Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5801
Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s aim, as he has described it, is to “transcend and heal” the fragmented culture of his dispossessed people through his poetry, reexamining the whole history of the black diaspora in a search for cultural wholeness in contemporary Caribbean life. Brathwaite offers his poetry as a corrective to the twin problems of the West Indian: dispossession of history and of language. The West Indian writer labors in a culture whose history has been distorted by prejudice and malice, the modern version of which is the commonplace notion, after James Anthony Froude and V. S. Naipaul, that nothing was created or achieved in the West Indies. The Afro-Caribbean’s history is the record of being uprooted, displaced, enslaved, dominated, and finally abandoned. Brathwaite’s reclamation of racial pride centers on rectifying the significance of the Middle Passage not as the destroyer but as the transmitter of culture.
The second problem that the writer confronts, that of language, is an aspect of cultural dispossession. The diversity of Creole languages, hybrids of many African and European tongues, reinforces the insularity of the individual and devalues the expressively rich languages that the people use in their nonofficial, personal, most intimate lives. Brathwaite’s poems in Bajun dialect extend the folk traditions of Claude McKay and Louise Bennett and ground his work in the lives of the people for and about whom he writes.
The problem of language, however, is not a matter of choosing the Creole over the metropolitan language. It is a deeply political and spiritual problem, since, as Brathwaite writes, it was with language that the slave was “most successfully imprisoned by the master, and through his (mis)use of it that he most effectively rebelled.” With nearly all other means of attaining personal liberty denied, the slave’s last, irrevocable instrument of resistance and rebellion was language. For Brathwaite, a West Indian writer, Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), written at the beginning of England’s experiment in empire, is the archetype of the slave who turns his borrowed language against his master. To turn his instrument of rebellion into one of creation is Brathwaite’s task.
Accordingly, in his poem “Caliban” (from The Arrivants), Brathwaite’s persona begins by celebrating the morning of December 2, 1956, the start of the Cuban Revolution, which remains a symbol of self-determination in the region. In the second section of the poem, Brathwaite adapts Shakespeare’s “’Ban Ban Caliban,’/ Has a new master” curse-chant to the hold of a slave ship, articulating a spirit of resistance that turns in the final section to an assertion of endurance. At the end of the poem, the slaves’ nightly limbo on deck becomes the religious ceremony—the seed of African culture carried to the New World—of the assembled tribes, who are able to raise their ancestral gods and be for the moment a whole people.
What he achieves in “Caliban,” Brathwaite achieves in his poetry at large: He uses his languages, both Creole and metropolitan English, to define the selfhood of the group in positive terms, contrary to the negations of the colonizers. “Within the folk tradition,” Brathwaite writes, “language was (and is) a creative act in itself; the word was held to contain a secret power.” His term “nation language” (defined in History of the Voice) for the language of the people brought to the Caribbean, as opposed to the official language of the colonial power, has profoundly influenced the theory and criticism of African American literature. Brathwaite continues in Mother Poem and Sun Poem to explore the resources of both his native Bajun dialect and contemporary standard English. In his poetry, the power of the word is to conjure, to evoke, to punish, to celebrate, to mourn, and to love. He uses language boldly as one who seeks its deepest power: to reveal and heal the wounds of history.
Brathwaite’s early poetry in Bim, collected later in Other Exiles, with its themes of anxiety and alienation, changed under the search for racial and cultural identity while in exile. Brathwaite became surer of his European heritage while he was a student in England and recovered the remnants of his African heritage while working in Ghana. Those two great cultures, in conflict in the New World for the last four centuries, are the forces that shape Brathwaite’s personal and racial history and the poetics through which he renders his quest for wholeness.
He is equally indebted to the Euro-American literary tradition through the work of T. S. Eliot and to the Afro-West Indian tradition through the work of Aimé Césaire. Brathwaite draws upon Eliot’s musical form in Four Quartets (1943) for his own use of musical forms developed in stages of the black diaspora—work song, shanto, shango hymn, spiritual, blues, jazz, calypso, ska, and reggae—for his poetic rendering of historic and lyric moments. He also draws his aesthetic for rendering modern industrial and mercantile society in the United States and the Caribbean from Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). From Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1968; Notebook of the Return to My Native Land, 1995), Brathwaite derives the epic and dialectical structure of his trilogy as well as the surrealistic heightening of language that propels the movement from the reality of the Caribbean as wasteland to the vision of the Caribbean as promised land.
