Deconstructing Decolonisation: Victor Questel’s Collected Poems

15 May 2017


A review essay

Ex-
it
mas’ man
push on
pan man,
a man
attuned, trapped

caught (like me)
making 
subtle inden-
tations
in his
spider web

(now)
limbo-
ing from flambeau-
pan-yard
to
flying Pan Am

a-
massing cultural
missions (17)1

For those unfamiliar with the Caribbean context, a pan man is a pan (‘steel drum’) player, and a mas’ man’ is a participant in the masquerade. They are key figures in the annual Trinidad Carnival: a festival which creolised the quasi-pagan, pre-Lenten festivities of the white plantation class in the slave era and Canboulay (French Trinidadian Creole for ‘cannes brulées’, or burnt cane), a celebration at least as old as emancipation (1834), in which those who had been enslaved re-enacted the rounding up of slaves that occurred when sugar cane illicitly had been burnt. Canboulay parodied and inverted this display of plantation power, celebrating freedom and continuities in African ritual expression.2 Once a hero of Carnival’s anarchic anticolonial spirit, in the post-independence era – Trinidad and Tobago decolonised in 1962, this poem appeared in 1972 – the pan man has become a jet-setting cultural ambassador for a nation finding its feet as a notional free-agent in the word-economy. (The same theme would be fleshed out in narrative form by Earl Lovelace in the tremendous The Dragon Can’t Dance a decade later.3) These opening lines signal that this is a poem concerned, at least in part, with the commercialisation of culture.

Each line of ‘Pan Drama’ is between one and five syllables long, and these are clustered into groups of six or seven. (As the poem continues, the groups contract to three or four lines.) From the third line there are four consecutive lines of two syllables. The enjambment of the poem’s first word into two mono-syllabic lines prepares the rhythmic and semantic logic of these bi-syllabic lines by asserting the dominance of line over word and the independence of the phoneme. It also works to distribute energy between syllables in a way that undermines the expectation that we should observe stress as per everyday speech (that is, if one’s inner ear presumes a certain kind of accentual delivery; something that would not necessarily occur to some of the poet’s compatriots). One might therefore read the opening as a series of two-beat utterances:

EX         IT
MAS      MAN
PUSH    ON
PAN      MAN
A           MAN
AT         TUNED

It could almost be delivered in the rhythm of the heart. This is not sustained, but the propulsion it creates persists for a few lines, affecting the way we negotiate the relationship between line and syntax throughout.

While it would be a stretch to claim that the rhythm is a direct mimesis of pan music, it seems likely that the augmentation of rhythmic effect through conspicuous segmentation connects form to content, much in the way that similar techniques do in the following passages:

So come
quick cattle
train, lick
the long:
rails: choo-
choo chattanoo-
ga pick
the long 
trail to town. (33)
Rise rise
locks-
man, Solo-
man Wise
man, rise
rise rise
leh we
laugh 
dem, mock 
dem, stop
dem (43)4

Again phonemes hang semi-autonomously at the end of short lines, and there’s the suggestion of rhythmic mimesis; they do not directly imitate the rhythms of, respectively, the train blues and reggae, and yet the short line and conspicuous enjambment allows the poet quickly to establish a rhythmic propulsion that alludes to these musical genres. (An example of direct rhythmic mimesis is Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Reggae Sounds’.)5

These latter excerpts come from a very famous collection: Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage, first published in 1968 by Oxford University Press. The first excerpt is from a poem in a collection known by very few: Victor Questel and Anson Gonzales’s Score, self-published by the authors in Port-of-Spain four years later. Brathwaite’s collection, the first instalment of his ‘New World’ trilogy The Arrivants, riffs on various musical forms produced by the African diaspora in the New World. As well as those mentioned already, there are work songs, delta blues, rock n’ roll, calypso, and various forms of jazz, which are arranged into a rough chronology that charts the dispersion and creolization of African culture in the Americas. One could probably slip Questel’s pan poem into Brathwaite’s collection and few first-time readers would spot the anomaly. The elements that might stand out are those parenthetical asides, which signal a clear divide between the poet and the musician. In Brathwaite’s collection there is no such separation of the poet’s voice and that of his personae.

If Questel’s asides suggest an individuated poetic voice whose language, and being, is separate from the folk, proletarian, and lumpenproletarian characters he, at turns, describes, ventriloquises and addresses, we are, perhaps, more in the milieu associated with Brathwaite’s poetic antithesis, Derek Walcott. Take the following from another early Questel poem, ‘Tom’:

I have no grief 
for words to
flounder upon

for the way lost
is the way
lost

and revolution 
is a scandal 
of poverty 
sandalled to the 
dust of processions. (32)

The segmentation again recalls Brathwaite’s early poetics, but the lofty note struck by personification, verbal metonym, and unblinking lyric fatalism is Walcott through and through. As Gordon Rohlehr notes frequently in his expansive commentary on Questel’s collected poems, this is a poetics that moves between, and at times attempts to synthesise, the two most celebrated poles of post-independence Caribbean poetics. This polarity was regularly observed at the time, and its impact on poets in the ’60s and ’70s would come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.6

I start by emphasising Questel’s relation to Brathwaite vs. Walcott not to suggest that his corpus is epiphenomenal to or symptomatic of that headline aesthetic battle, but to point to the fact that he developed his poetic style at a time when an independent field of aesthetic position-taking had established itself in the region. It is probably the first moment in the history of the English-medium Caribbean poetry (at least in its written modes) at which an emerging poet could orient her or his aesthetic program primarily with reference to local authorships. This would not have been true even seven years earlier, when the late-colonial / early-post-colonial notion of ‘Commonwealth literature’ was still a dominant parameter for reception and interpretation.

The field of Caribbean poetry was a lot more varied and complex than Brathwaite vs. Walcott in 1972, but it is striking that their influence can so readily be observed on the surface of Questel’s work. This is not true for the generation just ahead of him – the likes of Wayne Brown, Mervyn Morris and Dennis Scott – who established their formal agendas before the polarisation had become so distinct, especially after the Brathwaite-edited anthology Savacou ¾7 – and it would not be true of the generation just after him, which included several ground-breaking female poets like Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior and Velma Pollard (all of whom, it should be said, were older than Questel, but who each published their first volumes later than him). It is both a testament to the times and the nature of Questel’s quest – it seems greatness was on his agenda – that the anxiety of influence is there for all to see. He editorialised in Brathwaite’s favour in the journal Tapia, and wrote one of the first doctorates dedicated to Walcott’s work at the University of the West Indies (UWI) at St Augustine.

  1. Victor Questel, Collected Poems (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2016).
  2. Errol Hill, The Trinidad Carnival (London: New Beacon, 1997).
  3. Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can’t Dance (Harlow: Longman, 1979).
  4. Edward Brathwaite, The Arrivants (Oxford: OUP, 1973).
  5. Linton Kwesi Johnson, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2006), 17.
  6. Patricia Ismond, ‘Walcott versus Brathwaite’, Caribbean Quarterly 17:3/4 (1971), 54-71.
  7. See Laurence A. Breiner, An Introduction to West Indian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 9-23.
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