Kamau Brathwaite and the Poetics of (re)possession.
Repossession is the driving force of Brathwaite's poetry. It is part and parcel of the West Indian response to the idea that "Africans in the New World are doomed to conspire in their own futility and despair, unless they repossess themselves by repossessing their hidden past" (Ramazani et al. 542). Brathwaite's poetic figures attempt to repossess a culturally sound identity in the Caribbean. It is of necessity that this identity subsumes the "African" side of West Indian existence. He presents images of Africa that suggest necessity "is even better understood with some grasp of West African history, language, and culture upon which he situates much of his imagery, allusions, and themes" (Dawes 202). Observe the mythic references in "Veve" from The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy: those which challenge cultural despair and whose intent exists for all West Indian culture to embrace their African heritage: "And so the black eye travels to the brink of vision / but not yet; / hold back the fishnet's fling of morn- /ing; unloose the sugarcane;" (20-3). This seemingly ambiguous example of repossession portrays the native's indigenous search for cultural wholeness.
Perhaps a compelling question is what shape Brathwaite's repossession takes. Just how do we understand, how do we even comprehend these lines in "Veve": "possession of the fire / possession of the dust / sundered from your bone / plundered from my breast" (3.69-72)? At first our persona has the "fire" and "dust" of his African heritage, and then it is stripped away. Forcefully, the speaker recovers the repressed heritage from the oppressor who seeks to obscure it. There is an element of necessity here. In his essay "E. K. Brathwaite and the Poetics of the Voice," Simon Gikandi suggests the "meaning of [repossession] in Brathwaite's poetry hence lies in the reader's ability to [interpret] common structures of address and images which have become reified [as African]" (730) in West Indian literature. Brathwaite's necessity corresponds with the need to repossess cultural wholeness in the West Indies.
As it concerns Brathwaite's use of Africa, repossession cuts to the heart of most intriguing issues in postcolonial studies. In particular, critics often debate whether poets should incorporate images of African heritage into West Indian poetry. Brathwaite engages this debate in his essay "The African Presence in Caribbean Literature," in which he denigrates the romantic writing of Africa in literature, when writers use Africa as a "mask," expressing their desire to make an African connection but failing.
This essay investigates the question of how Brathwaite's repossession intervenes in the debate concerning the use of Africa. Particularly, theorists Edouard Glissant and Gikandi help begin an answer by drawing attention to a conscious effort on the part of West Indians, namely Brathwaite, to insert afrocentricity into their literature. Glissant claimed in Caribbean Discourse that West Indian blacks are at odds with past oppression: "No community would tolerate the notion of 'dispossession,' and that is a discouraging point with which to begin a scrutiny of the real. But not to do so is becoming dangerous, when dispossession is camouflaged" (37-8). In other words, representing Caribbean consciousness marks an attempt by any writer to raise a cultural dialectic. Glissant's consciousness is associated with what Derek Walcott, in his epic poem Omeros, refers to as the "prophetic song," which signifies how all indigenes must restore the Caribbean nation within themselves. Walcott's poem makes a connection between representations of transcendental ancestry and its redemptive nature. For Walcott, the notion of a redeemed culture is satisfactory because the historical and the contemporary are interweaved in a colonial and postcolonial journey. Where Omeros focuses on the cyclical realm (Western imperialism/West Indian culture) of repossession, Brathwaite's poetry more extensively targets the achievement of a repossessive culture in and of the Caribbean itself. Cultural despair makes African heritage a necessity for his personae. Focusing on cultural affliction, Brathwaite conflates literature and culture as spaces in which West Indians can embrace their African inheritance.
