Saturday, August 26, 2006

of Hezekiah's Independence
by Keith Russell

my deepest appreciation for insightful, supportive response. Your responses like reflex action, are so beneficial to this writer - one stay after another against despair, against dilemma.

Our affair is therefore the exact antithesis as well as antidote to my affair with our country and its people generally. One is saved by the balance produced.

About your book though. I've read it, completed it a few days ago. I read Hezekiah’s Independence after completing Simone Weil's The Need for Roots. It did not resist this reader's effort to get through it like the work just before completed, arduous going in places/at times but quite rewarding overall/after all.

It was good to be in a work of fiction. Your sentences were exquisite, the rhythm of your language flawless throughout. What fine art.

I was left to wonder after, if it was too easy to read. In addition though, I know I did not get it all - the generational relationships and not a book just about a son and his dad. I think I failed to perceive the layers. I shall have to go back.

What do I remember of it all, I sat and wondered after. I read it in three goes over a ten day period. This analogy arose.

It was like the fall of snow throughout. Like when it snowed in Memphis where I studied. Often when it snowed in that city, though exquisite while it fell, it melted soon after and would not heap up as it would in Nashville where I also studied at Fisk. Snow would cover everywhere in thick blankets.

Similarly, passages of Hezekiah have for me evaporated though every sentence was enjoyed. What stay in my head are the room the father occupied, confined to bed, the son having to nurse and clean him up and clean him off.

I did not take care of my dad in such ways, my sisters did or persons we hired. Reading therefore, I was caused to feel guilty. The barber shop also was very strong and vividly drawn and the language spoken influenced by time spent by these men in the U.S.A.

The presence of men and their relationships and the absence of women was also palpable, different, in juxtaposition with the role of romance in our culture, its entertainment, arts, its literature.

I begin to remember more than I thought I could or had at present: the black man's white wife who went missing on the beach, murdered or abducted in her son's presence. Then the husband's retaliation, murdering who he concluded was responsible.

There are those places as dramatically wrenching as Greek or Shakespearian tragedy and the suspense or suspended event of the son smothering his father with a pillow with his funeral to attend afterwards.

That pillow from Othello, with which Desdemona was undone but in Hezekiah is it coup de grace or euthanasia, with the father's agreement.

Sigmund Freud invited his loving daughter's assistance similarly. When the end comes he said, do not prolong it. His death was therefore morphine assisted, an overdose which the agreement between his daughter and himself made possible.

The poems I expected to go back in time. They were found after their author had passed away but instead they seemed more modern than anywhere where the prose parts took us. I do not find them to contain the complications, the social and psychological complexities of any of these past lives. The air and light in them, the elegance of the language of them, like someone who spends week-ends in Fluid Lounge at present might pen.

I'm groping here. This is not as accurate as what I wish to convey, only the milieu in the poems seems avant guard rather than old like paper yellowing upon which they must have been found.

In a workshop in Barbados at UWI with Merle Collins, we stumbled upon this paradox, real fiction. Your works most certainly are, real fiction, what Hemingway aimed for, what Baldwin and Richard Wright were capable of cooking up. That truth which fiction is and produced.

I enjoyed getting my teeth into Hezekiah therefore, biting in and swallowing. Edgar Mittelholzer, Earl Lovelace, V.S. Naipaul and Wilson Harris, whom I've not yet read, is definitely the company in the Caribbean to which you belong. I thank you. Your contributions make this poet for whom fiction does not come easily or naturally, very proud. OB

© Obediah Michael Smith, 2006
Saturday, August 26, 2006 1:41 AM

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I find our public school teachers’ agitation for higher pay vulgar and embarrassing. I am a former Ministry-of-Education-employed teacher, 1978 to 1989 and I should understand their plight. I do.

What they think is the solution to it though is not. To pay them and any other group of public servants, the government merely has to pass the cost on to the ultimate employer, the people, and increase indirect taxes and or implement direct taxation.

