Radical experiments in Jamaican artistic expression in the 1970s and their role in cultural decolonization in that period have been the subject of scholarly interest in recent times. A notable example is the March 2019 issue of the journal Small Axe, which emerged from a symposium entitled “The Jamaican 1970s” at CUNY’s and Columbia University’s campuses in 2017. Such recent studies, if they do refer to experiments and projects in poetry in Jamaica during the 1970s, have consistently side-lined one figure of major importance, whose work remains one of the most aesthetically bold, vibrant and original embodiments of the sonic, improvisatory elements in Jamaican poetry of that time. That figure is the poet Anthony McNeill. An illustration of this side-lining is Brian Meeks’s article in the aforementioned issue of Small Axe, which stems from a critically engaging reflection on his own poetry written in the 1970s. Spotlighting the poets Lorna Goodison, Jerry Small, Mikey Smith, Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka, Meeks fails to mention McNeill in his cataloguing of the outstanding poets who fused the aesthetics of Jamaican popular music and oral performance into their poetry. The omission is all the more noticeable, given his discussion of the role of Savacou (the journal launched by Kamau Brathwaite in 1971) in nurturing the “emerging poets” of the time, and the fact that McNeill’s first collection, Reel from ‘The Life Movie’, was published in issue six of Savacou (1972).
Meeks’s omission is just one illustration of the critical fate of McNeill, who despite being one of Jamaica’s most ambitious and prolific poets, has been largely ignored by scholars of Caribbean poetry. Two rare scholarly treatments of his work are a paper by Anthony Kellman and a 1999 review by Elaine Savory of Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child (McNeill’s third published collection to date). In spite of the disregard for McNeill’s poetry, he has been, and remains, a poet in whom many of the concerns of Jamaican and Afro-American performance and expressive culture of the 1970s can be found, given his strong fascination for both Afro-Caribbean orality and for the Black Arts Movement. As I explain below, the coming together of these interests is consistent with McNeill’s aesthetic and philosophical concerns. These take shape around African/diasporic orality and sound art and their political potential.
Given these concerns, it seemed natural for my focus in this article to be the collection Credences at the Altar of Cloud,1 published by Neville Dawes at the Institute of Jamaica in 1976. Credences is the second of only three collections of poems which the poet published during his lifetime, his first being Reel from ‘The Life Movie’, mentioned above. His third, Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child, after being published by the Institute of Jamaica in 1995, a year before MCNeill’s death, was republished by Peepal Tree Press in 1998. Credences is particularly resonant in the way it brings together and links McNeill’s concerns with sound, music and poetry, and his philosophical meditation on the nature of poetry itself, in light of the politics of black liberation in the 1970s. Another feature of particular interest is the fact that this collection pulls together segments of several of the stand-alone collections that McNeill produces in what he would later refer to as his creative ‘blitz’ that takes place from 1976–1977, during the now famous state of emergency called by the Michael Manley government. Credences is therefore of interest from a critical point of view because it constitutes McNeill’s personal synthesis—a sort of condensed book—of his creative output from this particular turbulent and artistically effervescent period in the history of Jamaican expressive culture.
In interviews McNeill has done about his poetry, he has spoken about the influence of 1960s/1970s psychedelic music on Credences and other collections he wrote in the late 1970s (Steele, “Anthony McNeill on Credences at the Altar of Cloud—An Interview,” and Dance, New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers). This kind of music relates to the emotions of a very specific time: the 1960s/1970s was an intense period in the Cold War era. Tensions between the world’s superpowers were rife; the threat of nuclear war was real. Meanwhile, news of the race to space were everywhere. For British psychedelic rock pioneers, Pink Floyd, the theme of the cosmonautic journey became emblematic of a real scientific interest in the invisible and the infinite, in exploring the physical proportions of the galaxy. At the same time, the cosmonautic journey became a trope symbolizing disaffection with the world as it then was, given the real threat of war and planetary destruction.
McNeill was deeply affected by Pink Floyd’s music and the way in which it both concretized the sense of angst I have mentioned above and embodied a yearning to escape the current world with its feelings of despair to achieve a kind of spiritual transcendence. In his Notes on Poetics (a series of letters penned to the critic Fernanda Steele), McNeill suggests a parallel between Pink Floyd’s style, “replete with shifts and sudden surprises” (Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976–1977), and the kind of poetic space that he wanted to create, listing the albums Atom Heart Mother, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here as inspirations.
