Caribbean Literature

Introduction to A Job for the Hangman by Roi Kwabena

Dr. Stewart Brown, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham (UK)

"A poem alone can expose a lie"

Anyone who meets Roi Kwabena or sees him in performance will recognise in the man the qualities that characterise his poetry — a restless energy, a wry wit and humour, a fervent commitment to egalitarian ideals and a real concern for the people of Trinidad. Just about all of the poems in this new collection are poetic commentaries on the flux and frustrations of life in modern Trinidad, written from the unique perspective of one who has seen how the political system works from the inside — during his tenure as a Senator in the nation's Parliament — but who has stepped away from that role to reclaim the licence of the folkmdash;poet to s(t)ing those in power who do not live up to their own rhetoric. A strong sense of the region's history underpins this poet's responses to the vagaries of contemporary "politrics". He is aware of the long shadow of colonialism that stills affects Trinidadian society — from the legal retention of the condemned man's right to appeal to the Privy Council in London, right down to the kinds of insecurity that characterise individuals who have internalised an idea of themselves as being 'colonials', in some ways only second class citizens of the world. Kwabena sees evidence of such a neomdash;colonial mentality in some of his compatriots' attitudes and actions and his poetry sets out to combat that pervasive distortion of values. By offering his audience a sense of their claims on wholly other cultural inheritances mdash; particularly through his informed awareness of the importance of Africa in the evolution of Caribbean culture mdash; Kwabena's poetry argues an alternative agenda.

"What is disturbing, is the level of cultural illiteracy" To invoke a not inappropriate echo, the poems in A Job for the Hangman represent a kind of 'grounding' between the poet and his audience: they serve, in performance, as occasions for debate and discussion rather than the invitation to applause that the more conventionally literary poem seems to invite when read aloud. Kwabena, like other poets of this tradition across the Caribbean, seems to value the poem primarily as an a agent of dialogue — whether directly, as in a performance, or in terms of stirring his readers to debate among themselves. The poet's vocation for Kwabena is understood within the broader context of cultural activism — not for him the luxury of emotions recollected and shaped in tranquillity mdash; rather these poems are urgent messages from the front. As such it is not surprising that the poetic language he employs is direct and largely lacking in the ornaments of a more leisured idea of versification. There is little room for metaphor in this poetry of engagement. But like the work of the calypsonians — whose shadows inevitably bear on any popular poetry from Trinidad — there is much clever wordplay here and Kwabena's poems are characterised by a kind of rhythmic surge which invites enunciation and performance. These are explicitly poems for performance: Roi Kwabena writes in the anticipation that the words will come off the page and into the air, so the poems are written to be heard as much as to be read and that expectation very much determines their shape on the page.

"A hedging hegemony"

The language of these poems on the page is interesting too. As I have said Roi Kwabena the poet is more concerned with directness and clarity than with ornament or literary affectation. While there are enough distinctly Trinidadian terms throughout the text to justify the useful glossary that ends the book, and while the voice of the poems is very much a Trinidadian one, yet the text is accessible to the non-Trinidadian reader. Only occasionally does Kwabena resort to the mutation of a word-as-print in order to suggest/convey its sound. In this he is perhaps unusual among that tradition of poets who lay as much stress on the performance of a poem as on its existence as text. Although I'm not sure he would entirely approve of the comparison, in this regard Roi Kwabena's work reminds me of that strand in Derek Walcott's poetry that attempts to speak in a popular voice on issues of current political/cultural moment, perhaps best exemplified in 'The Spoiler's Return'. If we compare 'The Spoiler's Return' with a poem like Roi Kwabena's 'Letter from Sea Lots' — albeit that it is not on the same grand scale as Walcott's poem — we find that both poems address a very similar concern with the state of Trinidadian society, lamenting the corruption of its politicians and the cheapening of its culture. In many ways Kwabena employs similar kinds of word play and puns as Walcott. Both poems are rich in references to local events and issues that might not be familiar to the non-Trinidadian reader but which give the narrating persona a certain credibility. That credibility largely depends on the reader's conviction that the language employed for these respective lamentations is also 'true' and it is here that the comparison become interesting, for while the tone and measure of Spoiler's creole certainly convinces the non-Caribbean reader of its 'authenticity' yet mdash; as several Trinidadian critics have noted —we are always conscious that it is part of Walcott's marvellous artifice. There is always that distance. Kwabena's usage however needs no embellishment, nor aspires to that kind of distance between art and life; coinages like the wonderful "cable an' wireful" or — more grimly — "sprangers" ring of that inventiveness and rueful wit that we associate with the ongoing development of living West Indian creoles rather than the mannered wit of the Great Tradition. Kwabena is not interested in playing those games, he is clearly speaking to his contemporaries, in a language that is intimately known, on matters that are too important for the kind of literary niceties that win great prizes but arguably "change nothing". Roi Kwabena seems to me to belong to an interventionist tradition in Caribbean poetry that goes back to the roots of calypso and found early literary expression in the socialist/nationalist writings of the Beacon group in the Trinidad of the 1930s. There are interesting comparisons to be made between the barrack yard poetry of that period and the kinds of work Roi Kwabena and other younger Trinidadian poets are producing today. Both groups of writers thought of their own poetry in terms of a contribution to struggle rather than as 'beautiful objects' that were ends in themselves. For Roi Kwabena poetry is a kind of surrogate obeah, intended, as he says in his poem 'Obeah Man' in this collection

to write the wrongs
but not for a noble prize, only to feed
the hungry children an' poor people . . .

October 1996

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