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Dawn and Evening Star, Olmec Maya Series by Guyanese-born Artist Aubrey Williams, 1982

Dawn & Evening Star, Olmec Maya Series (1982) by Guyanese-born Artist Aubrey Williams
Source: October Gallery

 

On March 8th, Guyana’s illustrious literary writer, Sir Wilson Harris, died at the age of ninety-six in England where he had lived since 1959. Born in 1921 in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now Guyana), Harris began his writing career as a poet, obtaining exposure through the colony’s literary magazine, Kyk-over-Al. My Poetry Corner April 2018 features one of these poems, “This is My Meditation,” published in 1947. Since I couldn’t find the original title of this poem, I’ve used the opening words as a substitute.

When he was two years old, Harris lost his father, “a well-off insurance businessman with a chauffeur-driven car.” His mother moved to the capital, Georgetown, and remarried. Six years later, tragedy struck again. His stepfather disappeared; believed drowned in the Interior.

“At almost the same time, I saw a beggar on a street corner, with holes in his face,” Harris tells Maya Jaggi (The Guardian, December 2006). “I came home and couldn’t eat – I never forgot that man.”

After completing his studies at Queen’s College, the prestigious secondary school for boys in Georgetown, Harris trained in land surveying and geomorphology. Beginning in 1942, his work as a government surveyor, charting the great rivers of the colony’s interior rainforest and savanna regions, changed his vision of man’s relation to the planet.

balata_bleeders_shooting_rapids_on_the_cuyuni,_british_guiana_c1908

Balata Bleeders Shooting Rapids on the Cuyuni River, Interior of British Guiana (c.1908)
Source: Overtown Miscellany UK/John S Sargent

 

“The shock of contrasts in river, forest, waterfall had registered very deeply in my psyche,” Harris tells Fred D’Aguiar (Bomb Magazine, January 2003). “So deeply that to find oneself without a tongue was to learn of a music that was wordless, to descent into varying structures upon parallel branches of reality, branches that were rooted in a stem of meaning for which no absolute existed.”

Of equal importance was his discovery of pre-Columbian myth and history gained through his contacts with the indigenous peoples in the region.

In his poem, “This is My Meditation,” the young poet calls out what he sees as the cruelty of the Christian God in the treatment of His beloved son, Jesus, left alone to suffer the painful and humiliating death by crucifixion.

O God
This is my meditation now, before I pray.
I think of Mozart,
in the heart of his civilization,
deserted, not even accorded the dignity
of decent burial.
I think of Christ crucified
Dying in agony, crying aloud to his God –
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?* 

(*My God, my God, why have you deserted me? Matthew 27: 46) 

Harris observes that neither the musical genius Mozart nor the pure-hearted Jesus are spared from abandonment during their earthly life. What then of the rest of humanity? Are they, too, condemned to suffer God’s abandonment without redress?

I think of the others,
the others who are also the sons of God,
contemptuous of their divinity,
living and dying today in the slums.
I think of the strange and moving spectacle of man overcome
by the inanimate earth that covers him
or the deep waters in which he drowns
or the bullet that comes unerringly
travelling through eternity to its ultimate destination.

As Harris recalls during his interview with Fred D’Aguiar: “The ’30s and ’40s were a time of severe depression in coastal and urban regions of [British] Guiana. Property values were at rock bottom.”

By the end of the 1940s, slums were widespread in Georgetown which accounted for twenty percent of the colony’s total population, then numbered at 375,819 (Census 1946). On the Booker sugar plantations, where eighteen percent of the people lived, most residents lived in barrack ranges, many of which were remnants of the days of slavery. Sanitation in both urban and rural areas was sub-standard. Infants died at the rate of 86 per 1000 (Report 1948). Not even the gods could save them from contaminated flood waters.

The voices of the living pray to God.
The voices of the dead
treasured in the beautiful books in the libraries
pray to God.
Men suffer and pray to God
and thereby acquire stature
like Jesus Christ and like Mozart.
They wait for the ultimate mockery
or the ultimate justification,
in the meantime piling up new and unlearned accents of tragedy
upon their human story, while they wait on God.

Harris takes a bold stand in calling attention to the symbiotic relationship between the Christian Church and the State. In “Bookers Guiana” – so called locally because the British company was the country’s largest employer – the Christian Church was a staunch supporter of the colonial government.

When the young poet meditated on humanity’s suffering – abandoned while they wait on God for salvation – he did not anticipate the new and unlearned accents of tragedy that we would face today. Can we-humans afford to wait on God to prevent climate change, Earth’s ecological collapse, and the innumerable ills that assail us?

To learn more about Wilson Harris and his work, go to my Poetry Corner April 2018.

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