Wordsongs & Wordwounds/Homecoming: Kamau Brathwaite's Barabajan Poems.
Barabajan Poems is intensely personal and autobiographical, and as such an invaluable insight into the mind of a great poet and intellectual, who not only shares his life but shapes its raw material into a coherent and deeply valuable communal document. Indeed, this volume is the first intensely detailed and personalized account of Barbadian culture in the transitional period from colonialism to independence to this present uneasy economic space in the "new world order." Here all the facets of Brathwaite's contribution to literature and culture are brought together: his poetry; his work as literary and cultural historian; his xploration(1) of new genres such as the proem(2) and of new dimensions of language; his inspired work as teacher; his cultural polemics; his nurturing of Barbadian writing; his sense that a writer contributes to a community of other writers, to a culture.
To enter fully into Barabajan Poems 1492-1992, it is necessary to understand it as a magic book, in a real sense an answer to the old colonial landlord (Columbus)Prospero's book of spells from The Tempest. But the volume is compiled in "nation language,"(3) Brathwaite's inspired term for Caliban's language in the Caribbean, and in "video style." The flyleaf says that it was partly typeset by Sycorax, Caliban's powerful mother, who is the ghost in the machine for Kamau Brathwaite, the muse who inspires his recent work, and has done so since X/Self (1987), wherein the poet-persona wrote a letter to his spiritual mother Sycorax on a computer.
There is, as I suggested above, a strongly spiritual element here. This is not just play, but an acknowledgment that for generations African peoples have used spiritual powers in the service of their fight against oppression. Throughout Barabajan Poems there is sustained mention of the power of the old African gods, whether in the Shango trainsongs, the idea that Sycorax possesses the poet during the composition of the volume, the discovery of the old Igbo gods(4) as an underlying presence in Barbadian life, or the familiar theme in Brathwaite's work of an underlying spiritual and transformative power in African forms in the New World, such as jazz.
It is this spirit in the form of Sycorax, the anti-colonial matrix of creativity, who inspires the machine, the Western computer, to produce Brathwaite's video style, which so markedly brings orality into the written word. In the "brief vertical interview" which comes at the end of the text of this volume, Brathwaite explains the video style:
... the video style comes out of the resources locked within the computer, esp my Macs Sycorax & Stark (but not peculiar to them or mwe) in the same way a sculptor like Bob'ob or Kapo wd say that the images they make dream for them from the block of the wood in their chisel
When I discover that the computer cd write in light, as X/Self tells his mother in that first letter he writes on a computer, I discovered a whole new way of SEEING things I was SAYING ...
Besides the forces that created the computer are very similar to our gods of the Middle Passage (BP, 378)(5)
In that one last statement lies a tremendous promise of new frontiers of exploration for Brathwaite, who is one of the very few African-centered cultural thinkers to be able to co-opt the computer in a thoroughly anticolonial and thoroughly creative way. Too many intellectuals are drawn into the sleight of hand which liberalism and a good deal of postcolonial and postmodern theory practice. This is well meant and often hyperbrilliant, but the fact remains that Euro-American theory ends up still being central to the case. Most Western postmodernists try to bring down Prospero only from within, to dismantle or reorganize in order to privilege themselves rather than re-create. Brathwaite offers a quite different possibility: rather than trying to argue with Prospero on his terms, he takes instead the colonizer's latest magical servant and subverts its loyalty entirely. African-descended forms of creativity redesign the intention of Euro-American technology--the new Ariel then willingly serves Sycorax. This is far more effective, of course, than reams of protest speeches or tomes of abstruse argument. Sometimes, though, Brathwaite names what he is doing "postmodern" (e.g., BP, 311).(6)
Barabajan Poems is a compendium of writing styles and genres, a metissage, to use Edouard Glissant's term. It breaks down the artificial boundaries between academic and so-called creative writing. All the kinds of writing included here are used highly innovatively: poetry, proems, prose, the letter, the footnote that often reads like a short essay, autobiography, bibliography, the occasional polemic. I have used the term pangeneric in the past(7) to describe Brathwaite's more recent work. This volume is his most intensely pangeneric writing yet, one wherein his identities as poet, historian, and cultural theorist can all interrelate productively and creatively.
