On this page are a number of materials you will find by scrolling down.
Maps of the Caribbean
Barbados. Works by and about poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite: excerpt from “History of the Voice” – poems “Calypso,” “Caliban,” “Guanahani, 11,” “I Was Wash-Way in Blood,” “Negus,” “Kumina”; readings, interviews, articles about.
Trinidad and Tobago. Works by and about poet M. NourbeSe Philip: “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” poem/essay “Wor(l)ds interrupted: The unhistory of the Kari Basin,” excerpts from Zong!. interviews with discussion of her book-length poem Zong! and other matters.
St. Lucia. Work by Derek Walcott: poem “Crusoe’s Island.”
Jamaica. Works by and about poet Claude McKay: poems “De Hailstorm,” “Fetchin’ Water,” “King Banana,” “Bennie’s Departure,” “The Tropics of New York,” “Harlem Shadows,” “Outcast,” “Heritage,” articles about McKay’s work. Works by and about poet Louise Bennett: videos of interviews and performances “Miss Lou” – Hon. Louise Bennet Coverley – on Jamaica Language,” “Miss Louise Bennett on children learning language,” “Brown Girl in the Ring:” A Song by Louise Bennett, A London Performance with Louise Bennett-Coverley, poems “Bans a Killin,” “No Likkle Twang,” “colonization in reverse,” “Dutty Tough,” interviews and articles. Works by and about poet Lorna Goodison: Reading and interview with Kamau Brathwaite.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: Excerpts from and links to discussions and help with Jamaican Patois, Direct and Indirect Responses to Kamau Brathwaite’s idea of “Nation Language” and other related matters including “Poetics of the Americas” by Charles Bernstein and “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” by Cathy Park Hong.
A destroyed house in Grand Bay Dominica, on Tuesday, May 10 2018. Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg
The Story of Barbados: Economic & Social Transformation
Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Before really close reading the poems of this Caribbean section, it is necessary to read the ground-breaking work that changed how others saw Caribbean literature. Here’s a brief excerpt from The History of the Voice by E. Kamau Brathwaite. At the bottom of the page (it’s a long scroll) are both resources to help you encounter Jamaican Patois with more background and less fear, as well as Charles Bernstein’s response to the concept Brathwaite is presenting here.
“Nation Language” EDWARD KAMAU BRATHWAITE
THE CARIBBEAN IS a set of islands stretching out … on an arc of some two thousand miles from Florida through the Atlantic to the South American coast, and they were originally inhabited by Amerindian people: Taino, Siboney, Carib, Arawak. In 1492 Columbus ‘discovered’ (as it is said) the Caribbean, and with that discovery came the intrusion of European culture and peoples and a fragmentation of the original Amerindian culture. We had Europe ‘nationalizing’ itself into Spanish, French, English and Dutch so that people had to start speaking (and thinking) four metropolitan languages rather than possibly a single native language. Then with the destruction of the Amerindians, which took place within 30 years of Columbus’ discovery (one million dead a year) it was necessary for the Europeans to import new labour bodies into the area. And the most convenient form of labour was the labour on the edge of the slave trade winds, the labour on the edge of the hurricane, the labour on the edge of Africa.’ And so Ashanti, Congo, Yoruba, all that mighty coast of western Africa was imported into the Caribbean. And we had the arrival in our area of a new language structure. It consisted of many languages but basically they had a common semantic and stylistic form. What these languages had to do, however, was to submerge themselves, because officially the conquering peoples – the Spaniards, the English, the French, and the Dutch – insisted that the language of public discourse and conversation, of obedience, command, and conception should be English, French, Spanish or Dutch. They did not wish to hear people speaking Ashanti or any of the Congolese languages. So there was a submergence of this imported language. Its status became one of inferiority. Similarly, its speakers were slaves. They were conceived of as inferiors – non-human, in fact. But this very submergence served an interesting interculturative purpose, because although people continued to speak English as it was spoken in Elizabethan times and on through the Romantic and Victorian ages, that English was, nonetheless, still being influenced by the underground language, the submerged language that the slaves had brought. And that underground language was itself constantly transforming itself into new forms. It was moving from a purely African form to a form which was African but which was adapted to the new environment and adapted to the cultural imperative of the European languages. And it was influencing the way in which the English, French, Dutch, and Spaniards spoke their own language. So there was a very complex process taking place, which is now beginning to surface in our literature. Now, as in South Africa (and any area of cultural imperialism for that matter), the educational system of the Caribbean did not recognize the presence of these various languages. What our educational system did was to recognize and maintain the language of the conquistador, the language of the planter, the language of the official, the Language of the Anglican preacher. It insisted that not only would English be spoken in the anglophone Caribbean, but that the educational system would carry the contours of an English heritage. Hence … Shakespeare, George Eliot, Jane Austen – British literature and literary forms, the models which had very little to do, really, with the environment and the reality of non-Europe – were dominant in the Caribbean educational system. It was a very surprising situation. People were forced to learn things which had no relevance to themselves. And in terms of what we write, our perceptual models, we are more conscious (in terms of sensibility) of the falling of snow, for instance – the models are all there for the falling of the snow – than of the force of the hurricanes which take place every year. In other words, we haven’t got the syllables, the syllabic intelligence, to describe the hurricane, which is our own experience, whereas we can describe the imported alien experience of the snowfall. It is that kind of situation that we are in.
This is why there were (are?) Caribbean children who, instead of writing in their ‘creole’ essays ‘the snow was falling on the playing fields of Shropshire’ (which is what our children literally were writing until a few years ago, below drawings they made of white snowfields and the corn-haired people who inhabited such a landscape), wrote ‘the snow was falling on the canefields’ trying to have both cultures at the same time. What is even more important, as we develop this business of emergent language in the Caribbean, is the actual rhythm and the syllables, the very software, in a way, of the language. What English has given us as a model for poetry, and to a lesser extent prose (but poetry is the basic tool here), is the pentameter …. It is nation language in the Caribbean that, in fact, largely ignores the pentameter. Nation language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, might be English to a greater or lesser degree. And this brings us back to the question … can English be a revolutionary language? And the lovy that came back was: it is not English that is the agent. It is not language, but people, who make revolutions. I think, however, that language does really have a role to play here – certainly in the Caribbean. But it is an English which is not the standard; imported, educated English, but that of the submerged, surrealist experience and sensibility, which has always been there and which is now increasingly coming to the surface and influencing the perception of contemporary Caribbean people. It is what I call, as I say, Nation language. I use the term in contrast to dialect. The word ‘dialect’ has been bandied about for a long time, and it carries very pejorative overtones. Dialect is thought of as ‘bad English’. Dialect is ‘inferior English’. Dialect is the language used when you want to make fun of someone. Caricature speaks in dialect. Dialect has a long history coming from the plantation where people’s dignity is distorted through their language and the descriptions which the dialect gave to them. Nation language, on the other hand, is the submerged area of that dialect which is much more closely allied to the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean. It may be in English: but often it is in an English which is like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave. It is also like the blues. And sometimes it is English and African at the same time. Now I’d like to describe for you some of the characteristics of our nation language. First of all, it is from, as I’ve said, an oral tradition. The poetry, the culture itself, exists not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song. When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning … In order to break down the pentameter, we discovered an ancient form which was always there, the calypso.
But not only is there a difference in syllabic or stress pattern, there is an important difference in shape of intonation. In the Shakespeare, the voice travels in a single forward plane towards the horizon of its end. In the kaiso, after the skimming movement of the first line, we have a distinct variation. The voice dips and deepens to describe an intervalic pattern. And then there are more ritual forms like kumina, like shango, the religious forms, which I won’t have time to go into here, but which begin to disclose the complexity that is possible with nation language, the other thing about nation language is that it is part of what may be called total expression …. Reading is an isolated, individualistic expression. The oral tradition on the other hand demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides. And this total expression comes about because people be in the open air, because people live in conditions of poverty (‘unhouselled’) because they come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their very breath rather than on paraphernalia like books and museums -and machines. They had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves …
The other model that we have and that we have always had in the Caribbean, as I’ve said before, is the calypso, and we are going to hear now the Mighty Sparrow singing a kaiso which came out in the early sixties. It marked, in fact, the first major change in consciousness that we all shared . . . . In ‘Dan is the Man in the Van’ he says that the education we got from England has really made us idiots because all of those things that we had to read about – all of these things really haven’t given us anything but empty words. And he did it in the calypso form. And you could hear the rhyme-scheme of this poem. He is rhyming on ‘n’s’ and ‘l’sn and ht’ is creating a duster of syllables and a counterpoint between voice and orchestra, between individual and community, within the formal notion of ‘call and response’, which becomes typical of our nation in the revolution.
NOTE 1 The Maroons were escaped slaves who set up autonomous societies throughout Plantation America. Nanny of the Maroons, an ex-Ashanti Queen Mother, is regarded as one of the greatest of the Jamaica freedom fighters.
(The above is highly abridged from the full book.)
after she found out she was bleeding she went to a neighbour’s home and called the police.
She was later taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and detained for three days, she said
Asked by prosecutor Ms Donna Babb if she had quarrelled with Collymore before the incident she replied no. The witness also told the prosecutor that she did not interfere with the accused.
Babb asked her if she had attacked the accused with a hoe but she said she was not given a chance to do so.
When defence lawyer Dr Waldo Waldron Ramsey’s turn came to cross-examine Collymore, he asked her how long she knew the accused and she said it was since childhood. She also said she and Hinds once worked together in they understand each other.
Waldron-Ramsay suggested to the witness that on the day of the incident, marl was on the accused woman’s property and she was pulling it down to make a road for her daughter and son-in-law.
She denied the suggestion.
He further told Hinds that she told the accused that she cold not stop her from pulling down the marl, and this she denied.
Waldron-Ramsay put it to the witness that when she refused to stop moving the marl the accused left her and went back home, but Hinds said this was not < true.
Continuing his cross-examination, Waldron-Ramsay suggested to Hinds that Collymore came to her a second time and told her to stop racking away her dirt but the witness [the accused!] again denied this ever took place.
The witness further denied the suggestion that this second time she became more vicious and told the accused [Hinds] that if she did not move her
“X X X X
she would lick her to X X X X
Waldron-Ramsay also suggested to Collymore that she had the hoe in the air ready to lick down Hinds, but she denied this.
DATE TREE HILL CASE
The crown will call its third witness this morning in the trial of 48-year-old Philamena Hinds, before Mr Justice Frederick Waterman in No. 3 Supreme Court.
Hinds, a machine operator, of Date Tree Hill, St Peter, is charged with causing grievous bodily harm to 65-year-old Mildred Collymore, of Date Tree Hill, on December 13, 1993, with intent to maim, disfigure or disable her…
Hinds, who pleaded not guilty… is represented by attorney-at-law Dr. Waldo Waldron Ramsay while the Crown’s case is being put by Acting Crown Counsel Donna Babb.
Collymore’s 45-year-old-daughter, Linda, is acting as her interpreter, because the witness has a hearing problem.
it is not
it is not
it is not enough
it is not enough to be free
of the red white and blue
of the drag, of the dragon
it is not
it is not
it is not enough
it is not enough to be free
of the whips, principalities and powers
where is your kingdom of the Word?
it is not
it is not
it is not
it is not
it is not enough
it is not enough to be free
of malarial fevers, fear of the hurricane,
fear of invasions, crops’ drought, fire’s
blisters upon the cane
It is not enough
to tinkle to work on a bicycle bell
crackles and burns in the fourteen-inch screen of the Jap
of the Jap of the Japanese-constructed
hard sell, tell tale tele-
vision set, rhinocerously knobbed, cancerously tubed
It is not
it is not
it is not enough
to be able to fly to Miami,
structure skyscrapers, excavate the moon-
scaped seashore sands to build hotels, casinos, sepulchres
It is not
it is not
it is not enough
it is not enough to be free
to bulldoze god’s squatters from their tunes, from their relies
from their tombs of drums
It is not enough
to pray to Barclays bankers on the telephone
to Jesus Christ by short wave radio
to the United States marines by rattling your hip
must be given words to shape my name
to the syllables of trees
must be given words to refashion futures
like a healer’s hand
must be given words so that the bees
in my blood’s buzzing brain of memory
will make flowers, will make flocks of birds,
will make sky, will make heaven,
the heaven open to the thunder-stone and the volcano and the un- folding land.
It is not
it is not
it is not enough
to be pause, to be hole
to be void, to be silent
to be semicolon, to be semicolony;
fling me the stone
that will confound the void
find me the rage
and I will raze the colony
fill me with words
and I will blind your God.
