DEREK WALCOTT/AUGUST WILSON: Homage to 20th Century Masters of WORD.
--DEREK WALCOTT, WHAT THE TWILIGHT SAYS"
On 17 March 2017, the Nobel Prize Laureate poet Derek Walcott made his transition, re-uniting among the ancestors with the Pulitzer Prize playwright, August Wilson, who had transitioned earlier on 02 October 2005.
Though both were poets who found voices as dramatists as well, August may have demonstrated an edge in dramaturgy, while Derek was unrivaled as a poet in the English language. Irrespective of the genre that nurtured their voices in a century that produced much mastery in music, dance, art, and literature throughout the African Diaspora, they brought to the English language an authenticity that was momentous.
These two virtuosos of the English language rarely encountered each other during their lives, yet mutually admired the eminence of the other's literary production from afar. In 2003, Quincy Troupe organized a public "conversation" between Derek and August at Aaron Davis Hall, City College of New York, for the Black Roots Festival sponsored by the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center's writing workshops. It seemed appropriate that Quincy would invite me to mediate the conversation, since I had known them both separately, up-close and personal, for 20 years and was now able to bridge the few opportunities they had to engage each other.
The event was published in the Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue of Black Renaissance Noire, and in this current issue, the occasion is being re-visited with a closer view on their language, which, though wrought in dissimilar cultural modalities--Caribbean colonialism and American racism--shares the common objective to elevate narratives of the Black experience, despite their differences in expressive styles that became apparent at the outset, when Derek, with decorously measured speech and manner, graciously issued his praise of August:
... my admiration for his achievement is very profound. I don't think we've measured sufficiently what that achievement is. It's very easy to make a judgment about Wilson saying, "Well, he already has exotica, if you can call Pittsburgh exotic. "But he has the solidarity of that experience. And I am not interested in theatre that does not have language. I am not interested in a theatre that does not have the mesmerizing power, the hypnotic power of great language. And I think that August Wilson is perhaps the finest American playwright, including (Eugene) O'Neill to use that language .
Later in the conversation, August made a reciprocal gesture of mutual admiration toward Derek, describing their first encounter in 1984 at a Theater Communications Group conference, soon after having read the awe-inspiring texts of Derek's The Star-Apple Kingdom, then Dream on Monkey Mountain, followed by Ti-Jean and His Brothers. Upon being introduced to Derek, he exclaimed unreservedly with the unfiltered, blunt spontaneity of innercity Pittsburgh: "That a baaad MUTHAFUKA here!"
'Nuff said: a crude, yet, powerful epithet, MUTHAFUKA, that can be conjugated and issued with a certain intonation to infer, depending upon the context, praise or condemnation, joy or despair, and instantly alter social intercourse, yet seldom is received in the ear as profane, unless the context is hallowed. It is a game-changer, as in August's King Hedley II, when King returns home from a dyspeptic Drug Store encounter with unrestrained vituperation. Yet the lyricism of his riveting apocalyptic speech plays on the ear like a Coltrane solo:
They ain't got the pictures ... Tonya's pictures. They ain't got the pictures. Told me they can't find them and they ain't got no record of them. I showed him the receipt and he told me that didn't count. I started to grab him in the throat. How in the hell the receipt not gonna count? That's like money. I told his dumb ass to get the manager. The manager come talking about their system. Say it's based on phone numbers. I told him I didn't care about his system. A receipt is a receipt all over the world. You can't have no system where a receipt don't count. You can't just go making up the rules. I don't care if you Sears and Roebuck, Kmart or anybody else. You can't make up no rules where a receipt don't count. I tried to tell him this politely like Mama Louise taught me. He wasn't listening. He trying to talk while L'm talking. I told him Motherfucker, shut up and listen to me!
Responding to the culturally specific use of vernacular language, Derek noted tentatively:
You can take pride in talking your own language, but you've got to pronounce it. And you've got to pronounce it clearly enough so the person next to you can hear it ... but if you're black American and you really get angry, you can use a lot of "motherfuckers"... and then you've got a poem, right? ... It doesn't matter what you say or what language you use. You still have to use universal rules of being understood ... get into a dimension that means you have to produce something that is articulate and elegant, and good language no matter what the accent is .
Paradoxically, however, when enunciated as MOTHER-FUCKER outside the cultural origins of its social negotiation, the word is suddenly embedded in Oedipal nuances of unmitigated subconscious maternal sexual desire that is not only profane, but a cosmic violation, given that MUTHAFUKA mostly signifies the fecundating power of matriarchs.
