Deconstructing Decolonisation: Victor Questel’s Collected Poems

15 May 2017

It has taken a long time for Questel’s Collected Poems to appear. It was published last year by the Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press as part of their invaluable Caribbean Modern Classic series. Peepal Tree is a crucially important independent publisher of Caribbean and Caribbean diasporic literature. In bringing together Questel’s three out-of-print collections, they again have enriched our capacity to navigate the lesser known currents of the Caribbean literary world. The volume includes 111 pages of detailed notes and interpretative glosses from the distinguished Trinidad-based Guyanese critic Gordon Rohlehr (author of many seminal essays on Caribbean literature and music, and one of Questel’s lecturers at UWI). I discuss his commentary at the end of this essay.

Questel was a child of Caribbean decolonisation. He was in primary school when Eric Williams formed the People’s National Movement, and began adolescence the same year Trinidad and Tobago gained independence. He belongs to the first cohort who were able to criticise what Rohlehr calls the ‘patriarchs of first the West Indian Federation and newly independent Caribbean nations’ (181) without feeling as though he were betraying the spirit of independence. His first poems were published in the period following Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘Black Power Revolution’: a series of strikes, rallies and some low-level militarisation which peaked in early 1970. The rift between the PNM and the revolutionary left, who were staking a claim as the true heirs of decolonisation, was exposed when Williams declared a state of emergency in April 1970. Score includes a sketch of the movement’s leader, Geddes Granger (later Makandal Daaga), as ‘The Epileptic boy of February / in / sou / ciant to the price / ruin’ (46). From the start of his career, we see that Questel saw poetic language as a critical medium, reflecting a period in which the earnest collectivist ideals of decolonisation sputtered fitfully. Moments of revolutionary success, such as the neighbouring Grenadian revolution in the late 1970s, did little to counter the general tendency of post-colonial economic dependence and political confusion under the regime of the new imperial hegemon to the North. Questel died in 1982 (the cause is curiously unstated in the volume’s notes and biographical overview; Rohlehr alludes to problems with mental health), the same year the radical Guyanese theorist of under-development Walter Rodney was assassinated, and months before the CIA landed in Grenada ensuring the region’s last socialist revolution went the way of farce.

If, in retrospect, Questel’s sceptical, at times even cynical voice more accurately reflects the realities of the period than that poetics of black power and neo-African enthusiasm, it is notable that it largely has been neglected, even within the region’s literary-historical narrative. There are obvious reasons for his obscurity beyond the Caribbean. While the formerly colonised nations struggled with systemic underdevelopment, postcolonial critics in first-world English departments were eager to discover and promote the voices of an apparently victorious decolonisation. Brathwaite, Walcott and others took their place in a redemptive postcolonial narrative of writing back to Empire; a view shaped by the dominance of cultural and identity politics in these institutions. There was little room in such frameworks for internal critiques within the formerly colonised world. In key anthologies, histories, and collections in the Caribbean, Questel is name-checked as a significant poet of his generation but, from what I can tell, rarely, if ever, discussed in any detail. It will be interesting to see if his collected poems, and Rohlehr’s expansive commentary on it, rectify the situation.

Reading through the collection, at times finding myself a little underwhelmed, and trying to decide, for better or worse, what interest it might present to other readers, I became curious about the frequency of reflexive, meta-poetic moves made in his poems. It led me to wonder about the state of the discussion of Caribbean meta-poetics. There has been detailed consideration of the Caribbean lyric, and the peculiar challenges for self-reflexivity in a region in which language exists on a fluid creole continuum; but I have not before read a West-Indian poet for whom lyric utterance is so consistently caught up in deliberations (explicit and formal) on the nature and effectivity of the (printed) poetic act. The tendency is so insistent as to appear compulsive, and it certainly marks out the incipient intentions of his work from the epic arcs being traced by Walcott and Brathwaite. Rohlehr gives a succinct account of those aspects of Brathwaite’s style that Questel emulates: ‘the punning, broken lines, word-echoing and tendency towards journey narrative’ (184). What he doesn’t focus on is how often Questel deploys these techniques in a way calculated to make his reader hyper-conscious of the deliberated nature of poetic construction. It’s already there in the asides we noted earlier in ‘Pan Drama’. In ‘Lines’, which strikes me as being a quintessential Questel poem, meta-poetics is itself the theme:

Frames cracked by Lines
of doubt
hold the cleft note that is blown 
as you make that journey across this 
blank 
knowing that drawing the map is more important
than simply 
journeying.

