Stabroek News Sunday
Mind revolutions in Martin Carter’s poetry
In right accordance, and demandingly because what withstands, stands
Farinata, the Ghibelline,
“entertained great scorn of hell and asked about ancestors”. So be it. “Demerara Nigger. Downward through the horse” Hells are comparable but mind stays in advance of dispensation. This foot, for instance. This shoe.
Step. Floor. Book for instance. Lamp.
From one to the other, and words tortured out like a turd. Until the sudden fumble of the premonitory wing of the bat in the roof. I held mortality a thing to be endured: human fact deliverable. What when fear is hope: if no messenger rode: way and cause if right if not an ending. Therefore found it just often to barter talk for sight and turn a bat and confuse clocks. At any cost I had to go; went scorning and demanding. Mortality put to question. Cosmic justice reckoned in confirming A horse of hell as likely as the riding Companion mind; mind in advance of mind, the mind requiting and mind singular, enabled mind, mind minded to suppose nigger and Ghibelline.
Not, in the saying of you, are you said. Baffled and like a root stopped by a stone you turn back questioning the tree you feed. But what the leaves hear is not what the roots ask. Inexhaustibly, being at one time what has been said the saying of you remains the living of you never to be said. But, enduring, you change with the change that changes and yet are not of the changing of any of you. Ever yourself, you are always about
To be yourself in something else ever with me.
These poems celebrate significant factors in the work of Martin Carter, who was born in 1927, died on December 13, 1997 and was buried on December 18 at the Seven Ponds Place of Heroes. Carter’s verse often contemplated poetry itself, existentialism, time and being, and resounds with the devices of rhetoric. His poetry closely interrogates an intense examination of self and a relationship with the world and the politics of human existence.
His was certainly a public political voice in defence of country against invasion, as in the suite of Resistance poems published in 1954. He rebuked the shocking, murderous politics of his countrymen in the vengeful civil insurgencies of the early 1960s and the oppressive regime of the 1970s. But the more constant ravaging dogs of war that he confronted throughout his career were those let slip by humanity against itself. His poetry waged a continuing revolution against the afflictions of the mind; the self-imprisonment, man against man, the seeking of a decent way to live; it was a poet’s mutiny for the liberation of mankind.
Gemma Robinson stresses that in Carter’s poetry the question asked is: “what is the way to live?” It is a line from his poem “A Mouth Is Always Muzzled” as well as a note in his personal diary, “Poetry: a way of surviving: If life is the question asking what is the way to die, poetry is the question asking what is the way to live”.
This reference reminds of some of the most damning and shocking lines in Carter’s poems. “Men murder men, as men must murder men to build their shining cities of the damned”. It shocked him: “here at my feet, my strangled city lies”. In 1962 he witnessed gruesome racial slaughter, “I see the vultures practising to wait”, as he observed “slow funerals . . . and death designing all”. In 1953 he identified, “the stranger invader watching you sleep and aiming at your dream” – the most terrifying assassination was the shooting down of the mind. In 1979 his most profound shock was the murder of Catholic priest Father Darke on the street in open daylight and he felt tainted by the discovery of “the origin of our vileness”.
The poem “Demerara Nigger” is from the late stage of Carter’s career. It was published in Kyk-Over-Al and does not appear in any of the major collections. This is perhaps Carter’s most obscure poem. It is different, and poses a much more severe challenge than the cryptic “Proem”. It takes us into Carter’s varied poems about the mind. It is existentialist; it interrogates being, belief and mortality. This poem seems to continue Carter’s continuing preoccupation with the mind; poems having to do with humanity, mortality and the belief that the revolution is in the mind; that for liberation, man “must first himself unlock”.
“Demerara Nigger” begins with a reference to Farinata the Ghibelline. Farinata (1212 – 1264) was a prominent aristocrat in Italy and military leader of the Ghibellines in Florence. He expressed his disbelief in the afterlife, and was branded a heretic. This was a very grave offence in Christian society. Carter’s reference to him is a historical and philosophical one, but it is also interestingly intertextual because the great Italian poet Dante includes Farinata in his cast of characters in the Inferno, placing him among the lost souls in hell. That is ironic because Dante, would have known that Farinata did not believe in the existence of hell or that a soul existed after life.
The persona in Carter’s “Demerara Nigger” declares that he “held mortality a thing to be endured” and seems to express an equal scorn of hell. Hell as a reality is questioned. There seems to be doubts concerning existence, but the mind holds sway. The existentialist struggles to comprehend identity and existence – the mind cannot understand itself. But this persona seems to have defied conventional belief.
He “bartered talk for sight/ and turn a bat and confuse clocks”. In the poem’s imagery, the bat is blind, like the poet who refuses to see what others see, believe and accept. But the bat functions in the dark and flies around as if it were daylight – he confuses clocks because he wakes up and moves about when the clock is saying it is night and dark and one is supposed to be asleep and not supposed to see.
The bat imagery appears in another Carter poem – Number 3 in the “Suite of Five Poems”, also among the later works which do not appear in the collections. In that one the persona becomes a bat and revels in his ability to defy sunset and darkness to explore and see things beyond the reach of ordinary man. Bats hang upside down and turn the clocks – time – upside down.
In these poems the mind is a key, if not a controlling, factor in determining belief and the existence of things. It contemplates and challenges the grave subjects of life, afterlife and hell. In the “Suite of Five Poems – 3”, it allows the persona to achieve the otherwise impossible, “abolishing time’s furniture” and realising dreams. Like the bat that confuses clocks, it makes dreams “change to ghosts and haunt a life”.
Carter continued to force forward the frontiers of language, thought and the imagination, which are ingredients of poetry. In “Words”, as in the other poems, the “unlocking” of the secrets of poetry requires the unlocking of the mind. Carter’s poems are about the liberation of humanity. A recurring style in several of them is rhetoric – rhetorical devices are sharp in the final stanza of “Words” with its gradatio – the graded repetitions and syntactical structure.
As expressed in “Proem”, Carter’s poetry is a continuing interrogation of relationships. Poetry involves relations between the poet and his poem, and it then goes further into relationships between the poem and its audience, as well as the poet and that audience. The resonances are deep – like in “Demerara Nigger”, where an elusive concept conjures the County of Demerara and thoughts of plantation slavery, particularly with the recurring references to horse and riding. Such are the unfathomable possibilities created by the poet’s discourses about the mind, poetry, imagery and devices of rhetoric.