The video style, of course, is a major challenge to the Western concept of the academic book. It utilizes computer fonts of many different sizes and styles, making quotation in the usual academic way sometimes impossible without grave distortion of the poet's visual intention. This means, of course, that Brathwaite can baffle some of the conventions of Western academe while at the same time provoking the reader's attention and making her or him sensitive to nuances of intonation and pitch and to the nature of word units and their contribution to overall sense. As Gordon Rohlehr says in his introduction to Brathwaite's DreamStories (1994), the very concept of the page is disturbed, because sometimes there are just a few words on a page, sometimes many, and the very size of Barabajan Poems both in terms of the dimensions of a single page and the length of the book gives a lot of scope for experimentation.
Brathwaite has always practiced a certain distance from the word, exploiting fully the potentialities in African-centered linguistic virtuosity so celebrated, for example, in African orature, African American signifyin', jazz singing and riffs, invention of new words and street languages, Caribbean nation languages,(8) and so on. For example, he often uses puns and fragments multisyllabic words. In the video style, he can detach words from their grammatical context so that a single word can command absolute attention because of the font and the ink emphasis given it, or he can produce a word in a font which makes it hard to read by distorting the letters or arranging them in unusual ways on the page. This alienation of the reader from familiar linguistic units works to strengthen the sense of discovery which is always such pleasure in encountering the fertile world of a Brathwaite ("breathweight")(9) text.
Barabajan Poems is about the kind of alienation which creative enterprise demands--just enough, for the reader, to provoke insightful consciousness of Brathwaite's sense of the complex locale of Bajan language between Africa and England and to call deeper attention to the inventiveness of Bajan language cast within the poet's voice. This is of course a teaching text as well as a life story, a narrative of personal and cultural journey. History, for Brathwaite, who has been a professional academic historian for many years, is not a matter of dates and events but the flow of a people's identity, individual and communal, across time. His work is collectively, in effect, a cultural history of African peoples in the so-called New World. Barbados is, paradoxically, both the most English of the Caribbean islands and one of the least racially complex, being made up almost entirely of people of African descent(10) who have an especially undeniable need therefore to know their ancestry on the African side because it has been denied them so consistently and so thoroughly.
The tension which characterizes the writing in Barabajan Poems comes from the simultaneous sense of belonging and not belonging: this is the voice of a poet who lives and breathes his birthplace and can trace its influence in all his major stylistic experiments yet has lived away from the island for pretty much all of his adult life, visiting but never resettling there. This is probably, to judge from the histories of almost all Caribbean writers, a necessary tension, not just the product of certain prevailing migration patterns, as used to be said of the fifties generation of writers, but also sought out by those who are beginning to write seriously now.(11) Barabajan Poems is an account of the relation of the poet to his culture and, on a larger, more general, and implied scale, of many Caribbean writers to their cultures.
The project began from a lecture given at the Central Bank in Barbados on 2 December 1987, in the series called the Winston Scott Memorial Lectures, designed to celebrate the outstanding work of Barbadians, especially those overseas. Sir Winston Scott was the first native Barbadian Governor General, and the Central Bank Building, a new and modern structure which dwarfs St. Michael's Cathedral in Barbados, included a performance space called the Sir Frank Collymore Hall. Sir Frank Collymore is still, after his death, a beloved literary mentor of many Caribbean writers, including Brathwaite, George Lamming, and Derek Walcott, through his nurturing personality and his literary journal Bim. He was a Barbadian white man, a teacher in Combermere School and a writer himself. Kamau Brathwaite calls him "godfather of Bajan and modern Caribbean literature" (BP, 11). The setting alone, therefore, is a series of paradoxes in terms of Brathwaite's images of Barbadian society: the large, almost postmodern modern bank restating cultural priorities next to the old symbol of Anglican hierarchy, St. Michael's.(12) This is a powerful symbol of a religion highly tainted with colonial politics and the racial and social divisions that signified. Inside the foreign-looking, bold concrete-and-glass, Lego-set style of the large bank building, a necessarily conflicted symbol of postcolonial priorities, a space, the Sir Frank Collymore Hall, is dedicated to the arts. Also, the lecture series itself is dedicated to Barbadian international success in a multitude of fields. The invited audience comes, usually, dressed in their finest ("dressed down" in Bajan language). Kamau Brathwaite came, as usual, in a simple white cotton shirt, pants, and sandals and his signature tam: his personal image is always carried through. Right there was a juxtaposition of the complex worlds of which Barabajan Poems so eloquently speaks: the Barbadian worlds of colonial religion, colonial cultural survivals, postcolonial middle-class, intellectual, economic achievements, anticolonial challenges, and the bohemian, classless, separate identity of the artist. Of course, everything which sustains and inspires the poet either begins from Barbados, an enormously richly paradoxical place, like all real countries, or has to be brought back there in order to be fully understood.
