• Vahni Capildeo

Caribbean experimental writing enjoys a formidable and shadowy inheritance from a writer whose extremes have not yet been met, the American-educated Jamaican poet of many roles, Anthony McNeill (1941-1996). As observed in the analytical as well as informative author page featured on the Peepal Tree Press website, McNeill’s dream was ‘to be a 'jz.' (jazz) pianist’, and as his published work evolved, Coltrane-like exploratory yet resolved shapes emerged, with typos (‘mutants’) incorporated into the work.[1] The desire for a good collected, or selected, edition of McNeill is continually frustrated. New, unpublished material by McNeill keeps emerging; he would write addictively, with illumination, producing multiple texts and books, typing with a ferocity that might punch through the page, gathering up mistakes and creatively incorporating them into the unreeling œuvre. Such poetry as is available has indelibly marked the imagination of Caribbean writers.

The following notes are written up from discussions in two workshops held in 2017, in Canberra and London. The aim was exploration in writing of the hitherto privately nightmarish and/or unwritable. The focus, though not strictly speaking the model, was McNeill’s disquieting poem, ‘Who’s Sammy’. We looked at how perturbation results from the shaping of linguistic material, as well as semantic content.

‘Who’s Sammy’ is given the date 1966 in Cecil Gray and Kenneth Ramchand’s West Indian Poetry: an anthology for schools (Longman: Longman Caribbean, 1972). McNeill himself describes it as having arrived after his 1964-5 writing period but before 1969, strangely, as a sort of jingle, the obsession of the character Angelo (unnamed in the poem) with the dead Sammy (the only character named in the poem as excerpted, and not clearly dead).[2] While it is true that the rhythm of the poem can lull the reader into a horrified surface participation in the narrator’s perceptions, close attention to its layout on the page reveals the greater complexity with which it hooks into and alters the mind.


Who’s Sammy?

The white face of Sammy, that mad
            clown. I can’t sleep,
He’s dancing amid the sheets. Can
      see him again, elusive, pale
pushing dope and some fairy tale.

  Who’s Sammy? Sammy’s a mad.
 Who’s Sammy? Sammy’s a clock.
In the dark, Sammy goes tick tock.
            Sammy’s a sock

           Wham! in the brain.
       But most of all, Sammy’s a mad,
            Sammy’s a strange.
    I say: flush Sammy down the drain,
      He’s a dancing blot on my brain.

         Midnight. Sammy’s still loud.
                  Sammy’s a clod.
When he fell, his white face splintered and bled.
                   Several weeks dead,
          He’s a dancing duppy above my bed.

            Who’s Sammy? Sammy’s a demon.
               Sammy’s a child’s fairy garden.
                             A sinister leer.<
                   The perfect March Hare.

           But suppose Sammy’s some more,
     Suppose he’s a wound apart from a stain,
         ‘A subtle buffoon and Jesus-man,
              who, pinned to a lewd grin,
                      undertakes for us all
                    the clown’s crucifixion’?


McNeill’s methodology of self-hypnotic excess and the deliberate incorporation and recuperation of errors, though not fully deployed here, nonetheless informs the play of division in this poem about a divided mind. The stanzas are almost but not quite equal in length, so the mind, seeing a stanzaic layout, sets up a count and then is jarred out of count: five, four, five, five, four, six. The indentation mocks up centre alignment, but is subtly irregular.

The title poses the question ‘Who’s Sammy’, and workshop participants were provoked into wondering along simultaneous, irreconcilable lines. Is this poem making fun of Sammy? Is it lulling the reader into taking sides? Does the nursery-rhyme quality suggest that Sammy is a projection of childhood, or the poem is narrated by a child? Is Sammy revelling in his madness? Is the last stanza tragic, about someone who died for us?  Is ‘Who’s Sammy’ like the question a health aide asks of someone who is persistently addressing an hallucination? Are there two or more people in the poem? Where is Sammy – he seems to keep moving around within the text, a kind of haunting? Is the uncontrolled figure of Sammy also a figure for uncontrollable thought dancing around? Where is the writer – is there a third, questioning space accompanying every statement?