Language, unto itself, is not beautiful or lyrical or divine or compelling. It depends upon the social rituals of culture, be it English, Spanish, French, or Mongolian, to activate the appropriate rhythms that determine what is profane or sacred, vulgate or sensate, and owns the capacity to fuel the imagination to achieve qualities of beauty and profundity. Given the ubiquity of the English language spoken by more than two billion people of the culturally diverse British Commonwealth and other vestiges of colonial rule in the Americas, Derek has declared that "[the] English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination itself."** Hip Hop rhythms, a global phenomenon originating in the cultural matrix of The Bronx, New York, has inspired youth globally to mint from their quarters a rearrangement of languages that, without culturally specific signifiers, would be merely a disjointed collection of words with no place to land in your ear, your heart, your imagination. In a 1985 Paris Review interview, Walcott proclaimed,
I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style ... L grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and do it and flourish it . *
William Grimes, writing an obituary in The New York Times, gratuitously observed that Derek had revealed at an early age, "a remarkable ear for the music of English--heard in the poets whose work he absorbed in his Anglocentric education and on the lips of his fellow St. Lucians...." Grimes would have benefitted from a more informed acumen that poetry is a composition in verse characterized by use of heightened language and rhythm to express an imaginative interpretation of a subject, thus music is central to the development of the form.
Since language flows from a particularized cultural sediment that produces its own musicality, Grimes should not be astonished by Derek's "remarkable ear for the music of English," which would be no less remarkable, if he were acculturated in the French language, as evinced in Aime Cesaire's epic tome Return to My Native Land, upon Cesaire's return to Martinique:
At the end of the small hours: another house in a very narrow street smelling very bad, a tiny house which within its entrails of rotten shelters rats by the dozen and the gale of my six brothers and sisters, a cruel little house whose implacability panics us at the end of every month, and my strange father nibbled by a single misery whose name I've never known, my father whom an unpredictable witchcraft soothes into sad tenderness or exalts into fierce flames of anger; and my mother whose feet, daily and nightly pedal, pedal for our never-tiring hunger, I am even woken by those never-tiring feet pedaling by night and the Singer whose teeth rasp into the soft flesh of the night, the Singer which my mother pedals, pedals for hour hunger night and day .
Or if one listens closely to the Bebop groove of King Pleasure's rendering of Moody's Mood for Love ....
There I go There I go There I go There-e-ee I go Pretty baby you are the Soul That snaps my control
one might discern a similar riff in the Chilean Nobel Prize laureate, Pablo Neruda, who, though exiled from his native land, was able to summon the buoyant spirit of a fandango in Sonnet XXVII from his collection of One Hundred Love Sonnets:
Naked, you are simple as one of your hands, Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round: You have moonlines, applepathways: Naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat .
Derek, whose formal education was in French, Latin, and English, was raised on the verdant isle of St. Lucia, where flora bloom in saturated colors, amidst a multi-bilingual cultural environment of Native American, Indian, French, British, and Dutch, even Hindustani and a mixture of creolized French or English that had become a source of conflict since his colonial youth, as described in his essay What the Twilight Says:
In that simple schizophrenic boyhood one could lead two lives: the interior life of poetry, the outward life of action and dialect. Yet the writers of my generation were natural assimilators. We knew the literature of empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made .
Grimes' assessment of Derek's language skills reminds me of a young English writer I had known on the isle of Ibiza in the early Sixties. Though he lived frugally, just short of the hippy fringe, his sense of high status militated against his willingness to speak or attempt to speak a word of Spanish to navigate his social or domestic needs or desires, yet was contemptuously abrasive, his tone of voice hoisting the British flag, whenever his negotiations were not exacted to his satisfaction. When prompted to learn a bit of Spanish, he rejoined arrogantly: "If you speak PERFECT English, EVERYBODY understands you!"
Countering such conceits of prerogative, Derek further notes his resistance to mimicry of language:
After one had survived the adolescence of prejudice there was nothing to justify. Once the New World black had tried to prove that he was as good as his master, when he should have proven not his equality, but his difference. It was this distance that could command attention without pleading for respect.... It did not matter how rhetorical, how dramatically heightened the language was, if its tone were true, whether its subject was the rise and fall of a Haitian king or a small-island fisherman, and the only way to re-create this language was to share in the torture of its articulation . ***
The world inhabited by August, the Hill District of the Pittsburgh inner-city where dust from the steel mills settles over weathered row-houses filled with Black migrants from the South, gives the appearance of being less sanguine than the sea swept and sun drenched verdant isle of St. Lucia, yet is culturally rich with social rituals and vernacular language. In his Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong'o instructs that "Language, any language, has a dual character. It is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture."
