Foundations (1966)

John La Rose had been writing poetry since long before arriving in Britain in 1961 and continued to write throughout his life. This was his first volume of poetry.
 
New Beacon Books began with the conviction there was a need to find independent means for literary creation. The first poem of Foundations, “Word Creatures” talks of the process of striving, of “shouting for diction” in a series of enigmatic images. These “word creatures” are violent gestures that “sear my insides”, then a more gradual “slow transfusion” that both nurtures and needs to be nurtured. The opening stanza describes the poet’s urge to speak. It begins:
These words
Come not trippingly,
But fall unspeakable,
From islets of truth
Within me.
(“Word Creatures”, Foundations)
 
Linton Kwesi Johnson describes the poem as a manifesto, “a statement of intent” for what follows [LKJ, unpublished “Notes on the poetry of John La Rose”, March 2013]. Its final image is of these “word creatures” transformed; they are no longer “truncated” or “faltering”, but “savage/like the boa”. The determination evident in John’s early poetry was discussed again at the first meeting of the New Beacon Book Club in March 2013. For a recording of Linton Kwesi Johnson reading “Word Creatures”, click here.
Foundations (1966) by Anthony (John) La Rose. 52pp.
 
 

Content

 
Foundations is a meditative and sometimes intriguing and elusive collection. It explores personal and public voices in both intimate settings and through more expansive historically specific references. Some poems speak of the Caribbean experience of movement through the violent displacement of slavery (“The Uprooted”). Others address that condition by affirming a shared heritage that bridges linguistic and ethnic difference. One of the best-known poems is “An American”:
            I am American
            I am Whitman
            Marti, Cudjoe
            A whole continent
                        Cómo No?
 
            I am Bolivar
                        Zapata,
            Pure Amerindian,
            Mestizo, mulatto, negro;
            I shed blood with Toussaint.
 
            Shot arrows in Mexico
            Against conquistadores
            Who sailed in ships
            Laden with oro
            For Isabel;
 
            Built temples
            Worshipped moon Gods
            Rioted in slave ships
            Played guitarra
            Took my siesta, caramba! […] (“An American”)
 
Here a regional identity extends beyond the Caribbean to the whole continent, woven together through historical experience, music, and poetic solidarity. Elsewhere a series of love poems evoke delight in the human form and and tactile experience of the world (“For Her”, “So Speaks”, “Hymn of the Flesh”). Three moving poems address the poet’s sons and the experience of migration (“The Will”, “Not from here”, “Little Boy”).  The last of these reassures its addressee: “Come little boy/ We’ve come a cropper/ That’s where we belong.”
 
Throughout the poems experiment with imagery, technique and the use of non-poetic diction. Particular attention is paid to typographical presentation, at times inhibiting attempts to read the work smoothly (“Their Bullring”). The collection ends with a long three-part poem, “Song to an Imperishable Sunlight”, which explores themes of oppression and rebellion.

It answers its own question “where’s the pride/ of the uprooted?” (43) with a lyrical account of the radical history of the Caribbean, from the Morant Bay uprising to the Water Riots of 1903, from the intellectual work of John Jacob Thomas to the protests of the 1930s. The poem’s discussion of the relative importance placed on historical events resonates as we approach 2014’s centenary of WW1: the poet is concerned with how and why we remember the extremes of certain human conflicts:

            We remember
                        who fell forward
                                    in the dust,
                        writing the rueful story
                                    of our redemption.
 
            And breasted the humanists’ bullets
                        from ’35 to ‘38
            from Guiana to Jamaica
                        to cleanse the air.
 
            Yet our remembrance is more stately
                        for those that died in ‘14
                        in a cause much less dear.
 
            Such is the measure
of the manner of our remembrance.
(“Song to an Imperishable Sunlight” 46-47)
 
 

Production

 
Prior to publishing this volume, La Rose had published his poetry widely in newspapers and journals in the Caribbean and Europe, including Bim, New World Quarterly, and Présence Africaine. He also sent the manuscript of a complete collection to several publishers before deciding to publish it himself. This was a way of setting out the foundations for the New Beacon publishing project. Foundations was published as a slim paperback on 9 September 1966. Much care was taken with its design, partly inspired by the artisanal work of small poetry publishers La Rose admired in Britain at that time (see "Building the catalogue of a publishing maisonette"). 
 
The book’s cover was by the Trinidadian artist, Art Derry. La Rose wrote to Derry in May to ask for his help with design. Derry later recalled that he was given complete creative freedom with his design, producing eight possible covers before settling for the final design of white circles on a black background with the title in the centre of the page. He wrote to La Rose: “The enclosed is simple (not the easiest thing to arrive at), effective and ‘With it’! I hope you like it.” (AD to JLR, 23.6.66, LRA/01/0259). La Rose was “thoroughly delighted” by the design both of the book cover and the accompanying New Beacon logo: “they both met with my aspiration for something striking and aesthetically rewarding” (JLR to AD, 27.6.66, LRA/01/0259).
Letter from John La Rose to Art Derry. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0259
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
New Beacon’s printer, John Sankey at Villiers Press, offered further help with the project: “I would be very happy to assist you in any way with publicity, sales technique or any other matter where my experience might be helpful. No charge is made for this assistance” (JS to JLR, Foundations file 2, 18.4.66, NBB/1/1). The proofs show little sign of extensive editing, with careful attention to spacing and punctuation to maintain the disjointed effect of some of the line-breaks. The print run was 1300 copies, most of which were sold in the first four years after publication in the UK and in the Caribbean (882 by July 1971).
 
 

Reception
 

The poems were well received, though not widely reviewed in the press. They had already provoked positive discussion in the CAM group (Walmsley: 72). Elsewhere, Wilson Harris mentions a “very good” review in the Times Literary Supplement by Louis James (WH to JLR 4.7.68, 368; NBB/1/3) while Edward Kamau Brathwaite arranged for a review to appear in the Barbadian magazine, Bim.
 
Several of the poems continue to be anthologised, though John La Rose’s poetry has not (yet) become a major part of the Caribbean or Black British literary canon, or the subject of detailed critical attention. Andrew Salkey’s Breaklight collection (1971: 74-78), for example, included four of the poems. Salkey prefaced his collection by declaring, with reference to Foundations and poetry of the late 1960s:
There has been a turning away from the trite lyricism, and aimless, decorative and derivative borrowings from the ‘School Anthology’ models, and from the banality of the forced nationalistic poetry of the late Thirties and middle Forties in the Caribbean. (xvii)
 
La Rose later published a second volume of poetry, Eyelets of Truth Within Me (1992, New Beacon). His archives contain further unpublished poetry and prose currently being considered for future publication.
 
 

Further reading
 

La Rose, Anthony. Eyelets of Truth Within Me. London: New Beacon Books, 1992.