Looking Out, Looking In: New and Selected Poems, E. A. Markham, Anvil, 256pp, £14.95 (paperback)
When Edward Archie Markham died suddenly in Paris on 23 March 2008, he was in the process of finalising the contents of this volume of new and selected poems. Markham had been living in Paris since retiring from his post of Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. According to the publisher’s preface, Markham had submitted ‘the contents list and most of the new poems’ and was supposed to meet with his editor to make the final adjustments on his next visit to the UK.
Apparently Markham wished to make edits to some of the older poems and to add several poems from collections he felt he had underrepresented in the selection. In the publisher’s preface, Peter Jay, founder and editorial director of Anvil Press, admits that these are details of which he could not be certain. In spite of such uncertainties, however, this substantial collection is an excellent summation of one of the Caribbean’s most unique and prolific voices. It is, perhaps, the definitive introduction to Markham’s work.
This collection spans the years 1984 to 2003. It also includes several poems from Markham’s Human Rites: Selected Poems (1984) which covered the period 1970 to 1982. There is an essay ‘Why Do You Write’ which provides a moving epitaph and offers some psychological insight, and there is also an appendix of notes which are helpful in understanding Markham’s more obscure references. The newer poems he submitted, perhaps Markham’s last poems, are the poems that fittingly open the book.
Markham was born on the volcanic Caribbean island of Montserrat on 1 October 1939, the youngest of a family of four. He attended grammar school in the capital Plymouth, before emigrating to the UK in 1956. He read philosophy and literature at the University of Wales, Lampeter, later studying Seventeenth-Century Comedy at the Universities of East Anglia and London. He worked in theatre during the late 1960s, founding the Caribbean Theatre Troupe which toured the Eastern Caribbean in 1969-70 performing Markham’s plays The Private Life of the Public Man (1970) and Dropping Out is Violence (1971).
He worked in France for two years, then in Germany, returning to the UK in 1972, when his first pamphlet of poems Crossfire was published by the Surrey-based Outposts Publications. During the mid 1970s he began to publish poems under various pseudonyms: Paul St. Vincent was a young, urban Caribbean man, Pewter Stapleton, a middle-aged playwright and academic, similar in all but name to Markham and Sally Goodman, a Welsh feminist. According to Markham, ‘She [Goodman] is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde, is very much, in a way, like me’.
In the 1980s he became itinerant again, working for the VSO for two years in Papua New Guinea, an experience beautifully recounted in his memoir, Papua New Guinea Sojourn: More Pleasures of Exile (1997). In 1988 he served as Writer in Residence at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, a position that he held until 1991 when he was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. He developed the MA in Creative Writing there and directed the biennial Hallam Literature Festival. On his retirement in 2005 he was appointed Emeritus Professor and moved to Paris, continuing to consult with students and to travel to the UK for conferences, readings and book launches.
Approaching Markham as a Caribbean poet is problematic. As Bruno Gallo noted in his 1996 analysis of Markham’s work, Markham ‘not only wants to write poetry; he aspires to be a poet and to act like one’. Markham, like Walcott, as can be gleaned from this collection, is a product of the colonial education he received – an education in which the major literary figures included William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Blake and William Wordsworth, and it is to these that Markham aligns himself in his earlier work. To be ‘a poet’ for this pre-independence generation meant emulation and aesthetic absorption of the English canon. Markham, however, managed to move beyond mere emulation and to develop his own distinctive voice as a poet, becoming a cosmopolitan, diasporic renaissance man.
Comparatively few Caribbean poets of the 1940s and 50s chose to write extensively in their ‘native tongues’. According to Gallo, Markham’s reluctance to write in Caribbean dialect was ‘both his pride and his penalty’. Having to choose between the language of the Caribbean and that of his adopted home, Markham chose the latter, accepting its political and historical connotations. One is reminded of Kamau Brathwaite in this instance, when he said, ‘It was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master and it was in [the slaves’] (mis-)use of [language] that [they], perhaps most effectively, rebelled’.
The absence of Caribbean dialect is noticeable in Markam’s work, but only as an afterthought, and only because of a questionable expectation that such language is what ‘Caribbean’ poetry entails. At times Markham does offer glimpses of this Caribbean-ness, as in the political poem ‘Hidiot (a polemic)’:
‘If you is big man already with stripe pon you arm, why you so
You know them say when you grow hand too long for your own
is chop they going have to chop it off: so you not fraid?’
Still, these are rare moments in his considerable body of work. It is because of this reluctance, perhaps, that Markham, though critically acclaimed, remained sadly under-appreciated during his lifetime – this and a clear refusal to be pigeonholed by genre or cultural ethnicity. Ironically, Hinterland, the anthology he edited in 1990 for Bloodaxe, remains the quintessential anthology of Caribbean poetry, including seminal works by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kamau Brathwaite, James Berry, Michael Smith, Grace Nichols et al.
What I find most interesting in Markham, however, apart from his reluctance to use ‘nation language’, are the clear, unobtrusive lines of his poems. They are often prosaic, especially in the more recent poems included here, and the language is both elegant and eloquent. Perhaps unlike the St. Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Markham seems less interested in poetic technique and form, less of ‘how’ and more of ‘what’ the poems say. At times this subtlety and manipulation of the inner nuances of the English language remind me of the late Eric Roach, a Tobagonian poet who committed suicide in 1974.
The best of Markham’s poems, however, are those where he reinvents and subverts the language of the poem, allowing the muscularity of the text to come to the fore, as in the excellent ‘Grandmotherpoem’:
It heaves sense against sense cascading down the boneface
while the wet of mothermother drips into thimble: my bucket,
And the kite is a cloud of badness dribbling, drizzling a parable.
According to Dr. Lauri Ramey Afro-Caribbean diasporic traditions are characterised by,
‘…emphasis on family and cultural inheritance, accompanied by a sense of its dispossession; effort to create one’s own functional world in the face of migration, joined to a strong belief in integrating the individual with the sustaining community; and cultural, psychological, and linguistic alienation from one’s roots, along with a desire and need for sustained contact with deceased elders as spirit guides.’
Markham, then, despite his attempts to erase identity, history and even personality from his work, remains essentially, if not a Caribbean poet, then a poet for whom the Caribbean remains essential. And this new anthology of E. A. Markham’s work emerges as an important addition to the canon of diasporic Caribbean literature.