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Front Cover of the Poetry Collection Modern, Age, &c by Raymond Ramcharitar [Photo of Sculpture by Winslow Craig]

My Poetry Corner November 2021 features Part 1 from the four-part, long poem “A Report to the Academy: The Modern Caribbean” from the poetry collection, Modern, Age, &c, by the Caribbean journalist, poet, and cultural critic Raymond Ramcharitar. Born in Trinidad, he studied at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Economics (1991), Masters in Literature in English (2002), and Doctorate in Cultural History (2007).

After completing his doctorate, Ramcharitar received three overseas fellowships: Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Warwick University, UK (2008); Visiting Scholar at New College, University of Toronto, Canada (2010); and Poetry Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College, Vermont, USA (2011). He currently lives in Trinidad where he is a communications consultant for the ANSA McAL Group of Companies.

In speaking of his third poetry collection, Modern, Age, &c (Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2020), the poet said that he balanced the book among three themes: political (Modern), personal (Age), and the whimsical (&c). The tone varies from sardonic, to satiric, to lyrical.

Modern is about the malaise: the diseases of our time: depression, anxiety, isolation—The broader themes of loss, disintegration,” the poet said. As he recently turned fifty, Age is his way to examine the shredding of the social contract. “I started to look back to find the threads that hold me together, as a parent, a man,” he said. “And try to find where everything changed: the plan for utopia, or progress, when did it become a tweet, or post on Facebook or Instagram?”

Ramcharitar is particularly happy with the featured poem, “The Modern Caribbean,” in which he converses with the Caribbean’s talented stars on the world stage:

  • Saint Lucian Sir Arthur Lewis (1915-1991), awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 1979;
  • Saint Lucian Sir Derek Walcott (1930-2017), awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1992; and
  • Trinidadian Sir Vidia Naipaul (1932-2018), awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2001.

He thinks that the poem is long overdue “to render visible that invisible link between the Caribbean and the rest of the world. It’s really time to break that slavish mold. I go to conferences abroad and see academics still have the Caribbean in slavery.”

In the five verses of Part 1, Ramcharitar addresses the Noble Sirs about the current general state of the Caribbean Region and their growing lack of relevance. The poet notes (v2): you’re all departed and dead, the sea’s still blue / and the brutes in charge, and those they rule, are enrapt / on tiny azure screens, and still entrapped / by Mephistopheles, in binary code, / barrelling down that ancient, slippery road.

The 13 verses of Part 2, addressed to Sir Arthur, our Elijah, render bleak diagnoses about the region, with reference to select nations:

Guyana’s found / oil, has land, and gold, but the human divide / refuses to heal. Its people gasp and flounder / in the midst of plenty… (v8)

Trinidad has murdered its black goose, / and its irrational exuberance / now sobered, contemplates the carbon noose. / It’s traded the festive for a restive dance / as it prepares itself for commercial romance, / and removes its Carnival masque and eyeliner / to drop to its knees to service imperial China. (v9)

  • Once the largest oil and natural gas producer in the Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago has since the 1990s moved mostly to natural gas production.

Barbados is in trauma; the discipline / and social order, your panaceas, have failed. ‘ Its dollar reels, its industry’s supine / as fickle tourist caravels have sailed / to other seas…. (v10)

St Vincent exports ganja, / St Lucia cannot meet its Nobel Laureate / quota, Antigua-Barbuda is in danger / of extinction, battered to a state insensate / by Nature itself… (v11)

Meanwhile, in Jamaica natives bicker / about remittances and gruesome crimes, / and local parliaments and power grids flicker… (v14)

Part 3 with 10 verses examines Sir Arthur’s flawed theory of economic growth that did not consider capital’s obsession with profits. You ignored the impish thing which would reverse / progress for profit: the imperfect animal spirit – / a gap that yawned for decades till Shiller filled it. (v20)

  • American economist Robert James Shiller (born 1946) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics 2013.

After India gained independence in 1947, other colonies sought Her Majesty’s leave to withdraw, resign / from Empire, so each could have a little fief / where, like her, they could be monarch for life. (v22)

Now, after years of failed economic policies in the region, the economist-turned-poet observes (v27):

It’s the time of the photogenic demagogue
whose image is endlessly reproduced:
the beautiful felon, the jet-setting rogue
beguile the desperate, who, free and confused,
now scry beguiling screens for deliverance. Unused
to luxury, or pleasure on demand,
they quietly yearn the patriarch’s iron hand.

In Part 4, Ramcharitar highlights the exodus of the labor force in search of better opportunities overseas, and its impact on the region. He notes the absurdity of this situation in verse 31:

So infinite labour found welcoming stalls
inside imperial walls. Bizarre to reflect
on it: after centuries of the whip, it galls
the national mind, this Freirean effect:
where abused find the abusers and genuflect.
(Though independence polls in Jamaica still glean
the majority thinks it was better with the Queen.) 

As is also true for my native land, Guyana, after generations of migrations to the north, the number of immigrants in the Caribbean diaspora now equals those who chose to remain. The irony is not lost on the poet: And here appears one of those mischievous / mysteries religion smirks to explain: / Another Caribbean exists: the dissembled brain / coalesced a body in a northern manger, / leaving the original as its doppelganger. (v32)

It now remains for the most Noble Sirs of the current Academy to determine the fate of the Caribbean. Ramcharitar concludes that independence has failed to bring the promised freedom and prosperity for all citizens. He sees hope in the diaspora, the Caribbean’s back-up, its 2.0. (v33) But survival rests with the leadership across the region, as the poet notes in his final verse (v35):

It remains to be seen whether the Caribbean
motif will grow into significance,
or flicker and disappear from the vast screen;
whether its treasures will sharpen into nuance
or remain trifles, consumed in a greedy glance.
The terrain is, as always, quickly shifting
and islands, alone, remain helplessly drifting.

To read Part 1 of the featured poem and learn more about the work of Raymond Ramcharitar, go to my Poetry Corner November 2021.