The definition of poet, culture, and Bajan culture which opens the volume becomes the defining frame for all that follows. Everything here, from the autobiographical material to the anthology of Barbadian poets, is a rendition of Barbados, filtered through the life and vision of the poet, during the most turbulent decades of transition from colonial to postcolonial country. Brathwaite was born at the height of British colonial power in the world, at the opening of the decade (the 1930s) which signaled also the births of many of the writers who were to become major anticolonial voices: Derek Walcott in the Caribbean; Ngugi, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka in Africa. Kamau Brathwaite was in his thirties when Barbados became independent in 1966. In 1967 the first of his major volumes of poems appeared, Rights of Passage. The emergence of the mature voice of Barbados's finest poet and the independence of Barbados occurred fight alongside each other. This is why Barabajan Poems is so important, for it charts not only a single poet's journey toward his poetic maturity but also accounts for the ways in which Barbados inspired such a voice to emerge into the wider world.
This is particularly significant, because, although both Kamau Brathwaite and George Lamming are Barbadian-born, Paule Marshall is of Barbadian parentage,(13) and there are a host of other lesser-known writers who have written in and of the island or on its cultural identities abroad, Barbados is still generally constructed in the wide world primarily as a tourist destination. For the local person, Barabajan Poems is full of topical references, local detail, and the living texture of a unique and beloved culture the poet knows very well.
As autobiography, Barabajan Poems follows the chronological development of the poet's voice through story, essay, and the inclusion of poems in the context of the place and time of their content. Brathwaite was born in Barbados, grew up there, left for university in England at Cambridge,(14) then spent a decade in Ghana before returning to the Caribbean. He taught for two-and-a-half decades at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Kingston, Jamaica, always writing. This journey involved him first in facing down, in England, the intellectual origin of theories which buttressed colonialism and racism. Then there was a crucial period of intense if complicated homecoming in West Africa, a period he calls his "de/education" from colonial "ass/umption(s)" (BP, 68). There followed the revisioning of Barbados he made when he returned, a revisioning which has continued during the twenty-five years Brathwaite taught at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies and for the past few years as well, when he has lived mainly in New York.
Barbados was, thirty years or so ago, still largely Prospero's enchanted isle, despite independence hardly collectively conscious of its inheritance from Sycorax--i.e., the African tradition. But when Brathwaite returned to the region, about the time colonialism was beginning to wane on the political level, he brought the tremendous gift of deep thought and extensive knowledge about both England and West Africa, the two major sources of Barbados's historical identity. Under the middle-class denials of African identity in this the most English of all Caribbean territories, Brathwaite began to see more and more of a complexity which had resulted from living on two levels: English and African, visible and hidden.
