30 July 2008

looking backward

at end of journey no place left to flee
but still we crave what lies beyond the reef
not knowing yet all of the modes of grief
each tacks their name upon the waiting tree
you tell us simply wait and let time be
leave urgency and haste to the old thief
too soon we'll mourn each swiftly falling leaf
and far too soon will curse the hateful sea
right now the sun fills the whole world with gold
there seems no barrier to clearest truth
all of our senses proclaim highest noon
no one will speak of days both dark and cold
or tell us all the sournesses of ruth
but now we want to hide in a cocoon

29 July 2008

welcome all with happiness

the task we find is never to set straight
those who come limping to the summer feast
in search of all the savours we released

we do not snarl or tell them they are late
their style and manner we have not policed
the task we find is never to set straight

rather our duty's to keep wide the gate
and grant full favour even to the least
admitting all until the night has ceased
the task we find is never to set straight

28 July 2008

signal and metaphor

we miss the moment and we fail to speak
so time itself slips out of weary hands
not subject now to anyone's commands

only an infant stands upon the peak
and gazes out upon the sunlit lands
we miss the moment and we fail to speak

the mighty river starts as muddy creek
so we are told but no one understands
that oceans set the limit of the sands
we miss the moment and we fail to speak

so keen the blade

the scope of vision comes down to one leaf
no time for moonset in the distant bay
that was a moment lacking in all grief

an age ago we thought it plain relief
to break the silence letting each one say
the scope of vision comes down to one leaf

not one of us would claim to have a beef
with those who had not yet quite gone astray
that was a moment lacking in all grief

it was so easy then to play at chief
and turn rejoicing to the sun's first ray
the scope of vision comes down to one leaf

in simple times the problem with belief
is that it makes the whole of life a play
that was a moment lacking in all grief

to tell the truth i name myself a thief
who has abstracted memory of a day
the scope of vision comes down to one leaf
that was a moment lacking in all grief

27 July 2008

a time of legend

a thousand stories wait still to be told
we pack our visions up and wrap them tight
this is the season when we pan for gold

your task to herd the lost sheep into fold
and do so swiftly for too soon comes night
a thousand stories wait still to be told

at height of summer not a one fears cold
but you alone are left to warn of blight
this is the season when we pan for gold

give us the measure and we shall take hold
of all the matters set within our sight
a thousand stories wait still to be told

you seek to have all good things tightly rolled
into the pattern while they are still bright
this is the season when we pan for gold

not one thing happens that is not controlled
or so we hope as long as we have light
a thousand stories wait still to be told
this is the season when we pan for gold

state of exception

our hopes come down at last to merest chance
that is the way when we are led by pride
easy to speak when on the winning side

you think it simple when we first advance
the laggard is the one you most deride
our hopes come down at last to merest chance

but when we run and you note in one glance
how many of us had no chance to hide
and all the anger when they knew you lied
our hopes come down at last to merest chance

Shanty-town law

John Maxwell

Truisms and clichés become truisms and clichés because they express rules of experience – the probability that certain behaviours are almost bound to have certain predictable effects. ‘Marry in haste’, one says, ‘repent at leisure’.

Recently in Hartley Neita’s collection of stories from old Gleaners, there was the tale of a man in St Mary who was so bothered by the plaster-cast on his broken ankle that he decided to cut the damned thing off. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

At the end of the process he found he’d amputated his foot.

According to Carl Stone’s polls at the time, most Jamaicans enthusiastically supported the Suppression of Crimes Act and the Gun Court, (1974) and the State of Emergency (1976). Before we were very much older, most of us were appealing piteously to be rid of these magic bullets, which had been guaranteed to make us all safer and happier and would probably cure teenage sex, bad breath and incontinence to boot.

Will we never learn?

We disregard common sense warnings – from the Bible to John Stuart Mill and Mark Twain to Louise Bennett, to go whoring after instant solutions that sound good if we don’t think about them too hard.

For instance, the call for indefinite detention is an echo of the legislation for the Gun Court declared unconstitutional not too long ago. Removal of Judges’ discretion reflects the so-called ‘Rape Act’ provisions of 1964, found not too long after to be oppressive and counter-productive.

I could go on, but why?

Id over Superego

Sigmund Freud may have been wrong abut many things, but his theory of Id, Ego and Superego seems destined to have validity for a little while yet, describing the areas of the psychic apparatus that govern our human behaviour, The ID or “It” is the instinctive bundle of reflexes at the base of our psyches (or minds)

IT/ID “ is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality… a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations ... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.”

