Joanstown: A Different Look at Guyana

(Editor’s note: Michael Gilkes died in April 2020. His obituary in the Stabroek News includes a short discussion of this volume of poetry.)

Poet Michael Gilkes has written a series of love poems to his wife, Joan Eleanor, as well as to his native land, Guyana, in his book Joanstown and Other Poems (Leeds, U.K.: Peepal Tree, 2002). The result is a moving portrait of the country and people he cherishes.

In some twenty poems, Gilkes evokes Guyana’s natural history, its pre-colonial past, its life under colonial rule, and the present. Vivid portraits of people and places remind us that Guyana is much more than the Jonestown tragedy that occurred there in 1978. Indeed, the very title Joanstown indicates that Gilkes plans to present the antithesis of the other “Jonestown” in a celebration of all that makes the nation beautiful, memorable, and beloved.

Michael Gilkes (b. 1933) is a dramatist, literary critic, poet, and educator. He has taught at University of the West Indies (Barbados), at Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in Santa Lucia, and at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchberg, Virginia. He has written several books analyzing the work of Guyana-born novelist Wilson Harris, and his own poems and plays have won awards in Guyana.

Some poems recall life under colonial rule. “Son of Guyana” repeats the refrain “Doan’ tell me ‘bout Guyana,” in a poem that depicts the fight for independence.

Doan’ tell me ‘bout Guyana
Doan’ talk ‘bout ole B. G.
Dey call it “Bookers Guyana”
since was Bookers own all ah we.

The title poem “Joanstown” describes a place called “The Town” – undoubtedly Georgetown, the capital city – saying it was

. . . A Dutch linen tablecloth hand-crafted with care
for setting out a city’s treasured silverware.

These lines allude to the Dutch control of Guyana, but then shift to British control with a reference to the Victoria law courts, “a chessboard, where, the white queen reigns,” that is, a statue of Queen Victoria.

In many instances Gilkes’ poems seem a bit nostalgic, looking back to an idealized past of young love and family happiness. The opening poem, “Prologue,” sandwiches a depiction of his courtship of Joan between glimpses of his “dolphin-daughter” swimming. The first lines of “Joanstown” also suggest Gilkes’ pursuit of Joan:

Girl and town are interwoven by those magic years:
try to conjure one the other one appears.

Georgetown is painted similarly, that is, in romantic yet realistic tones. “Water Street,” “The Museum,” “Kingston Methodist,” and others summon images of streets, rivers, merchants, and other concrete examples of the bustling life of the city.

Although the book as a whole clearly divorces Guyana and its Joanstown from the American Jonestown, Gilkes does include a single poem devoted to “Jonestown.” In its entirety it reads:

It stained the rivers red. Stir any creek, the red stain shows.
The vowels are howler monkeys roaring, shocked again
by carnage in Paradise, their mouths widening to oval O’s.
Believers felled like lumber for some dumb, millennial plan:
again, spectacular failure of Upright Man.
The site’s been cleared. Deceivers and deceived are gone.
Of all that sin-converted host only their sins remain
washed in the unconverted forest’s cleansing rain.

Joanstown and Other Poems is a book that should make the Guyanese people proud of their country. It reminds them – and us – of the nation’s foibles, beauty, and essence. Guyana is not Jonestown; nor is Jonestown Guyana. Michael Gilkes brings home this truth with grace and power.

(Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She is currently Reviews Editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Co-Director of The Jonestown Institute.  Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are The FBI and Religion: The Case of Peoples Temple; Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Information, and the National Security State; Representations of Jonestown in the Arts; and An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown. Her complete collection of articles on this site appears here.)