The use of psychedelia in Black popular music was linked to a different, though not unconnected dynamic, of which McNeill, who had lived in the United States in the early 1970s (Dance, New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers 175), was keenly aware. Out of the ‘space race’ that begins in the 1960s Cold War era and extends into the 1970s, space emerged as the ultimate metaphor for an existential struggle, highlighting the search for meaning and for an anchorage point for the self in an era where this was increasingly tenuous. Black musicians found in ‘space music’ an artistic expression that could transcend the cosmic terror of racial oppression considered to be “out of this world” (Hendricks). Tropes of interstellar travel infused the music of artists such as Sun Ra (Space is the Place, Astro-Black, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy), Parliament (Mothership Connection, Clones of Dr. Frankenstein), Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind and Fire. Even the trumpeter Miles Davis fused his jazz music with space tropes in the mid-1970s in such pieces as Pangea, Dark Magnus and Get Up With It (Veal 209). Jamaican reggae and dub artists were not an exception: the music of the pioneering Lee Scratch Perry was, and still is, located in this conceptual territory of “interstellar travel.” This list, which could be extended far beyond those mentioned above, illustrates that Black popular music coupled its critiques of the plight of its Black listeners with space tropes to attempt to transcend the ontological violence of racist oppression through sound. Psychedelic music, in allowing ‘space travel,’ was implicated, in this sense, in an everyday challenge to racist oppression, in what Sylvia Wynter has termed “being human as praxis.” For, if space is the ultimate in the denial of humanity to Black being, given the histories of confinement and capture that characterize the narratives of the African diaspora (the slave ship, the barracoon, the plantation, the tenement, etc.), the metaphysical, transcendent force that ‘sonic space’ allows and embodies is a state of mind and spirit that is exalted, high, that can “even touch the sky”(Marley), even if a certain Black subjectivity remains unrealized on earth, or has not yet been discovered. Put differently, space is figured as the place/future where Black subjectivity may yet be realized, free from oppression and violence.
Unsurprisingly, McNeill confirms that “some of the poems [… in Credences] were to a large extent influenced not only by the Afro-American poets [who began writing in the 1960s] but by Afro-American musicians”, among whom he lists Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and the ‘Cool School’, and, in line with what he terms the music of “discordance”, Stevie Wonder (Dance, New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers 175–6). McNeill was not only deeply fascinated by the music from this period. As he saw it, he was bringing to poetry what musicians like Coltrane, Davis, Tyner, Stevie Wonder, etc., brought to music, a kind of search for space that sought to break through barriers of the visible world (Dance, New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers and Steele “Anthony McNeill on Credences at the Altar of Cloud—An Interview”). Religion was not his aim. Spirituality and reconciliation with life were (McNeill, Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976–1977).
The importance of this opening discussion lies in what the anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War era, and its musical representations, meant for Anthony McNeill’s poetics in the 1970s. I must point out that this essay, beyond a desire to trace the presence of musical aesthetics in McNeill’s poems, is an attempt to show how he merges his personal consciousness with the consciousness of an era. To put it differently, I want to show that it is not music in a commonplace sense that is most significant to McNeill, but rather music in a spiritual/poetic sense, as evidenced by the psychedelic aesthetics of the artists he considers inspirations. More than in patterning such aesthetics, what McNeill is interested in is the ethos behind this music, which is the idea of art as an attunement to the world of spirit. Thus, for him, the value of the musical styles I have mentioned lies in the states of mind these forms express (disenchantment, the desire for spiritual transcendence, the yearning for flight). As such, McNeill’s ambition is to develop a poetic aesthetic that creates space (imagined as boundless possibility for poetry itself, as well as for personal and communal existence), and musical artistry is one of the main places where he finds his inspiration.
In other words, McNeill’s fascination for the musical forms I have discussed is tied to his spiritual conception of poetry. Credences is itself a meditation on poetry understood as a resource of the spirit and the poet as a magician or a seer, since, in it, poetry is seen as mobilizing a kind of consciousness that exceeds bare material life. What is essential, therefore, is the connection McNeill forms between space travel as imagined site of mental and physical liberation and his own poetic craft. Musical pscychedelia is understood in terms of personal and collective liberation because it connects to a poetics grounded in a counterhegemonic reintegration of body and spirit.
We cannot deny that McNeill’s personal life was a major backdrop to themes of flight, metamorphosis and transformation present in Credences—this desire to escape earth and reach beyond the visible as he sought through mind and poetry a view of life which might offset the pain of alcohol and drug abuse. In 1979, the year of the publication of Credences, and in the years that led up to it, McNeil led a tortured life, as his friend, the poet Wayne Brown, records:
His life fell apart quite early; by ‘74 or ‘75. He would’ve been about 33, and had already published those terrifying poems, ‘Reel from the Life Movie’, ‘The Lady Accepts the Needle’, and the ‘Ungod’ series. By then, too, he was on drugs, the heavy stuff. And then he lost his job, and then his wife left him. And then he crashed the car. He was on drugs on and off for most of the rest of his life. He also started having mental breakdowns.