Ouvri bayi pou’ moi
Ouvri bayi pou’ moi …
BY KAMAU BRATHWAITE
Kamau Brathwaite reading from “Kumina”
for DreamChad on the death of her sun Mark – mark this word mark this place + tyme – at Papine Kingston Jamaica – age 29
midnight 28/29 April 2001-1002-0210-0120-0020-0000
rev 29 feb 04
WHAT CAN I SAY BUT THIS MY DARLING
WHAT CAN I DO BUT TRY TO SPEECH MY HEART YR HEART FROM BREAKING.
‘Kumina is the most African of the [cultural expressions] to be found in Jamaica, with negligible European or Christian influence. Linguistics evidence cites the Kongo as a specific ethnic source for the ‘language’ and possibly the music of kumina. There are varying theories as to whether it was brought with late African [arrivants] after Emancipation, or whether it was rooted in Jamaica from the 18th century, and deepened by . . . later African influence.
‘[Kumina] is to be found primarily in St Thomas and Portland and to a lesser extent in St Mary, St Catherine and Kingston. Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes, entombments or memorial services but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences (births, thankgsiving, invocations for good [or] evil).
‘Kumina sessions [some extending, as in this poem, to twenty-one days], involve singing, dancing and drumming and are of two general types; bailo the more public and less sacred form of kumina, at which time songs are sung mainly in Jamaican [NL/nation-language]; and country – the more African, and serious form, and at which time possession usually occurs.
‘Male and female leaders must exhibit great . . . strength in their control of zombies [zambies] or spirits and assume their positions of leadership after careful training in the feeding habits, ritual procedures, dances, rhythms, and songs of a variety of spirits, by a previous King or ‘Captain’ . . . Queen or ‘Mother’.
‘One is said to ‘catch’ myal when possessed by one of the threes classes of Gods – sky, earth-bound, and ancestoal [zambies], these last being the most common form of possession. Each god can be recognized by the initiated by the particular dance style exhibted by the possessed, and by songs and drum rhythms [bandu, plain cyas, scrap- ers, gourds, tin-can rattles, catta sticks & bamboo stamping tubes] to which it responds.
‘At bailo dances, the spirits who are called, more often than not make their presence known by ‘mounting’ (i.e. possessing) a dancer; whose given dance style helps in identifying the spirit, but can span all possibilities of movement. The basic dance posture constitutes an almost erect back and propelling actions of the hips as the feet inch along the ground. The dancers move in a circular [anti-clockwise] pattern around the musicians and centre pole, either singly or with a partner. The arms, shoulders, rib-cage and hips are employed, offering the dancers ample opportunity for variations and interpretations of the counter-beats or polyrhythms. Spins, dips, and ‘breaks’ on the last beat are common dance variations.
‘The journey of the spirits from the ethereal to the mundane world is no less ritualised than other kumina elements. Once invoked by music and other ritual paraphernalia (rum with blood, candles, leaves) the spirits are said to hover near the dancing booth [bood]. If successfully enticed they travel down the centre pole in to the ground, then through the open end of the drum to the head of the drum, where the drummer and Queen must salute its presence. The spirit then re-enters the ground, from where it will travel up the feet of the person selected to be possessed, along the whole length of the body, culminating with the full myal possession in the haed of the [transforming] individual.’ Anon, Jamaica journal 10: 1 (Kingston 1986) pp6,7]
First it is the knife
in the kitchen. the thick one w/the long bright blade
and the thick wooden handle. that knife wdn’t stay
flat. each time i wash it. put it down. it drop or ramp up
on it spine w/the singing edge of the blade running thin
& straight-along like some spiteful future & horizon
Pull out the drawer w/the silvers and it still there. sharp.
prop-over & unquiet on it omen
The cosmology of sudden unXpecting disaster
& its unutterable grief unvomiting the world
i seem to be becoming lightning rod
for like this wreck of Time
we cope so tentative so desperate in dis kingdom
of the dread. the voices reach-
ing out. be-
traying fear & crying out for help beyonn the lyme
of reassurance. tryin to mek sense
of all de wallawallawalla as the whole
world like it topple-over menance. tryin
to regain it recompense of balm & balance hallow
ello! . . . ello! . . . Mummy! . . . This is Ingriid . . .
Kamau & DreamChad coil in each others blood. she
tieing the discomfort his tears for her dead son
while she bleeds as her sun keels from its mangle wheel .
hit off his latenight midnight bi-
cycle middlepassage ship
by a rat-racing-on-our-highways new-money quick-monkey
ill-legal-jjugs-money-traffikin cyaar –
BMW Audi the sleek black latest luxury Discord or Ellectra
or streak Ajax Mardza or Alexandria – in Papine –
Errol Hill beggarmanpoem . Slade Hopkinson & Breeze
Ogou. Soyinka. Dennis Scott’s Dog. Tony McNeill’s Ungod. Vera Bell’s Gog –
they happen all here –
the unceremonial graveyard. thirsty & unappease –
of yout. artists. don gorgons. Caribbean
lectric politricks & politricans. big big-time robber
the 21 days
on the first day
of yr death it is quiet it is dormant like a doormat
no one-foot touch its welcome. its dust on the floor
is not disturb nor are the sleeping spirits of this house
i sit here in this chair trying to unravel Time so that it wouldn’t happen twine
on the second day
of yr death. i break a small
i can still smell the sweet flour of yr firstborn flesh
on the third day
of yr death. the water in my urine turn to blood
i cover the waterfront of the mirror w/a blue cloth where yr face stood
on the fourth day
yu shd be rising. knocking at the door of darkness. coming back to me
i do not hear yr call
on the fifth day
after yr death. a young white rooster. white white white feathery & shining tail & tall
neigbour of sound from miles away in the next village
stands in the yard & from his red crown crows & crows & will not go away
he struts round to the back-a-wall
his one eye clicking clicking as he crows
comes to the glissen of my window & he crows
loud like the overflowing voice of my Trelawny waterfall
on the sixth day
after yr death. there is this silence of flowers
their petals say their shining needs
soft water needs
sweet showers needs
sweet rain from heaven
i see them once again inside the chapel of my funeral
on the seventh day
after yr death. the yellow flour
in the cup-cakes in the kitchen have gone sour
there is an eye of rancid in the middle of their meal
i am unhappy like the wind & tides are restless rivers
i can’t find you. i can’t find you. i cannot cannot cannot be console to dreams
the mad dogs of the pasture kill the cock & pillage
it. madwoman wind is scattering white screaming feathers’ petals’ pedals over all
the brunt & burnin ochre-colour land
on the eiate day
after yr death
me do nothin. nothin. nothin . i cdn’t even get yr inglish ‘eighth’ spelt streight
on the nine/ff night
yu rise again from off the dead
i see you now & at the hour of yr o not soff not soffly dead
it is my pain it is my privilege. it is my own torn flesh torn fresh
o let me comfort us my chile. is not yr heart is broken
on this tenth day
i haffe go down to the Station today to find out
what they doin about yr det. about the ‘accident’
dem call it. bout the black-hearted man who a-killyu. an whe dem hide yu body
the po. lice who dealin w/this case they cannot look me in the lips
and No One knowho the boy is or gone or when he will come-back
ten time dis ten dem mek me up & down & book & fourt
to fine my sun. an ten ten time dem ave no ansa for me for me for mein dis dry-weatha tunda
dem seh because i poor & have no book to haul-out who
inside dis station. an i inn got no songto sing becau i colour in dis Marcus Garvey country proud an strong
an wrong – yu sun gone out & still yu colour wrong.
inn got no i say songi wonda who Port Royal is. when de eart goin again goig crackmy daughta Ingrid walk beside me hurt
an strong an dress in black
her face inside she face ink mekkin sporton the tenth night after a long long distance silence
i born into this world w/nothing but my breath & my bare back an hornets
in my chessnow i will haffe doubt if god is good & black & honesty
wha good god do fe me?
whe god dat cricket midnight criminal when Mark of god get call like dat & kill
Mark cyaan dead so if good. if godmy breath give birt to good like god
my sun dis gold is all my riches that cannot be replace
an suddenly me cannot fine him in dis place before dis good god face to face
wha good fe god. no god. wha good. wha god. no god
if good Mark have no face to face dis god inside dis good god place
on the eleventh day after dead
on the twelfth day
after yr debt – o pickney – it is as if me cyaaan wake up
Time has been drain from all my clocks. the sky is overcyas & lock
altho it isn’t rainin yet[Silence]this night we hold our wake. watch w/ the spirit of my sum before his daily funeral
.people cook food bring bread & drink & there’s some singing
of the old traditions by the older folks & country citizensbut they soon fall to arguing and they soon fall down to quarrellin
about the words the phrases time & tempo of these sookey tunes
if seem they isolated in the old traditions in these coffee hills
We are 3000 feet high up in the blue mountain of this Irish Town
by three o’clock is gettin cold here in the midnight dew
and all around me. even the young-ones
watch me watch the faces of their coffin spirits growin old
on the tired tireen(th) day
after im det. we tek the body of my son
& walk him from the chapel back up the hill-road
pass Mass Dixon Lane to Bedward buryingrounn & seal him up & tomb
im leave im dere
My aunt husbann tell me later dat tree
time Mark try fe mek dem put im down. de casket get so heavy
de man-dem haffe change sides all de time to ress dem hands
& many willin new ones haffe come fe help dem wid it
im get so heavy heavy going to im grave
time he try fe stagger dem go left. teach
dem to veer down MasonDixonLane whe e grow up
is all too sudden. Sonny. im want to ress a while from all dis pain an distrulation
cause when im reach down-dey. im nevva soon-come-back again
mi look back once onto the leaf. less barrem hillside where he is
cyaaan even see no grief
of flowers there .
perhaps there are no flowers there
on the fourteenth day after Mark gone. on the first day after him first entomb
the rain staat fat rat raat . i stannin by the window like a window washin it
An do you know what even as he lie there in the street
that midnight widdout light. skull crack. neck broken. trauma. red red red
de passerby-dem Marley sing about –
de woman son shoot down into the street & dead ? –
dem tief-off evva thing they fine pun Mark
So when he went down to the policestation morgue that night
my son mange up widdout im shoes & shocks?
on the fourteenth day after my sun gone. on the first day after him first entomb
i feel my womb
seal-up. de blood brek-down inside me bellybottom
i wonder wha appen to im bicycle? i wonder whe um is?
we know ‘widow’ an i hear of ‘widower’
i wonder what dem call a woman lose she sun?
