Poems of Penitence and Pilgrimage

Mark McWatt, Journey to Le Repentir (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2009), 148 pages, ISBN 978-1845230814 (paper).

• October 2010

The cover image of Mark McWatt’s new collection of poetry, Journey to Le Repentir, is a perfect example of a leading line: a line that leads the eye away from the camera and into the distance, so as to create depth and perspective within the photograph. The pathway between two lines of Royal Palms carries the eye towards a destination which is unspecified and out of view. The title, however, unlocks the secret of this destination: Le Repentir, the graveyard in Georgetown which is all that’s left of the estate once owned by a French aristocrat who shot his own brother in a duel. The name he gave to his plantation, “The Penitent”, speaks therefore of an intimate crime, a lifelong guilt and a need for repentance which outlives the perpetrator. The cover photograph and the title of this collection encapsulate all these; but the palms marching away from us also function like the pages of a book, which we turn one after the other, as the poet leads us deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the landscape. Or like the words of a poem, which carry individual meanings and associations, but together add up to something more than themselves.

Journey to Le Repentir is McWatt’s third book of poems, and the cover images convey  how the material of each is a deepening and reworking of what has gone before. Interiors (1988) features a photograph of a single rainforest tree, a great buttress rising out of the earth, massively twisted and surrounded by lianas which hang like ropes  from the sky, again, like lines of verse leading out of the frame towards the mystery of the psychological or emotional interior. The Language of Eldorado (1994) features a reproduction of a painting, “Landscape of Hearts and Diamonds”, by Stanley Greaves, which might remind us - as McWatt himself did in his inaugural professorial lecture,  "Landscape and the Language of the Imagination: Reading Guyanese Literature"  - of Wilson Harris’s description of the forested interior of Guyana as a “solid wall of trees filled with ancient blocks of shadow and with gleaming hinges of light”. Again, titles and cover images work together to articulate the poet’s abiding concerns – how to convey in words the quality of a place which makes its impact chiefly through the eye, how to compress centuries of history into a single instant of apprehension and how to express in images his own sensual relationship with landscape.

We can get an impression of how long the poet has been pondering and reworking these questions from that inaugural lecture, where he quotes an unattributed “passage of poetry” about a seeker of Eldorado sailing into one of Guyana’s rivers. This passage begins:

Even the rivers here are too natural,

wild and undisciplined – this meanders

like a drunken scullion pissing down an alley,

splashing itself all over the landscape…(27)

The fact that the lecture was given at Cave Hill in 2003, and the poem only now appears in Journey to Le Repentir, gives us a glimpse of the way McWatt’s poetic process mirrors the progress of the interior rivers, alternately rushing over cataracts and meandering around floating islands, but always singing its own song and taking its own time.

A second example: the poem “The Palms in Le Repentir”, which first appeared in The Language of Eldorado in 1994, makes a second appearance in the final section of this new collection. From being a single element in the earlier work, it has become the structuring device of the whole volume, along with certain minute changes which reveal the process of revisioning it has undergone with time. The 1994 version began:

The magnificent palms

of Le Repentir

strut beside a narrow bridge of life

channeling a city

through the quiet corner of its dead. (28)

The 2009 version goes as follows:

The magnificent palms

of Le Repentir

strut beside the daystream of the living

ushering a city

through the quiet corner of its dead. (116)

 “A narrow bridge of life” has become “the daystream of the living”; “channeling” has become “ushering”. What do these apparently small changes show as to how the poet’s mental processes have worked on the material in the intervening 15 years?  The “narrow bridge of life” is a concrete image, easy to visualize, evoking the Georgetown canals which define the city, crossed by narrow bridges which enable human life to flow contrapuntally to the water below. “The daystream of the living” refines this image into something more abstract, perhaps, but also more in keeping with the preoccupation of this collection with water as its central symbol; and with key juxtapositions which throw into relief the mysterious simultaneity of past, present and future. Here, the juxtaposition is upright, earth-rooted palms with free-flowing water, the stasis of death with the activity of living. We can see the same transformation at work in the change from “channeling” to “ushering”. Again, channeling concretely brings to mind Georgetown’s canals or ditches, now replaced by the more displaced ushering, suggestive of funeral ushers, the gatekeepers who stand upright and sober at the church-door as we enter to pay our respects to the dead.

Both versions of the poem, however, end the same way: “those great sentinel trees/of my memory.”  (117)

And this brings us to the point of the collection. Journey to Le Repentir is, at one level, the universal journey towards the grave, as reflected in the volume's four-part structure by which the poet takes us through the phases of his life, from youth to middle age. This journey, invoking memory and the inevitable loss of the past, is autobiographical in the sense that the consciousness and the experiences are the poet’s. But what is autobiography? It means, literally, telling your own story, and telling a story involves a process of ordering and structuring, arranging and overlaying, which is the same as the process of composition. In this sense, all stories, even true ones, are made up. In the postcolonial context, autobiography and memoir are even more inextricable from writing, because so many postcolonial writers write about “home” from a distance. Postcolonial writing, therefore, deals with nostalgia and loss, which are universal themes, in a particular way. Memory is the engine which drives many of the best-known and best-loved West Indian novels - Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, Ian McDonald’s Hummingbird Tree, Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Erna Brodber’s Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, as well as more recent novels like Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace, Lawrence Scott’s Witchbroom, Oonya Kempadoo’s Buxton Spice, the short stories of Olive Senior and the poetry of Lorna Goodison. These writers recreate, not the only the past, but a lost world, in multiple different ways in prose and poetry.

