Monday, April 30, 2007

Everything Went Wrong

Don't mention my name in your letters.
Don't write down my address.
In fact, better not write letters at all.
Better no one knows that you can write.

You'll know not to drink the water.
You'll know not to travel by night.
Don't carry foreign banknotes.
Never give your name when you pay the bill.

You will need a shot at the border.
The needles are perfectly safe.
Yellow fever can't be allowed to pass.
I knew a man who died in just three days.

The weather turned truly nasty.
It flooded ten miles around.
A boat capsized. A box was swept away.
I couldn't afford to bribe the customs guard.

Don't trust the maps: they are fictions.
Don't trust the guides: they drink.
In this country there's no such thing as "true north".
Don't trust natives. Don't trust fellow travellers.

Better no one knows you sleep alone.
Already no one remembers you at home.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

In Chris's studio

cozier's studio 2

Christopher Cozier's studio is half the ground floor of his house, perched on a hillside in St. Ann's. Almost one whole wall of the studio is a big wooden door that opens to the east, to the first morning light, and a view of the road below and a forested ridge above. Another wall is mostly covered by two of Chris's large drawings, from a series he worked on a few years back. The third wall is lined with untidy bookcases, disgorging art books and catalogues, and dusty hardbound volumes of classic West Indian literature discarded by a library in Port of Spain. On the fourth wall, dozens of evenly spaced pushpins make a sort of grid. Sometimes the grid is filled with drawings hanging from clips. Sometimes, like today, the wall is mostly empty.

A big wooden table sits right across the doorway. There is a strong lamp suspended above, and a tall stool pulled up alongside. On the top of the table there are bottles of ink, tubes of paint, jars of brushes; a telephone, scraps of paper with phone numbers, names, lists; a bowl of coins from various countries, a line of ornate old-fashioned soft-drink bottles, a photograph of one of Chris's sons, all sorts of odds and ends and strange objects, some of which may be artworks or fragments of artworks; and, on the only patch of clear surface, a stack of paper about six or seven inches high.

I like artists' studios. I like the sense of messy, energetic creativity I feel when I step through the door. I like examining artists' tools. I like thinking that any weird little object in the room, any little bit of junk, might turn out to inspire some unknown future work. I like catching glimpses of works in progress, peeking out from behind cloths or furniture. I like the smell of pigments and oils and turpentine, wood-shavings and clay-dust. I like the stains and splashes on the floor.

Apart from the tall stool near the table, there are three old kitchen chairs in Chris's studio. The are boxes in the corners, some labelled ("Unsorted Mail"), some anonymous. There are small shoals of CDs, bits of discarded clothing, what look like scraps of lumber. There are paintings and drawings in frames, stacked up facing the walls. There are children's toys, strayed from the rooms of the house above.

I am sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, sipping from a cup of milky coffee, staring at the pushpin grid on the wall opposite, and listening to Chris. I like visiting his studio and I like listening to him. He is a great talker, one of the best I know, never at a loss for words, plucking anecdotes from his capacious memory, weaving together recollections and observations and insights. He loves talking. One of his favourite words is "conversation". But in my conversations with him I mostly listen. Partly because I'm fascinated by his flow of words and ideas, and don't want to interrupt. Partly because his intense and effortless verbalness leaves me feeling, in turn, wordless. Images are supposed to be his medium, words mine. So why does Chris find it so easy to spin his phrases and lyrics, why do my own sentences feel like knots of barbed wire in my throat?

Several times over the last year I've visited Chris's studio to look at an ongoing series of drawings he calls Tropical Night. Sometimes the drawings--each about nine by seven inches, on thick paper--have filled the pushpin wall. Sometimes they are stacked on the table or the stool. Say seven by seven by nine inches, the stack of paper: a solid object. It has real weight. It casts a shadow. Chris talks about exhibiting the drawings like this: piled up, face down. The longer I stare at the stack, the longer it looks like a piece of sculpture, a cuboid with ridged edges, stained with brown ink.

When the time comes for me to leaf through the drawings, Chris usually finds a reason to leave the studio. I turn over the drawings like pages in a book. Each time, the order has changed. Some of the drawings have become familiar. Some of them are entirely new, not even variations on previous drawings in the series. The new ones shift the narrative, as it were; I thought I'd put the story together, but now there are fresh meanders in the stream of consciousness. I don't, after all, know where this is going.

Neither does Chris. "There are moments when I see a path, and I try to run it down." But: "Sometimes I don't want to prescribe the reading."

