To return the margin to the center
A review of 'Elleguas'
This is an essay in guise of a review. The book in question, Kamau Brathwaite’s Elegguas, recently published as part of Wesleyan University Press’s “Driftless Series” (a new program funded by the Beatrice Fox Auerback Foundation), is highly recommended. But my argument encompasses more than this volume supports. In fact, it’s the inadequacy of this book to represent Brathwaite’s contributions to our culture that worries me. As Brathwaite, who is in his eighties, prepares to leave this world, I hope that his legacy will be given the attention it deserves. Books like Elegguas (approximately Brathwaite’s fortieth publication) may help the next generation of writers to appreciate his work, but risk framing the writer as an “experimental” poet, one who embraces the margins of cultural life, rather than as a populist and innovator of writing in English who I believe should be regarded as one of the greatest poets of the language in the second half of the twentieth century. Brathwaite deserves such a title, and I expect that internationally, and for decades to come, he will be regarded as the postwar equivalent to English-language modernists like Yeats, Hughes, Stein, or Williams: as a innovator of new forms of democracy in verse. Brathwaite’s postcolonial poetics represent a transformation in the practice of poetry as significant as those associated with these one-time “experimenters,” and like each of these poets, he produced new forms by insisting that poetry must create a public among ordinary people. Like these writers, he may appear to us as part of an “avant-garde” or, as this recent book suggests, as a poet who has developed a highly personalized style. This mistakes the true gravity of Brathwaite’s accomplishment, which is to produce a poetics of the “multitude”: a form of poetry that responds simply, boldly, and effectively to the forces of Empire which shape the world today. In short, Brathwaite is the first poet in English to create an adequate aesthetic response to globalization.
Those not acquainted with Brathwaite should know that he was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1930, won a scholarship to Cambridge University, served in the Ministry of Education in Ghana during the years that it won its independence from Great Britain in the late 1950s, and cofounded the Caribbean Artists Movement from London in 1966. His poetry includes two epic trilogies: The Arrivants (1973), which collects three books, Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands, about African-Caribbean rituals and their transmission through practices of daily life; and Ancestors (2001), which collects and “reinvents” three books: Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self, about the maternal, paternal, and newborn selves of island life. His histories of Caribbean culture include Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1970), The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (1971), and History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984). Together, these are among the most thoughtful and influential elements of the Afro-Caribbean Nationalism that flourished on both sides of what Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic” throughout the 1970s.
At the core of this culture was the development of what Brathwaite termed “Nation Poetry,” a new kind of poetic idiom with roots in Léopold Sédar Senghor‘s and Aimé Césaire‘s poetics of “Negritude,” the Black Arts Movement’s concept of Nommo (a Dogon deity that Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and others associated with the power of the “animate word”), British and American modernism, and the dub poetry developed by Linton Kwesi Johnson in London and by Mikey Smith in Jamaica.
Breaking with the “imposted meters” of British colonialism, nation poets not only brought the rhythms and idioms of reggae into verse, but imagined a whole new approach to the lyric subject: one that is potentially as transformative of the genre as Hughes’s blues poems or Williams’s Imagism have been. Brathwaite’s goal has been to produce what he calls “tidalectic” poetry, a form of “diasporic music” that could speak of, for and to the people whose being emerges from successive waves of colonization and resistance. In conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey, a brilliantly conceived and executed transcription of a public interview that explores Brathwaite’s struggles as a Caribbean artist in detail, the poet offers us a vision by which to understand the principle of “tidalectics.” He describes looking down upon a woman sweeping sand out of the yard of her impoverished beachfront house:
Traditional early morning old woman of Caribbean history. She’s going on like this every morning, sweeping this sand — of all things! — away from … sand from sand. seen? … And I say Now what’s she doing? What’s this labour involve with? Why’s she labouring in this way? all this way? all this time? Because I get the understandin(g) that she somehow believes that is she don’t do this, the household — that ‘poverty-stricken’ household of which she’s part — probably head of — would somehow collapse [. . .] So she’s in fact performing a very important ritual which I couldn’t fully understand but which I’m tirelessly tryin to …
And then one moorning I see her body silhouetting against the sparking light that hits the Caribbean at that early dawn and it seems as if her feet […] were really … walking on the water … and she was travelling across that middlepassage […] The ‘meaning’ of the Caribbean was in that humble repetitive ritual actio(n) which this peasant woman was performing. And she was always on this journey, walking on the steps of sunlit water.