One of the workshop exercises involved thinking of a disturbing character about whom the participants had never felt able to write. This character had to be taken from real life, with ‘real life’ understood to include the life of the imagination, stories and dreams. The next step was to use as much of the space of the page, in as many directions and layers, as desired, to make a map of what might go into a creative rendering of the results of that meditation on memory fused with close reading of McNeill’s text.

Detailed reading gently reveals McNeill’s manipulation of the reader’s sense-making propensity. The close of the first stanza offers false reassurance with its ‘pale’ / ‘tale’ end-rhyme. Before this clincher which is no closure, assonance has danced in despite of the line breaks, and been too present: ‘mad’ (l. 1) echoes with ‘Can’ (l. 3), while line-final ‘sleep’ (l. 2), answers to ‘sheets’ in the penultimate position of the next line (l. 3), running quickly to ‘see’ at the start of the fourth line. Further, ‘can’t sleep’, resting like a conclusion at the end of the second line, is grammatically and aurally echoed and undone by ‘Can / see’, across the line break between lines three and four. The changing placement of the like-sounding words within and across the line makes the eye jump with startlement while the ear hears with uneasy recognition: blast your expectations, this technique seems to say.

In the second stanza, Sammy’s name occurs six times in four lines. The full rhyme of ‘clock’, ‘tick tock’ and ‘sock’ is both childlike, keen to make sense (“Who is X?” “X is a…”), and an erasure of sense, with the stanza’s potential for content overtaken by extravagant repetition.  The first answer to ‘Who’s Sammy’ seems to come too quickly to a conclusion: ‘Sammy’s a mad.’ ‘Mad’ might be expected to be an adjective; but there is no enjambment, the madness qualifies no further identity, the phrase does not carry over to the next line. Instead, ‘mad’ is a noun, a thing to be; the answer is end-stopped.

Three out of the four lines in this unit end with a full stop, like holes falling into holes, if one thinks of the pupils of the reader’s eye coming up blank when riding on to the next line, or if one thinks of McNeill’s paper-injuring typewriter ferocity elsewhere in his œuvre. Look too long at these lines, and consciousness begins to dance pinned to the over-applied full stops. The punctuation marks echo the nails of the ‘crucifixion’ of the poem’s last word, the ‘blot’ of the third stanza and the ‘clod’ of the fourth, with ‘blot’ being line-medial and ‘clod’ line-final, carrying on the frustrating eye/ear/word-placement play charted above. Further in the broken dance of word placement, line, sense, image, and sound,  the ‘blot’ which is Sammy is in a prepositional relation to something else – contained in, or impressed on, ‘my brain’ – whereas the ‘clod’ which is Sammy again brings a short line (three words) up even shorter. Similar to the multiple suggestiveness of these dotted voids, the final vertical of crucifixion is reinforced in the exclamation mark in the third stanza and ‘Midnight’ of the fourth. 

Something strange even for this poem happens between stanzas two and three. Stanza two ends with what looks like one of the three-word summations of Sammy: ‘Sammy’s a sock’. A sock: is Sammy a garment emptied of its walking flesh, good material for a puppet? There is that; it is not not there, it is a hovering postcolonial counter to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s immortal, ordinary Jack. However, the ‘sock’ is not followed by a blot/clod/full stop/void. This is the only time in the poem that the final line of a stanza has no punctuation mark. The eye travels from the line break into the white space between stanzas, and is brought up against capitalization and exclamation: ‘Wham!’ Sammy is that sort of sock, then? An act of violence? Almost, yes, and no – all three; the sock, the wham, are ‘in the brain’. Sammy is the rhyme word which is not named: Sammy is shock.

