Edward Baugh’s Poetic Illuminations of the Ordinary
Edward Baugh’s Poetic Illuminations of the Ordinary
Though the title of the collection Black Sand: New and Selected Poems is taken from a poem in the book and though editors have their own reasons for framing poetry collections through title poems, I would like to take up the “black sand” of the title as a central motif and think through some of its implications.1 The poem that gives Edward Baugh’s collection its title is a poem about black sand as well as a reflection on the possibilities of poetry. As an aside, I must confess that I have been eavesdropping on Baugh’s conversations to pick up revelations about his work. (Baugh is perhaps his own best critic.) At a function at the University of the West Indies, Mona, to celebrate the national awards given in October 2013 to members of the university community, Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis asked Baugh about the significance of the collection’s title.2 Baugh suggested that he privileged “black sand” because it is not the kind of beach image that people tend to focus on. In the celebrated tourist towns of Jamaica (Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril), you will not find much black sand. You have to go off the beaten paths to such places as Treasure Beach (now made more famous by the Calabash Literary Festival) and to places across the borders of St. Mary and Portland, from which Baugh hails. This neglected landscape is what he isolates as the perfect image to discuss the possibilities of poetry.
This poem, then, is a kind of antihype poetry—it is not about the usual overcirculated image of Jamaica as a sunshine destination, with its pristine white sand beaches; rather, it highlights black sand that is hardly ever used in the branding of Jamaica’s beauty. The collection, I would argue, performs a poetics of the overlooked in which it screens the landscape that is not in the limelight; the seeming ordinariness of Jamaican life is its main pre-occupation. From the collection’s first poem (which is not “Black Sand” but, ironically, “End Poem”), Baugh signals the importance of using poetry to shine light on the left-behind, the detritus from which creative endeavor thrives—when “rubble” and “weed” become central tropes of creative expression. As Derek Walcott says in “Mass Man,” “some mind must squat down howling in your dust, / some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish, / someone must write your poems.”3 In “End Game” Baugh fulfils Walcott’s dream for the Caribbean when he goes green in his tun han/mek fashion poetics, seeing creative possibilities in rubbish:
and when that daring song tower falls,
may goats and children know delight
poking round each rubbled height
strike bright music
from shards of weed-grown walls. (13)
From this very first poem associated with endings and ruin, Baugh hopes to strike music that will give delight to goats and children. Thematically, Baugh self-consciously, even self-deprecatingly, suggests that poetic overreaching for high towers will end in ruins (the line about the tower falling makes me think of the Tower of Babel), but even so he hopes to benefit from that apparent failure and “strike bright music / from shards of weed grown walls” (though it is primarily a reader with the delight of “goats and children” who will be able to appreciate its “bright music”).
So let me express a child’s delight and poke a little around the “rubbled height” of his poetry, hoping to find, as Baugh describes in “Black Sand,” “nuances that glamour would miss.” What is fascinating in “End Game” is Baugh’s use of synesthesia—that strategy of merging two or more different senses into one, as if we need double-consciousness or multisensor receptors to appreciate the real significance of this poetry. Notice, for instance, that the sunlight image is made to simultaneously appeal to the senses of sight, sound, and movement: “and sunlight / strike bright music.” With the arc of the sun, we have seen sunlight appear to move on surfaces, yet by using the phrase “strike bright music,” we imagine the striking up of a band, the performance of drum roll, if you will, as the poet’s light shines down on “shards of weed grown walls.” Here, it is the rubble, the weed, the shards—broken pieces of life’s great constructions that his poetry hopes to illuminate.