His repossession becomes a manner in which an "African connection" is drawn upon and engineered by the West Indian. Brathwaite has spent his poetic career attempting to understand the complexities of an African heritage that "rise[s] and walk[s] through the now silent / streets of affliction, [within] hawk's eyes / hard with fear, with / affection" (The Arrivants 1.35-8). Following Louise Bennett as his precursor, he determined that all aspects of African culture were salubrious to gaining an authentic Afro-Caribbean experience. Jan Carew asserts in "British West Indian Poets and Their Culture" that this experience is "not an isolated phenomenon but part of a collective movement with deep roots in the West Indies" (72).
The first poem in my critique is "Wings of a Dove," where Brathwaite traced with notable precision an Afro-Caribbean inheritance of social, customary, and cultural awareness. The poem's imperative is to exonerate the ignorance of the masses: "learn / dem that dem / got dem nothin'" (The Arrivants 3.114-6). This idea is essential to the allusion: "in Babylon's boom / town, crazed by the moon / and the peace of this chalice, I / prophet and singer / [...] [am] guardian" (1.29-33). Such a necessity of cultural awareness is natural to the diasporic individual: lineage with its shared bloodline properties, heredity with its genetic transmission to offspring, communitas with its collective ownership of "the black / man lan' / back back / to Af- / rica" (1.67-70). Brathwaite's "Wings of a Dove" delineates some of the complexities of repossession. Without this comprehensive foundation, there can be no hope of explicating the nuances of his poetry.
This same issue prompted Brathwaite to classify African representation in the West Indies in later years. With his description of the romantic rhetoric utilized in Caribbean literature, Brathwaite seems to have affirmed that a specific theme (if inserted within a romanticized Caribbean literature) might provide the edifice upon which to establish a West Indian mode of repossession. "Wings of a Dove" relies on the romantic trope of the imagination as an indigenous trait--a means to repossess in and of itself. In addition, the workings of imagination might act as a position from which to critique Brathwaite's exploration of African culture in the West Indies.
Similarly, Louise Bennett utilized her poetic voice to compose a poetry that displays a linguistic basis in the West Indies. Brathwaite, searching for a concrete means of repossession, reveals the complexities of the lives of his personae through imagination and highlights their duality as Afro-Caribbean people. This imagination, in most cases, takes shape as a recollection of African history prior to West Indian colonization. I view imagination in terms of Brathwaite's portrayal of the overwrought flow of his speakers' thoughts. Imagination becomes a poetic catalyst that helps to clarify goals of repossession. In other words, Brathwaite's imagination gives the mind a way of coping with life's occurrences whether positive or negative, past or future. Therefore, his characters' long to repossess what their imaginations uncover as emotional attachments to Africa.
As author, Brathwaite typically refrains from decoding and simplifying the indigeneity his characters display. For example, one may conclude that the "Rastafar-I's" time travel in "Wings of a Dove," from the early civilization of Ancient Babylon to the impoverished state of The Dungle, is a figment of the persona's imagination:
like ruby, like rhinestone / and suddenly startled like / diamond. / And I / Rastafar-I / in Babylon's boom / town, crazed by the moon / and the peace of this chalice, I / prophet and singer, scourge / of the gutter, guardian / Trench Town, the Dungle and Young's / Town, rise and walk through the now silent / streets of affliction (1.24-36)
But these two images (Ancient Babylon and The Dungle) illustrate how the "Rastafar-I" is entwined into the whole of his African heritage. He recalls times of the past that he has only experienced by way of consanguinity.
The end of the first division in "Wings of a Dove" suggests that the persona's request, both imaginative and literal, helps him envision repossession: "Rise rise/ locks- / man, Solo-/ man wise / man, rise / rise rise / leh we / laugh / dem, mock / dem, stop / dem, kill / dem an' go / back back / to the black / man lan'/ back back / to Af- / rica" (54-70). Here he is imagining a progressive movement back to Africa. The consequent longing for repossession is solidified by the persona's claim: "them clean-face browns in / Babylon town is who I most fear" (74-5). Obviously, the speaker is rejecting the lighter-skinned natives and trying to embrace the darker-skinned inhabitants who yet retain African traits. Conclusively, he realizes the colonizer would only seek to give West Indians "bright bright baubles" (118) (or taunting jester's scepters) in the form of civilization that is anything but civil for the dispossessed. The colonizer clouds their minds until the day this civilization will "burst dem" (119) in betrayal.