tief too dat too me reckon
again i sit here in this chair trying to unravel Time
so that it wouldn’t happen
[day 17] Death keep gettin-away & gettin-away & gettin in the way
coilin inside dis house like serpent(s)
into its dark corners when we turn to face
eatin away the cupboards of our soul
above the stove an thru the drains an down in. to the cellar w/its term
-ites tunnel & un. dermine the very grounn we walk
on. how we make love. destroye the very irie way we dance
they was nvr a chance really that we wd avoid
this. clingin to each others bodies. holdin hands. and climb
-in to our souls. feelin the grief like an electric wire
shudder thru our clothes around our ribs where Adam make
our gutteries. our lonely bones
we have nvr plan
to be away from love like this
opening these doors one after one one after one
sweeping this dust these ashes from the floor of sorrow
bowed head. the one step one step sweeping
out today today
and down the passage of tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow
into the distance of what must be the future but no more no more
each time i turn into the kitchen. head down towards the sink
of chores. lookin a spoon fe wash. fe tea to brew. fe soup to scoup
fe bread fe fat & fry. is you is you is you. keep
comin back. cockroaches of these curses
flickerin up the pipes & plumbin. lickerin the wet surface
w/ they lean
-nail tongue. the lard
-faces washin back yr
face. these grey green oil
-(y) fissures that yu cannot clean
as if we cover up in soares & sin. as if we do some
-thin wrong. as if we do some. body
in & spit out syllables like the split
stringy ends of bonavista peas spit
out the white bright taste of salt into this dry lagoon as if this is the saviour
this the recompence. this is the penalty we play for ‘coming from no
whe’ for ‘being poor’
the rat patrol keep rattin pass my door
and now there is this white night blind
-ness in my eyes for all the years
that are no tears to tell. because there are no years no no more years
fe yell for you in this – this – ‘new emergency’
– the blood my heart
the broken body wringing in my belly like a ghost my baby like a bell
. mi wunda whe e doin now
. mi wunda whe Mark gone
Sometime in the miggle of the mornin of the night i remember that this day is the day when my urban barn some undread toussann years ago <<<< an as the custom/as the kind. ness is. yu muss xpec re. spec. the day shd be acknowledge/celebrated/be re. rembered. don’t? But in the miggle of this grief. all this slow daze of grease. these sleep. less nights. this fear now every sound each startle shadow nigh(t) it might be him/my love impale<<<< w/in his pain impassion wounds – why me why me. wha mek me fraid & frighten ee? – all I cd do is walk across the moon an kiss-im pun im broken cheek my eyes elsewhe & >>>>> hissin not for him today. mi like me cyaan help whe me travellin-mi-travellin an wish im Appy Birthday<
on the nineteen day afta my husbann gone
– it seem so long it seem
mi fatha now altho I nvr kno no fatha
– my husbann gone backto the States to finish up im work
– few nights ago he try to touch me. wake me up. yu know
as if dat comfort? dat wd help. . .ah well . . . he had his 10 years time of salt already an he went thru hell
and now he marréd me the poor man like he have to wear my bell
he nevva try to rush me. dough . . . e mean me mean me well. . .on the twentieff day after ee tief and the seventh after de burial
i go lookin for my sun in all his glory
Somethin inside my shake & rackkle heart. along my ripple spineagroin/agroan my nipple guts. w/in the bleedin womb whe he did born
whe he intombsomething inside here tell me there will be no rest no rest no rest no rest no rest no rest
– can be no rest – until I find him – these rock dry-rivva courses – an bring im justice back
becau im nvva born to blue nor no slow horses
SpaceTime stann still As still as if it didn’t happen Tho it is 21 days now & she Nkuuyu is still travellin still travellin in the underworld To find her sun & bring him back kalunga on this earth. That’s where she is That’s why she is so far away That’s why you know she can’t leave Kingston at this time to go back w/her husbann to the U nighted States Valhalla & the kingdooms of this world whe they in love might live who knows for. ever For she must find him She will find him They will talk Might take a long long time. but she will come to understand if she can find him find him find him She will accept Perhaps Because she see him like alive again Whole Fit & Beautiful again and he will find her eyes & call her Name again – Beverley Miss Mama Bev Miss Bev And she at last begins to Terrible & bleedin troubleous in pain Such blessed water after such long drought & shining silence after such long doubt And call him back im name & call him Mark again & Light & Love & take him back & born him – O Mama – Mark – O Mama – This xchanging is the healing nvr ever healing But she try He try. Name on Name on Mama. Mark on Mark. So she can hold him now w/in her arms again Protect that neck that nvr shd be broken. That head that nvr shd be crush. so Hush she will rock him Hush she will rock him to sleep And it is almost over
Now she will try to bring him back
back to the world up
-inside down. down inside black
to the world they have lost of the sun
-light & ‘real’ Rock
in her cradle of arms of all she can give
to the world. beyond all these harms
& their fissures & failures Sleeping
for all ages
is when they almost there – door corridor crossroad gateway threshold – the light becoming stronger – less stranger less stranger – almost sounds almost taking shape. the street. the trees. a building. stone. a chirping bird. turtledoves of green . . . That he awake into this his second sudden terror His visor of this otherWorld. mask off. the new faces on. eras from like beginning coming to this end. Skull of his breath. Wind colouring itself the long way wrong way wrong way wrong way wrong. the soundless horror of his wounds like the wild white of my eyes first seeing it. then something in side in. side me going red & swimming i in black. the uttar lamentation of this broken blank Look he transforms before her by the doorway into broken fish & pisces. torn from his roots & gender. into this common sound. from all he almost is into what suddenly can nvr be. this stripp & vivid unconstructed verb. constricted. In all his cinnamon & dis. assemble parts. His black crown crush. recrush. Th(e) vase neck break. rebroeken. The cruel eye of his assassin in trauma in his lockets
Jesus my Revelator Injustice as e dead hit from behine to this afflictuated future. an nvr even kno it. Each bless of him the salted water i now drink. His white flesh broken to this flesh my red i cannot eat No No No No in carne criminate I do not want to see it!
there is a howling she can hear she does not understand is here is hers. like she is hearing in her own ears howling wolf long canine knives & clanking richter rackets Like all his blood is floating down her cistern of his wounds are blessed rain this sound w/in her falling
ears this taste w/in her mouth like she is givin birth to menance memory – his past somehow his tirelesslessness & somehow now – his future some. where in this past where they are bound in what is almost sound in what is almost light & outline – w/in the shadows near the door where they shd pass so they might live – together – as it was before – as it will be. be.fore – is what the sound is saying – giving birth to light – her sun – her son – her cinema – the death that is in him is him becoming death that was-in-him was him. un. coming him – the death that will be him becoming bourne & being born now in this nommonation of these howls so near the ‘real’ & stranger raiding world now gettin louder gettin clearer gettin warmer so blinding her now so she can’t see him anymore tho she still has the howling in her – and somewhere deep inside her bowels now the sleepin rock. im cradle her familiar spirit arms – the womb of his death now safely wounded in her – sun become father – genitor – an almost newborn born & burn. ing in her – one is one & so always w/in him w/in her in her
– learning himself again to live w/in in her wounds
So that at last possibl – even if unbearable to bear – but bearing – still bearing and at
least & at last no(w) possibl – what yesterday was impossibl – a pathway no possibl –
no(w) possibl – she leaving him new at this door at this threshold this light of forever w/in
her. bearing down
2. show number 94, 2005 (59:43): MP3
Brathwaite, on the phone from Kingston, Jamaica, returns to Cross-Cultural Poetics to read from his new book Born to Slow Horses and to discuss the situation of Cowpastor, a piece of land in Barbados on which a slave burial ground is in danger of being desecrated.
Brathwaite died on February 4, 2020. Here is one of the many glowing obituaries written in response from The Guardian UK:
(excerpt) Innes writes, “In his History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984), Brathwaite contended that the English language spoken by the descendants of slaves in the Caribbean carried a suppressed African identity that surfaces in the way words are voiced and also in particular words, idioms and syntactical formations, such as “nam” for “to eat”, “i and i” for “we”, and “What it mean?” for “What does it mean?”.
At the end of February, another among many articles about the poet, this one appeared:
(excerpt) Bellot writes, “…Brathwaite developed the term “nation language” as an expansive alternative to the more commonly used “dialect,” which, he noted, carried a “pejorative” connotation. In a 1976 lecture, which was later revised as a 1984 essay in The History of the Voice, Brathwaite famously defined nation language in contrast to the Eurocentric imagery that colonization had imposed upon our nations in the Caribbean. Many of us, he noted, had been raised so wholly on European history, languages, and art that we knew more about English kings than about our own islands’ heroes—like Nanny of the Maroons, who led an army of escaped slaves and free-born blacks against the British in Jamaica. We learned to write of snow and that distant Mother Country’s kingdoms, but lacked the language for our own world, for the hurricanes with their blind cyclopean rage and the dinghies rotting away in their sleep on our beaches and the beautiful madness of rum shops.
To capture those—the things we actually lived with—we needed to use nation language. “Nation language,” Brathwaite wrote, “is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English.” Nation language might occasionally resemble standard English, but it is utterly unlike the English that our colonizers employed; instead, Brathwaite wrote, “it is in an English which is like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave.”
From the time I was young in Dominica, I saw that shame was an anchor all too many of us dragged behind us. Some people, to be sure, were proud of the island, working tirelessly to improve it and to show the riches—both artistic and natural—we already had. Yet so often I remember hearing a casual refrain that America, and to a lesser extent England, were the places we should leave for when we were old enough, that the future was elsewhere. On trips with my family to the United States, almost no American we ever spoke with had heard of Dominica; at best, they assumed it was the same as the Dominican Republic, though they often did not know where that country was, either. We casually internalized this idea of invisibility as a nation, this idea that we were unimportant and infinitesimal in the grand scheme of things. To gain any shred of recognition and respect, the thinking went, we had to go abroad and present ourselves in a “civilized” manner, speaking not with nation language but something closer to BBC English.
And even speaking nation language among ourselves was an idea that occasionally sparked fiery debate. When someone argued that we should teach Creole in school and speak it in the government, affronted Dominicans would lash out: How, people demanded, will it help us get jobs abroad if we converse like uneducated fools? How humiliating would it be if the prime minister gave a speech in that kind of language? Who would respect us if our leader can’t even speak proper English? My mother, obsessed in the way of old colonial subjects with the idea of propriety, chided me frequently for speaking our vernacular; I was to use the Queen’s English, she said, or no one would take me seriously, no one would hire me, no one would take a look at me abroad.
Brathwaite, however, threw off this burden. Born in Barbados in 1930 and educated both at home and in the UK, Brathwaite argued that, from a young age, he had been primed to become an “Afro-Saxon”—a black Anglophile schooled more in English history than his own. After completing his studies in Britain, he relocated to Ghana in 1955 to work as a colonial education officer, where he found, to his pleasant surprise, a world much more aligned with his sense of self. There, for the first time, he felt a kind of cultural kinship that forever altered his aesthetics, showing him the deep connections that existed between Africanness and Caribbeanness. He soon rejected iambic pentameter as an “English” meter unable to capture the rhythms of our islands; in its place, he explored the “African” rhythms in the dancing and singing of the Afro-Caribbean religious practice of kumina; and in the particular stresses on words in kaiso, as in the songs of the calypsonian Mighty Sparrow. In 1970, in Jamaica, Brathwaite founded Savacou: A Journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement, which sought to publish new, radical Caribbean writing.
Because Brathwaite believed in nation language, it was inevitable that Savacou would feature it, and this—particularly in Savacou 3/4, a provocative 1971 double issue dedicated wholly to nation language—instigated an explosive debate in the region’s literary community. While some writers defended Brathwaite’s decision to privilege nation language, a number of critics blasted Brathwaite in print, arguing that he was only contributing to shameful stereotypes of the illiteracy and stupidity of Caribbean people.
Perhaps the most virulent of these critics was the Tobago-born poet Eric Roach, who declared, in an article containing a series of charged metaphors, that English literature, not nation language, was the only path to civilized, progressive writing. His stance was clear from his article’s title, “Tribe Boys vs. Afro-Saxons,” which deployed an image of “tribal” people—by implication, African-descended—as civilization’s antithesis, echoing the fraught sort of language that white American critics had used to condemn the rise of jazz in the United States decades earlier. “Are we going to tie the drum of Africa to our nails,” Roach asked in a representative passage, “and bay like mad dogs at the Nordic world to which our geography and history tie us?” After all, he continued in a sentence that appears to contain a remarkable apology for colonialism, “we have been given the European languages and forms of culture—culture in the traditional aesthetic sense, meaning the best that has been thought, said, and done.” Unsurprisingly, Roach quickly became a symbol of reactionary poetics, while his supporters quoted his article. Savacou and Roach’s rabid response had helped push Caribbean artists into making a decision: to embrace Brathwaite’s anti-colonial vision, or to continue emulating English literature. Although this tension had always existed in Caribbean writing, Brathwaite’s challenge to writers to use nation language shifted the course of our literature forever…
Shame, to be sure, is difficult to unlearn; when you are so accustomed to the weight of its anchor, the clang of its rusted chains, it feels strangely light to walk without it. Yet Brathwaite’s poems continue to be a paean to the power of rejecting colonially imposed shame. Brathwaite showed me a new, richer path to self-respect, aiding me in acknowledging the sea-crossing language that ties Africa to the Caribbean shores I grew up on, and, through this, he helped me remember how I love my old home when I needed to rediscover that love the most.