This same motif of light is reflected in the title poem “Black Sand,” which highlights the value of poetry to illuminate our everyday reality. In this poem, Baugh begins with the conditional. For him, if a poem could be “open and wide” and could have some of the properties of a “beach of black sand,” then poetry would be something special. The ability to “absorb like black sand the sun’s heat” and “respond to bright sunlight with refractions of tone” would be a great achievement of any poet/poem. In that one word, tone, he captures both a visual and sound image, making us think about the way poetic language can straddle sensory responses—quickening us to understanding. Then, with the word refractions, he imagines poetry as a lens that can catch the light and reflect reality back to us magnified perhaps and with greater clarity. In his vision of poetry, he desires it to “yield” something of a “polished” product: “if the poem could yield / like black sand . . . / polished stones that fit in the palm / of a woman’s hand” (16). To polish, according to the OED means “to make smooth and shiny by rubbing” or to “improve, refine or finish,” thus the image of the polished stone suggests that after the hard work of rubbing and scrubbing that takes place with the waves on the beach, poetry over time can bring a shine to our tedious existence. In this way, poetry is the gloss of life. Like the black sand that can endure heat, like the pebbles on the beach that become polished, almost-precious stones, after all the to-ing and fro-ing, tossing and turning, scrubbing and scraping in the sea of life, poetry would not need to fear the night.4
Eventually, “Black Sand” closes by celebrating the cleansing, healing properties of poetry; like the beach of black sand, poetry will wash away hurt and pain. With patience, we will see light emerging through our darkness of experience and through the darkness of creative endeavor:
if the poem could be patient and wide as this evening,
this beach of black sand expecting the night
without fear, the moon lifting over the sea,
the largo of sunset spreading over the city
as the jagged, wounding edges of our unworthiness
are worn down by forgiveness, wave after untiring wave . . . (16; ellipsis in original)
Again, Baugh draws our attention to light imagery, already hinted at from the reference to “polished stones,” with their gloss and finish, and now to the moon elevated over the sea and the sunset seeping through the city and again, the light of the poem, like the beach wears down “the jagged, wounding edges” in another moment of synesthesia. Baugh similarly evokes light imagery in “I Wish You a Leaf Falling”:
I wish you a leaf falling
from the tree of heaven
catching rare angles of light
as it twirls in its fall, ever
so slowly, such music, such
flute notes . . . (44; ellipsis in original)
The poem recreates a moment that provides muse for a poet—watching a leaf falling; something that one might not stop to notice. Here again, Baugh creates poetry from the rubbish heap of life—the rubble and weeds from “End Poem,” the ordinary stone polished in “Black Sand,” and the fallen, I expect withering, leaf that in its fall “twirls” providing “such music, such flute notes.”
Baugh’s poetics of the “unnoticed” runs throughout the collection. In “River Song,” for example, our attention is drawn to a moment of quiet, of intimacy, of expectation through Baugh’s manipulation of caesuras: “The evening hushed, waiting.” We are forced as readers, through these pauses, to slow down the pace of our reading, to in effect slow down movement which then allows us to witness the moment a butterfly pauses for us to see its beauty: “The evening hushed, waiting. / A late butterfly alighted on a leaf/ then danced into the dusk, leaving/ a radiance wet with tears” (48). In another poem, “Slight and Ornamental,” he gives extended play to such a moment as providing muse for a poet. In Black Sand, we are called time and time again to witness personas who take time to notice small but significant moments of life. Such as in “Hurrying Across Hill Country,” in which Baugh captures that infinitesimal moment of hesitation, what he describes as “the moment, the elusive immanent, / the-always-about-to-happen-but-never-quite” (15). Or in “The Dark Hole in the Garden,” which poignantly describes that moment that everyone notices but finds too uncomfortable to talk about during a visit to a “newly widowed friend” (37). In this poem about loss, grief, and learning to live without a loved one, Baugh calls us to note that moment of recognizing the “space” in our lives laid bare (marked in metaphor as “the dark hole in the garden”):
But there’s this dark hole in the garden.
Our talk steps precariously round it,
camouflages it with colour. Sometimes we forget
it is there. Hardest to endure
is the feeling no one dares utter:
that, any moment now, he will walk through the door. (37)
Baugh’s attention to the extraordinariness of seemingly ordinary moments is not unrelated to his gift for celebrating people who might not be photographed for page 2 or appear on celebrity pages of our newspapers.5 For example, the subject of the poem “The Ice-Cream Man,” whose van “tinkles down / the avenue at dusk” where there are no more “children frolicking on well-kept lawns” (23), is one figure whose relevance Baugh reflects on. The canny Jamaican worker is here recognized in the ice-cream man who takes full advantage of the changes in our social arrangements by selling his treats to the security guards rather than to children. The persona/observer initially thinks the ice-cream man is irrelevant in this neighborhood where “you can’t even see the lawns or gardens / now, only the high, burglar-daunting / walls,” but later discovers that “the ice-cream man has done / his market research well” (23) and acknowledges his business acumen. Also, the woman in “Out of Stock,” who finds that the man she is searching for is always “out of stock” (52), or the grandma facing changes in fortune and weathering storms in “Walking to Jerusalem” are other ordinary people whose lives are given poetic emphasis in this collection. Sometimes, such figures do appear in celebrity or sensational frames of public spotlight, but the significance of their lives remains marginal in those representations. Baugh, in the poem “A Nineteenth-Century Portrait,” for example, draws into full focus the “personal slave-boy, Oliver” for whom “history has left / no afterword” (28) so that his poem becomes a tribute, much like the tribute in “Yard Boy” or the one to Amadou Diallo, whose valuable life gets obscured in the glare of the sensational race-relations story.