The rebirth of a culture's collective sense of identity requires that there be many artists contributing their separate visions, and Barabajan Poems celebrates that by the inclusion of some work by other Bajan poets. Among these are Frank Collymore and Bruce St. John. It was St. John's work on what was then called "dialect poetry" during the 1970s which contributed importantly within Barbados to the retrieval of some collective memory of the tonal elements in Bajan language, for example, and of its rich and varied collection of words and sayings.(15)
Brathwaite, as well as St. John, encouraged the growth of Bajan poetry and culture in any way he could. This is a most important aspect of his creative personality, one for which he has been much loved by young poets and writers in Barbados. Understanding a culture must be a communal act: by celebrating those who have contributed to Bajan poetry, Brathwaite here provides for the first time an invaluable sense of the history of rehabilitation of the collective imagination after colonialism. Barabajan Poems culminates in the labor of love which the historian/scholar/cultural-theorist Brathwaite offers back to the poet Brathwaite and, most importantly, to the island community: the anthology of Bajan poets.
Brathwaite's perception of the ways in which culture grows and changes emphasizes the fact that received elements are inevitably transformed by the passage of time and the response to a given locale. But his historical placement in the process of rediscovery of Barbados's African inheritance has meant that he has had at times to be polemical about it, since there was a good deal of resistance to the idea from certain quarters in the beginning. Many of the more disturbing aspects of Barabajan Poems result from the poet's "wordwounds" deriving from those confrontations.
Of course the topography of any place exists in a poet's mind largely in powerful and shaping tropes. There is an extremely important connective image running through this collection: the idea of water on or under stone. The paradoxical marriage of these two entities produced the island, for Barbados is a coral island, not a volcanic one, the only coral island in the Antillean chain and located some eighty miles out from that chain, alone in the Atlantic. It literally rose from the sea after some ancient subterranean eruption raised the seabed close enough to warmwater levels for coral to grow. It really has no rivers above ground (perhaps a stream on the East Coast called Joe's River might qualify). The water supply is underground, produced by the rain which falls, filters through the porous limestone coral rock, and emerges as underground lakes and waterways. The life of the island is fed by hidden resources, just as in cultural terms colonialism forced the African "little tradition" (to use one of Brathwaite's most well-known phrases) to flow under the rock of colonial (English) domination and sustain the people without being visible.
Braithwaite has recently developed the term tidalectic, which draws on the pervasive presence of the sea in Barbados, an island only fourteen miles by twenty-one. Tidalectics can be expressed (or, as Brathwaite would put it, xpressed) as the ways in which ideas flow together and separate like the edges of waves on a coral beach. They weave together, reshape, separate, flow back, and come forward again. This is more accurate as an image of Caribbean intellectual traditions than are such Euro-American oppositional models as dialectics, on which tidalectics is obviously a play. Barabajan Poems is a major piece of tidalectics, where every element is able to be read simultaneously as separate, interwoven with other elements and involved in a mutual transformation with them. In effect, then, Brathwaite is establishing in this volume the application of an epistemology which is truly Barbadian and owes nothing to imitations of Europe or, for that matter, Africa, but is a creative resolution of both within a Barbadian-centered consciousness.
At the end of the volume there is a section of the unpublished prose work Brathwaite wrote as a young man, called "Boy & the Sea," and "a brief vertical interview" in which he playfully comments, "if you sea what I mean" (BP, 379). Water (often the sea) brings and constitutes meaning in complex ways for a people who live on a small rock out to sea (tidalectics). Poetry, as Brathwaite defines it here, is "wordsongs, wordsounds, wordwounds & meanings," which are caught from the "moment's sky" and then "etched into the ground and underdrone of the poet's ... culture" (BP, 21). This is exactly what happens to the rain which falls onto Barbados and becomes the secret source of life as underground lakes and rivers, a source of survival always, until now unquestioningly there.
Shortly after beginning the lecture which opens the volume (and I use words here deliberately to suggest an oral mode which the book script-writes), Brathwaite quotes from his Mother Poem (1977) a piece which is of vital importance for what follows and which presages the arrival of Sycorax as mother-spirit and creator-liberator in the most recent work: "The ancient watercourses of my island / echo of river, trickle, worn stone, / the sunken voice of glitter inching its pattern to the sea, / ... // ... my mother is a pool" (BP, 23). This juxtaposition of stone and water conveys the difficulty in achieving truly anticolonial or noncolonial creative work in the colonial period in Barbados (and even now). So the words come from "the stones & steppes" in the heart of the poet, inspired by "the dream that he drinks from his mother's milk" (BP, 24). There is the story which the poet's mother tells him of an ancient extension of the land where his home beach--Brown's Beach--and the sea are now located, a land full of farms. A difficult history, the separation from Africa and the savage damage inflicted on Africa and Africans then and now by economic forces are "the drought & desert of our past" (BP, 80).
