Caribbean vocabularies of Coolitude: Guyana

The poetry of David Dabydeen

'Coolie Odyssey.'

The poetry of David Dabydeen’s Coolie Odyssey (1988) is the first of the Indo-Caribbean body of poetry that I examine, as it was my own personal entry point into poetry. In his first book of poems, Slave Song, Dabydeen wrote entirely in Guyanese Creole ekphrastic poems that gave voice to the brown and black bodies painted by colonials in Guyana during the days of slavery and indenture-era plantations. This book moves between Guyanese Creole and standard English to produce the effect of a Caribbean person living a bicultural life in diaspora.

In his poem “Coolie Son (The Toilet Attendant Writes Home),” the speaker writes to his home space from abroad. He says to “Taana,”


Soon, I go turn lawya or dacta,

But, just now, passage money run out

So I tek lil wuk —

I is a Deputy Sanitary Inspecta,

Big-big office, boy! Tie round me neck!

Brand new uniform, one big bunch keys!

If Ma can see me now how she go please …


Dabydeen speaks from England with the complications of diaspora — living in a previously dispossessed community and now traveling to study in the metropole. What is interesting about this poem is that it also ponders social distance between colony and metropole. Running out of money the speaker turns to work in the bathrooms as a toilet attendant and believes that his clothes will make his mother proud. The language used here is that of Guyanese Creole, a language derided for its “broken” status, called many things, such as pidgin English, broken English; each adjective of English describes it as broken. It is the language of the people who are the descendants of the slaves and indentured laborers in what is today Guyana. This is nation language too.

In the poem “Christmas in the Caribbean,” Dabydeen writes of the colonial situation that Brathwaite refers to, that experience of snowfall in the cane field. What is notable is the syllabation and stress patterns of this poem that tie it into this creole poetic whose constituent parts cannot be disaggregated from its whole. There is no parsing this poem into poetics that are solely of Indian community or of non-Indian community given the history of creolization, coolitude, and négritude previously discussed.


Dabydeen writes,

Cutlass swing sing to cane in mystic trance:

Wuk! bruk! suck! muck! fuck!

But cane is we stubborn Cross, it don’t give one scunt for Romance.

The secret is not to born or get dead quick,

Stone, nail, drown the puppies, the babies,

Cannibalize she nipple, mother-chord, devour she disease. (Dabydeen 23)


Harnessing the “noise” of the Caribbean sounds like the staccato hack of the cutlass cutting into cane. “Wuk! etc.” is a jam of sound in nation language, a line of five stressed syllables, jars the reader like the attack of the cutlass. This poem makes no mention of Christmas in its lines, only in its title, which posits two possibilities: 1) there is no break or joy in the cane field, or 2) Christmas is irrelevant as a holiday.

Whatever the case may be, Dabydeen makes a deliberate allusion to Shakespeare’s Caliban through the word “Cannibalize;” according to Retamar in his essay “Caliban: Notes towards a Discussion of Culture in Our America” these two words share an etymology. He states, “The Carib, on the other hand, will become a cannibal — an anthropophage, a bestial man situated on the margins of civilization who must be opposed to the very death” (Retamar 66). This is the colonized being described by the colonizer: animal, an approximation to human: a legacy through which indigenous and Caribbean people have had to pass. The connection between this poem and The Tempest is further evidenced by the poems “Caliban” and “Miranda,” both named for characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with a colonial expectation removed — where Miranda is in fact compared to an animal licking her calf and where Caliban and Miranda do share in conjugal connection.

Aware of his colonial history, the legacy which haunts his very poetry, Dabydeen unflinchingly ends his collection giving voice to the speaker’s mother in the poem “Ma Talking Words.” He continues this postcolonial haunting in the last two poems of the collection, “New Day Children” and “Dependence, or The Ballad of the Little Black Boy.” Dabydeen’s poems add to the notion of nation language by positing another place where Caribbean nation language is employed to show the connections between “voice” and “noise.”

In his second book, Coolie Odyssey, David Dabydeen’s titular poem “Coolie Odyssey” lilts like music in its composition given its syntax, usages of Creole and Bhojpuri phrases, and its overall ballad-like structure. From the beginning of this poem, Dabydeen states that this “odyssey” is a hymn. He says, “It should be time to hymn your own wreck, / Your house the source of ancient song.” In its reading, as well as its writing, this narration of the journey of indentureship from colony to colony to metropole becomes a song. Its craft and tropes such as the cane field, rum, and signs of the domestic, very much interrogate the nature of nation and imagined community.