As a cultural transmitter over generations, language transfers values that accumulate and shape communities and the identities of its people. August admits that he did not always value or respect the vernacular of Black Americans, until he read a 1979 speech by the poet Sekou Toure declaring that language "describes the idea of the one who speaks it." It was a moment of liberating discernment that had him tune into the voices of the Hill District inhabitants--the riffs, shifting tonalities, non-verbal gestures, space, all the nuanced changes--retooling himself with the language, then "investing it with my meaning" in the process of crafting his personal vision:
My mother came from North Carolina ... and I only have one Language ... English ... the one Language I have. I try to speak that language as loudly as I can. Since I do, I work in what is in essence a European art form that can be theater, which traces itself back to the Greeks and Aristotle's poetics. That is the art form I chose to work in, but what I do is take my African-American sensibilities and my sense of language and what poetry is ... and then invest it ... I claim anything and everything that is part of the English language as mine . ***
By now, it's almost legendary that August's formal education was interrupted as a teenager, when he quit high school, because his teacher accused him of plagiarizing an excellent paper he had submitted. Rather than drift aimlessly throughout the'hood, the hours he would have spent in class were absorbed in the local library where he informally became self-tutored in the classics of European, American, and African American literature. He credits James Baldwin for bringing to his attention the need "for a profound articulation of the black tradition," which was described as that "field of manners in ritual intercourse that can sustain a man once he's left his father's house." The statements seeded in him awareness that "when you go out into the world that you are fully clothed in manners and a way of life that is uniquely and particularly yours, that there's nothing outside of your experience, that any idea can be contained by black life."
During his forage for knowledge, August became enamored with the gaucho stories of Jorge Luis Borges, the Nobel Prize Argentine poet/fictive essayist who once observed how the authenticity of the Koran, written by Mohammed, was never in doubt, though the Koran, contrary to the expectations of Arab-gazers or Arab-nationalist, did not include a single reference to camels, thereby confirming for him that "what was truly native can and often does dispense with local color" (Fervor of Buenos Aires- 1923)... and urged Argentines to emulate Mohammed and "believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color." August gleaned from Borges, whom he referred to as one of his 4Bs, "that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, and betrayal."
The other B-influences included Amiri Baraka, a guiding force in the Black Arts Movement from whom "I learned that all art is political, although I don't write political plays" and Romare Bearden, from whom "I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality."*** And though he later extended his list of Bs to include James Baldwin and Ed Bullins, whom he valued for their forthright representations of everyday Black life (notwithstanding the conspicuous absence from the Bs list of the Forties, distinguished Howard University scholar, critic, and poet, Sterling Brown, who disdained local color caricatures), his most formidable influence was the Blues, an uncompromising archival vessel that carried culturally specific narratives of the African American experience in an environment of trauma that he viewed as "a flag-barer of self-definition ... a spiritual conduit that gave spontaneous expression to the spirit that was locked in combat and devising new strategies for engaging life and enlarging life and itself." ***
In his effort to quarry the narratives generated by the traumas and celebrations of migratory dislocation of Blacks from the fields of the South, where they were embattled with the forces of nature that wreaked havoc on crops, the inequities of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws, and later disillusioned by the lack of opportunity promised by the Industrial Revolution, when resettling in the industrial North, where they were faced with the inequitable social forces of low wages, poor housing, industrial discrimination, and self-fragmentation, August set himself to the task of discovering universal themes of love, honor, duty, and betrayal embedded in the Blues. In the Preface for his first published collection of plays in 1991, August stated the mission:
I turned my ear, my heart, and whatever analytical tools I possessed to embrace this world. I elevated it, rightly or wrongly, to biblical status. I rooted out the ideas and attitudes expressed in the music, charted them and bent and twisted and stretched them. I tested them on the common ground of experience and evidence and gave my whole being, muscle and bone and sinew and flesh and spirit, over to the emotional reference provided by the music. I learned to read between the lines and tried to fill in the blank spaces. This was life being lived in all its timbre and horrifies, with zest and purpose and the affirmation of the self as worthy of the highest possibilities and the highest celebration. What more fertile ground could any artist want? ***
A Blues narrative is not simply a plaintive cry for sympathy, but rather a heroic attempt by the balladeer to reconstruct a dismembered self by identifying the problem, firstly, then constructing a vision of self that permits survival in chaos. It is akin to the mythic paradigm of the dreadful journey of Ogun, the mythic protagonist of Yoruba tragedy who, as described by Nobel Prize laureate, Wole Soyinka in his essay, "The Fourth Stage," stared down into the vast abyss of transitional essence where the chthonic forces threatened to destroy him, yet "plunges straight into the chthonic realm, the seething cauldron of the dark world will and psyche, the transitional yet inchoate matrix of death and becoming."