Reading. That is my urge: to "read" these images, like a story, like a book.

Maybe it's the "bookness" of the stack of drawings, sitting there like an unbound novel, with the patience of a book. (A book will wait five hundred years, then a reader opens it and the words unfurl fresh as flowers.)

Maybe it's the lines of text, in Chris's ornate, old-fashioned hand, that embroider the edges of the drawings, not naming or explaining, but reaching, it seems, for their own plotlines.

Maybe it's the many hours I've spent talking with Chris, or listening to him--maybe they've convinced me that he has the sensibility of a novelist, taking in everything, penetrating into the deep psychology of things and places and people. A poet's instinct is to pare away, a novelist's is to pile up, pack in, fill the room of the imagination with as much furniture, as much equipment, as much apparatus as possible.

Or maybe the "book" I'm trying to read is a reference work: a dictionary, or an encyclopedia, scrutinising the world, imagining its complexities into small constituent fragments, holding each fragment up to the light, describing it from many angles, enquiring after its pronunciation, its derivation, its possible and impossible uses.

What are the true names for these things? A small wooden bench, a distinctive triangular notch cut between its legs. A starburst shape that might be a flower or a leaf, a halo or a collar, or a setting sun. A medieval map of the Old World, continents with crinkled edges and rivers like roots or worms, writhing. Flights of hummingbirds, conspiring. Men jumping or swimming or trying to keep their balance. Monsters, sometimes one-eyed, sometimes two, stuffing their mouths with human flesh. Loaves of bread. Slices of cake. The numbers one, two, three, and seven. Dogs marking their territory. Feet. Cages and fences. The sea, or the horizon that hovers beyond. Women in Carnival bikinis. The silhouette of a young man, his bald head carrying absurd burdens, or filled with visions of all the above.

Of whose world is this a catalogue? Of whose history are these the chapters? Whose lexicon? Whose game? Whose fate?

I look up and for a moment it seems the images in the drawings have taken three-dimensional form and are populating the studio. Near-invisible lines of trajectory connect object to object, and object to image on the pages in my hands. I am caught in this web, and the whole room is washed in sepia ink. I close the "book".

My eyes readjust and once again I see chairs, bottles, boxes, scraps of wood.

The stack of paper sits on the only patch of clear surface on the table, jostled by jars of brushes.

Chris is saying: "Drawing is my note-taking, my handwriting."

I am thinking: This is not a book, this is not a novel, and in trying so hard to discern a "plot" you are seeing less and less of the actual shapes and marks before you.

Chris is saying: "I'm enjoying not having to account for myself."

I am thinking: Do these drawings "rhyme"? Do they have a "rhythm"?

Chris is saying: "If you just take this"--he picks up the stack of paper, holds it in the air for a moment, puts it back on the table with a gentle thud; it has weight, it casts a shadow--"if you just take that as an object, what it says is, all of these thoughts are in there.

"There is no end in sight."

cozier's studio 3

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Another false start

He had always told his friends, when the worst comes, you will all head north. I will head south.

The worst had not yet come, but it was close. He decided to take his chances.

The hills were burning as he left. His last memory of the island was of the lines of flame creeping across the contours of the ridges and slopes, the smudge of smoke barely visible in the swiftly rising dusk.


There was an almost-full moon, and the river was a hammered thread of silver among the black trees as the plane made its arc of descent.

There was a smell of burning here too. Flakes of soot drifted across the road outside the airport.

"Trouble at home," the taxi driver said. "Trouble here too, but at least we used to it."

There was a guesthouse near the centre of the city run by a taciturn woman who used to be a nun at a convent in the Interior. She disliked talking about her past, and so asked no one else about theirs.

He knew she recognised him, though she said nothing. She gave him a key and pointed to the stairs.

There was a power outage. As he closed the door to his room, a draught blew his candle out. He didn't bother to relight it. He locked the door, undressed, lay on the bed. The mosquito net hovered like a hot mist. The bedclothes were sweet with the perfume of cheap detergent.

All through the night the wooden house made sounds too vague to be called creaks. Perhaps they were sighs. Perhaps the wood through its mask of paint was inhaling and exhaling the humid air.

The next day he threw away the clothes he had arrived in.


