Inspiring Poetry

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Review of 'University of Hunger', Martin Carter, editor Gemma Robinson, Bloodaxe £12

In 1953 Martin Carter was a candidate for the People's Progressive Party (PPP) in British Guiana's first election with universal suffrage. The PPP won a landslide victory - the expression of a determined anti-colonial movement that also inspired a major strike in the sugar industry.

The idea that the descendants of slaves should control their own destinies, including the plantation soil which fertilised the empire, was anathema to the British government. In the noble tradition of "humanitarian intervention" it called a state of emergency and sent in the troops. Carter was one of a group of activists arrested for "spreading dissension" and incarcerated without charge for two months at a US airbase. He and his comrades went on hunger strike, and this struggle was the "University" to which this collection's title refers.

Carter's poems from this period, in particular his Poems Of Resistance From British Guiana, established his reputation as a poet of immense talent as well as a socialist of real courage. These features are evident throughout University of Hunger, a collection of all Carter's published poems and selected prose, expertly and exhaustively introduced and annotated by Gemma Robinson.

Natural metaphors and references to Guyana's history of slavery suffuse Carter's work. "To a Dead Slave" is exemplary in this respect, an angry gale of a poem that rattles the pillars of injustice and invokes the rebel slave Quamina to inspire contemporary revolt. Yet it is surpassed by "I Come From the Nigger Yard", in which he describes himself as

"leaping from the oppressor's hate
and the scorn of myself
I come to the world with scars upon my soul
wounds on my body, fury in my hands
I turn to the histories of men and the lives of the peoples...
From the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden.
To the world of tomorrow I turn with my strength."

Carter's politics were strongly influenced by his brother, a member of the British Communist Party, but he never produced the Stalinist doggerel of some of his contemporaries. His early poems and prose managed to be both direct and nuanced, artful yet never contrived.

However, the slings and arrows of political activity took their toll on his poetic voice. In 1955 the PPP split, the damaging effects of which pushed Carter into leaving its socialist faction. Thereafter his work became more philosophical and less accessible, despite his use of Creole lyricism as a reaction against the pastiche of colonial literature.

He became minister of information and culture for the avowedly socialist post-independence government, but resigned after three years of disappointed hopes to live "simply as a poet, remaining with the people".

True to his word, he continued to condemn the depredations of class society and warned eloquently of the consequences of succumbing to racial divisions - particularly between people of African and native American descent - fostered during colonial rule. He provided a bridge to a new generation of socialists such as Walter Rodney and the Working People's Alliance.

This collection is a fitting tribute to the life of a dedicated opponent of oppression.