At what point in his career Brathwaite ceased implying repossession through imagination is uncertain. I myself believe that he only adopted this mode to counter European representations of Africa. Definitely, by 1971, when he marked out his progression in "Creolization in Jamaica," he looked away from misrepresentations with a detachment perhaps not usually associated with him:
THE SINGLE MOST important factor in the development of Jamaican [or West Indian] society was not the imported influence of the Mother Country or the local administrative activity of the white 'elite, but a cultural action--material, psychological and spiritual--based upon the stimulus/response of individuals within the society to their environment and--as white/black, culturally discrete groups--to each other. (202)
By his next main attempt to create a role for the necessity of repossession in his poem "Calypso," Brathwaite embraced the notion of achieving it through "creolization": "an idea he develops to describe the complex interchange, transformation, and resistance between the cultures of black and white, slave and master, in the Caribbean" (Ramazani et al. 543). The Caribbean "drummer" archetype represents creolization, for what amplifies the drummer's rhythmic presence is a rhapsodic West Indian identity.
Intentionally infusing his works with a creolization that specifically targets the West Indian paradigm (imported experience through British history), Brathwaite re-appropriates ideas of African experience. Gikandi states, "Creol[ization] appears as if organically linked to the world-wide experiences of cultural relationship. It is literally a consequence of cultural interface, and did not exist prior to this interface" (qtd. in Gikandi 728). What furthers these interfaces for the West Indian is a consciousness about his or her own community. Faced with social oppression in "Calypso," the speaker imagines the "skidded arc'd" creation myth of the "skipping" Caribbean islands: Cuba, San Domingo, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Grenada, Guadeloupe, and Bonaire. The islands themselves proclaim an afrocentric heritage as they tunefully "roar [...] into green plantations / ruled by silver sugar cane / sweat and profit" (2.10-2). For Belinda Edmondson, this instance of creolization "is almost by definition oppositional, since it seeks to establish a regional/cultural identity against what is perceived as an imposed European culture" (112). Because his reference to the islands gives way to musical expression, the drummer is able to exhibit his cultural proclivities in the midst of European hierarchy.
Brathwaite highlights the African elements retained via creolization through the rhythm of his persona. While insulted by his boss, John declares, "who goin' stop this bacchanalling? / For we glance the banjo / dance the limbo / grow our crops by maljo" (4.37-41). Here the boss has been, in essence, creolized--having his authoritative role inverted. So John resumes an authoritative role in his native land. The speaker snidely refers to the white beaches where, if blacks do not wear trousers, the whites will go into a frenzy as lively as an island dance. The speaker's sarcastic melody: "Somepeople doin'well/while others are catchin'hell" (4.51-2) suggests what cannot be taken from the West Indian is what he or she possessed prior to the postcolonial era--that is, the rythmic nature of their culture. John's "nigratin' overseas" (56) suggests he is seeking out the old culture his ancestors once enjoyed. What motivates John is not a sense of prideful repossession, but the powerful effects of a revived African heritage. Moreover, Brathwaite's creolization longs to connect the West Indian to the historical roles of an African past.
The poem "South" repossesses ideas of African heritage through the hybridity that "occur[s] in post-colonial societies both as a result of conscious moments of cultural suppression, as when the colonial power[s] [...] dispossess indigenous peoples and force them to assimilate to new social patterns" (Ashcroft, et al. 183). Hybridity is the force behind repossession in "South," and Brathwaite plays up what must remain from a hybrid (or colonized) identity. The poem reads, "But today I recapture the islands' / bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean / rolling into the fishermen's houses. / By these shores I was born" (1-4). The "I" in the poem, read as perhaps Brathwaite himself, has traveled from the beaches of his primitive home and has resided temporarily in cities with stone foundations. The "fishermen" have made paths to their houses offshore while the "We" resents the wisdom of the colonizer. Each has a hybrid investment in the landscape; thus, it is repossession that brings into question the land of "South," as it is repossession that brings the three figures (I, fishermen, We) to terms with their existential conditions.