“Miraculously, the poetry remained,” as Brown notes. In Credences, McNeill’s desire for fusion with the universe often seems like an obsession. It is quite probable that this sentiment amplified his indulgence in drugs, if these allowed a temporary disconnection from the everyday world. Whatever the case might be, we can assume that his haunting desire to go beyond self and transcend material life was linked as much to his own personal life, as to his affinity for Black liberation politics and poetics.
McNeill also wrote these poems in a 1970s Jamaica that faced harsh social and political realities. Michael Manley’s ambitious democratic-socialist programme geared towards upward class mobility of the mass population had spiralled into an era of political turmoil by 1976. The source of this turmoil was the criminal warfare that had escalated to unprecedented levels between gangs and factions linked to the island’s two major political parties, the socialist PNP and the free-market oriented JLP, before the 1976 general election that returned Manley to power. However, political instability was also attributed to subversion by the United States (Blumenthal 8), who had become increasingly uncomfortable with the socialist revolutionary rhetoric of Michael Manley and the prospect of “another Cuba” in the Caribbean region (Veal 14).
It is surely not insignificant that Credences and McNeill’s numerous other collections from his creative blitz (on which more later) were written during the year-long state of emergency (1976–1977) called by Manley to curb the political disorders that then rocked the country. Significantly, this period of political turbulence, in which the agents of foreign neocolonialism were thought to be implicated, may have provided a particular inflection to McNeill’s theme of poetry as space of liberation. It also suggests Credences’ grounding—in part—in the specific musical aesthetics of this time, since this period was one of tremendous experimentation and innovation in Jamaican musical forms (which, paradoxically, were fuelled by the political crisis). The political violence of the 1970s and the socio-economic collapse that attended the Manley regime therefore provide one possible way of understanding McNeill’s engagement with the Jamaican musical form of dub in his work, since music was closely tied to the local realities of the time. McNeill’s affinity towards dub’s soundscapes cannot have been divorced from their intertwined political and social concerns, or from dub’s Rastafari-inspired theme of spiritual liberation and empowerment against the backdrop not only of local poverty and violence, but also the larger global Afro-diasporic struggle against neocolonialism.
This collection, therefore, reflects the meetings and intersections of the personal and the political, of which there remains much to be said, given the scant information publicly available about the poet’s life. That said, whether in allusion to racist society or in a more specific gesture towards his personal life, it is the desire for life beyond the parameters of the everyday physical world that gives McNeill’s poetry its distinctive other-worldly feel, as we will see, its resonance derived from an Africanist ethos of magic and mystery.
In light of the above, one can hardly be surprised by the spatially untethered nature of Credences’ poems. The yearning for ‘light’ and ‘air’ in this collection (‘air’ is also shorthand for ‘music’) analogizes a quest for magic in opposition to, and in a struggle to transcend, a world stripped of it. Certainly, the first of these allusions comes in the form of the graphics on the collection’s cover, featuring a depiction of the stars in a night sky behind an ‘altar’ of clouds.
The ‘interstellar’ theme alluded to by the book cover’s art is also taken up in McNeill’s Notes on Poetics (a series of letters penned to the critic Fernanda Steele). In a letter dated August 20, 1977, McNeill speaks of his “poetic objective” of achieving “the disposition of a real so spacious that, on some of its many levels, it at least conveys the apparition of surrealism” (Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976–1977). The paragraph in which this statement appears is followed by the one that makes reference to the band Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd are also one of the many artists and poets whom McNeill apostrophizes in this collection (35), along with W.S. Merwin, John Berryman, E. E. Cummings, Wayne Brown, Miles Davis, and the list goes on.
The sense of groundless space conveyed by the collection is suggestive of both Pink Floyd’s music and of dub’s aesthetics (on which more in a moment) and of their attempts at depicting a fluid texture of reality through the use of psychedelic sound. Mentions of place are absent from the collection. Evocations of Bob Marley, McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis do little to account for any sense of locatedness;2 instead, they fuel McNeill’s themes of volatility, the fusion (or desired fusion) of body and spirit and the desire to assimilate the universe. The absence of any reference to location and of any human voice (other than that of the speaker) also distills a sense of being extracted from space-time. And this is the case, even if a number of the poems evoke McNeill’s demons, and the loss that results from his turbulent life in the 1970’s, when he abused drugs and alcohol:
when i fell in the valley the shadow of alcohol cross
in me out from the long sea
my prayer inside the poetry turnin
up, me (83)
The poems remain always tied to a desire to be ‘extracted’ from everyday terrestrial life and of tending towards a more sublime, otherworldly reality.
Dante is enlisted as a partisan in McNeill’s attempt to transcend materiality.3 The mention of Dante (“Dante/[…] the dark name) in “name is the mud of the poet” (66) and of the fact that McNeill hasn’t “begun to read [him]” confirms the necessity (or at least the usefulness) of the figure of Dante in his poetic project, even as it suggests a link between the theme of the cosmonautic journey and the image of the pilgrim’s journey in the Divine Comedy.
