In June 1961, my father was in the Soviet Union on a tour. He took the time to write a daily journal. On June 16th, he wrote:
…My birthday. Gilly Osei’s present –Lenin’s MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIOCRITICISM.
Gorky Collective Farm. Saw Repair-Service station, dairies, crèche, school, hot-houses for vegetables. The Party Secretary who showed us around knew about Ghana and Nkrumah. Studied the plan for the development of the farm in to an agricultural town and its detailed place in seven-year plan.
Visited a hostel of Friendship University; saw three Ghana students. Conditions not so good but new University buildings are nearly complete: the Ghanaians are looking forward to that.
Celebrated my birthday on a river restaurant. Drank quantities of champagne and brandy provided (as well as a gift) by Alexander Ivanovitch. I had a bad cold, though. Perhaps it would turn out to be symbolic that I spent my middle of the way birthday in Moscow.
He was then thirty-five years old. He expected to make it to seventy (three score and ten) and saw it as perhaps symbolic that he would be in Moscow for his birthday. He was still a young man and his faith in Marxism was intact. He was on a delegation to the USSR sponsored, it appears, by the Nkrumah government that was engaged in dialogue with the Soviets, much to the annoyance of the USA. These were cold war years. My father was clear about where he wanted to be and what he hoped for in Ghana and the rest of the so-called Third World. Yet what moves me is the speculative quality of his phrasing: “perhaps it would turn out”… There is something ominous about the phrase, as if he was planning to do something, to be involved with something, something he was not sure was going to happen. I am not sure what that might have been. What I do know is that his eyes were open in The USSR, and yet his heart was also open to the world he saw and the humanity he felt connected to.
My father did not make it to seventy. He died when he was fifty-eight. He died in a freak accident—he might well have gotten his seventy years had the fall not happened. But he died in Jamaica in 1984, after the socialist experiment had ended with the violent elections of 1980 which brought in the pro-American Seaga government. Reagan was soon installed in the US, and soon the cold war would come to an end. My father’s dream of a socialist West Indies did not happen. Cuba was the last hope for him, for his youthful idealism. And in many ways, I am glad he died while Fidel Castro was still in power, if only for the romantic idea of principle. I am not sure that his “middle of the way” birthday in Moscow was especially symbolic given how things worked out for the rest of his life and for the places he lived for the rest of his life.
What he did do was complete his novel The Last Enchantment, which sought to articulate this vision through fiction. He would later complete a second novel, Interim, which was less hopeful, but equally committed to the ideals of that dream. But mostly, he worked in Jamaica to promote the arts and culture and stayed behind a desk so he could make enough money to raise his family. He stayed safe, raised us with a loving hand and taught us a great deal about the simplicity of fatherhood. He planned to write more fiction but never had the time or the inclination to do so. For the last three years of his life, he had no steady job, wrote editorials for the Daily Gleaner for a stipend, and looked for work. They were sad times, and in all of that, he remained present, giving, the old man.
My father and I never got around to talking poetry before he died. That conversation I had with him after he was dead. I read his poems, I read his essays, I read his journals I read his letters, I read his fiction and I spoke to him, spoke at him, spoke against him, and learnt from him the value of form, the value of influence, and the pitfalls of the same. Mostly, however, I learned about the pleasure of language and the pleasure for poetry.
His early poems had the energy of experiment, a fascinating desire to find an idiom that was at once Jamaican and faithful to a language he had embraced, the English language. In “Lyric for Putoos”, an early poem, the sensuality, the sense of landscape, the lyric confession of self—all those risks—are comforting to me, as a poet. We can’t chose our parents, but we sure can use them if they are good for use:
LYRIC FOR PUTOOS
Coming up over pal’sadoes, at before-day, dawn
is a black light, arms of light round her warm
in a tenement: the island floats on her back
sun-early burning her loins with a morning-smack,
sea-breeze and wisps of cloud caress her thighs.
In a tenement the beds are perpendicular to walls
And drowsy putoos plays all world’s seducers: the dogs yawn
A last grey light over Wareika, and Port Royal a line of sunrise.
Mus’ go sea, whistle and shout me before-day
for the patched boys are flashing.
Over the side, ocean-eyes, English and laughter
are bosoms over us, diving and white
their white soles, look my dear: ah could see Manny
bleedin’ and blowin’ blood,
smell of the salt spittle, the heavy riding at steady-anchor:
yachts race where the sun is delicate on their wings
turn with another luxury when the spraying squall
threatens and tired fishermen fight for land.
If the evening-sea, the waves breeze blow boy
lash and licking water-tongues on the white walls,
whoosh, the birds cry and dive
diving with Manny, any pennies in the green playground
picking with these white teeth and eyes and the salt wall
at the twisting, dancing bottom of the liner.
Watch, boy, the shapely shark we tread and splash away
his bloody poverty and many leg-less below:
couldn’t able go after him, couldn’t able, and the big breeze will blow.
Star-tip moon, the negro-nail, as night spreads
over the harbour; the sailors are at anchor
to the rippling whores round a ‘merican boat: shred
of a life, like Manny was, you could steal from a sailor easy:
never a day from school, there’s a red gal in the ring
could break a slate, write bright R’s for profit and loss.
Under nylon her breasts are full moons star-tip tossed
she takes the night-lane like a majesty, is Putoos, you couldn’t touch
would throw you for a tall boy diving his lust for ever.
Mus’ go sea
whistle me shout me before-day
for the patched boys are flashing
Then a later poem—first heard on the BBC in the mid to late fifties—reveals the sense of control, the wonderful commitment to the line’s dynamic, to form, and sound. School children had to learn this poem for recitation in the fifties and sixties. Read it out loud and you can see why. This poem offers me the challenge of a standard, a kind of expectation that tutors me to keep working at my poetry:
Have seen the summer convex of the wounded sky,
Want to catch it and clutch it and make it sing
Of the wild wind’s whisper and the hard-boiled sun
And the blue day kissing my mountain away
Where the hawks dip wing-tipped diving.
Have seen the curved mane of the wind-whipped cane
Want to snap it and squeeze it and make it rain
On the roots of the summer-tree withering
Where my mountain-mouths lie sleeping
And the hawks dip wing-tipped diving.
Have seen the curving prism of the rainbow’s shaft
Want to pluck it and plait it and make it bend
To a pattern in the brain of the mountain-top
Where my grief is sighing like a fingered stop
Where the hawks dip wing-tipped diving
And the graves are green at the world’s end.
Before the year is out, my publishers, Peepal Tree Books, will publish a selection of my father’s poems that I have edited to share with the world. I look forward to this publication for selfish reasons—a way of thinking about origins in art—and for reasons that are less indulgent; the sense that others will enjoy this work and find pleasure in the power of his poetry.
It is Father’s Day and so I am thinking of the fathering of my father’s art and the legacy he has left for me. Not bad, not bad at all.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...