We are masked. Mine is black with white elephants parading across it, the fabric from my local Nigerian seamstress, who now sells them in the front window of her shop. His is simple black, warrior-like and fitting for this October evening, in these stall seats beneath the gilt coat of arms of the Royal Opera House in London. Yellow tape covers every other pair of seats, keeping us socially distanced from others now arriving. A young couple—very young for this venue—two rows down, wear ordinary surgical masks. I am humbled; I pull the cotton away from my chin for just a bit more air. Apparently the Royal Opera House has lost 60 percent of its income in this pandemic and has had to sell a David Hockney painting on auction at Christie’s to stay in business. The coat of arms sparkles.
Everything is out of joint.
Never mind, there’s opera. And my heart is nervous.
Hannah Kendall’s opera, The Knife of Dawn, is built on the work and life of Guyanese poet Martin Carter. Kendall chose four central poems from Carter’s substantial oeuvre as the main dramatic turning points of the opera—the arias—and I built the libretto as mash-up: his letters, lines from his poems, my words as scaffolding. The opera imagines one night of Carter’s life, in 1953, in the final days of his hunger strike in a U.S. air base in Timehri, just outside of British Guiana’s capital, Georgetown. Suspected of “spreading dissension” among plantation workers in West Berbice, Carter had been rounded up along with other members of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP, the first elected government in the colony), including the party leader Cheddi Jagan. The PPP was a multi-ethnic party supported by workers and intellectuals, among them Jagan’s Jewish American wife, Janet, often credited with bringing the ideals of communism to the party. Within the first hundred days of the party’s leadership, its strident anticapitalist positions became clear, and when the new government introduced a labour-relations act that sought to redress some of the economic injustices of colonial systems and to recognize labour unions, the Conservative British government became vexed, threatened, and they planned to wipe out the threat of communism in the region. On October 9, the British declared a state of emergency, dismissed the PPP government, and sent troops to take control of the streets of Georgetown. Coinciding with Negritude movements taking shape around the world in opposition to European colonialism, communism represented an existential threat to colonial powers. On October 25, Carter and the others who had participated in the so-called dissension were arrested and detained without charge, indefinitely, at the Timerhi air base.
There are so many ironies here below the coat of arms, atop the red velvet of my seat: we are in a desperate Black History Month that follows an even more desperate summer of Black Lives Matter revolt; statues were toppled but the red velvet is plush; the title of this opera evening is “New Dark Age”; tomorrow is the anniversary of Carter’s arrest; prisons are made, unmade, and made again.
And in Carter’s words, yes, “This is a dark time my love.”
In November 1953, Carter and his comrades went on a month-long hunger strike not only to protest the unjust treatment in the internment camp and the indefinite period of detention, but also to support the Mau Mau in Kenya, against whom the British had used heavy bombers in constant air attacks to suppress a rebellion after a state of emergency was declared there in 1952. An international struggle for Black liberation was taking hold, and activists like Carter were not divided by national identities, believing that “it is as if the soul of slavery / crouching on the edge of the world / waits for the slave to leave his house.”
The activist. The poet. What tension exists between the two? And does it explain the waning of Carter’s engagement with parliamentary politics after Guyana’s independence? This is the tension I put forth in the libretto. I imagined him on the twenty-eighth day of the hunger strike choosing between his usefulness as a political activist and his influence as a poet. Martyrdom or affinity—with the land, with its people, with his comrades. Where did choice lie?
In the early 1950s, Carter’s anti-imperialist, pro-independence activism was accompanied by poetry written to and for the community of people among whom he worked in the struggle. Slavery, indentureship, the genocide of Indigenous Peoples at first contact—these, he asserted, combined to “make us what we are.” “I only want / to heat these pages with my own heart’s fire / to touch these hearts that live beside me here / to hasten birth, to drive the shadows back / to free the memories shackled in the mind.” He sought to articulate this state of being for the people of British Guiana and for those fighting to liberate them. His political commitment and poetic vision were inseparable. Indefatigable. And yet action and vision were often at odds:
Out of these swirling confusions I stepped into a world of action. . . . And every Sunday night a meeting in an unpainted hutch with grey dust like history’s night-soil between the creases in the floor. . . . Five bewildered creatures . . . repeating ourselves like desperate obeahmen. Outside the world. Dog dung in the street. A black man in South Africa. Love beneath the gay stars. Firelight in the cane-pieces. Degradation, absolute vomit. Bed. Same tomorrow. Tomorrow again. Tomorrow always.
Compromises required for right action pale compared to the infinite possibilities of poetry. Carter quit parliamentary politics first after being expelled from the PPP in 1956 for holding views that were too far to the left. Bafflingly, he later worked as an information officer for Booker (the owner of British Guiana’s sugar estates). He rejoined parliamentary politics after independence (1966) and joined the rival party, the People’s National Congress (PNC), only to soon resign, concerned about the racially divisive trajectory of the government under Forbes Burnham, later revealed to be a despot who, it was rumoured, had siphoned off the country’s wealth and kept it in a Swiss bank account in his daughter’s name. In his personal letters, Carter wrote of being bruised by the fragmentation of what was once a unified vision. His bitterness was directed at the perceived failure of a dream: “The central issue of poetry as of politics is the destiny of the human personality. What I say is what I believe you can hear. But if we are without a common cause, then what I say is unhearable.”
