Martin Carter: Guyanese poet and political activist

A fanciful German map of the north coast of South America, from 1635, based on Sir Walter Raleigh's description of the chimerical El Dorado. Guiana was his misnomer for the entire region, and based on his 1595 voyage and book entitled

A fanciful German map of the north coast of South America, from 1635, based on Sir Walter Raleigh’s description of the chimerical El Dorado. Guiana was his misnomer for the entire region, and based on his 1595 voyage and book entitled “The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa”.

Martin Wylde Carter (Guyanese poet and political activist, 1927-1997)
. . .
Not I with This Torn Shirt
They call here,
– Magnificent Province!
Province of mud!
Province of flood!
Plantation – feudal coast!
Who are the magnificent here?
Not I with this torn shirt
but they, in their white mansions
by the trench of blood!
I tell you
this is no magnificent province
no El Dorado for me
no streets paved with gold
but a bruising and battering for self preservation
in the white dust and grey mud.
I tell you and I tell no secret –
now is long past time for worship
long past time for kneeling
with clasped hands at altars of poverty.
How are the mighty slain?
by this hammer of my hand!
by this anger in my life!
by this new science of men alive
everywhere in this province!
Thus – are the mighty slain!
. . .
Do Not Stare at Me
Do not stare at me from your window, lady,
do not stare and wonder where I came from
Born in this city was I, lady,
hearing the beetles at six o’clock,
and the noisy cocks in the morning
when your hands rumple the bed sheet
and night is locked up the wardrobe.
My hand is full of lines
like your breast with veins, lady –
So do not stare and wonder where I came from.
My hand is full of lines
like your breast with viens, lady,
and one must rear, while one must suckle life.
Do not stare at me from your window, lady.
Stare at the wagon of prisoners!
Stare at the hearse passing by your gate!
Stare at the slums in the south of the city!
Stare hard and reason, lady, where I came from
and where I go.
My hand is full of lines
like your breast with veins, lady,
and one must rear, while one must suckle life.

. . .
Tomorrow and The World
I am most happy
as I walk the seller of sweets says “friend”
and the shoemaker with his awl and waxen thread
reminds me of tomorrow and the world.
Happy is it to shake your hand
and to sing with you, my friend.
Smoke rises from the furnace of life
– red red red the flames!
Green grass and yellow flowers
smell of mist the sun’s light
everywhere the light of the day
everywhere the songs of life are floating
like new ships on a new river sailing, sailing.
Tomorrow and the world
and the songs of life and all my friends –
Ah yes, tomorrow and the whole world
awake and full of good life.

. . .
You Are Involved
This I have learnt:
today a speck
tomorrow a hero.
Hero or monster,
you are consumed!
Like a jig
shakes the loom;
like a web
is spun the pattern.
All are involved,
all are consumed!
. . .
This is The Dark Time, My Love
This is the dark time, my love.
All round the land brown beetles crawl about.
The shining sun is hidden in the sky.
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow.
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.
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.
. . .
These poet words, nuggets out of corruption
or jewels dug from dung or speech from flesh
still bloody red, still half afraid to plunge
in the ceaseless waters foaming over death.
These poet words, nuggets no jeweller sells
across the counter of the world’s confusion
but far and near, internal or external,
burning the agony of earth’s complaint.
These poet words have secrets locked in them
like nuggets laden with the younger sun.
Who will unlock must first himself be locked;
who will be locked must first himself unlock.
. . .
After One Year
After today, how shall I speak with you?
Those miseries I know you cultivate
are mine as well as yours, or do you think
the impartial bullock cares whose land is ploughed?
I know this city much as well as you do,
the ways leading to brothels and those dooms
dwelling in them, as in our lives they dwell.
So jail me quickly, clang the illiterate door
if freedom writes no happier alphabet.
Old hanging ground is still green playing field.
Smooth cemetery proud garden of tall flowers.
But in your secret gables real bats fly
mocking great dreams that give the soul no peace,
and everywhere wrong deeds are being done.
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.
. . .
They Say I Am
They say I am a poet write for them:
Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I solemnly nod.
I do not want to look them in the eye
lest they should squeal and scamper far away.
A poet cannot write for those who ask
hardly himself even, except he lies;
Poems are written either for the dying
or the unborn, no matter what we say.
That does not mean his audience lies remote
inside a womb or some cold bed of agony.
It only means that we who want true poems
must all be born again, and die to do so.
. . .