Up to this point, it might reasonably be concluded that in this collection we see the scholar-poet persona and the poet-champion of the underdog, but there is another Baugh whom I need to warn you about. Edward Baugh has the reputation of being a gentleman—gracious, thoughtful, and sensitive; he is indeed a man of decorum. Yet under all that, you will also find a cheeky poet-persona on display. One should read the poem “True Love,” in which the speaker cheekily rebuffs an implied request for a more sustained engagement with a presumed lover by mentioning unmentionable acts—acts your mother would have cautioned you not to talk about in public. Or you should read “Obituary Page,” his very humorous poem about obituaries in the newspaper, in which he critiques a fad that has developed in these representations of the dead. Baugh also subtly takes on interviewers of poets, editors, and reviewers in this collection in such poems as “What’s Poetry For” and “To the Editor Who Asked Me to Send Him Some of My Black Poems.” The former poem begins with the question of the interviewer, “So, what would you say that poetry is for?,” and the speaker answers sotto-voice, “Christ, not that again!” Here the cheek is in the tone. The speaker, though mouthing “well-meaning platitudes” as a response, is upset and cursing in his mind. His tone exposes the tired and routine suspicion of interviewers that poetry needs to justify its existence. The poet slinks away, we are told, to “nurse our dream of heaven: a place / where no one asks what’s poetry for” (24).
I have resisted the temptation to look at the echoes and sustained engagement of Baugh over his poetry-publishing career. Though I have focused on what strikes me as distinctive about this collection, outside those concerns, there is range and breadth in this new collection. There is a poem for everyone. Here in this collection, there are poems about love, loss, hardships, journeys, race relations, the history of arrival in the New World, memory, art, and reflections of family life. From the writer who penned the much loved “The Carpenter’s Complaint” and “It Was the Singing,” you will also find Baugh’s expert handling of the dramatic monologue in such poems as “The Accident” and “Walking to Jerusalem” and, of course, in the elegy and poems of tribute. The student of poetry will get a good lesson in how to manipulate, among other techniques, rhyme, lineation, synesthesia and caesuras and the literature buff will find pleasure discovering all the inter-textual references to T. S. Eliot, Malcolm Lowry, Philip Larkin, and John Milton. In spite of the consistency of craft and concern in Baugh’s three collections, I have tried to suggest that in this new collection, Black Sand, Baugh gives priority to a poetics of the marginal and neglected. Making expert use of metaphors of rubble, weed and black sand, this poet tends to go to “the [creative] road not taken” and to pursue poetic paths with “leaves no step had trodden black.”6 After three collections, Baugh has published over a hundred poems, yet it is not the very number that is proof of excellence but his ability to leave memories “like comfort stones picked up on the beach” (“Memories like Comfort Stones,” 45). This is the accomplishment of this new work.
Michael A. Bucknor is a senior lecturer and head of the Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, Mona. His research interests include Caribbean/Canadian writing, Austin Clarke, masculinities, postcolonial literatures and theory, and cultural studies. He coedited, with Alison Donnell, The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (2011) and is completing a manuscript titled “Performing Masculinities in Jamaican Popular Culture.”
1 Edward Baugh, Black Sand: New and Selected Poems (Leeds: Peeple Tree, 2013); hereafter cited in the text.
2 I also heard him giving the same explanation to Paula Ann Porter in an interview on RJR in late November 2013.
3 Derek Walcott, “Mass Man,” in Selected Poems (London: Faber, 2007), 39. By invoking Walcott’s poem here, I am not subscribing to any notion of a separation of the artist from the people the art represents but more am focussing on the salvaging metaphor that the poem celebrates.
4 For Baugh, night seems to represent the darkness of human experience and the often dark struggle of creative endeavor.
5 Page 2 in the Jamaican Observer often features photographs of people deemed to be of social significance and high status in Jamaica, usually seen living “the high life.”
6 Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” in Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1973), 77.