That change in visions of the Caribbean can be discerned in the three books of The Arrivants through the poet’s reconstruction of racial history and his tracing of his personal history. Rights of Passage, the first book of the trilogy, contains the restless isolation of Brathwaite’s early life in Barbados that sends him into exile in England and Africa, as well as a recollection of the first phase of the black diaspora, the advent of the slave trade and the Middle Passage. The original dispersal of tribes from Ethiopia to West Africa, as well as his own search for his African origins, is the subject of Masks. In Islands, racial and personal history merge in the exile’s return to the West Indies. The fruits of that return would become manifest in his second trilogy, Ancestors.
Readers of The Arrivants who focus on its historical dimension figure Brathwaite as the epic poet of the black diaspora, while those who focus on the autobiography make him the hero of the poem. Taking both approaches as valid, with the binocular vision that the poem requires, one can see that the central figure of the rootless, alienated West Indian in exile and in search of home is the only possible kind of hero for a West Indian epic. That questing poet’s voice is, however, often transformed into the voice of a precolonial African being fired on by a white slaver; the Rastafarian Brother Man; Uncle Tom; a houngan invoking Legba; or some other historic or mythic figure. Brathwaite’s use of personas, or masks, derives equally from the traditions of Greek drama (dramatic monologue) and African religious practice (chant or invocation). One communal soul speaks in a multiplicity of guises, and the poet thereby re-creates not only his own quest as victim and hero but also the larger racial consciousness in which he participates. The poet’s many masks enable him to reconstruct his own life and the brutal history that created “new soil, new souls, new ancestors” out of the ashes of the past.
Combining racial history and personal quest in The Arrivants, Brathwaite has fashioned a contemporary West Indian myth. It is not the myth of history petrified into “progress” but that of a people’s endurance through cycles of brutal oppression. Across centuries, across the ocean, and across the three books of this poem, images, characters, and events overlie one another to defy the myth of progress, leading in the poem only to heaven swaying in the reinforced girders of New York, and to the God of capitalism floating in a soundless, airtight glass bubble of an office, a prisoner of his own creation. For the “gods” who tread the earth below, myth is cyclical, and it attaches them to the earth through the “souls” of their feet in repetitions of exodus and arrival.
The trilogy begins with one tribe’s ancient crossing of the Sahara desert, their wagons and camels left where they had fallen, and their arrival at a place where “cool/ dew falls/ in the evening.” They build villages, but the cattle towns breed flies and flies breed plague, and another journey begins, for across the “dried out gut” of the riverbed, a mirage shimmers where
trees are cool, there leaves are green, there burns the dream of a fountain, garden of odours, soft alleyways.
This is the repeated pattern of their history: exodus across desert, savanna, ocean; in caravan, ship, or jet plane; visitations of plague, pestilence, famine, slavery, poverty, ignorance, volcanoes, flood. The promised land is always elsewhere, across the parched riverbed (“Prelude”) or in the bountiful fields of England, not in Barbados (“The Cracked Mother”).
The connections between history and biography and the difficult process of destroying the colonial heritage in favor of a more creative mode of life are evident in the six poems that constitute the “Limbo” section of Islands. In “The Cracked Mother,” the first poem of “Limbo,” the dissociation of the West Indian’s sensibility—regarding attitudes toward self, race, and country—threatens to paralyze the poet’s dialectical movement toward a sustaining vision. The poet’s rejection of his native land in favor of England is an acceptance of the colonial’s position of inferiority. That attitude is instilled in young West Indians, such historians as Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, and Brathwaite have argued, by the system of colonial education that taught an alien and alienating value system. The debilitating effects of such an education are the subject of “The Cracked Mother.” The three nuns who take the child from his mother to school appear as “black specks . . ./ Santa Marias with black silk sails.” The metaphor equates the nuns’ coming with that of Columbus and anticipates the violence that followed, especially in the image of the nuns’ habits as the sails of death ships. With her child gone, the mother speaks in the second part of the poem as a broken (“cracked”) woman reduced to muttering children’s word games that serve as the vehicle for her pain:
See? She saw the sea . . . I saw you take my children . . . You gave your beads, you took my children . . . Christ on the Cross your cruel laws teach only to divide us and we are lost.