My Hand in Yours
As in sleep, my hand in yours, yours
in mine. Your voice in my hearing
and memory, like the sound of stars
as they shine, not content with light
only. My fingertips walk on your face
gently. They tiptoe, as a dream does,
away from sleep into waking. In a tree
somewhere a bird calls out. And I wake up,
my hand still in yours, in the midst
of the sound of stars and a far bird.
. . .

In the When Time
In the when time of the lost search
behind the treasure of the tree’s rooted
and abstract past of a dead seed:
in that time is the discovery.
Remembrance in the sea, or under it,
or in a buried casket of drowned flowers.
It remains possible to glimpse morning
before the sun; possible to see too early
where sunset might stain anticipated
night. So sudden, and so hurting
is the bitten tongue of memory.
. . .

On a Child Killed by a Motor Car
Child, a moment of love ago
you danced in the eye of the woman
who made you. When another moment,
like the innocent wheat that made the loaf
of bread she sent you for,
in this field of the heart’s ploughed land
you were threshed!
. . .
On the Death by Drowning of the Poet, Eric Roach
It is better to drown in the sea
than die in the unfortunate air
which stifles. I heard the rattle
in the river; it was the paddle stroke
scraping the gunwale of a corial.
Memory at least is kind; the lips of death
curse life. And the window in the front of my house
by the gate my children enter by, that window
lets in the perfume of the white waxen glory
of the frangipani, and pain.
. . .
For a Man who Walked Sideways
Proudful and barefoot I stride the street;
who wants my shirt can have it.
Only the giver gets. The unwanted
wants the world. The bruised heel of his foot
kicks like a meteor. And the dim dark behind
the blue illusion stands like an altar in a temple
in a forsaken land. Having failed to learn
how to die, they all perish ungracefully.
Laocoön, for all the snakes, struggled well.

Guyana flag...somewhat scuffed up...
. . .
There is No Riot
Even that desperate gaiety is gone.
Empty bottles, no longer trophies,
are weapons now. Even the cunning
grumble. “If is talk you want,” she said,
“you wasting time with me – try the church.”
One time, it was because rain fell
there was no riot. Another time
it was because the terrorist forgot
to bring the bomb. Now, in these days,
though no rain falls, and bombs are well remembered,
there is no riot. But everywhere
empty and broken bottles gleam like ruin.
. . .
Being Always
Being, always to arrange
myself in the world, and the world
in myself, I try to do both. How
both are done is difficult. Why,
I have to ask, do I have to
arrange anything when every
thing is already arranged
by love’s and death’s inscrutable
laws, mortal judiciary, time’s
dollhouse of replaceable heads,
arms and legs? In another
house, not time’s, time itself arranges
mine and the world’s replacement.

. . .
No Easy Thing
I must repeat that which I have declared
Even to hide it from your urgent heart:
No easy thing is it to speak of love
Nor to be silent when it all consumes!
You do not know everywhere I go;
You go with me clasped in my memory:
One night I dreamed we walked beside the sea
And tasted freedom underneath the moon.
Do not be late, needed and wanted love.
What’s withheld blights both love and us:
As well as blame your hair for blowing wind
As me for breathing, living, loving you.
. . .
Two (from “Four Poems”)
Not so is it done, O no
not so. It is done, so,
as I think I am doing it,
neither not, nor so, but only
just in a wait, in a
moment, in a year, in
and this moment, this
yester just so. Because
a poet cannot truly speak
to himself save in his
own country: even among
the fearers of joy, enviers
of pride. Standard bearers
of his and their defeat. Just
so. And the sly drum.
. . .
Bitter Wood
Here be dragons, and bitter
cups made of wood; and the hooves
of horses where they should not
sound. Yet on the roofs of houses
walk the carpenters, as once did
cartographers on the spoil
of splendid maps. Here is where
I am, in a great geometry, between
a raft of ants and the green sight
of the freedom of a tree, made
of that same bitter wood.

. . .

We would like to thank Bruce Paddington in Caribbean Beat (Issue 13, Spring 1995), and Gemma Robinson in The Guyana Chronicle (May 2nd, 2014) for introducing us to Martin Carter, a great Caribbean poet still too little known. We are grateful also to poets/editors Stewart Brown and Ian McDonald for their critical appraisal in a survey of Carter’s oeuvre from the 1950s through the 1980s: Poems by Martin Carter (Macmillan Caribbean Writers Series, 2006).

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