‘People’ an original literary enterprise

Ian McDonald and Peter Jailall, People of Guyana, Middle Road Publishers, Toronto, Ontario, 2018, pp.91.

A review by Frank Birbalsingh


Ian McDonald and Peter Jailall, People of Guyana, Middle Road Publishers, Toronto, Ontario, 2018, pp.91.

A review by Frank Birbalsingh
People of Guyana combines new as well as previously published poems by Ian McDonald and Peter Jailall, two of Guyana’s best-known poetic voices, into one volume. This original literary venture is not merely an anthology of works by two authors, but an original, indeed a unique literary enterprise in which each author interweaves his own poems so intricately with those of his fellow poet that together their poems become essential components of one authentic literary work. McDonald who lives partly in Guyana and partly in Canada, is also a novelist, dramatist and non-fiction writer, while Jailall, a retired school teacher, is well known for public readings from his work in Toronto where he has lived for most of his life. Of the forty-six poems in People of Guyana, twenty-five are by McDonald and twenty-one by Jailall.

Poems in People consider subjects that are exclusively, quintessentially Guyanese; but whether they deal with local Guyanese people, places, scenes and events, or biographical sketches of individuals, they are in no way artistically limited by their national, regional or geographical connection. Local situations, people or events may be one thing, but themes illuminating people’s reactions and feelings are quite another matter. 

Nothing confirms the artistic success of poems by McDonald and Jailall more than the intensity and sense of grandeur they elicit in plumbing themes of thought and feelings experienced not only by Guyanese but by people everywhere. A typical example is McDonald’s “Betty” which describes an old, probably Indian-Guyanese woman “in a run-down logie room” where her life “was as nothing to her,” and “all women’s’ lives were as nothing,” whereas “boys were princes” and her husband abandoned her for another woman. Betty’s adverse experience, both as a woman and labourer, proclaims universal feminist and humanist themes of interest to people everywhere. 


“Khatun from Skeldon,” a poem by Jailall, also displays the horror of plantation brutality and its dehumanising effect on Guyanese. After a lifetime of weeding and “cleaning and moulding sugarcane roots,” Khatun’s unsurprising conclusion is that she has lived “on the dung heap of estate life” and, at the age of about eighty, all that she has accomplished is: “now, me sidonk/ ready fu dead.” [now I sit down / ready to die]. Khatun’s last two lines come with the clarion sound and power of a thunderclap since, far from admitting defeat, they justify her conclusion that death is the only logical result of plantation brutality calmly expressed in a measured tone that is neither screaming nor complaining, but resolutely defiant.

Defiance, persistence, endurance and indomitable will against oppression are also seen in two of McDonald’s poems about Amerindians, the first people of Guyana. “Amerindian,” the first poem in People, is about an Amerindian whose plight is that he migrated to a town where he died, presumably from cultural alienation since, as the persona comments: “He [the Amerindian] should have died with jaguars and stars.” The persona appears aggrieved by the Amerindian’s tragic sense of cultural displacement when he further claims: “When buildings in this upstart town / Again are lost in sea-drowned grass/ The forest will stay.” In “The Last of her Race,” Miaha, an Amerindian woman, who is “Frail, desolate decayed,” and “old and toothless,” also feels this unbroken sense of connection to her ancestral forest. 

Although most poems in People are short lyrics, “Village People” by Jailall and “Death of An Old Woman” by McDonald are each four pages long, and offer more extended treatment of their themes. In “Village People,” for example, in August 1996, Jailall’s persona re-visits Ann’s Grove, a largely African-Guyanese village where the poet lived three decades earlier, before migrating to Canada. Not surprisingly, ethnicity and immigration are main themes, and the poem is awash with good natured reminiscence as the persona greets a former neighbour, Coolie Gyal, who reminds him: “We lived so lovingly in the village/ Eating from the same plate.” But such fond nostalgia masks darker currents of “racial nonsense,” or deadly ethnic conflict between Indian- and African-Guyanese recalled by Mr. David, a returning African-Guyanese migrant who also formerly lived in Ann’s Grove. 

“Death of an old Woman” another McDonald poem offers an equally sombre reflection on the cremation of an eighty-five-year old Hindu woman with “heaped aromatic wood around her like a house,” and flames: “tall and climbing clear” until her ashes are cast upon “the sacred bosom of the sea.” Even more impressive are a series of magnificent epigrams strategically deployed, throughout the poem to shed light on the irresistible but challenging ambiguity of the intriguing mystery of life and death: “Entirely I am burned away/ I die and then I cease to die,” or: “Life lasts a moment,/ yet it does not end” or yet again: “Though darkness seems the lot of man, / all the universe is radiant light.” Such wondrously probing and percipient, epigrammatic insight is seen again in McDonald’s poem about a woman nick-named Mother Tango: “She [Mother Tango] can sideways drag herself to Heaven / Faster than you or I can ever walk or run.”

It is no accident that reflection by both poets in People should be so unflinchingly, yet soberly tragic. In “For Mervyn” Jailall’s report on the apparently random shooting of: “a poor/ coolie boy” and his father from the countryside is horrendous enough; but it does not remotely match the depth of inner turbulence that Guyanese feel about their colonial history as we see in “Estate Talk” where a returning female immigrant hears about the drunken irresponsibility of the husband of another woman from the plantation where the persona formerly lived: “Da man da / Na kay if / Good Friday faal / Pan a Sateday.” [That man there / Doesn’t care if/ Good Friday falls / On a Saturday.]” For their brevity and simplicity, grandeur of psychological insight and philosophical depth emanating from such controlled despair, these lines are positively Shakespearian.

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