As evidenced in the poem “Coolie Odyssey,” the nation of Guyana is referred to by its older name, “El Dorado,” the Guiana of Sir Walter Raleigh’s sixteenth-century conquest. Guyana is also the “Albion Estate,” the site of indentured labor. He writes,


Heaped up beside you old Dabydeen

Who on Albion Estate clean dawn

Washed obsessively by the canal bank,

Spread flowers on the snake-infested water,

Fed the gods the food that Chandra cooked,

Bathed his tongue in the creole

Babbled by low-caste infected coolies …


The first boat chuffed to the muddy port

Of King George’s Town. Coolies come to rest

In El Dorado,

Their faces and best saris black with soot.

The men smelt of saltwater mixed with rum.


Dabydeen does not refer to nationality as described by Anderson when he states that, “in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ gender” (Anderson 5). Rather, the speaker in Dabydeen’s odyssey uses the phrase “Coolie” as a type of community signification where it is imagined as consisting of the indentured “Indian” (and I use this term loosely, as it refers to a fossilized India of 1838–1917). Arguably this notion of the “Coolie” functions in a way similar to the négritude of Seghor and Césaire, and has been typified by Marina Cater and Khal Torabully in their book Coolitude. Here an essentialized history and an imagined common experience of servitude signaled by the tropes of language, the domestic sphere, and religion, help to illustrate a connection to and disconnection from the “El Dorado” Guyana-as-nation. Interestingly enough, the reference to rum in conjunction with “El Dorado” illustrates the connection between the folksong and the poem, as El Dorado is a brand of Guyanese rum.

Anderson’s definition of “nation” as “an imagined political community — imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6) illustrates how Dabydeen departs from a national identity through his poetry. The “Coolie” community — using Pirbhai’s vocabulary of indenture — is not a political entity, nor is it sovereign. Rather, it is an imagined community where people of South Asian descent in the Caribbean who experienced the trauma of the sugar industry can locate themselves within its created world. Key commonalities include alienation/nostalgia for “home,” rum, saris, Hindi language, and labor. The tropes work together, however, to function as a binding agent for an imagined community where the Albion Estate is a microcosm of the sugar industry. Here the “coolie” is portrayed in its distinct difference from the communities of descendants of African slaves: a marked ethnic and cultural difference that perhaps keeps the formation of a national solidarity at bay.

According to Chatterjee these can be parsed into two distinct domains: the material and the spiritual, where the spiritual domain “is an ‘inner’ domain bearing the ‘essential marks of cultural identity’” (Chatterjee 6). Clearly stated, Dabydeen wants to maintain this cultural distance as he uses religion and prayer to state,

He called upon Lord Krishna to preserve

The virginity of his daughters

From the Negroes,

Prayed the white man would honor

The end-of-season bonus to Poonai


From this quote Dabydeen also reflects further developments in Chatterjee’s notion of the “inner domain of national culture,” particularly the way it is mapped on the bodies of the females in the poem. From the earlier excerpt as well as from this one, the daughters are the bearers of the whole, intact essentialized “Indian” diasporic culture as long as they remain untouched by blackness. Here the woman must bear the “signs of the nation’s tradition and therefore be essentially different from the ‘Western’ woman” (9).

The shift in poetics highlights the fragmentation and loss that the children and grandchildren of the indentured laborers began to feel. Here fragmentation of culture means that in the new West Indian context people had to draw from what culture they inherited to build an identity for themselves. Dabydeen is remembering his home. He is separated and alienated from it through time and physical space.

In this poem the speaker tells of his father’s death,

Dreaming of India

He drank rum

Till he dropped dead

And was buried to the singing of Scottish Presbyterian hymns

And a hellfire sermon from a pop-eyed catechist,

By Poonai, lately baptized, like half the village.


This poem by Dabydeen highlights the cultural syncretisms of an Indo-Guyanese poet living in Britain: hymns, coolie identity, rum, India etc. He asks the question of racial purity in pursuit of his own Indian/Coolie identity — a preoccupation that he wants to make sure the audience knows. This poem serves to ask if it is possible for a migrant to experience wholeness while suffering from the postcolonial fallout of linguistic, religious, and ethnic insecurities.

Works cited and further reading

Dabydeen, David. “Coolie Odyssey.They Came in Ships: an Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry. Eds. Joel Benjamin, Lakshmi Kallicharan, Ian McDonald, and Lloyd Searwar. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1998. 263–67. Print

Dabydeen, David. Slave Song. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1984. Print

Dabydeen, David. Coolie Odyssey. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1988. Print