Happy Birthday, Tony McNeill

Geoffrey, you’ve asked me for a “livication” for Tony McNeill. I’m glad, for it gives me the opportunity to write down something that, otherwise, might not have been recorded. An encounter with history, only, of course, I didn’t realize it at the time.

It was a Saturday afternoon, that I remember, but I cannot remember the date (in 1977 or 1978, I think, for I already knew the man). I was sitting with Alma Mock-Yen in the UWI Radio Education Unit when Tony McNeill came in and said that he wanted to record some poems.

Now, for the previous few years Tony had written very little. After Reel from “The Life-Movie” his muse had been notable by the rarity of her visits. His verse, never as mannered as that of either of his major contemporaries – Mervyn Morris and Dennis Scott – had a strongly academic feel to it. It had power, no doubt of that, but it came from his head much more than from his heart. A poem like “Hello Ungod” could and did speak to me, and, would I think to any other young poet who was caught by the enchantment of language.

That was not the kind of thing we heard on that bright morning. What we heard was something completely unexpected. Alma, after acquiescing to Tony’s request (demand, in point of fact), sat down in the studio to ask him what he was writing about. He began reading. He read in a rhythm and with an intensity that caused Alma to withdraw from the studio and join me sitting in the control room listening to Tony as he gave us a selection of what he had been writing over the previous few months, the poems that were to form Credences at the Altar of Cloud. Listening to him release that pent-up verse was as draining as watching the NDTC perform its Kumina dance. And it came from a very similar place.

I had known Tony as a poet, and as an employee of the Institute of Jamaica, involved a year or two before in Carifesta ’76, and had thought of him (as to a degree I still do) as forming a sort of loose trinity with Mervyn and Dennis. This, though, was poetry from a different place, read or recited in a different way. This was not the mannered, educated poet. The closest analogies I have found have been in the recitations and chants of warner women seeking to bring the rest of us to repentance.

Credences came from a deep place in Tony, where the Maroon and the rural, dwelt until, finally something, and I do not know what that something was, yoked together his intellect and his roots. It stretched from Jamaica to North America and back, with the music of McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane as a soundtrack. But it was not “jazz poetry”, there was and is something fundamentally Jamaican about it. Something that has its roots in the countryside and the voices of warner women, whose echoes in the poems and in the way that Tony read/recited them causes my hairs to bristle. That afternoon, it had all the power and evoked all the fear and shock, of a divine presence come down to earth. It was frightening, amazing, and extraordinary in the fullest sense of the word.

I had read descriptions of “divine poetic madness”, and I was aware of the tradition of the poet as a sort of priest possessed by the Muse (or, at any rate, that’s what I got out of reading Robert Graves). I had never really expected to see it, and to be so completely overwhelmed by it.

I was present a year or so later at Tony’s launching of the book, at the New Arts Lecture Theatre only a few yards from where I had first heard the poem. That was an equally powerful, equally overwhelming experience. There were moments when the audience seemed to have stopped breathing as Tony chanted his verse. For some reason, the lines “Catherine/name from the north” I find particularly haunting, though I cannot think why. Just as the repetition of the name “McCoy Tyner” in another poem caught my ear and my imagination at a point where poetry begins and reason leaves off.

I wish there was more to the story that I could write. I saw him around from time to time, over the next few years, and always stopped to talk. Then, I left Jamaica on my own journey to North America and in doing so lost touch with Tony. When I learned of his death, at 54, it struck me not as the death of a middle-aged man, no matter how untimely, but as the death of a youth. Of the poet who never fully forsook his boyish wonder at the world, even as he, almost casually, shocked and surprised it. For me, Tony will always be what he was that day nearly three decades ago, young, full of energy, and with the poetry spurting out of him like an artesian fountain.

Fragano Ledgister, author of Class Alliances and the Liberal-Authoritarian State: The Roots of Post-Colonial Democracy in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Surinam, teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University. He has also published poems in Focus 1983 and the Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English. The father of two sons, both in college, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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