Analogously, while the Great Migration was psychically and spiritually disruptive and not nearly as brutal and dehumanizing as the Middle Passage, the protagonist in the Blues experiences a sense of self-disintegration and great suffering during his confrontation with the antagonistic forces of the dark journey, requiring an act of will to become reassembled, much like Ogun who overcomes disintegration by spiritually "channeling the dark torrent into the light of poetry and dance" to emerge reassembled, as if born again.
Closer inspection below the surface of what appears to be the Western dramaturgical tradition of realism in August's work, one discovers many tacit symbolic insinuations of African mythologies, as is the case in his 1910 drama, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the title appropriated from an old Blues song, but inspired by Bearden's Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket. Upon viewing the Bearden collage, Wilson recalled asking himself, "Who was this figure of the abject man sitting in a posture of defeat, people leaving him alone ... just when he most needed human contact." He then decided to write a boarding-house play where the protagonist, Loomis, at the end of years of searching for his wife who had been separated from him, relocates her in the end, then re-assembles himself with a blood-letting gesture of ritual suicide that signifies the Osiris/Isis myth.
The literary scholar William Cook views Joe Turner's Come and Gone as the work that clearly replicates the notion of re-ordering and fragmentation by looking back at Africa. In the boarding house that collects the "souls of black folk" drifting through the South is the conjure man, Bynam, who represents Africa and the return to the cultural cohesion that Black Americans sought after the Great Migration. It is Bynam's belief that the only way Black Americans can retrieve their souls that had been lost to the White man was to rediscover and recover their individual song. In singing the Binding Song, Bynam observes, "Just like glue I sticks people together," signifying the collage effect of reconstruction of self-fragmentation caused by the Great Migration. It is a process not dissimilar to a Bearden collage, which, albeit non-verbal, visually resonates deep layers of African American experience.
The collage, as visual medium for telling a story, is constructed much like the Blues, layered textures assembled on a canvas with disparate materials that seem incongruous, creating a visual rhythm with asymmetrical images that are disjunctive, yet heighten the tension of visual narrative. Like the Blues, it provides a dynamic that reaches deep beyond the surfaces of mundane experience for spiritual significance, illuminating cosmic relations in everyday life, so that the depiction of experience becomes WORD, rather than "hearsay," nor otherwise a photographic replication of the mundane. Both the Blues and the collage are performances of WORD force, each revealing a vernacular enunciation of the mythic sediments of experience with an incantatory power that aspires toward spiritual enlightenment and transformation from emotional despair to spiritual clarity.
The improvisatory layering of images in the collages of Bearden and the narratives of August's dramaturgy are not lost on those who bear witness. It is akin to the layered improvisation that can be witnessed in the oratory of the traditional Black preacher whose desire to promote moral healing and the reassembling of psychic fragmentation by purging the social toxins of oppression with the tonic of spiritual remedies, reaffirming the pulpit as the expressive center of African American performance. As the most potent and reliable mediator of cosmic and mundane forces, the spiritual leader must demonstrate in the homiletic narrative or sermon a command of the widest range of expressive strategies salvaged from the African oral tradition, so that familiar stories of the text are spiritually infused with fresh social meaning. Still, at the very foundation of both Bearden and August s creative projects to reassemble Black life, fragmented by uncharitable forces of oppression and repression, is the Blues.
Since August was ensconced in the Blues, he did not have much of an ear for listening to Jazz, where instrumental solos had more centrality than words ... until one October night in the mid*Sixties, he came across a crowd of about 200 Black men outside the Crawford Grill, a popular Hill District club. At first, he thought the men were gathered around a recent killing. Drawn to the gathering, he discovered that they were the overflow audience of a packed Crawford Grill, outside listening with intense reverence to the improvisational inventions of John Coltrane, "stunned into silence by the artful power of Coltrane's exploration into man's relation to divinity." It was at that point of bearing witness to the collective spirit induced by Coltrane's musical voicing that August began to listen to Jazz and discern that the "core of black aesthetics was the ability to improvise," and the same could be said about Black survival.
Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1992, Derek was queried in an interview about the African influence on his work, to which he replied:
I think the African influence is in the melody of my voice. I think it's there in the music that I like, certainly in the plays. It's very strong because it's a society (St. Lucia) of percussion. It's rhythmic in its essence and in the theatre, particularly, I try to capture that kind of quality that's there in the pulse of the country .
