Tue | Dec 5, 2023

My companionship with Jamaican poems in slim books

Published:Sunday | February 5, 2023 | 2:12 AM
Newton Duncan
Newton Duncan

For Edward Baugh

The Pond, Uncle Time and Tales from the Rainforest are slim, discretely transportable books, which can rescue one from a day’s ordinariness and strain. Their poems became my companions, and these impromptu jottings are some lessons they taught.

We all know that death of a parent can be life changing. The poem The Day My Father Died comes from Mervyn Morris’ first collection, The Pond. In the poem, loss of a father impacts a boy, who processes the event with the wisdom of an adult. An extract from the poem illustrates this and other points.

The day my father died

I could not cry;

My mother cried,

Not I.

My mother’s tears were my tears

Each sob shook me

The pain of death is living,

The dead are free.

For me my father’s death

Was mother’s sorrow

That day was her day

Loss was tomorrow

Grief, the inevitable consequence of parental loss is arresting but should not paralyse us. We must face grief looking outwards, not inwards. By helping those hurting the most shoulder their grief, we ameliorate ours. The poem offers a benedictory truth: Death is the liberating event of life.

Dennis Scott’s poem Uncle Time appeared first in FOCUS - 1960, A Ministry of Social Welfare- sponsored publication, which was dedicated to the late Roger Mais. Scott’s collection by the same name was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1974. Uncle Time personifies time as an old man and conveys high philosophical concepts in “Jamaica’s nation language”. Stylistically exquisite as the poem is, Uncle Time was also prophetic. Below is an extract from the poem.

Uncle Time is a ole, ole man. . . .

All year long ‘im wash ‘im foot in de sea

long lazy years on de wet san…

Me Uncle Time smile black as sorrow;

‘im voice is sof’ as bamboo leaf but Lawd, me Uncle cruel

When ‘im play in de street Wid yu woman- watch ‘im ! By tomorrow

She dry as cane-fire, bitter as cassava;

an’ when ‘im teach yu son , long after

Yu walk wid stranger , an’ yu bread is grief.

Watch how ‘im spin web roun’ yu house , an’ creep

inside; an when ‘im touch yu, weep….


Time has played its trick on Jamaica.

Graft, cynicism, and self-defacing counter cultures have created a product unrecognisable to its independence generation. An extract from HD Carberry’s poem, Epitaph, is an apt commentary on the present.

I Think they will remember this as the age of Lamentations,

The age of broken minds and broken souls,

The age of failure of splendid things

The age of the deformity of splendid things…

“Nation language” in another of Scott’s poem, Grandpa (extract below), is used to convey a different message than Uncle Time.

Granpa, how come you t’in so?

an’ him tell me, is so I stay

me chile, is so I stay

laughing, an’ fine

emptying on me -

Laughing? It running from him

Like a flood, that old molasses man.

In this poem, “nation language” not only communicates but also consoles. Its viscous quality is palpable. It has a burned, bitter, sweetness derived from plantation sweat. For the children of slaves, “nation language” is a salve for mental trauma, passed down through generations.

Edward Baugh’s first collection, A Tale from the Rainforest, is a diminutive, blurry green unprepossessing product, but this belies its jolting clarity.

The final poem in the collection, “A Rain-Washed Town By The Sea”, is autobiographical and is shared in entirety.

The scrunch of the kitchen knife through the long stalks

of ginger I cut for my mother

this leaf-moist morning. The scent

pierces me.

Way above the trumpet

tree, noisy with the gossip of birds,

improbably far, the silver stylus

of a jet chalks the arrow of my

ambition across immaculate blue.

Even as I gaze it dissolves in puff balls

of vapour

From my desk, carved

with the names of the lost, the heroes, I shall dream

on the cobalt sea.

By mid-day it will rain,

extravagantly, the gutters will gurgle with delight.

These memories define me. I keep them

against the morning when my eyes

No longer turn to greet the sun.

Autobiography epitomises transparency and fidelity to truth. Vladimir Nabakov’s idea that “we are all heading toward eternal darkness at the rate of some forty-five hundred heartbeats per hour”, occupies the conscious mind and is often the source of deep reflection. Simple truths from everyday rural life and childhood memories sustain those of us who had a rural upbringing. Their lessons are our insurance policy for life’s dark certainties. We must all prioritise self-discovery because self-knowledge is the basis of internal fortitude.

It is my wish that Jamaicans will revisit the works of our poets in slim books and like myself discover their use as portable remedies.

- Newton Duncan is professor emeritus of surgery, The University of the West Indies.