Trinidad and Tobago
M. NourbeSe Philip
Discourse on the Logic of Language
M. NOURBESE PHILIP
From a reading at University at Buffalo, February 22, 1995:
. . . exchanging fluids with the atlantic across a chain of islands bulwarked against an ocean bearing the dying and the dead brushed and touched in its most secret places by the northeast trades that bring sahara dust and hurucan here History stopped dead in its tracks hiccupped took a deep breath then continued changed forever
she tries her tongue … coming from this place of inter/ruption of eruption and irruption from explosion and plain ole ruckshun so i was thinking to force the unhistory of the kari basin into a logical linear script doing the experience (is it an experience or an event that repeats itself in syncopated time) a second violence it retraumatizing in today’s tongue so the contradictions hanging right out there where english is my mother tongue is my father tongue … is a foreign anguish synapses waiting for a pulse a charge of energy that jumping across the yawning gap ontological and epistemological that is and is History that is the kari basin home to the poor/path-/less harbour/less spade …  drifting along a current towards the sea that is History — . . .
have you no language of your own/no way of doing things the rich old european lady asks the emigrants did you spend all those holidays/at England’s apron strings this current insists that we do not speak in iambic pentameter nevrhavnevrwill that the nolanguageofourown is staccato explosive shattering on rocks volcanic and coral alike surrounded by a sea now an aquamarine that beckons now a hard and baleful steel grey that repels nolanguageofourown moves is restless is kinetic add kinopoesis to pound’s ordering of language phanopoesis melopoesis logopoesis wherever european and african tongues have faced off against each other wherever the european has attempted to impose his tongue on the african the outcome has been a kinetic language drumming a beat with the bone of memory against the gun metal skin of the sea scatting soughing coughing laughing into vividity patwa nation language creole pidgin vernacular demotic an ting an ting …
many rivers feeding this current i calling brathwaitian many rivers we done cross carrying the memory marronage exile hurucan and volcano they criss and cross the kari basin regardless of language so that césaire martiniquan poet turned mayor founder of negritude tells us nous sommes un peuple du volcan we are a people of the volcano nor was he talking only of mt pelee nous sommes un peuple du volcan that is History
violently spewing us out to take root wheresoever our spores land in all the miscegenated fragmented languages of the kari basin pushing up gainst that yambic pant pant panta meter to yowl in the blank indifferent face of History that is the sea as the voice catches breaks into spiritual caiso mento reggae calypso rapso dub rap dance hall and … stateside it would be blues jazz r&b rock and hip hop …
walcott tempts then tames the iambic pentameter sparring with the dactyls of calypso in the spoiler’s return I see these islands and I feel to bawl / “area of darkness” with v.s. nightfall this is an other current winding and wining its way to the archipelagic necklace around the neck of the History as odysseus sails into the kari basin the other mediterranean home to those poor path-/less harbour-/less spade (s) who today cleave the waves of the original medi-terranean the between of africa and europe look to europe for salvation exchanging accra lagos tunis for lampedusa a new and not so new middle passage freighted yet again with african bodies here in this not so new world that paz reminds us began as a european idea where we need must imagine the past the better to remember the future in this new mediterranean that is perhaps a mediation between africa asia europe and first peoples the islands lock arms circle the sea the kari basin turn their backs on the atlantic at least temporarily . . .
1. M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks (Toronto: Poui Publications, 2005).
2. Rukshun, meaning noise, trouble, or disturbance. Also spelt ruction. Richard Allsop, Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
3. Philip, She Tries Her Tongue.
4. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 40.
5. Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History,” in The Star Apple Kingdom (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 25.
6. Ibid., 55.
7. Brathwaite uses the metaphor of a machine gun to describe an aspect of Caribbean nation language.
8. There are many different words for the vernacular languages of the Caribbean. Kamau Brathwaite calls it nation language. I resist the idea of nation and prefer demotic.
9. Marronage refers to the practice of Africans escaping slavery and setting themselves up in self sufficient communities. In some instances, as in Suriname, Africans who had escaped fought the armies of their former masters, eventually signing peace treaties with European powers.
10. Aimé Césaire, along with Leopold Senghor, developed the idea and theory of Negritude. After living several years in France, Césaire returned to Martinique, where he became mayor of its capital city for many years.
11. Mt. Pélée is a volcano located on the island of Martinique.
12. A way of Caribbean dancing in which the hips are circled.
13. Octavio Paz, Mexican intellectual and writer, who suggests that we should indeed imagine the past and remember the future.
The absolute imperative to generate the demographic metrics of the dead of slavery has to go hand in hand with understanding their spectric demographies. Vincent Brown (2008: 4) in his historical work on social death and slavery has outlined the relationship between death, colonialism and accumulation. His story of the songs of slave women symbolically representing death to their masters and promising retribution to them displays the fact that the dead are still active participants in the world of the living (4). Further, understanding the social relationships that mediate the living and the dead means that the process of dying, the deposition of the body and the work of mourning are essential facets of understanding the slave experience. As Brown says:
Practices surrounding death are ultimately grounded in perceptions of the unknowable and ineffable. Yet this is a story that can be told without metaphysical speculation. Attitudes toward death often lie at the heart of social conflict, and the dead are frequently objects of contention and struggle. If research from the fields of demographic, cultural and social history is drawn together, the practical ways that people make political meaning of death can be observed, described, and, ultimately, fashioned into a materialist history of the supernatural imagination. (Brown 2008: 5)
This materialist history then is one in which the metric and the spectric are combined and Brown points very clearly to mortuary practices amongst slave populations as reflecting customs, authorities and ancestries which become particularly important as the dead become part of the social struggles and contestations of the living (Brown 2008: 6). Mortuary practices and self-identity are therefore reflections on historical origins and political destinations:
When the transatlantic slave trade dragged African men, women, and children into the grinding mills of American slavery, it shattered networks of belonging that connected the newly born to the long dead. The survivors of millions of deadly journeys had to reconstitute their social worlds wherever they landed. (Brown 2008: 10)
The elimination of the landscapes of ancestry sever those vertical links with one’s dead and the locations they are in ar_e displaced horizontally as the slave ship moves over the horizon. Significantly, as Maya Angelou has pointed out, this can create new modes of ethnogenesis, solidarity and togetherness (1995: 269-277) often based on new kinship identities of people who travelled with each other as shipmates on the slavers and which persisted through the generations.
Editorial note: A live version of this interview took place at the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Waterloo, Ontario. At a Congress event cosponsored by the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (CACLALS) and the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures (ACQL), M. NourbeSe Philip read her poetry and was interviewed by Phanuel Antwi and Veronica Austen. The theme of Congress 2012 was Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World.
In this interview, Philip historicizes uncertainty in the Americas and its relationship to her poetic practice. After the live event, Philip offered to continue her conversation with Antwi and Austen in writing. A transcript of that exchange appears here. — Janet Neigh
Phanuel Antwi and Veronica Austen: Could you speak to the theme of the 2012 conference Crossroads: Scholarship and Teaching for an Uncertain World? In particular, one of the statements from the CACLALS’s call for papers is a great starting point. The CFP stated: “[The conference theme] invites us to consider how our scholarship and teaching are connected to the uncertain world in which we live, but we might begin by asking if a ‘presentist’ bias shadows the theme; is our world any more uncertain now than it has ever been, and if so, for whom and why?”
M. NourbeSe Philip: I have, for quite some time, been thinking about this issue and as the new year began and there was increasing talk of 2012 and the Mayan calendar that seemed to suggest that the world was coming to an end, I recall thinking that for some people their 2012 has already happened. By that I mean that when we consider the First Nations of the Americas or African peoples who had their worlds turned upside down and inside out by first, the Arab slave trade, then the European, transatlantic slave trade, we surely must conclude that those events were cataclysmic and fatal in so many many ways. Consider, for example, that Africa could not support a slave trade today. What do I mean by that problematic statement? The transatlantic trade in humans continued for some five hundred years leading to the forcible removal of millions ofhealthy Africans from the continent. This means that there had to have been a healthy enough population in Africa to be able to support this shockingly brutal trade over such a long period of time. There are certain things that must be in place in order to nurture a healthy population: a good source of potable water; a steady supply of food that sustains populations; health practices that ensure the mortality rate of infants is low enough to guarantee at least a replacement of your populations and ensures that your adult population is healthy enough to provide sustenance for the weaker; a cultural and societal matrix that meets the universally human needs of reproduction, social interactions, spirituality, disposition of the deceased, and a societal understanding of one’s place in the world. Contrast that with the media images of Africa today — and I use the word Africa deliberately, rather than African nations, which is more accurate, because the media insistently present a monolithic image of the continent. These images are of profound deficit at best and of pathology at worst, which is not to say that there isn’t a need, but there is never any discussion of the process by which Africa and its populations have been impoverished or underdeveloped to quote Walter Rodney. This is important because if we don’t understand what has happened, then the language remains one of aid when it should be one of restitution and reparations. What I am also saying here is that the various populations of Africa, both within and without the continent, have had to live with and within the shadow of uncertainty, impoverishment and neglect for at least half a millennium.
Antwi and Austen: Your body of work makes it abundantly clear to us that time does not pass; in fact, your work teaches us that the experience of relocation of people of African descent into the supposed New World is an event that haunts everything. A different way of phrasing this fact is to state that the events we call history are an accumulation of experiences and times we only think have passed. In your “Interview with an Empire,” you write that “there are certain experiences that defy the passage of time” (197), experiences so vexed they remain unresolved. In a historical moment where many of us are turning to the evidence of historical archives to animate other versions of given truths, your writing instructs that these historical archives have not passed, insists they remain of the now. How do we grapple with the archives of the past that defy the passage of time? (How do we grapple with it socially? How do you grapple with it as a writer? And how do we grapple it with institutionally in the academy?)
Philip: There is a powerful sense in which an event like the Zong incident — the deliberate drowning of African slaves by a ship’s captain in 1781 to collect insurance monies — becomes a repeating incident. The same impulse to greed and exploitation is at work today as we witness the meltdown of financial systems as was at work in the Arab and transatlantic trades in African bodies. The irony is that we live in more democratic times where at least lip service is paid to human rights, yet this was no protection against a plutocracy intent on looting their own populations in more recent times.
I think the challenge for those of us who are a part of the Afrospora is to find ways through the master narratives to truths that can serve us. The archive — the written archive, the historical archive has, more often than not, been scripted by those who were integrally connected to the European project of terror and dehumanization of the Other. We call it colonialism, the direct descendant of imperialism.
The archive that I confronted in Zong! was the master narrative of the legal report, Gregson v. Gilbert. Without going into too much detail, I had to devise ways of fracturing that text to allow what I knew was locked in there to emerge; it led me to another archive — the liquid archive of water. The scholar has a certain kind of work to do with the archive and there is value in bringing to light material that has remained hidden. But I believe there is room to do another kind of scholarship — a scholarship that embodies the knowledge that is being recovered. I am thinking of a work like Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman that works that liminal space between history and historical research and an embodied search for the markings and tracings of a lost ancestor. I think that the African, or African descended, writer has many more tools in her arsenal, not being hamstrung by the academy, which was never intended for us in the first place. You will recall Audre Lorde’s statement that we couldn’t use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, and Ishmael Reed talks about the hoodoo tradition that was important in his writing. Kamau Brathwaite demonstrates what I’m talking about vividly in his incantatory poetry (perhaps poetry lends itself most naturally to this — I am not sure), but we need to become more like obeah men and women — conjure or spirit writers, so to speak, using the word in ways that we were once familiar with to “imagine the past,” as Octavio Paz says, the better to “remember the future.” It is he who also reminds us that we — the so-called new world, the Americas — began as a European idea, which in turn links with these master narratives that we need to transform.
Emancipation celebrations illustrate this issue: what do we actually celebrate when we celebrate emancipation? That the European granted us freedom? How could he grant us something that he had illegally and immorally removed in the first place? European law in all its manifestations established that the African was a thing. Africans knew this to be not the case and all the instances of resistance and refusal of this such as slave revolts, maronnage, suicide, murder expressed this fundamental truth — that you cannot make of a human a thing. So, surely, it can be argued that with the granting of freedom, it was the European that was catching up with a truth that Africans already understood. What we should be celebrating is not their decision to free us, but our astonishing survival in the face of an unrelieved push to extermination, that is still with us today. We were never intended to survive. . .
Editorial note: This exchange between Jordan Scott and NourbeSe Philip, undertaken in 2016 and just now published in Jacket2, centers on the role of spirituality in Philip’s book Zong!, which Evie Shockley has said “enacts a critique, but also effects a catharsis or, more accurately, works through a problem that lies at the intersection of the emotions, the psyche, and the soul, if such a thing can be spoken of in the twenty-first century’s secular spaces.” The book relies entirely on language from the 1783 legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, a decision that followed two years after the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that 150 African slaves be murdered so that shipowners could collect insurance payments for lost cargo, in this case human chattel. Here Philip goes into clarifying detail about the role of spirituality in her text, telling Scott, “I lean towards understanding Zong! as an attempt to re/present the ceremony of Souls in which we, the Living — the readers — meet the Dead. Because we are both interested in the future. Which has to be re/membered.” — Julia Bloch
Jordan Scott: It’s difficult to begin a discussion of “spirit” and “spirituality” without some kind of definition at the outset. At least, that’s what I feel — the impulse to ask how you define both of these terms, yet understanding that there’s an inevitable impossibility embedded within the query. To follow another axis, then, I would love to begin by suggesting a dysfluent interview, one that acknowledges the gap, absence, doubt, and imposed weight of expressivity that lurks, “hauntological,” in so much of your work. So I wonder, NourbeSe, if it’s possible (just as a beginning) to imagine “spirituality” in your poetics as these “half-tellings, “un-tellings,” to “not tell the story that must be told,” and yet, within these overwhelming absences and gaps, an obliged (perhaps involuntary/possession) thrust to witness an activity of further knowing — a process that allows for (in the case of Zong! and Looking for Livingstone, in particular) a certain recovery or reordering of a frame of understanding (un-understanding).