In a series of three poems, McNeill describes his Olive in terms that suggest more than a passing reference to Dante’s mythical Beatrice. Olive is described as “the one/of luminous beauty” (“Ungod in the gray” 64) whose kiss he desires, “the kiss of the hands/spinning the blue air” (64). In the final poem in the series, entitled “nowhere to go”, McNeill imagines “the temple of air i/imagine a stair/up to the light i imagine/my queen of the earth and the/air i will sing you o/olive my queen of the glass/air […].”4 If the figure of Mary is evoked in “the queen of the earth and the/air”, here, the evocation of Dante’s Beatrice seems suggested through images of the climb toward “the light”, up a “stair”, to that ethereal, non-geographical realm of light, music and air; through the poet’s exalted, spiritual love of Olive. The poem is carefully juxtaposed to a photograph of Blue Madonna, a painting by the late St. Lucian artist Dunstan St. Omer. The painting itself is evocative of the womb, of completeness and of a sense of organic connection.
The poems in the ‘Dante sequence’ are marked by a yearning to transcend the personal and grasp for the eternal, conjured by images of vast, limitless spaces (the blue ocean, the sky, the depth of sea), of the sublime (a flower, a chorus, heavenly light), and of the terrifying (skulls, voices of the dead, the darkness of night) (64–66). The poetic voice itself continually makes references to singing, and to musical and mysterious sounds in space:
the tongues come out of the distances callin
the distances reboant bank
to the sea they are calling
back to the air they are calling
back to the wind of night-floer dey are calling
the song without hands come out of the tiers of the planets
the song without hands makes its own way
the song without technique has fallen out
of love with machines (11)
Organic images of fluids, of watery spaces brimming with sounds or the ineffable with silences, abound in Credences (“the ocean coming returning”, “the blue distances”, “the water seeking its mirror”). The liquid symbolizes the movement through different dimensions of space. McNeill emphasizes this movement through different dimensions, in which the frightening and the sublime resolve themselves for the viewer/reader, life and death are profoundly linked, and point toward the profound desire to transcend the limitations of frail, time-dependent human bodies.
It is exactly this sort of dreamscape that the drawings by Franco-Jamaican visual artist Guy Lombal are meant to conjure. The one placed below the poem “the air is a great face” (77) relates to a sense of the beautiful and the unsettling as mutually coherent, aligned with a notion of time that brings together the horrifying ship of the Middle Passage with the ship that might carry us to the stars. The poem itself reads:
the air is a great face
with the teeth missing
the hands are like birds
the touch is like music
the touch comes from the great sea
where the ships have gone (77)
Spatially untethered, then, the poems move in and out of a private affective space of deep yearning and ambition and the wide, inclusive, total space of a world pictured as contradictory, ever in motion, but always organic.
Here, I must emphasize the ways in which McNeill connects the notion of disembodied ‘space travel’ to the power of sound as conveyed in the poems’ formal operation. In Credences, spirituality is associated with processes that cause the true poet to lose their grounding or sense of control (McNeill, Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976–1977). These include the operation of music within poems and the way commonplace conceptions of time and space are altered thanks to certain musical patterns.5
One such pattern is embodied in McNeill’s deployment of the poetic ‘turn’, which, for him, becomes a way of giving multiple resonances to a single image. He compares the ‘turn’ to a ‘bird’ (59), connecting the poetic image to the idea of flight, and suggesting physical mobility and dynamism (in a word, the capacity to be aerodynamic) as the distinctive quality of the image. The concept of music is, here again, ready to hand, since aerodynamism is seen as a musical quality in poetry’s formal operation. Poetry is referred to as “the air without hands” (22), with the dual play on ‘air’ as both earth’s atmosphere/substance necessary for breathing and musical melody. A central theme is poetry imagined as both ‘air’ and ‘light’, always ‘without hands’, underscoring the autonomous life to which all true poets must be subordinated (on which more shortly).
To underscore aerodynamism and loss of grounding, the poems incorporate characteristics common to dub. The sequence ‘darlin a tired’ (57) and the poem ‘the verb tried to tell me’ (59), for example, are reminiscent of dub-like musical phrasing in their rhythmic pulse that provides a seemingly unending flow of lyrics (like the deejay chanting on a dubplate). Chanting is a way of surging away from the body. For both performer and listener, the dub’s chanting lyricism conjures up the sense of a different space-time from the earthly one, one which is amplified by repeat echo effects enabled by studio technology (Oliver 205). McNeill’s graphic and sonic treatment of images in “darlin a tired” evoke the dynamics of chanting, echo and reverb (“evoke”, in that they are also suggestive of the vocal sound play of early toasters, such as U-Roy and Big Youth):
i say (57)6
In this poem that makes liberal use of the physical page, lines that flow out freely towards the margins allow for dub-inspired rhythmic pulsation, and an expanded sense of space, thanks to the floating of images. Moreover, the deliberate dilation of given sounds is a phrasing effect that suggests, if not creates, time distortions for the listener, transposing dub’s technological alterations onto the page.
