheddi [Jagan], when they were picked up,” she says pointing at a reproduction of a grainy black and white photograph. “Cheddi didn’t go up to Timehri [to the detention centre at Atkinson’s Field Air Base] with him. It was Latchmansingh and he and the others.”
She points to another photograph, exclaiming, “This was him – this was a youthful him! – being sworn him by the Governor-General David Rose. And here is the poem he had written about a child shouting, ‘Look! Look! The poems man!’”
“Nineteen fifty-three was a difficult time. In ’53, it was what we used to say was the bad time. The soldiers came and they were outside the house – not here, we lived in Anira Street at the time – they were lined up all at the gate. They saw this boy [son Keith] who was just a baby at the time and they came in and he was in a cradle, and my mother-in-law frankly said to them, ‘If you wake that boy up, you put him back to sleep.’ They promptly walked out of the room.”
After his jailing and, of course, the publication of Poems of Resistance, Martin Carter became increasingly recognisable to the general public. Phyllis Carter recalls once such incident.
“I remember the night we were walking by Cuffy – which was of course years ago when you coulda walked about – and a man shout, “Ah, Martin Carter, yuh walkin’ far. So he was known and I always used to say ‘Is because of yuh height and yuh built everybody knows you.’”
At this point, Mrs. Carter becomes a bit more animated, years younger.
“And of then course you know,” she continues, “he liked his drink and he always had friends because of that. Anybody, anywhere, anytime, he would bring them here. He liked to drink and he like a cigarette; never passed a cigarette; he had to know that you had cigarettes in the house or he’d go crazy. Or if he didn’t get a cigarette from early morning…”
In those days Georgetown was a much safer and easy-going place.
“I remember in those days we had some very good friends who would come and we would all go out, even if you had to walk. In those days you either had a cycle or you walked and we go to the seawall; sometimes someone would carry a guitar and you walking and singing and you could walk home at one o’clock in the morning. It was a different life, completely different.”
Another thing about Martin Carter that his widow remembers well and clearly admired was his nonchalant attitude about money.
“He wasn’t interested in money, I must admit. I always liked – and as our son-in-law always said – that he [Martin] was the only person that he knew who had no wallet. He never carried a wallet anywhere…If he had five dollars, it was his short pocket; if he had ten dollars, it was his shirt pocket. Money was never his thing.”
On the wall is a painting of two men fishing in a forest clearing. “He was an ardent fisherman too, of course. That painting was given to him by Ivan Forrester, ‘Farro’. Farro used to work in Kumaka and he invited Martin up there once and Farro painted him fishing.”
Martin Carter possessed not only a lust for life but a passion for writing. She remembers sometimes Carter sitting up suddenly in bed, the light on and when she asks him what the matter was, he would reply simply, “I just got a word I wanted. I coming back.”
“He would go and set for an hour,” says Mrs. Carter, “just settling a poem. He went through every thing. I remember him telling me one night to just call this word for him in the morning. His poetry was not done off-hand, he went into it.”
On family outings, she was usually the driver while her husband would empty his packet of cigarettes (his favourite brand was `Yellow Peril’), and write on the empty cardboard box. He was that obsessed about crafting his poetry.
She remembers questioning him about a line in a particular poem, the line reading “Old hanging ground is still green playing field.” He explained the line to her.
“Old hanging ground (they used to hang people there) is still green playing field (they still playing football and so on it)…”
"I think, personally, that Martin was very involved in [his society]. He was out there when Father Darke was killed and he actually saw the fellow stab Father Darke and he came home so bitter and he exclaimed that "Today is the 14th of July; today is Bastille Day" and he started writing. I on the other hand had to go an 'special' Father Darke, I looked after him. That was most unfortunate cause when the fellow actually stabbed him in the back, they thought it was the one lung the bayonet had gone through but it had gone through both."
Things were not all poetry and politics for Martin Carter though; he was, after all, a father of four children.
"I think they [the children] all looked up at him and liked him as such. Some days they probably thought they could murder him. They would have their gang of friends under the house playing and he would shout down at them and tell them it was time to stop playing, get to a book and read."
Martin Carter was always big on reading, related Mrs. Carter, encouraging his children to read anything from books to scraps of paper blowing about in the yard. If they found a word that baffled them during their doing homework and asked him the meaning, he would post them to a dictionary. She invariably intervened.
Martin Carter passed away in December 1998. Mrs. Carter recalled her dealing not so much with the passing of her husband but other’s people’s reactions to her after he had died.
“I remember distinctly a friend came to sympathise. I was wearing a red dress or something and she said, ‘Why you wearing that?’ I said ‘How you mean, why I wearing this?’ and she responded ‘But Martin only dead the other…’ I told her, ‘Yes, Martin only died a couple of weeks ago but what makes the difference? The cloth, the dress, the colour? It’s not what out here you know, you got to remember it’s what in here.’ And she said “Maybe…” in that sort of way, you know. I don’t understand people: what if you wear something with colour? People said, ‘Oh you stop mourning’ and my response was that if I had the clothes to continue mourning for a year, I would do it. I just continued the way I always did.”
She says that after their father passed away, her children – all grown now of course – all asked if she wanted to come and live with them.
“I told them,” says Mrs. Carter, “that I finish with children. Children squeaking and squawking: I’m not able. I’m happy here, my dog and I are quite happy. When he gets hungry, he gets up and scratches on the window just like any child.”
Finally, Mrs. Carter spoke about the rare reading appearance she made last month and what prompted her to do it.
“Well, Petamber [Persaud, the event’s organiser] had phoned and asked me to read something and I told him that I was sorry but I wouldn’t be doing anything. Then I said to myself ‘Wait a minute!’ Only two weeks ago I had gone to St. George’s Cathedral for a music concert and I was sitting there, the MC said that now we will hear a poem which had been put to music by Valerie Rodway. And he announced that the poem Let Freedom Awaken was published by A.J. Seymour. And I said to my sister-in-law “What the hell is wrong with this man?” and she said “Isn’t it Martin’s writing?”
Mrs. Carter said that it happens all the time from radio station hosts to politicians, quoting Martin Carter without acknowledging the source. After another call from Persaud, she changed her mind.
She recalls that her husband was almost prophetic about this. "Martin always used to say", she told the Sunday Chronicle, "that his people didn't appreciate him when he was alive, but when he was dead they would all praise him."
No Easy Thing
I must repeat that which I have declared
Even to hide it from your urgent heart:
No easy thing is it to speak of love.
Nor to be silent when it all consumes!
You do not know everywhere I go
You go with me clasped in my memory:
One night I dreamed we walked beside the sea
And tasted freedom underneath the moon.
Do not be late needed and wanted love
What's withheld blights both love itself and us:
As well as blame your hair for blowing wind.
As me for breathing, living, loving you.