And yet, all of this (your poetics) takes place within a chorus of very specific cultural absences: middle passage, limbo, renaming, colonized language, and so on. In “Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Occasion,” Nathaniel Mackey quotes Wilson Harris as saying that the “limbo dance therefore impels, I believe, a profound art of compensation … a curious psychic reassembly of the parts of dead god or gods. And that reassembly which issued from a state of cramp to articulate new growth.” A growth that Harris believes points to the necessity of a “new kind of drama, novel, and poem — is a creative phenomenon of the first importance in the imagination of a people violated by economic fates.” In another essay, “Sound, Sentiment and Symbol,” Mackey echoes Harris in describing the phantom limb as a “felt recovery … a feeling for what’s not there which reaches beyond and calls into question what is … the phantom limb reveals the illusory rule of the world in which it haunts.”
I wonder then, NourbeSe, how you engage with these absences and, more to the point, do you find your poetry functions as “regenerative” within these gaps and silences? In other words, what comes of the “Silence is. Always” in Livingstone or the “never ‘exhumed’ from water” in Zong!? I know that you have articulated much of this so eloquently in the “Notanda” to Zong!. But I still think (perhaps) that there’s room to talk about this concept of “regeneration” and your relationship to these ideas of recovery and/or revelation (recovery) as it seems to imply two functions of spirituality — one that constantly remains in the unknown as poetic function or one that attempts to inhabit these unknown (dysfluent) spaces as site of reclamation. Are these mutually exclusive? I’m not sure.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I want to begin with a Shakespearean character who is simultaneously absent and present — Sycorax, mother of Caliban, the sole inhabitor of the island Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, find themselves washed up on. Prospero calls her out of her name — she’s the “blue ey’d hag,” “the damn’d witch” who lay with the “devil himself.” She is a cipher, named yet unseen; indeed by the time the play opens, she is dead, although her presence is palpable. Sycorax’s genealogy stretches backwards and forwards to include those like her who carry a certain kind of knowing, and within that genealogy I place Setaey Adamu Boateng, identified as the voice of the Ancestors on the cover of Zong!: she who recounts the story that can only be told by not being told; the story that can never, yet must, be told. Through being present and absent. What I’m saying, as a poet, is that Sycorax stands in for all that is subterranean and subaqueous in cultures which have been colonized. Perhaps it is she who is the story that is always told yet never told.
The Tempest has lent itself to recurrent interpretations as a script of the colonial condition; within this context Prospero becomes the colonizer and Caliban the ultimate signifier of the colonized man, taught to read by Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Caliban knows a larger truth, however, which he places before Prospero: “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, which thou takst from me.” He understands that the genealogical line of ownership comes through the hag, his mother. It is Sycorax, the mad, bad, Black witch (she is, after all, from Algiers) and her descendants who tell that which can never be told and untell that which can only be told by not being told. In Specters of Marx Derrida writes: “If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it. We would be affected by it as by a cause — natural or genetic. One always inherits from a secret [my emphasis] — which says ‘read me, will you ever be able to do so?’” It must be told, it can’t be told. This is the legacy of Sycorax. It is a demonic legacy and I am here drawing on the analysis of the renowned intellectual Sylvia Wynter, who argues that “‘demonic models’ posited by physicists … seek to conceive of a vantage point outside the space-time orientation of the humuncular observer.” Several years ago in an essay that appears in A Genealogy of Resistance exploring the fate of the Caribbean islands where I was born and grew up, I wrote (in the Caribbean demotic): “The next five hundred years showing whether we equal to the challenge of calling Sycorax to living through the ceremony of Souls, or whether we continuing and letting Caliban perform his macabre dance in the shadow of Prospero.”
I first came upon reference to the ceremony of Souls several years ago when I returned to Tobago for an extended period of time. Shortly after I got there I began reading The Pleasures of Exile, a seminal collection of essays by the Barbadian Caribbean novelist George Lamming. “In the republic of Haiti,” he writes, “one corner of the Caribbean cradle — a native religion sometimes forces the official Law to negotiate with peasants who have retained a racial, and historic, desire to worship their original gods.” This is the ceremony of Souls (Lamming doesn’t provide the creole expression for it) which he describes as a “drama between religion and the Law.” The “ceremony of the Souls,” he continues, “is regarded by the Haitian peasant as a solemn communion; for he hears, at first hand, the secrets of the Dead. The celebrants are mainly relatives of the deceased who, ever since their death, have been locked in Water. It is the duty of the Dead to return and offer, on this momentous night, a full and honest report on their past relations with the Living. … It is the duty of the Dead to speak, since their release from that purgatory of Water cannot be realised until they have fulfilled the contract which this ceremony symbolises. The Dead need to speak if they are going to enter that eternity which will be their last and permanent Future. … Different as they may be in their present state of existence, those alive and those now Dead — their ambitions point to a similar end. They are interested in their Future.”
The chapel’s cowbell
Like God’s anvil
Hammers ocean to a blinding shield;
Fired, the sea grapes slowly yield Bronze plates to the metallic heat.
Roofs roar in the sun.
The wiry, ribbed air
Above earth’s open kiln
Writhes like a child’s vision
Of hell, but nearer, nearer.
Below, the picnic plaid
Of Scarborough is spread
To a blue, perfect sky,
Dome of our hedonist philosophy.
Bethel and Canaan’s heart
Lies open like a psalm.
I labour at my art.
My father, God, is dead.
Past thirty now I know
To love the self is dread
Of being swallowed by the blue
Of heaven overhead or rougher blue below.
Some lesion of the brain
From art or alcohol
Flashes this fear by day:
As startling as his shadow
Grows to the castaway.
Upon this rock the bearded hermit built
Goats, corn crop, fort, parasol, garden,
Bible for Sabbath, all the joys
Which sent him howling for a human voice.
Exiled by a flaming sun
The rotting nut, bowled in the surf,
Became his own brain rotting from the guilt
Of heaven without his kind,
Crazed by such paradisal calm
The spinal shadow of a palm
Built keel and gunwale in his mind.
The second Adam since the fall
Corruption held the seed
Of that congenital heresy that men fail
According to their creed.
Craftsman and castaway,
All heaven in his head,
He watched his shadow pray
Not for God’s love but human love instead.
II We came here for the cure
Of quiet in the whelk’s centre,
From the fierce, sudden quarrel,
From kitchens where the mind,
Like bread, disintegrates in water,
To let a salt sun scour
The brain as harsh as coral,
To bathe like stones in wind,
To be, like beast or natural object, pure.
That fabled, occupational
Compassion, supposedly inherited with the gift
Of poetry, had fed
With a rat’s thrift on faith, shifted
Its trust to corners, hoarded
Its mania like bread,
Its brain a white, nocturnal bloom
That in a drunken, moonlit room
Saw my son’s head
Swaddled in sheets
Like a lopped nut, lolling in foam.
O love, we die alone!
I am borne by the bell
Backward to boyhood
To the grey wood
Spire, harvest and marigold,
To those whom a cruel
Just God could gather
To His blue breast, His beard
A folding cloud,
As He gathered my father,
Irresolute and proud,
I can never go back.
I have lost sight of hell,
Of heaven, of human will,
Is not enough,
I am struck by this bell
To the root.
Crazed by a racking sun,
I stand at my life’s noon,
On parched delirious sand
My shadow lengthens.
III Art is profane and pagan,
The most it has revealed
Is what a crippled Vulcan
Beat on Achilles’ shield.
By these blue, changing graves
Fanned by the furnace blast
Of heaven, may the mind
Catch fire till it cleaves
Its mould of clay at last.
Now Friday’s progeny,
The brood of Crusoe’s slave,
Black little girls in pink
Walk in their air of glory
Beside a breaking wave;
Below their feet the surf
Hisses like tambourines.
At dusk, when they return
For vespers, every dress
Touched by the sun will burn
A seraph’s, an angel’s,
And nothing I can learn
From art or loneliness
Can bless them as the bell’s
Transfiguring tongue can bless.
Festus Claudius McKay, known as Claude McKay, was born September 15, 1889 or 1890 in Nairne Castle near James Hill in upper Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. He referred to his home village as Sunny Ville, a name given to the area by locals. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. He had seven siblings. McKay’s parents were active and well-respected members of the Baptist faith. Thomas was a strict, religious man who struggled to develop close relationships with his children due to his serious nature. In contrast, Hannah had a warmth that allowed her to give love freely to all of her children. Thomas was of Ashanti descent, while Hannah traced her ancestry to Madagascar. Claude recounted that his father would often share stories of Ashanti customs with the family.
At the age of four, McKay went to school at Mt. Zion Church. Around the age of nine, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, also known as U’Theo, a teacher, to be given a proper education. His brother also enjoyed being a journalist, even though he did not professionally do this for a living. Due to his brother’s influence, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology. With the time he had on his hands, he would read poems during that time and other material; a lot of material he read was William Shakespeare’s work. When McKay was in elementary school, he became very intrigued and passionate about poetry, which he started to write at the age of 10.
As a teenager in 1906, he became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, maintaining his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him, who also encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect, and then set some of McKay’s verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912.
McKay’s next volume, Constab Ballads (1912), was based on his experiences of joining the constabulary for a brief period in 1911. Many of the concerns that many of his later work, as the opposition of city and country, the problems of exile, make their first appearance in these poems.
In 1912 he left for the United States where he traveled to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University. lived in Alabama, Kansas City, and New York, writing and editing for several periodicals, some of them communist or radical. In 1917, he published two sonnets, “The Harlem Dancer” and “Invocation,” and later used the form in writing about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States.
During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and traveled to Russia and then to France, where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.
McKay’s viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes.
Extended, detailed biographical note including McKay’s writing across many genres, bisexuality, communism, and catholicism at:
The site ]offers digital editions of all of McKay’s early poems, including Songs of Jamaica, Constab Ballads, Spring in New Hampshire, and Harlem Shadows, as well as uncollected poetry published in various Jamaican, British, and American magazines from the 1910s and 20s not included in those volumes.
Poem by Claude McKay Published in Daily Gleaner November 11 1911
We sheltered from de rain, one night,
Beneat’ a spreading’ mango-tree;
De lightnin’ cut shone clear an’ bright
Aroun’ me an’ my Idalee.
De darkenin’ shadows gathered roun’,
De raindrops fallin’ from the sky
Made patt’rin’ music in deir soun’,
While howlin’ breezes hurtle by.
De night grew dark, de rain still poured,
Our beatin’ hearts were filled wid fears.
An’ down below de river roared,
Her eyes were veiled with mist of tears.
De lightnin’ cut, de ‘tunder rolled,
She trembled at de dazzling spark;
Although so wet, we were not cold, —
Love warmed us, though de night was dark.
Fiercer an’ fiercer waxed the storm,
I kissed de tears ‘way from her face,
I hugged de loved an’ trimblin’ form,
She fluttered in me fond embrace.
We slide along de sloppy pass,
De fordin’ place was still up high;
We tried it, but we could not cross,
I heard her give a smothered cry.
I took her to some school-friends near,
‘De mud-mud slidin’ neat’ our feet;
She kissed me, smilin’, an’ said ‘Dear,
We in de marnin’ hope fe meet.”
The to me home near by I ran,
An’ silently crept into bed;
I slept, — a happy, happy man,
Wide love-dreams twirlin’ in my head.
An’ in de marnin’ wakin’ late,
I wondered at de t’ings I saw;
De place was in woeful state,
My mout’ was hushed in silent awe.
Banana trees lay on de groun’,
An’ water covered off de plain;
Whole fields o’ yam could not be foun’,
It was a fearful hurricane.
De mango-tree neat’ which we’d stayed
Was by de lightnin’ rent an’ torn;
What might have been had we delayed!
I shivered in de sultry morn.