Dub’s echo and reverb techniques produce spectral sounds that haunt the air/ear, as they seem to persist (perceptually) beyond the duration of one poem, while being present to the beginning of the next. Thus, the poem takes the listener, literally, out of this world. This is McNeill’s way of graphically and sonically conveying both the ripples of dub-time and the idea of the poem as a disembodied spiritual force that breaks down analytical demarcations of time. Besides, as evidenced in ‘flower me a light song’ (58), the poem’s ‘light’ is understood as voices of the dead, forces or elements from the invisible that become present in the space of the poem, collapsing the boundary between past and present.
In the poem sequence “the same energy makes one poem/millions” (11–2), the repetition of ‘callin’ and ‘back to’ function like a dub technique of ‘mixing down’.
the tongues come out of the distances callin
de distances reboant back
to the sea they are callin callin
back to the air they are callin
back to the wind of night-floer dey are calling
back to the floor
the floor (11)
As the phrases gradually become smaller units, the repetition of ‘back to’ becomes a kind of reverb, giving conveying the poet’s sense of travel and emotion (music helps the poet to travel from one realm to the next): “back to the floor/back to/the floor” (11).
Image shifts throughout sequences of poems convey a sense of infinite possibilities in space. Careful line breaks lend a sense of motion to the image. As such, the poem is seen as having different, or multiple, instantiations and lives: “bob eneter the blue” transforms into the image of “bob eneter the blue/church o/dis poem/wid me” (12). Spaces create double-takes forcing the reader/listener to imagine the image as one thing, then another, or to reimagine the image, to constantly expand its possibilities.
Image shifts are themselves closely tied to the collection’s thematic concerns. In “the same energy makes one poem/millions”, the lines “bob eneter the blue/church o/dis poem/wid me” (12) are a visual depiction of themes declined in various ways throughout the collection: the poet as medium, host of the unexpected (‘bob eneter the blue’); poetry as sacred space and connection to the divine (‘the blue/church o/dis poem’). Poetry thus understood as an autonomous force is the thematic through-line of this sequence of multiple interwoven ideas: poetry as a space that transforms energy; the poet’s desire to be physically fit (the organism must be a ready/capable physical receptacle for poetry); the voices of the dead who speak to the poet; the poem that does its own work, surprising the poet; the poem as a mystery that one enters. The underlying theme of the composition is like a musical chord that is constantly returned to, like a jazz theme with its unpredictable variations.
In making endless connections between images, McNeill thus sketches out a practice of language that is grounded in the non-physical, in terms of the endless possibilities for connections that reside in the liminal space between the poet’s human existence and the world of spirit. His insubordination to grammar reflects a desire to open up himself and the poem to sensation and feeling, to a sense of being seized by the world. In the verses below, the poem enacts its own proposition:
sometime that grammar ting chust
git to go
on account o
light and more light (118)
“The poet”, McNeill says, “subordinates himself/herself to the poem” (McNeill, Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976-1977). Accordingly,
the voice bounces back
from the distances
moving at me
at high speed
I want to stop it
it writes through me
quickly as light (51)
Similarly, the poet also speaks of presences within the self, that write through him in ways in which—or saying things that—he would not be able to write by himself. He becomes “just like a sponge”:
just like a sponge
if I tried to write it myself
a would ketch hell
wid all of dese poems (53)
The phrase “wid all of dese poems” indirectly evokes the voluminous quantity of his poetic production—including four full-length manuscripts written in one weekend (Dance, New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers 176). In fact, McNeill claims to have written over twenty collections of poetry between June 1976 and February 1977 (Dance, New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers 172).7 The origin of this voluminous production is attributed to the mediumistic disposition of the poet, who mentions that this blitz occurred thanks to “a trancelike state” and “attitude” (Dance, New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers 176).
As we have seen, therefore, enchantment is conveyed through the use of language itself. Language is a medium that allows for a reconfigured sense of self. Language gives access to spirit, since it has power to create images, and images have an expansive capacity that frees the mind from its stanchions. It is precisely because of this that the poet must rest from the effort of moulding language into something they desire to see:
if you love language
leave it alone
it’s perfectly capable of giving you all (6)
With images that are always shifting, always in flux, the poet underscores the themes of freedom and liberated subjectivity. The approach to word and image relies on a conception of consciousness as a fluid, moving entity. “Trying words” is probing the invisible, being open to the unexpected and to the unknown. McNeill’s breaking up of grammar is an attempt at capturing all the possible dimensions of the world through moving, turning, shifting images.