Water delivers the possibility of regenerated myth, the myth a people can turn to in order to survive. For example, the idea of the Igbo giants coming up out of the sea at Bathsheba on the east coast of Barbados or at North Point (Sun Poem, 51), something which emerges from both suppressed collective memory and Brathwaite's use of his own life. He partly attributes this story in Barabajan Poems to the childhood memory of a huge and terrifying wave crashing down on Brown's Beach seemingly out of nowhere (BP, 112). There follows a marvelous passage which represents Brathwaite's creative process as being about this crucial relation of land and sea, stone and water, earth and rain.
So I am growing up here and dreaming of how to write something that wd catch the gleam the word of water clink & pebble where th(e) wave folds on/to the sand, the fans of sunlight in the water, its various colours & histories, coralline grains settling/ xploding// fish crab sails empty shells whorls worlds of sea-floor sea-flour sea-flower sea-moss moses boats deeper more morose colours holiest grails . how evvathing flows underwater ... the waves comin in/ comin in/ tidelect tidelect tidelectic con/nect/ing .... (BP, 114)
What this union of light and water leads to, then, is the gift of poetry itself, genesis, the source of creativity in words as it is in nature. This in turn leads on, in the cycle of this volume, to the idea of the pebble which Brathwaite skimmed over the surface of the sea as a boy on Brown's Beach and which ultimately became an important trope in his poetry (see "Calypso" in Rights of Passage, 48). The idea is pursued in a proem (i.e., a prose poem, a genre Brathwaite employs a good deal in his most recent work) which explores the idea that sand is the pebble ground down to its nam or spiritual essence.(16) Both sand and the pebble are gifts from the sea (BP, 117). Because the Atlantic Ocean, making landfall for the first time since Africa on Barbados's eastern coast, created the pebble in its ceaseless beating onto the shore, this becomes almost a seed of the future African cultures of the islands, arriving, like the harmattan(17) and whatever is borne on ocean currents, to become part of Barbados. It is this pebble, skimmed along the water by the poet, which "bloomed into islands"--i.e., his vision of the archipelago--in Rights of Passage. The pebble image was important there, but here it is xplained as well as crafted.
The fact that Barabajan Poems makes so much information available is important, for here the poet is not elliptical, not searching for meaning through the play between omission and inclusion, but teaching, discussing, arguing even, and, more than anything else, telling a story. It is as the xperience in Africa leads back home to a rediscovery of Africa within family, culture, and spirit that the poet/historian protagonist of Barabajan Poems first discovers a powerful connection between Barbados and Igbo culture.(18) This sense of the Igbo gods coming up out of the sea,(19) of Igbo slaves bringing their culture with them, eventually informs important juxtapositions already established in this volume: as the poet listens to the singing of a small congregation in a carpenter's shop, he hears them go back beyond English or Bajan to another time, an African time. It is as if "the tides of their lives" are taking them away from Barbados "into a new dark wail that sweeps us all up . pebbles & plankton & memories" (BP, 182).
These "new languages tongues of the water" are the hidden watercourse under the surface of the culture, that which has sustained and will continue to sustain the African-descended island people. But of course, those who sing are "SUBMERGED like the Igbo they were or have become . rainfall of waters living in and underneath our / coral" (BP, 182). This singing, so African in its nasalization, cadences, "flattenings of octaves," is like a tide (tidalectic) taking the poet into an "urgent" meaning, like "foam . saltless as from the bottom of the sea . dragging our meaning our moaning/ song from Calabar along the sea-floor sea-floor with pebble sound" (BP, 182).