After the second stanza’s ABBB rhyme scheme, the third stanza’s CADCC is a familiar form of disruption. The reader is learning the dance. But what of ‘I say:’ in the fourth line? Why is the poetic persona giving instructions, or rather, talking to themself? What is the status of the imperative after ‘I say’: ‘flush Sammy down the drain’? Is this the authenticity of insincerity, where the performance of rejection shows just how ingrained is the element that allegedly ought to be expelled? The B rhyme reappears in the second line of the final stanza, ‘Suppose he’s a wound apart from a stain’. What would such a thing be? A stain might occur on fabric or tissue; a wound goes altogether deeper, and afflicts some tranche of a living or once-alive being. What is the neither-nor which requires both of these to be named? In a Plath-like pincer movement of the vowel, ‘stain’ is answered by ‘grin’, diagnosis and quandary giving way to chime and grimace. The tying of the ends and other parts of the line together by sound, across stanzas, is one of the techniques for creating a net to capture the associative, as-if-meaningful jingle of non-sense.

Stanza four sees the beginning and end of lines used in a din that offers most of all the sense of obsession. Each line break corresponds to the end of a clause or sentence: so far, so neat. The final words, ‘loud / clod / bled / dead / bed’, are small and dense and matching: so far, still so neat, if rather much. The first words are where the zigzag happens, as the eye trails from the nicely done ending of one line to the start of the next. ‘Midnight’ begins the first line: we are in the dark, but it is a specific dark. ‘When he fell’, begins the third line: an event is recounted, but we do not know when; though we do know what happened – ‘his white face splintered and bled’. Why is his face ‘white’? Is it the ‘clown’ look? Is he already spectral before death? Is Sammy, the essence of shock, also showing shock? Is he from the privileged racial minority in Jamaica? Is the whole poem a night tale, dreamed like a photographic negative of daily life? The high contrast: dark, pale, bloody: has been set up from the initial stanza, with no other colours let in but those of circus make-up, unsocial hours, violence, and flags. The evoked vision of pain and the actual visual of the line work together. This ultra-long line of splintering and bleeding also literally sticks out on the page, like a stake driven through the shape of the stanza. ‘Several weeks dead’ is faux-precise, unnumbered or innumerable rounds of days giving way to the present tense of Sammy’s presence: ‘He’s a dancing duppy above my bed.’

The penultimate stanza is meagre-looking; four short lines, as if the poem has tired itself and begins to recap its preoccupations – the main question returns, but only once; the ends of lines veer towards rhyme; the ‘fairy tale’ of the first stanza becomes a ‘fairy garden’. Yet if Sammy can be a garden, as well as a ‘leer’, and also a ‘March Hare’, what is he if not a diffuse, earthed, sprouting haunting, his own Wonderland, with the completeness unto itself of true obsession? The final stanza shows sound chasing itself down the line to make a reasonably-formed proposition partake of the echo chamber of obsession: ‘But suppose Sammy’s some more,’. Whatever ‘some more’ he might be identified as therefore becomes irretrievably sound-stained with Sammy’s name, his essence, his ghostly dance, before the overt references to ‘wound’ and stain’. The typewriter-happy irregularity of capitalization recurs, with the comma at the end of line 1 met by ‘Suppose’ in line two. This again produces a visual derangement via marred anaphora, with ‘suppose’ (lower-case ‘s’) appearing just above, in line one, as the second word. The beginnings of the two lines match up in the too-muchness of correspondence, just as Sammy’s phantasmal madness and the maddened speaker’s voice are twinned. In conclusion, the poem gives up on meaning by yielding up a seemingly definitive meaning enclosed in quotation marks and couched in colonial-classroom language, invoking ‘us all’ where there has been no community, and creating classifications for unpindownable hurt. Running, broken, in and across McNeill’s lines, in the genius of in/sanity, everything over-connects.


[2] Jamaica Journal Vol. 4 No. 4,  (Institute of Jamaica, 1970). p. 41.