A number of vital elements of Brathwaite’s approach to poetry are condensed in this moment: the situation is both illogical and an “important ritual”; the poet begins in ignorance, with a question; the question is about domestic labor; the poet sublimates the woman’s task, lifting her onto the water, into contact with Christian immortality and aesthetic beauty while connecting her to a history of colonialism; finally, the “journey” is not complete. On the basis of this humble, dignified, unending motion, Brathwaite’s lifelong project has been to trace the “skid of the genesis stone on the waters of the Caribbean.” What made this project of nationalist versifying different from others is its assumption of a fundamental “?instability — like walking, I suppose, on confusion, or earthquake” in the identity of the disaporic multitude. Brathwaite set out to chart a “creole cosmos” which would “predict” “the dissolution […] of empire(s).”
Throughout, he has insisted that the poet should begin by acknowledging his ignorance of the rituals in which he finds himself and others embedded. Part of the innovative “slipperiness” of Brathwaite’s form derives from his fundamental premise that understanding his own, individual life remains fundamental to the understanding of the story of a people. His poetry is intimate, full of personal recollections about childhood and a sincere effort to capture in verse the “continental feelings” that surge and drift across his own being. But at the same time, he also begins with the assumption that the poet writes of himself but not for himself. He is a populist in the sense that he accepts the duties which the poor require of poets: to find a lasting beauty in the ordinary, to raise daily rituals toward the sublime, to free poverty by force of the imagination. His poetry is never divorced from “the political,” and it registers its rebelliousness in the formal qualities of the verse. But at the same time, this is not “avant-garde” poetry composed for elite, metropolitan audiences; it is written to understand and celebrate and uplift the anonymous poor, to give a balm to the desperate, to encourage the meek and rage against the unrighteous.
For these reasons, Brathwaite’s lines have always skipped/glided/shuffled/danced/stumbled between two realities: a global north and a global south, the here-and-now of material reality and the enraptured visions of a world yet to come. This is true of Elegguas, which records his own steps out of this world and into the next one. Its title calls forth the Yoruban deity also known as Eshu, Exu, Elegba, Legba: keeper of crossroads, spirit of chaos, trickster death. Its subject matter belongs to memory. Reprints (originally published in the Zea Mexican Diary) of three “dream stories” (letters to Brathwaite’s wife, who died in 1986) frame two collections of elegies, memorials, and reminiscences. There are farewells to friends, family members, and fellow writers alongside tributes to Black Nationalists, including the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney (killed by a car bomb in 1980), Mikey Smith (stoned to death by supporters of the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party in 1983), and leader of the Haitian Revolution Jean-Jacques Dessalines (assassinated in 1806): all the poems are acts of grief from a poet whose lyrics fuse personal and public sentiment with rare integrity.
Brathwaite is no stranger to the land of the dead. His earliest books of poetry (first collected as The Arrivants, a trilogy about Afro-Caribbean culture published in 1973) are preoccupied with the relation between acts of writing and Haitain voudoun rites. More recently, the poet has described how he was shot by a “ghost bullet” during a robbery in which an assailant placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger: “and it goes click, see? there’s this click / — I could hear it for the forever of nothing happening / In other words, the bullet — is there is a bullet — pass through my brain without physical contact, or I no longer have the physical contact to receive the bullet.” Since this incident, Brathwaite explains, “I’m not the same / person … either I’m dead / — lookin and talkin to you the living; or I’m talking / to what my sister call ‘a cloud of witnesses.’” Given this intimacy with death, and his remarkable powers as a poet, it is not surprising that Brathwaite’s observations are as sincere and well-crafted as any written in recent decades:
So cruel is creating
it must be killing to be keeping
must be the song beyond the passion
the cup beyond the potter’s wheel
not the wonderful face in the mirror
but narcissus under the pool
we little guessed this raphael
was yesterday a baker’s girl
with flowers in her hair
or that icarus was dying in air (43)
Poetry of this magnitude, this force and grace, comes together maybe once or twice in a generation. It is philosophical and lyrical, allusion-laced yet wholly original.