What might result? Come next election the people could decide they no longer want this or that government. Our economy and culture would change. Our economy could collapse as a result of the impact of taxation upon the financial service sector and the tourist industry, these two sacred pillars and sacred cows in our national existence. This as well is a vulgar arrangement which raises the question, is our nation an illusion? And if this is true of ours, is this true of all nations?

My present, specific concern though, is the teachers’ agitation for higher pay which, if granted, resulting in the increase of the price of bread, gas, electricity and water, we’ll all be back at square one.

This they propose is one reason why more income is needed, because gas and other basics are so high but if they are made higher to provide increased salaries, it would have been a useless exercise.

The chief cause for dissatisfaction though, is jealousy, a basic human trait. One child displeased that another child, with the same parents, is treated better. We have degrees like lawyers, accountants, like engineers and look what they make, and look what we make, is the argument and the cry.

What is problematic and vulgar about this reasoning is the assumption that government is the parent. What is suggested is that government has called us to our vocations.

Though I taught school for eleven years, I am a writer, a poet. I’d published a book before I began teaching and published four others while I taught. This is my real calling.

In 1989 and ever since, I have been attempting to answer my true calling fully. At present I live exclusively off what I earn from books and a writer’s life.

Though I live and my bills get paid, I earn very little, but how extremely satisfying my life is, this resulting from obedience. I’ve gone where and to what I am called. My obedience is in large part my reward.

Who has called me is the question. Who owes me reward? As poet, whose child am I? To what parent or parents am I to look for satisfaction, comfort and reward? I look to government, I look to the nation and who has called me, I am unable to locate within the body politic.

Similarly, who has called the teacher to her, to his vocation and to whom should teacher or anyone with a vocation look ultimately for reward, both in this life as well as in the next?

It is vulgar to imagine that that call comes from no higher than government and to sulk that siblings in the public service seem more highly favored than are teachers. But who are a teacher’s true siblings? Not other public servants but poets, nuns, priest and whomever else has been called and has obey and has a vocation.

It is this which gives me comfort. Sister nuns and brother priests have always been my inspiration and continue to be. It is the sacrifice which a teacher must make for so little financial reward which is the teachers’ chief complaint. I find my sacrifice as poet, to be at least as great as theirs and the financial reward much less than theirs. But then there are nuns and monks who give their lives entirely to serve, on top of which they take vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience.

But it is not government which has called them or which rewards them or keeps them. It is by faith that they live. It is via faith that they are connected to who has called them, with faith that they serve and via faith that they are in turn rewarded. For anyone, with or without vocation, to work for money is vulgar and worse than vulgar. To work for money is prostitution. We must all instead, work for love and if we cannot we should instead not work and beg on street corners – beg for handouts from those who do work for love. This though sounds like Kahlil Gibran whom I read in my teens. Here it seems, we agree.

There is a horrible spiritual breakdown in our social procedure, a horrible spiritual void. Too many of us are working for money and the things of this world and competing for these and often to the death; but certainly to everybody’s detriment, in this world as well as in the next.

The dignity has gone out of living and out of working. We have all or nearly all, lost aim, lost focus and what we are producing are cesspools. Our societies are hell on earth.

I attempted to return to employment in the Ministry of Education recently. The pay was not a problem as it represented quite an improvement upon what a writer in The Bahamas earns. What I could not abide though was the blatant, misguided attempt to demean what I have made my life’s pursuits: my writing, what I have studied and the 2,500-plus books I’ve read.

I found it deflating as well as dehumanizing, not an improvement at all over my present condition – more money but much less dignity, too little appreciation of my gifts, achievements and of my person.

Having to be humiliated thus to teach in schools, in a system which should not exist at all, this seemed, not a paradox but a contradiction.

In 1968, I graduated from Pyfrom Secondary School and went to St. Anne’s and found myself in a world academically, I did not know existed. St. Anne’s, it seemed, was a place for human beings. The school I’d left, it seemed, was for who was a bit less human.

It is to this that public school teachers and their union must address their concerns. It is this which they must oppose and demand be improved, this unbearable, deadening environment, these warehouses in which they are required to work and in which the majority of the nation’s children must attempt to learn. Again I say, such places, these schools, should not exist, as they insult human dignity and the contradiction is that all the money already being spent along with all the effort being expended, is in vain, as it is impossible for these institutions to achieve what they exist to achieve.

