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Heroes Circle and the tree poet



Diary, Monday 29th July 1996:

Heroes circle used to be a race track. Now it is a wasteland called a park: “National Heroes Park” no less. It lies there largely undefined; its size makes it difficult for the surrounding buildings to give it a shape. Such a shape is made impossible, not by the surroundings, but by the state it is in, continually reinforcing and enhancing cynical perceptions. Even the slightly taller buildings along the east and south-eastern edges allow the wasteland to spill over in one’s mind, to create a huge vacuum filled with monsters. “National Heroes Park, is where perverts congregate.” “What, are our national heroes perverts?” “No, they are not” National Heroes Park is very different to the Savannah in Port-of Spain, which is larger, but because it is well-maintained and well-used, its edges are clear, made clear, not just by careful maintenance, but also by the economic activity along the edges, the sought-for spectacle and affirmation of the magnificent seven: seven rather splendid houses along its edge. Both the Savannah and Heroes circle have a graveyard in the middle. The one on the Savannah in Port of Spain is a small, discrete walled cemetery, which holds the graves of the family who owned the ground and donated it to the city for the purposes of recreation. Heroes circle, has at its centre National Heroes Park. Because of vandalism, it too has been walled in with a large concrete wall. It does not harbour a discrete cemetery; instead it holds what to all intents and purposes appears to be a mini-golf centre but turns out to be a park filled with brash, vulgar and nasty concrete graves and monuments commemorating the National Heroes of Jamaica.

Towards the north is Wolmer’s Highschool, built earlier in the twentieth century at the upper edge of the city to ensure healthy air for its pupils. It has two identical and rather lovely libraries in the best of deco-concrete, one for the boys, beautifully aligned with the cricket field and collecting the boys school around it with great authority, and one for the girls, tucked away in the available space. To the east is a sprawl of shanty towns and set among them, along the edge of the circle some indifferently modern ministries. Right next to the ministry of Finance is one such area of corrugated housing, huddled up amongst itself and quite indifferent to the irony of sharing a border with the ministry of Finance. Between the shantytown and the Ministry is a tree…

Right next to the ministry of Finance is a tree decorated, like a Christmas tree, with long cardboard strips hung from all of its branches. Through the cardboard strips it is possible to discern a cocoon-shaped tree hut, made of infinite layers of paper, cardboard and bits of this and that. We came to see the tree-poet, three of us, Basje, Alec and myself. A young man saw us and shouted “You can call him you know, his name is Wesley, He’s not mad you know.” He walked on and we stood under the tree trying to read the poems. They were written with anything that came to hand, on long strips of cardboard deeply ingrained with dirt. Some had red cloth attached to them others bits of blue cloth. I do not know whether this represented a system of categorisation. I called out “Mr. Wesley”, and out came a tall man in dirty clothes, which had once been colourful. He looked aged but lithe as he climbed out of his tree hut. He stank. He missed most of his teeth and began saying yes sah, yes sah. He couldn’t help himself. Here is an older man, someone whom I am in awe of, and he does that. I asked him if he would mind reading a poem to us. He climbed back up the tree, his feet were swollen and looked like boots. He picked out a particular piece of cardboard with red cloth and came back down again. He got himself ready and started reciting the poem in a soft, tremulous and hesitant voice.

The text was written as he spoke it. It was his language, made up of English and some ardent desire. It was all about the black man and the white man, full of the pathos of racial division, of violence and incomprehensible justification. But what it was about was could not be important, we couldn’t understand it. Its meaning was exclusive to himself. What was powerful was the form of the poem, the dignity of the man emerging from his voice, the caress of each word as he pronounced it, pausing to read and hesitating with certain bits of text, almost as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell me what he had written. When he was finished we were very moved. I gave him money because I wanted to. When we returned to the car parked on the other side of the road and asked Alec why he had not joined us, he said he had snatched a photograph of us.

Soon afterwards the tree-poet was evicted. He lived in the bushes for a few weeks on the other side of the road, in Heroes Circle, when his family arrived and took him away. What happened to the poems I do not know. I would love to have one. I did not want to ask him then and he did not offer.

A journalist from Trinidad, came over to Jamaica to find out about the tree-poet. He called me and we went to investigate together. It was fun. The poet had been evicted because the Ministry of Finance needed to expand. “A soh life go.” The journalist published a huge article on the tree poet and used Alec’s picture to accompany it. A fitting tribute.



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