Language is movement. McNeill’s collection brims with this sense of meaning as constituted on the basis of the image’s ever-changing nexus of relations. Thus, the poetic turn is capital for the production of meaning, for unleashing multiple significations; meaning turns on the hinge of the line break. The poem is thus very graphic, in the sense of bearing a visual quality which is part and parcel of the meaning: an image is created that can be viewed from different perspectives, as in the following verses:
the light and de air
meet widout hands
in de middle distance
is seeking you blue
boy we are signing (36)
From one perspective, one finger is seeking the blue (symbol of mystery, magic and of poetry’s autonomy); from another, the image of a “blue boy” (presumably the poet) looms up (“… is seeking you blue/boy”). From yet another perspective, it is the idea of music that is being emphasized “…blue/boy we are swinging”). We do get the impression that McNeill’s lines have us swinging from one meaning to the next: the turn and the double entendre are used to produce multiple semiotics.
Thanks to the graphic spatial organization of the line, McNeill’s poetry seeks to exhaust all the possible meanings and values of the image. Wordplay and double-entendre convey the yearning to always go beyond the face value of a particular image. Put differently, the images becomes, as Aimé Césaire has put it, “the field of transcendence” (Césaire, 1387).
We should not lose light of the fact that this handling of language is influenced by McNeill’s fascination with music from the 1960s and 1970s, as he himself tells in his interview with Fernanda Steele. Black music features prominently, particularly in relation to the formal operation of language. The moving, ‘oceanic’ quality (Steele “Anthony McNeill on Credences at the Altar of Cloud—An Interview” 58) that I have just described relates to the heavy influence of such music (jazz, soul, dub, etc.) on his work. Jazz’s aesthetic, demonstrated in Coltrane’s music (Steele “Anthony McNeill on Credences at the Altar of Cloud—An Interview”), creates precisely this sense of floating and constant shifting, through his “way of breaking up the music, exploding it, fragmenting it” (Steele “Anthony McNeill on Credences at the Altar of Cloud—An Interview” 59). The influence of dub, prevalent in 1970s Jamaica, is also hard to ignore, as I have argued, in relation to the explosion and fragmentation of language.
Thus, music itself is a medium in the truest sense. The following sequence is a reflection based on the jazz pianist Tyner McCoy and of the poet watching him play:
|mccoys piano comes down like a cloth from the long, primordial reaches|
|he says to himself|
|shadow a long way to go||o so far to go to hear the blue voices|
|singin me back straight|
|in to my skin|
|dis vision is killing|
|de body jerks forward, pitches||in space|
|de critic will sey dem line crude|
|and most ugly fi|
Note the way he assimilates McCoy’s style to his poetic aesthetic, by transitioning seamlessly from the visuals of McCoy’s playing to the organization of his lines on the page. The phrase “in space” is set apart to highlight the affinities between McCoy’s body in space and McNeill’s particular concern with a demonstration of ideas through the use of the page’s space—the leaps, fissures and gaps in the poet’s lines materialize the experience of yearning and reaching for wholeness. The jolting, convulsive movements of the body of the jazzman “in space” remind him of this. As the movements of the body are jagged and jarring, his jolting use of lines could be said to be “crude” and “ugly”, McNeill anticipates: “de critic will sey dem line crude/and most ugly fi/true”. McCoy Tyner is a figure who is repeatedly invoked in the collection, as the poet commands his line to “go out and lasso the name/mccoy tyner mccoy tyner mccoy tyner…” (60) to “follow mccoy to summits of music” (55).
The word “true” set apart at the end in the sequence above, emphasizes what is authentic, the kind of poetry that must be written (“the real McCoy”?)—hence, “mccoy mccoy mccoy til/it/stick”. McCoy’s music becomes the embodiment of craft fashioned around spirit.