Their existence is a contradiction. Such places are not for learning and are not for working in. I taught for eleven years on a farm as it were, knowing eggs could not and would not be laid, knowing that, in those environments, butter could not be made.

In the past, I’ve attempted to make Jell-O; placed a bowl upon a shelf in the refrigerator, returned later to find the solution in the bowl, not gelled at all but liquid still. Growing up, we often made ice cream at home. I remember times when I, when we, turned and turned the handle of the ice cream mixer, undid the lid only to find, not ice cream but milk. To make Jell-O, to make ice cream, the conditions must be right. Wishing alone is never sufficient.

What our public schools exist to produce is not being made. Is the aim scholars? Is it good citizens? Is it good workers? Is it satisfied, fulfilled teachers? Too few of any of these result and what is achieved is worth a very tiny fraction of what is expended from the public purse. Our public schools are not providing the Bahamian people value for money. It is additionally vulgar therefore to ask for more money to be heaped upon what is already being expended for the product being squeeze out of these schools into society.

More money for teachers is not the solution. The aims must be fixed and the partnerships involved in achieving our educational aims must be cultivated and sustained.

As a living writer in this community, I have been invited to address the entire student body or groups of students at L. N. Coakley High, at C.I. Gibson, at L.W. Young, R.M. Bailey, Stephen Dillet Primary but more often I have been invited to St. John’s, St. Anne’s and most often to St. Andrews and most recently to Jordan Prince William High. This dynamic though, is not engaged in enough. Most schools don’t even seem to know that Bahamian writers and poets exist or do not seem to know how they might incorporate them to the benefit of their students and their staff, especially in their Language Arts departments.

Recognition and involvement of Bahamian writers, regionally as well as world-recognized, in the process of education, I am not suggesting is a panaceas for it problems, as this entire system needs uprooting and re-rooting and not upon the fringes of national concerns, not saying one thing about the significance of education and doing another – not putting Junkanoo and sports in the place where the nation’s intellect belongs and should be flourishing. This, ultimately does not exclude Junkanoo nor sports but instead require them to be reincorporated but differently, emphasized otherwise, along with rather than at the expense of intellectual pursuits.

What is Over-the-Hill though, is over the hill and behind God back and behind the backs of politicians as well.

What they revere, lift up, genuflect before is still the tourist and the foreign investor except in matters, the bare minimum, required to get elected and re-elected.

What I wish to end with, to emphasize, is the milieu of dignity in which nuns and monks in poverty, live and serve. What they have put their hands to, given up this world and its pursuits for is so very life affirming. Similarly positive environments in our classrooms, in our halls of learning, have to be what is started with. To what extent is the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas included in learning nationally? What use is made of libraries and what is the state of these facilities in schools and nationally?

The very air at St. Anne’s seemed different from that at Pyfrom which I’d just left, from which I had recently graduated. What is it though to graduate from these so-called schools which are hardly more than dumping grounds and not places for learning with that deep respect and care the individual and the national intellect require, if these are to blossom and bear fruit.

© Obediah Michael Smith, 2006
3:23 p.m. July 3, 2006


Obediah Michael Smith

(for Kevin, April 18, 1952 to September 11, 1997)

Cut off now from all the world / cut off from him / from Kevin / as close to me as a limb. I've lost him / hope he's not lost. Christ, catcher of souls, toss your net out, gather him in / fires of hell, no place for him / miss him now, when I get to heaven, if he's not there, how I'd miss him then. Two ambulances came, unable, with all their sirens wailing, to sustain his beating heart, his breathing. Angel world and his world, Lord, let them touch, let them take him up.

Must drop like an empty sack, nothing able to hold us up. Gone from this world without a word. On the table within his life, what empty cups. Wine glass in our fingers, as if we owned something, as if we thought we were here to stay, but we're only here until the day we die.