It is the place where our lusts hide,along with other primitive emotions like revenge and greed but also all our basic drives for food, sex and our instinctive altruism, sympathy and tender instincts. Id is not bad, simply untaught and unorganised. Babies’ minds are all Id, according to Freud, amoral, egocentric, satisfaction directed.

According to Freud, “...The Ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world ... The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions ... in its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength, while the ego uses borrowed forces”.

The Superego is a form of referee, the public face of the mind, a kind of diplomatic representation of all the conflicting urges mediated by external experience – a conscious construct from the cultures we inhabit.

Part of the charm of ordinary life lies in the innocence of much of human behaviour, moderated by what we have learned as we grow up, driven by our need for acceptance, love, respect and so on. All these things become more sophisticated, more subtle, more rounded and less clumsy as we mature.

Some authorities now believe that it isn’t until about age 24 that physical development of the brain is more or less complete. That suggests that psychic maturity is an even longer process than we thought. I myself believe that maturity is a continuing process and that we don’t stop learning/growing until we die.

If all or even most of this is true. it seems clear to me that becoming truly human is a very long-term process and that our educational systems, culminating in University, are really all part of kindergarten. When we speak of people mellowing we are in fact describing psychic maturation.

This in my view logically leads to the need for a radical re-evaluation and transformation of our educational systems, because, it seems to me, we are aborting the real possibilities of civilisation by neglecting the basic needs of human development.

Masters and Slaves

I have for a very long time had a problem with Lord Acton’s aphorism that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

It seems to me that absolute powerlessness is a much greater corrupter than absolute power. In the first place, outside of slave societies, absolute power is not very common.

However, both inside and outside of slave societies, absolute powerlessness is the rule for most of humanity who find themselves overwhelmed by forces natural and artificial against whom it is almost impossible to exert any influence.

As inheritors of a former slave society today’s Jamaica suffers from a long indoctrination in submission to superior forces which can generally only be challenged by violence. The ruling classes (an amalgam of the heirs of slave-owners and a motley aggregation of recruits of all colours) and most of the rest of the population continue to behave as if it is still 1837, during the so-called apprenticeship period before Emancipation. A very large number of people still are unaware of their human rights or at least, unaware that they can claim these rights. And many among the ruling classes and just below still behave as if they do not have to take the interests and feelings of the majority into consideration.

These attitudes are the products of a pervasive culture in which, from time to time, the interests and passions of one class boil over, scorching the interests of the others.

In the last 30 years, starting before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of finance capital launched a hostile takeover bid for the world, and, in places like Jamaica, recruited a substantial quota of middle class people who bought into the idea that if their lusts were attended to, health, wealth and happiness would naturally follow for the ‘less fortunate’.

That phrase – ‘the less fortunate’ – both conceals and exposes the real truth – that life in a world ruled by finance capital is a lottery, a matter of chance, fortune, of luck rather than ability or work.

So, people like P.J.Patterson and Edward Seaga were able to believe, no doubt sincerely, that separating thousands of people from their jobs was in their own best interests, and that somehow the people who had worked to build Jamaica over 500 years were parasites who had to be taught to work.

This attitude went with a total disregard and disrespect for any development which was not what I call, ‘Heavy Metal’ and poured scorn on Pearnell Charles when he suggested that in the interest of fair play and fair shares, those who were capable only of manual labour should b given the chance to perform it.

Development in this perspective is rather like General McArthur’s campaign against the Japanese: he simply skipped over islands of resistance if they didn’t seem significant, leaving unpacified, Japanese soldiers who were still in a state of war decades after both their Emperor, Hirohito, and McArthur had departed the scene.

The globalised development of Jamaica similarly simply skipped islands of poverty and need within the society, abandoning them to the elements, as it were.

Without government and its services these places developed their own cultures, their own rules and authorities – their own governance. It is no accident that the areas of violence in Jamaica are sharply defined. Described as garrison constituencies they have little to do with partisan politics but everything to do with underdevelopment.

In these places, the children are educated according to rules which are bizarre and outlandish to some of us, just as some of the rules developed 4 millennia ago by wandering nomads in the Egyptian desert seem bizarre and outlandish to us. From this governance and from these rules, come the violence and antisocial behaviour we fear.

Indefinite detention and mandatory sentences will not cure them. If we want to rescue ourselves we first need to rescue those who are most at risk.