Because the speaker of the poem has, "walk[ed] the lands of the north / in sharp slanting sleet and the hail" (8-9) and now walks where "the only water is rain," (12) he can endure his surroundings. Although the "shadows" of ancestry oppress him in the forest near the house, his experience in the north--referring to his African homeland--allows him to achieve repossession in the foreign south. For the West Indian persona, the survival of his culture is a hybrid experience. Lines 14-20 place another spin on hybridity--one that, at first, seems to reject repossession:
We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace / in rivers: their flowing runs on like our longing, / reproves us our lack of endeavour and purpose, / proves that our striving will founder on that. / We resent them this wisdom, this freedom: passing us / toiling, waiting and watching their cunning declension down to the sea.
In the next stanza, the speaker embraces his hybridity through the connective strength of the rivers he initially rejects. He wants to embrace the rivers because of their ancestral ties. Even though they invoke past pains for him and have a quality that could destroy his ambition, he must ignore the hatred that burns within him for the colonizer and repossess the heritage the rivers yet hold. Likewise, he can move through the "unfamiliar" plains and repossess the plains of Africa; although "processioned in tumult" (26) our speaker can now embrace the south. Furthermore, the waves in this poem rejuvenate the persona and "there is the thatch of the fishermen's houses, the path" (27) to inheritance paved for him. Some of the lines suggest the fishermen are aware of the speaker's circumstance. The poem reads "they remember us just as we left them. / The fisherman, hawking the surf on this side / of the reef, stands up in his boat / and halloos us: a starfish lies in its pool" (31-4). Notice the fisherman in his final appearance "halloos" (compels the travelers to pursue their goals). My reading here privileges the "starfish in its pool" as a metaphor for the West Indians who live in the pool of hybridity, seeking to repossess African culture in the limitless world before them.
Yet why should West Indians eagerly yield their ambitions to such dire reclamation? Brathwaite is logical about his understanding of the reason, apparent in the way that he outlines its implications. They give themselves over to hybridity, he implies, rather than relinquish their identity completely. Even though what is craved is an African identity, for it excludes outside European influence to the point of wholly redefining a colonized existence. No wonder Veve prevails as the signature of a god traced through various natural elements and thoroughly immersed in West Indian culture.
As an emblem of repossession, Veve can be deterred by the absolute dismissal of rites and ancestral inheritance. Moreover, the black eye concurs with this notion when it is able to look to the mesmerizing landscape and the connection it has with the "preacher's hymn of pain" (2.27); and this effort is concomitantly heightened by the "voices," which "fill the green with hurricane" (2.31) and "Tacky's bones," (2.50) perhaps wanting to substitute the landscape for imagery they invoke. Veve's potency, for that reason, epitomizes a cultural foundation: "So on this ground, / write; / within the sound / of this white limestone Veve / talk" (3.51-5). Veve must "surrender [...] the graven Word" (3.75). What I would offer as legitimation for Veve is from Brathwaite's assertion in "Creolization in Jamaica," written two years earlier:
From their several cultural bases people in the West Indies tend towards certain directions, positions, assumptions, and ideals. But nothing is really fixed and monolithic. Although there is white/ brown/black, there are infinite possibilities within these distinctions and many ways of asserting identity. (205)
The submerged language carefully explained by Derek Walcott in the opening paragraphs of his essay, "The Muse of History," which has sparked one of the most significant studies in West Indian literature, for me, appears grounded in Brathwaite's preoccupation with history as a segue to repossession. From that vantage, Walcott's speculations require observation:
Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history [...] is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim. (370-1)
If we had only "Veve," perhaps we would not need to express the components of repossession that Brathwaite imparts through such implicit poetics. But the poetry of his latter years, vis-a-vis what I distinguish as intuition, increasingly focuses on consoling history. The idea in "Trane" that the saxophone melodies of John Coltrane are his longing for a home and that the desire to "burn his memories to ashes" through Jazz testifies to a negative perception of his own history. But the major insight into this matter is reserved for one of Brathwaite's later poems, "Stone," in which the West Indian perception of history resonates.