So the gods retrieve meaning almost in the way a transatlantic cable does: meaning travels along the seabed from one continent to another, overturning the slave ships" intention to sever communication between continent and island. The slave trade, in fact, at the huge price of human misery and death, brought the immense resources of African culture to the so-called New World, where they still mainly must either accommodate to the forms of Euro-American culture or become inventive within whatever space they secure.
The poem "Fever" (from Mother Poem, 16) occurs at a point where the stone-and-water image can be braided onto more levels of meaning than we originally understood it in 1977: the stone here cracks and gives birth to water, and the poet moves "down into the old watercourses / echo . pebble . trickle of worn stone" (BP, 211). Barbados takes the poet into the mysteries of her genesis, and the poetry itself then begins to flow out of the stone of the island, to manifest itself as the island.
The notes to Barabajan Poems are a book in themselves, full of details of the people, places, and events in Barbados that have meant something important to the poet. They too continue the story of the presence of the sea. In these notes we read of Julian Hunte's swim around the island, intending to emphasize ecological concerns. Hunte becomes a sea creature on this swim with a "whale-eye view of the ilann" (BP, 290). He is in real danger of losing his life at one point, out in Conset Bay, when a hawksbill turtle comes up close to him. He notes in his account of this incident that turtles have been said to rescue people at sea.(20) It is important that Hunte is, as Brathwaite puts it, "white ITAL Baje"--i.e., in spiritual terms a Rastafarian white man who belongs to and loves the island on a spiritual level. This observation, in the light of Brathwaite's famous comment (in Contradictory Omens, 1974) on Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea that white Creoles had not suffered enough in the Caribbean to belong, footnotes the earlier statement. Belonging to community is possible only if the ordeals of community are undergone.
The other important story about water and the recent history of the island which needs to be recounted here is the connection which Brathwaite makes between the building of new golf courses--he calls them golf "curses" (BP, 121)--and the serious drought which has afflicted Barbados over the past few years. As the island increasingly struggles to cope with shortages of water, new golf courses will construct artificial lakes and fountains and require water for world-class greens, plants, and of course the tourist accommodations or the expensive housing which will spring up alongside such resorts. The diversion of more of the underground water supply to commercial tourism enterprises is a terrifying prospect for the life of ordinary people and requires that the government sustain a difficult balance between the need for the country to compete in the global tourism marketplace--tourism being now the only really major industry--and the need to protect the people's material access to resources and their spiritual connection to their collective space. Brathwaite includes a substantial passage which describes the destruction of historic places in Barbados to make way for so-called industrial progress. The long-forgotten watercourses of African identity, now rediscovered, will equally be lost if turned over to the inroads of international markets.
Barabajan Poems 1492-1992(21) is both a book (a written document) and an antibook (a piece of inspired orature noted on paper like a musical score). It is a powerful, subversive work which turns colonial and neocolonial, modern and postmodern inside out in the wordplay of the master inventor from Barbados. But above all, for those of us who love Barbados as the center of consciousness, to which all knowledge is brought back to be examined, it is the most marvelous magic book of the island, full of creative echoes rather than noises.
1 The use of the italicized X or x to denote a black rediscovery and reconstruction of something informs Brathwaite's X/Self (1987) particularly but has been very much a part of his vocabulary since then. The icon "X" has been a major black self-naming device ever since Malcolm X and the discussion of westernized names' being plantation or slave names for black people. In the very title X/Self Brathwaite proposes a question about how selfhood is constructed when slavery and alienating cultural consciousness are inserted between a people and their historical connection to names, places, land, ancestors. The issue of naming is of course important to Brathwaite: his birth name Edward Lawson Brathwaite has been changed to Kamau Brathwaite legally. Kamau is an African name, and in Barabajan Poems (236 ff.) Brathwaite discusses the name-change, the meaning of Kamau, and the resistance some people have to using it.
