In this personal essay, a young poet attends a funeral in his native Saint Lucia, where a spontaneous funeral chant puts him in mind of a poem by Auden. To Vladimir Lucien, the funeral chant and the Auden poem constitute different approaches to the finality of death. In their juxtaposition, we learn something not only about the language and customs in the Saint Lucian countryside, but about the universal human yearning for the transcendence of our finitude.
Alloy’s funeral was packed. It had to be. In the village of Mon Repos, Saint Lucia, he had been everything: head of the local “friendly society,” choir member, bus driver, community organiser and activist, folk singer. The church, however, was an unusually small and claustrophobic Catholic Church with a low ceiling; it felt like a house converted into a church and hurriedly sacralised. Alloy’s daughter—who was a lecturer, my colleague—delivered the eulogy.
Inside the church, the congregation bore what seemed to be a local variety of gentility; an elevated life above the agricultural scumbling of bare skin with earth. As the funeral moved to the graveyard, however, not only was Alloy returned to the earth, but so was the community. It seemed as if the church’s idiom of dignity had been shed for one more integrated into everyday life. Death, which was a special church occasion, made for a kind of uncommon exaltation even as it was a moment of grief and parting. Alloy had given them all an occasion to dress up.
Nearing the graveyard, some women changed from their vertiginous heels into flats. Paved road deteriorated into ruts and puddles. There was a light rain. Persons by the wayside joined the cortège, more comfortable now with this aspect of the funeral; one more congruent with what was a predominantly outdoor existence. Someone attempted awkwardly, on the way down, to set in motion some folk singing. The attempt foundered under a kind of priggishness that seemed to originate in the clothes of the mourners. Someone else picked it up. The singing was scattered, halting, and before it could gain momentum, it was time for the graveside obsequies over which the priest still presided. In the small cramped and muddy cemetery, persons began clotting into small parties. Life again returned to a kind of banality. Striking and somewhat disquieting for me, however, was the way in which the cemetery resembled all the other land put to agricultural use about the community. There were banana trees, coconut trees, breadfruit and some livestock tethered nearby. A place had not been truly set aside for the dead, for Death. It was as if, even in death, one had to make do. One was still required to earn one’s keep.
The priest’s rites were completed; persons gradually left for the funeral reception, while others lingered. A stout man with a wild, almost mischievous look in his eye reprised an earlier attempt to get the folk singing going. This time with more success. Another of my co-workers, anticipating the drinks awaiting him at the blocko, abandoned his sombre posture and joined the man, who had now found a bucket and was drumming on it.
I can’t remember all the songs he sang, but what stayed with me was a song of only one line, sung in Kwéyòl. Small intimations of the deceased’s sad bequeathal, and of the absence he leaves behind, were added extemporaneously to this one line. The line went: Pa ni ankò—an incredible compression of sentiment, but also one that was meant to exaggerate loss. A word for word translation would read, “Not have anymore.” A less mechanical translation may be, “There is nothing anymore,” or one could imagine an invisible pronoun preceding the line like Nou (we)—“We do not have anymore” or “we have nothing anymore.” Or perhaps another pronoun which suggests a greater, deeper hurt and tragedy: Yo (they). In Kwéyòl, “They have” (yo ni) also means “There is.” So that Yo pa ni ankò would literally be “There is not anymore,” or less literally, “There is nothing anymore.”
Pa ni ankò
Pa ni ankò
is the call. And the response, a long drawn out moan, before the line is given back:
Pa ni ankò.
The chantwèl, the man leading the chant/song, adds now the facts of the particular life that has been lost: Ish Alloy pa ni ankò (Alloy’s children have nothing anymore); Alloy, madanm-ou pa ni ankò (Alloy, your wife has nothing anymore). Other members are free to join and add a line. An expression of loss in the way that loss tends to express itself: as a soft apocalypse, from an abysmal, shivering throat. Loss, personal tragedy, as a cosmic event worth the attention of all the cosmos.
Immediately I thought of the master, Auden, and his poem that has become a kind of anthem for the death and loss of a loved one. It has been used in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and has otherwise attained the kind of popularity that poets both crave and cringe at. “Funeral Blues.”
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message “He is Dead.”
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Though braving similar terrain, though both lunging vicariously over the void of immeasurable negation (“There is nothing anymore;” “For nothing now can ever come to any good”), the approaches of the personae in the two works contrast in intriguing ways.