photo of Kamau Brathwaite by Chris Funkhouser
These lines from the same poem reveal the importance of Yeats to Brathwaite’s vision:
The dancer dance to death
but we only know the dancing
the strings the joints the places
to be oiled the rust after the last
performance are denied to us
we only know the dancing (28)
Like Yeats’s, Brathwaite’s poetry blends the singularity of feeling enjoyed by the Romantic lyric subject with the polyphonic authority of the nationalist by constructing in real (reel) time a personae that gives voice to the multitude. He dons a mask, assumes a guise that registers the “being-toward-others” of the I-self, so that his perceptual experience reverberates across worlds. “To look into the mirror of your thoughts,” Brathwaite explains, is “to look into the mirror of your metaphor, to look into the mirror of your self.” Colonized subjects confront “a false-literary and imagined — migraint— migrained — landscape on which you have been ‘nutured’ — on which you have been force-fee’d,” and it is the duty of the poet to correct this misperception.
But whereas Yeats (like Pound) believed in the necessity of mythic figures for the construction of poetry that could register the scope of national projects of emancipation, Brathwaite insists upon a more democratic poetics, one premised on the often chaotic and unorganized, disorderly, and disobedient musical and idiomatic rhythms of the poor. Like Williams, Hughes, and many of the Black Arts poets, Brathwaite recognizes how power accrues in those utterances which linger beyond the boundaries of the schoolyard and order form, and knows how to turn the language of the powerless into a formal basis for poetic action. There is a precision of statement and complexity of image that accrues in poetry that attends to language in this way. One hears it in these public-spirited lines spoken by the “madwoman” Défilée, the lover of Dessalines, as she collects his mutilated body for burial:
Bright thrones have been cast down before
the leaders stripped & torn from power. fled
or dead. Dessalines my liberator my xecutioner
my lover of Pont-Rouge like this
who break the bread w/bloody hands who tear
the nation flag at Lakayè & make it red
& make it blue, unfurl it new . where now it stands
for slave & bloody cloth & resurrected
nèg. who stone the whiteman down
from im goliam towerhome at Cormiers
. Verrettes . the crackle battleax of musketeers
against La Crête (73)
Or again, and equally, in a poem saturated with private regrets:
How all this wd have been one kind of world. perhaps — no — certainly —
kindlier — you wd have been bourne happy into yr entitlement of silver hairs
and there wd have been no threat
or flaw of cancer or forgetfulness or dementia or enemy break-in
no danger then of that sort and I wd have published our love-
songs in their paradox no matter whe they take us .
the x/hiliration — the fortune accident of so many new & trans-
patient metaphors . not the thin little run-down garden cling-
ing against the hot grey walls of yr lonely afternoon home
but a whole new pasture of egrets & seahaws & parrakeets & almond
tress with their oriental eye the paradaisal semll of ole-
ander lebanon & alexandria all over the limitless green . (105)
The mixing together of sensations which originate in the private bodies of toil, the mindless bodies that suffer shock and pain (bodies that can be beaten and killed), with sensations that circulate in the body of a people as a whole, patterns of thought and action that cannot be betrayed easily by the organic messiness of memory or bewilderment of the flesh because they belong more properly to the radically contingent nature of the spirit (the dream of a whole people), is the practical work of this poetry.
Over the years, Brathwaite has developed a set of textual styles (particular fonts, page layouts, and hieroglyphs made out of lines of type) that create visual analogs to the voices he entwines. Wonderful as these visual elements are, I have not tried to duplicate them here, in part because I fear they distract readers from recognizing the true source of Brathwaite’s innovations, which derive from the language as spoken/sung/stuttered/screamed/sobbed/soloed, rather than written. In his interview with Mackey, Brathwaite stresses that
The ‘virtue’ of the Oral Tradition – of oral poetry , if you like, lies in its SOUNN — in the origin of th(e) composition — in the poem — IN its SOUND — in the culture and cosmos of its SOUND — on the kind of cultural selection, choices, this joy awakes — the speaking voice, the active performativeness, the ‘characters’/‘virtues’/standards/qualities that are privilege in these choices.