Opera is all about big feeling. Trifles of emotion are made epic over three hours via booming voices, rising strings, horns, timpani. But we had only one hour, a chamber orchestra, one baritone, and a trio of offstage singers to bring Carter to life. The contradictions in a poet’s life, a writer’s life, an academic’s life—can these ever be brought to understanding? Writing is surely not enough. What is my real work in change? Am I a factory worker in the knowledge and culture economy? How far will I go into action? What am I built for? How do those who seek the radical changes necessary for real freedom reconcile our time at a desk, dreaming these new worlds into place? “I was wondering if I could shape this passion / just as I wanted in solid fire / I was wondering if the strange combustion of my days / the tension of the world inside of me / and the strength of my heart were enough.”
Carter’s days in confinement bred profound poetic work. In the poem “University of Hunger,” he interrogates the poverty of his people and the forsaken march toward equality, let alone freedom.
Is the university of hunger the wide waste
is the pilgrimage of man the long march
The print of hunger wanders in the land
The green tree bends above the long forgotten
The plains of life rise up and fall in spasms
The roofs of men are fused in misery.
“Is the golden moon like a big coin in the sky / is the floor of bone beneath the floor of flesh / is the beak of sickness breaking on the stone”—the poet’s questions never lead to singular answers. This is their magic. There are things one must do and those one can do. Finding right action in the imagination that so easily burns “in the emptiness / in the unbelievable / in the shadowless,” the poet reconciles contradictions, defines infinite paths.
“Everything borders with something else. When you speak to me about something, I usually see it one way, then in another in one flat second. And that is what I’m trying to do—to deal with two things simultaneously, not separately,” said Carter when asked about the poetic importance of affinity. Affinity is something he names as such only decades after those long nights in detention, but it is affinity that allows the comrade soldier, the dead slave, and the living one (the poet himself) each to radiate in the heart of one man.
I will not still my voice!
I have too much to claim—
If you see me
looking at books
or coming to your house
or walking in the sun
know that I look for fire
I have learnt
from books dear friend
of men dreaming and living
and hungering in a room without light
who could not die since death was far too poor
who did not sleep to dream, but dreamed to
change the world.
Carter’s hunger strike was action, not dreaming. I chose one night of the climax of his imprisonment to focus on what was possible. Incarceration is, of course, dramatic, but inaction, isolation, oppression, suppression—these also enfold drama. Doing nothing can ignite action. Standing still inspires movement. Important things happen in a single moment. Opera is made of such things that erupt and change the narrative, upend the course of events in a character’s life. The imagination is a spark. We dream to change the world.
At the beginning of our libretto, Carter’s clarity is a writer’s vision:
I wish this world would sink and drown again
So that we build another Noah’s ark
And send another little dove to find
What we have lost in floods of misery
As it progresses and his hunger takes hold, he battles with opposing duties—to care and provide for his family, to support his people, to fight alongside his comrades at home and abroad. His collection Poems of Resistance from British Guiana was published in London by the Marxist publishing house Lawrence and Wishart in 1954. I imagined how much this international connection would have meant for him, the first Caribbean poet to be published outside of the Caribbean. The recognition was for his poetry, as well as his politics. His struggle was an international one, and yet it was also profoundly local. He writes of “the sea behind the wall,” Georgetown’s famous walled shore, and of “the old brick chimney barring out the city / the lantern posts like bottles full of fire.” And on bending down to listen to the land, he hears buried beneath the settlers’ architecture “tongueless whispering / as if some buried slave wanted to speak again.”
On this land he also hears the boots of English soldiers in the state of emergency; the international and the local become perfectly superimposed in urgency. Poetry, then, in a call for affinity, also becomes action:
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender
It is the man of death, my love, the strange
Watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.
That dream links him with others in struggle, not only the Mau Mau, but also the pro-independence Malayans, who between 1948 and 1960 found their country in a state of emergency with the British government and so established a rebel force in an “Anti-British National Liberation War.” I imagined that Carter’s incarceration intensified his affinity with all those who struggle, leading him to hold the glittering knife of dawn in his hand. The dawn becomes his. A moment he can own. Time that had been stolen from colonized peoples.
I make my dance right here!
Right here on the wall of prison I dance
This world’s hope is a blade of fury
and we who are sweepers of an ancient sky,
discoverers of new planets, and sudden stars
we are the world’s hope.
And so therefore I rise and I rise again
freedom is a white road with green grass
Out of my time I carve a monument
out of a jagged block of convict years I carve it.
