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British soldiers arrive in Georgetown – British Guiana – October 9, 1953
Photo Credit: Stabroek News (Photo British Pathé)

 

My Poetry Corner July 2019 features the poem “This is the Dark Time My Love” by Guyanese poet Martin Carter (1927-1997) from his poetry collection, Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (London 1954). Following the suspension of the British Guiana Constitution in 1953, the poet-politician composed the poems in this collection during his three-month detention, together with other political leaders, by the British Army.

For readers unfamiliar with Guyana’s history, a former British colony until May 26, 1966, slavery ended in 1834. Indentured laborers began arriving from India in 1838 and continued until 1917. Other immigrant workers came from Portuguese Madeira (1835-1882) and China (1853-1879). The population of the colony in the mid-1950s was about 450,000 people (UN estimate).

Born in 1927 in Georgetown, the capital of then British Guiana, to middle class parents of African, Indian, and European ancestry, the young Martin grows up with an appreciation for literature, poetry, and philosophy. After attending the colony’s prestigious Queen’s College, for boys only, he gains entry to the civil service, working first at the post office, then later as the secretary of the superintendent of prisons.

Aware of the oppression and despair of the sugarcane workers who toil under harsh conditions on the British-owned sugar plantations, Carter joins the political struggle for self-governance. In “Looking at Your Hands” (1), he affirms his solidarity with the plantation workers in their shared struggle under British rule. 

No!
I will not still my voice!
I have
too much to claim –
[…]
you must know
I do not sleep to dream
but dream to change the world.
 

Then everything changes on October 9, 1953. After holding local elections for shared governance, the British under Churchill clandestinely land troops to oust the 133-day-old elected government led by the leftist-leaning Dr. Cheddi Jagan, an American trained dentist of Indian descent. Carter, a member of Jagan’s political party, is devastated. He writes in “Not Hands Like Mine” (2):

Here, right at my feet
my strangled city lies,
my father’s city and my mother’s heart:
hoarse, groaning tongues,
children without love,
mothers without blood
all cold as dust, night dim, there is no rest. 

Forbes Burnham (rear) and Cheddi Jagan
boarding British Guiana Airways for London/UK in 1953
Photo Credit: Stabroek News

 

Carter’s life remains in the balance when British soldiers arrive at his residence and place him under arrest. Together with other senior members of the party, he spends the next three months at a British army detention camp. In “Letter 2” (2), the poet-politician writes to his wife from prison:

O my darling!
O my dear wife whose voice I cannot hear.
Tell me, the young one, is he creeping now
and is he well and mischievous as ever?
Or is the cloud so heavy on the land
too deep for him to see the wonderful sky? 

Martin Carter (right) in a prison van with Cheddi Jagan – British Guiana – 1954
Photo courtesy Nigel Westmaas
Photo Credit: The Caribbean Review of Books

 

The following year (1955), the rattled labor party splinters into two. While Jagan maintains his hold over the Indian base, Forbes Burnham—the party’s co-founder, a British trained attorney of African descent, favored by the British—secures most of the African base and forms a new and more moderate party. The stage is set for the divisive racial and ethnic politics that cripples Guyana to this day.

A year after Black Friday 1962, when rioters and looters torched Georgetown’s commercial district, Carter laments the violence, destruction, and death that affect and corrupt them all, himself included, in his poem “After One Year” (3).

Rude citizen! think you I do not know
that love is stammered, hate is shouted out
in every human city in this world?
Men murder men, as men must murder men,
to build their shining governments of the damned. 

With a sense of impotence, Carter struggles with the lies, fears, anger, and bloodshed that become a part of their daily lives. In “What Can a Man Do More?” (3), he expresses his deep remorse / for seeds that rot, for interrupted love, / and hours spent digging hopes out of a grave. He, too, search[es] through nights of frightened stars / and weep[s] by gateways of the bleeding houses. He shares his frustrations:

How utter truth when falsehood is the truth?
How welcome dreams, how flee the newest lie?
 

With support from the British and American governments, Burnham’s centrist party leads the colony to independence in May 1966. Now a supporter of the Burnham government, Carter becomes Guyana’s representative to the United Nations (1966-1967). Later, he accepts the appointment as the nation’s Minister of Information. In 1970, disillusioned by the racism, hypocrisy, and corruption under their new government, Carter resigns his post. In his public announcement, he cites two lines from his poem “A Mouth is Always Muzzled,” (4): a mouth is always muzzled / by the food it eats to live. Freedom of the press and freedom of individual speech are held captive.

Carter’s featured poem, “This is the Dark Time My Love” (2), written during his three-month period in detention, reflects these dark days under America’s current administration where each new day can bring a new crisis of some sort—for targeted individuals, minority groups, or vulnerable communities across America; for our foreign allies, or declared enemies. In the second of three verses, the poet shares his anxiety and fears about the future of his country and its people.

This is the dark time, my love.
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious. 

Father Bernard Darke (extreme left) flees attackers during public demonstration Georgetown, Guyana – July 14, 1979
Photo Credit: Guyana Under Siege

 

Despite his disillusion with the corrupt, authoritarian government, Carter never deserts his beloved homeland to reside overseas. After witnessing the deadly attack on Father Bernard Darke—a British Jesuit priest who was taking photographs of a public demonstration outside the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court for the Catholic newspapers on July 14, 1979—the Poems Man, as he is fondly known among the people, writes in “Bastille Day – Georgetown” (5):

I have at last started
to understand the origin
of our vileness, and being
unable to deny it, I suggest
its nativity.
In the shame of knowledge
of our vileness, we shall fight.

Carter lived to see the crumbling of the British Empire and the rise of a new American power from the ashes of World War II. Since then, very little has changed for working men and women. The vileness of our species, of the powerful elite that dominate our world and its resources, hounds us still.

To read the featured poem, “This is the Dark Time My Love,” and learn more about Martin Carter and his work, go to my Poetry Corner July 2019.

FOOTNOTES:
(1)  The Hill of Fire Glows Red, British Guiana, 1951
(2)  Poems of Resistance from British Guiana, London/England, 1954
(3)  Jail Me Quickly: five poems, British Guiana, 1966
(4)  Poems of Succession, London/England, 1977
(5)  Poems of Affinity 1978-1980, Guyana, 1980

 

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