Review of Ian McDonald's ESSEQUIBO
Posted December 11th.2000
By Wyck Williams
ESSEQUIBO: Poems by Ian McDonald
Peterloo Poets & Story Line Press
Published almost a decade ago Ian McDonald's slim volume of poems surprised me some time back as I browsed through a trough of remaindered books in a New York bookstore. The title could hook the eye of any Guyanese wanting a good book, and then the cover with its Wai Wai artwork reels you in. I grabbed every copy I could find and mailed them as gifts to friends at home and abroad with this note: when next you feel the impulse to reach for the remote control or that fast connecting mouse, pick up this book instead.
What Essequibo does for Guyanese anywhere in the world is what great art does for places we've known all our lives: it makes them places of enchantment. We embrace them again with love, gratitude and astonishment. Think of Derek Walcott's St Lucia, so vividly memorialized in Omeros. Or Jamaica, filtered through the wailing lyrics of Bob Marley. Or Guyana's interior landscapes, captured in the difficult but time-capsulizing prose of Wilson Harris.
For jaded souls longing to move beyond the constrictions of the Seawall, the Party in power, ordinary places with enticing names like Vryheid's Lust, Essequibo's felicitous lines offer dream filters, a sort of getaway freedom. Born and bred Essequibians might be delighted to discover their birthplace for the first time, like the old lady in one poem who "grows to love" what she's grown accustomed to.
The soul grows strong on beauty
Like a child's bone fed on milk
It is good to look out on great rivers.
His images are not all compelling; some lines, so busy recording phenomena, go sentimental on impact; but McDonald mines this land of many waters for precisely what in the nation's soul lies unfulfilled: the desire for habitats of enduring beauty.
In some poems the forest and the river are just there; not as metaphor, not encouraging introspection or tempting you to have an epiphany. Like a shimmering narrative Essequibo is filled with characters and settings and incidents: Stampa Point, ballahoos, corials, Lady Slippers, paiwari, those "tough Indian men", Cassiopeia, Samson's Cataract. A native New York browser flipping through these pages might be discouraged by these unfamiliar sounding names; or intrigued by their magical possibilities.
New nations are manic about new names for old places. Airports and streets are baptised, new regions carved and given pragmatic labels. McDonald, too, is feverish about naming as if he fears some of the resonance of the old names might be lost. In The Sun Parrots are Late This Year he worries that something coming closer every day in the name of 'progress' and 'development' could change his Essequibo forest forever. One thinks of those 'accidents' at Omai, more recent and unusual heavy rainfall in the Caribbean.
Can it be that all of this will go, leaving the clean-boned land?
I wonder if my children's children, come this way,
Will see the great forest spread green and tall and far.
He might leave those very real concerns to the environmentalists. Poet McDonald has saved for posterity poems we can read to our children and watch their eyes widen with fear and wonder. Like an explorer racing against the ravages of time and expediency he records faithfully, almost painterly the surfaces of our Essequibo. Death and Burial of A Chief reminds us of that metaphysical dimension never far beneath Guyana surfaces. His narrative poem 'Hangman' Cory, about an 'evil' man sent by God to rescue passengers drowning off Fort Island, has the mythical-oral intensity of a wondrous tale stuffed with improbably heroic acts.
My favorite poem in this collection is Dream Island. This is a place "far up from the ocean coast/Green deep in Essequibo forest." You have to wait for the movement of the river's tides. And then:
A blazing, bone-white beach
Appears mid-river, sudden as a dream:
Bank of sand and scoured stones,
Pink shells from pre-historic seas….
Clear, red water lapping past,
Sea-birds alighting, preening:
The sounds of wings and water.
A great sky of piling clouds
Once there, McDonald suggests, you could be transformed by "the wide, amazing, perfect stillness".
On any interior dream island you experience a transcendence of being, a washing away of the accretions of fractious city life; an expansion of spirit beyond the village, weather-beaten houses on stilts, the main road. In Essequibo's forests and rivers you could marvel at the familiar made marvelous; make yourself a stranger, if you wish; bury midlife regrets, those false starts of youth; find out what you could become anew in the world.
Okay, there are places of enchantment everywhere in the world; but none, you want to believe, quite as real and reachable as those in McDonald's Essequibo. Immerse yourself in that river place, its imprint never leaves you. Like an empowering song or a lover's cologne it stays with you wherever you go - back to dishonest cities, or out to the indifferent world.
- Wyck Williams
(Courtesy of http://www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com)