The pulse of St. Lucia, as it is throughout the Caribbean, can be felt in Calypso, a rhythmic vocalization initiated by plantation workers on the island who were African griots--initially known as chantuelle and later calpysonians--that employed satire to tell the collective history and social concerns of the community. Though mimicry and irony were featured in these vocalized tales, they were often subversive and highly esteemed, as the repository for poetic language that Derek recognized as owning, a "personal vocabulary, the individual melody whose metre is one's biography, joins that sound, with any luck, and the body moves like a walking, a waking island."** At times with Calypso, as a poetic call to the carnival, it is difficult to distinguish between a poetic narrative or merely the verbal dexterity of a raconteur or songster like the Trinidadian master of Calypso, Mighty Sparrow, who wryly projects potentially obscene messages in his risque ballad, Saltfish, cloaking sexual insinuations in double-entendres with poetic beauty:
Saltfish stew is what I like So doo-doo, give me day and night I like you food, so don't find me rude My favorite, I sure every man in here already eat it Saltfish Nothing in the world sweeter than Saltfish English cod or the hard Barbadian Very well, I like the taste Though the smell, sometimes out of place It hard to take, but make no mistake I want you to know, it's because it extra sweet it smelling so, boy, it's Saltfish It's sweeter than meat When you want to eat All saltfish sweet
Derek attributes the playful inventiveness of the Calypso, which characterizes the spirit of Carnival, to the stability of the island communities:
It's not searching so much for its stability as seen in the Blues, to find the channel and identity of a place of harbor. It does have the confidence of emanating, as satire does, from a steady source of mockery.... It's very Brechtian in terms of carnival.... the great thing about Trinidad Calypso is the selfless songs of the singer. He takes on the role of criticizing the entire society .
It is precisely the rhythm of Calypso, buoyant and sprightly, that distinguishes it from the Blues with its tormented pathos to reflect the suffering of deprivation and dislocation. Rather than a Blues lament, Calypso was used by plantation workers to mock owners with coded messages and communicate with each other about the social disruption and harsh labor on colonized plantations with celebratory satire to ameliorate a sense of fragmentation. As Derek has astutely discerned, "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole."
Carnival, then, is the unrestrained dance response to Calypso, its tradition a slave mimicry of 18th century masquerades of French plantation owners prior to Lent, known as Canboulay (burnt sugar). Nurtured and developed in Trinidad, it has become in recent times a near Dionysian bacchanal known as Mas, with revelers wearing elaborately seductive costumes and iconic masks and driven by dances that have largely abandoned the measured cadences of Calypso in favor of the high octane Soca. While its inventiveness as a folk-inspired form cannot be ignored, its mimicry and surrender to revelry, in the estimation of Derek, does not allow it to be a useful format for stage.
Since the "essential law of Carnival is movement," a theater would have to reign-in the purely hedonistic impulse of the tradition to accommodate a stage performance, imposing "Japanese rigor or discipline" so that choruses have "precise measure" and the narration own "precise mime," while dance patterns compress "popular language into metaphor," and music did more "underlining" than "accompanying." *
Despite Derek's reservations about the practical usefulness of the Carnival tradition on the stage, his ear remained tuned to the verbal and physical rhythms of the vernacular tradition that erected cautionary tales and excavated mythologies that became infused in works such as Dream on Monkey Mountain, where the distinction between poet and raconteur is clearly indelible:
This morning, early, the moon still up, I went to pack the coals in the pit down the mountain. I will tell you. Make a white mist in the mind; make that mist hang like cloth from the dress of a woman, on prickles, on branches; make it rise from the earth, like the breath of the dead on resurrection morning, and I walking through it on my way to my charcoal pit on the mountain.... I remember in my mind, the cigale sawing, sawing, sawing wood before the woodcutter, the drum of the bull-frog, the blackbird flute, and this old man walking, ugly as sin, in a confusion of vapour, till I feel I was God self, walking through cloud, in the heaven of my mind. Then I hear this song. Not the bull-frog drum, not the whistling parrots. As I brush through the branches, shaking the dew, a man swimming through smoke, and the bandage of fog unpeeling my eyes, as I reach to this spot, I see this woman singing, and my feet grow roots! I could move no more .
In poetry, there is that point where distilled manipulation of WORD becomes the heightened expression of language that lifts the subject from a mundane receptivity and elevates the experience to a larger illumination of mortal existence. Though its objective is often storytelling, its trajectory is toward allegory, elegy, metaphor, metaphysics, to frame mythologies, cosmologies, and symbolic iconologies constructed with a musicality that arrests the ears of the listener. Even the plethora of prose that often burdens the novel or the prosaic rhyming verses of poesy aspire toward the distillation of language that has the capacity to awaken the senses to new enlightenment in the spontaneous manner of poetry.
