Thursday, November 12, 2015

Edward Baugh @ Rutgers-Newark + Poems

Last Friday, poet and scholar Dr. Edward Baugh paid a visit to Rutgers-Newark. Professor Emeritus of English at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, Baugh over the years has held many visiting posts in the US and UK, among them at UCLA and Howard University, as well as as Flinders, Macquarie, and Wollongong Universities. Baugh is widely known as ab eminent literary critic whose academic writings focused on West Indian literature, especially the study of Anglophone Caribbean poetry, and in particular the work of Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott.

Yet throughout his scholarly career he also has been a poet of note, and it was in that capacity that he came to campus from Jamaica as part of the Department of African American and African Studies' lecture series, with the co-sponsorship of the English Department and the MFA Program in Creative Writing. Also key to his visit was support from my colleague Rachel Hadas, who not only helped to organize and provided key financial sponsorship for his reading, but also hosted Dr. Baugh during his visit. (While in New York and New Jersey, Dr. Baugh also visited Ramapo College under the auspices of Professor Shalom Gorewitz, Rachel's husband.)

As part of his visit, I offered introductory remarks, excerpted below. The reading, Q&A and reception drew a strong crowd that included many Rutgers-Newark colleagues and students. Also attending was Baugh's longtime friend, multimedia artist, poet and arts activist Gerd Stern, one of the founders of the legendary arts collective USCO. Stern, I learned, had maintained a home for decades in Jamaica, which is where he befriended Baugh.

A snippet of my remarks:
Edward Baugh's poetry disarms with a quiet power. It does not indulge in rhetorical flashiness or imagistic legerdermain, but rather draws upon the poet's commitment to careful observation and an engagement with the flow of daily life. 
It is poetry very much of its time and place, of the Jamaica of Baugh's lifetime, and indeed of his life, flavored with everyday speech and the tonalities of the contemporary lyric, but also it is a cosmopolitan poetry that casts a net out to and hauls in perspectives from the wider world, the black and diasporic worlds, the worlds of literature itself. 
It is a poetry brimming with wit, sometimes machete-sharp, and an ear keenly attuned to the resonant subtleties of language's possibilities that can recut the edges on a copper. In "You Ever Notice How," from his 2000 collection It Was the Singing, Baugh writes

 And is always the same, check me again
 tomorrow night, same time, same square,
 different set of players, different
 colour costume, but the same script,
 different maximum, but the same
 two left feet missing the beat. 

And, in "Words," a heart-breaking poem about his mother's illness and how she shaped his own love of language, from that same collection, he writes:

                         She sits
 rigid with pain, too proud to ask
 if there is any word of relief.
 In the silence between us
 you can hear the metastases multiply.

These are words that do profound work, revealing for and reminding us of poetry's many powers, one of which is portraying the world around us, while another is to reveal what lies deep inside it, and us. 
Copyright © 2015, John Keene

Here are two brief poems by Edward Baugh, one rather light and one quite serious, from his most recent collection, Black Sand. They offer only a glimpse of his work, which I recommend, so do consider adding Black Sand to your collection. He is the author of three collections of poetry, including A Tale from the Rainforest and It Was the Singing. His other publications include Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision and Frank Collymore: a Biography, as well as the edited volumes Critics on Caribbean Literature; Derek Walcott's Another Life (ed. with Colbert Nepaulsingh); and Derek Walcott's Selected Poems.


No, I am not
Eddie Brathwaite
nor was meant to be
and anyhow
he's Kamau now
while I remain
just plain



When they asked James Meredith
what it was like to be
the first black student at Ole Miss,
he replied: "It's like you walk in the dark
and a bird flutters in the bush.
I have walked in the dark
and bird is always fluttering."

Both poems copyright © Edward Baugh, from Black Sand: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2013). All rights reserved.

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