Buying the Press Association

In 55 years of membership in the Jamaica Press Association/Press Association of Jamaica I have been part of continuing efforts to get the media house that employ journalists to help make life a little more civilised for journalists.

Long ago we began seeking to allow journalists to have portable pensions, so that if they moved between jobs, as journalists do, they wouldn’t lose everything.

We got no response.

When a year or so ago we tried to establish a fund for indigent journalists we were solemnly warned that we had better be careful we didn’t compromise our precious integrity by soliciting money from outsiders such as media owners.

Now, various elements of the media are attempting a hostile takeover bid for the Press Association. Media owners are paying subscription fees for journalists who are expected to vote down the current leadership of the Association in favour of a candidate from the Gleaner.

Stay tuned.

Copyright©2008 John Maxwell

jankunnu @gmail.com

26 July 2008

in proper haste

there is no colour left on this old day
and meaning cannot wait for rising moon
truth is conveyed to us by a buffoon

you make a choice and then you have to play
life turns on what is not truly a boon
there is no colour left on this old day

the very silence knows that what you say
is matter for some summer afternoon
but we are in the realm of swift lampoon
there is no colour left on this old day

25 July 2008

the rot of reason

we give in fury what we won't in fun
but don't expect the answer to be loud
nothing we do can halt the moving sun

eye after eye the consequence will shun
of following the ever-fickle crowd
we give in fury what we won't in fun

so soon we find the full effort is done
and every corner of the field is ploughed
nothing we do can halt the moving sun

nobody thought that we would have to run
so very far nor that we would be cowed
we give in fury what we won't in fun

nothing we say would serve this time to stun
unwary minds nor to displace the cloud
nothing we do can halt the moving sun

you know from this the wheel was fully spun
for one brief moment all of us were proud
we give in fury what we won't in fun
nothing we do can halt the moving sun

24 July 2008

fundamental education

we lean on memory which best should speak
truths are left open for the world to view
and not a thing we learn is found brand new
our simplest urges have been branded cheek
this is the way when you offer critique
to any of that old and famished crew
whose lives are based on noise and ballyhoo
but honesty's a sharp tool for the weak
now all our signals have to be sent clear
with not a scent or symbol of the crypt
that might annoy or otherwise distract
our solemn purpose is to keep out fear
obey all orders and stick to the script
while leaving to you knowledge of the fact

23 July 2008


no simple rule to govern the rude thought
what is most wanted will not come with ease
the task of others we find is to tease

the gallant bird will not for us stay caught
but looks up ever yearning for the trees
no simple rule to govern the rude thought

there was no harder lesson to be taught
although we had to learn it on our knees
there was no enemy left to appease
no simple rule to govern the rude thought

22 July 2008

weather report

to sum up clearly this is what is known
the season just begun will not be short
and these are monsters no one could exhort

the hope of peace means nothing to a stone
nor to a power that no man could deport
to sum up clearly this is what is known

it will not matter if you gnaw the bone
this is no matter for police or court
your spokesmen have no message to distort
to sum up clearly this is what is known

21 July 2008

on the fence

there is a limit to what can be said
within the boundaries of normal speech
this is the sort of thing you have to teach

the wisest of us fear the walking dead
and put true learning well beyond their reach
there is a limit to what can be said

within this kingdom we live under dread
waiting to hear the midnight creature screech
yet nothing remains here you could impeach
there is a limit to what can be said

20 July 2008

changing identities

a dismal rainfall on the open sea
only the sharks that follow us might know
the meaning of the way those waters flow

so many pasts from which we have to flee
and many futures to which we must go
a dismal rainfall on the open sea

how much of this is what we would agree
we cannot tell all that we do is slow
the mood of nature and we make our throw
a dismal rainfall on the open sea

ambulant vision

you turn the corner and see the huge dale
a world entire has opened to your view
what came before now seems both old and pale

nothing that was contained the complete tale
the morning sun has burned off all the dew
you turn the corner and see the huge dale

this universe you think is something frail
a vision crooked difficult askew
what came before now seems both old and pale

on distant water you can note a sail
and wish yourself right out there with the crew
you turn the corner and see the huge dale

you aren't expecting that your feet will fail
to take you to the place where you are due
what came before now seems both old and pale

the hammer now must strike the golden nail
and mark the spot where you have left a clue
you turn the corner and see the huge dale
what came before now seems both old and pale

eruption of memory

odour of allspice strips away an age
and distance vanishes within the sight
the hummingbird alone will make its flight

words change we find when set upon a page
and in the forest we may lose the light
odour of allspice strips away an age

this is a measure a firm kind of gauge
telling us that the arc leads straight to night
regardless of how much we claim a right
odour of allspice strips away an age

Karl Rove, Cartoonist

John Maxwell

It was an upstate New York banker named David Hannum and not the showman, P.T Barnum, who coined the expresion “There’s a sucker born every minute”. That seems peculiarly appropriate at this time, when banking has shed its sanctimonious pretensions and is now, unofficially but integrally, a part of show business.

