Wor(l)ds interrupted

The unhistory of the Kari Basin

                                                    … site of massive interruptions    for the most part fatal    first nations  african  asian european life        interrupted     like tectonic plates these once-upon-a-time discourses  scripts and  histories jam up against each other to create trough and mountain     in shake shudder and shimmy fault lines adjust themselves  attempting  to fix History and free the future —
around the kari basin 
                                           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[1] … coming from this place of inter/ruption   of eruption and irruption     from explosion and plain ole ruckshun[2]    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[3]     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 … [4]    drifting along a  current  towards the sea that is History — [5]
                                                    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[6]     this current  insists that we do not speak in iambic pentameter   nevrhavnevrwill   that the nolanguageofourown  is staccato  explosive[7] 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[8] an ting an ting …
                         many rivers feeding  this current i calling brathwaitian     many rivers we done cross    carrying the memory   marronage[9] exile  hurucan and volcano    they criss and cross the kari basin regardless of language  so that césaire[10] 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[11]     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[12] 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[13] 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
                                                                                         she tries … is a postmodern text  the german critic insists to me many many years ago and i   remembering the socratic method used by a former law professor reply   it is if you say it is     but  you losing something      perhaps   the most significant aspect of it if      don’t you  understand how the kya kya kya[14]  kari basin postmodern long before the term was coined    code switching  bricolage  the “end” of History    all that and more    she tries … beginning in the swirling waters of the kari basin    
                                                              she tries    she listens     she hears  the echoes of the silence of the woman’s voice     like io the priestess turned heifer by zeus did     when she regained the power of speech    trying her tongue    as if for the first    the two currents meandering to the sea that is      History         carrying caliban                                                not sycorax   the mad bad witch from algiers                                      i too resist    
             the yambic pant pant panta meter to allow  the nonsense that is the genealogy of language in the kari basin to surface   ode to a daffodil and all that   attempting  a tributary that can contain the blanchisseuse   the washer woman  the higgler[15] the jamette[16] the obeah[17] woman and  mad bad black witches      a tributary coming from dis place    the space between[18]
                                                                                                    me myself and i ’n i have been trying to figure out what zong! is     a conceptual work i am told and once again       i understand why it fits the definition      or is it that the definition fits it  

erasure of the author
apparent appropriation of found text
working within a rigidly defined set of rules
its composition inextricably linked to the computer

       like the surface of the sea that is
                               zong! reflects the linguistic distortions of the kari basin      as well  it is simultaneously cipher and mask    raising  questions of what can be and can’t be said or spoken    pointing perhaps to a poetics of the unsayable   even less amenable to yambic pant pant panta meter     i digress here
                                                                 to talk  briefly of  haiti                               monstrosity/obscenity/blackened stump of a  tongue/ torn/ out/ withered/ petrified/burnt/on the pyres of silence[19] from whom the west averts its gaze while simultaneously considering it only through the lens of pity and charity      i reflect on haiti   to enter more deeply         the idea of cipher and mask                   the secret      the unsayable   which haiti presents  and re/presents       whether embraced or not the haitian revolution is one of the signature defining moments of  the modern kari basin   as the cuban revolution is for other reasons   nous sommes un peuple and all that
                                                                                                                                                  Not only were the revolution and its implications for the Enlightenment self-understanding of freedom repressed  from the modern historical and theoretical imagination, but they were also, to begin with, “unthinkable,” which is to say, indigestible, inassimilable, within the ready-made categories of European Enlightenment thought…[20] david scott writes repeating michel-rolph trouillot   
              or                              how does one write a history of the impossible[21]   
                                                                                                                                                which is my question  
                        how does one write a poetry of the impossible    can there be a  poetics
       of the impossible   the unsayable                                                                                              in other words  
tell the story that cannot be told yet             must be told        through  the cipher          the mask 
the secret     writing itself like the vévés[22] of voudon            spiritual designs scripted on the earth itself   in white powder    because there is so much the west is unable to digest   finds unthinkable   does not wish to   perhaps cannot       assimilate without itself changing     about the african     african practices and culture
              which brings me to music                            although there were laws
aplenty against the drum   against african music and dance      enslaved africans did not have to prove their personhood through music    indeed europeans often dismissed their music as noise    proof of their subhuman qualities    it was in language and through language  that they would have to prove      english is my mother tongue/is my father tongue[23]  if they could     control the language  speak it   write it   then they increased the possibility of being  the equal   of the white man or woman                  does this go some distance towards explaining why writing has not played a similar role as music in afrosporic communities     why it plays a more ambivalent role     it is  always signifying more than meaning    serving another function    proving your personhood     like christianity    evidence of  your distance     from your primitive african state
                                                         how then does this affect a poetics     
 a poetics of  that which cannot be said        there was and           possibly still is good
                                                                                        reason to distrust writing in the kari basin    after all its function was to record and encode laws that meant the obliteration of all connections for african peoples    it encapsulated the law that controlled you     defined you a thing   
                                               if you acquired it   it advertised your leaving something negative behind 
           if you didn’t you remained among the terrorised          expected to speak in yambic pant pant panta meter
                                        so we telling a story
                                                                                                                 in trinidad and tobago about
a book they calling ti talbay           the story saying that you could only read this book to a certain point    that if you reading beyond that point you going crazy     leaving your life and going to the forest to wander around for ever                                       and  i thinking           what a powerful cautionary tale about the power of writing and the word       and  the need to be careful of it in a society in which writing is charged with so much that is negative 
                                                                                                            is ritual perhaps the way through the unsayable is zong! perhaps a ritual work masquerading as a conceptual work          mirroring the act of stripping away the spirit of the african mask or carving          leaving only the form              the work  masquerading as something else while doing another kind of work     this is  how african spiritual and cultural practices have survived the hostile societies of the afrospora            it is how certain indigenous cultural practices survive the present day christianization and islamicization in africa
                                                                                                                                                             there is very little space  to speak of the ritual function of poetry particularly as it relates to a work like zong!     it comes out of a particular  historical moment that is the kya kya kya kari basin     a moment that extends into the present     is resonant     am tempted to say    redolent    with aspects of ritual and spirit      i think of zong! as doing a form of soul work for those who died unmourned       i think of the impossibility of ever knowing what happened      the impossibility of making whole    that which has been rent asunder    i think of writing in the face of the yawning chasm of oblivion that was the lot of africans and …
                                                                                                         at least three levels of impossibility
     — living  within the european idea that the not so new world begins with       an idea that makes no provision for the is in us    except perhaps as fodder
     — fragmentary records that pass as History in a deliberately amnesiac culture   
     — the lacunae in the master narratives as they relate to us    how to bypass the master narratives   
                                                                                                                                                       voices crackle    fade in
and out             as from a bad phone line      
                                                               the poetics of the fragment as a way to read the kari basin   to interpret
the ghostly voices
notes from a journal
I walk the beach almost every day and as is my custom I collect shells
I find the fragments of shell more beautiful than the whole ones… am aware of preferring
the broken ones and enjoying the challenge of trying to figure out the identity of the shell
from the fragment.   Again an awareness of how this mirrors issues here—we are
fragments of a whole but can still be identified as part of that whole.

