Front Cover: People of Guyana by Ian McDonald and Peter Jailall
Photo Credit: MiddleRoad Publishers/Canada
My Poetry Corner October 2019 features the poem “A Simple Man” by Ian McDonald from the joint poetry collection, People of Guyana, by Ian McDonald and Peter Jailall. Born in the Caribbean island of Trinidad in 1933, Ian McDonald is a poet, novelist, dramatist, and non-fiction writer. After moving to then British Guiana in 1955, he made his home there. Today, he lives partly in his adopted homeland and partly in Canada.
Born into a white family of power and privilege, the young Ian fell in love with literature and writing as a schoolboy. In 1955, after graduating from Cambridge University in England with a Bachelor’s Honors Degree in History, he began working with Bookers Ltd., then owners of the British Guiana sugar estates. When the company was nationalized in 1976, McDonald remained as the Administrative Director of the newly formed Guyana Sugar Corporation until his retirement in 1999.
On one of those days while working with Guyana’s sugar estates, McDonald visited Betty, a former sugarcane laborer, “an old woman in a run-down logie room,” to get details for her resettlement. In his heart-wrenching poem, “Betty,” the poet captures her long life of deprivation, forgotten by society.
she said her life was nothing to her
she said all women’s lives were as nothing
no one had been pleased when she was born
she was sure of that boys were princes
Once married, she had been abandoned by her husband for another woman, eventually ending up “with old women in this place.” Betty didn’t want to move. They were the only people she knew.
The men among Guyana’s working poor also had their share of suffering. In his poem “Runtee,” McDonald tells the sad ending of Runtee Tang-Choon, a Chinese “little four-foot huckster man” who had sold roasted peanuts around Georgetown for years. The children called him “Mile-a-Minute” man for his agility. McDonald meets Runtee at the hospital, “brought in like a bundle by the police. / Little grasshopper, he light as leaf, they said.” He wouldn’t take the soup the nurse offered him.
Black eyes dying, he never said a word.
He had a sort of pride not easy to describe:
A fearlessness when fear has ceased to count.
No one came to visit Runtee during his final five days in the hospital ward. The poet struggles with the thought that perhaps Runtee should never have been born. He concludes:
A life and death so lonely teaches best:
“All that lives needs help from all the rest.”
Promenade Gardens – Georgetown – Guyana
Photo Credit: Joyce Ritchie (Pinterest)
The featured poem, “A Simple Man,” recognizes the value and dignity of each human being. Here is a man left behind in the country’s economic progress. The poet describes him as a man “slow witted… / small vocabulary, stuttering words, / hesitating diction and a frightened look.” He came to McDonald’s residence looking for manual work and ready to work hard. McDonald hired him as a gardener.
With no experience in gardening, the man gradually learned the daily routines: cutting, clearing, digging, planting, and watering.
Learning all this slowly strengthened pride
and self-assurance grew as flowers bloomed
beneath his fingers, trees came to blossoming
and trellised vines shaded paths he cut.
What pride in seeing the results of one’s labor! Nature is generous that way in responding to our care.
He just did small things very well –
repeated and repeated day by day by day
never letting love withdraw at all from work,
until the year’s end saw the good results:
a tended patch of earth transformed, green,
serenely ordered, shining with the fruits of care.
We humans, too, grow and flower with repeated small acts of kindness from day to day.
In the third stanza, the poet observes that only a few people live on in history: “and those that do, break the world or save it, / discover truths that none have found before…” Not so for a poor, uneducated man (or woman).
A man at peace who tries his best
and gives his share of love and work
but knows no dimension but the ordinary
is forgotten quickly in the seethe of time.
In the opening verses of his fourth and final stanza, the poet notes:
He has been with us for many peaceful years,
daily has he filled our lives with good.
On reflecting on the good that their simple gardener has brought to their lives, the poet concludes:
It’s said that nothing lasts,
but if what’s good keeps,
then this, I know, will keep forever.
At the end of our days, it’s the good that we enjoyed in our lives that truly matters.
To read the featured poem and learn more about the work of Ian McDonald, go to my Poetry Corner October 2019.