(…)

The slate is dry,
blank. Write. (76-78)

Such moments are frequent across his corpus. Most poems have at least one moment in which attention is drawn to writing act, which tends to push signification towards aporia. Interest thus turns from the fact of meta-poetics to the way it affects the treatment of the disparate subjects which Questel takes up: religion, family, domestic life, politics, music, carnival, nature.

Once I stopped flinching at the overload of puns, double entendres and other forms of at times glib wordplay, it dawned on me that Questel’s is an idiom distinctly suited to corroding authorised speech acts. He consistently steers the linguistic assurance of the powerful towards the signifying gap; from the Prime Minister, to preachers, to judges, to the codes of power attached to domestic roles. I began to wonder if his work presents something of a nascent, peripheral mode of post-modernism; not one saturated with knowing references to the theories of the linguistic turn and invested in the indefinite suspension of irony, but a poetics that registers the internal collapse of confidence in signification under pressure from conditions in this post-decolonisation period.

Coup or the Hopeless Art of Writing

There is a fatal lethal flame
that burns old people’s homes, houses,
stores, private enterprise and
public faith. Coups here are
as noisy as my caged pigeons.

There are more military juntas
than Caribbean experts on
international relations.

To sit and write this down
may seem a luxury to many. In plain
truth there is a coup to film
or stop or report. If I drop all
this and race ahead to

where the action is, I may
get there before the B.B.C.
correspondent – or the political
reporter for the Washington Post.

I could land a story before
the Mafia’s next flight of ganja
takes off for Miami. I may even get
lucky and beat the C.I.A. to the punch;
burn with rage and stage the coup myself. (170)

There are a number of features that you will never encounter in metropolitan post-modernism: a relative class consciousness positioned between a local working class (those for whom writing may seem a luxury) and a global middle-class (the reporters of first-world media companies); a non-trivial proximity to a dysfunctional and precarious state apparatus and the criminal networks that flourish in such circumstances; and the sense, therefore, that one might be a part of the story rather than only its mediator or consumer. And yet there is the perennial concern of postmodern writing with hypermediation and its relation to literary signification. The lineation is relatively discreet by Questel’s standards, but read in the context of his authorship, it reads as another exploration of linguistic reflexivity. Could this be a linguistic turn native to peripheral conditions? One prompted by the collapse of decolonising idealism? We might read Questel as a poet attuned to the autonomisation of regimes of representation in a periphery subject to the double-speak of first-world aid, structural adjustments and humanitarian interventions.

If this presents one possible basis for finding Questel’s work historically interesting, it does not mean that the experience of reading his work will be pleasurable. The poems that I actively enjoyed were those in which Questel trained his meta-poetic sensibility on the variety of speech types he heard around him in Trinidad. The six-poem sequence ‘Voices’, from his second collection Near Morning Ground subjects various voices to his peculiar deconstructive method, including effective satires of folksy patriarchy as neo-colonial chauvinism (‘This Island Mopsy’) and Granger / Daaga as the Zulu King Shaka: ‘We need more black sounds. / Black people know what to do. We / have always known what to do. Shaka /say is the fire next time’ (106). The title of his final collection Hard Stares signals something of an aesthetic reorientation. If poems like ‘Judge Dreadword’ continue established concerns and lines of polemic, ‘Playroom’ and ‘The Bush’ have a winning restraint and seem to indicate a poet outgrowing some of his post-adolescent convictions and influences.

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