"Stone," in describing Brathwaite's personal involvement, is a poem, where violence is an object of human influence--which moves the speaker to grief, as shown by the stoning: "black it black or black it off or limp away / or roll it from me into memory or light or rock it steady into night be / cause it builds me now and i am the stone that kills me" (53-8). The speaker's tragedy undoubtedly occurred "as if i-man did never have no face as if i-man did never in this place / When the stone fell that morning out of the johncrow sky / i could not hold it back or black it" (52-4). From the beginning, Brathwaite forms a connection with Mikey Smith (a poet who was stoned to death by fellow Jamaicans) and the speaker. Brathwaite declares, "bline to de butterfly flittin . but i hear de tread of my heart" (30); The speaker feels compelled to repossesses his earlier history, embodied by the image of Marcus Garvey and by virtue of the historico-cultural connection he has to the victim. The speaker's view of the idealized narration of Mikey's death, suggests that consolation for this tragedy is vital to West Indian history and must therefore be repossessed.
"Stone," as far as my reading gauges, intimates the consoling power of repossession. In a noticeable manner, then, this poem that embraces repossession from beginning to end sees all Brathwaite's poetry as progressing to this point. It echoes the philosophical understanding of its author, seeking the refuge of repossession in a historical manifold after begrudging the actions of his people. Of his own guilt, he is well aware; of repossessions endearing qualities, he is no stranger. Because the direct reference is to Mikey as a historical victim, repossession of noble African culture demands our adherence to its significance. The very depth of the repossession dominating this poem propels a passionately determined continuance not to resist or to deny but to affirm the treading force of repossession. If in one of his later poems, Brathwaite duly revitalizes repossession as an internal and external force upon the disposition of the individual, as in his dedicatory poem, "Trane" (a tribute to a dead charismatic poet), then, its insistent shape has not changed at all. The result is still the cultural necessity to repossess posited in his written oeuvre. Even if necessity or repossession is negated, his poetry places on the West Indian the burden of reaffirming an African heritage. The West Indian continues to carry the necessity of his or her history Brathwaite would agree, even more so because they are aware of how so strongly the necessity that triggers repossession compels it.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. "Hybridity Introduction." The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995. 183-4.
Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. "Creolization in Jamaica." The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, & Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 202-5.
--. "The African Presence in Caribbean Literature." Roots. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 190-258.
--. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Carew, Jan. "British West Indian Poets and Their Culture." Phylon (1940-1956) 14.1 (1st Qtr.1953): 71-3.
Dawes, Kwame. "World Literature in Review: Barbados." World Literature Today 71.1 (1997): 202-4.
Edmondson, Belinda. "Race, Tradition, and the Construction of the Caribbean Aesthetic." New Literary History 25.1 (Winter 1994): 109-20.
Gikandi, Simon. "E. K. Brathwaite and the Poetics of the Voice: The Allegory of History in 'Rights of Passage.'" Callaloo 14.3 (Summer 1991): 727-36.
Glissant, Edouard. "Dispossession." Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1989. 37-51.
Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellman, and Robert O'Clair, ed. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. New York: Norton, 2003.
Walcott, Derek. "The Muse of History." The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature. Ed. Alison Donnell & Sarah Lawson Welsh. New York: Routledge, 1996. 354-8.