People doing what seems to be / what seems to me / next to absolutely nothing with their lives, knocking themselves about, roughing it, bareback about the place, in the draught, in the night / with the dogs who roam the streets in the dead of night / lights of these persons seem to remain alight. Nice people with a role to play, with so much significant to do, to say, just pass away.

Taste life. Taste like the blood of Christ. Bud of eternal life in us, in all the world. Pearl that he was, whirled about in a game of chance. Who knew it would be stopping here / at this place / at this time.

Why could he not, could he no longer, cling to life—

What does dead mean / no more of so many things. No more to give, no more to get, no more exchange. After so many days of living, of giving, of doing so many things, one day, a very strange day, dead. So sudden, impossible so soon to get used to. No where to be found / no where around, though a body's in our midst, right here on the ground. Personality within it, no longer within it. As if somebody pulled a plug out / dead not quick. This full stop, startling to come upon, to behold / to be held by death / its coldness, stillness, silence. Someone we know so well, on the other side of a divide. End, so abrupt, too abrupt to do anything but break down and cry, when someone very close to us dies.

Death, always lurking so very near by / around every corner of this capital city / of this island town. Death always lurking so very near by. Not long ago, Death, in its black suit, was a gentleman, much more polite but it's become a hyena, hungry, pouncing on anyone, as if hungry for meat, as if hungry for us to meet our maker. Death, of late, always lurking so very nearby.

We all live so close to the edge, not much left to do but to fall in / in our little island nation, in its capital especially. Life for nearly all of us, lived as if upon a precipice's edge, upon the rim of something grim about to happen. No butter in between the criminal and the law- abiding / no butter between the bread of life nor the dead and the living / no Bufferin able to ease the pain.

Life like tissue, blow y'ur nose, y'ur dead. So thin, so frail, the wall between this life / this world and the next / between here and there and now and then. On this wall's / this world's other side / across the divide. From the five senses cut off. Senses extracted from their sockets, unable to receive or send the briefest or the simplest message.

So much unfinished business to finish when we die. Ghost-like, ghost life, unable to answer the phone or dial a number. So many promises to keep. So many miles to go but he's asleep. Unable to keep another appointment, take on another project or finish the many already started. Must drop, exhausted, thirsty, as if life's walk took us across a desert when we all anticipate the day when life would be one continuous dessert of guava duff and apple pie with their toppings, following a meal of turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Didn't think that I could bear to see him so very very fast asleep. When a spider catches a victim in its web, nothing gets between them. As if our crying was our trying to pull him from the web, from the claws of death. As if our screaming were able to bring him back / to laugh, to dance, to sing, sign a check, drink a Budweiser or a Beck's, have a party at his apartment. But once the human engine shuts off, no starting it ag'in / no mechanic among us, that gifted / insufficient faith among us to raise the dead. We'd not know how, in times like these, to deal with such a miracle. No place in our pragmatism to put what's supernatural. Who's sleeping, let them sleep, until the next life. Hope that when the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there and he'll be there and you'll be there.

Holy, Lord Jesus, besides thee, in times like these, in times of need, I've got no one to run to, to turn to, to take my burden to and like a piece of pie or cake or the thigh of a chicken, divide it in two. All alone in good times and in bad / alone with my ups and downs / when life picks me up and keeps me up or licks me down. Still around after all the world goes down. The last man left must remain steadfast / must hold fast to life, to the mast, horizontal in the water, until help comes / until someone comes along. But what is it for and who is it for that we struggle so hard and die so weary / dropping to the ground wherever we are when death arrives / must drop whatever we're doing / whatever we're eating or drinking / whomever we're loving and leave our bodies upon the earth, like luggage left behind.

Death, anesthetic, could extract a tooth or ten or sever a limb, the owner's not home. As if he left his body asleep somewhere and went off and forgot to return to reclaim it, to get into it like a sleeping bag or a wet suit and zip it up and get up. A body left, without anyone in it, without feeling enough in it to feel a pinch, to squeal in pain. Cut off the five senses like a faucet when we die / not a drop of life left in us.

Copyright © by Obediah Michael Smith