"Ode to Brother Joe" by Tony McNeill (Read by Geoffrey Philp)
To commemorate receiving another photograph of Tony McNeill, I've decided to do a
podcast video of "Ode to Brother Joe."
Here's the poem from my battered copy of Reel from "The Life-Movie"
Ode to Brother Joe
Nothing can soakBrother Joe's tough sermon,his head swollenwith certainties.
When he lights up a s'liffyou can't stop him,and the door to God, usually shut,gives in a rainbow gust.
Then it's time for the pipe,which is filled with its water baseand handed to him for his blessing.He bends over the stem,goes into the long grace,and the drums start
the drums startHail Selassie IJah Rastafariand the room fills with the powerand beauty of blackness,a furnace of optimism.
But the law thinks different.This evening the Babylon catchBrother Joe in his act of praiseand carry him off to the workhouse.
Who'll save Brother Joe? HailSelassie is far awayand couldn't care less,and the promised ship
is a million light yearsfrom Freeport.But the drums in the tenement houseare sadder than usual tonight
and the brothers suck hardat their s'liffs and pipes:Before the night's overBrother Joe has become a martyr;
But still in jail;And only his womanwho appreciates his humanness morewill deny herself of the weed tonightto hire a lawyerand put up a true fight.
Meantime, in the musty cell,Joe invokes, almost from habit,the magic words:Hail Selassie IJah Rastafari,But the door is real and remains shut.
Podcast of Geoffrey Philp reading "Ode to Brother Joe" by Tony McNeill
Roy Anthony "Tony" McNeill (1941-1996) was a Jamaican poet, considered one of the most promising West Indian writers of his generation, whose career was cut short by his early death.
McNeill was born in Kingston, Jamaica and educated at Excelsior School and St. George's College (where he was already known to his friends as a poet) before leaving to study in the United States. He studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Massachusetts, from which he graduated with a PhD. He returned to Jamaica in 1975, where he worked as a journalist and assistant editor of the Jamaica Journal (1975-81), as well as in a variety of other jobs, including civil servant, encyclopedia salesman, and janitor.
While a student in the US, McNeill began writing seriously. His first major collection of poems, Reel from "The Life Movie", appeared in 1972 and immediately established his reputation in Jamaica alongside his contemporaries Dennis Scott and Mervyn Morris. This was followed by Credences at the Altar of Cloud (1979) and Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child, published posthumously in 1998. Other significant work remains unpublished.
McNeill was known for his experimental style, influenced by contemporary jazz as well as American poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and E. E. Cummings. He once said, of his first collection, "I don't think I could write if my first concern wasn't for the aesthetic." He also claimed that his greatest ambition was to be a jazz pianist.
He was recognised by his peers as a prodigious talent, but McNeill was plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. In one of his later poems he wrote, "I realised very early I had no gift for conducting a life. So I shifted my focus and sang a wreath." He died while undergoing surgery at the University Hospital of the West Indies on 2 January, 1996. In an obituary essay, poet and literary scholar Mervyn Morris wrote: "We have lost one of the finest of our West Indian poets, an extreme talent, recklessly experimental, awesome in commitment to his gift."