The condition of exile, the rupturing of early links, commonly experienced by West Indian writers, is described by McWatt in his account of being sent away to school in the poem “Exile”:

…but before I knew the word

I knew I would always be an exile – holding

back tears…and fifty years later,

I still sometimes…remember that first voyage

into the eternal exile of my heart. (41)

 But exile is also an existential condition.  For McWatt – for all writers – writing offers the possibility of compensation, the means of recreating that lost world in a new form. In another poem about leaving home, “Grumman Goose”, the poet offers us a different way of looking at it, as the plane lifts the boy far above his familiar world:

Somehow I sensed in my heart the importance

Of separation, the advantage of height and dis-

tance, the wonderful cleavage between self and world. (46)

As well as intensity of experience, distance is, of course, the other essential attribute of the writer and the combination of the two is the writer’s vision. Distance is created within this volume by the juxtaposition of personal and autobiographical narratives with a series of other apparently unrelated stories. In Section 1, “Mercator” we view the land of Eldorado from the deck of a ship sailing upriver, through the eyes of its captain; in Section 2, “Dark Constellation”, the river Mazaruni is given a voice, not to offer up its secrets but rather to keep them: “I guard my own in darkness.” In Section 3, “The Museum of Love”, the spirit of a murdered slave child is trapped in the wooden carving of a blackamoor in a museum; and in the final section, “El Repentir”, the Frenchman, De Saffon, speaks of “my plantations of grief”. However, because all these voices speak “the language of Eldorado”, because they are bound together by themes and images of love, loss, guilt, pleasure, pain and transcendence, ultimately we understand them to be personae through whom the poet explores his own relationship with all these things.

For example, the 18th century ship’s captain and the poet  both perceive the river from a vessel, and both muse on the significance of what they see. For the captain, “All that matters here is matter”, whereas for the poet in “Aruka” the river is spirit and poetry made manifest. The captain asks “What can one write about endless boring rain…?” and the poet answers with “a wild memory of rain…(and ) the sudden terror of love”. The slave child trapped in the wooden statue, who has to endure having his wooden willy cut off by a passing desecrator, is an apt metaphor for the point of view of the older person who surveys youth and love and beauty from an unreachable distance, as the poet feels he is beginning to do. And the fratricidal Frenchman in the last section is the avatar of guilt, so that, the poet tells us:

I came to realize that I was the secret legatee,

The one hounded by guilt, and a deeply buried

Sadness…(130)

The overriding theme of this collection, on which all the poems reflect, is time: the mysterious transformations that occur between past, present and future, or, as the poet puts it:

The past that is now

And the future that is never. (17)

As Mazaruni tells us, the river is the embodiment of this conundrum:

I am always and irretrievably

Now and now and now, no “then”,

No “will be”….(75)

There is, however, also a great deal of celebration in this book and a great deal of humour, ironic asides which undercut the seriousness of the themes. In the last section, the poet describes himself in a poem written in response to a memo circulated at the University of the West Indies on the approach of its 50th anniversary, at whose Cave Hill campus McWatt worked for thirty years. The memo requested: “If there are any works of art owned by the University in your office, please indicate below.” In “Memorandum: the work of art in A34”, he responds:

Thought you’d never ask…

Yes, there’s a fine piece in room A34…

It’s about six foot high,

Brown, balding and fairly benign,

Weighs two hundred pounds –

Oh, and of course it belongs to U.W.I. (139)

If we compare the author’s picture on the back of The Language of Eldorado in 1994 – bearded, bespectacled, serious, scholarly – with that on the back of this new book, where he leans, casually dressed, wearing shades, hoisting a backpack (and weighing in considerably under two hundred pounds), on a wall in some foreign city – we see that time has not stood still, and the Mark McWatt who responded to the memo is not identical to Mark McWatt, the poet of this collection. Though he is still on a journey of discovery, uncovering new meanings in familiar places, forms and themes, these are infused with the authority of a philosophy elaborated and tested over time.

 

Jane Bryce was born in Tanzania, and educated there, in Nigeria and the UK. Since 1992, she has taught at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, where she is Professor of African Literature and Cinema.  She has published in the areas of contemporary African and Caribbean fiction, film and visual culture, popular writing, women’s writing, journalism and her own creative writing. She is the author of Chameleon (Peepal Tree Press, 2007) a collection of short fiction, and the editor of Caribbean Dispatches: Inside Stories of the Caribbean (Macmillan, 2006).