Maybe the art of satire is calculating how hard a slap can be dealt to another’s face. The force of the blow depends on the intention of the satirist: is it the uppercut of censure, the right hook of reform, the backhand blow of merciless mockery? Many contemporary Trinidadian satirists do not move me with the force or pseudo-finesse of their blows. They confuse cleverly valued instruction with cheap nihilism, and are airborne by the force of their own weary, newspaper-column bloviations.
I fare better with the Mighty Spoiler, whose kaiso rang out with both rowdiness and relevance. He sang about the worst things in ways that drag a fishwife-laugh from deep in my belly. The art of Spoiler’s satire understood that if you wanted to educate ‘the people’, you needed to begin every song with remembering you were one of them, and parking your arse accordingly.
Walcott slips into the dead master calypsonian’s skin and sits on a Laventille wall-perch in “The Spoiler’s Return”, which you can read here at Guanaguanare: the laughing gull. As in life, so in the poem, Spoiler’s been dead these several years — but Lucifer himself has sent Spoiler back for a two-week recon mission. The target? Trinidad, Limer’s Paradise.
In a bleakly cheerful march of heroic couplets, Walcott-as-Spoiler bullpistles the island, telling the truth the dead kaisonian was known for in his life and lyrics. Walcott calls on the popular lyrics of Mighty Spoiler’s own best-recognized verse, in references that summon King Bedbug the First, wielding his crown and mite-mitre. There is so much within these lines that runs red with “lyrics to make a politician cringe”; by drawing on Spoiler as the poem’s vehicular narrative embodiment, the poet shows us his hand where calypso’s power is concerned. David Rudder’s rabidly beloved “Calypso Music” (1986) knows there’s a correlation, deadly and dire, between the loss of chantwells and the pressure of jamming in red, white and black. When our griots go, we falter and fracture from the inside, spewing out Made in China carnival bras and crooked State contracts.
Like Rudder does, like Spoiler did, this poem sings us a song to ourselves that we can’t countenance, and so refuse to look square in the eye. “The Spoiler’s Return” is a call-out to the gayelle of ourselves, telling dutty truths in language richly colourful, visceral, scatological. It is the chain-up that birthed so many chain-ups, the ballad of the ‘we like it so’s, the ‘we jamming still’ granddaddy hawking and spitting from his rocking chair.
The poet’s speaker calls on satirists of the age — the “old brigade” of Martial, Juvenal, and Pope — to make his meaning pellucid. It’s a Walcottian truism, not an anomaly, that drawing on classic references doesn’t diminish the Caribbean core of a poem’s blueprints. It’s a lesson in audacity perhaps more than it is a measure of respect. The canon doesn’t need our deference, as Walcott’s Omeros or The Odyssey: A Stage Version prove: they insist on our bold and resistant acts of remixing. This is what “The Spoiler’s Return” does, high on a hill in Laventille. It brings us kaiso’s tongue, one side laced in scotch bonnet pepper, the other gilt-covered, and marries it to Chaucerian form.
If the poem drips with censure, it also lilts with desperate love. In it, our phantom ranconteur spreads his knowledge of the island over its towns and countrysides like holy water flicked out of a puja kalsa, covering the corbeaux-lined La Basse, “the firelit mangrove swamps, / ibises practising for postage stamps.” For Port of Spain, the speaker reserves the sharpest derisions one saves for a place that has broken a heart, shat on its shards:
“all Frederick Street stinking like a closed drain,
Hell is a city much like Port of Spain,
what the rain rots, the sun ripens some more,
all in due process and within the law.”
If you eh laugh, you go cry, and Lordess knows that in Trinidad, sometimes it feels like if you eh laugh, you go dead. So listen, then, to the dead, and their calypso-clarions of warning. This is satire worth chanting well, gloved in a spectral singer’s tattered straw hat, or slung like sneakers over East Dry River telephone wires.