The “performativeness” of his poetry corresponds to what I am referring to as the spirit of religion, history, beauty Brathwaite insists upon. He speaks of the need for poetry “to come alive — off that ‘page’ — within a BREATHING houm or audience,” and relates this living quality of the voice to “metaphorical enactment”: the poem’s transcendence of the reality which grounds the idiom. By this act, the poet and his public participate in a dialogic effort to “‘unterrorize’ — revitalize-reterritorialize” the world. This mixture of the visionary and ordinary pulses with the utopian force of possibility one finds in the greatest poets of modern democracy: Whitman, Lorca, Ginsberg, Passolini, Neruda, poets whose work has and will matter for decades and centuries because they sing in the voice of the multitude.
In the last several decades, the global poetry community has begun to realize the profound importance of Brathwaite’s work to the future of poetry in English. He has won Canada’s international Griffin Prize, Barbados’s Bussa Award, and Cuba’s Casa de las Americas Prize. His work has begun to receive some scholarly attention. Abiola Irele’s The African Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Charles Pollard’s New World Modernisms (University of Virginia Press, 2004) are noteworthy, and Nathaniel Mackey’s chapters on Brathwaite in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University Press, 1993) should be regarded as indispensable.
But so far there is little evidence that Brathwaite has found the public he deserves among the next generation of US poets, critics, and cultural historians. Inhabiting the language of the oppressed never has or will invite much praise from the guardians of elite culture, of course, and it is unlikely that Brathwaite will receive such honors as have been bestowed upon the more conservative Derek Walcott, for example. But the next generation of poet/critics need not obey the empire’s hierarchy of tastes. Disobedience in this case will begin when we recognize that Brathwaite deserves more than a vestibular enshrinement. From the beginning, he has struggled against attempts by cultural elites to “police” this democratic poetics in various ways.
Cultural policing of this kind may simply involve the disregard of a writer’s work, but it also takes many indirect and subtle forms. Consider for example this comment on the front-cover flap of the 1967 Oxford University Press edition of Rights of Passage: “Edward Brathwaite (not to be confused with E. R. Brathwaite, author of To Sir with Love) was born in Barbados in 1930.” The parenthetical distinction subtly separates one writer from the other, drawing a boundary by referencing what the reader is asked to recognize as the more popular alternative. The anxiety evoked by Brathwaite’s work is such that this other, clearly more “appropriate” book must be brought in to frame the more nationalistic volume.
I close this review by raising a similar concern about the framing of Brathwaite’s work today. Readers owe a tremendous debt to Nathaniel Mackey for helping to promote Brathwaite’s work in this country, but we should regard the resultant framing of Brathwaite’s material as “experimental” if that requires us to make a virtue of the work’s “marginal” status. We should remember that Brathwaite, in ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey confesses to not having been aware of “the whole business of an alternative school of writing.” Although Brathwaite accepts the efforts of Mackey and other writers to “celebrate marginality by making it a centrality,” there is something perhaps a little too easy about accepting Brathwaite’s poetry as “marginal.” Its goal is not ever to celebrate the broken, the partial, and the poor as a permanent or in some ways even present condition, but to level the relation between north and south by forging a language of the multitude. In recent years, this latter term has been taken up by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in a trilogy of books (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth) about the new subjects of globalization. The global multitude is the “party of the poor” and the true subject of democracy: an entity that is necessarily fractured, multiple, migratory, and tumultuous. The tumult is both a circumstance that must be suffered and source of spirit, an uncapturable energy which drifts past the material and cultural blockades and barricades erected to channel it away from the center. Brathwaite’s poetry is never “over there,” but always also “here and now,” alongside us, insisting that as readers, poets, global citizens account for our own relations to the messiness of the world:
those nights beasts a Babylon who heiss us on sus
but that worst it is the blink
in iani own eye. The sun blott-
ed out by paper a cade fires vamp/ires
a ink wheels emp/ires a status quos a status quos a status crows
that tell a blood toll/ing in the ghetto
till these small miss/demenours as you call them
come a monstrous fetter on the land that will not let us breed
until every chupse in the face of good morning
come one more coil one more spring one more no-
thing to sing/about
come the boulder rising in the bleed
the shoulder nourishing the gun
the headlines screaming of the scrawl across the wall
of surbiton of Sheraton hotel
dat POR CYAAAN TEK NO MOORE (61–2)
Brathwaite is the first writer in English to give poetic voice to this new entity. He does indeed return the margin to the center, and for this he should — must — will one day be embraced as one of the most important writers of our age.