History provides the useful equation of nuns’ habits with sails and the nuns’ rosary with the beads that Columbus gave to the inhabitants of his “discovered” lands, but it is Brathwaite’s own biography that turns metaphor into revelation in the last two parts of the poem, showing how ruinous the colonial mentality is, even to the point of rejecting the earth under one’s feet (another “cracked mother”) because it is not England.
Brathwaite’s corrective begins in “Shepherd,” the second poem of the “Limbo” section. Having recalled the damage of his early education and having felt again some of the old abhorrence of the colonial for himself, the poet returns to the African drumbeats of Masks to chant a service of possession or reconnection with the gods of his ancestors. The poet then addresses his peers in proverbs, as would an elder to his tribe:
But you do not understand. For there is an absence of truth like a good tooth drawn from the tight skull like the wave’s tune gone from the ship’s hull there is sand but no desert where water can learn of its loveliness.
The people have gifts for the gods but do not give them, yet the gods are everywhere and waiting. Moving in Islands toward the regeneration promised in Masks, Brathwaite continues with “Caliban” to explore the potential for liberty inherent in the Cuban Revolution, then moves at the moment of triumph back into the slave ship and the limbo that contained the seeds of African religion and identity.
The “Limbo” section ends with the beautiful poem “Islands,” which proposes the alternatives that are always present in every moment of Caribbean history: “So looking through a map/ of the islands, you see/ . . . the sun’s/ slums: if you hate/ us. Jewels,/ if there is delight/ in your eyes.” The same dichotomy of vision has surrounded every event and personage in the poem, all folded in upon the crucial event of the Middle Passage: Did it destroy a people or create one? Brathwaite’s account of the voyage in “New World A-Comin” promises “new worlds, new waters, new/ harbours” on the one hand, and on the other, “the flesh and the flies, the whips and the fixed/ fear of pain in this chained and welcoming port.”
The gods have crossed with the slaves to new soil, and the poet has returned to the origin of his race to discover his communal selfhood in African rite, which requires participation by all to welcome the god who will visit one of them. The Arrivants is a long historical and autobiographical poem, and it is also a rite of passage for the poet-priest who invites the god to ride him. Brathwaite’s incantatory poems in Masks are his learning of the priest’s ways, which restores his spirit in Islands. The refrain “Attibon Legba/ Ouvri bayi pou’moi” (Negus) is the Voodoo houngon’s prayer to the gatekeeper god Legba to open the door to the other gods. The prayer is answered in the final poem “Jou’vert” (“I Open”), where Legba promises
hearts no longer bound to black and bitter ashes in the ground now waking making making with their rhythms some- thing torn and new.
The use of the trilogy as a structuring framework in The Arrivants has allowed Brathwaite to organize separately published volumes of poetry into a complex but unified and dynamic narrative of national proportions. This is a strategy with profound implications for postcolonial literature because it helps to address the fundamental problem of fragmentation—a significant challenge confronting marginalized writers of the periphery (as opposed to cosmopolitan writers of the center). A sense of postcolonial identity capable of engendering a common national culture is made possible by this ingenious application, first used in Brathwaite’s The Arrivants and once again employed in Ancestors, the long-awaited Bajan trilogy based on three previously published volumes: Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self.
In Mother Poem, the first book of Brathwaite’s second trilogy, the central figure is not the restless poet but the mother he has left and to whom he has returned, the source of his life. The types of motherhood established in “The Cracked Mother” (from The Arrivants) are reiterated here as the poet’s human mother and his motherland, Barbados. Both “mothers” are established in the first poem, “Alpha.” Barbados is the mother-island of porous limestone (thus absorbing all influence of weather and history), cut by ancient watercourses that have dried up in sterility. Her dead streams can be revived only by the transfigured human mother who “rains upon the island with her loud voices/ with her grey hairs/ with her green love.” The transfiguration that occurs in the last lines of the book must wait, however, for the woman to endure the dream-killing, soul-killing life of the island that is dominated by “the man who possesses us all,” the merchant, the modern agent of bondage (“name-tracks”).