Hannum’s aphorism occurred to me after seeing the cover of the latest New Yorker magazine. As most literate and illiterate people know by now, the New Yorker cover depicts Barack and Michelle Obama as two Muslim/Black Power terrorists,– in the White House Oval office congratulating themselves for comprehensively deceiving the American electorate and the Secret Service, and successfully achieving the multicultural; takeover of the United States presidency.

The Editor of the new Yorker, David Remnick contends that the cover is ‘obviously satire’ –a way of making fun of all the rumors. If it were not, he implies, it would be nothing but anti-Obama propaganda. And of course the New Yorker is way above that!

The alleged cartoonist, one Barry Blitt said: I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is”. His boss, Remnick says the cartoon “uses the language of political satire and cartooning, not of reporting and essays, and sometimes not everyone likes that or gets what's intended. I would prefer not to over-explain things, but I'd rather be clear than there be lingering misconceptions about what Barry Blitt was exploring.”

How very quaint.

Not as quaint as those who like Andrew Malcolm in the Los Angeles Times and Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune, appear to have brains of pre-stressed concrete. Malcolm quotes Page approvingly “The Chicago Tribune respected columnist Clarence Page, an African American, said he found the cover "quite within the normal bounds of journalism."

Malcolm’s only problem seems to be that “… there's no caption on the cover to ensure that everyone gets the ha-ha-we've-collected-almost-every-cliched-rumor-about-Obama-in-one-place-in-order-to--make-fun-of-them punchline. “

Ha! and again, Ha!

And there are dozens of others who think the satire is obvious to those sophisticated enough to grasp it. as sophisticated as Kelly McBride who is Ethics Group Leader at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

In Poynteronline. She says “…Remnick's justification is a solid one, given the current political environment. Journalists are finding that no matter how much reporting they do, how many facts they uncover, false rumors won't die. That's what PolitiFact encountered when a researcher took on the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate.” Even with that fact embedded in her word processor, McBride says “The New Yorker's latest cover is deeply offensive or really funny or simply accurate, depending on your point of view. That's how satire works.” and she concludes “Satire is risky business. I'm glad there are plenty of professionals around doing it well and keeping it alive” That piece is titled “Satire’s new home in Journalism”.

I kid you not.

It was the sophisticates of course, who saw and appreciated the glorious magnificence of the Emperor’s new clothes – which existed only in their gullible, ‘with-it’ minds – the sort of minds that fuel every Ponzi scheme. There’s one born every minute as Mr Hannum said more than a century ago.

On the day of the New Yorker publication I drafted a letter on behalf of senior Caribbean journalists who, I thought might want to express their feelings on the matter. Only three replied, and one objected to my calling the cartoon a criminal libel. I removed the sentence, but even then only two were willing to go with the statement

Letter to the Editor of the New Yorker

“As journalists and human beings we all understand that public life is not a kindergarten and that politicians and others in the public eye are always at risk of hard rough challenges. We also believe that journalism has the right and the duty to expose falsity and corruption wherever they are found.

That being said, we believe there are certain bounds within which responsible journalism must find itself constrained: we have no right to rob people of their dignity, their privacy or their reputations. And, as your Justice Holmes once said, Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

Your editor, David Remnick is quoted by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post as defending the Obama cover as a ‘satire’ – as a way of making fun of all the rumors. We confess that we and everyone we have spoken to, must have missed the point of the satire. We see no ‘fun’ in it. What we see appears to be a clumsy, maladroit drawing which is obviously directed at the Obamas personally and not at ‘rumors’.

Satire – if it is satire – requires wit and point, it requires art, in turning the obvious on its head to illustrate the truth hidden beneath. Satire does not need to be amusing, but it should be able to provoke an insight, a glimpse of a larger truth and the recognition, wry or rueful, perhaps, that we have been led, perhaps even tricked, into a new point of view, a perspective hitherto unnoticed.

Your plain, bald posterisation of the major untruths circulated against Barack and Michelle Obama does not provide any of this. In the present state of race relations in the United States and round the world, this is incendiary stuff, the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

It seems calculated to provoke hatred and contempt for Barack and Michele Obama and other people of colour, and like the Danish cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, likely to incite violence.