The islands themselves are volcanic and coral fragments.
There is a  wholeness that exists in the fragment  — as the whole exists in the fragment of
the text, perhaps,  although not visible — as a memory, a resonance.   Found a cowrie
shell — the whole back is missing, but from the front the shell appears whole —  is
astonishingly beautiful.

  — the mode and mechanism of communication    language is    itself fatally flawed   designed to convey the european idea and ideal …  oh sinner man where you gonna run to
                                                                                                                             so perhaps ritual offers a way through this thicket of impossibles
                                                                                                                                                           masquing and secrecy weave themselves into the fabric of kari basin culture      the orisha divinities[24] masquerading as catholic saints    so ogun hides behind st michael and in turn st michael holding his sword made of iron stands in for ogun whose metal is iron    a secret held in the open     a silence translating itself into another language   santeria candomble lukumi voudon[25]  all work along these song lines of silence and unsilence   tempting translations of the unsayable     i am committed to retaining an  ambivalence of the sacred object       in this case the poem                and what better motif for ambivalence than the sea         tidal    ever shifting   ever changing    a liquid archive[26] that holds the secret of  History in subterranean spaces to release them all in its own time
                    many rivers    many tributaries           two currents  at least   running towards the sea that is
                                             sharing the tradition of call and response rooted in african aesthetics       the call in this case being an attempt         it lasted almost half a millenium in the case of the transatlantic slave trade         to denude the african of all humanity    to devalue whatever traces of humanity remained      to repress          to silence the shout           the scream    the stomping     the field holler       the mourning ground   the shouts and moans of the spiritual baptist[27]      the response    it can be seen in the two main currents        is a talking back    anywhichway    byanymeansnecessary   refusing the yambic pant pant panta  meter        they call it speaking truth to power today     i dub it marronage     running away    slave rebellion     slave revolt      i call it nanny of the maroons   jamette and obeah woman   i call it     makandal   boukman   toussaint    dessalines    castro   bogle
i call it zong!                                                       insisting in the response that to be is
                                 to mean     and is
sufficient                                                that making meaning and making meaning mean  is the response to everything that would insist that the victim has no meaning   it applies more than ever       today




A version of this essay is forthcoming in White Wall Review.


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.

14. Kya kya kya is a way of representing a harsh kind of laughter in the Caribbean.

15. Name for market vendor in Jamaican patwa.

16. Women who lived in urban Trinidad in the nineteenth century and considered the street a legitimate place to be. They were considered loud and rude. 

17. Obeah is a spiritual practice rooted in West African practices.

18. M. NourbeSe Philip, “Dis Place: The Space Between,” in A Genealogy of Resistance (Toronto: Mercury Publishers, 1997).

19. Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, 66.

20. David Scott, “Antinomies of Slavery, Enlightenment, and Universal History,” Small Axe 14, no. 3 (November 2010): 153.

21. Ibid., 154, quoting Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, 73. 

22. Vévés are a form of writing made on the ground as a part of the practice of vodoun in Haiti. 

23. Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, 26.

24. Orisha is a spiritual practice of the Yoruba of Nigeria. There are several hundred divinities that address all aspects of life. 

25. New World African religions combining orisha divinities with catholic practices.

26. Iain Chambers, “Maritime Criticism and Lessons from the Sea,” Institute of Advanced Study Insights (Durham University) 3, no. 9 (2010).

27. Spiritual baptists were outlawed because although they practised a form of Christianity, it was felt that their practice was too African.