At Alloy’s funeral, the dirge re-created the limitless loss within manageable coordinates. The lines added to the refrain spoke about the loss of Alloy simply at the level of community and family, even as it moaned wooooooyyy. It concerned itself with the everyday and practical effects of that loss: Alloy as provider; Alloy as father; Alloy as folk singer—a role already beginning to be filled; and also a shrewd sense of who needed to be consoled: madanm-li (his wife); ish-li (his children). So that the death was reduced by assuming an aloofness toward its proportions, together with the workaday, clear-headed pragmatism that seems to fly in the face of Death.
The expression of loss in the refrain (and the moan) is abysmal—There is nothing anymore—but is qualified and countered with the evocation of mundane community life. The death then is translated into and indeed, replaced by, its everyday and, in the cosmic scheme of things, “trivial” effects. The remarkable compression in the line pa ni ankò seems to suggest the existence of the community before the death as well, as the very act of adding the details of this particular death suggests the boundless tradition out of which pa ni ankò emerges.
Where the chantwèl distills the practical considerations of Alloy’s passing from the useless, shapeless enormity of his death, Auden’s persona shrinks and destroys the cosmos. He enlists the technology around him first to commiserate, and then to deconstruct the cosmos, “for nothing now can ever come to any good.” The aeroplanes are made to scribble the loss into the skies, the clocks and pianos required to replicate the silence the persona’s life is stricken with. And as if that does not prove enough, the stars are put out, the moon is packed up, the burning sun dismantled. All of this is brought upon by an encounter with human despair, with a reckoning with the void. The community’s technology deployed at Alloy’s funeral, on the other hand, is the community itself: its efforts to carry on with its functions, as communities invariably do, down to the singing and dancing and co-composing of the dirge. Its ability to transcend is in the flesh-and-blood performance: the individual style and virtuosity of the chantwèl, the community’s response to him—life going on under moon, stars and incontrovertible sun.
The desire to transcend loss is not so much expressed in the words of either as it is enacted in the very naming, shaping and forming of this feeling into something commensurate and intelligible to the human heart. Loss is brought down to a human scale. Yet to talk about art as a mere palliative veers nowhere near the truth. More than mere “coping”, it seeks valiantly to immortalise—paraphrasing Joseph Brodsky—what we fail to keep. What we fail to grasp. Through its achievement of beauty, art presents to us in an transcendent form our oh-so-expendable humanity. And its beauty—that uniquely human beauty—is in the simultaneous existence of that very defiant claim to immortality and the tragic awareness that it is not so.
Life around me, in Alloy’s community, as if from the very beginning, had been returning to itself. His widow’s eyes remained dry while I spoke with her. She spoke of Alloy’s habits that may have incensed her while he was alive, now as a slightly amusing part of the man. The habit by itself that may have prompted a response of implacable anger, was returned to the man in death in a way that it could not be done in life. Forgiveness like a disturbed horizon settling back into its mirage of perfect linearity; perfect peace.
It may have been this that brought home the realisation that I had ceased to see “land”—whatever use it was put to—as the Earth, an understanding still preserved in the Kwéyòl language. Atè (a terre in French) means “the ground” wherever in the world you are, and the verb “to bury”, téwé, resonates with its Old Latin meaning of “to put into the Earth.” Derek Walcott reminds us of this in his poem, The Light of the World :
She said to the driver: ‘Pas quittez moi a terre,’
which is, in her patois: ‘Don’t leave me stranded,’
which is, in her history and that of her people:
‘Don’t leave me on earth,’ or, by a shift of stress:
‘Don’t leave me the earth’ (for an inheritance);
‘Pas quittez moi a terre, Heavenly transport,
Don’t leave me on earth, I’ve had enough of it.
In this light, it was not odd to imagine Auden here, in rural Mon Repos, as the man holding the bucket upside-down, wielding a rhythm of continuity in the face of Death. Auden’s relish in form is filled with the joy and charming greed of composition and inheritance that the newly minted chantwèl exuded at the graveside as he subtly and swiftly and necessarily made to “usurp” Alloy. For even in their songs’ proclamation of an absolute end (“There is nothing anymore,” “Nothing now can ever come to any good”), there is in their craft, their different traditions, the affirmation that there is truly no beginning, and even in the face of death, no end. No end also to loss, yes, but no end to our tragic struggle against despair.
Vladimir Lucien is a writer and critic from St. Lucia. His work has been published in several international journals and has been translated into Dutch, Italian and Mandarin. His debut collection of poetry, Sounding Ground, won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.
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