Many of us have been readers of the New Yorker over the years and none of us can remember anything so patently inhumane or propagandistic ever appearing before anywhere in the magazine.

We think you owe the Obamas and the world, an apology”

We are three Caribbean journalists with over a hundred years of experience among us.

sgd John Maxwell

Canute James

Rickey Singh

I am not sure why only Canute James and Rickey Singh were willing to sign this letter, but I salute them

They are obviously aware of Aesop’s fable about the frog and the little boys who were throwing stones at it. “What is fun to you is death to me,” the frog said.

Someone who truly understands this principle is the intelectual authority of the Swift Boat campaign of the last US presidential election and the man whose signature on the New Yorker cartoon would have made its satirical intention plain and put the issue triumphantly to rest.

The missing signature, is of course that of Karl Rove.

Footnote 1

Successful political leaders need to have an exquisite sense of timing. The challenger to Portia Simpson Miller seems to have a tin ear for the music of politics. To challenge for the PNOP leadership at the height of the hurricane season, with a general election looming and the country in economic crisis seems to me more than stupid.

Footnote 2

The people who stole thousands of tons of sand from one of the loveliest beaches in Trelawny make, for them, a completely unexpected point: beaches are public property and should not be privatised. If al had access to the beach there would be no point in stealing sand. These thieves should be prosecuted rigorously and should ideally, serve a little time, ‘wetting dem foot’ as we say.

copyright ©2008 John Maxwell


19 July 2008

just a mood

we reach the limit of the old so soon
a single word and then the bird must fly
the sun cannot be held for long at noon

each child seems happy with a toy balloon
but when the string is let go then they cry
we reach the limit of the old so soon

you might have called each smile a pleasant boon
and not have noticed time as it passed by
the sun cannot be held for long at noon

for a short while the instruments might croon
their sound a little pleasure should supply
we reach the limit of the old so soon

the butterfly breaks out of its cocoon
appears in beauty and then has to die
the sun cannot be held too long at noon

i for my part am just one more buffoon
here to amuse not pleasing to the eye
we reach the limit of the old so soon
the sun cannot be held for long at noon

a grain of sand

the universe is measured in one hand
that's all we know and all within each mind
a sight of this is given to the blind
there is no boundary to this command
we aren't allowed to think nor to demand
instead we're set to work and bid to find
the simple answers of the older kind
and set them out in manner plain and bland
this is the working of the true machine
which we have built in the familiar way
so we are told neither to faint nor fear
nor to be worried for what might have been
as this is passage of another day
and we are sailing through a better year

18 July 2008

the liberator

the world is not supposed to be a cage
your task is always open clear and plain
and still it has to be renewed again

it is no use to shout or weep or rage
this is no simple easily cleansed stain
the world is not supposed to be a cage

our task to write upon the ivory page
in words that both record and heal the pain
the message of this kind and soothing rain
the world is not supposed to be a cage


no giants guard against brigades of lies
so many horrors weigh upon each life
and there is nothing here to replace strife
upon each back is weight of thousand eyes
those are strange stars under the darker skies
and each will shine as brightly as a knife
while rumours of new horror still run rife
and no one wants to listen to our cries
this is an age of change and every breath
announces that we have not yet been felled
or placed within the boxes of the night
but there are worse conclusions still than death
we stood and watched while better men rebelled
knowing that they took our place in the fight

17 July 2008

light suddenly

a blush of brightness on the broken bark
wakes in the forest all our hope of day
so much is lost when choices all seem grey

this is a lesson that you have to mark
not all our good is earned for simple pay
a blush of brightness on the broken bark

what once was jungle now seems a safe park
these are the signs that indicate safe way
the proper actions of a scripted play
a blush of brightness on the broken bark

16 July 2008

thought of the home

we each desire to guard our own half-acre

no night must fall while we can hold command

you understand the only honest taker

the gift we know belongs once to the taker

who can obtain it cleanly from the hand

we each desire to guard our own half-acre

so much depends at last on the forsaker

who stands there silent faceless and quite bland

you understand the only honest taker

the salt is gritty when its in the shaker

and does not seem to be ready to hand

we each desire to guard our own half-acre

this is the moment for the final breaker

it is as if it had been ready planned

you understand the only honest taker

bread comes to us by virtue of the baker

we do not think of it as something grand

we each desire to guard our own half-acre

you understand the only honest taker