De brilliant sun rose to its height,
An’ looked do’n on de desolate scene
Half changing in de golden light
To different shades of blue an’ green.
Since then long years have slipped away,
But still I look back on de past,
An t’ink upon de awful day
We sheltered from de hail-storm’s blast.
At times I wish de lightnin’s stroke
Had slain us neat’ de mango-tree;
It would be long-time better luck
For me an’ my poor Idalee.
But Sarah Jane she wus ‘an all,
For she t’row ‘way de pan,
An’ jam her back agains’ de wall
Fe fight her mumma Fan:
Feelin’ de pinch,
She mek a wrinch
An’ get ‘way; but de wench
Try fe put shame upon her ma,
Say dat she cook de bittle raw.
Dis water-fetchin’ sweet dem though
When day mek up dem min’,
An’ ’nuff o’ dem ‘tart out fe go,
An’ de weader is fine:
De pan might leak,
Dem don’t a ‘peak,
Nor eben try fe seek Some clay or so to mek it soun’;
Dem don’t care ef dem wet all roun’.
Dén all ’bout de road dem ‘catter
Marchin’ álong quite at ease;
Dat time listen to deir chatter,
Talkin’ anyt’ing dem please:
Dem don’t a fear,
Neider a care,
For who can interfere?
T’ree mile — five, six tu’n, — an’ neber
W’ary, but could do it for eber.
GREEN mancha mek fe naygur man;
Wha’ sweet so when it roas’?
Some boil it in a big black pan,
It sweeter in a toas’.
ALL dat week was cold an’ dreary,
An’ I worked wid heavy heart;
All my limbs were weak an’ weary,
When I knew that we would part;
An’ I thought of our first meeting
On dat pleasant day o’ June,
Of his kind an’ modest greeting
When we met dat afternoon;
Of de cáprice o’ de weader,
How de harsh rain fell dat day,
How we kissed de book togeder,
An’ our hearts were light an’ gay;
How we started homewards drivin’,
Last civilian drive in train;
How we half-feared de arrivin’,
Knowin’ we were not free again;
How we feared do’n to de layin’
By of our loved old-time dress,
An’ to each udder kept sayin’
All might be unhappiness;
How our lives be’n full o’ gladness,
Drillin’ wid hearts light an’ free;
How for days all would be sadness
When we quarrelled foolishly.An’ de sad, glad recollection
Brought a strange thrill to my soul,
‘Memberin’ how his affection
Gave joy in a barren wul’:
As I thought then, my mind goin’
Back to mem’ries, oh! so dear,
As I felt de burden growin’,
Jes’ so shall I write it here.
We were once more on de drill-ground,
Me so happy by his side,
One in passion, one in will, bound
By a boundless love an’ wide:
Daily you would see us drinkin’
Our tea by de mess-room door,
Every passin’ moment linkin’
Us togeder more an’ more.
After little lazy leanin’,
Sittin’ on de window-sill,
Me would start our carbine-cleanin’
For de eight o’clock big drill :
To’ me he be’n always ready,
An’ as smart as smart could be;
He was always quick, yet steady,
Not of wav’rin’ min’ like me.
When de time was awful dull in
De ole borin’ Depot-school,
An’ me face was changed an’ sullen,
An’ I kicked against de rule,
He would speak to me so sweetly,
Tellin’ me to bear my fate,
An’ his lovin’ words completely
Helped me to forget de hate.
An’ my heart would start a-pinin’
Ef, when one o’clock came roun’,
He was not beside me dinin’,
But be’n at some duty boun’:
Not a t’ing could sweet me eatin’,
Wid my Bennie ‘way from me;
Strangely would my heart be beatin’
Tell I knew dat he was free.
When at last he came to table,
Neider one could ever bate
Tell in some way we were able
To eke out each udder plate:
All me t’oughts were of my frennie
Then an’ in de after days;
Ne’er can I forget my Bennie
Wid him nice an’ pleasant ways.
In de evenin’ we went walkin’,
An’ de sweet sound of his voice,
As we laughed or kept a-talkin’,
Made my lovin’ heart rejoice:
Full of happiness we strolled on,
In de closin’ evenin’ light,
Where de stately Cobre rolled on
Gurglin’, murm’rin’ in de night;
Where de rushin’ canal waters
Splashed t’rough fields of manchinic,
Wid deir younger tender daughters
Grow’n’ togeder, lush an’ t’ick,
Bound’ de mudder tall an’ slimber
Wid her scalloped leaves o’ blue,
In de evenin’ light a-limber,
Or a-tossin’ to an’ fro.
Back to barracks slowly strollin’,
Leavin’ de enticin’ soun’
O’ de Cobre proudly rollin’
T’rough de old deserted town ;
Pas’ de level well-kept meadows
O’ de spacious prison-land,
Where de twilight’s fallin’ shadows
Scattered at de moon’s command.
So we passed ‘long, half unwillin’,
T’rough de yawnin’ barrack-gate,
Our poo’ hearts wid disdain fillin’
O’ de life we’d larnt to hate;
Visions of a turgid ocean
Of our comrades’ noise an’ woes,
An’ a ne’er-ceasin’ commotion
Sorrowfully ‘fo’ us rose.
We mixed in de tumult, waitin’
Fe de moment o’ release,
De disorder never ‘batin’,
Never ‘batin’ in de leas’;
Wid de anger in us growin’,
We grew vexed from black to blue,
All de hot blood t’rough us flowin’,
As we hungered for tattoo.
While some o’ de men were strong in
Rum o’ Wray an’ Nephew fame,
We sat do’n wid ceaseless longin’
Till at last de tattoo came:
Jes’ then we were no more snappy,
But be’n even in fe fun ;
Once again we felt quite happy
After de roll-call was done.
Claspin’ of our hands togeder,
Each to each we told good-night,
Dreamed soon o’ life’s broken ledder
An’ de wul’s perplexin’ fight,
Of de many souls a-weepin’
Burdened do’n wid care an’ strife,
While we sweetly lay a-sleepin’,
Yet would grumble ’bout our life.
Once his cot was next beside me,
But dere came misfortune’s day
When de pleasure was denied me,
For de sergeant moved him ‘way:
I played not fe mind de movin’
Though me heart wid grief be’n full;
‘Twas but one kin’ o’ de provin’
O’ de ways o’ dis ya wul’.
To’ we tu’n good, came de warnin’
O’ de rousin’ bugle-soun’,
An’ you’d see us soon a marnin’
To de bat’-house hurryin’ down,
Leavin’ udders yawnin’, fumblin’,
Wid deir limbs all stiff an’ ole,
Or ‘pon stretchin’ out an’ grumblin’,
Say’n’ de water be’n too col’.
In a jiffy we were washin’,
Jeerin’ dem, de lazy type,
All about us water dashin’
Out o’ de ole-fashion’ pipe:
In a lee while we were endin’,
Dere was not much time to kill,
Arms an’ bay’nets wanted tendin’
To’ de soon-a-marnin’ drill.
So we spent five months togeder,
He was ever staunch an’ true
In sunshine or rainy weader,
No mind what wrong I would do:
But dere came de sad heart-rendin’
News dat he must part from me,
An’ I nursed my sorrow, bendin’
To de grim necessity.
All dat week was cold an’ dreary,
An’ I worked wid heavy heart;
All my limbs were weak an’ weary
When I knew dat we would part;
All de fond hopes, all de gladness
Drooped an’ faded from our sight,
An’ an overwhelmin’ sadness
Came do’n on de partin’ night.
In de dim light I lay thinkin’
How dat sad night was our last,
My lone spirit weakly sinkin’
‘Neat’ de mem’ries o’ de past:
As I thought in deepest sorrow,
He came, sat do’n by my side,
Speakin’ o’ de dreaded morrow
An’ de flow o’ life’s dark tide.
Gently fell the moonbeams, kissin’
‘Way de hot tears streamin’ free,
While de wind outside went hissin’
An’ a-moanin’ for poor me:
Then he rose, but after bended,
Biddin’ me a last good-bye;
To his cot his steps he wended,
An’ I heard a deep-drawn sigh.
‘Twas de same decisive warnin’
Wakin’ us as in de past,
An’ we both washed soon a marnin’
‘Neat’ de ole pipe fe de last;
We be’n filled wid hollow laughter,
Rather tryin’ to take heart,
But de grief returned when after
Came de moment fe depart.
Hands gripped tight, but not a tear fell
As I looked into his face,
Said de final word o’ farewell,
An’ returned back to my place :
At my desk I sat me dry-eyed,
Sometimes gave a low-do’n moan,
An’ at moments came a sigh sighed
For my Bennie dat was gone.
Gone he, de little sunshine o’ my life,
Leavin’ me ‘lone to de Depót’s black strife,
Dear little comrade o’ lecture an’ drill,
Loved comrade, like me of true stubborn will:
Oft, in de light o’ de fast sinkin’ sun,
We’d frolic togeder aroun’ de big gun;
Oft would he laughingly run after me,
Chasin’ me over de wide Depot lea;
Oft would he teach me de folly o’ pride
When, me half-vexed, he would sit by my side;
Now all is blackness t’rough night an’ t’rough day,
For my heart’s weary now Bennie’s away.
The Tropics of New York
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,
Sat in the window, bringing memories
of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.
My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man’s menace, out of time.
Now the dead past seems vividly alive,
And in this shining moment I can trace,
Down through the vista of the vanished years,
Your faun-like form, your fond elusive face.
And suddenly some secret spring’s released,
And unawares a riddle is revealed,
And I can read like large, black-lettered print,
What seemed before a thing forever sealed.
I know the magic word, the graceful thought,
The song that fills me in my lucid hours,
The spirit’s wine that thrills my body through,
And makes me music-drunk, are yours, all yours.
I cannot praise, for you have passed from praise,
I have no tinted thoughts to paint you true;
But I can feel and I can write the word;
The best of me is but the least of you.
“Miss Lou” – Hon. Louise Bennet Coverley – on Jamaica Language
Miss Louise Bennett on children learning language
“Brown Girl in the Ring:” A Song by Louise Bennett
Miss Lou – Live In Concert (Special Edition Mix)
from the YouTube site: “Dr Louise Bennett-Coverley is described as the “Bob Marley of folklore”, “The Motherof Jamaican Culture” and “Jamaica’s First Lady of Comedy”, a “Living Legend” and a “Cultural Icon”. Miss Lou brings to you the essence of Jamaican culture in what is a joyful, educational, playful and comical performance that leaves you feeling uplifted – YES M’ DEAR! “Miss Lou taught us to love ourselves and not to be ashamed of our language. Language is an index of power and identity. If we think our language is unworthy, we think ourselves unworthy. And don’t come with any nonsense about whether we must choose Patois over English or whether we don’t need to learn English.” Jamaican Gleaner. The concert has been edited for the On A Level talkshow”
Bans a Killin
So yuh a de man me hear bout!
Ah yuh dem seh dah teck
Whole heap a English oat seh dat
yuh gwine kill dialec!
Meck me get it straight, mas Charlie, For me no quite understand
Yuh gwine kill all English dialec
Or jus Jamaica one?
Ef yuh dah equal up wid English Language, den wha meek
Yuh gwine go feel inferior when
It come to dialec?
Ef yuh cyaan sing ‘Linstead Market’
An Water come a me yeye’
Yuh wi haffi tap sing ‘Auld lang syne’ An ‘Comin through de rye’.
Dah language weh yuh proud a,
Weh yuh honour an respec –
Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know se
Oat it spring from dialed
Oat dem start fi try tun language
From de fourteen century –
Five hundred years gawn an dem got More dialec dan we!
Yuh wi haffi kill de Lancashire,
De Yorkshire, de Cockney,
De broad Scotch and de Irish brogue Before yuh start kill me!
Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford Book
A English Verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty a Shakespeare!
When yuh done kill ‘wit’ an ‘humour’, When yuh kill ‘variety’,
Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill Originality!
An mine how yuh dah read dem English Book deh pon yuh shelf,
Miss Lou, the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley O.M., O.J., finally has her day! September 7 has officially been declared, by Governor-General Sir Howard Cooke, to be ‘Miss Lou Day’. The day marks the works of the esteemed first lady of comedy in promoting, celebrating, and exploring Jamaican culture. It also marks the day of her birth.
Born in 1919 in Kingston, Jamaica, to a widowed dressmaker, Miss Lou’s artistic learnings, creativity, and love for performance were nurtured by her mother and grandmother. Miss Lou recalls that as early as age seven, she delighted in telling stories and performing for playmates and family members. Clap yuhself, Miss Lou!
