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The Calabash Tree

Gandolph St. Clair

Book Review By Stevaco Joseph

THE miscellany of literary writing by Gandolph St. Clair reveals and confirms what we already know about him – that is, he is a prolific writer grounded in experience of his reality and willing to share that experience through the art of creative writing.

Image of Gandolph St. Clair
Gandolph St. Clair

In this publication The Calabash Tree St. Clair brings together his poetry, play scripts and short story writing to continue his communal communion and expose his analysis of existence.

The Calabash Tree comprises of two play scripts, seventeen poems and a short story. Added to his literary writings are photographs of The Calabash Tree in various renderings. The photographs too are the work of the author.

The process of naming one’s work is part of the creative deliberations that is undertaken by any serious artiste or creator. Gandolph St. Clair in his naming, wanted us to encounter the personal and the communal. On the personal plain, the title of the collection speaks to his versatility; the poet, the playwright, actor, director, musician, songwriter and photographer, similar to the versatility inherent in the utility of the Calabash Tree; ornamental, traditional system of medicine, utensils in households, container, musical instrument and touristic product. The tree is described as ‘a loving tree’ by the author and indeed a poignant message emerging from his work is love. In the play ONE LOVE through the character 1st Man, he posits: “my reason guided me to seek the truth in this existence – Love , One Love is the truth” .

On the communal plain, the Calabash Tree appears omnipresent in St. Clair’s national community. This portrayal is given visual effect in his four pages of photographic collage, each page containing thirty five pictures. On this plain, the Tree’s communal utility and variability is emphasized. This suggests that the author sees in his National Tree his own form and function. This suggestion is further heightened in his first poem which is purposefully separated from the poetry section in the collection, and titled the Calabash Tree. It is the longest poem and in the narrative autobiographical mode. Each written page is accompanied by a full single photograph of the Calabash Tree and the last written page ( the fourth ) follows the photographic collage earlier referenced.

The “I” of the poem having journeyed through the Island and lived ( flourished ) in various parts ( like the Calabash Tree) at different knots in his thread of life, sees “ our achievements etched on the sea’s shimmering scripted space”, he is inclusive in the “our”.

In Gandolph St. Clair’s first collection of poems, REACHING OUT ( 1982 ) Robert Lee in his foreward chronicled thus: “Gandolph St. Clair is indentifiably a poetic voice of his time”. This assertion is elucidated in St. Clair’s selected poetry component of this most recent publication. From the first poem ‘ The Diamonds ‘ to the sixteenth ‘ New Walking Stick ‘, St. Clair continues his exploration and creative endeavours through the two major tributaries of poetry – oral and written. The influences of dub – poets like Mikey Smith , Linton Kwesi Johnson, Oku Onuora and others, and his musical inclinations underlie most of his poems. The musician/song writer tends towards song lyrics, rhyme, rhythmic motion and the crafty and witty play on words. In his poems ‘ God and Country ‘, ‘Grant in Aid ‘, ‘Morne du Don’ and ‘Millet’, we find the dub poet/calypsonian’s affinity to use rhyme for particular effect. In Morne Du don there is a playful craze for rhyming schema but a focus to use words in giving a very definite pattern and shape. In ‘Intransit’ he continues in similar light but with musicality and pun: “All my matta”, “U – we”,

“in trance sit”. Like the Calypsonian he is packing a lot of significance into the few words through use of double meaning. Technically most of the poems are bent on rhyme and pun.

In the Calabash Tree, St. Clair pays homage to friends and family ‘ The Green House’, ‘ Dear Tomas’, ‘Clay’, ‘Deaf Announcement’, ‘ New Walking Stick’; he reflects on life’s struggle ( ‘Let me sleep’, ‘The Midnight Hour’, ‘Grant in Aid’, ‘Mary won her Wick’ and he expresses a patriotic sentimentality in the poems about places, “Morne du don, Millet, God and Country”. ) Through his work is that spirit of protest which has been central to the development of Caribbean Literature. Consider ‘The Diamonds’.

Selling Jalousie National Park for Swiss currency

Is like killing a white elephant for debauchery

The dedication here to Hon. Derek Walcott is vividly noted in these lines. Here are echoed Walcott’s ‘Litany To The Pitons’:

They would sell their own
Sons
They sold me, they sold
You
When they sold the Pitons…

Consider another ‘Mary Won Her Wick’. In this poem, the poet posed nineteen questions which ended with these two:

‘How many more will die seeing life through Rasta eye?
‘How long will there be oppression, before the judgment day and retribution?

Anyone who lived through this era of police brutality, discrimination and lawlessness will appreciate the contempt for Babylon expressed in this poem. The violence against the Rastafarians in the MorneGimie heights in the 1970s was deeply disturbing and we are being helped to explore our feelings and come to comprehend them better. (This event also captured in song by Ras Jah Sheem and the Itation band). In ‘Let Me Sleep’ the protestation reverberates:

Let me sleep
Dey not letting me sleep
Ah tired see blood, smell vomit, spit
Tired see gunman dying to make it

The tone is plain, powerful in its simplicity, as it seeks to reveal harsh but truthful things. The revelation is lucid in his poetry, St. Clair uses simple words to express profound thought and feelings. He is keen on social problems and shows his commitment to social justice.

The two plays included in this publication: ‘One Love’ and ‘Guess Who Came To Visit The Doctor’, Gandolph St. Clair continues his exploration on the theme of love and other societal issues like corruption, freedom, materialism vs spirituality, etc. ‘One Love’ (1978) paints a picture of a society in which the individual is denied freedom; it makes a commentary on one of society’s ‘constructs’ in our continued enslavement. This commentary is more pronounced presently especially in the context of our country becoming a “every weekend party” vibes and experiencing the lack of active engagement in the poignant issues seriously affecting our levity (our life). Here surfaced again the importance of Love and the significance of the Rasta as one who had challenged the social and moral degradation of our society.

“I’d been a Babylon, my life-long regret-inner being today is Rasta heart itself.”
‘Love, one Love is the truth-I need your Love…”

A recommendation of a cure to our dis-ease, or may be a consideration: ponder it but may be it is worth activation because we will self-destruct.
The other play, ‘Guess Who Came To The Doctor’(1978) is on the lighter side; the humour in the gossip, but the notions of Love are still present. Love in relationships: man/woman, young/old, tradition/modernity. And again we find here the playwright probing the issues of the material being vis-a vis the spiritual being:

“Is money, metal and material, the three M’s of modernity….”

St. Clair is not at rest with societal corruption and the evident lack of civility that abounds: “society gone mad….”

Gandolph St. Clair, the poet, playwright, concern is not different to what other artists/writers are concerned about, they differ in the methods of approach towards their subject matter. St. Clair’s bias, if it may be called that, is to his music and rhyme, and the effectiveness of love in human affairs.

Velon John in “The Ramblings of A Mind said this about writing:

“The purpose of writing is to cause others to pause, ponder, to think and perhaps to act, and so in this we have assumed the posture of the Socratic gadfly”.

‘The Calabash Tree’ has his purposes, but is Patent Man, the man of inaction or a society comatose in its wanton materialism devoid of spiritual energy to transform imposed conditions and recreate a levity ‘foundationed’ upon the principles propounded by Rasta, a living in love?

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