Deconstructing Decolonisation: Victor Questel’s Collected Poems

15 May 2017

If Brathwaite vs. Walcott attested to the formation of an autonomous poetic field in the cricket-playing Caribbean, Rohlehr is one pole of a similar, if less remarked on, polarity in poetry criticism. Where the Guyanese Rohlehr writes flowing, expansive, and often circular commentaries that seek to cover all interpretative bases, the Jamaican Mervyn Morris writes highly condensed and suggestive essays that remind me of Wittgenstein’s maxim ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ – the maximalist and minimalist. Rohler wrote an entire monograph dedicated to exploring Brathwaite’s The Arrivants.1 An exhaustive and exhausting read, it successfully captures that collection’s broad narrative vision without skimping on the local poetic detail. Making my way through his similarly capacious commentary on Questel, I wondered whether this volume might not have been better served by the Morris treatment. (Given that Questel once referred to Morris disparagingly as a ‘cultural mulatto’, this eventuality would have been unlikely.2) Rohlehr’s critical instincts are to decode poetic images and techniques, often using the techniques and assumptions of narratology, which can have the effect of turning ambiguity into inevitability. He talks about narrators, protagonists and journeys when discussing poems whose voicing seemed to me to be quite unstable and which actively place obstructions before attempts at chronological narrative reconstruction. His personal familiarity with Questel also leads to some ad hominem readings of poems such as with ‘Absence’ (see p. 266).

In so saying, it cannot be doubted that Rohlehr’s commentary is a wonderful gift to the poetic and historical record. Many of his interpretative comments strike home, such as the effective reading of the Shaka poem (240-43), and the biographical notes and glosses provide invaluable historical, literary and personal cross-reference. His command of the corpuses of Walcott and Brathwaite allow us to see just how frequently Questel weaves and subtly negates their work. To take just one example of the rich historical knowledge he brings to bear: commenting on ‘Pan Drama’, Rohlehr recalls that Pan American Airways was a sponsor of the Pan Am North Stars steel orchestra and, therefore, ‘like all other commercial sponsors of Pan, part of the bourgeois pacification process of both Mas and Pan’ (192). Such precious information, though, can be hard to access within the baggy commentary, and some readers might be reluctant to make the effort. I would have preferred factual annotations for the poems with a more selective and tightly edited essay which discussed those poems Rohlehr regards as particularly significant. The commentary on ‘Father’, for example, is entirely perfunctory (239).

Curiously, when signing off at the end of the notes, Rohlehr indicates that he spent only sixteen days preparing the 111 pages of small-font notes. It’s not clear whether this is intended as a boast or a kind of deprecation. I prefer to see it as the latter: an indication that he worked his way through Questel’s corpus in an intensive yet spontaneous manner, signalling that his commentary is something of a first draft written by a teacher, colleague and friend uniquely placed to conduct this exercise. The poems now await a more circumspect and deliberated treatment. They deserve one, for Questel’s is a quite distinctive poetic idiom which gives us an unusual view onto the ways in which conditions in the aftermath of Caribbean decolonisation placed unusual pressures on poetry’s capacity for self-reflection.

  1. Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder: Black Awakening in the Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Tunapuna: Gordon Rohlehr, 1981).
  2. Daryl Cumber Dance (ed.), Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (Wesport: Greenwood Press, 1986), 353.
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