Similarly, Coltrane is another symbol of poetic transcendence, of the ability for spirit and body to unite, to become prophetic:
|de spurrits fight over him spirit|
|in space||hunching space-music||de hand flashing light me|
|coltrane||light me coltrane||poem go on (93)|
The poet is able to draw inspiration from jazz’s aesthetic, its spontaneity, the richness created by its improvisations and its openness to unforeseen connections. “[D]e hand flashing” is an image that is multiple, suggesting, variously, the hand of Coltrane on the saxophone, the flash of inspiration, and the communication of the divine through the medium of the artist. This visual sequence allows us to imagine the poet watching the hands of Coltrane and deriving inspiration from the physical movements of the musician’s body, particularly his hands that evoke the flashing raw energy of light (the visual focus is on the body here again). This flashing of Coltrane’s hand is assimilated to the light of poetic inspiration: “light me Coltrane”. The poet suggests here that this sudden light or spark is constantly being sought for, and as McNeill draws us into the present space of his work, we can see these various poetic processes happening all at once, a conversation between the poet and himself, but also with the music and the musician that inspire him as he awaits the inspiration to create:
Miles Davis also allows for travelling away from the body, into space:
dem riffs up de spinnin from davis
miles in to space
Miles Davis is a “space-ship”, carrying the poet and reader off-world to a future in which Black subjectivity can free itself from its Earthly bonds. The “hyphen is form” (14), as McNeill tells us, bodying forth rupture, distance and silence. Kamau Brathwaite, in attempting to “paint” sound, through his dynamic fonts, what he refers to as “cinema-painting” (Brathwaite and Mackey 207) and overall manipulation of the graphics of lettering (conveying, as he says, “the voice of the fonts” (Brathwaite and Mackey 176), is engaged in a comparable enterprise, with a belief that language is nature’s manifestation of itself as mental activity, and that, as such, all language contains a certain latent mind-stuff accessible through an empathetic spiritual dimension: poiesis can therefore be understood as “something that precedes objectness” (Adorno 171). Similarly, the poem “for my family living and dead” is the following:
For McNeill, like Kamau Brathwaite, poetry must become one with the thing which it wishes to see incarnated, and therefore become, itself, the incarnation of this thing. Poetry thus constitutes an affective modelling of nature. Behind this is a panpsychist animist conception of poiesis as showing or making presenta communication of spirit to spirit, and rather than the imitation of an object (the created), it imitates the act of creation itself. Poetry, in this sense, mimes a sense of emergence: life from death, form from absence, matter from spirit.
A word should be said about the connection McNeill makes between poiesis and animism,8 which should not be surprising given his construal of the poetic as a sound praxis that allows otherworldly forces to be present to the poem. We should add that McNeill is a poet from the Caribbean, where knowledge systems such as Vodou, myal, pukkumina, etc. have been closely linked to the use of sound in the history of colonial resistance (ritual ceremonies, chanting, drumming, dancing that allows the traffic of spirits, and so on). As many a keen reader of Caribbean poetry will gather, the centrality of ‘animism’ in McNeill’s poetics connects it to works by other Caribbean poets such as Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, and Frankétienne, through the understanding of poetry as a space through which matter moves.
Essentially, McNeill’s ‘interstellar poetics’ is emblematic of a larger quest in Afro-Caribbean arts and history, which is what I call an ‘animist poetic quest’, where the quest for the power of the poetic is a deeply seated response to the natural universe can be awakened and sustained, thus affirming humanity in its most elemental dimensions. Thus understood, the animist poetic quest works to restore cosmological connection where it has been obscured by the colonial system, and therefore constitutes what Clinton Hutton calls “rituals of re-possession” (131). Accordingly, I theorize ‘animist poetics’ in McNeill’s works as a spiritual translation that necessarily involves the body (as a resource). Allow me a brief incursion into McNeill’s Notes on Poetics.
The divine trinity “has nothing to do with God”, states McNeill in his Letter to Fernanda Steele dated January 6, 1977. Instead, the divine trinity is “(1) Earth (2) The human body (3) The poem”. McNeill further declares that “there is nothing the Earth—and perhaps, the body—does not know” (Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976-1977). Put differently, McNeill rejects the Western representational view of “God” as personal transcendent Being, as well as the scission between body and mind.9 The body, these lines suggest, is the closest thing to a constant in the flux of becoming: it does not disappear, its changes are transmutations (Dance New world Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers 178). Since “the body”, as McNeill tells us, “is of the earth and of the wandering letters […] both of which […] are eternal”, its relationship to mind is not mystical, but rather natural—organic—and it is feeling, rather than thought, that allows the individual to connect with “Earth” conceived as “universal Mind”; hence McNeill’s declaration that “feeling is quicker/better than thought, because it involves mind, as against brain: the entire constellation of the body” (McNeill, Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976–1977); emphasis in original). In this letter, then, McNeill conceives of the material world as a panpsychist, animist realm of Mind/Consciousness, which manifests itself extensionally within the subject: the human being does not fashion mind or consciousness; instead, we are within Mind—a fact about which true poetry, in McNeill’s sense, makes us conscious. And the poet, in his yearnings, seeks, like the “mounted” Vodou worshipper, not so much to grasp the world as to be grasped by it. Significantly, it was demonstrating this thesis which was to become the project of Césaire in a 1944 essay, “Poésie et connaissance”, delivered in Haiti.