The mother is the merchant’s victim, no matter whether she “sits and calls on jesus name” waiting for her husband to come home from work with lungs covered with jute from the sugar sacks, or whether she goes out after his death to sell calico cloth, half-soled shoes, and biscuits, or persuades her daughter to sell herself to the man who is waiting: “It int hard, leh me tell you/ jess sad/ so come darlin chile/ leh me tell he you ready you steady you go” (“Woo/Dove”).
She gets no help from her men, who are crippled, destroyed, frightened, or sick from their lives of bondage to the merchant. One man goes to Montreal to work for nine years and sends back nothing (“Woo/Dove”) and another goes to work for life in the local plantation, brings nothing home, and loses three fingers in the cane-grinder (“Milkweed”). Nor does she receive comfort from her children, “wearing dark glasses/ hearing aids/ leaning on wine” (“Tear or pear shape”), who were educated by Chalkstick the teacher, a satirical composite of the colonial educator whose job is to see that his pupils “don’t clap their hands, shake their heads, tap their feet” or “push bones through each others’ congolese nostrils” (“Lix”). Nor does her help come from her sisters (“Dais” and “Nights”) or her Christianity (“Sam Lord”).
Rather, the restoration of her powers as life-giver begins in the guttural, elemental, incantatory uttering of “Nametracks,” where, as a slave-mother beaten by her owner, she reminds herself and her huddled children in dark monosyllables like the word game of “The Cracked Mother” that they will endure while “e di go/ e go di/ e go dead,” that despite all his power, he “nevver maim what me.” Her eyes rise from the plot of land she has bought with her meager earnings, the land that has sustained her and her children, to the whole island and a vision of revolutionary solidarity with her people: “de merchants got de money/ but de people got de men” (“Peace Fire”). With full realization that her child will be born to the life of “broken islands/ broken homes” (“Mid/Life”), in “Driftwood,” the human mother still chooses to suffer the “pour of her flesh into their mould of bone.” The poem ends with the mother re-created in clay by the potter who can work again, in stone by the sculptor whose skill has returned, and in her words gathered by the poet as rain gathering in the dry pools flows once more past the ruins of the slave and colonial world, refreshing and renewing the ancient life of the island.
Brathwaite’s Sun Poem moves from Mother Poem’s focus on the female characters (and character) of the island to the male principle of the tropical sun and of the various sons of Barbados. The pun of sun/son is derived from a number of historical and mythological associations, including that of Christianity (Brathwaite renames himself Adam as the boy-hero of the poem, and spells the pronoun “his” as “ihs” or Iesu Hominum Salvator) and various African traditions. The sun, for instance, contains “megalleons of light,” the invented word associating it with the Egyptian god Ra’s sun-ship, the galleons of European explorers, and the enormous nuclear energy that eclipses or perhaps anticipates the holocaust that Western humans have in their power. The complexity of the sun/son as controlling metaphor, as it evokes various ethnic and historical images, extends through time and geographic space the significance of the narrative, even as it complements and completes the female principle of Mother Poem.
The mythologies evoked in the poem contribute to the meaning of the life of the son Adam, as he begins to understand the West Indian man’s sunlike course of ascent, dominance, and descent, played out through the rituals of boyhood games and identity seeking, adolescence, adult sexual experience, marriage and paternity, and finally death. In an early encounter, Adam wrestles the bully Batto underwater in a life-or-death rite of passage that initiates him into the comradeship of his peers, but which, Brathwaite suggests, fails (as do the other games that “had little meaning”) to prepare him for the struggles of adult manhood (“Son”). The types of fathers portrayed (“Clips”) fall into roles available from Christian, bourgeois, and Rastafarian cultures that are equally dead-ended. These fathers are unable to pass on to their sons any mode of fulfilling identity or action, even as in his soliloquy, the father laments his own diminishment, his being displaced as the head of his family by his own son.
The central incidents of Adam’s life introduce him to the cares and costs of adulthood. On his Sunday school trip to the Atlantic coast, he enters the adult world, in part by hearing the story of Bussa’s slave rebellion, a story of the painful price one pays for asserting his personhood (“Noom”). He conducts his courtship of Esse (“Return of the Sun”) with a blithe but growing awareness of the consequences of one’s sexual life in determining social and political roles (“Fleches”). The death of Adam’s grandfather (“Indigone”), the final event in the poem, reveals to him the cyclical nature of manhood in which he begins to locate himself: “and i looked up to see my father’s eye: wheeling/ towards his father/ now as i his sun moved upward to his eye.” The cultural determinants of dispossession and lack of identity that so condition the natural progress and decline of masculine life are transcended in the poem’s ultimate vision of a world capable of beginning anew. The final section (“Son”) returns to the cosmic, creative domain of the poem’s invocation (“Red Rising”), but with a clarified focus on creation and growth as the first principles of the natural and hence human world. The image of emerging coral returns the reader to the genesis of the island at the beginning of Mother Poem (“Rock Seed”), completing the cycle of the poems with the “coming up coming up coming up” of his “thrilldren” to people a world renewed.
X/Self, the third volume of Ancestors, is conceived as an exploration of the question of the self engendered by the figures of the mother and the son. When published as a separate volume in 1987, X/Self contained eighteen pages of notes citing references and allusions that constitute a montage of heterogeneous texts, partly as an aid to readers and partly as a parody of Eliot’s pseudo-academic annotations for The Waste Land—a poem that X/Self appears to echo. The X/Self poems appear to be organized around the perspective (or consciousness) of the son, who is addressing his “Dear mumma” by writing a letter from the United States (“X/Self xth letter from the thirteenth provinces”) using a computer, obviously fascinated by its jinn-like capabilities. Speaking with a voice like that of the all-knowing and all-experiencing Tiresias in The Waste Land, the narrator of the X/Self poems observes and critiques from a transhistorical and cross-cultural perspective the rise and fall of civilizations, during which the masses of the world often are subjected to war, slavery, domination, and oppression. Using the lines “Rome burns/ & our slavery begins” as the leitmotif and making allusions to the Trojan War, Augustus Caesar, Hannibal, Charlemagne, Christopher Columbus, Prospero, and Richard Nixon as frames of reference, Brathwaite constructs the figure of the Caliban-like X/Self to characterize the Bajan as a complex identity emerging from the history of slavery, colonial conquest, and imperialism. This complex X/Self identity is unknown or unknowable due to the destructive erasures caused by slavery; it is also a hybrid identity, a Creolized self, produced by mixing or cross-breeding different sets of cultures (master and slave; the colonial and the colonized; the West and the Third World). An “ex-self” that calls into question preconceptions about identity, the “X/Self” is a crossed-out self that is being deconstructed even as it is being shaped.
With X/Self and Ancestors, Brathwaite developed a signature style of page layout in which his poems use a variety of fonts produced by the computer and the dot-matrix printer. Known as the Sycorax style “video text,” this experimental form allows Brathwaite to create a postcolonial means by which, metaphorically, the Caliban-poet might be able to manipulate the colonial language imposed on him to pay tribute to his mother, Sycorax. This video text continues to be used in virtually all of Brathwaite’s creative writing.
A collection of fourteen poems (mainly culled from previously published volumes), Middle Passages employs a running theme regarding the effects of slavery on Caribbean culture and on the world. The title alludes to the Atlantic slave trade as the crucial experience in the existential struggles of the people of the African diaspora past and present, but it also reenvisions the Middle Passage in the context of postcolonial resistance and reconstruction. The title also seems to evoke the grief caused by his first wife’s death in 1986, an event he referred to as “middle passages” in The Zea Mexican Diary (1993). Thus the title also suggests a spiritual passage that death entails for both the dead and the living. The idea of journeys, especially those to African roots, is a recurring theme in this volume, which is dedicated to the memory and honor of jazz musicians (Duke Ellington in “Duke”), poets (Nicolás Guillén in “Word Making Man”), scholars (Walter Rodney in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”), and African leaders fighting for freedom (Nelson Mandela in “Soweto”).
To delineate the Middle Passage as he reenvisions it, Brathwaite uses the figure of Columbus as the harbinger of destruction on his arrival in Hispaniola. “Columbe” suggests the beauty that Columbus and his entourage must have discovered on their arrival in the Caribbean: “Yello pouis/ blazed like pollen and thin waterfalls suspended in the green.” Told from the perspective of an island inhabitant watching the arrival, it also asks whether Columbus understood the violence to which his discovery would lead: “But did his vision/ fashion as he watched the shore/ the slaughter that his soldiers/ furthered here?”
The history of violence against Africans and other people of color indeed plays a dominant role here, as it does in so many of Brathwaite’s literary works. However, the violence that arises in the context of anticolonial and Third World struggles appears to strike a resounding note in Middle Passages. “The Visibility Trigger,” which surveys the history of Europeans using guns to kill and subdue Third World peoples, pays tribute to leaders such as Ghana’s Nkrumah. Another poem exemplifying this theme of struggle, “Stone,” is dedicated to Mickey Smith, a poet and political activist who was “stoned to death on Stony Hill, Kingston” in 1983.
Music and musicians are a strong presence in the collection. “Duke Playing the Piano at Seventy” pictures Duke Ellington’s wrinkled hands as alligator skins gliding along a keyboard. Brathwaite uses a number of devices to evoke a sense of music on the printed page. Several poems call on the rhythm and cadence of different instruments to heighten the theme at hand:“Flutes” lyrically describes the sounds of bamboo flutes, while “Soweto,” written about the Soweto uprising (June, 1976), draws on the rhythm of drums.
Brathwaite’s creative work becomes intensely traumatic and foreboding during his “Time of Salt” (roughly, 1986 to 1990) as a result of the death of his wife (and personal bibliographer), Doris, in 1986 (commemorated in The Zea Mexican Diary); the destruction of his house, library, and archive in Kingston by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 (in Shar); and the devastating robbery and assault in 1990 (in Trench Town Rock). Surviving these deadly catastrophes, Brathwaite is inspired to strengthen the connection between the personal, spiritual experience of the traumatized individual and the catastrophe-ridden social history and political reality of the African diaspora. The result of this deepened connection is his ongoing series of “dreamstories,” which are written partly in prose and partly in verse, and printed in the style of the “video text” of Sycorax. Both fictional and autobiographical, these dream stories are like fables and parables designed to chronicle or dramatize the physical and spiritual struggles of the traumatized individual, who must also come to grips with the trials and tribulations of the people of African descent in a hostile world.
Most of the entries in DreamStories reappear in the larger collection DS (2). “Dream Chad,” which appears only in DreamStories, possesses great significance because of the emergence of a woman named Dream Chad, the poet’s new muse, who in turn could also be a personification of the life force of Lake Chad. In this dream story, Brathwaite learns to use the Macintosh computer—an act that symbolizes how he copes, with help from Chad, with the fear of the destruction of his memories and archives. In a dreamy, surreal state, the narrator is later visited by the spirit of his deceased wife, who clamors for his attention and warns him—as if in retaliation for his lapse—of impending calamities. A tremendous anguish arises in “4th Traveller” (written “for Dream Chad”; found also in DS (2) with revisions), a dream story in which the narrator, along with his father, mother, and the unidentified “4th traveller,” makes a journey to the dark village of the dead and is met with great hostility. The dream sequence is infused with suggestions of fear, guilt, hypocrisy, remorse, and various negative emotions indicative of the narrator’s self-flagellating state of mind. At the end of the sequence, there are hints that the “4th Traveler” dies, “perishing alone out there on the night of the hillside . . . not of his dreams but our noiseless galloping nightmare.” Suggestive of Dante’s descent into the City of Dis (Inferno), “4th Traveler” serves as an allegory of the journey into the dark night of the soul, an undertaking that does offer prospects of cathartic expiation and renewal.
Born to Slow Horses
In the “post-salt” years, Brathwaite continues to be inspired by Chad and dedicates a volume of love poetry, titled Words Need Love Too, to her in gratitude for her “three DreamChad years of love and understanding.” The major work to appear in this new phase of Brathwaite’s poetic output, however, is Born to Slow Horses, the winner of the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. In awarding the prize, the judges cite the book as “an epic of one man (containing multitudes) in the African diaspora” and recognize it for containing “what may well be the first enduring poem on the disaster of 9/11” by turning Manhattan into “another island in the poet’s personal archipelago.” Asked about the title of the volume, Brathwaite explains that lazy horses sometimes pass onto the “basseterre” (cow pasture) he owns in Barbados and that “slow horses are what we call the waves that come over the reefs.” More specifically, the title comes from the poem “Kumina,” written on the occasion of Dream Chad’s loss of her twenty-nine-year-old son, Mark, to a horrific act of violence in Kingston. In the poem, the heartbroken mother vows that there will be no rest until she finds her son again and brings justice back with her, because she was “[never] born to blue nor no slow horses.” The poet characterizes the poem, in the epigraph, as his attempt to “speech my heart yr heart from breaking”; using the twenty-one-day Kumina ceremony associated with funerals (from the wake to the burial) as a framework for the poem, he re-creates the tremendous pain of the mother. In the reenactment of the communal ritual, the poem brings about a catharsis for its audience as well when they assimilate the experience of grief (and transform the emotion into their own) through participation, identification, and empathy.
The transference and distribution, of intense emotions by means of ritualistic evocation and identification is the same kind of process occurring in the poetic sequence commemorating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The poetic sequence is supposed to be the sixth in the volume and should be designated with the Roman numeral “VI,” but Brathwaite deliberately uses“9/11” instead, so that the sequence is designated as “9/11 Hawk,” thus drawing special attention to the significance of the historic event. The first few lines of the sequence, serving as an alternative title, indicate that the poem is conceived as a memorial inspired by American jazz tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins(1904-1969): “Hawk’s Last Body_Soul/ Ronnie Scott’s in London/ 11 Sept 1967_Counting.” The poem begins with the music of “Hawk” playing at the moment the Twin Towers were falling and shifts back in time to a different September 11, in London in 1967—a “golden” time celebrated in wonderful jazz as the narrator remembers it, when “Rollins Bridge is fallin down”—alluding to the collapse of the British Empire as many of its colonies became decolonized (Barbados gained independence in 1966). The meditative dramatization of the September 11 terrorist attacks is then carried out, as the poem continues, in the contexts of a large array of social upheavals and historical events characterized by systematic, organized violence: colonial exploitation in the Belgian Congo, the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the killing fields in Cambodia under Pol Pot, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, the suppression of civil rights in American cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The poetic critique reaches far and wide on the political front, but it is also deeply soul searching on a personal and spiritual level. The two events—the collapse of an empire and the destruction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers—are tied together because the narrator links Hawkins’s 1967 performance with the recorded version, playing in the present, of “Body and Soul,” a masterpiece that carries much symbolic significance: “these words of love to sovereign wars of lust/ to lose/ u/even in the burn-/ing towers of this saxophone/ o let me love you love you love you love you/ vivid + green + golden/ ./ body/ body & soul.” As a memorial to a tragedy that has yet to be connected to many other no-less tragic disasters and catastrophes, “9/11 Hawk” strikes a profound note with its communal message of love, “o let me love you . . . body & soul.”
Although Brathwaite continues to use his Sycorax video-text style, with Born to Slow Horses, he begins to explore other ways to expand the potential of his poetry. The postscript to “9/11 Hawk” includes instructions on how to stage a performance of the “Audioglyph” version of the poem with murals, music, and sound effects. The cover of the book contains an intriguing photograph Brathwaite took of a spider, which somehow turned into “Namsetoura,” a woman (or woman-spirit) and became a new subject in some of his later writings. Explicitly, in the epilogue to Born to Slow Horses, Brathwaite draws attention to the “transboundary” development of his writing and alludes to “tidalectics” and “tripartite exploration” in his ongoing aesthetic experimentations. These gestures portend new ideas being marshaled by the poet for another outpouring of poetic energy.
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