We discover, then, in Wole Soyinka's classic drama,Death and the King's Horseman, the richness of the poet's musical voice in the spare call n response exchange between the protagonist, Elesin, and his griot, Praise Singer, that is scintillating in its exposition of the metaphysical depths of the plot, lhe King has died, and Elesin, who had enjoyed all the worldly benefits of being the King's horseman, has come to the marketplace to pursue a woman, on the eve of his commission to sacrifice his life for the benefits he had received and to travel with the King into afterlife. As he slips into a state of reverie while dancing, the Praise Singer, suspecting the breach of faith to his moral commitment, engages Elesin in the ritual persona of the King:
PRAISE-SINGER: Elesin Alafin, can you hear my voice?
ELESIN: Faintly, my friend, faintly.
PRAISE-SINGER: Elesin Alafin, can you hear my call?
ELESIN: Faintly, my king, faintly.
PRAISE-SINGER: Is your memory sound, Elesin? Shall my voice be a blade of grass and Tickle the armpit of the past?
ELESIN: My memory needs no prodding, but What do you wish to say to me?
PRAISE-SINGER: Only what has been spoken. Only what concerns The dying wish of the father of all.
ELESIN: It is buried like seed-yam in my mind This is the season of quick rains, the harvest Is this moment due for gathering.
PRAISE-SINGER: If you cannot come, I said, swear You'll tell my favorite horse. I shall Ride on through the gates alone.
ELESIN: Elesin's message will be read Only when his loyal heart no longer beats.
PRAISE-SINGER: If you cannot come, Elesin, tell my dog.
I cannot stay the keeper too long At the gate.
ELESIN: A dog does not outrun the hand That feeds it meat. A horse that throws its rider Slows down to a stop. Elesin Alafin Trusts no beasts with messages between A king and his companion.
PRAISE-SINGER: If you get lost my dog will track The hidden path to me.
ELESIN: The seven-way crossroads confuses Only the stranger, lhe Horseman of the King Was born in the recesses of the house.
As Elesin drifts into a trance while dancing, the Praise-singer becomes alarmed by his inclination to remain in the corporeal world to pursue a courtly marriage with a young woman rather than fulfill his cosmic commitment:
PRAISE-SINGER: Elesin Alafin, I no longer sense your flesh. The drums are Are changing now but you have gone far ahead of the World. It is not yet noon in heaven; let those who claim it begin their own journey home. So why must you rush like an impatient bride: why do you race to desert your Olohun-iyo?
And in the brave New World across the Middle Passage, a child dies, a child is born at the drug-abuse center in Lexington, Kentucky, where a mournful dirge filters the lugubrious night in a poem, The Wedding, vocalized by the saxophonist, Archie Shepp--qua composer, dramatist, poet--wrought from the cadences of rural Blues and the rhythm of urban Jazz, his recitation mindful of the measured, lilting intonation popularized by Dylan Thomas, but more so, the incantatory shout of a Field Holla and the sonorous timbre of a wilting growl resonant of a Ben Webster solo, which has become a signature tonality in Shepp's instrumental performances:
We sat ten abreast on logs that stretched the entire length of the room I knelt and kissed the ring on the Baptist's hand THANK YOU, JESUS Sista Beatrice said, Praise him this from the steely black men whose corned haunches ached from the cold Pearly Mae got down on her knees so that the weight of the baby would shift to her thighs While outside Black Junior vounced on Panamanian Red and Hector stuck a spike straight into the ball of his eye The butter knife cold on Lexingtons floors laid cleft between Heckerts breast And men's buttocks shivered with a peculiar rhythm of bullocks to flies They had been born in a Christian climate and Capitalism had picked them clean They wore the intense gaze of Deacons and strapped 12 foot razors over bloody Croaker-sacks They sniffed Scagfrom spoons or good Coke when they could get it The seats of their pants were shiny and stank like their feet So they were ashamed to undress In front of women And when they went back into the church Black Junior seemed to soar past the Preacher in his metal casket straight through the gleaming eyes of God AH SAID, THANK YOU, JESUS Sista Beatrice said Pearly Mae screamed and clutched here groin In that instant of death she had given life And I had become a man with the slippery future of a fish I had bellowed Harlem Inside her And she swelled into loaves of yeasty cities like bread on a poisoned river YOU POISONED THE RIVER she said Then retrieved me with the songs of Damballah and Engels on her lips
The similarities of music and poetry have always been apparent; the poets in the days of the bard were frequently referred to assongsters. The relationship became even more abutted at the turn of the 20th century with the rise of Ragtime music from the Black precincts of the United States, which introduced a vernacular idiom with a pastiche of rhythmic syncopation, aural angularity, and improvisation that gave poets and Cubist painters permission to break with the conventional symmetry that shaped art and poetry of the time, inspiring the freshly minted riff in the opening of T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Let us go then, you and I , When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Enthralled with the asymmetricial syncopation of Ragtime to rupture naturalistic imagery, Eliot and Ezra Pound, who contributed vastly to the stylization ofT.S. Eliot's masterwork, The Waste Land, led modern poets in the retreat away from the conservative stylizations of Victorian poetry, and invested in innovations that would transform modern poetic language in agreement with Pound's motto to "make it new."
In Harlem, "new" was on its way, arriving in the form of Langston Hughes' publication of The Weary Blues in 1926 that signaled a departure from the measured stanzas and rhymes of his peers in the Harlem Renaissance--Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson being most notable-revealing a commitment by Hughes to engage the innovations of Jazz and riff on the language of popular Black culture:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, I heard a Negro play. Down on Lenox Avenue the other night By the pale dullpallor of an old gas light He did a lazy sway.... He did a lazy sway.... To the tune o' those Weary Blues .
As Duke Ellington reminds us, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," which is echoed by the Black Arts Movement poet, Larry Neal, "words must sing," if they're in the service of poetry.
In the Fifties, Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) infiltrated the HEP scene of the Beat Generation poets and made it HIP, constructing poems in a Bebop lexicon that were uncompromisingly driven by Jazz. As the Beat poets soon discovered, one had to be DLAMF (DownLikeAMuthafuka) to rhythmically voice a poem like Baraka. In his later years--the Nineties till his final breath--Baraka's texts were syntaxial altered with signifying punctuations that disrupted standard lexiconic agreements--the placement WORD, at times, elusive and enigmatic-and the poems performed with animated physical gestures, as if he were a DLAMF Charlie Parker gettin down on an alto-sax solo, as evinced in Wise I:
WHYS (Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen) Traditional If you ever find yourself, some where lost and surrounded by enemies who won't let you speak in your own language who destroy your statues & instruments, who ban your omm bomm ba boom then you are in trouble deep trouble they ban your own boom ba boom you in deep deep trouble humph! probably take you several hundred years to get out!
In the Seventies, Ntozake Shange came into prominence with the staging of her "choreopoem," for colored girls who commit suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, an ensemble dance/text construction of her poems that revealed, in addition to a wrenching confrontation with female abuse, a syntax that continued Baraka's assault on standard language, defying all the rules of conventional punctuation. Shange, who is constantly at war with her computer, because "spell-check" continually corrects the language of her character-voices to conform with standard English, refers to her pen as a "machete," which she uses to "attack deform n maim the language that I was taught to hate myself/in the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child as s/he learns to speak of the world." As revealed in her most recently published essays staged as a choreoessay, lost in language and sound, the deconstruction of English was part of her journey through the minefields of suppressed language, misogyny, domestic violence, and emotional upheaval, until she found voice, emulating Ogun, by "channeling the dark torrent into the light of poetry and dance" in a language that was liberating, assuring her spiritual re-birth.
The passage through creative cycles of Life and Death to discover Form and Transformation is not uncommon to Derek and August on their journeys toward achieving immortality through their prodigious accomplishments, albeit through different lens; August viewing the specter of the Blues within his Pittsburgh Cycle--ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century that unearths the mythic residue of the Hill District--to affirm and reconstruct the fragmentation of Black life that existed on the margins of American history. August reflects on his passage toward enlightenment in the Preface to his Three Plays (1991):
Writing a play is for me like walking down the landscape of the self unattended, unadorned, exploring what D.H. Lawrence called "the dark forest of the soul. "It is a place rife with shadows, a place of suspect quality and occasional dazzling brightness. What you encounter there are your demons, which you have occasionally fed, trying, as Hansel, to make your way back home. You find false trails, roads closed for repairs, impregnable fortresses, scouts, armies of memory, and impossible cartography. It is a place where the cartographers labor night and day remaking the maps. The road is sometimes welcoming and its wide passages offer endearment with each step only to narrow to a footpath that has led you, boatless, to the edge of a vast and encompassing ocean. Occasionally, if you are willing to negotiate the perils, you arrive strong, brighter of spirit, to a place that sprouts yams and bolls of cotton at your footfall."
Derek, on the other hand, fixed his sights on revivifying the language of his native land in the process of re-imaging an Odysseus-mode journey that resulted in his epic poem, Omeros, a freshly authenticated articulation--as opposed to mimicry--that alchemically transforms the familiar Homeric plot into a Caribbean point of view that elicits new illumination on the aspirations and realities of the islanders, prompting Hilton Als, writing in a 2004 issue of The New Yorker, to recognize the achievement as a "masterpiece" that is "the perfect marriage of Walcott s classicism and his nativism."
Omeros--the Greek name of Homer---dissimilar from linear construction of the Greek classics, is a circular, non-linear narrative in five books that magically cuts across time and space, bringing to mind for one critic the nth century Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered mural-scale cloth that illustrates the Norman conquest of England, to chart the agonies of displacement suffered by the Native Indians, the despair of African enslavement on the isle of St. Lucia, and strains on English colonials adrift in exile. It is a narrative propelled by the journey of two local island fishermen, Achille and Hector--echoes, perhaps, but not character templates from The Iliad--who are rivals for the affection of the beautiful housemaid, Helen ...(a libidinal Helen of Troy). At a certain moment, Achille makes a spiritual journey to his ancestors located in the African settlement where he discovers his family's original language, learns his true name, and lives their traditional life, before walking back to St. Lucia on the bottom of the ocean. It is a cleansing passage much like the journey Citizen must take in August's Gem of the Ocean, where for redemption, he must ritualistically traverse the City of Bones at the bottom of the ocean.
Derek, too, was cognizant of the perils on paths traveled, when searching for self in a creative process without a sense of origin, and the need to ritually experience the past to resurrect oneself in the present. It came to him as an epiphany, while directing a small theatre troupe without benefit of a formal theater site to perform Greek, Roman, and British classics they had studied. Yet, they were not discouraged, since "darkness still preserves the awe of self-enactment, as the sect gathers for its self-extinguishing, self-discovering rites." Actors must do more than mimic history, when history has no place in memory, limiting access to emotions of servitude that must be purged, thereby requiring an exercise that allows them to "return through the darkness whose terminus is amnesia" to activate "the imagination and body to move with original instincts," * a re-encounter with the bush with all its dread, a journey not easy to reconcile, as Derek recalls vividly in What the Twilight Says:
Every actor should make this journey to articulate his origins, but for those who have been called not men but mimics, the darkness must be total, and the cave should not contain a single man-made, mnemonic object. Its noises should be elemental, the roar of rain, ocean, wind, and fire. Their first sound should be like the last, the cry. The voice must grovel in search of itself, until gesture and sound fuse and the blaze of their flesh astonishes them. The children of slaves must sear their memory with a torch. The actor must break up his body and feel it as ruminatively as ancestral story-tellers with twigs to the fire. Those who look from their darkness into the tribal fire must be bold enough to cross it . *
Emerging into the twilight, one is born again, transformed.
It is not mere hyperbole, then, to rank Derek and August among the pantheon of 20th century masters of English WORD that would include, Pound, Eliot, Shaw, Soyinka, James, Pinter, Beckett, Joyce, Baldwin, Morrison, O'Casey, Thomas, Toomer, among others who have distinguished themselves with masterful constructions in the English language. While their sense of ethnic urgency may have differed, both Derek and August responded to the rhythms that had fueled their particularized apprehension of the world and pursued the deep structures of African and diasporic mythology in the rituals of ordinary life to erect a revitalized language, which owned an authenticity that enriched and amplified the narratives of Black lives in United States and Caribbean within a context of cultural traditions, as opposed to personal narratives that merely record experience.
In the final WORD, excavated from the shared memory of Liver 'n Onions at a Hill District eatery, August responds deferentially, yet with characteristic candor, to Romare Bearden's assignation to "explore in terms of the life I know best those things, which are common to all culture," noting that his plays are affirmation of the "commonalities of all culture within the life I know best ... which is black life, that's who I am ... I'm gonna express that! That's what I want my art to be about. This is the way we do things. We all bury our dead, we all have parties, we all decorate our houses, but we do it different. And it ain't nothin' wrong with it."
(1) Unless otherwise indicated, ALL quotes by August Wilson and Derek Walcott are from the Aaron Davis Hall public conversation recorded and transcribed by Dr. Donald Morales, Professor of Theatre, Mercy College, CUNY who also took the photos of August, Derek and myself.
(2) The symbol * refers to Walcott quotes from What the Twilight Says: an Overture, his introduction to his play, DREAM ON MONKEY MOUNTAIN, Farrar,Straus, and Giroux, 1970.
(3) The symbol ** refers to Walcott quotes in Google's BrainyQuotes.
(4) The symbol *** refers to Wilson quotes from his Preface to August Wilson, Three Plays, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
Caption: Derek Walcott, Paul Carter Harrison and August Wilson.
Caption: Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka.
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|Author:||Harrison, Paul Carter|
|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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