We here at Jamaicans.com have declared May 2003 as Miss Lou Month.
Jamaicans.com will continue to root for Miss Lou in becoming our next National Heroine.
Louise Bennett, Caribbean cultural icon, linguist and poet, has been writing and performing using the Jamaican Creole since the 1950s. For a long time, despite the fact that her work gained limited favour among the working class and some intellectuals, her writings did not appear in the important Jamaican anthology Focus in the 1940s to the 1960s, and the Jamaica Poetry League ignored her. In 1962, she was included in the Independence Anthology of Jamaican Literature, but not in the section for poetry. It took the social and political upheaval of the 1970s for academics and others to accept Louise Bennett as a guru of the Jamaican Creole. She received the Order of Jamaica in 1974.
Louise Bennett had a programme called “Miss Lou’s Views” on Jamaican JBC Radio in the 1970s. One correspondent wrote in a daily newspaper that such a programme should be scrapped because it tended to perpetuate ignorance in Jamaicans. Though Louise Bennett has sought to foster love and respect for the Jamaican dialect, she has never advocated that Standard English be abandoned. She argued that for far too long it was considered not respectable to use the dialect, because there was a social stigma attached to the kind of person who used it. She added that many people still did not accept that for many Caribbean people, there were many things best said in the language of the folk. (“Bennett on Bennett” 101).
The debate as to the rightful place that Caribbean dialects should play in the life of the people is ongoing and contentious. Many people mostly the middle-class, seem unable to accept the proposition that Caribbean people may be armed with both Standard English and the Creole.
Marcia: We are indebted to you for bringing pride to the Jamaican Patois and giving it international recognition. Who in your estimation does a great imitation of you? Is this person one of your protégés?
Miss Lou: Without hesitation I will say Faith D’Aguilar. She has me down pat . She once fooled my late husband when he heard her voice over a loud speaker, and thought I had returned from a performance overseas without telling him. I could not say she was my protégé.
Marcia: Let us play “What If”…What if you were asked to rewrite the National Anthem of Jamaica, what would you do differently to the words?
Miss Lou: Nothing, they are just fine.
Marcia: What does it mean when you say, “Jack Mandora mi nuh choose none” at the end of one of your stories?
The respectability that English enjoys, she believes, ought to be afforded the native Jamaican tongue. The capacity for rational choice, social responsibility, and demand for respectability in a class-conscious, racially ambiguous society, finds Miss Lou giving voice and chiseling out a space for the everyday Jamaican folk.
LB: I noticed that in most of your works, you haven’t addressed very much one thing that is a certainty in life, and I think it’s a very colorful aspect of the Jamaican lifestyle—our treatment of death.
MISS LOU: I used to start off most of my lecture demonstrations with the Dinkie Minnie which was a function held to cheer up the family of the dead person or to banish grief.
LB: Like a Nine-Night?
MISS LOU: But the Dinkie is not a Nine-Night. The Dinkie is eight nights after the death. From the first night to the eighth. The Ninth Night is a more religious ceremony. The Dinkie Minnie is to keep the family from grieving. And the number eight is definitely significant.
LB: From the African cosmology.
MISS LOU: Yes, from the African tradition. I have talked about this all over the place. I can remember talking about it in Britain once, years ago. There was this lawyer who said he came to London years ago as a law student. He said to me, “I have become so British and have begun to look at things through the British eyes.” You know the stiff upper lip and what-not. And he said, “I used to think that when you go to a funeral, it is such a sad thing and all that.” And I said, “In our tradition, we danced.” He said that he used to think that was primitive. He had this terrible thing about being primitive. And there I was talking about the Dinkie [during the lecture in London] and telling them about the jollity. You laugh your loudest; nothing sad must happen at a Dinkie. You find that in a lot of our folk songs, where the tune of the song might be sad, the mood is happy. Because it’s a Dinkie. The whole Dinkie mood is happy. I always cite songs like “Linstead Market”: “Carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market / Not a quattie wut sell.” It is a sad thing, you know. But instead of singing it in a doleful mood, you sing it happily.
LB: So even though you’re dealing with serious subjects. . .
MISS LOU: Yes, you can think about the Dinkie as a creative center because a lot of our folk songs come from the tradition of the Dinkie. Things like “Judy Drownded” and “Herrin’ an’ Jerk Pork.” The important thing is that whatever the songs, they were topical at the time. Whatever was topical, they would make a song on it, eh.
LB: They are doing that still.
MISS LOU: Yes, the Dinkie goes on, man. The Dinkie really goes on. There can be a time in the Dinkie when you feel sad. If the people notice that there is somebody who is grieving within, and not dancing it off, not moving it off, not bawling it off, word would go around, “Boy, we don’t mek her cry yet, you know. She no cry at all yet, you know. We haffi mek her bawl.” Most of these things are done in circles, in a ring. Everybody would hold hands, including the grieving person. If it’s a woman grieving for her husband or if it is a man grieving for his wife or if it’s a parent grieving for a child, that person would be in the circle and hold hands, and in the center of the circle they would put. . .If it is a woman and a child, in the center they would put a woman and a child. And if a child had died, a child in the circle would lie down, as if he were dead. And the crowd would just circle. . .everybody start to sing this doleful song:
Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl.
And they keep up that tune until you hear this scream. The person who was grieving inside screams! And the minute she screams, you know, they hold her. They know she’s gone. And they start something that is stronger, a more frivolous beat to get her moving, moving. So I talked a lot about Dinkie at this lecture demonstration in London, and this fellow came to me and he said, “You know, I experienced that. I came to this country and for years, I never went back home.” Then his father died. And the day he heard that his father died, he was so sad. And everything came down on him. And he talked about the number of times he could have really gone back to look at them. And all the things they did for him. And he felt it. And when he got at the airport [in Jamaica], his three brothers came to meet him, and they took him home. And on the way home, near home, he heard the music and the drums. All the time he was grieving inside, you know. And then he said to himself, “My father is dead, and they’re dancing.” But he never said a word; he just sat down inside the house. And the brothers came in and said to him, “Come and dance.” And he said, “No. I am not dancing. How can I dance? My father is dead.” And the brothers said, “Yes, your father is dead. Come.” They grabbed him, man, and they took him out to the drums. And then he started to move. And the next thing, he was really dancing. And he got into the mood, until he suddenly realized what was happening. He felt so much better after the dance. And he said, “What a great therapy that I had, and yet I never realized how good it is.” He said he saw everything in perspective after that….
Jamaican Patois or Jamaican Creole is an English-based creole with West African influences that is spoken primarily in Jamaica and its diaspora. The language developed when enslaved Africans from West and Central Africa were “exposed to, learned, and nativized the vernacular and dialectal forms” the English spoken by slave owners. As many of the Africans who survived slavery in Jamaica were of Akan descent, most of the loan words were from the Akan language. Patois words such as “broni” (white parent) and “nana” (grandparent) are the same in Akan. Patois “bafan” comes from Bɔfran (child) and “casha” from kasɛ́, (thorn). Other African languages from which Patois takes loan words and have been influenced by are Efik, Fula, Igbo, Kongo, Yoruba, Mende, and Wolof.
Varieties of Jamaican Creole, according to the majority view, are largely local developments which represents a paradigm case of the category of immigrant Creole varieties. Winford’s statement about societies like Jamaican, which has less varied history of language context, is that “mesolects are in one sense continuations of earlier varieties, resulting from fairly close contact between Africans and Europeans, but in another sense they are the result of continuing contact and interaction between those earlier varieties and others in the continuum, including basilects” (Winford1997:254). The history of English and English-derived varieties in Jamaica begins in the seventeenth century: After roughly 150 years of Spanish occupation, Jamaica came under British control in 1655. English became the language of prestige and power on the island, 4reflecting the social status of its users, while the emergent Creole was regarded as the fragmented reached about 7,000 by 1673, while blacks numbered about 9,000 at that time. Establishment of sugar plantations increased the number of slaves and black population to around 100 000 in 1739, whereas the white population increased slightly during this period. The result was emergence of a basilectal Creole, according to the lmited access conception. Immigration played only a minor role in the development of Jamaican Creole; post-emancipation labour immigration took place only on a smaller scale and immigrants into nineteenth-century Jamaica found an already formed Creole. According to the Lalla and D’Costa, in Jamaica after emancipation “the forces for language change must have reflected the internal social, ethnic, demographic, and psychological changes of a country coming to terms with a new order” (Deuber 29). According to Delgado, there are also different sociolinguistic factors which influenced shaping of the Creole language, which was greatly influenced by pirate English, like: migration, contact ecology and population demographics. The Atlantic Ocean connects four continents and pirate ship’s position depended on; trade winds, season, naval policing strategies, and availability of prizes. Also, Delgado explains that: Pirate ships contained transient communities that accepted new recruits from all ports and any passing vessels; people therefore migrated into pirate communities mostly from Africa, Europe and the Americas, yet people of other continents also came into contact with pirate ships via trade networks and indenture. Since at least the fifteenth century there had been a mass-expropriation of people from their ancestral lands in Europe, Africa and the Americas, and it is plausible that many of these dispossessed people migrated toward the opportunities available along the trade routes. (162) Furthermore, the majority of pirates were mostly active on the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea throughout the whole year and they spent mostly three weeks on land. Pirate ships are the proof for “multiracial maroon communities, in which rebels used the high seas as others used the mountains and the jungles” (Rediker 2000, 167)
Children born in rural parts of the country learn Patois from their parents usually in a monolingual home. At age six, they go to school where they are taught exclusively in English. Starting at age 10, speaking in Jamaican Standard English is a mark of social class, achievement and potential. There is universal education through primary school for all Jamaicans. Those who continue in school, increase their proficiency in English while those who stop school will most likely go back to speaking Patois and use that for the rest of their life (Snider 2 December 2009). Speakers of Patois use it because their parents did and sometimes they are unable to advance in their education so they continue speaking the language of their society. There are standards in society of when and where each language is used; children learn this very quickly in order to prevent social embarrassment. English is used for business and work (including international agreements and affairs) while Patois is used for at home and social interactions (Chacon 2001). All Jamaicans generally understand Patois, it illustrates the condition of Jamaican people, distinguishes the country from Europe and expresses the beliefs of the people: identity, race and protest. An example of social rules of when to use English and when to communicate in Patois is illustrated here with Mary (the mother) and her daughter Charlotte:
Mary: Yes mam. dem pikni diffarant dees deys yunno. (yes, madam .. these children are
different these days you know).
Mary: Dem baan big … dem grow faas faas … de world change up … I glad (them born
big… them grow fast fast. the world change up … I am glad) … glad Chatti like she
iz . . Chatti tel Joyce what hu lern a skool tide. (Charlotte like she is. . Charlotte
tell Joyce what you learn at school today).
Charlotte: (rather slowly and enunciating every syllable) I learn bout Marcus Garvey,
our national hero.
Barbara and Fay: (anxious to join in the exchange) Yes . . yes, we learn bout Garvey.
Mary: What I tel yu …
All Creole has similar grammatical structure, vocabulary, sound and syntax that come from roots in African language (Gladwell 1994). The use of only one tense reflects the Niger-Congo roots of languages where they do not have the aspect of time either (hence no past or future tense)(McLaren 97-110). The structure of Patois has no standard method for writing the language (Adams 1-65). Writing the actual language of Patois becomes very confusing because of the variations in spelling. Often Jamaican children are taught to spell and write how they speak and this is one of the reasons they struggle in writing English (Problem with Patois is in Writing It 2004). As Jamaican is spelled phonetically and English words are spelled with a standard, there is a huge contrast when they are put together (Adams 1-65). Words can also vary in meaning and spelling from different areas but the more people begin to get used to writing Patois, there will be more regulation on subjects of grammar and verbs (Chacon 2001).
Dem walk—they walked
Him belly—his belly
Mi kick—I kicked
Some of the ways that Patois is written include consonants switching sometimes (film to flim), adding another consonant (fishing turns to fishnin) or letters replace eachother (handle to hanggl). Letters are also dropped in combination with “s” (skin turns to ‘kin). There is no “TH” sound in the language so “thick” becomes “tick”. Plurals are also implied or understood and the singular form of the noun is both plural and singular (one foot, two feet would be one foot, two foot). The suffix for plurals of “s” does not exist and when a plural is needed, “dem” is used (the girls are coming is said as di gyal-dem a come). There is usually no use of adverbs by adding “ly”, instead it is just the same word (isn’t the child quick? Would be said as “di pikny quick, eeh?). The pronouns are also set up differently than most other romance languages, not just English (Adams 1-65).