The sharp knife of dawn glitters in my hand
but how bare is everything—tall tall tree
infinite air, the unrelaxing tension of the world
and only hope, hope only, the kind eagle soars
and wheels in flight.
In representing a whole man in one short, operatic hour, I had to reconcile the sharp blade of fury, of hope, with the man who worked at Booker’s—not as contradiction but simply as human. I imagined that among the voices visiting him in hunger was his unborn daughter, wanting only an ordinary life with toys, play, and beauty. This voice was juxtaposed with his comrade, Janet Jagan’s, and also with that of an ordinary woman working in the cane field. They became the woven soundscape that propels him toward daylight. As the sun rose, what would he do?
I dance on the wall of prison
it is not easy to be free and bold
it is not easy to be poised and bound
it is not easy to endure the spike—
so river flood, drench not my pillar feet
So river flood collapse to estuary
only the heart’s life the kind eagle soars and
wheels in flight.
When novelist Wilson Harris described his encounters with Carter during his time as a government minister, he said that Carter would always be singing “Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?” Was it sardonic or genuinely nostalgic? Either way, this image of Carter mocking the so-called progressive government he would soon resign from strengthened my sense of him as a man of the people, not of the party. The song was also played at his funeral. Carter told Janet Jagan that his decision to resign from the government was fomented in one moment as he stepped off a plane from a state visit, seeing a man with elephantiasis of the foot and knowing he could not square his privilege with this man’s suffering. These small human things—suffering, regret, and the continuing “tongueless whispering” for freedom—led me to construct Martin Carter as light spread outside his prison.
I heard many of his poems in my mind at once. I wove voices singing “Mine was a pattern woven by a slave / Dull as a dream encompassed in a tomb” with “Death must not find us thinking that we die.” The most important thread was from “I Am No Soldier.”
Wherever you fall comrade I shall arise
Wherever and whenever the sun vanishes into
an artic night
there I will come.
I am no soldier with a cold gun on my shoulder
no hunter of men, no human dog of death.
I am my poem, I come to you in particular
In this hopeful dawn of earth I rise with you
These lines became a simple operatic dawn. He was his poem.
My nervousness peaks as the Royal Opera House fills to its COVID-19–limited capacity. Throughout the auditorium, from these stall seats up to the dress circle and beyond to the highest balcony and the gods—everyone is masked. Consider masks. Walls. Cages and prisons. Who built this house? We with masks, like misplaced robbers. Or the robbers who used us to build this house? Look at the coats of arms and the red velvet seats.
The lights go down. Carter would not want to be here. In the late forties, when other talented young men of the Caribbean were heading to the U.K. to complete the education the empire had set out for their possible success—a route Carter refused—he worked at a local foundry, experiencing first-hand the difficult life of the labourer. Of London when he visited in 1965, he wrote: “rain wet streets and enduring stone walls, begrimed with the smoke of memory.” And the most depressing sight for him in this metropolis was a fate he had escaped: “the immigrant from the West Indies, pallid, down-at-heel, shuffling along and looking thoroughly unhappy . . . isolated and silent, sitting like a statue, like a fugitive from the historical department of the British Museum.”
Run, my heart tells me. This is betrayal.
The curtain goes up. The baritone lies on his prison cot on the stage. The plucked first notes from the harp signal the sound of rain on the rusted metal sheet that forms the roof of Carter’s prison. He sings:
In a great silence I hear approaching rain:
There is a sound of conflict in the sky
The frightened lizard darts behind a stone
First was the wind now is the wild assault.
I squirm, knowing the beautiful music that will come. Five words in the libretto are my deepest moment of affinity with Carter. Kendall’s vocal phrasing for these five words brings a lump to my throat every time I hear them. Those words were my attempt to understand how Carter’s sense of the failure of parliamentary politics, which couldn’t surmount the racial factions seeded in the plantation structure of colonial society, could be married with his vision of affinity among all people. He wondered “why so few revolt, either by word or by deed, against such acute spiritual discomfort.” His hunger was for more than politics. His appetite was for communion, for common belonging: “It is a bigger hunger.”
“Where are Those Human Hands?” another Carter poem demands. He asks the prison cot, the prison food, the tender hearts of men, the wall of the prison, the wall of stone, iron, and sorrow, to answer: Who built you? Who made these walls, these cells, these prisons? Where is their humanity?
Carter would not feel honoured here below the coat of arms. The murmuring in the dream of freedom is now loud. His unease is mine. Masks are appropriate here. I know whose human hands built these walls, and who oversaw the labour.
“In every heart there is a hope locked up like a wingless bird.”
I wonder if the young couple with the surgical masks would run with us. Or whether they would know something more, better, by staying behind to hear the poetry of revolution. “Death must not find us thinking that we die.”
I settle into my seat to dream. To dismantle something old. Build something new. Listen.
“I am this poem like a sacrifice.”
Tessa McWatt is the author of seven novels and two books for young people. She is the co-editor, with Dionne Brand and Rabindranath Maharaj, of Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada. She is also a librettist and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia.