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Edward Kamau Brathwaite 1930-

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Contemporary Barbadian poet, playwright, literary critic, and scholar.

The following entry presents criticism of Brathwaite's poetry from 1968 through 2001.

Brathwaite is one of the Caribbean's most honored writers. He is known chiefly for The Arrivants (1973), a trilogy of poetry volumes in which a uniquely Caribbean identity is set forth, incorporating ties to Africa and the lasting effects of slavery. Born in Barbados, Brathwaite has long been compared to another famous Caribbean poet, the Nobel Prize-winning Derek Walcott. Brathwaite was strongly influenced by the works of T. S. Eliot but his penchant for jazz, rhythmic experimentation, and his love of Caribbean vernacular are the most evident features of his poetry. His emphasis on the oral tradition in poetry has led him to produce several sound recordings. Holding positions at universities in the West Indies, England, and the United States, Brathwaite has had a distinguished academic career during which he has written and edited several highly respected works of criticism, essays, and scholarly histories of the Caribbean.

Biographical Information

Brathwaite was born on May 11, 1930, in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. He attended the island's elite Harrison College, where he started a school newspaper to which he contributed essays about jazz. While at Harrison he also began publishing stories in Bim, an influential literary journal published in Barbados in which his writings would continue to appear for many years. In 1949 Brathwaite was awarded the Barbados Island Scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied history and English. He graduated with honors in 1953. After taking an additional year to earn a teaching certificate, in 1955 he joined the British colonial service and was posted on the Gold Coast, where he lived until 1962. While on the Gold Coast—which became Ghana during his time there—he held several civil service posts that put him into regular contact with the everyday people of West Africa, an experience that inspired his poetry and informed much of his scholarly work. During his journeys to England and Africa, many of his poems and stories were broadcast on the BBC's Caribbean Voices.

On one visit home he met Doris Welcome, and in 1960 they were married. In 1962 Brathwaite left Ghana with his wife and infant son to take a position with the University of the West Indies. His return to the West Indies made him aware of many continuities between the cultures of rural Africa and the contemporary Caribbean. He began exploring these links in poems and chronicling them in scholarly writings. In 1965 he went to England to study at the University of Sussex, and in 1968 he was awarded a Ph.D. in history for research on slave and Creole culture in the Caribbean. As he embarked on his scholarly work, he also began to publish the poetry volumes eventually collected as The Arrivants. Published individually between 1967 and 1969, the three volumes of the The Arrivants garnered Brathwaite tremendous attention and praise. Brathwaite began taking guest appointments at prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale while receiving honors such as Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, and, in 1994, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Whereas Brathwaite's first trilogy celebrated what he termed “nation language,” his second trilogy of poems, written in the 1970s, presents fragments of speech, society, and culture that reflect the folk culture brought to the West Indies by the African slaves. It was also in the 1970s that Brathwaite began publishing under the name Kamau, given to him in Ghana.

Since the 1980s Brathwaite has been engaged in a project to bring to light the cultural, linguistic, and historical links between Africa and the Caribbean. The mid- and late 1980s proved a very difficult time for Brathwaite, as his wife died in 1986 and in 1988 Hurricane Gilbert destroyed his home and buried almost all his papers in mud. Two years later he was robbed and beaten in Jamaica. These traumas contributed to his decision to leave the West Indies in 1991 and take his current position at New York University.

Major Works

Brathwaite's poetry has been a continued examination and celebration of the cultural and linguistic continuities between Africa and the Caribbean. Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969), which were published in 1973 as The Arrivants, remain Brathwaite's most lauded and discussed works. The poems move from Africa and the myths of the Ashanti empire to the Caribbean. John Povey interprets them as descriptions of a search for identity by both Brathwaite individually and the peoples of the Caribbean collectively. The Jamaican poet and critic Mervyn Morris sees The Arrivants as “a major document of African reconnection” that “draws attention to Caribbean continuities out of Africa.” Other Exiles (1975), which includes poems written from 1950 to the collection's release in 1975, is more personal and introspective than Brathwaite's “national language” poetry. In the 1970s and 1980s Brathwaite published Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poem (1982) and X/Self (1987), all of which comprise an unnamed trilogy that seeks to reveal the fragmentary, historical links between Africa and the Caribbean. More disjointed and reliant on puns and wordplay, these poems reveal Brathwaite's debt to jazz masters such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. His most recent works have become more abstract, as is his The Zea Mexican Diary (1993), written in response to the death of his wife.

Critical Reception

Early in his career, Brathwaite was repeatedly compared with another famous Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott. Patrica Ismond concludes that Walcott is the better craftsman, a type of “poet's poet,” but she praised Brathwaite for taking on the role of representative figure for the people of the West Indies, and for representing “their collective destiny.” Indeed, most criticism of Brathwaite focuses on themes such as the continuities between Africa and the Caribbean or Brathwaite's cyclical theory of history and culture. Many critics do close readings of Brathwaite's poems to unearth the shards of African culture Brathwaite includes in his works. Simon Gikandi and others conclude that “oral languages take revenge against institutionalized poetic forms,” and Norman Weinstein traces the influence of jazz in Brathwaite's work. Nana Wilson-Tagoe describes Brathwaite's poetry as a “mode of apprehension, in which the writer seeks community and image through a drama of consciousness.” The vast majority of Brathwaite's critics celebrate his poetry for its rhythms and evocations of the African past in the Caribbean present.

Principal Works

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Rights of Passage 1967

Masks 1968

Islands 1969

The Arrivants 1973

Other Exiles 1975

Days and Nights 1975

Black and Blues 1976

Mother Poem 1977

Soweto 1979

Word Making Man: A Poem for Nicolas Guillen 1979

Sun Poem 1982

Third World Poems 1983

Jah Music 1986

X/Self 1987

Shar 1990

Middle Passages 1992

Trenchtown Rock 1993

The Zea Mexican Diary 1993

Barabajan Poems, 1942-1992 1994

Words Need Love Too 2000

Ancestors 2001

Odale's Choice (play) 1967

Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (history) 1970 revised edition, 1981

The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (history) 1971

Caribbean Man in Space and Time (history) 1974

Contradictory Omens (history) 1974

National Language Poetry (essays) 1982

History of the Voice (history) 1984

Roots (essays) 1986

Jean D'Costa (essay date September 1968)

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SOURCE: D'Costa, Jean. “Poetry Review.” Jamaica Journal 2, no. 3 (September 1968): 24-8.

[In the following essay, the author compares Brathwaite to Virgil and focuses on themes of exile.]

It is significant that before Brathwaite the poet comes Brathwaite the historian. Only a historian could create so intimately and fully the world of Rights of Passage and Masks. This world is one we know well: that of the negro in the western hemisphere. But while others like Cesaire and Baldwin have treated this world fragment by fragment, Edward Brathwaite attempts a synthesis of a splintered, shattered area of experience, and manages to bind together in a single poetic vision both Louisiana and Brixton, the Golden Stool of the Asante and the slums of Harlem. In Rights of Passage we are shown the panorama in time and space of the exile and wanderings of the negro. In Masks, which completes our understanding of Rights …, we are shown the world from which the transported slave came: a world which he now regards with some romanticism, some indifference, and much ignorance. Both books consist of lyric poems which develop a central theme, each poem an essential link in the argument of the whole. Such is the forcefulness of Brathwaite's vision in these thematic poems, that one is quite unable to set either book aside without reading to the end. This is not to say that the writing is all equally good, but that one is compelled to go with the poet through a series of interpretations and visions, and to pass judgement on the whole.

Rights of Passage introduces us first of all to the African homeland in the days before the slave trade. Brathwaite invokes a setting and a mood with Virgilian sharpness:

Drum skin whip
lash, master sun's
cutting edge of
heat, taut
surfaces of things
I sing
I shout
I groan
I dream
Dust glass grit
the pebbles of the desert:

In tracing the path of the exiled negro through time and space, Brathwaite is doing the same as Virgil in the Aeneid. Like Virgil, he evokes deep race memories, associations with a culture long past, yet still active in the present. The homeland which is recalled here is no sentimentalised paradise, nor is it a clear-cut, well-documented thing. Cruelty, death, betrayal are all known. Hardship is familiar. What is suggested is a mood, an echo of a life of which the conscious memories are lost, and only the subliminal remain:

Grant, God,
a clear release from thieves,
from robbers and from those that
plot and poison while they dip
into our dish.
that red idol, is our power's
founder: flames fashion wood; with
powder, iron. Long iron
runs to swords,
to spears, to burnished points
that stall the wild, the eyes, the
Flame is our god, our last defence,
our peril.
Flame burns the village down.

A variety of symbols work upon the two underlying themes: death and regeneration. In all stages of Rights, these balancing symbols recur. In a sense they make the agony of transportation and deprivation more acute, for returning life is a sore trial to a broken and diseased organism:

for our blood, mixed
soon with their passion in sport
in indifference, in anger,
will create new soils, new souls, new
ancestors; will flow like this tide
to the star by which this ship floats
to new worlds, new waters, new
harbours, the pride of our ancestors
with the wind and the water
the flesh and the flies, the whips …

The death and rebirth of natural forms parallels and emphasises man's subjection to the same forces: “So many seeds / the cotton breeds / so many seeds / our fathers need.” This constant balancing of positive and negative poles gives both passion and a kind of honesty to the mythical world of Rights. Assonance, alliteration, and the unexpected internal rhyme point the movement of feeling and argument.

In the section ‘New World A-Comin'’ the psychology of exile and enslavement is explored. There is a neat suggestion of the incompatibility of the cultures of slave and slaver in the lines

… we journeyed
to this place
to this meeting
this shock
and shame
in the soiled

The moral problem implied here will haunt us through the whole book. Tom, a symbolic figure introduced later in this section, becomes the focus of the problem, and the centre of conflict in which the forces of death and regeneration meet. The nostalgia for the lost homeland is transformed into a new nostalgia for a new land which can never replace the other, and yet gains a hold on the exile that cannot be denied. The emotional crisis of the homeless is stated in a manner which stresses the nature of the amputation:

for we who have achieved nothing
who have not built
who have forgotten all
and dare to remember
the paths we shall never remember
again: Atumpan talking and the
harvest branches, all the tribes of
Ashanti dreaming the dream of
Tutu, Anokye, and the Golden
Stool, built in Heaven for our
nation by the work of
lightning and the brilliant adze:
and now nothing
so let me sing

From here we move on to the changed attitude of later generations, Tom's children born in the land of captivity, knowing no other. The hope expressed for them by him “hoping my children's eyes / will learn / not green alone / not Africa alone / not dark alone / not fear / alone …”, this evaporates in the compromises of a new era. The slave and slaver are now face to face, each inevitably corrupting the other, neither able to understand nor escape from the consequences of the situation:

Boss man lacks pride:
so hides his
fear of fear and darkness
in the whip.
Boss man lacks pride:
I am his hide
of darkness. Bide
the black times, Lord, hide
my heart from the lips
that spit …

This is the bitter statement of slavery at its height. It is presumably what Wilberforce and Lincoln fought against, though it is doubtful that they could have had much real insight into the nightmare they opposed. The humiliation and degradation are stated through the persona of Tom, no longer the floundering, founding father, but the enigmatic witness of corruption:

They laugh and the white
man laughs: each
wishing for mercy, each
fearful of mercy, teach-
ing their children to hate
their skin to its bitter root in the

In these passages there are echoes of the spirituals, and of the Biblical language that is so much a part of the English-based negro creoles. At its best the language is evocative of that stage of negro culture which is being rapidly swallowed up by late twentieth century values. Sometimes the mood is jarred by a weakening of the language, or a lowering of intensity. Occasionally a note of banality creeps in:

‘But to hell with this, nuncle!
You fussy black Uncle
Tom, hat in your hand!

The pressure builds up again as we follow the wanderings of the Negro in the days after emancipation. These are the days of migration to Panama, Cuba, New York and the northern industrial cities of the United States. Their pathos and futility are captured in the lines

… In my small hired
room, stretched out upon the New
York Herald Tribune, pages
damp from dirty lots, from locked
out parks, from gutters; dark, tired,
deaf, cold, too old to care to catch
alight the quick match of your pity,
I died alone, without the benefit of

Now the exile is an infinitely complex thing, embracing journeys to any country or state that seems to offer security. No place is home, and everywhere varieties of sorrow and sickness show themselves. The later generations of our century, our grandfathers and fathers, adapt in various ways. Negro art becomes fashionable; negroes are acknowledged great sportsmen and great musicians (jazz only). A multitude of neuroses develop, and beneath all is the restless homelessness expressed in the poem ‘Journeys’.

The many cultures of the West Indian islands, of the Deep South and the northern urban ghettoes are explored in the latter poems. Here, bound together by a common theme of bewilderment and frustration, are the people of the shanty towns of Kingston, Port of Spain, and Harlem. Social alienation produces its hallucinatory compensations; and the Rasta

… beard full of lichens
brain full of lice
watched the mice
come up through the floor-
boards of his down-
town, shanty-town kitchen,
and smiled. Blessed are the poor
in health, he mumbled,
that they should inherit
this wealth. Blessed are the meek
hearted, he grumbled,
for theirs is this stealth.

The Rasta passage rings true as a sample of the linguistic and mental processes of that group. Some of the other passages in different dialects are less successful. This may partly be the result of poetic composition in an unfamiliar dialect, and the use of poetic transformations which do not match the vernacular on which they are based. The last poem in Part II is full of these minor linguistic weaknesses, which yet do not interfere significantly with our grasp of the spiritual and social dislocation they express.

Irony and satire, the weapons of contemporary negro society, are explored as Brathwaite looks at the life of the calypsonian, the Brixton migrant, the bank clerk on the make, the Black Muslim, and the small shopkeeper. The poem in Barbadian dialect attempts something akin to the satire and humour of Louise Bennett. Still the themes of regeneration and death, of despair and hope, persist, though submerged. It is this balance of opposites which keeps Rights of Passage above the level of raw propaganda, and denies the reader any easy sentimental escape. In ‘Postlude Home’ is a statement of the climax of the journeys, the confusion, the fear, the bitterness, and bewilderment which marked the last three centuries:

For we
who have cre-
ated nothing,
must exist
on nothing;
cannot see
the soil:
earth, God's
earth, with-
out that fixed
locked mem-
ory of love-
less toil

Now the beginning of it all it just an echo

I is find meself
wonderin' if
Tawia Tutu Anokye or
Tom could'a ever
have live
such a life.

The epilogue does more than recall the beginning of the cycle of history. It closes with a statement which draws together the contraries that have been expressed throughout, and makes of them both a promise and a threat, a beginning and an end. The final couplet of the book reads

There is no
turning back.

There is that inevitability of development in Rights of Passage which all successful art must have. One is carried along in spite of one's self, and in the end one can look back on a journey of the mind, which has transformed and illuminated the commonplace and the known. There is no easy label for this kind of poetry. If such a writer could emerge to unite in a single vision the disasters and divisions of the Vietnamese people or the confusions and conflicts of the people of Red China, then one might feel that the disunity of the past was ending, if not that of the future. Brathwaite's ability to see the many journeys of the last three centuries as a related whole more is than the freakish vision of one man. Poets seize upon what is real, but latent and formless in their times, and give these things voice and brightness. Myth-makers, they bring before the conscious mind dreams and notions that have been shaping in the subconscious of generations. They cannot create richly without that gestative past in which countless men and women have lived, and felt, and done what is now memory and tradition, and the substance of myth.

The spirit of Rights of Passage is carried over into Masks, as the prefatory quotation suggests:

“Only the fool points at his origins
with his left hand.”          Akan Proverb.

We are plunged at once into a celebration of West African culture, as it is lived and felt from within by those native to that area. Instead of the symbols of exile, fire, disease, springing vegetation and dry sand, there are the many musical instruments and their parallels in nature. The animism of West African culture is boldly expressed:

There is a quick
stick grows in the for-
est, blossoms twice year-
ly without leaves;
bare white branches
crack like light-
ening in the harm-
But no harm
comes to those who live near-
by. This tree, the
elders say, will never

There is a sense of the unity and interrelatedness of all things, a linking of the quick and the dead, which cannot be satisfactorily expressed by the term animism. West African cultures have shown in a variety of forms this sense of the interdependence of things. In “The Gong-gong” it is not a philosophy, but a living reality:

God is dumb
until the drum
The drum
is dumb
until the gong-gong leads
it. Man made,
the gong-gong's
iron eyes
of music
walk us through the humble
dead to meet
the dumb
blind drum
where Odomankoma speaks.

As in Rights … the spirit of each generation, each group was evoked by varieties of language and dialect, so the richness and variety of the life set out in Masks is made real by a telling use of West African languages and names. Brathwaite has a sensitive ear for the rhythms and melodies of language, and his use of terms from the Akan dialects is elegant and exciting:

Odomankoma ‘Kyerema says
Odomankoma ‘Kyerema says
The Great Drummer of Odomankoma says
The Great Drummer of Odomankoma says
that he has come from sleep
that he has come from sleep
and is rising
and is rising
like akoko the cock
like akoko the cock who clucks
who crows in the morning
who crows in the morning

There is much more to the music of these exotic terms than one might at first expect. As we are taken, poem by poem, into the depths of West African life, we find that the language creates an insight into past and present, showing the limitations of the Western negro returned ‘home’, and the blend of strangeness and familiarity in his experience.

It is the strangeness that strikes one first. The land has forgotten the exiles, has lived on past their going with other thoughts. The series ‘Pathfinders’ brings to us the vastness and variety of the life of West Africa. The exiled negro seems a small thing in the endless reaches of forest and desert, river and lake. In it all there is the muted theme of the smallness and greatness of man, building, destroying, breeding, dying, planting, and reaping. ‘Chad’ sets out in cold, clear terms the enigma of existence:

This sacred lake
is the soul
of the world;
winds whirl
born in the soul
of this dark water's world.
This lake
the wars of the world;
no peace in this world
till the soul
knows this dark water's

In this world strife and disorder have a prominent place, and the butterflies of decay and rebirth appear to emphasise the basic oneness of this world with all others. The bitterness of Rights … is absent, and in its place instead is a futility all the more pernicious as it has no overt focus:

… the gold returns
to dust, the walls
we raised return again
to dust; and what sharp winds,
teeth'd with the desert's sand,
rise in the sun's day
brilliance where our mosques
mock ignorance, mock pride,
burn in the crackled blaze of time,
return again to whispers, dust.

The Arab element in West African culture appears, a feature alien and exotic to the non-native. ‘Volta’ sums up the alienness, the vastness and the little-known tragedies of West African history:

For miles the land was bare and dry
for miles clear sky
and rock; three days we travelled,
dreaming; heavy tongues dumb,
soles and our ankles numb,
foreheads shocked with heat.
The land was empty and the
rainless arch of nothing stretching
stretched straight on.

The writing in Masks has little of the vernacular intimacy of Rights of Passage. This is inevitable, for the experience of Masks is that of the observer, not that of the member of the group. In the section ‘Limits’ we traverse the length and breadth of West Africa, and are made to sense the qualities of space and change which make it what it is. This is essentially an examination from without, and it is also an experiment on many levels. In ‘Volta’ quoted above, the tension and labour of this part of West African life are made real in the rhythms and assonances of the writing. The strong musical rhythms of the opening poems express the values and joys of a culture alien to us. The experiment brings us into the heart of things, and shows how close and yet remote that heart is. There is the danger here that the very alienness of the culture threatens the verse with obscurity, yet the forcefulness of the imagery, the symbols of water, river, journey, labour, forest, field and family sustain the flow of argument.

Real tension comes in ‘The Return’. This is Asante country, from which oral tradition claims that most of the West Indian negroes came. This is the classic sentimental journey, the search for another self who preceded the present self. But the mirror is blank, and no familiar face looks back from its surface:

I tossed my net
but the net caught
no fish
I dipped a wish
but the well
was dry

Oddly enough, the writing loses something of its pungency and certainty in this section. But even so the urgency of the theme dominates even the weakest passages, and the hypnotic quality of the verse expresses the feeling of unreality, of failure, of bewilderment:

I travelled to a distant town
I could not find my mother
I could not find my father
I could not hear the drum
Whose ancestor am I?

This is the turning point of Masks. The true search is now over, and from this we must move on to looking at the homeland as it now is, in itself, in its own right, a thing completely apart from the returning stranger. The poem ‘Masks’ tells the real sorrow of that world, a sorrow which the stranger shares because he is of the family of man:

Your tree
has been split
by a white axe
of lightning;
the wise
are di-
vided, the
of our elders
are dead.

Estrangement, exile, division are man's lot: the section ends with a statement of the universality of oblivion and loss.

The last two sections of Masks are ‘Crossing the River’ and ‘Arrival’. Like Bunyan's Pilgrim, the exile has looked at his world, and at his imagined home, and must face both himself and his true environment. The rhythms of invocation and dance are very marked in the last two sections. The writing takes on a ritual quality, as it strives to express the hope of reconcilliation and healing. The image of water the cleanser, the healer, the life force, expresses the nature of this final stage of the search. Water in Asante culture has many symbolic values, and the word ‘nsuo’ is the base form for terms such as milk, blood, fish, and river. The poem ‘Sunsum’ (spiritual blood, literally su nsum) sums up the meaning of the return to West Africa: “Welcome your brother now / my trapped curled tongue / still cries”. But the hard truth is that there can be no answer to the plea for welcome, and whatever hope there is must exist in spite of the unalterable facts of alienation and oblivion:

The years remain
silent: the dust learns nothing
with listening;
the termites' dark teeth, three
hundred years working,
have patiently ruined my art.

Death, loss and despair are the themes of ‘Sunsum’ and ‘Tano’, and we are made to feel even more acutely than in Rights of Passage what is the real meaning of homelessness, of rootlessness and isolation from family. In ‘The Awakening’ only the basic forces of life remain to offer hope of help: the earth, the light of day, and those spiritual energies symbolised in the Divine Drummer. As in Rights of Passage there “was no turning back”, so in Masks the essential power of man to be himself, to find himself, is stated as a duty, sacred and inevitable:

so slowly slowly
ever so slowly
I will rise
and stand on my feet
slowly slowly
ever so slowly
I will rise
and stand on my feet.
Like akoko the cock
like akoko the cock
who cries
in the early dawn
akoko bon'opa
akoko tua bon
I am learning
let me succeed
I am learning
let me succeed. …

Patricia Ismond (essay date September-December 1971)

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SOURCE: Ismond, Patricia. “Walcott Versus Brathwaite.” Caribbean Quarterly 17, nos. 3-4 (September-December 1971): 54-71.

[In the following essay, Ismond revisits and reconsiders a once-common comparison between Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. She finds Walcott by far the better craftsman.]

Since Edward Lucie-Smith's pronouncement that the West Indies must choose between Walcott and Brathwaite, there has arisen something of a controversy about these two figures. There is a sense in which this kind of quarrel was inevitable in the present atmosphere of liberation, and one of the first things that needs to be established is that it is not an irrelevant question within this context. Some attempt has been made to resolve the issue by pointing out that it is futile to attempt a comparison when the two are obviously doing such widely different things. Those who take this position have not, as far as I can gather, tried to examine the differences if only to prove their point. Others think that the whole thing falls into place when we see them as complementary rather than opposed. This is the view that Rohlehr expresses in his essay on Islands, entitled “The Poet as Historian.”1 Here again no one has really ventured to show in what ways they are complementary. There remains, as a result, a great deal of indeterminacy surrounding this matter, and it has tended to give rise to a Brathwaite faction versus a Walcott. It is obvious that behind this state of affairs is an issue that needs to be faced. Either, on the one hand, there are deficiencies in the poets concerned that makes this an authentic cleavage. Or, on the other hand, there are limitations in the attitudes of the audience that get in the way of a proper appreciation. There are accordingly, ghosts that need to be laid, and the effort to come to terms with these issues becomes necessary.

The cliche attitudes towards these two poets must be taken as starting points, because behind every cliche attitude is a hard core of significance which must be the true target of any such argument. Brathwaite is hailed as the poet of the people, dealing with the historical and social themes that define the West Indian dilemma. Walcott is a little more difficult to place—appears at times to pay passing attention to these matters, but more consistently he seems to be a type of poet's poet, the kind of luxury we can ill afford, and which remains Eurocentric. The European literary postures he continues to assume are evidence enough of this. These are the stock attitudes, and it is quite clear that Walcott does get the worse of the deal. Those who, recognising some undeniable strength and relevance in his work, have risen to his defence, have not really dealt adequately with the essential Walcott. Mervyn Morris, for example, in trying to show that Walcott is indeed concerned with the problems of his environment, cites only those poems which deal overtly with the themes of the colonial and middle-passage experience.2 In bringing these two poets together, therefore, it would be dishonest not to recognise at once that it is Walcott above all that needs to be vindicated. At the same time, the true nature of Brathwaite's achievement has been somehow blurred by the very excesses of the enthusiasm with which he has been hailed. Walcott, as a craftsman, towers far above Brathwaite, but I think this is a matter that can be temporarily put aside in a consideration of the content of their works and the type of sensibility that emerges in each case. It seems to me, moreover, that our best appreciation of each does gain from looking at them vis-a-vis each other in this way. It seems, also that this kind of investigation, properly conducted, will shed some light on the multiple aspects of the West Indian malaise.

Brathwaite sets out, in his trilogy, to recreate the historical experience of the Black race in the New World, and to express the various aspects of their condition as a dispossessed people. Walcott is primarily the artist—a man for whom, as an individual, art is a means of exploring and seeking a hold on reality. This general outline of their purposes of course merely skims the surface, but it is noticeable that Walcott's purpose is the more vague and insubstantial at this point. To state these basic purposes in this way, however, is a necessary introduction into the argument. It immediately raises the question of Brathwaite as a public poet versus Walcott as a private poet. In the essay already alluded to, Rohlehr dismisses this approach as false and misleading. “Each of these poets is in his different way at once ‘public’ and ‘private.’” he says.3 The distinction remains valid however. When one regards Brathwaite as a ‘public’ poet, it is not at all to underestimate his capacity for a deep personal involvement in the psychic and spiritual disturbances he presents. The point is that Brathwaite has undertaken to present certain aspects of the experience of a group, suffers in his own person for them as a representative, and always in relation to his vision of their collective destiny. The epic endeavour behind the trilogy demands the heightened awareness and sensitivity without which the poem could not begin to be written. There is not the sense of Brathwaite as an isolated figure—which is pervasive in Walcott's poetry—for this very reason: that his is a representative posture.

The essential nature of Walcott's ‘personal’ endeavour, on the other hand, is not so readily discernible. It is something which emerges only when we watch the patterns unfold from the whole corpus. We are aware, first of all, of the variety of scenes and situations he moves through, and the unflagging tone of seriousness which he brings to bear upon all of them in turn. He dwells upon the domestic and provincial scenes of the islands and the peculiar nature of the ‘tragic twist’ within the confines of their own experience (“Tales of the Islands,” In a Green Night). He withdraws into the world of the private symbol to examine the psychic disturbances of an almost existential condition (“The Swamp,” The Castaway); he enters into the agonized fantasies of the old fiddlers at Parang to show how doomed these are to disillusionment (“Metamorphoses,” The Gulf). Directing all these, however, are spiritual and moral energies that seem ever to be seeking to fulfill themselves (in Green Night) he aspires towards ‘the mind that enspheres all circumstance’; in The Castaway towards conditioning himself to the fact of ‘domesticity, drained of desire’; in The Gulf, towards an apprehension of the awe which life's ‘plainess’ evokes. In working through to these there is a certain expansiveness and elasticity in Walcott's world that results in the variety already indicated. It is a feature that conveys the impression of a man responding to the chance encounter, almost extempore, and there is a quality of the unusual and unexpected in most of the events and situations that feature in his world. If Walcott is conscious of one abiding motivation in his search for a hold on reality—which is by definition essentially vague—it is the important part his art must play in affording him this realisation. The keynote is struck in the “Prelude” when he suddenly rises out of the curious dearth in which both he and his island lie prostrate:

I go, of course, through all the isolated acts,
.....Until from all I turn to think how
In the middle of the journey through my life
O how I came upon you, my
Reluctant leopard of the slow eyes.

It is this sense of a personal salvation that directs Walcott, and makes his a private enterprise sharply distinct from Brathwaite's. It is one of the sources of all the major differences between them and provides a significant point of departure for a comparison of the two.

The central value of Brathwaite's collective enterprise is succinctly stated in Jean D'Costa's review article, “The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite”:

… while others like Cesaire and Baldwin have treated this world (the New World negro's) fragment by fragment, Edward Brathwaite attempts a synthesis of a splintered, shattered area of experience, and manages to bind it together in a single poetic vision …4

Behind this effort his main objective remains, as he puts it in the concluding lines of Islands, to make out of the rhythms of these fragments ‘something torn, and new’. The rhythms are accordingly chosen to convey the qualities of suffering and the type of sensibility that unites the Black race. To mention a few at random: the plaintive blues of the Southern negro; the frenzied jazz of his urban brother; the powerful pulsations of limbo therapy; the resonances of the dark mystery of African religious ritual. For Brathwaite the enaction of these rhythms is finally aimed at one thing; to set in vibration an awareness that is predominantly black; to liberate a way of thinking and feeling that is essentially new in so far as it is devoid of all the strains and elements of the Western myth. His donee, if one may put it this way, is the theme of the dispossession of the black man and the spiritual torpor resultant on it. But his aesthetic motivation, the creation of a Black Word separate and distinct from the Western Word, is what predominates. The concluding lines of the trilogy already cited point to this, and his preoccupation with resisting Western tradition is made explicit time and again in his poems. Now he considers our total alienation from the Western Word, the sentiments and visions of the ‘masters.’

So the stars
remain my master's
property …
.....… we have no name
to call us home, no turbulence
to bring us soft -
ly past these bars to miracle, to god,
to unexpected lover.

(“Homecoming,” Islands)

and again:

it is not enough to be free
of the whips, principalities and powers
where is your kingdom of the Word?

(“Negus,” Islands)

At other times he examines its pernicious effects, as he watches Christianity, as mythical expression of the Western tradition, reclaim Tizzic from the outlet the carnival ritual seemed to offer:

Behind the masks, grave
Lenten sorrows waited: Ash-
Wednesday, ashes, darkness, death.
After the bambalula bambulai
he was a slave again.

(“Tizzic,” Islands)

This sort of attitude obviously belongs somewhere in the same ethos of liberation as Cesaire's vision, but an important distinction emerges from a comparison of the two. The latter sustains an impassioned dynamic of protest that derives from an original moral outrage at the unparalleled insult to the Negro race, and it is this one purpose that informs and discovers its own rhetoric. Brathwaite takes the suffering of the negro as a given subject, and is mainly concerned with sounding the varying strains that will create a language, a way of thinking and feeling peculiar to the experience. This makes Brathwaite's a predominantly aesthetic undertaking, by contrast with Cesaire's direct gesture of assertion and protest. Finally, Brathwaite's most serious opposition is aimed at the Western Word, and his craft works carefully at expunging it from black modes of feeling and expression.

Which is precisely the point at which the division between himself and Walcott begins. Walcott, aware of the growing resistance towards what is called his fascination with the Western tradition, has been stung recently into what seems a rather reactionary remark. In an article entitled “Meanings”, he states rather squarely:

Yet I feel absolutely no shame in having endured the colonial experience. There was no obvious humiliation in it. … It was cruel but it created our literature.5

It would be terribly simplistic to conclude from this that Walcott is rejecting the past, our turbulent history, as having no bearing upon our present predicament. The statement has to be taken in context. Walcott has been examining the dual elements of the African and Western traditions in the West Indian experience, and how the two might unite to produce a peculiarly West Indian drama. For him the one has bequeathed an exuberance which must be subjected to the discipline of the classical tradition introduced by the other. The particular emphasis that needs to be noted here, however, is his readiness to acknowledge the relevance of both these traditions in the West Indian experience. It is no helpless submission to a fascination with Western myth that makes him continue to work within its medium. He is quite conscious of his relationship to it, as he fashions it to cater to his indigenous needs and experience. He refers to this relationship in “Exile” (The Gulf) as his ‘indenture to her Word.’ His essential approach is expressed in “Crusoe's Journal”:

into good Fridays who recite His praise,
          parroting our master's
style and voice, we make his language ours,
          converted cannibals
we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ.

This awareness of his indenture to the Word of the Western tradition—its concept of man in relation to creation, its peculiar apprehension of man's spiritual destiny—amounts to almost an obsession with Walcott. Yet one needs to be careful in trying to grasp the true nature of his position here. There is in Walcott an active scepticism that reflects a generic condition of spiritual dispossession, the spirit of which is captured in “The Castaway” (The Castaway). It turns, of necessity, on a criticism of the Western myth, its betrayals and failures for believer and convert alike. To recognise this however, is to grasp as well that his resistance of it involves an immersion in its qualities of awareness. This two-fold aspect of his involvement is brought out in a passage like the following, permeated with fragmentary allusions to the gospels and the crucified Christ:

Godlike, annihilating godhead, art
And self, I abandon
Dead metaphors …
.....That green wine bottle's gospel choked with sand,
Labelled, a wrecked ship
Clenched seawood nailed and white as a man's hand.

(“The Castaway,” The Castaway)

Thus, the ‘green wine bottle’ has associations with the symbol of ‘new wine bottles’ of the gospel, except that here, contrary to the promise of its greenness, it is choked with sand—symbolizing spiritual putrefaction. Similarly, behind the references to ‘clenched seawood nailed’ and ‘man's hand’ hovers the image of the crucifixion that has become perverted and menacing. Walcott is very much immersed in the Western spiritual atmosphere. While Brathwaite rejects it as an imposture and imposition on the grounds of its being alien to the sensibility of the Black people, Walcott consciously faces it to resist the perplexities and confusions with which it is fraught. For him, to maintain this sceptical awareness is to work out, through modes of apprehension bequeathed by Western influence, his own sense of humanity and ‘God's loneliness.’ This question of acceptance of the Word is perhaps the fundamental issue between the two poets. To appreciate its full significance one needs to look closely at this aspect of their work.

The peculiar anguish of dispossession from which Brathwaite starts sends him in quest of some sort of spiritual baptism. The basic scheme of the trilogy follows the three stages given in M. Arnold Van Gennep's book entitled Les Rites de Passage. In this latter, which may well have provided Brathwaite with his title for the first part of the trilogy, the French anthropologist sees all primitive ceremonies as a passage through three states: first, the effort to withdraw from a profane world that revolves round one's awareness of it; second, a withdrawal during which experience moves on a sacred plane; and third, a reinstatement into the ordinary world.6Masks represents that second stage of withdrawal into a sacred world, and it is symbolic of Brathwaite's quest for some kind of initiation into the mysteries of the heart of darkness. Jean D'Costa rightly draws attention to the tentative nature of this movement in the poetry,7 where he seems, at his best, to be hovering on the brink of two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. The former seems to prevail, so that despite the birth-pangs aroused by the powerful pulsations of the drum ritual, he returns to this sense of negation:

          But my spade's hope,
shattering stone,
receives dumbness back
          for its echo.
Beginnings end here
In this ghetto.

(“Sunsum,” Masks)

At other times he reaches very close to a discovery of the possibilities of suffering and renewal in the intensities of African religious ritual. This is enacted in the section “Eating the Dead” (Islands), a mode of communion with the supernatural that belongs in the African metaphysic and its concept of evil:

          It seems
a long way now from fat, the shaking bone, the laughter. But I
can show
you what it means to eat
your god, drink his explosions of power
and from the slow sinking mud of your plunder, grow.

Behind the multiple aspects of his presentation of Black reality, Brathwaite is indeed burrowing his way into the depths of a spiritual consciousness and a language of belief. This search for gods runs parallel with his desire for discovering a new Word. It is a search that revolves round an African twilight of the gods, and hovers between the condition of limbo and inferno in the ways already suggested. It is also in passages like these that he acquires the greatest strength, as he moves beyond the ‘surfaces of things.’

Walcott's experience of spiritual conflict also moves between similar levels of limbo and inferno, arising from a generic strife between the will to believe and the glaring conditions of a reality that mock this desire. His efforts to gain access to these levels of consciousness involve energies just as violent self-immolating. In a poem like “Dogstar” (The Castaway) this is very much the principle at work. The intense heat of his own tropical setting seems to join forces with the elemental energies of the raging Dogstar, as Walcott becomes aware of the destructive dynamic at the heart of things. It opens for him the prospect of hell, and the eternal menace of death. Out of the inensities of this inferno glow images of a corresponding heaven, and he is tossed between this double vision in such a way as to be left utterly confused:

Shovelled in like sticks to feed earth's raging oven,
consumed like heretics in this poem's pride,
these clouds, their white smoke, make and unmake heaven.

Walcott starts from a contemplation different from the initiation rites in which Brathwaite is engaged, but what seems most important to both is the near-overwhelming strain of the spiritual effort. In each it draws upon the same dynamic of holy rage and awe. The main point here, however, is that Walcott enacts this drama within the mythical symbols of Christianity, not as an orthodox system, but for the traditional power of its images of heaven and hell, of paridiso versus inferno. To stress this point is to draw attention to an aspect of poetry in general that is much overlooked in the present clamour for ‘literature engagee’. Every poet reverts now and then into the most private recesses of ‘pure’ poetry. To begin to deal with mysterious rites or a confrontation with death readily lends itself to the visionary frontiers of such ‘pure poetry’. Thus, when Walcott in his retreats into the visionary draws upon the Christian symbols of heaven and hell, he is following much the same artistic course as Brathwaite is in seeking inspiration in the symbols of African traditional religion. Conversely, given the nature of visionary exploration, Brathwaite is no more engaged in creating a Word that communicates more powerfully to us by virtue of its being African. The ceremony of “Eating the Dead,” as Brathwaite presents it, explores a mystique that arouses a response in us because the emotive drives point to the quality of the spiritual crises, despite our unfamiliarity with its modes and ritual. The Christian symbols feature in the same way in Walcott's spiritual overtures. Any rejection of his poetry on this score comes finally from a failure to understand the ultimate processes of poetry, and on a blind concept of what protest truly involves. It is not the mere gesture of supplanting in poetry one set of symbols qua symbols, by another that makes for an act of self-assertion. That aspect of Brathwaite's poetry which proposes this sort of thing—and it is very much present—is claiming much more for itself than it is really doing. Yet, one needs to proceed cautiously and draw the distinction between this attempt at installment of an African concept of reality and his effort to distill the sense of a people broken in spirit, that movement in his work which has more to do with protest. It strikes a characteristic note in a passage like this, describing the pathos of Tom's failure:

in that fatal attitude
that would have smashed
the world, or made it, he
let the hammer
down; made
nothing, un-
made nothing;
his bright
hopes down
his own
bright future
his one
heroic flare
and failure

(“Anvil,” Islands)

There remains, I think, at the heart of his aesthetic a basic irresolution between these two movements, or rather, a confounding of the one with the other. On the one hand his desire to rehabilitate an African pantheon and mythology as the medium for suffering. On the other, his aim to capture the peculiar anguish of Black oppression. They are not the same thing, though the fragmentary technique of the trilogy helps to create the illusion of an orchestration of these two intentions. It is on this second level rather than on the first that Brathwaite shows a meaningful involvement. Against this can be measured the peculiar quality of involvement that emerges from Walcott's orientation towards reality. The most authentic differences between them arise from here, and the wider implication of Walcott's immersion in the Western tradition emerges as something far more positive and less of an anachronism than it is made out to be. It takes its place, within the specific terms of poetry, in the complex directions of the struggle for liberation.

In a seminar on West Indian poetry, Brathwaite considers Walcott a humanist and points out the limitations of this approach. The humanist poet, Brathwaite thinks “is often speaking away from that society rather than speaking in towards it.”8 Brathwaite concedes that the humanist poet draws his inspiration from the society, but what is implied in the quotation given above is that all such inspiration is sophisticated away from any relevance. A humanist Walcott certainly continues to be, and the tradition of humanism in which he tries to find his bearings derive again from the Western orientation. That is to say, Walcott's awareness of man in search of fulfillment and man the victim of adversity follows the patterns evolved in the Western Imagination. Western philosophy, going as far back as Plato, conceives of man as a creature endowed with the capacity for Truth and Beauty through which he can attain transcendence over the dark forces that threaten to undermine his humanity. African wisdom follows another angle of approach. Arising out of the exigencies of the African experience, it sends the African Imagination in search of a more precipitate contact with Evil. The spiritual energies are engaged in a direct placating of Evil that involves an absorption in its darker mysteries—something of what Conrad perceives in his Heart of Darkness. Brathwaite captures the essence of this philosophy in the following lines, hinting at the significance of the fetish for the African:

symbol sickness fetish for our sickness.
For man eats god, eats life, eats world, eats wickedness.
This we now know, this we digest and hold;
this gives us bone and sinews, saliva grease and sweat;

(“Adowa,” Masks)

In the Western imagination the thrust is upwards; in the African downwards.

The above explications aims at drawing the distinction between the two, in order to recognise more clearly how Walcott is involved in the Western tradition of humanity. It is important to understand how, working within this broad perspective Walcott evolves a humanism that relates to the West Indian conditions. Anyone who fails to come to grips with this aspect of his sensibility, will in their attempt to find him “relevant’, be glossing over a significant part of his achievement. To illustrate this point one need only to take a look at the group of poems entitled “A Tropical Bestiary” (The Castaway) These represent the essential Walcott just as strongly as “Tales of the Islands” (Green Night). In the former however, he is directly engaged in orienting himself to reality on a philosophical level. He starts from a recognition that his attempts to achieve transcendent vision remain ineffectual, and strives towards the resilience that will accept this as a fait accompli of human limitations. With the poetic concentration that such an external image affords him, he sees the reality enacted in the fate of the Ibis that “fades from her fire”;

Pointing no moral but the fact
Of flesh that has lost pleasure in the act
Of domesticity, drained of desire.


The painful pulsations of desire still linger, though, in the human psyche:

Pulse of the sea in the locked heaving side.


When Walcott passes from this reflective level into the human scene, the perspective is still the same. This is true of a poem like “Hawk” (The Gulf). He enters into the spirit of the folk festivity as the old fiddlers play at Parang. The agonised strains of their ‘tension lines’ expresses their yearning for some keen spur to drive them to their dreams, and they look back nostalgically to the powerful purpose that spurred on the violent Caribs, for example. The presiding genius of the hawk is involved, symbol of strife and torture, but, abruptly, the sharp dissonance of the hawk of their actual surroundings brings them back to earth and the futility that mocks such sentiments:

Slaves yearn for their master's talons,
the spur and the cold, gold eyes,
for the whips, whistling like wires,
time for our turn, gabilan!
But this hawk above Rampanalgas
rasps the sea with raw cries.
Hawks have no music.

These are the reaches of Walcott's humanism and they are inspired by the kind of destitution he sees about him. In following these movements between desire and negation, he does not point directly to its sources in social or historical deprivation—but the sense of defeat concentrated in his treatment does recreate the world of these old rum-guzzlers in their rustic setting, caught within the confines of their vegetable life, cheerless and hopeless but for their drunken visions and the occasional rhythms of the old parang. That Walcott approaches them through these modes of apprehension does not refine away the concreteness of their world and its specific conditions. It does not thin into ‘irrelevance.’

This consideration of Walcott's humanism is a necessary preliminary if we are to weigh it against Brathwaite's mission of protest. The questions then become: How does Walcott's humanistic approach serve the West Indian dilemma as compared to Brathwaite's kind of protest. How do these peculiar positions reveal their respective types of involvement in their environment—always bearing in mind a comment of Dennis Scott's, that neither of them is offering us a programme for social reform.9 And since every diagnosis of a malaise hints at possibilities of renewal and relief, however indirectly, how do their visions of West Indian hope and renewal compare. These are among the questions that must arise in a comparison of the two.

The essential tone of Brathwaite's protest is captured in one of his most-quoted passages. It is one in which he rises to a rare flash of original imagery:

and we float, high up over the sighs of the city,
like fish in a gold water world.
we float round and round
in the bright bubbled bowl
without hope of the hook,
of the fisherman's tugging-in root.

Brathwaite's vision of the destitution of the Black people rests on this final diagnosis of their plight; they are a people doubly benighted in a lost world, and the hopelessness of this condition is perhaps his most insistent theme. The circumstances behind this plight have their origin in our history of displacement and subjugation. It is the historical consciousness, quite obviously, that provides him with his viewpoint, and leads him to penetrate the sinister aspects of our unnatural encounter with Europe. He traces the interrelations between the material, psychological and spiritual effects in such portraits as that of the Rasta man. The lingering presence of Babylon, a legacy of the colonial system that fixed the relations between colour and prosperity, has relegated the Rasta man to the absurd dimensions of his world. The sources of the oppression that prompt his ironic hallucinations are shown to be indeed sinister:

Brother Man the Rasta
man, hair full of lichens
head hot as ice
watched the mice
walk into his poor
hole, reached for his peace
and the pipe of his ganja
and smiled how the mice
eyes. …
… like rhinestone
and suddenly startled like

These are matters of fundamental concern in West Indian reality, and Brathwaite implies that our very alertness to these injustices will engender a positive condition of restlessness. In this lies the greatest possibilities of assertion and realisation. Gerald Moore grasps this condition of restlessness as Brathwaite's main positive:

Only by embracing this restlessness can the negro conceive it as a forward movement … The search is what defines the race giving it purpose and momentum.10

In the article already cited Rohlehr witnesses a prophetic fulfilment of this vision. As he watches the protest marches in Trinidad, Brathwaite's insight into the continued tribal wanderings of the Black race strikes home:

Right now it is drought in Trinidad, and those young men with fixed faces looking blankly into an unimaginable future and marching are fulfilling a deep tribal dream.11

In this kind of criticism there is a hint of ‘mythologizing’—there is a point at which, on its own terms, this becomes archetypal and is no longer peculiar to the African tribal experience. Be that as it may, Brathwaite's restlessness aims at feeling its way out of the trappings of such oppression. The conflicts and confrontations that set it in motion are directly associated with the historical aftermath.

Walcott's approach does not bring him to quite this kind of diagnosis. That he brings a certain type of diagnosis to bear upon various aspects of his society cannot be denied. But the humanistic angle from which he starts eschews the sense of direct protest and the vision of our release from the repercussions of history as our only means of escape. His approach works on the level of a morality and internal psychology that turns on a confrontation with self. This is not to say that Walcott does not allow for the effects of the historical experience in aggravating the problems of the environment but, rather, that he does not see this as the main feature standing in the way of self-realisation. A typical example of his approach is his analysis of the kind of megalomania that finally defeats the hero of “Junta” (The Gulf). He begins with the observation of the kind of illusions that the carnival psychology is fraught with. As the hero marches through in the guise of Vercingetorix, there is already a premonition that for him this fantasy is in dead earnest, and the illusions of power are being engendered in the very spirit of carnival:

He fakes an epileptic, clenched salute,
taking their tone, is no use getting vex,
some day those brains will squelch below his boot
as sheaves of swords hoist Vercingetorix.

The ironic approach here retains its sympathetic poise, but almost unobtrusively Walcott shows how this fantasy finds its way through the political outlet of the junta, and the curious twist it takes in leaving the coup, which is to prove his undoing, just as much a matter of fantasy for Vercingetorix. What had been for him a symbol of fulfillment retains the emptiness of an over-desperate and rash gesture, without the authentic purpose of the coup to give it direction:

… He clears his gorge and feels the bile
of rhetoric rising. Enraged, that every clause
‘por la patria, la muerte’ resounds
the same, he fakes a frothing fit and shows his wounds,
while, as the cold sheathes heighten, his eyes fix
on one black, bush-haired convict's widening smile.

“Junta,” The Gulf

These insights finally turn upon an intense type of confrontation with self. Walcott's humanistic concern leads him to explore this kind of delusion as a condition ultimately arising from shortcomings within the individual consciousness—although they arouse sympathy, as in the case of Vercingetorix in showing how vulnerable man really is. In other words, his approach shifts the emphasis away from the external targets that Brathwaite keeps in view. One notices how the turbulent political atmosphere is brought in almost as a matter of course; and in fact, Walcott's approach does carry its environment with it as inevitably. But in bringing the irony to bear directly on the processes of his mania, Vercingetorix' disoriented state becomes a matter of private tragedy for which he alone is, ultimately, responsible. This is the peculiar achievement of Walcott's approach, and it is closely related to his dogged pursuit of a personal hold on reality.

Brathwaite, however, does opt now and again for the stability of traditional morality as a tentative avenue of ‘liberation’. This is proposed every so often as he returns to the theme of Mammon as another major source of the disruption of possible order and the good life:

when only lust rules
the night …
when men make noises
louder than the sea's
voices; then the rope
will never unravel
its knots; the branding
iron's travelling flame that teaches
us pain, will never be
extinguished …

(“Islands,” Islands)

He seems to concede intermittently, therefore, that some sort of poise between the protesting consciousness and a moral vigilance will show the way out of the morass. This moral responsibility, summarily included in his mission of protest, is the very dimension on which Walcott concentrates. One last comparison between the two will serve to underscore this point: their treatment of carnival, an indigenous cultural feature. Brathwaite sees carnival as an expression of a positive and vital impulse, instinctual in the race. So that, in his presentation of Tizzic's case, he denounces the tyranny of a foreign imposition such as Christianity that robs Tizzic of its powers of enrichment: Through carnival's ‘stilts of song’ Tizzic comes near to attaining the seventh heaven, but he is doomed to failure:

In such bright swinging company
he could no longer feel the cramp
of poverty's confinement, spirit's damp;
… But the good stilts splinter-
ed, wood legs broke, calypso steel pan
rhythm faltered. The midnight church
bell fell across the glow, the lurch-
ing cardboard crosses. Behind the masks, grave
Lenten sorrows waited. Ash-
Wednesday, ashes, darkness, death.
After the bambalula bambulai
he was a slave again.

(“Tizzic,” Islands)

Brathwaite's mission of protest leads him to this kind of expose of the hopelessness of Tizzic's thraldom, held as he is within the fastnesses of an alien religion. He seems to be offering carnival as a possible outlet. In a poem like “Mass Man” (The Gulf) Walcott harbours no such illusions about it. As he watches the frenetic gaiety behind the carnival extravaganza, he is conscious of the emptiness behind it all; and the sensuality, devoid of any significance beyond the most philistine type of self-indulgence, assumes sinister resonances. So that the child ‘rigged like a bat’, far from experiencing any genuine merriment, is aware of the absurd scene of its isolation:

But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet
my bull-whipped body swings, a metronome!
Like a fruit-bat dropped in the silk-cotton's shade
my mania, my mania is a terrible calm.

All this must end in a dispirited sense of negation and futility, Walcott thinks with misgiving. His manner of expressing this latter has tended to mislead a number of his readers into thinking that he is merely judging from a sickeningly orthodox and self-righteous viewpoint, based on an acceptance of the Christian religion. His reference to Ash Wednesday is primarily figurative, hinting at the violation of sensibility, the kind of self-desecration that this attitude involves. He continues to stress this sense of aberration with metaphorical intensity:

some mind must squat down howling in your dust,
some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,
someone must write your poems.

Put beside Brathwaite's view as champion of such cultural features, Walcott's seems to be hopelessly negative. Yet his diagnosis of the carnival psychology in the decadent urban atmosphere of Port-of-Spain where the gesture serves mainly as a means of license, does uncover an authentic aspect of present day carnival. The morality that informs his sardonic appraisal does arise from a genuine humanistic concern, as his tableau of the child ‘rigged like a bat’ does show. It is the same approach which sees these shortcomings and deficiencies in terms of our own failures, places the onus of guilt upon us, and shows us to be victims of ourselves primarily. This is instinctively Walcott's purpose, and by comparison Brathwaite's notion of the liberating influences of carnival seems curiously half the truth, if not altogether off the mark. It presupposes a kind of ‘innocence’ which we have quite lost; and this is what Walcott is fundamentally realistic about. This is the peculiar strength of his approach. Yet Brathwaite's attempt to draw attention to such indigenous cultural features and his move to preserve them through his artistic medium remains an important undertaking. If, in his enthusiasm to retain what is our own—and this relates closely to his larger purpose of creating Black aesthetic—he gets carried away into half-truths, much shall be overlooked, because he hath meant well … At the same time, it is exactly here that the two become complementary. In dwelling on his peculiar emphases, Walcott takes such cultural features for granted; while Brathwaite's mode of protest brings them to the fore and points to the importance of preserving them. Walcott is not proposing a rejection of carnival, but denouncing the vulgarization resulting from our unwholesome attitudes towards it. Yet without Brathwaite's attempt, its presence as an indigenous feature worth salvaging from this unwholesomeness might well be glossed over …

The different positions of these two poets does, however, assume peculiar relevance when viewed within the larger context of liberation. Walcott's humanistic approach, in its insistence on searching within for the attitudes of mind that will set us free, signifies this: he accepts himself, in his time and place as a man who, with the ravages of history behind him, is willing to rise above any surviving fetters by a courageous expression of his intrinsic stature as a man. There is this spirit of independence in his approach, completely unselfconscious, that shows him to be altogether free of that historical legacy, a sense of inferiority—a point from which the movement of protest does start. The significance of his ‘acceptance’ of the Western Word is closely related to this attitude: it has availed him of a strategy for consciousness that, having been absorbed and modified in his environment over the centuries, becomes as much his property as that of the former masters. So that he feels free to mould it, bend it to his own purposes, now to expose its shortcomings, now draw upon its strengths—as competently as the original possessors. This is the sense of freedom that makes him recognise the positive aspects of the double-heritage of the West Indies, fraught as it is with all the contradictions that precipitate the crisis of liberation. Nor is it merely a matter of an abdication of the historical sense on Walcott's part. It suggests instead of a man, who, realising that there is no turning back, believes that the destiny of the West Indian peoples must depend on the resources they find within themselves for acting with confidence towards what has been left, negative as well as positive. Only with this attitude, can we begin to make them ours. Moreover, this is not to be derivative and beholden, or to deem ourselves secondary in status. The very confidence and tenacity of his approach challenges and defies any such notions of inferiority. His reaction to the Southern States, in “The Gulf” (The Gulf) is revealing in this respect. He recoils instinctively from the negro's condition there, his ‘secondary status as a soul’. Its strangeness communicates an uncanny sense of fear to him. Somehow Walcott has managed to achieve a sense of self-mastery, and it begins with the attitude of a mind that makes the most strenuous demands upon itself, and takes for granted its right to do so. This is the peculiar strength of his personal quest, and it is, in its own way, a most powerful gesture of assertion. Yet perhaps not all can rise to the level of courage that he represents. He stands out curiously among his contemporaries in this respect, in his refusal to leave the West Indian setting. It is finally a refusal to see the area as confining, or as a secondary order of existence. The attitude he stands for is a valid and acceptable one, though difficult for it opens up a definite possibility, even through the elusive reflections of such a medium as poetry.

This is one mode of assertion, and the next most effective is through protest such as Cesaire's: an outright insistence on the intrinsic stature of the Black man that aims at exploding the myth of his inferiority, and makes an absurdity of all the lingering effects of that myth. There is just so much poetry can do and no more, however committed it is to such a cause. Cesaire's gesture represents the rousing call to manhood and defiance that epitomises this kind of commitment. This spirit is finally lacking in Brathwaite, and it is a direct result of his peculiar conception of his artistic purpose. Concerned to create Black poetry first and last, he depends on the painful lyricism of Black suffering for the anguish of protest. Protest itself remains a subordinated theme, accordingly, and the elegiac mood that pervades it tends to weigh too heavily upon us to leave us in any positive attitude. There is not, in its brooding lament, the defiant will to strive. It is for this reason that his protest, even taken on its own terms remains weaker, in the final analysis, than Walcott's kind of assertion. Yet what he has achieved in missing the mark is indeed valuable, even though it seems to offer more of an escape into its rhythmical movements. If we can resist the lotus-eating atmosphere of the appeal they tend to exert—Brathwaite's attempt to draw attention to the latent possibilities of these rhythms as modes of awareness, is indeed a positive and timely contribution.


  1. “The Historian as Poet,” The Literary Half-Yearly Vol. XI No. 2, July 1970, p. 178.

  2. “Walcott and the Audience for Poetry,” Caribbean Quarterly Vol. 14 Nos. 1 and 2, March-June 1968, pp. 22-24.

  3. “The Historian as Poet,” The Literary Half-Yearly Vol. XI No. 2, July 1970, p. 178.

  4. “The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite,” Jamaica Journal Vol. 2 No. 3, September 1968, p. 24.

  5. “Meanings,” Savacou No. 2, September 1970, p. 51.

  6. The Rites of Passage (Translated from the French by M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee), London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

  7. “The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite,” Jamaica Journal Vol. 2 No. 3, September 1968, p. 25.

  8. “West Indian Poetry, a Search for Voices,” seminar sponsored by the Extra-Mural Department, U.W.I., 14 March 1965; fifth in a series on “The State of the Arts in Jamaica.”

  9. The present writer has heard him make this comment at several seminars on West Indian poetry at the U.W.I.

  10. The Chosen Tongue (London, Longmans, 1969), p. 36.

  11. “The Historian as Poet,” The Literary Half-Yearly Vol. XI No. 2, July 1970, p. 174.

Lloyd Wellesley Brown (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6969

SOURCE: Brown, Lloyd Wellesley. “The Cyclical Vision of Edward Brathwaite.” In West Indian Poetry, pp. 139-58. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978.

[In the following essay, Brown traces a communal voice through Brathwaite's collections Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands, which the author claims demonstrates “the cycles of black New World culture in time and space.”]

It has become a custom in West Indian criticism to discuss Walcott and Brathwaite as opposites.1 Walcott himself ventured some scepticism about the Walcott-versus-Brathwaite debate, preferring (as he did during a visit to the University of Southern California in 1974) to emphasize the similarities between himself and Brathwaite. The interest in drawing comparisons and contrasts between the two is inevitable, given the fact that they have been easily the most dominant and significant West Indian poets, especially since the 1960's. And by a similar token, Walcott's impatience with the emphasis on the differences between himself and Brathwaite is understandable since there has been a tendency to describe them in exclusive terms—Walcott as the Western-oriented craftsman and individualist and Brathwaite as the epic poet and master seer of the black diaspora. In fact there are enough similarities to justify Walcott's impatience. From a general historical point of view their works are the culmination of major developments in modern West Indian poetry—an intensified ethnic awareness, a growing national consciousness that seeks to accommodate the cultural diversity of the West Indian's cultural sources, and a complex perception of the destructive energies and creative aftermath of the past. They also write well within the major directions of contemporary West Indian poetry in that their work reflects a highly self-conscious preoccupation with the artist's identity and role in the national culture: they both share with other poets an ambivalent vision of the West Indian's Middle Passage history, perceiving it as a symbol of dispossession and death but simultaneously transforming it into the symbol of a continual odyssey for new beginnings. And in this connection both poets share historical perspectives and cultural symbols that are interwoven with a New World ethos. Finally the West Indian's moral and nationalist odyssey in the New World is symbolized by the artist himself.

There are differences too, of course. But these should be considered in relative rather than absolute terms. Brathwaite's trilogy, Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands, constitutes an epic of sorts on the black West Indian's history and culture.2 But neither is Walcott indifferent to black ethnicity as such: indeed it is integral to his perception of the West Indian's hybrid cultural personality. Brathwaite also underscores that duality, in a rather different context. In Walcott's work black ethnicity is tempered by an emphasis on his personal closeness, by way of his white grandfather, to the white Western fact. In Brathwaite the West lacks this personal immediacy, but there is a correspondingly intense awareness of the nuances of being black in the West and in Africa. Walcott's Africa is a mere memory, often vague and beyond physical or psychological reach. But Brathwaite's Africa is presented as a personal encounter and as an immediate fact. Walcott's white grandfather and his English memories (inherited from the ambience of his grandfather's world) come easily to the surface of his work. Brathwaite has had a fairly substantial experience of Africa (especially West Africa), having taught in Ghana from 1955 to 1962 after graduation from Cambridge University. Moreover his academic career as historian at the University of the West Indies and in his island home, Barbados, has extended his intellectual immersion in Africa and in the black diaspora. And altogether this personal experience informs the poetic memories of the continent in his trilogy. On the whole Brathwaite's work reflects his far greater interest in the cultural transmissions from West Africa to the New World, and in the organic links between the West Indian and the West African experience, past and present. But he can be as sensitive as Walcott to the nuances and literary significance of the Western dimension in Afro-Caribbean culture. Hence Islands is dominated by echoes of Western poetry and religion, especially by way of Eliot's Wasteland, just as much as the modes of Akan culture dominate the language and perception of Masks.

Finally, although both poets clearly address themselves in a positive way to the ethnocultural experience in the West Indian's nationalism, their approaches are shaped by their respective interests in group versus individual. Walcott's preoccupation with isolation as a universal and persistent condition does not allow him Brathwaite's relatively optimistic assumptions about the realization, or possible realization, of an ongoing ethnic group experience. In Walcott the reader is ever aware of the primary needs, self-conflicts, and self-acceptance of the individual: the individual stands outside the group experience, especially if he is the artist himself, and at its closest his relationship with the group is symbolical or analogical. The group experience is not unimportant but its primary significance is derived from the extent to which the group symbolizes, contributes to, or is an analogy of, the private experience of the individual. Brathwaite's work reflects a more immediate, less reserved reaction to the burgeoning black ethnicity of the 1960's. His poetry does not dispense with individuals as such, but the greater emphasis is on archetypes who are intrinsically bound up with, and lead the reader directly into the group experience of which they are a part. Both poets are sceptical about the facile rhetoric and built-in delusions of much ethnic politics and many national postures, but Brathwaite is more committed than is Walcott to the exploration of ethnic and national consciousness in terms of their group manifestations. This distinction between both poets is also pertinent to their perception of the poetic role. As already suggested, Walcott's highly individualized themes are an extension of his preoccupation with the poet as private person: his themes evolve from the more archetypal dimensions of the castaway poet in earlier works to the decidedly autobiographical framework of Another Life. His poet remains a private individual with public significance rather than the artist who is totally defined by the public function of his art. But in Brathwaite the artistic identity is a composite or collective persona. The “I” of his trilogy seldom, if ever, acquires the private identity of Walcott's poet. In Masks, for example, the “I” represents (1) the precolonial African on the historical quest from old kingdom to new worlds in West Africa (2) the African river over which the migrating African must cross, and (3) the West Indian who visits West Africa as an ethnocultural pilgrim of sorts. Brathwaite's “I” is the communal voice speaking out of and demonstrating the cycles of black New World culture in time and space—in the West African past and present, and in the New World past and present.


Rights of Passage concentrates on blacks in the Americas, moving from the West Indies to the United States and back. The second book, Masks, reverses the Middle Passage voyage by returning the reader to Africa. Finally, Islands is both a return to the contemporary West Indies and a symbolic retracing of the original voyage of enslavement. The odyssey or journey motif of the trilogy dramatizes the nature and function of the artistic imagination in the black experience: art is a journey through time as well as space; it is an act of memory, discovering and imitating the cycles of history, and in the process both creating and demonstrating a heightened new awareness of the past in the present. Consequently the work song with which Rights of Passage opens exemplifies art as an act of memory:

Drum skin whip
lash, master sun's
cutting edge of
heat. …

(p. 3)

As West Indian folk art the song re-enacts the black New World history of hardship and pain. The skin of the drum imitates the beaten skin of the slave; but the image of heat not only recalls the suffering of the plantations in the West Indies, it also re-experiences the suffering of those precolonial West Africans searching for new homes on the continent, and subsequently, the disaster overtaking those new homes when they were burnt down by the slavetraders. Conversely, art as memory moves in the opposite direction in time, recollecting the Middle Passage journey which followed the slavetrader's raids. Here it is the gospel song motif that is dominant, emphasizing the Christian forms which Afro-West Indians have incorporated into their culture and which were betrayed by the white Christians in order to establish the slave sources of Afro-West Indian culture:

How long
how long
O Lord
O devil
O fire
O flame
have we walked
have we journeyed
to this place

(p. 8)

That reference to movement or journey not only underscores the theme of exile in the history of the black diaspora. It also dramatizes the migratory role of the exile's memory and of the artist's imagination. On a technical level it also complements the manner in which Brathwaite's structure is itself an outward representation of art as movement, as a creative, suggestive fluidity: the poem's form flows from the hard, driving drum rhythms of the work song to the melodious lament of gospel music. The easy movement from one art form to another therefore reflects that imaginative movement or journey which is memory or art itself; and in historical terms, the movement imitates the remembered journeys of the past. But it is also a stream-of-consciousness technique, or more accurately, a stream-of-consciousness experience which is centered on a succession of archetypes. The first of these archetypes is Tom, appropriately so since the popular association of Uncle Tom with an abject servility allows for a typically smooth transition, within the stream-of-consciousness format, from the slavery of the past to a traditional servility. In turn, that transition is underscored by the physical (half-white, half-black) as well as the mental dimensions of Tom's personality. Like the cotton of the slave plantation itself, he is the growth from the seeds of his (white) father's (sexual and economic) needs. But the circumstances of Tom's conception and birth are actually ambiguous. The slave mother's union with the master might have suggested a surrender or an act of apostasy; but it was also fraught with a subversively tenacious commitment to survival and to covert resistance. Appropriately enough, then, the poem's structure shifts to a blues format in the introduction of Tom himself, for the blues is the quintessence of that tenacious commitment. Simultaneously, the total movement from Caribbean work song, to gospel song, to blues corresponds with the gradual expansion of Brathwaite's New World context, from the Caribbean to the Americas as a whole. Conversely, the symbols of black history in the Americas—gospel, blues, the slave plantations, and the Uncle Tom archetype—have been concentrated in the black West Indian consciousness that stands at the center of Brathwaite's themes in Rights of Passage: Uncle Tom and the West Indian experience which the archetype represents are linked by their common New World experience.

In more specific terms Tom represents the usual deference and the self-hating acceptance of myths about the racial inferiority of blacks. But considered as a whole Tom is as ambiguous as the circumstances of his conception. His habitual self-negation is actually a thinly disguised mode of defiant survival. The capacity to survive and to create art (music, song, and dance) is integrated with the will to remember the implications of his racial condition. The Uncle Tom mask is the surface acquiescence of the singer, the clown, and the carnival calypsonian; but his heart represents a more complex, less servile response:

So I who have created
nothing …
who have forgotten all
mouth “Massa, yes
Massa, yes
Boss, yes
and hold my hat
in hand
to hide
my heart.

(p. 14)

As an archetype Tom's composite language echoes the West Indian mouthing “Massa,” the black American's “Boss,” and the black South African's “Baas.” In terms of time the cyclical implications of the archetype are emphasized by the fact that Tom the rebel-child of the master must now cope with his own scornfully militant children:


They call me Uncle
Tom and mock me
these my children
mock me.

(p. 16)

In dealing with the young militants Tom demonstrates the real complexity of his character by his awareness of the actual weaknesses of a certain kind of black militancy which, in its own way, is a kind of Tomishness; for it actually panders to the subhuman expectations of whites about black violence and black sexuality:

“Cut the cake—
walkin', man; bus'
the crinoline off the white woman,
man; be the black buttin' ram
that she makes you
an' let's get to hell out'a Pharaoh's land!”

(p. 20)

Within the memory's cyclical patterns of past and present the ambiguities of an older generation of Uncle Toms have been juxtaposed with the ambiguities of the latter-day militant. The archetypal mode itself reinforces the cyclical pattern. Hence the Uncle Tom archetype brings together both past and present in his person, in that his old-fashioned deference and the bolder “hustles” of the younger, militant generation are both methods of subversion and survival in a white world. The geographical cycles (Tom as West Indian, black American and black South African) have therefore been integrated with the cycles of time and the archetypal mode. Finally, the poem's exploration of these cycles of being relies on a structure that is really a cyclical succession of black folk art forms—from work song, to gospel and spiritual, then on to the shuffle of the sardonic young militant hustler.

In keeping with the multiple cycles of Brathwaite's structure and vision Uncle Tom and his militant child are succeeded by the black “spade” who combines the ambiguities and tensions of both. The spade's angry sense of identity is compromised by a contemptuous disregard of history, including his own history:

just call my blue
black bloody spade
a spade and kiss
my ass.

(p. 28)

He is the contemporary urban Black whose self-awareness is punctuated by a sarcastic parody of white perception of the mere “Negro”; but that self-awareness is diluted by the extent to which that parody actually reflects some of his real insecurities. The rhetoric of angry pride masks a basic sense of vulnerability—a striking reversal of the Uncle Tom posture. Hence there is a gradual shift from the hard, declarative style to the moan of a hurt child (“I feel / bad mother”). Altogether the diverse rather than one-dimensional, ways of black folk are demonstrated both by the variety of Brathwaite's archetypes and by the ambiguities and self-conflicts which he attributes to each archetype. And this diversity is the direct outcome of the complex awareness and the multiple images of reality which the poet derives from his cyclical approach to his subject. But the cyclical mode is also complemented by a sense of evolution or progression that promises some kind of maturing consciousness. Thus the boogie-woogie beat with which Brathwaite concludes his description of the spades is laced with the rhythms of a railworker's song: those rhythms reaffirm the continuous, albeit slow, journey towards a robust ethnicity.

The journey motif of the poem is therefore a dual one. It not only describes the cyclical movement of memory and artistic imagination through past and present, but in another, psychologically defined, dimension, it also describes the progression of a certain kind of ethnic psyche groping towards self-definitions that are rooted in humane criteria. This kind of progression has an accumulative effect in that, like the cyclical movement, it brings together the groups and experiences of the New World black—the dreams of Panama boys (West Indian migrant workers at the Panama Canal), the language of the urban black American, and the images of West Indian slums. But unlike the cyclical movement, the progressive structure sets forth these groups and experiences in a sequential pattern. That is, even as one mode (the cyclical) impresses us with the essential repetitions and circularity of the black experience in Africa and the New World, the other mode (a sense of progression) suggests that the archetypes representing those repetitions also establish a clearly defined movement towards a certain kind of perception, as they pass before the reader in succession—Uncle Tom, the black spade, and then the Jamaican Rastafarian (Ras).

This psychic progression is usually underlined in the poem by a corresponding shift in language, a strategy which demonstrates Brathwaite's formidable versatility in handling a variety of musical and colloquial rhythms. Consequently the cool, hip bluster of the black spade's American ghetto gives way to the stately flow of Ras' language:

rise rise
leh we
dem, stop
dem an' go
back back
to the black
man lan'
back back
to Af-

(p. 42)

The impressive impact of the language transforms the usually self-deluding Back-to-Africa argument with a new forceful energy: the theme now connotes a racial or cultural rebirth rather than a literal return to Africa, and on this allegorical basis the theme reflects an expanding and aggressive, rather than merely self-defensive or angrily insecure self-consciousness. This moral and emotional incisiveness which distinguishes Ras from the earlier archetypes is heightened by a style which combines the spiritual fervor of the gospel song with the rhythms of the language of Jamaica's urban poor. In one sense the weight of Ras' ethnic awareness and the thrust of his moral outrage do go hand in hand with the pathetic wish fulfillment of an impotent rage—especially when he calls down flames of retribution on an unjust social order:

from on high dem
raze an' roar dem
an' de poor dem
rise an' rage dem
in de glory of the Lord.

(p. 44)

But in another sense, notwithstanding that element of wish fulfillment, the mere fact of Ras' anger represents a real threat to the future of Babylon (the established order), particularly since Ras' rage, unlike that of the spade's, expresses a fairly coherent and consistent sense of ethnic integrity.

Once again the sense of a progression (represented here by Ras' ethnicity) is linked with the cyclical structure of historical repetition. Thus the threat of a destructive flame in Ras' contemporary Jamaica recalls the fires of death and destruction in the slavetrader's raids of the past. If Ras' consciousness represents a progression of awareness, the flame motif underlines the cyclical persistence of the conditions against which he is striking. Moreover these dual movements of cycle and progression are incorporated in Ras' personality and style. His Back-to-Africa platform repeats a long-lived black dream in the New World, as old as the black presence in the New World; the gospel-song echoes of his language recall the style of Uncle Tom. But, on the other hand, the old Back-to-Africa theme is integrated with the new urgency of a psychological journey of discovery into one's self; and in this vein the contemporary dialect of the urban Jamaican poor expresses the new urgency and a new militancy. Style and structure have become psychological experiences within the poem. This is the kind of dual movement that informs the role of the calypso in the description of West Indian poverty and social injustice. The calypso is a sardonic salute to deep-rooted inequities: “Some people doin' well / while others are catchin' hell” (p. 48). On this level its function is cyclical, for it is really a reminder that the injustices of the present, postindependent period actually repeat the harsh brutality through which the modern West Indies were born: “The islands roared into green plantations / ruled by silver sugar cane” (p. 47). But while the calypsonian's song demonstrates the historical cycles of West Indian poverty and injustice, as folk art it is a corrosively satiric insight that represents an attitudinal and strategic progression from Uncle Tom's guileful but self-protective deference.

“The Return” which concludes Rights of Passage should therefore be read in the dual context of cycle and progression which Brathwaite has been developing throughout the work and which is so well integrated in the figure of Ras and in the role of the calypso. The physical return of the West Indian migrant from his North American exile represents a full psychic cycle, in terms of memory and in terms of the artistic imagination. For the Caribbean to which he returns is marked by the age-old problems of colonial, or neocolonial, violence (the United States versus Cuba), racial exploitation and anger (Black Power riots in Aruba and Trinidad), national leaders who are under attack for having merely substituted themselves for the old colonial masters, and at the bottom of the pile as usual, the poor who are now beginning to “catch their royal asses” (pp. 61-62).

Here too the cyclical experience is integrated with the sense of a progression in the individual's, or more precisely the archetype's, perception. The returning exile therefore communicates a matured consciousness, in contrast with the limited militancy of the spade, for example. That consciousness is manifest in the overview of the Caribbean to which he returns: in other words, the very ability to comprehend the cyclical patterns of West Indian history and culture represents a significant progression from the spade's angry indifference to history. This level of awareness is also implicit in the intensely felt identification with the poor folk, not merely by way of the rhetoric of moral indignation, but also by way of that easy slide into the colloqualism of the folk (“catch their royal asses”): in a work in which shifts in language and style are so closely patterned on subjective experience, that slide into the language of the folk is significant. Moreover this kind of perception is really identical to the perspectives of folk art and Brathwaite's own poetry: it shares with the poetic imagination the creative memory which traces historical cycles, the moral energy to generate a sense of psychic progression, and as a result of all these the ability to see the West Indian situation by being aware of its repetitive inequities as well as its creative energies.

At this point in his maturation our returning exile is ready to re-evaluate Uncle Tom:

No one
knows Tom now, no one cares.
Slave's days are past, for-
gotten. The faith, the dream denied,
the things he dared not do, all lost, if unforgiven.

(p. 72)

Tom's reappearance heightens the impression of Brathwaite's cyclical structure. The re-evaluation of his character represents the moral and intellectual progression of the exile. That progression is also implied by the more complex view of history itself: the old self-hate and the more recent insecurity of the bellicose spade have given way to a realization that black history can be perceived positively as a creative process rather than as mere “nothing.” Creation is the most important kind of historical heritage that there is, especially the kind of creation that is rooted in a growing sense of one's humanity. In this sense history as creation must be distinguished from history as building things through slavery, through the “love- / less toil” of others: it is love, less toil (p. 80). Like Walcott's castaway figure and like the redefiners of West Indian history in modern West Indian poetry, Brathwaite's creators are really analogous to the artistic imagination. And, finally, Walcott's West Indian Adam who bestows new names and identities on the old nothingness of the New World is succeeded in this work by Brathwaite's Noah, that second Adam who stands as a “fully aware” West Indian in the ruins of an old tradition contemplating the possibilities of the new order that must be created, and realizing that there is “no turning back” (p. 86).


Masks, the next work in the trilogy, is also rooted in the strategy of developing a full awareness through the cyclical course of memory and art. Here the persistent journey motif describes the West Indian's cultural pilgrimage to West Africa. That pilgrimage is a literal and physical one. But it is also psychic, linking the West Indian's modern return to his Akan beginnings with the period in which his ancestors were torn from West Africa by the slave trade and with that even earlier period when those precolonial ancestors sought new homes for the first time in West Africa. The total effect of this simultaneous perception of time cycles is to re-emphasize time itself as an essentially cyclical, or circular whole. It is therefore appropriate that the work opens with a ceremony of libation that celebrates the cycle of time in the year that has “come round / again” (p. 5). Moreover, this impression of a cyclical wholeness also rests on the continental dimensions of Africa, the cultural affinities between its distinctive regions, and most important that cyclical perception of time and experience which the poet shares with his Africans: “all Africa / is one, is whole” (p. 3).

The making of the drums which follows the libation therefore becomes not simply the production of an artifact in the Western sense, but a ritual which confirms simultaneously: the cyclical wholeness that Akan culture perceives in experience; the manner in which that sense of wholeness has been transmitted to Afro-West Indian culture; and a reflection of that wholeness in the actual making of the drum. Consequently, the construction of the drum requires the union of male (the skin of a goat) and female (the hollowed wood of the duru), and this union re-enacts the timeless, universal principle of life and fertility. The combination of the duru wood with the goatskin rather than with the more traditional elephant-skin, represents the continuity of West African and Afro-West Indian cultures since the goatskin drum is characteristic of Brathwaite's Caribbean. The cultural significance of the drum in both Akan and Afro-West Indian culture therefore underscores the poet's sense of continuities—the birth of West Indian culture out of the enslavement of the West African, the creation of the drum itself out of the death of goat and tree, and in all these the continuous cycle of life, death, and re-creation. Finally this organic relationship between the drum and the created world emphasizes that art is not separate from society and experience but is the very essence of both: art and artist speak out of and on behalf of a communally perceived experience in which the drum can be the voice of Odomankoma the Creator himself.

The drum, itself a symbol of history's cycles, now represents the artistic imagination of the poet himself in his vision of West African and West Indian history. The main thrust of that vision in Masks is to bridge the gulf, in the popular imagination, between the West Indian present and its West African sources, and to demonstrate the dependence of a vital West Indian identity on an acceptance of the general wholeness of black history. To these ends the poem evokes the past and the present cycles of West African (Akan) culture in highly immediate and concrete terms. Consequently the precolonial West African of Masks is never presented solely with reference to that precolonial history. The drum's recall of the Akan past is the West Indian's memory of the periods of slavery and colonialism and the West Indian's impressions of the West African present. The arrival of the ancestral “path-finders” to new homes in West Africa is therefore described in terms that evoke memories of the white slaver's incursion and the modern West Indian's return:

well have you walked
have you journeyed
You who have come
back a stranger
after three hundred years. …
So beware
cried Akyere
the clear
eyes, the near
ships. …

(pp. 37, 41)

Whereas the full awareness into which the archetype grows in Rights depends upon accepting the cycles of New World history, in Masks that progression is now integrated with an awareness of the cycles of West African and New World history. To grasp the West African past in its totality is to come to terms with the complex nature of the West Indian identity, black history, and the nature of history itself. The West African market with its flies “clotting” the entrails of the meat stalls and with its trinkets pulls the memory back to the slaver's trinkets which led to the blood-clotted birth of the West Indies. The fallen trees of Nyame the African Creator have given way to the Christian cross, and the Christian's bells have silenced the drums of the African God; but in contemplating these West African endings in the present, the West Indian also acknowledges a sense of kinship, which signals the new beginnings of his self-identification:

My scattered
clan, young-
est kinsmen,
fever's dirge
in their wounds,
rested here.

(p. 47)

The return of the West Indian is therefore a total immersion into both his past and present, or to borrow Brathwaite's imagery, he has returned “eating time like a mud-fish” (p. 51). And this kind of immersion is emphasized by the poet's language. His contemporary English is endowed with rhythms and with a metaphoric texture that recaptures the cadence of the Ashanti king's ceremonial exchange with his subjects:

When the worm's knife cuts
the throat of a tree, what will happen?
It will die
When a cancer has eaten the guts
of a man, what will surely happen?
He will die.

(p. 58)

In invoking the cadences of the Akan language, Brathwaite creates a linguistic symbol of his West Indian's immersion into the West African sources of his identity. In turn that immersion confirms the essential connections between things, beings, and eras in the wholeness of experience, connections that are celebrated here by the precise network of question-and-refrain between king and subjects. And the West Indian's immersion into the African's ceremonial reminder of life-and death is essential to the West Indian's rebirth into a renewed cultural identity. This too is the function of the mask. In donning the Akan mask the West Indian assumes the spiritual and cultural significance that is inherent in the mask as it is in the drum:

… I return
walking these burnt-
out streets, brain limp-
ing pain, masked
in this wood, straw
and thorns, seek-
ing the dirt of the com-
pound where my mother
buried the thin breed-
ing worm that grew
from my heart.

(p. 65)

In effect, his cultural self-exploration by way of the art of the mask exemplifies the function of art as memory.


The circular movement of art and memory also takes us back, in the other direction, to the Caribbean starting-point of Rights of Passage. And this return is the main subject of Islands, the final book of the trilogy. The major divisions of this work are centered on the growing consciousness with which the West Indian returns from the memories of, and journey to Africa, “New World” therefore represents both the New World ambience of the West Indian and the new possibilities that are inherent in the West Indian's recreated consciousness; “Limbo” recalls the legendary roots of the dance as an exercise for slaves immediately after disembarkation from the slave-ships, and in so doing it celebrates the West Indian endurance despite slavery; “Rebellion” offers reminders of the old plantation systems, emphasizes their continuation under new, post-colonial disguises, into the present, and by virtue of those reminders its title becomes a prophecy or threat; “Possession” picks up the rebellious, transforming energies of “Rebellion” by offering the contrast between islanders as possessions and islands as symbols of a new dignity or integrity: “possession” as spiritual possession (in the manner of folk religions from Africa and the West) therefore celebrates the new, aggressive consciousness within Brathwaite's West Indian. And in a fitting conclusion to the circular structure of the trilogy as a whole, the carnival dance of “Beginnings” recalls the folk songs and dance with which Rights of Passage opens: in this concluding section the dance celebrates the beginnings of a national consciousness that has been derived from the total experience, or historical “rites,” of the Middle Passage.

On the whole the return to the West Indies is marked by an awareness of African cultural traditions interacting with a dominant Western culture. The black musician's saxophone recalls Nairobi's male elephants uncurling their “trumpets to heaven.” But the setting (“pale rigging”) is decidedly Western, presided over by the North American God of “typewriter teeth” and glass skyscrapers (p. 3). But, in turn, that Western God coexists, in the West Indian's perception, with the African-derived Jah of Jamaica's Rastafarians and with Ananse, the West Indian folk hero who traces his lineage back to the spider-god of the Ashanti past. Ananse's webs are the visual counterpart of the “webs of sound” which are the musical and linguistic links between the West Indies and West Africa, past and present; and he is the emblem of the contemporary West Indian spinning webs of memory to fashion a new identity: he is the artist, existing at the center of the historical and communal patterns that represent his West Indian experience. Ananse as African archetype and Afro-West Indian artist is also counterbalanced by the symbols which Brathwaite adapts from Western literature to his West Indian themes. In the West Indian beach setting the one-eyed merchant-sailor of Eliot's Wasteland appears in the “bleached / stare of the one- / ey'd beach.” The Caribbean fisherman repairing his nets recalls the life-death eternity of Eliot's Fisher King; and he is also endowed, by way of his blindness, with the poet-seer identity of Eliot's Tiresias:

his eyes stare out like an empty shell,
its sockets of voices, wind,
grit, bits of conch, pebble;
his fingers knit as the dark rejoices.

(p. 11)

The life-death cycle that is represented by the Fisher King and the cosmic perception of the artistic imagination are now being represented by Western versions of the African symbols through which Brathwaite has been examining his West Indian situation. And as an artist knitting the “embroideries” of his net the West Indian fisherman duplicates both Eliot's Fisher King and the figure of Ananse the Ashanti spider-god. Finally, the Dahomean deity, Legba, is both the vodun (“voodoo”) God of Haiti and, by virtue of his lameness, the Fisher King archetype of life-and-death in Western mythology. In short the poet's imagination has transformed the Western wasteland into a fertile source of symbols and archetypes that duplicate or supplement the African sources of the West Indian's identity. These Western symbols are being transformed into modes of an Afro-West Indian consciousness, just as the chain-shackle emblems of Western slavery have become sounds of a joyous masquerade of self-affirmation: “Shackles shackles shackles / are my peace, are my home / are my evening song” (p. 19).

In musical terms, the Afro-Western synthesis is symbolized by the pocomania drums which recall the drums of the Akan god (Masks) who is dumb until the drum speaks, and which express the synthesis of Western and African religions in Afro-West Indian folk worship; and the steelband music of the carnival is another symbol of the synthesis—Afro-Caribbean rhythms pounded out of the oil drum discards of Western technology. In terms of ritual, the rites of the African drum in the Akan past have given way to the rites of cricket, one of the more enduring ceremonies of British rule. But the language and perception suggest that here too the inherited tradition has been transformed into a vital self-expressiveness:

Boy, dis is cricket. …
all de flies that was buzzin' out there
round de bread carts; could'a hear
if de empire fart.

(p. 45)

On the one hand, the speaker's enthusiasm for cricket amounts to a wry tribute to the thorough effectiveness of the game as an imperial rite which subliminally encourages acceptance of the Empire itself. But on the other hand, the fervent partisanship (our West Indian cricketers versus the British visitors) takes us back to the central issue of the West Indian as rebellious Caliban, subversively adopting the inherited institutions of the Empire. The declarative “dis is cricket” implies an assertive kind of redefinition that wrenches “cricket” from the colonizer's polished “gentility” to a candid partisanship; the candor and the self-assertiveness are reinforced by that reference to buzzing flies, recalling as it does the ancestral memories of the West African market in Masks; and that ebullient mockery of empire (“de empire fart”) carries with it the threat of a detached, even rebellious, perspective.

That rebelliousness is more fully developed in the cyclical motifs of the “Rebellion” section of Islands. The contemporary rumblings in Brathwaite's West Indies continue an established tradition of resistance to equally entrenched patterns of poverty and injustice. In this section the ritual of the wake sets the stage for the recall and celebration of the rebellious tradition. From a historical viewpoint, the slaves' wake for the dead acknowledges the death of freedom, but since the Afro-Caribbean tradition of the wake includes the sending of the spirit back to ancestral Africa then the ceremony is also a ritualistic act of memory, a cherishing of the idea of freedom, and therefore a covert form of resistance. Moreover, the destructive impact of slavery is counterbalanced here by the cultural continuity that is implied by the African memories of the wake. Finally Brathwaite's word-play (wake as death ritual and wake as awakening) reinforces the idea of a renaissance from psychological as well as physical slavery—a progression that has evolved through the cycles of black history. Conversely, those whose rebellion has been superficial rather than substantive have emerged as the new successors to the old colonial overlords:

it is not enough
to be pause to be hole
to be void, to be silent
to be semicolon, to be semicolony.

(p. 67)

And by a similar token, an escapist zeal for the folk has nothing to do with a genuinely creative quest for a new life. Someone like Tizzic loves the carnival in this escapist sense, using it to get away from the confinement of poverty. But he is really a mere slave of the carnival's heady escapism. And when carnival is finished he is still a slave to the things which prompted the temporary escape: “After the bambalula bambulai / he was a slave again” (p. 105).

On the whole, then, the progression to a full ethnic consciousness in Brathwaite's work does not depend on the exclusive Westernisms of the “semicolon,” the semicolonial mentality. Neither is it to be realized through a facile escape to a romanticized image of the folk and of the African heritage. Instead that full consciousness represents the usual West Indian preoccupation with harmonizing European, New World, and African sources. In effect, the progressive development of a mature cultural identity involves the acceptance of the cyclical wholeness of one's history. To grasp one's history and identity in this way is to be possessed, in a manner of speaking:

A yellow note of sand dreams in the polyp's eye;
the coral needs this pain. …
And slowly, slowly
uncurling embryo
leaf's courses sucking armour,
my yellow pain swims into the polyp's eye.

(pp. 75, 77)

The painful metamorphosis from polyp to coral to island is an allegory of that progression which culminates in the spiritual possession of a full awareness. “Possession” in this sense contrasts with the status of possession—as slave or colonial possession. Viewed in this light the leopard which appears in the “Possession” section is Brathwaite's symbol of a collective West Indian consciousness. Its cage is a reminder of its status as a captive, as a possession. And in geographical terms the West Indian's island-identity offers similar reminders about his relationship with the West:

Caught therefore in this care-
ful cage of glint rock,
water ringing the islands'

(p. 87)

But the leopard's very awareness of what its cage means inspires a fierce determination to destroy its captivity: it is possessed by the need to be free. And this transformation from possession as subject to possession as purpose conforms with the central course of progressive growth in Brathwaite's work. The “Beginning” segment of Islands therefore marks both the end of the old experience of possession and the beginning of a new phase of awareness. In this context the carnival road march is no longer an escape, as it is for Tizzic and for Boysie, his counterpart in Walcott's “Mass Man.” Instead it is the joyous celebration of new beginnings in which hearts, “no longer bound,” are now making with their rhythms “some- / thing torn / and new” (pp. 112-113). The joyousness with which Brathwaite envisages the sense of beginnings, of progressive growth, provides his work with an artfully devised sense of resolutions. The device is not unconvincing: it flows naturally enough from the accumulative sense of progression or growth which the poet derives from a complex, cyclical vision of the West Indian experience.

The final note of joyousness suggests one of the central paradoxes of Brathwaite's achievement: the remarkable complexities which he discovers in the cyclical arrangement of his universe are never really complemented by equally complex emotional responses to that universe. Precisely because Brathwaite's art emphasizes a communal rather than individualized view of the artist's role, his poetry tends to elicit a limited response to his poetic experience as individual experience. He is always brilliant, and he is never simplistic. The carefully controlled vision and the carefully crafted design complement each other superbly, but the designer remains at a far more impersonal distance from the reader than does any other West Indian poet of major significance. This is not a defect in itself: the trilogy does deserve its reputation as the most important piece of West Indian literature on the relationship between the West Indian's Western and African sources. But it does suggest that Brathwaite still has further to grow as a poet, to allow for the development of an emotional complexity and immediacy that will match his formidable insights as poet-historian, and to permit the sense of contradictions which would, for example, balance the climactic celebration of beginnings with a realistic awareness of old attitudes.


  1. See, for example, Patricia Ismond, “Walcott versus Brathwaite,” Caribbean Quarterly, 17, 3-4 (Sept.-Dec. 1971), 54-71.

  2. References to Edward Brathwaite's poetry are based on his Rights of Passage (London: Oxford, 1967); Masks (London: Oxford, 1968); and Islands (London: Oxford, 1969).

John Povey (essay date autumn 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5007

SOURCE: Povey, John. “The Search for Identity in Edward Brathwaite's The Arrivants.World Literature Written in English 27, no. 2 (autumn 1987): 274-89.

[In the following essay, Povey characterizes The Arrivants as a description of Brathwaite's personal search for identity that resonates with an overarching quest for a Caribbean identity.]

Once when we went to Europe, a rich old lady asked:
Have you no language of your own
no way of doing things
did you spend all those holidays
at England's apron strings?(1)

A central theme in Caribbean literature is the absence of a national or regional identity. History denied the residents of these islands the common process that formulates group cohesion. The iniquitous slave trade established African origins which constitute the ultimate inheritance, but that remains folk memory against which present experience is measured, rather than a system which can be adopted directly. A nearer impact derives from the consequences of white colonial behaviour reinforced by the impress of the English language and educational curriculum that produces an antagonistic tension. That sequence of African origin followed by slavery, cultural deprivation, economic exploitation and partial if resented assimilation is the cultural history of the Caribbean. It matches closely the history of American blacks. By deliberate policy in both regions, African religious and linguistic usages were forbidden, for they offered a unifying basis for a threatening resistance. For this reason, the subsequent development of an identifying culture needs to be assembled from limited retentions incorporated into the customs of the dominant system. The new would have to be the offspring of the foreign past.

In the Caribbean, white residents were a small minority and were later abandoned by an indifferent and declining mother country. Nationhood was possible as it could never be for black Americans, but, unlike other colonial territories, countries in this region did not, with independence, automatically re-acquire an indigenous culture that had tenaciously resisted imposed adaptation to European ways. There was a cultural void that needed to be filled with the construction of a specific Caribbean identity. This had to be woven from the three distinct threads that had influenced the growth of this society: an awareness of the African heritage, a vague but emotional sense of alliance with other blacks in the Americas and the inevitable continuance of the colonial social structure.

This excessive and generalized preamble brings me to the poetry of Edward Brathwaite. In this present context I will not make estimation of his qualities as a poet, although I believe him to be a good one. He is capable of exploiting an original and precise English diction for his purpose as effectively as the much admired Derek Walcott. In a manner which may well offend the precepts of the scholars of literature, I want to discuss content rather than form. That great axiom of departments of literature that “form and content are inseparable” must suffer temporary remission. The particular themes and subjects that stimulate a writer may be highly informative and reveal concerns which are crucial for understanding literary development. Subject alone cannot determine poetic consequence, but it may indicate the existence of pertinent agitations that hint at the direction future literary endeavour will follow.

It must be emphasized that this is a deliberately limited interpretation. Gordon Rohlehr in his impressive study Pathfinder (1981) has demonstrated the remarkable complexity and profundity of Brathwaite's work. This lengthy critical study unravels the depth of associative imagery the poet brings to bear in his lines. Against such detailed scholarship, brief and partial examination may appear trivial. But selection permits emphasis. It may allow Brathwaite's lines to throw light on the cultural and literary situation in the Caribbean without doing gross injustice to the many remaining elements which contribute to the technical distinction of his important work. Those other factors are set aside, only temporarily, to achieve a particular focus in the present paper.

In The Arrivants Edward Brathwaite exemplifies the bewildered and bitter sense of confused isolation which is so constant a topic in Caribbean writing. Its content was determined by his intention to explore alternative lives in those parts of the world which have influenced Caribbean behaviour. His venture is described in what amounts to a precise and imaginative diary. The Arrivants (1973) incorporates in a pre-determined trilogy three books of poetry originally published separately: Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969). This triple collection pursues an individual and cultural hegira in search of some personal accommodation to the different elements that have shaped his life. Implicitly his private discovery will provide the basis for the more general principles upon which a Caribbean culture could be formulated.

The sense of Africa is omnipresent in the poetry of Brathwaite. It defines his awareness both as a person and a writer, but it is tested against other Caribbean alternatives for acculturation. His first volume responds to the neo-African world in the first leg of what he calls “the triangular trade of my historical origins.” The second, Masks, specifically draws upon his sojourn in Ghana. With Islands he returns, his vision illuminated by his explorations, and his rediscovery is the essential topic.

His first work constitutes both a personal and ethnic exploration. Rights of Passage is a pun on the ritual found in many regions of the African continent where the “rites” of passage represent a concrete transition, usually into maturity and manhood, with all the accompanying expectations of sexual awakening and initiation into conventional and established society. Brathwaite adds to this his “right” to discover his “birthright” denied by slavery. On a record cover he describes how his poem “is based on my own experience of that triple journey. In my case from the Caribbean to Europe to West Africa and back home again … to illustrate what home—or lack of home—means to those who up to now have been unable to afford the luxury of mythology.”2 That latter is a significant word because all poetry is ultimately based upon mythology, and only when this is established can it prove to be the basis for a national literature.

In this first collection Brathwaite comes of age as he advances into maturer awareness. The pun on “right” is linked to the West Indian admission that discovery of self or society requires “passage.” Only absence from the islands can achieve that “distancing”—from which an understanding can come. Having come from Africa and having been occupied and administered by colonialists from overseas, only travelling away, a voyage matching or recapitulating those past enforced travels, can provide the Caribbean poet with the understanding from which the indigenous West Indian experience can be re-encountered and absorbed into a personal and national future.

Brathwaite's Rights of Passage begins with memories. One can reverse the order of the opening stanza, called “Prelude,” to see the origin of his spirit, a compound of anger and despair out of which he develops an urgent poetic longing:

I sing
I shout
I groan
I dream
about …
Drum skin whip
lash, master's sun's
cutting edge of
heat, taut
surfaces of things. …

(p. 4)

In “New World A-coming” there is some appeal to the earlier African glory, but the emphasis is on loss and the title thereby given ironic force. Brathwaite recalls the disasters that were inflicted upon the African heroes and goes on to the desperate rhetorical appeal:

O who now will help
us, help-
less, horse-
less, leader-
less, no
hope. …

(p. 10)

Historical colonial government by “these hard men, cold / clear-eye'd” (p. 11) will provide no hope for them. No liberation can be expected from “no / Hawkins, no / Cortez to come …” (p. 10). No outsider, even by incest when “our blood, mixed / soon with their passion …” (p. 11), will create the alternatives for West Indians. From the poems, at this point, there is only an empty negation. Africa cannot be called upon to redress the enforcement of the colonial world, for on that continent too colonialists have imposed their domination. The penalties are recorded:

Prempeh imprisoned,
Tawiah dead
Asantewa bridled
and hung.

(p. 10)

Finding no political sustenance, the poet turns to the heroes of the New World, seeking their power to redress the abasement of Africa and the present humiliation of the Caribbean:

O who now can help
us: Geronimo, Tackie,
Montezuma to come.

(p. 19)

The cry is to the Latin American revolutionaries who resisted and still were defeated. He cannot appeal directly to his own past since the present West Indians are themselves interlopers, savagely imposed upon indigenous Indian civilizations. They differed from the covetous European settlers because they came as possessions, not conquerors. They have joined the union of the oppressed, sharing closer ties with the dispossessed than with colonialists among whom they occupied their islands for centuries.

As Brathwaite contemplates the present situation, there is little cheer. The colonial inheritance has given the population an omnipresent sense of defeat.

But help—
less my children are
caught leader-
less are
taught fool-
ishness and use-
lessness and

(p. 14)

Brathwaite's angry frustration at deculturation persists, but he makes clear this is not the termination of experience. For him there remains a minimal but persistent optimism, the more sustaining because founded on a mood close to despair. He repeats Aimé Césaire's violent rejection of active success as the measure of civilized consequence. Like the French poet, Brathwaite appeals for an alternative standard to power:

for we who have achieved nothing
who have not built
who have forgotten all
and dare to remember … the paths. …

(p. 13)

One memory which counters the limitations of contemporary history reaffirms the links of the Caribbean to Africa, the continent of origin. This remote inheritance is recalled by the poet, but his pessimistic rhetorical question indicates that only limited belief remains:

we kept
our state on golden stools—remember?

(p. 18)

He recognizes that salvation cannot lie in such distant association even when its memory has been allowed:

Yes, I remember …
but what good
is recollection now
my own mock

(p. 18)

Cherished antecedents of historical glory cannot survive against the persistent colonial oppression that makes the cruel present:

Boss man makes rules:
who works, who jerks
the rope, who rips
the patient dirt.
Boss man makes rules:
I am his patient mule.

(p. 18)

A personal experience, oscillating between a memoried but irrelevant African glory and present humiliation, requires both a biographical and a psychological reappraisal. The examination can only occur outside these islands and necessitates painful exile. Sadly, almost petulantly, the poet inquires about the obligation of travel:

These my children?
God, you hear them? …
When release
from further journey?

(p. 21)

The answer to this plea is “Not yet,” “Not now.” Only after wide-ranging travel and experience can this supplicant explorer return to his own hearth, a different and more self-aware person. His acceptance is found in the deliberately colloquial term borrowed from the idiom of jazz, which incorporated the emotions of all New World blacks—“Didn't He Ramble.” It is a wry comment on the formative years of the poet's development:

So to New York London
I finally come
hope in my belly
hate smothered down
to the bone
to suit the part
I am playing.

(p. 22)

The pilgrimage was devoutly planned to inspect the non-Caribbean world that influenced his upbringing. The mood is of “hope in my belly.” But the actual experiences do not fulfil the optimistic expectation of the discovery of cultural antecedents which drove him to this foreign inspection. The scene is violent and vicious. America offers no welcoming arms to the questing supplicant of a black allegiance:

In New York
nights are hot.
In Harlem, Brooklyn,
.....Police cars wail
like babies
an ambulance erupts
like breaking glass.

(p. 54)

Temporarily settled in New York, he looks out at its harsh ugliness:

In my small hired
room, stretched out upon the New
York Herald Tribune, pages
damp from dirty lots, from locked
out parks, from gutters: dark, tired,
deaf, cold, too old to care to catch
alight the quick match of your pity,
I died alone. …

(p. 22)

The vision of New York is grimy and gloomy. Hardships dismay the poet. Physical survival is a battle in a bitter world where “wind / cut my face with its true / Gillette razor blades” (p. 22). The suffering is more painful as he yearns for his tropic island “where the warm wind / blows” (p. 23). Psychologically more damaging is the disillusion that follows the personal encounters long anticipated as offering exciting confirmation. His American experience destroys the ignorance that sustained his optimistic expectation that escape from the Caribbean might lie in emulation of American black society, which shares the same history of slavery and segregation. Rather he saw sleaziness and greed as the consequence of racism:

But my sons grow fat, grow
fat, far from the slow guitar.
See them zoot suits, man? Them black
Texan hats? Watch false teeth
flash: fake friendship. …

(p. 23)

The culture which sustains these vulgar slickers is unconvincing and unsympathetic. Its emulation could bring the same spiritual nullity to his own islands, providing them with the same grasping mentality:

it's now grab the can, grab all
you can and give it to your
selves. …

(p. 23)

Brathwaite's experience of North America permits no enthusiasm for a unity postulated on blackness. There has to be an alternative for his inspection. After this New York encounter he does not return to the islands but “rambles on,” experimenting with further personal and geographic exploration. He begins by pursuing the second element in the triple association of Caribbean society. England, the ex-colonial power, must now be experienced. He joins “The Emigrants” who have turned to England for their survival.

So you have seen them
with their cardboard grips,
felt hats, rain-
cloaks. …
These are The Emigrants.
On sea-port quays
at air-ports
anywhere. …

(p. 51)

Many set out on this pilgrimage, but in this distant land, near in history but remote in climate, they encounter only day-by-day misery and rejection. “The men who lever ale / in stuffy woodbine pubs / don't like us much” (p. 55). Brathwaite rapidly recognizes that this second destination fulfils none of his hopes. He is driven to ask on behalf of others the rhetorical question:

What do they hope for
what find there
these New World mariners
Columbus coursing kaffirs. …

(p. 52)

The bitter humour of the last line, ironically reversing the direction of colonial emigration, applies equally to the poet who shared this instinct to escape the islands. He recognizes this paradox and in confronting its implications, he finds a resolution. He must return, for the memory calls to him with irresistible strength: “But today I recapture the islands' bright beaches” (p. 57). He discovers the intensity of his commitment and inheritance: “We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace in rivers” (p. 57).

This may be true as a principle, but this traveller, like others returning “home,” does not return to the idyllic dream of beaches that pervaded his dreams during temporary exile. The illuminating irony of the title “O Dreams O Destinations” suggestively contrasts delusive hopes and travel facts. He returns from Britain, but to no idyllic Caribbean utopia. World events have imposed themselves on the contemporary history of the region:

But I returned to find Jack
Kennedy invading Cuba
black riots in Africa.

(p. 60)

At some level the optimism of rose coloured memory is inevitably doomed to disappointment. Geography alone cannot provide spiritual freedom. But this discovery does not take place as an abstraction. It requires a personal familiarity which Brathwaite acknowledges in his poem “Postlude/Home.” Sardonically he asks himself the unanswerable question that might be posed to him by the unsympathetic outsider:

Where then is the nigger's
In Paris Brixton Kingston
Rome? …
What guilt
now drives him
Will exile never

(p. 77)

For once the rhetoric can be answered, if in somewhat pompous phrases. When the guilt is assuaged, exile will no longer be necessary. This is the underlying reason for the poet's voyages and its resolution will be the discovery of the inner conviction of patriotism.

The concluding lines of Rights of Passage are revealing because they do not avoid the consequences of this exploration. They rather confirm its inevitable continuance:

of the future
to come?
There is no
turning back.

(p. 85)

Simply because the poet admits that he will not turn back, he is forced into further journeys. Neither the Afro-American society of New York nor the options available to West Indians in London provide guidance or fulfilment in his quest. A third element must be examined. The legendary and intimate association with Africa may supply him with the identity to reappraise his own culture. Masks examines the heritage of blackness through Ghana, where Brathwaite lived for several years.

The title may remind one of the subtle discrepancy between the external form—the social image—and the inner man who manipulates it and yet is shrouded from explicit appearance. That relationship between artist and audience becomes an important metaphor for the poet's new role. Like the African dancer, the poet seeks divorce from self and absorption into communality. His private activity must become public gesture. Contemplating Lake Chad, he senses “no peace in this world / till the soul / knows this dark water's world” (p. 105). He pursues the primary West Indian venture—to explore Africa as a source of origin, recognizing that only this discovery will bring a present harmony to a disconnected past. The first section is titled “Pathfinders.” It suggests a bold task that artists must accept. He sees himself as a forerunner for others less aware of the consequences of indifference. It begins hopefully with a “libation.”

Brathwaite's experience in Africa at first is encouraging. There is exhilaration in the new discovery of old truths. He learns of the seven kingdoms:

Songhai, Mali,
Chad, Ghana,
buctu, Volta. …
this song.

(p. 90)

The poet's vision of Africa covers the map. The titles record the epic empires, “Axum,” “Ougadougou,” “Chad,” and “Timbuctu.” Their authority is impressive—dramatic in power and continuity. Yet, in “Volta” he poses a question that seems indicative of a deeper concern. Although taken somewhat out of context, it strikes the attention, indicating the nature of his enquiry and the question that African residence intends to resolve:

Can you expect us to establish houses here?
To build a nation here?

(p. 108)

In the sequence suggestively entitled “Limits,” the poet makes two comments. They are made in passing, but such thoughts begin to accumulate and indicate an underlying and persistent concern. “But the lips remember / temples, gods” (p. 113), is a line that, with its hint of “lip-service,” indicates that these old temples and gods are not very convincing. Similarly, Brathwaite's comment on the desert:

… the desert
drifting certainties outside us

(p. 115)

separates the exterior certainties of the African landscape from the hesitant and indecisive inner search. It offers no confirmation of affiliation:

I travelled to a distant town
I could not find my mother
I could not find my father

(p. 125)

From these accumulating comments directed at his African experience, we recognize that the depth of the poet's cultural dilemma will not be resolved by examining African temples nor visiting African deserts. In “Techiman” the poet comments on the necessity of his search, even if it is not immediately productive:

But the way lost
is a way to be found

(p. 119)

Later, with a specific and ultimately rather pathetic accusation concerning the pressures history imposes, the poet reaches a conclusion, in every sense of the word, to this part of his African travel:

This was at last the last;
this was the limit of motion;
voyages ended.

(p. 122)

The past is unconvincing and change is essential:

O new world of want, who will build the new ways,
the new ships?

(p. 122)

The conundrum is intended to be defiant and yet it remains unanswerable, as it is directed precisely at the heart of the Caribbean dilemma. If neither the old ways of Europe, the American connection, nor the African inheritance provides deliverance, “who will build new ways?” and in what direction? This sense of separation is reached only after a period of cogitation.

The poet's first reaction to Africa is of a happy discovery of racial identity. His reception is warm and unreflecting:

Akwaaba they smiled
meaning welcome …
welcome …
you who have come
back a stranger
after three hundred years. …

(p. 124)

The Africans recognize him affectionately as a long lost brother. After an initial delight, Brathwaite finds their response too natural and instinctive to satisfy the complex analysis that he was attempting. It was not the Africans who suffered the cultural dichotomy, and their instinctive generosity cannot assuage the substance of the poet's unanswered, and indeed unanswerable, Caribbean question, “Whose brother, now, am I?” (p. 126). His next question is more specific and apparently more negative in its sense of amazement and therefore separation: “Could these soft huts / have held me?” (p. 126). The lines carry a heavy weight of anxiety, for they challenge the ultimate connection with the racial past. There is some sense of affectionate responsiveness. Stronger is the feeling that the question cannot readily be answered by any simple agreement. Out of this anxious doubt comes the admission that the resolution will not be directly discovered in Africa. In “Sunsum,” he begins to talk of return:

… And I return,
walking these burnt-
out streets.

(p. 148)

There is no confidence in belonging. The exhilaration and the rich substance of Africa cannot convince him of identity. In a prose statement he writes of how he “slowly, slowly, ever so slowly came to a sense of identification of myself with these people. I came to connect my history with theirs.”3

But in his poems, he still probes the doubts rather than articulates any secure assurance. He is from elsewhere. For all its splendid vigour, Africa does not provide him with any certain sense of cultural identity. It rather forces him to acknowledge that he is a product of other worlds and other experiences, much as he might have preferred to settle any dilemma by embracing this continent. Africa is not his salvation, though it remains an affecting presence. He is compelled to follow his own racial history, back to the Caribbean. For this return to Africa must be denied, not as a continuing effect, but only as an absolute measure.

Exiled from here
to seas
of bitter edges,
whips of white worlds
strains of new
I have returned
to you.
Not Chad,
the Niger's blood,
or Benin's
burning bronze
can save me now.

(p. 153)

In his recognition of otherness, with its attendant decision to return home, Brathwaite does not disdain the importance of the umbilical connection. There remains an element of supplication to the African oracles who “must” help and will sustain the adventures of their remote but attentive son:

Asase Yaa, Earth,
if I am going away now,
you must help me.
Divine Drummer, …
… you
must help me. …

(p. 156)

In the terminal lines, the acute new observation seems tentative and minimal but it is given emphasis in its repetition:

I am learning
let me succeed
I am learning
let me succeed. …

(p. 157)

Like Rights of Passage, Masks ends at dawn, a time linked to beginnings, to hopeful possibilities. Rohlehr summarizes the change of tone “in spite of the theme of disillusioned quest, one has the definite feeling that the poet is more confident of his ground.”4

At this point Brathwaite's travels bring him back to the islands. His book Islands explicitly deals with his return to his birthplace. For him it is more than a convenient coming back. With some surprise he experiences a homecoming. Patriotism seems too definite and loaded a term, but he has tested and eliminated a series of alternatives and discovers home is the place of his origin.

Brathwaite does not arrive believing his renewed residence will produce automatic resolution of the divisions that sent him forth. He is, he admits, “a long way from Guinea” (p. 189). Even the poem called “Homecoming” does not describe any eager welcome. “No clan or kinsman turns my self respect. … In the yard the dog barks at the stranger” (p. 177). His attitude remains alertly cautious:

to this new doubt
and desert I return
expecting nothing:
my name burnt out.

(p. 177)

There is an element of weariness at the cost of achieving this conclusion. An unspoken “even if” hovers at the beginning of his lines:

If this is all
I have
if this is all
I have
I can travel no further.

(p. 186)

He will stay, but he gains little local admiration for his explorations. Acquaintances seem indifferent to news of his adventures. What to him were significant discoveries, to others are merely travellers' tales. They are happily seduced by the tempting materialism of independence and affect indifference to information about “old immemorial legends / everyone but himself has forgotten” (p. 171).

This society has none of Africa's innocent continuity. A shiny new wealth evidences the latest form of colonial domination. International investment encourages greedy possessiveness while ignoring the production of staples on which human survival depends:

and now I see these modern palaces have grown
out of the soil, out of the bad habits of their crippled owners
and Chrysler stirs but does not produce cotton
and Jupiter purrs but does not produce bread.

(p. 191)

His concern increases as he witnesses the unthinking satisfaction these meretricious enterprises have engendered. Scornfully he comments on the new forms of the old domination:

Unrighteousness of Mammon
hotels for tourists rise on the sites
of the old empire. …

(p. 216)

This kind of surface prosperity does nothing for the urgent needs of the majority. It repeats and expands their historic dispossession:

Looking through a map
of the Antilles, you see how time
has trapped
its humble servants here. De-
scendants of the slave do not
lie in the lap
of the more fortunate

(p. 204)

Like an impassioned Baptist preacher in the pulpit Brathwaite excoriates the sin of cultural indifference, erupting into the repetitions of public rhetoric. A dozen times he cries out “It is not enough” as he reprimands present unconcern for the honorable values:

it is not enough to be free
of the red white and blue
it is not enough
to be able to fly to Miami
structure sky-scrapers, evacuate the moon-
shaped seashore sands to build hotels, casinos, sepulchres.

(p. 223)

In his judgement the vaunted freedom from the Union Jack is an accident of politics unless it allows beneficial change. The sequence of useless construction concludes with a tomb. Such development buries the genuine Caribbean culture under a glamorous subjugation to an international elite.

This depressing recognition does not prevent him from feeling a part even of this temporarily debased society. Even the contemporary repetition of the devices of slavery does not daunt his commitment to the islands. It allows a further association: “shackles, shackles, shackles are my peace, are my home” (p. 178). From this assured base the poet plans to speak. “How then shall we succeed?” (p. 217). He feels, at first, his deficiencies, “My tongue is heavy with new language / but I cannot give birth to speech” (p. 221). He calls upon a new muse that will speak for all. Repeatedly in these late poems he talks of poetry; of its essential and urgent status in the new community. The task may need a vast effort for resuscitation. It needs “Rebellion” against the present lost state of the art:

For the Word has been destroyed
and cannot live among us …
For the Word is peace
and is absent from our streets.

(p. 212)

There is pessimism but no surrender as Brathwaite sees that he himself must become the poet who will expound the present experience and point the way to the future. He will compose his verse out of the social death:

But if to live here
is to die
I will sing songs of the skeleton.

(p. 219)

He calls the fifth section of his poem “a beginning,” and it exposes the cyclic nature of the construction of this trilogy while it reflects the poet's own circular journey back to his origins. To invent these new “songs” language must be freed “from the skeleton.” He attacks again the spiritual destruction, this time as it affects the crux of the poetic art, “The Word.” Like citizens, language also must be freed from its servitude to the surrounding materialism. In a series of appeals he demands some alternative to the debasement of communication when it serves only “to pray to Barclay's bankers on the telephone / to Jesus Christ by short wave radio” (p. 223). Words are vital and serious because they do not merely reflect, they create:

must be given words to shape my name …
must be given words to refashion futures.

(p. 223)

It is not only the present that the poet observes. He will make his poetry a means to advance the destiny of these islands. That can only be achieved when

The Word becomes
again a god and walks among us …
on this ground
on this broken ground.

(p. 266)

The original foundations have crumbled but Brathwaite's repetition indicates that it is over the same ground that the new culture must be erected, though now there appear insurmountable difficulties:

We seek we seek
but find no one to speak
the words to save us.

(p. 212)

Brathwaite's Arrivants in total makes a fervent beginning that reflects the Caribbean more than the impress of the world that has offered these islands so little in the past. The trilogy establishes the philosophical and technical basis for important books that follow. Their success required Brathwaite's effort to determine a new identity from which poetry could forge a national regional originality. Arrivants cleared away the external barriers to a new creativity. Let us allow the poet, as is always appropriate, the last word.

To hell
with Af-
to hell
with Eu-
rope too,
just call my blue
black bloody spade
a spade and kiss
my ass, o-
kay? So
let's begin.

(p. 29)


  1. The Arrivants (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 55. Further references are incorporated in the text.

  2. Quoted in Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder (Trinidad, 1981), p. 48.

  3. “Timehri,” Savacou, No. 2 (1970), p. 38.

  4. Rohlehr, Pathfinder, p. 163.

Gordon Rohlehr and E. A. Markham (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Rohlehr, Gordon, and E. A. Markham. “Rohlehr on Brathwaite.” In Hinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies & Britain, edited by E. A. Markham, pp. 109-16. Newcastle on Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1995.

[In the following interview, Rohlehr, an authority on Brathwaite's poetry, expresses admiration for Brathwaite's growth as an artist and reflects on the critical reaction to Brathwaite's work, especially among Caribbean writers.]

There are a number of possible ways I might have gone about it. I could have selected a number of concerns in the Trilogy [The Arrivants], for example, spoken about imagery. I felt that as a first exploratory work on the Trilogy. I should retrace in my criticism the journey which the [The Arrivants.] was about. The Trilogy is about a journey, or several journeys, which are all tributaries of a single journey. And it's interesting when you take that line, how many things come together. For example, I used that word tributaries, right away you've got the river, and the image of several branches coming in to form a stream, and you've got the idea of the trail. Then you've got that central image in the Trilogy of Anancy, the spider's web. You can see the spider's web, the trail, the river, the strands, the themes, all come together in such an intricate way that what you have is a network or a web; several tissues or strands joining together.

There is a remarkable coherence in what Eddy was doing in the Trilogy. One exciting way of approaching Eddy would be to jump in anywhere, or you might take a single word or a single image and see what has happened to this throughout the thing, and you find yourself moving in all kinds of directions. I decided that I'd take the chronological approach poem by poem, right through to the end. On the other hand I decided that I must also capture something of the sense of growth and the dimension that you gain as you move through the Trilogy.

You ask me about the criticism of Eddy's work. One of the things I have found is that for all the acclaim that his work has got, there isn't really much authoritative statement on the work. You've had this mixture of admiration and reservation, a grudging kind of admiration, particularly among Caribbean critics. There are some who have been in many ways overtly or covertly really quite hostile. Now you find that there is much less written about Masks even though there is Maureen Warner-Lewis's special work on Masks. She digs into all the sources on what he has done, in fact I deliberately said in my study that I am not going to do that in Masks because it has already been done by Maureen.

The general reaction in the Caribbean is one of not really wanting to open themselves up to the African experience. The African experience has been censored out of us, and we have learned to censor ourselves. You say Africa, you say black, and the minute you say those words, there is a sense of, why am I going on about this? Or, why am I preoccupied with the past? These notions immediately arise, and you feel that you shouldn't talk about it. Not much was said about Masks. Almost nothing was said about Islands; you can pick up ten articles but they don't say anything. So here I was feeling that the poetry is gaining in dimension, growing with every book. The words, the images and that the very ‘superficiality’ of which Eddy was overtly or covertly accused in Rights of Passage, had disappeared by the time we got to Islands. By that time the same people who might have criticised superficiality were not prepared to go through the effort of discovery and self discovery which was necessary if you were to come to grips with the new dimensions in Islands.

It struck me that this was very typical of us, that there are levels at which we are very superficial people. We talk about writers without knowing the writers. I mean there is very little autobiography in the West Indies. We literally talk about people we don't know. It is something which we need to contemplate, when we are contemplating this whole business about a biography or autobiography in the Caribbean: the concealed self, the layers and layers of Masks, or whatever that we create to protect us. Is this the result of some strategy which we as a people designed because our real selves were so frequently under attack? I mean parents don't tell us about the past, they don't tell us about the immediate family. You have no sense of the last generation. Our writers have been preoccupied by history; they have been preoccupied by autobiography, maybe for that very reason, that this was already an allusive thing. We grew up in the present moment, without having been given this dimension, this sense of a linkage with the past. I went into sketching the pattern of his ideas as he had expressed them in his various non-poetic statements: in his essays, in his reviews, in his articles, seeing how that mind was developing before Rights of Passage had begun.

Nobody in the Caribbean wants to reassess the African presence, even those who talk about it. I mean if you go into the libraries of our colleges, you'll see that the books on Africa are largely unread. They don't know anything about it. The books on India are also largely unread. The point about this is that where knowing that past and knowing that self becomes hard work you're pretty certain that nobody wants to do it.

Islands has that dimension because having gone into Africa, Brathwaite gets a way out, he gets another eye. The eye was always there, but he didn't know. So another eye is opened. He can now, for example, approach an image from two cultural angles. So the cross becomes not only the Christian cross but the crossroad and an icon. If you look at my book Pathfinder you'll see that the cover is black, that black on the cover represents the black ground. The names are largely in white, that white represents the white language, which is an image taken from the book too, you see.

The ground is black, the ground of being is black. The language which has been imposed on you is white. You use that language but you are using it on a black ground, which is actually a total reversal of the European image of making black marks in the white snow.

Then you will see on the cover a circle cut by a cross. Now that represents the beginning, that is the central icon. Then there is the God, the crippled God, the old man who stands at the gate at the point of intersection of the crossroads. And he has to be invoked to open the barrier, to open the gate before you can begin anything. The circle is the central image in the sense of moving in four different directions, the sense of moving away from an origin or moving back to an origin if you like—everything there is icon.

Now if Masks projected us into the past, Islands is projecting us towards the future. Now the question of refashioning the future is fascinating because it suggests that the future has already been mapped out; we are already headed for something that needs to be changed, that needs to be refashioned. So, it's a concept again of the poets, the artists, a rule of constant redefinition, remaking. He's saying that unless we have an energy of consciousness which we inject into the present, we remain with a future which is already pre-determined for us. It's pre-determined for us by the people who have made us what we have been from the past. It is pre-determined for us by the moles, by the categories and prisons that they have created.

Before we look at the second Trilogy [comprised of Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self] let's look at what came in between. You had Other Exiles (1975), which is going back to some of his earlier work between 1948 or 1950, when he was at Cambridge. He has some interesting portraits of Europe and Europeans.

The poems which came out in Black and Blues (1975) were written between 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1972. Now if you talk about a silence about Islands, there has been an almost total silence about Black and Blues. Poems like ‘Starvation’, are severely focussed on the Kingston of the early 1970s. We are dealing with a phenomenon of terrifying violence. They are a response to the nakedness of now, the terror of now, with what we have become through the constant corrosion of being urban people in a ghetto, unemployed, and being in a sense trapped in that post-emancipation arrangement, by which we were not to be accommodated, by which we were never to possess the world into which we have supposedly been set free.

The dry season in the Caribbean is when the bushes burn. It's also when the hibiscus blooms. There are times when the place has been so dry, that the silver birch drops all of its leaves and you have this white skeleton of stems with a flower at the end of it. There's just not sufficient moisture to sustain the tree. That is the ambiguity running through Black and Blues. The ambiguity of drought and a life which was there. The ambiguity of the bareness and bleakness.

Brathwaite spent his first extended stay in Barbados for nearly 20 years, in early 1975/76. What I think it did was to free him from the kind of mental oppression that is part of the Jamaican experience. Now I'm not saying this against Jamaica, but you live there in a society which is under pressure, under stress. The mid-70s was period of a lot of raping. The poem ‘Spring Blades’ is about raping, at least part of it is about that. It's a place that set fire to an old ladies home, a place which gunmen made children go back into. So that there is grimness there, which obviously is lifted off when you get to Barbados.

On the other hand, of course, I remember George Lamming saying that Barbados was stable—the stability of the cemetery. So that you can get the other sense in Barbados of the place being stable as well as static. I think though that what Barbados did was to give his mind an ease, and he began now to explore the Barbadian landscape.

Now, Mother Poem is autobiography. So is Sun Poem, and so to a certain extent is X/Self. The question is how do we see these three very different poems as part of a trilogy. If they are part of a trilogy, what kind of trilogy? They're certainly not the same kind of trilogy as Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands. It is possible to see Mother and Sun poems as being two sides, two ways of looking at the Barbadian experience, Mother Poem being essentially the experience of the women, obviously as seen through the eyes of a man. Though the voices in Mother Poem, apart from the narrator's voice, are all those of women. Sun Poem is about the male experience. And, the images or central symbols are different. In Mother Poem you're dealing with the land, the women, and not so much the sea, you know, the sea becomes your existence towards the end, and I think there is a really marvellous poem about the sea towards the end of Mother Poem. Some of the best writing about the sea I know anywhere; where the actual pulse and rhythm of the poem is the long heave of the sea. Now we get hints of this early in the poem, like you know when you're in Barbados in the night and there is less traffic, and if you're close to the coast, you sometimes just hear the sea. And there is that poem about the land talking about what has happened to the consciousness of the ordinary Barbadian, who has been told to accommodate himself to tourism. And so he becomes maybe a beach-boy, or a bus-boy.

Although Mother Poem is autobiography, it is not autobiography in any simple way. There is a kind of process by which Brathwaite distances himself, but it is not autobiography for example in quite the same way as, say, Walcott's Another Life; even there there is distancing. The people who appear in Mother Poem are all voices for something much larger than themselves. They are voices for the landscape; they are voices for the whole historical process; they are voices of the psyche or consciousness, protesting at what is happening to it. And they are voices of the women coming into a consciousness of themselves, and into a kind of visibility which is quite similar to the apocalyptic movement in their arrivance. In other words in Mother Poem the women are moving from accepting their position in the room, you know, the domesticity to that voice in ‘Cherries’ which rebels.

These women are also located in history, because Brathwaite is very much aware that there was and is women's oppression. So that passage at the centre of Mother Poem is historical; it deals with the confrontation of the plantation between the slave girl and the mistress. In other words it's not just simply that men oppress women, which is the formula we sometimes get. Oppression has got to be seen as part of a system, which includes women oppressing each other. So it includes a class dimension, a race dimension, as well as a gender dimension. Mother Poem I think is a very important poem.

Sun Poem is dealing with boyhood. It's more closely autobiographical. But the rituals are different. The rituals of the men are rituals of male confrontation, fighting on the beach, winning your spurs, and this kind of thing. That autobiographical strain is interrupted somewhere in the middle too, by a movement back to the past. Because Brathwaite is really interested in what has happened to the male archetype. Why is it that we don't have any heroes that look like ourselves? What was done to the male? What was destroyed when we destroyed the male archetypes in this society? He does this in the poem called ‘Noon’, in which he looks at the movement of the sun-god across the East Coast of Barbados. That East Coast is rugged; it's quite different from the other part of Barbados. He creates a myth, the dying of the god, but the dying of that god is also equated with the dying of Christ; the three hours of darkness, so that it is a dying of a male archetype.

The mother is not only a woman but the land, looking at the destruction of spirit and consciousness in her children, particularly in her sons. It is done in terms of the sea surging, that surge of the sea becomes more insistent. And then there is also the sense of trying to get the shape of the landscape in the movement of the verse, which is remarkable towards the end of Mother Poem. Barbados exists in terraces, the whole country can be seen as a series of steps, you move from one plateau right up to the other and then at the core of it there is this fairly hard rock, the rest of it is like stone.

There are all these caves because of the limestone, with water seeping through. Barbados is literally an island which has as its centre a womb of water. Mother Poem makes fantastic use of this geological fact. So the caves become wombs, become consciousness. The water is the fertility, the life, which is always springing there; but it's under the surface; you've got to get below these layers, you've got to get down into the caves before you discover Barbados. And that is seen as an almost archetypal female presence in the island. Mind you the real mother lives under a system of oppression, oppression on the job. Not only that, they are on the tail end of a system of oppression because when their man is oppressed they are oppressed too. And so at the beginning of Mother Poem you've got the monologue, there's a long monologue in which she is looking at her husband and what has happened to him. He has worked in a warehouse and it just mashes him up. But what is fascinating about that monologue is that it turns, it changes halfway through and she begins to contemplate that this is what my work has become. She's talking about what his work has done to him, and she's saying that that is all they give him, they didn't even give him a little gratuity, a little sense for all the work he had to do, in the morning. So that she is a rebel voice in the poem.

And of course there is the other archetypal thing of placing the poem in the framework of the sun, or of mythology. So that is the Sun Poem, but it ends, like Mother Poem, with a promise of rebirth: the sun goes down, the sun comes back up. So that cycle of death is also a movement towards rebirth. Mother Poem ends with the sea surging and the land is pulsating so that we get the sense that she isn't dead at all; she's become part of the process. So we get these two Mother and Sun poems becoming two ways of looking at Barbados. And there's a precision. Brathwaite tends to be geologically precise when he talks about the terraces and the steps and the movement up, they're there. So the thing is precise on a visual level, on a geographical level, as well as on a level of image and archetype.

In X/Self, what Brathwaite is doing and what links it with Mother Poem and Sun Poem is that it is his intellectual autobiography. In other words it is telling us that to understand where I am coming from you have to understand all of those things. So it is going to pose a lot of problems partly because the range and the scope of what it brings together is so wide. It has a lot to do with redefining the way in which we see. It is using the other eye to look at European history up to the point where Europe became involved with Africa creating the world we know today. So in a sense it is an autobiography of the mind, and of the development of the mind. But it is not done in an easy way. The eye for example is a Roman, an Emperor, or a Tribune. The eye is sometimes, just a black presence. And there is this sense of contrasts for example between Europe and Africa. X/Self is an attempt to explain why it is that Europe has been able to create the society it has created, and Africa has had a great deal of problems with the same thing. And what he is really saying is that Europe has done it because Europe has drained the resources of Africa. So that I think the central statement there is ‘Rome burns and our slavery begins’, because it begins to see the disintegration of the Roman Empire, particularly through the movement of Islam into the Iberian peninsula and into North Africa. He seems to see that as something which drove Europe back on itself which destroyed feudal Europe and created the Europe of the Compass, the Europe of Columbus, the Europe which moved out of Europe again in a sort of new wave of imperialism, which now included the ‘dark continent’.

Now, saying that is one thing, but trying to look at how he worked that vision out in the poetry is another. I find a lot of the earlier European poetry that he wrote, some of which you get in Other Exiles, I find some of the style of that is there. A very relaxed style. At the same time I find this has added a kind of witty, almost comic style. I mean he's doing all sorts of things with words. He's laughing all the time. But it's a fun which tends to reduce the grandeur. A punning which reduces, which cuts down, which tries to see this thing in a new way.

The “X” is the unknown quantity, suggesting what you cannot contain in any single image or metaphor. The central vision is that of the confrontation between Europe and Africa, but not only Africa, it brings in a lot more of the new world, the American Indians; so it is really dealing with the frontier situation; with the question of conquest, and in its latter pages with apocalypse.

Simon Gikandi (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Gikandi, Simon. “E. K. Brathwaite and the Poetics of the Voice: The Allegory of History in ‘Rights of Passage.’” Callaloo 14, no. 3 (summer 1991): 727-36.

[In the following essay, the author examines “Rights of Passage” as an example of a poem “in which oral languages take revenge against institutionalized poetic forms.”]

At the beginning was the shout—the beginning is, for us, the time when Creole was created as a means of communication between the master and his slaves. It was then that the peculiar syntax of the shout took hold. To the Antillean the word is first and foremost a sound. Noise is a speech. Din is a discourse.

Edouard Glissant, “Free and Forced Poetics”

Like many other poets in the Caribbean, Edward K. Brathwaite began his writing career under the anxiety of cultural identity and a crisis of writing. He was brought up in a colonial tradition which emphasized the hegemony and desirability of European culture at the expense of the Antillean tradition, which slavery and colonial domination had tried to repress or deny. The West Indies was not perceived as the source of meaningful cultural expression; on the contrary, it was a scene of fear and rejection, a place devoid of those forces that trigger poetic beginnings. “I was a West Indian,” Brathwaite was to observe years later, “roofless man of the world. I could go, belonging everywhere on the worldwide globe. I ended up in a village in Ghana. It was my beginning” (quoted in Rohlehr 3).

The importance of Brathwaite's “return” to Ghana to the language and structure of his poetry has been documented by Gordon Rohlehr in his definitive study of The Arrivants: the discovery of Asante culture forced Brathwaite to reconceive or revise his own understanding of poetics, not only by enabling him to textually realize African as a precondition for what Rohlehr calls the “wholeness and self-knowledge of Afro-Caribbean man” (3), but also by endowing the poet with the knowledge that those African forms which white cultural imposition had tried to repress (worksongs, gospel, blues) were indeed valid forms which the poet could use to produce a poetics of resistance, one directed at dominant cultural practices.

In a more specific sense, Brathwaite was to discover the centrality of voice and sound in African forms of self-expression, a discovery which was to lead him to what has become a life-long desire to establish a poetics of the voice in the Caribbean.

The importance of this turn away from scriptured forms to oral ones cannot be emphasized enough, for more Caribbean poetry has developed in response to a crisis of the written word, an awareness of the opposition, in Edouard Glissant's words, “between an idiom which is used and a language which is needed” (96). When a community cannot express itself directly, in this case because of the constraints of cultural imperialism under slavery and colonialism, it develops what Glissant calls a “forced poetics,” one in which the true meaning of words “is hidden from the master's ear by the nonmeaning of the noise and staccato, which is the true meaning. This nonmeaning hides and reveals a hidden meaning” (97). Denied a public forum of self-expression under colonialism, Caribbean peoples developed a secret language, a pact of noise and sound which both challenged the master-codes of the plantation system and, at the same time, sustained a symbolic or semiotic system of cultural resistance.

Brathwaite has traced this process in his monograph, History of the Voice, but it is his mentor, Glissant, who expresses the nature and function of the secret language which African slaves developed in the plantations most vividly:

What Creole transmitted, in the world of Plantations, was above all a refusal. From there, we could define a mode of linguistic structuration which would be “negative” or “reactive,” differing from the “natural” structuring of traditional languages. In this, Creole appears as if organically linked to the world-wide experiences of cultural relationship. It is literally a consequence of cultural interface, and did not exist prior to this interface. It is not a language of Being, but a language of Relatedness.


We cannot fully comprehend the dimensions of Caribbean poetics without understanding the doubleness in Glissant's postulate: for if, on one hand, Creole literatures function as acts of refusal, it is a refusal which, on the other hand, is constructed at the point of interface, at the junction where the European language meets the African voice. What happens when these two faces meet is the key to understanding Caribbean poetics.

I will now turn to Brathwaite's “Rights of Passage” as an example of a poem that is generated by the tensions between the hegemonic European language and Africanized forms of poetic expression, a poem in which oral languages take revenge against institutionalized poetic forms, as Glissant had predicted. Moreover, I want to read “Rights of Passage” as an exemplar of what Bakhtin calls “ambivalent writing,” a mode of discourse in which language is appropriated by the individual as “a form of practice” (151). Following Julia Kristeva's formulation, we can see textual ambivalence as the capacity of poetic language to insert history into the text and the text into history (68): it also implies the poet's ability to enter into an intertextual relationship with the already written: “Dialogue and ambivalence are borne out as the only approach that permits the writer to enter history by espousing an ambivalent ethics: negation as affirmation” (Kristeva 69).

Indeed, Brathwaite finds such an ambivalent ethics of language at the heart of Afro-American expression, especially in the structure and ideology of jazz: by adopting the jazz musician's “double-language,” the Caribbean poet believes he can move away from what Susan Willis has aptly called “a cultural middle passage” (619), and hence, in Brathwaite's words, find a “possible alternative to the European cultural tradition which has been imposed upon us and which we have more or less accepted and absorbed, for obvious historical reasons, as the only way of going about our business” (“Jazz and the West Indian Novel II” 39). But where does the poet start? By confronting the authority of history itself or by excavating a new space of original invention?

Beginnings are never easy: like most of Brathwaite's other poems, “Rights of Passage” is a poem generated by an acute anxiety about the authority of the marginalized voice, doubts about beginning and intentions. To establish the authority of the Creolized voice, Brathwaite, unlike his contemporary Derek Walcott, shuns invention, preferring instead to confront Caribbean history as it has been represented in European texts, while seeking to maintain the integrity of the poet's voice as a figure of alterity and subversion. Brathwaite's model for his new poetics of voice is undoubtedly jazz, because as he noted in one of his famous Bim essays, “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” the poetry of Caribbean cultural resistance has sought a space of representation analogous to New Orleans at the beginning of the jazz tradition:

The West Indian writer is just beginning to enter his own cultural New Orleans. He is expressing in his work of words that joy, that protest, that paradox of community and aloneness, that controlled mixture chaos and order, hope and disillusionment, based on his New World experience, which is at the heart of jazz. It is in the first place mainly a Negro experience; but it is also a folk experience; and it has (or could have, depending on its own internal integrity, as we have seen with jazz), a relevance to the “modern” predicament as we understand it today.


Brathwaite is attracted to jazz for several reasons: its capacity to use the voice to subvert the logic of hegemonic cultures, its ability to represent paradox and to interpolate what appear to be radically opposed world views, and most importantly, its capacity for improvisation. Jazz is indeed the matrix for “forced poetics,” for it rejects the mastery of established forms not by dismissing them from its repertoire, but by constantly using them as a point of reference, and then sublimating their canonical meanings under the power of unpredictable sounds and idioms.

Thus, for Brathwaite, the history of the voice is not derived from any canonical meanings it exudes, for spoken history in the Caribbean has always been that of the marginal; rather, the authority of the voice lies in its ability to situate and disperse codified forms while concealing its own powers behind a mask; in other words, what we think we know about the Caribbean, what appears so obvious on the surface of things, is couched in more ominous cabalistic signs and double-meanings.

The opening of “Rights of Passage” is a case in point: “Drum Skin Whip / lash, master's sun's / cutting edge of heat” (4)—one can't find a simpler image of the slave experience: the whip has become an innate symbol of slave labor and violence in the islands. But Brathwaite's meaning is doubled-edged: the skin that produces the whip (the figure of violence and repression) is also the skin that produces the drum (the figure of the voice and hence true identity).

Indeed, a few lines later, we see how the slaves' weapon against the regimen of the whip is their ability to utter through the “taut / surface of things: I sing / I shout / I groan / I dream” (4). The utterance of the slave is, of course, imprisoned in structures of domination which Brathwaite presents through images of waste and destruction: the desert, the stalled waters of the world, and “The hot / wheel'd caravan carcasses” (4). So, in a sense, history as seen from the margins is a negative process of displacement and repetition; indeed, to recover the meaning of this new history we need to seek, not its monuments of glory, but its ruins; what time leaves behind is a tree stump “ravished / with fire / ruined with its gold” (5).

The meaning of experience in Brathwaite's poetry hence lies in the reader's ability to reverse common structures of address and images which have become reified with time; where we expected gold to lead to happiness, it has left behind evidence of greed. Here, too, ruins mark the temporariness of things, for as J. Hillis Miller has observed in another context, the effect of ruins on things “is to introduce visible evidence of the eroding effect of time” (365). And yet for Brathwaite, it is out of the ruins left behind by the conquerors that new habitats and cultures emerge:

mud walls will rise
in the dawn
walled cities
from savanna and
rock river bed:
O Kano Bamako

However, these lines express the deliberately mixed nature of Brathwaite's verse: on one hand there is the certainty of regeneration, the spectacle of mud walls rising at dawn is an expression of hope; but on the other hand, what the poetic speaker sees at dawn could just be the walls of destroyed cities. Kano, Bamako, and Gao are indeed monuments of black civilizations in Africa, but their meaning is complicated by the apostrophe at the end of the stanza, which suggests an absence rather than a presence. Indeed, if we accept Jonathan Culler's assertion (in his “Changes in the Study of the Lyric” 40) that the “O” in the apostrophe is the figure of emptiness, then Brathwaite seems to write about solid things to foreground the absence of any semantic reference to that which is most critical in black histories in the new world—images of Africa.

Invariably, the improvisation of history involves challenging the linear movement of time, subverting the authority of chronology. How does Brathwaite expose the lineality of history and hence the authority of chronos? Essentially by setting up binary oppositions which are then undermined and exposed in the course of the poem, or by reversing poetic figures in such a way that they don't convey any determinate meanings.

A good example of this process of reversal appears in the title of the first part of “Rights of Passage,” “Work Song and Blues,” where the two musical forms that frame the poem would appear to be opposites: the African work song is traditionally conceived as a signifier of unalienated labor, a mark of the self's identity with its work; the blues, on the other hand, as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) notes in Blues People, is the mark of the slave's history of alienation, a figure of dissonance (25). But in Brathwaite's poem, and indeed within the context of the plantation system, there is no essential difference in the economy of the two musical forms—they both signify the slaves' alienation from the means of production.

Similarly, there is an important duality in the images the poet uses to (re)present history: flames are marks of destruction because they “scorch, crack, / consume the dry leaves of the hot / house” (7); but Flame is also a “red idol” the source of revolutionary power: “Flame, / that red idol, is our power's / founder: flames fashion wood …” (8). Thus the overture to “Rights of Passage” ends with a deliberate confusion of the flame image and the ideology of power that it supplements: “Flame is our god, or last defense, our peril. / Flame burns the village down” (8); the flame destroys and saves.

My argument here is that the authority of the voice in Brathwaite's poetry is contingent on the poetic speaker's deconstruction of previous representations of history. Indeed, where many Caribbean writers (including poets as diverse and different as Walcott and Guillèn) conceive their engagement with history as the quest for the principles which, in Edward Said's apt phrase, “authorize writing” (23), Brathwaite's allegories of history are contingent on “molestation,” Said's term for the converse process. Rather than appropriate and hence re-establish the laws that institute the logic of history, Brathwaite's poetic speakers conceive history as absolute negation, tempered only by its repetitive structures.

In “New World A-Comin',” the subjects of history have been inscribed into Western history as an absence, as figures of negation (“Helpless like this / leaderless / like this, / heroless” 9); in the New World, the imprisoned slaves have no horses, no leaders, no hope. Their discourse on absence is structured around the binary opposition between historical figures who appear as the balancing marks of negation and of definitive historical affirmation:

… no
Hawkins, no
Cortez to come.
Prempeh imprisoned,
Tawiah dead,
Asantewa bridled
and hung.
O who now can help
us: Geronimo, Tackie,
Montezuma to come.


Here, the structure of the poem (re)presents history as an entity which is stablized by figures who represent opposed ideological interests: thus, the Europeans, Hawkins and Cortez, are the figures of negation, ranged against Tawiah and Asantewa, the Asante heroes of liberation, while Geronimo, Tackie, and Montezuma are signifiers of New World liberation. On closer examination, however, these distinctly different figures share something in common: they are all absent from the scene; they are in different ways absent marks of history; a history which is represented not by the perceptualizing figures we thought were so apparent on the surface of the poem, but by the figure of hypotyposis, which entails engagement with absent things.

I want to extend my thesis further by making the following claim: what is at issue in Brathwaite's concern with the forms in which history is represented is not so much the meaning of that history, nor its value, but how that history (Western history, if you want) functions as a means of repressing the language of the black self. In this sense, what the poet seeks is not a language of Being but what Glissant (in the quotation above) identified as the language of Relatedness: the relations of power as they are manifested in linguistic structures. There is hence a struggle, in “Rights of Passage,” between the written word and the voice, here posited as signifiers of two opposed ideological positions.

I think we can understand this tension more clearly if we look at history and writing, in the Western tradition, as synonymous entities. A collapsing of these two terms is etymologically justified: the OED, for example, defines history as “A written narrative constituting a continuous methodical record, in order of time, of important and public events,” and as a branch of knowledge dealing with past events “as recorded in writings or otherwise ascertained.”

The voice, on the other hand, signifies the shapes and consciousness of that which has not, and cannot, be institutionalized. To create a space in which oral forms of history can be authorized as the true depositories of black cultures, Brathwaite (re)presents written history as a metonymic process which negates its own claims to ascent, to knowledge and fulfillment. Very early in “Rights of Passage,” the experience of slavery is represented as a journey “down / valleys down slopes,” a journey into fire, a journey that links the subjects in “a new / clinked silence of iron” (11).

Traditionally, the validity of history lies in the ability of the subject to realize itself in a temporal situation; indeed, the meaning of history is revealed by time. But for Brathwaite's slave subject, time engenders uprootment: “It will be a long time before we see / this land again” (11). Instead of leading to the fulfillment of desire, and to an absolute knowledge of self, time becomes a signifier of indefiniteness and postponement—any hope that the African slaves will return home again, “will create new soils, new souls, new / ancestors” (11), lies in a period beyond the measure of time. In the meantime, the slaves must maintain the power and integrity of their own voices.

This combination—of the remoteness of return to the source and the need to sustain the memory of the past—creates a double movement in the poem: European history is displaced from its graphic pedestal, while what Brathwaite calls the history of the voice is inscribed as a secret language that is passed from generation to generation. Brathwaite's influence here is undoubtedly Baraka who, in Blues People, misappropriates the Western idea of graph as a written form (the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] tells us that graphic in Greek means drawn or written), and asserts that the blues are a graph of black social history (65). So, for Brathwaite, the voiced graph is the repressed that returns to haunt the written graph.

We see this process at work in the section called “Islands and Exiles”: the title of the section establishes the framework in which Caribbean identity has been sought; the island being the place in which New World black culture seeks its new groundings; exile being a metaphor of the call of the other, of Europe or the United States. The islands are represented by a stone that “had skidded arc'd and bloomed into islands” (48). The image of the stone appears to be a simple reference to the geology of the islands; the gesture of the stone blooming into the island would appear to be a reference to the unexpected survival and regeneration of culture in the slave community. What we have here, then, is a set of dialectical relationships which the poet uses to represent the two forces at work in Caribbean history: the islands roar “into green plantations / ruled by silver sugar cane,” and this is counterbalanced by the “sweat and profit / cutlass profit” (48).

But let us beware of such neatly structured processes of history, for in keeping with his deconstructive rhetoric, Brathwaite has here cast the history and geography of the islands in the subversive form of the Calypso ode. He has put many dissonant words and phrases in the melodic line to put the dialectical movement of the poem into question. Listen to the kaiso version of slavery:

And of course it was a wonderful time
a profitable hospitable well-worth-your-time
when captains carried receipts for rices
letters spices wigs
opera glasses swaggering asses
debtors vices pigs.


Indeed, this is one instance when meaning seems to have been sacrificed to what Eroll Hill calls meaningless “speech rhythms” (74); rhythms and noises that mask the meaning of the poem.

As a matter of fact, this ostensibly “meaningless” play with words presents an excellent example of what happens to European structures of meaning when they are (re)presented in Afro-Caribbean modes of speech. In his brief but important study of the Calypso ode, Hill argues that the extension of the melodic line and the use of polysyllabic words, of the kind which we see in the example above, “tended to sink the calypso into a morass of elaborate verbosity rattled off with unintelligible speed” (74). And yet it is that improvisorial and unmastered dimension of the calypso that Brathwaite uses to parody existing versions of the islands' history: the slave master's claims to “civilization” has been “cut” by being reduced to the ribaldry of a bar scene.

Thus, instead of presenting us with an elevated poetic consciousness, Brathwaite falls back on the la bètise of the Calypso to show how the Afro-Caribbean voice, by reducing the old order of things to babble, parodies the other's version of the Caribbean experience:

And what of John with the European name
who went to school and dreamt of fame
his boss one day called him a fool
and the boss hadn't even been to school …


John thought he had mastered the master's modes of expression, but in the Calypsonian ode he is reduced to just another slave. And if a mastery of European forms (the school is a symbol of these) does not reconcile the black self to the other, then the poetic speaker is content to reduce his or her utterance to babble and doodle, to meaningless verbal play:

Steel drum steel drum
hit the hot calypso dancing
hot rum hot rum
who goin' to stop this bacchanalling?


But there is something more at stake in this kind of verbal play: what the figure of the voice represents is not the utterance of an individual; rather, what this poem sustains is the integrity of communal structures of address. Indeed, anyone who tries to develop a description of the poetic speaker in “Rights of Passage” is bound to be very disappointed. The verbal play of the calypso singer has here become a mask of communal voices which, because of their marginalization, can express meanings only through indirect modes of address. For these subjects, history is not the archetypal journey to self-knowledge, but the ultimate form of displacement. For this reason, instead of functioning as a reflection of the quest for identity, which is what the concept of rites de passage entails, Brathwaite's poem is a meditation on the word “rights”: it is generated by the poet's anxiety about the entitlements which black people have in the Americas; identity and rights have become almost synonymous.

In a sense, Brathwaite's poem presents a variety of black figures, but they have one important thing in common—they are all moving in search of their rights. We have Africans moving from the Sahara to the Ocean, American blacks moving from the South to the North, and Caribbean peoples “migratin' overseas” (50). What is of particular note about these journeys, however, is their repetitiveness: even when they have been cast in different time frames and contexts, they mirror each other. Thus, both the migrants moving from the United States' South to the North, and the Caribbean peoples moving from the islands to Europe, share a common temporal desire: at the end of their journeys, it is hoped, the self will not only recover its natural “rights,” but move onto a level of self-consciousness, a positive sense of selfhood, an important cognizance of its own subjectivity.

In reality, the migrants' journey is one of reversal, repetition, and displacement: they are headed for clearly defined geographical entities (Canada, the Panama Canal), but these places are also fantasies, hence the poet's conclusion that the migrants don't know where they are going. Indeed, the journey to nowhere is posited as a mimicry of the journey of “discovery,” and the migrating blacks are burlesqued as “these New World mariners / Columbus coursing kaffirs” (52). Columbus, too, had followed his “charted mind's desire” and invented the West Indies to compensate for his error, but what was the meaning of his discovery? Through a process of ironic reversals, the new discoverers are confronted with temporality not as an allegorical process that leads to the recovery of self-identity, but as a negative knowledge of the self, an awareness that they are defined by the gap between desire and demand:

Once when we went to Europe, a rich old lady asked:
Have you no language of your own
No way of doing things
did you spend all those holidays
at England's apron strings?


Thus, the moment of failed reconciliation with Europe, as Cesaire showed so passionately in his Cahier, is the moment when the subjects realize, in Paul de Man's words, that they can relate to their source “only in terms of distance and difference” (222).

In fact, we can push the argument further and argue that “Rights of Passage” is not a poem about the anthropological transition of the self to higher stages of consciousness; rather, it is a poem about the failure of consciousness, of its entrapment in hostile and hegemonic cultural structures. Brathwaite begins with the assumption that black or Caribbean identity cannot be found in a reconciliation between the alienated self and its Euro-American figures of desire; rather than seek to overcome this gap, the self must come to terms with the history of its repression, like a mental patient who cannot be cured until he or she has spoken the trauma of childhood.

At the end of “Rights of Passage,” both the Afro-Caribbean migrants and the black Americans have been brought back to the repressive past they sought to escape. Their journeys were intended to transcend the negativity engendered by the plantation system; instead movement from the scene of the trauma has only led to the accentuation of reification. The only form of knowledge the poetic subjects have, now, is of their own negativity and the failure of their self-invention, hence the re-echo of Césaire's famous line: “we / who have cre / ated nothing, / must exist / on nothing” (79).

This cognizance of negativity is important for two reasons: First, by discovering the nature and depth of their reification in the world of the other, the black subjects have rejected any positive mode of consciousness that may be predicated on identification with the other; they realize that rites of passage don't lead to any rights. Second, at the end of the poem, these subjects have fashioned a language which they can now use to express their negativity; they have indeed invented forms of selfhood that are “nothing,” but in the process they have hallowed a space which offers the possibility of authentic self-representation, which is indeed the subject of the other two parts of The Arrivants.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Tr. R. W. Rotsel. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973.

Brathwaite, Edward. History of the Voice. London: New Beacon, 1984.

———. “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” Bim 11 (1967): 275-84.

———. “Jazz and the West Indian Novel II,” Bim 12 (1967): 39-51.

———. “Rights of Passage.” The Arrivants. London: Oxford UP, 1973.

Culler, Jonathan. “Changes in the Study of the Lyric.” Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism. Eds. Chaviva Hošek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 38-54.

de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Glissant, Edouard. “Free and Forced Poetics.” Ethnopoetics. Eds. Michel Benamou and Jerome Rothenberg. Boston: Alcheringa, 1976. 95-101.

Hill, Eroll. The Trinidad Carnival. Austin: U of Texas P, 1972.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Morrow, 1963.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Tr. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Miller, J. Hillis. “The Two Allegories.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1981. 355-71.

Rohlehr, Gordon. Pathfinder: Black Awakening in the Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Tunapuna, Trinidad: Gordon Rohlehr, 1981.

Willis, Susan. “Caliban as Poet: Reversing the Maps of Domination,” Massachusetts Review (Winter 1982): 615-30.

Mary E. Morgan (essay date autumn 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4207

SOURCE: Morgan, Mary E. “Highway to Vision: This Sea Our Nexus.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 663-68.

[In the following essay, Brathwaite's sister reflects on the importance of the Caribbean Sea as an influence on her brother's poetry. She attempts to show how the movements of the sea are reflected in the rhythms of Brathwaite's work.]

1. We were brought up by the sea. I do not mean merely that as island people we saw the sea always there, but that our home was actually by the sea; the Round House where we grew up looked out on Brown's Beach and Carlisle Bay. And we came to appreciate, and to learn, the movement of the sea, which forms so much a part of Kamau's work. The sea, our highway out (migration, to study),1 our wave-ride back—back to what Brathwaite calls “the centre,” after England and Ghana: “I had, at that moment of return, completed the triangular trade of my historical origins.”2

The sound and rhythm, the movement, the restlessness, and indeed the changeable nature of the sea are constantly reflected in his work, especially in Mother Poem [MP] (1977) and Sun Poem [SP] (1982), his two long works about growing up in Barbados.

up the slope of the beach a crab pauses
flickering white beads of ground stone spotted with coral
in a day lazy with sea-wrack and glisten, the richness
of the day's candle wind burning with iron and blue
the crab pauses
raising its flat seeds of eyes
listening down to the thunder coming up from the curve of the bay
then sideways to scuttles, making necklace of dots on the day
and a wave follows, sweeping(3)

I remember how the beach used to change from being a small beach to no beach at all and then later again to the wide expanse of white sand where the boys would play cricket. Sometimes during the hurricane season a storm would suddenly blow up, and we would watch from the back windows of our house as the waves rolled in from far out.

and he had seen far away where sky was low a big bright wave that was standing still … but was building up and was getting bigger and he tried to run … and his sister screamed and his mother held her close as she turned her back to the cruel sea and the world was falling like the power of babel … as he opened his eyes to his mother sprawled … and her yellow bathcap bobbin4

2. The sound of the waves would punctuate our sleep, and next morning some of the small fishing boats that were moored offshore would be wrecked on the beach. Or sometimes there would be no beach and the waves would be lapping against the breakwater on which our beachgate and paling (sea fence) were built. Then we would run down the stone steps from the pantry and dive right into the sea from our gate. In a few weeks the sea would recede, and we again had a beach behind our house; and there were times, our mother told us, when the sea went out as far as—indeed beyond—the place where the fishing boats now lie at anchor, so that once upon a time there was cultivated land where the sea now was. In the poem Soweto (1979), of all places, Kamau transforms this into “and we are rowing out to sea / where the woman lived / with her pipe and her smoke // shack … / and we are rowing out to sea / where there were farms.”5 It taught us, among other things, the importance of breakwaters, of protection against this sea that we loved but which could change so easily, so dangerously. It was from this that my brother developed his notion of Caribbean “tidalectics,” a way of interpreting our life and history as sea change, the ebb and flow of sea movement; and with the suggestion of surf comes the contrapuntal sound of waves on the shore: “the peace of the lord is upon her // lost: they will single her out / hurt: they will balm her / afraid: she will find their flicker underneath her door” (MP, 113).

The sea was also the means by which we all, “the people who came,”6 came to our islands, became fused, smelted in the encounter of fire blood sun lust hate tyranny servitude … love. And the awareness of this fusion is everywhere in Brathwaite's work, echoes of the stories that Mother and Cousin Jeanie Stuart used to tell: family stories, some of them about slavery days; dream stories7 (the image I just quoted from Soweto), and others. For instance, Mother felt convinced that she was a reincarnation of an Ethiopian or Egyptian princess; so she read all she could about Egypt and Ethiopia and passed this on to us at night when she was sitting ironing.8 That's how we knew that the pharaohs were black while everybody else assumed they were white (as they were pictured in “the books”); and we always had this joke about the Sphinx's nose—that the English “discoverer” had broken it off so that the flatness wouldn't show!

in Af-
and brittle
hara, Tim-
buctu, Gao
the hills of
Ahafo, winds
of the Ni-
ger, Kumasi
and Kiver
down the
coiled Congo
and down
that black river
that tides us to hell
in the water
boys of Bushongo
drowned in the
blue and the bitter
salt of the wave-gullied
Ferdinand's sea
Soft winds
to San Salvador, Christoph-
er, Christ, and no Noah
or dove to promise us, grim
though it was, the simple sal-
vation of love.(9)


my mother sits above these on her mountain
curl, leaf of dreamer
drift plantations away
I remember ancient watercourses
dead streams, carved footsteps
and my mother rains upon the island with her loud voices
with her grey hairs
with her green love

(MP, 3)

There were duppy stories too. Gordon Rohlehr and Bob Stewart have spoken about Kamau's concept of the circle and its spiritual significance: “they will light wicks to honour her circle / standing all night to hinder her ghosts from rising from surface of mirrors / through the long wax of stars and the blood's surfage” (MP, 113).

3. Also significant in Brathwaite's work is the image of the stone, with so many different nuances: the stone as creation and beginning and vision, as in “Calypso” (from Rights of Passage, 1967); the stone as instrument of destruction, as used against Mikey Smith in the poem “Stone”;10 and often the stone as catalyst and agent of change (“out of the living stone, out of the living bone of coral”).11 Inevitably there is a connection between the stone and the circle. When we were children running on the beach behind our house, Kamau and his friends used to skim the surface of the sea with a stone. I could never do it well, but they could, so that you could follow the flight of the stone with your eye—in a dead straight line or in a beautiful curving arc, which sometimes, like our archipelago itself, seemed about to close a circle. But whatever the pattern, as the stone tipped the water each time, it rippled out into a circle, into circles, widening, sparkling, in the sun—which eventually becomes Kamau's alternative, as he puts it, to Wordsworth's “Daffodils”: “The stone had skidded arc'd and bloomed into islands: / Cuba and San Domingo / Jamaica and Puerto Rico / Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire” (A [Arrivants,] 48).

4. Shar—Hurricane Poem came out of Kamau's traumatic experience of the ravages of Hurricane Gilbert on his home in Irish Town, Jamaica, in September 1988, and also out of his involvement in the last few months of my daughter Sharon's life (1990),12 echoing memories of his own wife Doris's end (he called her “Mexican”) in 1986.

                    out of the dry river grande of pain
                                        . yes. yes. yes. yes.
& pouring west. towards the years of wrest
& wreck & space & time between the stone
                              & Maya & the Aztec & the
                    te & teh & touch of your face

The images come with the power and passion of the storm itself.

And what. what. what. what more. what more can i tell you
on this afternoon of electric bronze
but that the winds. winds. winds. winds came straight on
& that there was no stop. no stop. there was no stopp.
ing them & they began to reel. in circles.
scream. ing like Ezekiel's wheel
& that the valley of destruction filled with buzz.
with kite tails wild. ing
tug & tear & rip & tatter up & like old women laugh. ing

The “scissors-howl” wind, like a copper kettle “boiling over into your years,” while you hoard its sound “like a thimble of thunder.” Then at last the calm of acceptance, the stone become/ing song:

faces that must eat, that must eat, that must drink, that
          must sleep
beside these waters.
that will open their doors again & again to a wet
leaf tomorrow despite any sodden or sorrow
                                                                                                    at last
                                                                                                    at first
                              out of the valleys. smoke. trail. trial. song
.....                                                            from stone not echoing shell
                                        from bone not timbrel of pestilence
                                                                      song at last song

5. Mother Poem and Sun Poem are replete with echoes of childhood; not all are truly autobiographical, but many are recognizable. “Occident,” for example, captures our warm, loving, almost overpowering upbringing round our mother, with her concerns, her worries, her aggressions, her angers, her visions, her dreams, her determination concerning our education and future. I can just remember the teacher on his bicycle who opens this passage: “Chalkstick the teacher / dreamer of desk- // coteque and dais” (MP, 22). Of course, what Kamau is doing here also is “punning into” and “modernizing” the story of our growing up: “crinkled his bicycle bell with the sound of ice in a bucket / … // my mother heard and opened the door of the mountain” (MP, 22). Earlier there had been “mohammet,” the teacher, who “had come to [her] black / mountain” (MP, 19). This passage gives a pretty good idea of the forces involved in Bajan education—and an aspect of our mother's personality in her prime:

this planter's puncher
looked in at her window
from his plantation into her plot
he did not know what pots were on her fire:
eddoes and yam in the kitchen
he did not know if there was pumpkin vine
running wild all over her backyard
if the gate-door creaked
if red crabs crawled in her rock

(MP, 22-23)

That “backyard,” the creaking “gate-door,” the red crabs in the “rock garden” are all from that area where we ran down the “back steps” to the beach. The “gate-door” creaked because its hinges were constantly singed with sea-breeze: “but he knew the mam looking at him: // squint-eye front-frown / keen glance made keener by glasses: gold // framed … / … / the cool flat voice of her iron” (MP, 23), round which, as noted earlier, we heard her tales of Africa.

getting hotter and hotter
as the galvanized roof of the red-shingled castle
crinkled and stretched in the daylight
its waves of tin going tick tick tick in the white sheet-shine
the kettle lips boiling to buse him, you hear,
if he didn't take care to be care-
ful, to be po-
lite, to be bow-
to defuse her ticking stare
the fear he would not listen
showing where she did not smile:
that the boy would be a lux
occidente: her great light riding from the west
that even if she had to pick her way through sticks and
          broken pathways for
there would be the time, there would be the place,
          there would be the day.

(MP, 23-24)

Our father, on the other hand, was a very quiet person—not “marginal,” as the textbooks say Caribbean fathers are supposed to be, but just quiet. Our mother, among other things, was, as far as we were concerned, a great quarreler. Our mother, among other things, was, as far as we were concerned, a great quarreler. Our father was not. Refusing to quarrel, he just walked away. Kamau captures this in what I have always regarded as one of the finest tropes in his poetry.

was a sign of peace inside our house
we listened in the dark to how our mother quarrelled all night long like surf
lines on the other shore: he never angered we could hear
though sometimes coughed and sometimes terrible to fear: what
would become of us: said
he would go back out and stay back out: our mother bawled
then silence
at last the crickets chirped the bull frogs bulbed
the night wind nestled in the black leaf tree
the next day

(SP, 90)

6. Mile & Quarter, St. Peter, where our father came from, was also a significant “other shore”-not surf-sound here, but the sea-sound of canefields and “country people.” That place, a mile and a quarter from Speightstown,14 has as much influence on Brathwaite's poetry as the sea outside Round House, Bay Street, Bridgetown.

the window in the little redwood gallery where I'd sit for hours
watching the canefields groan the blackbirds march across the road
the sun swing downwards to the shakshak
tree the mulecarts creak/ing home the way
the donkey dung was trod and round and burst like pods along the golden ground
and nighttime when the crickets became stars
and comets smoked high up among the betujels and jewels of orion and the flare of mars
the lighthouse distant beyond distance beyond fields
searching for salt for dead souls …

(SP, 92)

And at the center of it all, our grandfather, his sister-in-law, our Aunt May Agard, his brother-in-law Bobby O'Neale (Bob'ob, who becomes Ogoun in Brathwaite's poetry), and “all the aunts and uncles” we remembered in our prayers each night.

Every Friday morning my grandfather
left his farm of canefields, chickens, cows,
and rattled in his trap down to the harbour town
to sell his meat. He was a butcher.
Six-foot-three and very neat: high collar,
winged, a grey cravat, a waistcoat, watch-
chain just above the belt, thin narrow-
bottomed trousers …

(A, 239)

The actual, wonderful now-fading photo portrait of “Granpa” still hangs on the sitting-room wall at Mile & Quarter: “He drove the trap / himself: slap of the leather reins / along the horse's back and he'd be off / with a top-hearted homburg on his head: / black English country gentleman” (A, 239).