The ‘poetic order’, in Césaire’s essay, is viewed as a spiritual dimension in which body and mind become one (Césaire 1382). (And by spiritual, I mean the non-physical, rather than the religious or mystical, in line with the above). In a comparable vein, for Marlene NourbeSe Philip, “the ‘place’ of poetry […is] in the most profound way, the body”, in her essay tellingly titled “Earth and Sound: The Place of Poetry” (Philip 71). In another essay, “Dis Place: The Space Between”, she pursues the theme:
the African body: spirit
the African body: intelligence
the African body: memory
the African body: creativity
The Body African. Is Mind. (91)
What Philip’s idea (that body is mind/spirit)—evocative, in its own way, of Césaire’s and of Brathwaite’s poetics—sketches is the outlines of a theory of poiesis, not as representation, but as rite of identification with nature. Writing is an act of body and an act of spirit, in a sense that is not religious or mystical as McNeill himself points out in his letter to Fernanda Steele of January 6, 1977, but “rather natural” (Notes on Poetics: Letters to Fernanda Steele (1976–1977), since it involves true intercourse between body and nature.
Thus understood, the poetic relates to the human mimetic adaptation as a capacity to make objects present to itself, beyond demarcations of time, and therefore, to bridge the perceived distance between body and spirit. This sense of mimesis, then, is thaumaturgic, i.e., wholly to be distinguished from the so-called Aristotelian sense of imitation, and evokes an attitude of original subordination to the forces of nature, a mark of how mental and material worlds of meaning fuse and become inseparable. This mimetic adaptation offers, then, to the writer, the possibility of subordinating themselves to the object which they present, allowing for an unmediated flow of images and an immediacy of connection with Mind.
Poetry, as Plato admits, is the quintessential mimetic activity. It is power more than it is a thing, conjuring subterranean, invisible energies. Kamau Brathwaite puts it this way: “the poet conceives of literature as spirit, rather than as politics,” in speaking about how poetry allows him to know what cannot be found in the archive. The use of vibratory, rhythmical language is mimetic. This is a widespread belief that persists in Afro-Caribbean culture through the persistence of magical beliefs and African orality. Despite displacement and deportation, an active link with ancestry remains and the culturing of counter-imaginations and insurgent modes of expression. The work of Kamau Brathwaite highlights the ancient belief in the thaumaturgic power of the word, which he associates with the “cosmos” of Afro-Caribbean orality, “what in the oumfo, we’ll call ‘call by God/lwa/Sounn/Nommo’” (Brathwaite and Mackey 228). Brathwaite declares that, “‘in the beginning’, with the First Sound […] Man has to be in a position to communicate with fire with the animals with spirits and with the people from other stars […] and so that ‘oral performance’ has to be ‘round’and deal with time, movemman(t), gesture, dance/drama” (Brathwaite and Mackey 212).
McNeill’s ideas around sound, vibration and power resonate with those of Brathwaite. For McNeill, ‘music’ denotes the thaumaturgical power of poetry: the access to a pure reality that lies beneath the surface of the everyday, reified world. As such, the importance of artists like Miles Davis, Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Stevie Wonder, beyond enabling transcendence of materiality, is that they can foster a kind of unmediated energy (spiritual presences through the pieces they create). The poem is similarly understood as an external force, or spirit, which must be ‘channelled’ into the material world (into lines, shapes, sounds) by the poet. The ‘ringing’ of the poem in ‘name is the mud of the poet’ (66) compares the poet’s action with the work of a medium, that allows for connection between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Through thematic and formal engagements, McNeill presents music as vitally connected to poetry via the spiritual dimension inherent within both. He understands the spiritual dimension of music as enhancing poetry, which becomes an avenue of liberation against the background of the global struggles for freedom from racist oppression that take place in the 1960s and 1970s. The aesthetics of psychedelic sound that emerge in popular Afro-diasporic music during that period enable him to create a highly dynamic sonic poetry engaged in transport to another reality and bodily liberation from the ‘weight’ of everyday life. Here, the political/historical consciousness of the time and personal concerns are brought to bear on each other.
I have shown that McNeill connects his spiritual conception of music to a tapestry of ideas that help him articulate his poetry’s thematic and formal concerns. Such sources range from Pink Floyd to Dante. However, if sound is integral to his understanding of poetry, it is because he views sound as, above all, a medium of spiritual connection. Sound power, thus understood, stands against the background of Afro-Caribbean animist belief systems that rely on elemental sonic connections (of earth, feet, bodies, etc.; of the kumina yard, the Rastafari nyabinghi, the Vodou drum, and so on) in the struggle against violence and the everyday colonial reality.
McNeill’s poetry and philosophy highlight the connection between animism (as I have theorized it) and self-actualization and liberation in Caribbean expressive culture. It is a long neglected example within a tradition of Caribbean poetry (Aimé Césaire, Kamau Brathwaite, Erna Broder,10 NourbeSe Philip, and Frankétienne are other notable exponents) which transgresses the boundaries between the human and the non-human; seeks a way out of the capitalist imperialist machine; views the human body as always more than just body (but as enmeshed with spirit). McNeill’s emphasis on a world that is indelibly alive and self-dynamic, allows for the recovery of a subjectivity often obscured by the ideological constructions of race, even as he outlines key connections between sound, spirit and (poetic) space in an Afro-diasporic tradition of performance.