Between 1066 and 1362, French was the official language of the England. English was viewed as an inferior vulgar hybridised Creole of Anglo-Saxon, Jutish, and Danish dialects. (Incidentally, Norman French itself could be described as a vulgar hybridised Creole of Gaulish, Latin, Norse, and Frankish dialects). Obviously, that opinion has changed, and in view of the humble origins of English it might be expected that English be understanding and supportive of its own dialects and Creoles.
For many centuries, in Jamaica itself, English has been the prestige form, the sought after standard, whereas Jamaican Creole has been viewed as an inferior way of speaking; as a vulgar hybridised Creole of English, various West African dialects, and others. (Notice the emboldened words.)
There are many features of Jamaican Creole, which mark it out as distinct from Standard English. For example, a recent email that I received read, “Wat ah way you know nuff people eh.” Most people who speak English as their first language would not understand that as a spoken phrase even if they could grasp its meaning from its written form.
Most commonly, creoles have resulted from the interactions between speakers of nonstandard varieties of European languages and speakers of non-European languages. Creole languages include varieties that are based on French, such as Haitian Creole, Louisiana Creole, and Mauritian Creole; English, such as Gullah (on the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States), Jamaican Creole, Guyanese Creole, and Hawaiian Creole; and Portuguese, such as Papiamentu (in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) and Cape Verdean; and some have bases in multiple European languages, such as two creoles found in Suriname, Saramacca (based on English and heavily influenced by Portuguese) and Sranan (based on English and heavily influenced by Dutch). Papiamentu is thought to have also been heavily influenced by Spanish.
8) Bajan (Barbados) Slang and terms
More Resources: Direct and Indirect Responses to Kamau Brathwaite’s idea of “Nation Language”
1) Charles Bernstein “Poetics of the Americas” — Collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999).
Bernstein here takes issue with Brathwaite’s concept of “nation-language” as a term which could prove ultimately perilous. “The tension between universality and locality is not simply a deformation or an embryonic phase of group consciousness to be shed at maturity. As against the positive expressivity of nation language I would speak of the negative dialectics of ideolect, where ideolect would mark those poetic sites of contest between the hegemonic and the subaltern, to use the terms of Antonio Gramsci.
To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition. From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment. Even today, its most vocal practitioners cling to moldering Eurocentric practices. Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.” James Baldwin wrote that “to be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter conditions forged in history . . . it is clearly at least equally difficult to surmount the delusion of whiteness.” The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be“post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are. But perhaps that is why historically the minority poets’ entrance into the avant-garde’s arcane little clubs has so often been occluded. We can never laugh it off, take it all in as one sick joke, and truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history. But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.
Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions. Of course, I am aware that I am erecting an artificial electric fence between two camps that many argue no longer even exists. Poetry’s current aesthetic styles bear a closer resemblance to an oscillating Venn diagram and there are plenty of indie presses and magazines that have outright and rightly rejected these ossified two poles, not to mention that to argue what is and is not truly avant-garde now, based on say, Peter Burger’s definition of the avant-garde, would be a mind-numbing, self-defeating, and masturbatory exegesis. But for this forum, I will assume that such a cold war relationship exists (though it’s been a détente for quite a while) and that the poets and schools whom I identify as avant-garde will be those who have been institutionalized as such, and I’ll include upstarts who have trumpeted themselves as the vanguard’s second coming, such as the Conceptual poets. But to return to my initial point, poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of oneminority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.
But I want to pause from this expected bean counting since examples are too endless. I would also argue that the institutions of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry accept poets of color based on how they address race. Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document. Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent theirdétournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form! Thankfully, such “ethical inadequacies” have been disciplined enough to be “in the service” of experimental writing.
Without such formal restrictions, Philip’s Zong would be in danger of being dismissed as “identity politics,” a term that has turned into quite the bogeyman of a moniker, gathering an assortment of unsavory associations within the last few decades. To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism. Compare that to Marxist—and often male—poets whose difficult and rigorous poetry may formally critique neoliberalism but is never “just about class” in the way that identity politics poetry is always “just about race,” with little to no aesthetic value. Such bias abounds in experimental poetry circles, not just among blustering chauvinists like Goldsmith and, most damagingly of all, Marjorie Perloff, but by experimental poets of color who can be their own harshest critics. Here I must speak anecdotally, as it’s persistently turned up in conversation among friends and students, but some of us (and here I use the first person plural loosely) dread the possibility of being tarred as an “identity politics” poet, and perhaps to such a degree that it’s turned into our own detriment: we may overly exercise a form of self-restraint, scraping our writing of explicitly toxic racial matter, so we won’t be exiled to that ghetto.
Marjorie Perloff, preeminent critic and academic gatekeeper of avant-garde poetry, has on numerous occasions shared her distaste for identity politics literature. Here is an excerpt she wrote for the MLA newsletter:
Under the rubrics of African American, other minorities, and post-colonial, a lot of important and exciting novels and poems are surely studied. But what about what is not studied? Suppose a student wants to study James Joyce or Gertrude Stein? Virginia Woolf or T.E. Lawrence or George Orwell? William Faulkner or Frank O’Hara? The literature of World Wars I and II? The Great Depression? The impact of technology on poetry and fiction? Modernism? Existentialism? What of the student who has a passionate interest in her or his literary world—a world that encompasses the digital as well as print culture but does not necessarily differentiate between the writings of one subculture or one theoretical orientation and another? Where do such prospective students turn?
I found this excerpt in the scholar Dorothy Wang’s excellent book, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Wang notices that in this excerpt, Perloff immediately sets up a kind of “us vs. them” opposition, which is of course a favored rhetorical tool used by avant-garde schools in the past from Futurists and Dadaists to Language School poets. Avant-garde manifestos have always assumed a tone of masculine and expansionist militancy, enforcing an aggressive divide-and-conquer framework to grab the reader’s attention. Of course, this “us vs. them” rhetoric can be used to an exhilarating effect when there is a revolutionary legitimacy to that opposition, when “we” are the rabble-rousing outliers and “they” are the hegemonic majority. But Perloff sets up an opposition that’s far more disconcerting: oddly, the hegemony has become the nameless hordes of “African Americans, other minorities, and post-colonials” while “us,” those victimized students who are searching for endangered “true” literature (read as “white”) are the outliers (since when has Ulysses taken a nose-dive from the canon’s summit down to the rare-and-hard-to-find-books list?). From her Boston Review essay “Poetry on the Brink” where she lambasts Rita Dove, to countless other instances, Perloff has persistently set up these racially encoded oppositions and the sentiment is always the same: these indistinguishable minority writers with their soft, mediocre poetry and fiction are taking over our literature. How is this advocate of experimental poetry any different from the icon of literary conservatism, Harold Bloom, who once declared that writers like Sherman Alexie are “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us?” Although Perloff has made these misguided observations for years, no one has taken her to task for it until recently, as if poets in the experimental community, afraid to fall from her good graces, look away as one looks away during Thanksgiving dinner when an aunt might complain how “those people” are driving down the property value of “our neighborhood.”
The classic function of the avant-garde has been, according to Renato Poggioli, “not so much . . . an aesthetic fact as a sociological one,” interrogating the very role of art as an institution in a bourgeois society and seeking to collapse artistic praxis with daily life. Echoing this, Charles Bernstein has said, “I care most about poetry that disrupts business as usual, including literary business. I care most for poetry as dissent, including formal dissent; poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are not otherwise articulated.” The spirit of the avant-garde has been revolt, making it all the more baffling that avant-garde poets and their scholars have—except for occasional inclusions—largely ignored major groundbreaking movements like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. BAM, with its revolutionary zeal inspired by the Black Power movement, sought to upend Western cultural institutions, energize black communities, and develop languages and forms that rejected western-influenced craftsmanship. In her illuminating must-reed Renegade Poetics, the scholar and poet Evie Shockley writes, “Black Arts proposed to establish a new set of cultural reference points and standards that centered on ‘the needs and aspirations’ of African Americans.” Amiri Baraka blended black nationalism with Dadaist linguistic disruption in his poetry and his raconteur misfit persona shared a similar showman’s DNA with the likes of Filippo Marinetti, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton. Even BAM’s much-criticized separatist agenda, to write exclusively for a black audience, is not so far off from the avant-garde’s dictum not to assimilate into the majority, but stand apart. If we are to acknowledge that there are formal choices that define avant-garde poetry such as polyvocality, hybridity, collage, stream-of-conscious writing, and improvisation, these techniques were not only used but were actually first inaugurated by African American writers or they were America’s early practitioners. Jean Toomer’s Cane, written in 1923, is an uncategorizable cross-genre book that is wide-ranging in its experimentations with fragmentation, stream-of-consciousness, and surrealist wordplay. Before academic words like hybridity and heteroglossia became en vogue, Harlem Renaissance socialist poet Claude McKay—whose work inspired key figures like Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor from the Negritude movement—experimented with Jamaican dialect and code-switching in his collection Constab Ballads. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s visionary work is a pioneering example of conceptual writing. Known for her 1982 posthumously published cross-genre memoir Dictee, she was also a multi-disciplinary artist, dematerializing text through her video montages and performances, inspiring future digital artists with her hyper-textual methods. Many of these poets’ reputations have long been battened under the banner of ethnic studies but are rarely regarded as core figures in experimental poetry. So while Dictee is considered as seminal as Tender Buttons among Asian American circles, it’s still treated like a fringe classic in the avant-garde canon.
From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters. Simone White, poet and curator of St. Marks Poetry Project, writes in Harriet: “Let me say again: I am used to being the only black person in the room. . . but the fact is, being used to being the only black person in the room isn’t the same thing as thinking that this is a tolerable or reasonable condition . . . more and more, I’m sure that I have to refuse intellectual “community” whose joy is in some way predicated on enjoyment of what is, at best, obliviousness to these harms, or worse, actual celebrations of all-white clubs. It is total bullshit to enjoy being in a social or creative community that is segregated the way poetry is segregated.”
So what is a poet of color to do, one who subscribes to Harryette Mullen’s definition of innovation as “explorative and interrogative, an open-ended investigation into the possibilities of language?” Shall we continue our headcount of reading venues and anthologies? Shall we politely speak up and beg for more representation, say a few more panels on forgotten subaltern poetry for the next wax museum conference? Shall we again rehearse these mechanical motions under the false diplomacy of inclusivity? A more generous slice please! A little more room! Just a few more faces I can recognize as my own! For too long, white poets have claimed ownership and territorialized “the new” as their own and for too long experimental minority poets have been cast aside as being derivative of their white contemporaries. If tastemakers of poetry like Marjorie Perloff have this fear of a black planet, let us become “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming” them and wrest control of the wheels of innovation. The most radical writings today are coming from poets of color—writers like writers like Black Took Collective, Rodrigo Toscano, Bhanu Kapil, Tan Lin, M. NourbeSe Philips, Douglas Kearney, Farid Matuk, Monica De La Torre, David Lau, Divya Victor, LaTasha Nevada Diggs, and so many more. The voices have returned (they’ve never gone anywhere) as a matter of survival, and also as minstrelized, digitalized, theatricalized artifice, speaking in a mélange of offshoots, with multiple entryways and exits through the soaring use of aberrant vernaculars. The form is code-switching: code-switching between languages, between Englishes, between genres, between races, between bodies. As Derek Walcott said, “there is no nation but the imagination,” and poets like Kapil create the geopolitical imaginary, building worlds to critique world-building. Conceptual writing is, for all its declarations, pathetically outdated and formulaic in its analog need to bark back incessantly at the original. As Deleuze said, “Why must we be the crocodile imitating the tree trunk? Why can’t we be the pink panther? The pink panther imitates nothing; it reproduces nothing, it paints the world its color, pink on pink; this is imperceptible itself, asignifying, making its rupture, its own line of flight.” Excessive and expressionist, poets like Ronaldo Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin and Diggs have created cyborg enunciations out of shredded text, music and lived experiences; they are building a new, dissonant futurism, treating poetry as rank growth as it punctures the dying medium of print via performance, video, or audio recordings, finding inspiration from hip hop that has oddly, so far, been ignored by Poetry. Nicholas Bourriaud, the critic who coined the term “relational aesthetics,” said the artwork is the interaction between artist and viewers, as a way to “inhabit the world in a better way.” The encounter with poetry needs to change constantlyvia the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.