2 Proem: prose and poetry combined, shaped more by the idea of poem than prose.
3 For Brathwaite's first discussion of this important concept, see his History of the Voice.
4 See notes 14 and 15.
5 Stark, the name given along with Sycorax to the computers Brathwaite uses, is his name for Caliban's sister. See also Gordon Rohlehr's discussion of Brathwaite's response to computers and his increasing mastery of their capabilities. Bob'ob was Brathwaite's grandfather's brother, a carpenter, who becomes the Legba and Ogoun in Islands (1969) and in Barabajan Poems. Kapo is a Jamaican folk wood sculptor called Mallacai Reynolds whom Brathwaite knew in the mid-1970s (see BP, 155). Though mostly there is general mention of Igbo gods as Barbadian icons in Barabajan Poems, Legba and Ogoun are of course Yoruba.
6 Brathwaite, in a letter to the author of this essay, speaks also of being "postmodern" as opposed to postmodern.
7 See Elaine Savory, "Returning to Sycorax / Prospero's Response: Edward Kamau Brathwaite's Word Journey," to be included in a forthcoming collection of essays on Kamau Brathwaite edited Stewart Brown, fall 1994.
8 Whereas each African-descended community has its own ways of contributing to linguistic experimentation and play, there is no doubt that language has been and still is regarded as powerful within the African world, and to be skilled in language is regarded as important. This is easily seen where, as in American inner cities, young black people are denied a great deal of opportunity to develop their potential by poverty and violence, but their contributions to American culture via successful styles of verbal inventiveness are very noticeable: e.g., the different styles of rap, hip-hop, et cetera. For Brathwaite's theorizing about the relation of jazz forms to the West Indian novel, see Bim, 45 and 46 (1967 and 1968).
9 "Breathweight": a Brathwaite neologism and a pun on his own name which is particularly apt in terms of the degree to which his work plays on the voice--the sounds of words and their contrapuntal relation to the intonation patterns of the poet and the rhythms and accents of Bajan speech.
10 The population of Barbados is 98 percent black, 2 percent white.
11 For example, a number of Caribbean-born women writers, such as Marlene Nourbese Philip, Olive Senior, and Christine Craig, choose to live outside the Caribbean most of the time.
12 Brathwaite has pointed out (in a recent letter to me) that St. Michael's is built over the earlier St. Mary's--a parallel to the way in which Prospero built over Sycorax.
13 Paule Marshall's novel The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (first published 1969) is set on a fictional island which has strong affinities with Barbados as well as other Caribbean countries. All her work has a Barbadian or Caribbean connection, however, in the voices of the characters. Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) portrays a young girl of Barbadian descent growing up in New York. Marshall herself grew up in New York but in a Barbadian household and regards herself, rightly, as inheriting both cultures.
14 Brathwaite's early poem "The Day the First Snow Fell" conveys his first impressions of the foreign winter. See Barabajan Poems, pp. 58, 300.
15 Bruce St. John (b. 1923) was trained as a conservatory opera singer. He became an oral poet at the age of about fifty, when he used his vocal training to develop a finely sensitive performance style employing the nuances of Bajan Creole with which he had grown up in Barbados. The tonality of the Creole clearly derives from African language patterns more than those of English in the twentieth century, but much of this is gradually being forgotten because of television and increasing international influences. St. John made a couple of records of his performances, but for the past several years, sadly, he has been too ill to continue his work.
16 For Brathwaite's discussion of the term nam, see the notes to Sun Poem, where it is defined as "soul, secret name, soul-source, connected with nyam (eat), yam (root food), nyame (name of god)."
17 The harmattan, the West African desert wind, now blows with an even greater intensity in Nigeria, for example, where the desert is slowly encroaching southward and topsoil is being picked up by the wind. This wind arrives in Barbados with noticeable quantities of dust by the early summer (May or thereabouts), and just as the harmattan has intensified in West Africa, so it is even more of an event in Barbados in the past few years. Brathwaite has used the normal weather events of the near-equatorial region to which both West Africa and Barbados belong in his theorizing about literary form and culture. For example, the hurricane, which usually begins as a weather system off the coast of West Africa, informs his sense of Caribbean poetic metrics (History of the Voice).
