A poem is a Carnival costume. Sometimes the costume is skimpy and reveals the poet. Sometimes there is a lot of fabric and embellishment. Always, the body’s movement must be discernible. There must be a human being beneath. Otherwise, you’re pulling a float as a donkey might pull a cart. (Which is okay if you’re from Brazil, but not ideal for Trinidad and Tobago revellers.)
Even when the poet seeks to conceal with fiction and persona, she is revealed. She has made choices in devising her masque. Choices say something. The poems of mine published in the winter issue of The Poetry Review reflect my fears about love. How it is fragile, can easily be taken away, is impossible to prove: you must trust to love and to be loved. Yet you can never completely know another person. Who knows who Michel-Jean Cazabon – one of Trinidad’s most famous painters – really was.
I look back at how, in these poems, as a gay man I attempted to distance myself from these anxieties by devising heterosexual characters. This masking tells me something about me. A poem has a public and a private use. Both meet.
The poems are part of a sequence from my third book, Pitch Lake. I sometimes think of my books as Carnival bands, and each poem/sequence is like a section: sometimes they are orderly; at other times there are clear interlopers who have stormed. Here, words pass as masqueraders might through the Grand Stand in Port of Spain at Carnival time, in rows holding standards.
But if poetry and Carnival have a lot in common, poetry and philosophy are also one and the same. At the back of my mind when I was writing this sequence was American philosopher Robert Nozick’s famous thought experiment from Anarchy, State, and Utopia. We picture a person plugged into a machine that makes her feel she is experiencing sensations like pleasure. I imagined these poems as little thought experiments in which I could curate experiences.
All art forms are experience machines. But unlike films, plays, and paintings, poems are mainly constituted by language. And language is everything. “There is what we say there is,” said W.V. Quine. Because I also think poems can be made of things, I sometimes feel poems can control me, and that we are all living inside a poem. A poem contains what contains it. Perhaps this is why we need to believe in higher things like gods, biscuits or spirits – to close Pandora’s Box.
We can ask what is behind a poem. But we can also ask what is behind our understanding of a poem now. When Mike Sims asked me to write this, I was reading Wittgenstein (don’t judge me!) and so viewed the poems through the lens of what I was reading. “Language,” wrote Wittgenstein in a notebook, “sets everyone the same traps…. What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points.” Adorno disagreed with Wittgenstein’s seeming anti-philosophy, reminding us, “If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the nonidentical despite the fact that expressing it identifies it at the same time.” These poems want to do both: to set traps and to express something beyond the danger points.
Why do we find different things when we look back at poems? Does that mean the poem is changing, is not static and is, therefore, not real? No, because a poem, with all its feathers and beads, is anchored by one mysterious masquerader. One day the player will be no more, but the costume’s empty core retains her shape.