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 … 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
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 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 the jamette the obeah woman and mad bad black witches a tributary coming from dis place the space between
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
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 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… david scott writes repeating michel-rolph trouillot
or how does one write a history of the impossible
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 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 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
— 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
Edited by Janet Neigh