For nearly a fortnight he felt at ease. In the mornings he went to the library two blocks south. The reading room would be empty, except sometimes for an elderly person vainly searching through volumes of old newspapers for some elusive fact. He would read whatever books had been left on the long table by the previous day's patrons; it didn't matter what they were. He had read everything already--everything he had ever thought he needed to read--and now books were merely an effortless and familiar way to pass the time. He read popular novels of the 1940s and 50s, books on the archaeology of the Holy Land, natural history reference books, accounts of the Napoleonic Wars. He would break off when he got hungry, sometimes in mid-sentence.

In the afternoons he walked along the sea wall that sheltered the city from the placid Atlantic tides.


It was the dry season, and with no rain to flush the stagnating water from the city's canals, the mild stench of the streets began to ripen. When the sea breeze died down, he could smell the canals from his room, three storeys above.

He was fascinated, somehow, by the filthy water, opaque green and iridescent with household chemicals, bubbling with tadpoles and small fish. When he was out walking he had to resist the impulse to gaze into the canals choked with rubbish and weeds, to look for a stick to poke around in the putrid depths.

He decided it was time to leave the city. When he told the landlady, he knew she had guessed where he was going, but she never said a word.


Perhaps he went back home. Trouble there, as the taxi driver said, but trouble everywhere, and the worst, though close, had not yet come. And perhaps the worst was still no reason to leave.

The hills were still burning as the plane landed. In the chaos at the airport--hundreds of people were camping in the terminal, hoping to catch flights heading north--his rucksack was lost. It didn't matter, he would have thrown away his clothes anyway.

Parts of the city were burning too. He could see the plume of smoke all the way from the airport. By now all his friends would have left the island. Gone north. Perhaps eventually he would go north too.


Perhaps that is a different story.

Perhaps he didn't go back home.

He woke early in his room at the guesthouse and left silently while everyone slept. He had paid off the landlady, the melancholy ex-nun, the night before.

At the centre of the city the market was already noisy with people selling, arguing, carting goods, their clothes damp with night dew. He caught a bus heading west.

The bus crossed one river on a bridge, then drove twenty miles through rice paddies and villages to another river. Here there was no bridge.

At the stelling, boatmen hustled for passengers and pickpockets moved through the crowd, their eyes downcast.

Someone half pushed, half pulled him into a small boat already full of passengers, and they cast off. The river here was so wide, he couldn't see to the far bank--it looked like the open sea. No, he couldn't see to the far bank because an island obscured the horizon. A big ferry lurched into the current, and the small boat nipped beneath its bow and set a course upriver.

Pirates stopped boats on the river sometimes, but they encountered none today. He hadn't worn a watch in months, and he was too drowsy to note the hours passing by.

The river gradually narrowed, and then they reached what looked like another island. It was really the promontory between two rivers, the place where two rivers happened to meet, and a little town clung to the riverbanks.

Someone had told him to ask for the Providence Hotel.

Perhaps by now he was no longer travelling alone.

Perhaps at the guesthouse in the city he had met a young man, another traveller. They started talking one morning over breakfast. The young man was German, perhaps, or Swiss--or German by way of Brazil. He seemed to speak fluent Portuguese. The details were never clear. He was restless; he had been in the country several months, he said, but he never explained why. They began going to the library together, where the German would spend hours looking at a big atlas; they began walking to the sea wall together. Now they had left the city together, and taken the small boat to Providence, and were looking for the Providence Hotel.


He--now there are two travellers, simple pronouns will not suffice. Johannes est nomen ejus. John is his name, or a name good enough for this story.

The German's name is Andreas.

Perhaps we slip gently into the present tense.

John does not mean to stay long in Providence. This was a boom-town once, on a modest scale, in the days--a century before--when the gold and diamond fields upriver were still fresh, and thousands of men left the coast to prospect alone in the deep rainforest. Providence was their staging point, the last outpost of civilisation as they fought their way into the Interior past rapids and falls, deep into the North-West. And Providence was the place they returned to, their pockets filled with nuggets and stones wrapped in brown paper, their eyes bright with hunger. A century before, Providence was a small, busy town of rum shops, general stores, and brothels, glittering at night with many lamps, and loud with music and laughter....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cheek: for so

do-it-yourself politician

"Do-It-Yourself Politician", from the anonymous satirical "Macaw" column that ran in the Trinidad Guardian in the 1950s and 60s (and collected in book form in Notebook by Macaw in 1960).

If somebody did one of these for Mr. Manning today, what would it look like? (Could anybody working on the Trinidad newspapers today come up with something like this?)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

nicholas on roraima

On reaching the summit of Mt Roraima, approx. 2.00 pm, Saturday 31 March, 2007