But there are other frames that transform the experience of loss into the consolations of art. In exploring the ancient hinterland of metamorphosis behind metaphor, Gilkes puts change at the heart of life. There is the transformation by love’s fire of the lumpen boy, the class clown, ‘a quasi-Quasimodo humped over a wooden desk’, into the transfigured bridegroom whose ‘body... floated towards the organ loft’, or of the town’s zinc roofs which ‘curled like leaves’ over the burning city, or of Joanstown’s innocence inverted in the horror of Jonestown: ‘carnage in paradise’.
Another frame uses the base elements. In Guyana, fire and flood represent a constant cycle of destruction and renewal. This offers a rich source of visual metaphor but also brings to the poems a sense of time beyond the linearity of loss. The mud, rivers and rainforest of Guyana give birth, for instance, to the iridescent imagination of Wilson Harris, the ‘steersman’ whose example Gilkes so gracefully acknowledges.
There are poems of lyric grace, intellectual playfulness and ironic wit; poems where Gilkes brings a painter’s eye to his descriptions of both urban Guyana and its rainforests. Carefully sculpted sonnets, dramatic monologues, a pithy Creole letter and a calypso narrative show the range of Gilkes’ voice, revealing him to be not only one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished critics and dramatists, but a poet of major accomplishment.
Joanstown won the 2002 Guyana Prize as the best collection of poetry.
Michael Gilkes was born in Guyana in 1933 and left in 1961, but has never strayed far from Guyana and the Caribbean. He is one of the region's foremost literary critics and playwrights, as well as an actor, director, film-maker and university lecturer.