18 This is a very interesting assumption. Historically, Igbo culture is much less visible than, say, Yoruba culture to archeologists because of practices like "mbari" among the Igbos. This is a ceremony for the Earth Goddess for which marvelous pieces of art are carved in wood and painted but then left in the bush afterward. Yoruba aristocrats commission artwork in bronze, silver, and gold as well as wood. Igbo custom, for example, in terms of justice systems, as well as physical characteristics et cetera, could arguably be said to be reflected to this day in the culture and appearance of Barbadians.
19 Interestingly, this idea, which Brathwaite sometimes associates with the great boulders on the beach at Bathsheba on the east coast of Barbados, and sometimes with North Point, connects with the story Paule Marshall tells in Praisesong for the Widow (1983) of the Ibo landing in the Carolinas. Here Ibos are supposed to have walked on water back to Africa to escape from slavery.
20 This account particularly struck me since I read it just after returning from Barbados and having seen two men carrying a wounded turtle up the beach with obvious intentions of killing it. The juxtaposition of Hunte's sense of the turtle as equal and potential friend and the image of the turtle as food or tourist souvenir captures a lot of the contradictory cultural elements in Barbados of which Brathwaite speaks in Barabajan Poems. By swimming around the island and risking his life and well-being, sometimes being rejected by those he might have expected to help and support him, and by coming ashore without being given proper ceremony, Hunte in his suffering was able to become a part of the natural world, the world of the sea, and the despised prophet whose people do not truly value his insights. He entered, in other words, the world of Brathwaite's cultural iconography.
21 The fact that the four hundred years of European presence in the Caribbean is evoked in Brathwaite's title is important. This reinforces the presence of Sycorax, the echoes of The Tempest, and the sense that Barabajan Poems 1492-1992 is not simply a collection of contemporary writing but a document which records the beginning of the ending of a long era of colonization and which includes the voices of resistance going back to 1492.
Brathwaite, Edward Kamau.(*) Rights of Passage. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1967.
-----. "Jazz and the West Indian Novel." Bim, 44 (1967), pp. 275-284; 45 (1967), pp. 39-51; 46 (1968), pp. 115-26.
-----. Masks. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1968.
-----. Islands. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1969.
-----. Contradictory Omens. Mona, Kingston, Jamaica. Savacou. 1974.
-----. Mother Poem. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1977.
-----. Sun Poem. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1982.
-----. History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London. New Beacon. 1984.
-----. X/Self. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1987.
-----. "Trench Town Rock." Hambone, 10 (Spring 1992), pp. 123-201.
-----. The Zea Mexican Diary: 7 Sept 1926 - 7 Sept 1986. Madison. University of Wisconsin Press. 1993.
-----. DreamStories. Gordon Rohlehr, intro. Harlow, Essex. Longman. 1994.
-----. Barabajan Poems 1492-1992. New York. Savacou North. 1994. [BP].
Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. J. M. Dash, tr. 2d ed. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992.
Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. Mary Helen Washington, afterword. 2d ed. Old Westbury, N.Y. Feminist Press. 1981.
-----. Soul Clap Hands and Sing. Chatham, N.J. Chatham. 1971.
-----. Praisesong for the Widow. New York. Putnam. 1983.
-----. The Timeless Place, the Chosen People. 2d ed. New York. Vintage. 1984.
-----. Daughters. New York. Atheneum. 1991.
Rohlehr, Gordon. "Introduction." In Kamau Brathwaite, DreamStories. Harlow, Essex. Longman. 1994. Pp. iii-xv.
* Kamau Brathwaite formerly wrote as Edward Brathwaite and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. His more recent works are published under the name Kamau Brathwaite.
ELAINE SAVORY formerly wrote as Elaine Savory Fido. She taught at the University of the West Indies, Barbados, from 1974 until 1990, and has written widely on African and Caribbean literatures. Her special interests include women writers from the Caribbean, India, and Africa, Caribbean poetry, and Caribbean and African drama and theater. She coedited (with Carole Boyce Davies) the first feminist collection of essays on Caribbean women writers, Out of the Kumbla (1990). She has directed plays in Barbados and is currently completing her first play, spirit. Her first volume of poems, flame tree time, was published in 1993. She is working on a study of Jean Rhys.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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