In addition to this open “trap,” there was also a great assortment of horses, cows, lorries in various stages of repair or disrepair, including the magical ruin of a V-8 Ford: “the car had two horns: black bubble bugle: paa paa paadoo / and the round electric button nose inside the steering wheel: / aa aa aaoooooga: which we all preferred” (MP, 110). Next door to Granpa was Bob'ob—his home upstairs, where he and his two daughters the musicians Miriam and Mabel lived; downstairs was the carpenter shop, now famous in Kamau's poetry (though the house and shop no longer exist) through the poem “Ogun.”

My uncle made chairs, tables, balanced doors on, dug out
coffins, smoothing the white wood out
with plane and quick sandpaper until
it shone like his short-sighted glasses.
The knuckles of his hands were sil-
vered knobs of nails hit, hurt and flatt-
ened out with blast of heavy hammer. He was knock-kneed, flat-
footed and his chip clop sandals slapped across the concrete
flooring of his little shop where canefield mulemen and a fleet
of Bedford lorry drivers dropped in to scratch themselves and talk.

(A, 242)

Like our mother and Granpa's sister-in-law Aunt May Agard, who told “us stories / round her fat white lamp,” Bob'ob also told us stories—of the Emperor Haile Selassie, of Mussolini and the Abyssinian War, of Marcus Garvey, the Sphinx, the pyramids and pharaohs, Africa. The closing stanzas of “Ogun” reveal how Brathwaite remembered, nourished, and transformed these things into his now well-known images of Middle Passage / reconnection.

And yet he had a block of wood that would have baffled them.
With knife and gimlet care he worked away at this on Sundays,
explored its knotted hurts, cutting his way
along its yellow whorls until his hands could feel
how it had swelled and shivered, breathing air,
its weathered green burning to rings of time,
its contoured grain still tuned to roots and water.
And as he cut, he heard the creak of forests:
green lizard faces gulped, grey memories with moth
eyes watched him from their shadows, soft
liquid tendrils leaked among the flowers
and a black rigid thunder he had never heard within his hammer
came stomping up the trunks. And as he worked within his shattered
Sunday shop, the wood took shape: dry shuttered
eyes, slack anciently everted lips, flat
ruined face, …
… the heavy black
enduring jaw; lost pain, lost iron;
emerging woodwork image of his anger.

(A, 243)

7. We were all writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s: in school magazines, in newspapers, in school newspapers like the one started by Kamau and friends at Harrison College. Thanks to Frank Collymore, Kamau's work, like that of Derek Walcott in St. Lucia, starting appearing in Bim,15 while others of us were successfully entering newspaper competitions (Kathleen McCracken, later Drayton, in the Trinidad Guardian; Slade Hopkinson and myself in the Barbados Advocate). Apart from the encouragement from our “home” editors, we were stimulated by lectures given under the auspices of the British Council by people like H. A. Vaughan (poet, historian, judge), Judge Chenery, Crichlow Matthews, and Frank Collymore himself. Small wonder then that by the end of the war (1945-46) we felt our region to be a zone of excellence, though not of peace, because memories of the war still clung: the Dutch merchant ship Cornwallis had been torpedoed in Carlisle Bay, straight across the water from our back door,16 and the Oumtata had gone down spectacularly in Castries harbor, St. Lucia.

Yet the boys still played “cowboy and crook” up and down the stairs of the Round House, under the cellar, and on the beach. Everybody could swim out to the liners in the bay, but I found it rather scary the one time I tried. Then the boys would come in from the beach to eat and listen to music—jazz, classics, the blues. Kamau had a gramophone and a formidable collection of records (he still has!) by the time he reached sixth form, bought mostly from saved lunch money: Dizzy Gillespie, Harry James, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker. His poem “So Long Charlie Parker” echoes the very notes of the sax itself. Here it is in the version called “Bird” in Jah Music.17

The night before he died
the bird walked on and played his heart out
notes fell like figure forming pebbles
in a pond(18). he
was angry. and we
knew he wept to know his time had come
little had been done
little time to do it
he wished to furl the night from burning all time long
.....but time
is short
& life
is short
& breath
is short
& so
he slurred
his fingers fixed
upon a minor
then slipped
his bright eyes blazed & bulged against the death in
          him then knock
ing at the door
we watched
as one will watch
a great clock striking time
from a great booming midnight bell
the silence slowly throbbing in behind the dying bell
.....The night before he died
the bird walked on through fear through faith through
that he tried to hide
but could not stop that bell

8. As the movement of the sea has shaped so much in Kamau's poetry, so the music of it has influenced his writing—powerful imagery, lyrical beauty, magnificent symphony of “song. song. song. / syllable of circle. pellable of liquid contralto / tonnelle of your tone into fire / & the songs of crossing the river & the dead & sea / of the morning & the brass & bells of the water” (Shar). So that the syllable the stone skids full circle and becomes “there in the rise & rise of the sorrel horizon / & sing. ing / & sing. ing / the song of the morn/ing” (Shar). Both Sharon & Doris loved to sing. …


  1. Edward Kamau Brathwaite left the island for England by ship, out there in the bay “before they built the deep-water harbour, sinking a whole island to do it,” so that we had to go out to the liner by launch; and when we were on board, we could look straight “back to the land and the house where [we] lived” (Sun Poem [subsequent references are abbreviated as SP], Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 17), right there on the beach, and I remember that when our mother discovered that his passport and other important papers had been left behind, I had to run back down the gangway before the launch steamed back to shore, run from the Pierhead up Bay Street to the Round House, to retrieve the folder with the papers, and get back to the ship. But I was lucky getting back. I caught sight of our neighbor, Captain King the pilot (he appears as “Mr Queen” in Sun Poem), on the beach outside, just about to step into the small rowboat that would take him out to his “Pilot Boat.” I called out to him, ran down the back steps, and was lifted by his men into the rowboat, and so arrived in fine style back at the gangway of the French ship Gascoigne. Ten years later, our brother returned home from England and Ghana, again by ship.

  2. Kamau Brathwaite, in Contemporary Poets of the English Language, London, 1970, p. 129.

  3. Kamau Brathwaite, Mother Poem, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 115. Subsequent references are abbreviated as MP.

  4. Kamau Brathwaite, SP, p. 77. Originally in The Boy and the Sea, an unpublished novella completed while he was at Cambridge University in England in the early 1950s. The variant which appears in SP uses quite a lot of material from this novella, where we also find the breakwater, the boys playing cricket on the beach where Bebe appears as, among other things, the champion beach-cricketer, “the great breakwater bat.” In SP Bebe is now part Batto, and the beach-cricket appears in part only in “Rites” (Islands, 1969).

  5. Kamau Brathwaite, Soweto, Mona (Jamaica), Savacou, 1979, p. 3 (unnumbered).

  6. The title of a three-part book textbook for schools edited and coauthored by Kamau Brathwaite, first published in 1968, 1970, and 1972; revised edition 1987, 1989, and 1993.

  7. Kamau Brathwaite, DreamStories, Harlow (Essex), Longman, 1993.

  8. Our mother tended to do her ironing while sitting rather than standing, because even then she was suffering from “her feet”—what we now know was a diabetic effect.

  9. Edward Brathwaite, Rights of Passage, Oxford, 1967. Reissued as part of The Arrivants, London, 1973, pp. 35-36. Subsequent references to The Arrivants use the abbreviation A.

  10. “Stone: for Mikey Smith” first appeared in Jah Music (Mona, Savacou, 1986).

  11. Edward Brathwaite, Islands, Oxford, 1969, p. 34; the collection was reissued as part of The Arrivants in 1973. I understand that Pam Mordecai, at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, is working on a thesis that explores this very image—the stone and pebble.

  12. Shar (Mona, Savacou, 1990) is dedicated by Kamau to Sharon, my daughter, who spent the academic year 1989-90 between our home in Jamaica, hers in St. Lucia, and the University Hospital back at Mona, where she died in July 1990 after a triumphant fight with non-Hodgkins lymphoma—triumphant because of her shining faith (she sustained her pregnancy through chemotherapy) and the miracle of the birth of her second son, Richard (March 1990), beyond the expectation of her doctors.

  13. Brathwaite, Shar, n.p. Kamau's account of Doris's death in 1986 is contained in The Zea Mexican Diary, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

  14. Barbados has four towns: Bridgetown, the capital; and Speightstown, Holetown, and Oistin, which when we were growing up were little more than villages.

  15. Derek Walcott first appears in Bim, 10 (June 1949), with the poem “A Way to Live.” Kamau's first publication is in Bim, 12 (June 1950), the poem “Shadow Suite.” Between 1950 and 1972, when Colly was editor, Kamau published some seventy-five poems in Bim.

  16. The Cornwallis incident is recorded in George Lamming's book In the Castle of my Skin (London, 1953) and in even greater detail in Kamau's unpublished novella The Boy and the Sea, since after the torpedoing, he and his friends used to swim or row out to “the wreck in the harbour.” It was there for years, tilted onto the sea floor, and there was this great gaping hole of horror in its side where the torpedo had struck, blowing its way through the submarine nets that stretched on huge buoys right across the mouth of the harbour from Pelican Island to Needham's Point. For months the boys from our beach went out there, diving into that black hole and bringing up cans of corned beef, sardines, and all sorts of tar-sticky goodies.

  17. Kamau Brathwaite, Savacou, Mona (Jamaica), 1986, pp. 12-13.

  18. A variation on the image of the “circles” from pebbles skidding on Brown's Beach water. The “ponds” are those we used to play among at River Bay in St. Lucy.

H. H. Anniah Gowda (essay date autumn 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4267

SOURCE: Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Creation in the Poetic Development of Kamau Brathwaite.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 691-96.

[In the following essay, Gowda praises Brathwaite for creating a national language and for moving “from the margins of language and history, from the peripheral realm of ‘the other exiles,’ to the center of civilization, effecting a renaissance of oral poetry and remaking the poetic world.”]

dry stony world-maker, word-breaker,
creator …

Edward Brathwaite, “Ananse”1

There are not many historians who have distinguished themselves as poets and prose writers, who can recite poetry with rhythm and melody, not many who have endeavored to create “nation language” and make poetry truly native. Kamau Brathwaite, who has now become the Neustadt Prize laureate for 1994, has all these attributes and accomplishments, as well as the great honor of freeing poetry in English from the tyranny of dying of ossified main tradition. In his 1982 lectures at the Centre for Commonwealth Literature and Research in Mysore, India, he emphasized a “true alternative to Prospero's offering.” “What happened in Shakespeare,” he said, “what happened to Caliban in The Tempest was that his alliances were laughable, his alliances were fatal, his alliances were ridiculous. He chose the wrong people to make God. And if he had understood the nature of the somatic norm, it is possible that he would have chosen a different set of allies for his rebellion. So that is the first thing I want to present to you, the notion of the alternative, the image of the alternative, which resides in the figure of Caliban, not the Caliban who is concerned with metaphysical revolt, the revolt of the spirit, the reconstitution of the mind, which is something that becomes much more crucial in the development of the Third World than simple physical revolt.”2 He considered Sycorax, Caliban's mother, “a paradigm for all women of the Third World, who have not yet, despite all the effort, reached that trigger of visibility which is necessary for a whole society” (CE [The Colonial Encounter: Language Speeches by Kamau Brathwaite], 44).

This is the main theme that underlies the prose and poetry of Brathwaite, a major Caribbean poet with a large reputation and world stature. He insists on the sense and value of the inheritance of the West Indies and continuity with Africa; he is keen on discovering the West Indian voice in creative arts and emerges a creator of words. He has waged a war against the English language, which had allowed itself to be shackled into a verse system borrowed from the Latin language which did not go in for hammer blows of the West Indian Creole. His legacy was to work in “the English which is so subtly deformed, so subtle a subversion of English.” Hence he draws freely on all the riches of the Caribbean multicultural inheritance and has created “the semantic image, where you begin to conceive of the metaphor, also an alternative to that of Prospero.” His essays and speeches offer very interesting insights into his own creative writing and the situation of the writer in the Third World and newly independent nations. He has evolved a critical system using critical values different from what one would find in the Times Literary Supplement. As a historian, he traces the background to the evolution of West Indian writing and its structural conditions and the diversity of languages in a plural society. He wants the language, the new language, to embody “the syllables, the syllabic intelligence, to describe the hurricane, which is our own experience.”3

The early Walcott, Brathwaite, and others have endeavored to create a nation language and confidently communicate with the audience. They use language in its most intense, rich, nuanced, and vital forms, outgrowing the sophisticated and artificial language of the colonizers. They use dialect and local detail and express the voice of the community. In their hands we see the strangeness of the English language. We are aware of Walcott's use of speech rhythms—“O so Yu is Walcott? / You is Robby brother? / Teacher Alix son?” (Sea Grapes, 1976)—but this mission is up to a point in Walcott, who seems alternately ardent and cold in the desire to be outside English literature—English literature in a hierarchical sense. The angst of the important poems “The Spoiler's Return” and “North and South” in The Fortunate Traveller suggest an American infection. But it is zeal that makes him return to the Caribbean in theme and vocabulary in his epic Omeros (1992), which demonstrates his philosophy to “ground with West Indian people.” Salman Rushdie in 1982 argued that the English language “grows from many roots; and those whom it once colonized are carving out large territories within the language themselves.”4 It is the genius of the English language that it adapts to strange climates and strange people.

Brathwaite, who has not wavered in his determination, is very close to Indian poets who try to make their content Indian, even while their drapery is English. In his views on “nation language,” exploration and exile, and the drudgery and loneliness of Negro slaves, he seeks and seeks “but finds no one to speak,” and prayers do not go “beyond our gods / or righteousness and mammon.”5

Brathwaite, who now rides the tide of literary innovation freeing poetry “from the tyranny of the pentameter,” is distinguished in his use of nation language. He is deeply immersed in writing about the frustration of a West Indian and of his critical experience of the black sage and the New World. In 1970 he said, “The problem of and for West Indian artists and intellectuals within this fragmented culture, they start out in the world without a sense of wholeness.”6 Having mastered and bent Prospero's language to suit his purpose, as a poet he concentrates on “Europe coming to the Caribbean,” or what he calls “the after-Renaissance of Europe coming with an altered consciousness” (CE, 52). Therefore his poetry deals with the Maroon, the artist, the Negro slave, the reconstruction of fragments into something much more humane: a vision of a man-world (CE, 61). Brathwaite's ability lies in discovering the sense of wholeness. He has produced a metaphor for West Indians as a dispossessed people and has tried to invent his own esthetics for representing the Caribbean consciousness.

How does Brathwaite, who feels the need to liberate himself from inherited colonial cultural models, seek to distance his work from the pentameter of Chaucer? By attempting to develop a system that more closely and intimately approaches the experience common to all ex-colonies. He has expanded the treasures of his native talent in adapting and deepening his hold on the English language, making of it an instrument upon which he is able to play to perfection a greater variety of melodies than any other West Indian.

The West Indies, like many Third World countries, has colonial problems, but unlike India, the region does not have a long and rich literary heritage. In spite of many invasions, India retained her cultural riches; she was neither humiliated nor dispossessed even when ruled by foreigners. In the New World, on the contrary, blacks and West Indians had to endure slavery, indentured labor, and also an apparent discontinuity with their native cultures in Africa and India: “We have had a history of slavery and colonialism for the last four hundred years and very little else” (CE, 43). In such a situation a heavy burden is placed on the writer. He must create not only awareness but a tradition, what Eliot termed “the historical sense-indispensable.” Hence Brathwaite endeavors hard to create a usable past for his fragmented region.

Having lived in Ghana for nine years and felt his stay there to be something of a homecoming, Brathwaite sees “its” culture as continuous with the West Indian diaspora. In order to drive home this important point, he uses the words of a revolutionary and composes poetry characterized first and foremost by its self-conscious and formal lexical contrast to standard English. He uses “music and rhythm” as bases of his verse, and also “kinesis and possession.” Kinesis is a term which refers to the use of energy, and it derives here from the African religious culture, where worship is best expressed in kinetic energy. The idea is that the more energy “you can accumulate and express, the nearer you will come to God” (CE, 71). The poet's heart bleeds at the predicament of the Negro slave in the New World. His prayers are the common prayers of all who underwent imperialism but still possess the “mother's milk of language to fall back on.”

Brathwaite began his poetic career on the assumption that he was cut off from civilization, that he was in exile. He even gave his earliest poems the suggestive collective title Other Exiles.7 A desire for change in social values is evident there in the juxtaposition of folk images and historical elements: “he watched the seas of noon-dragged aunts and mothers / black galley slaves of prayer // but all his thoughts were chained / which should have sparked and hammered in his brain” (“Journeys”).

In many multilingual countries creation in a foreign language is considered inferior to creation in one's mother tongue. Unlike India, which possesses a rich cultural heritage and a strong epic tradition, the Caribbean had no alternative to Prospero's offering. Hence Brathwaite's attempts to overcome that obstacle, to “leap the saddle” and “reach the moon” (“Journeys”). The medium is English but the subject is Caribbean. Very early the poet discarded the classical meters of English verse as incapable of effectively expressing, for example, the havoc of the hurricane. In “Arrival” he speaks of how his islands inspire him, and he hugs them, “stuffed away in his pockets / the fingers tightly clenched, / around a nervousness.”

Brathwaite conceives of ancestral cultures from the Caribbean perspective—that is, the American culture, the European culture which formed the modern Caribbean beginning in 1492, and the cultures of Africa and Asia which constitute the basis of Caribbean society. One culture impinges on the other. Therefore, he says, “he unpacked the wired apparatus of his eyes // So that he could assess not only surfaces / but doubts and coils” (“Arrival”). His images are distinct. In one of his early poems, “Cat,” he writes that the poet must create with the sensitivity of the cat, an integral element of African history which imparts authenticity to the Caribbean. The sensibility of “Cat” yields to a new type of poetic sensibility which adumbrates the folk culture of the slaves; that folk culture, in turn, contributes a certain continuity to the development of modern-day society. As a historian, Brathwaite asserts that the folk culture of the ex-African slaves still persists in the life of contemporary folk.

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy [A]—comprising the earlier collections Rights of Passage (1967), Islands (1969), and Masks (1968)—is an epic which explores the pathos and frustration of a nation on an epic scale. Its opening lines are suggestive:

Drum skin whip
lash, master sun's
cutting edge of
heat, taut
surfaces of things
I sing
I shout
I groan
I dream
Dust glass grit
the pebbles of the desert

(A, 4)

The short lines and strong rhythm express pain and anguish.

African migration to the New World and the consciousness of the slaves become integral elements in the poetry of Kamau Brathwaite. They form the underlying basis of Rights of Passage, which is considered an epic of a civilization. “Prelude,” whose first twelve lines are cited above, is characteristic of Brathwaite's effort in composing new verse for the consciousness of an ignored soul. That poem continues:

sands shift:
across the scorched
world water ceases
to flow.
The hot
wheel'd caravan's
Camels wrecked
in their own
resurrect butter-
flies that
dance in the noon
without hope
without hope
of a morning.

Brathwaite's verse deals with the history of rootlessness, folk aspirations, and exile. Hence it is a kind of an “Iliad for Black People.”8Rights of Passage demonstrates Brathwaite's preoccupations not only with the poetic form but also with content: the experiences of the black diaspora and its links to the new archetypal themes of exile, journey, and exploration of the New World. Of the Maroon he says: “The Maroon is not an antiquity, lost and forgotten, an archeological relic. Maroons are alive and their patterns are still there for us to learn from. You can still learn the art of carving from Maroons. You can still learn the poetry of religious invocation from the Maroons. You can still learn techniques, if we need them, of guerrilla warfare from the Maroons, so that we have a very living alternative culture on which we could draw” (CE, 58). Therefore he says in “Tom”:

the paths we shall never remember
again: Atumpan talking and the harvest branch-
es, all the tribes of Ashanti dreaming the dream
of Tutu, Anokye and the Golden Stool, built
in Heaven for our nation by the work
of lightning and the brilliant adze: and now nothing

(A 13)

This reference to heritage is relevant to all Third World countries where an older or existing civilization is destroyed by imperialism. There is a correspondence between the poet's sense of tradition and his vision which gives The Arrivants its epic quality. “Tom” the old slave is a symbol of the continuity of the tradition of the poet as visionary and as representative voice in all oppressed Third World countries.

not green alone
not Africa alone
not dark alone
not fear
but Cortez
and Drake
and that Ferdinand
the sailor
who pierced the salt seas to this land.

(A 16)

The mask is also an important symbol in Brathwaite's poetry. It can conceal the real nature behind it, but it can also act as a bridge. Masks (1968) contains elegiac poetry. The adventure of an epic character through “tunnelling termites,” “monuments, graves,” and “The Making of the Drum” through ruins and cities ends on an interrogative.

So the god,
mask of dreamers,
hears lightnings
stammer, hearts
rustle their secrets,
blood shiver like leaves
on his branches. Will
the tree, god
of path-
ways, still
guide us? Will
your wood lips speak
so we see?

(A 131)

The poet's voice and concerns are those of all West Indians. Like most poets of the Commonwealth, Brathwaite seems to have been influenced early by English poets, for several of whom he has expressed clear admiration: “What T. S. Eliot did for Caribbean poetry and Caribbean literature was to introduce the notion of the speaking voice, the conversational tone” (HV [History of the Voice], 30). Soon he outgrew this influence, however, and developed his own forms and style of expression. In his 1968 essay “Jazz and the West Indian Novel” he delineated what he saw as a new and more relevant esthetic for the assessment of West Indian writing.9

Brathwaite is of the earth, earthy, and creates a history which links the West Indies to Africa. As we read the three constituent parts of The Arrivants, we see the Maroons resurrected and given a voice as “the first alternative settlers in the Caribbean, the first successful alternative communities in the Caribbean” (CE, 57). We hear of the untold sufferings of the slave, the Maroon, the peasant, and the unemployed; we are taken into the Caribbean past, into West Indian culture as represented by the calypso singer, the Rastafarian, and the black radical. In “Volta” (from Masks) we read:

I know, I know.
Don't you think that I too know
these things? Want these things?
Long for these soft things?
Ever since our city was destroyed
by dust, by fire; ever since our empire
fell through weakened thoughts, through
quarrelling, I have longed for
markets again, for parks
where my people may walk,
for homes where they may sleep,
for lively arenas
where they may drum and dance.
Like all of you I have loved
these things, like you
I have wanted these things.
But I have not found them yet.
I have not found them yet.
Here the land is dry, the bush
brown. No sweet water flows.
Can you expect us to establish houses here?
To build a nation here? Where
will the old men feed their flocks?
Where will you make your markets?

(A, 107-8)

In Brathwaite we find a unique combination of poet, historian, and creator of critical theories. Mother Poem (1977), all about “my mother, Barbados,” is an attempt to document his native island in verse and place it in the context of the historical experience of tribal Africa and of the deracinated African in the New World. For Brathwaite the historian, his poetry is to a considerable degree an abstract of racial and historical experience. History seems to reinforce and fulfill the poetry. As he says in the preface to Mother Poem, Barbados is the “most English of West Indian islands, but at the same time nearest, as the slaves fly, to Africa. Hence the protestant pentacostalism of its language, inter-leaved with Catholic bells and kumina.”10

Compared to the other islands of the West Indies, Barbados is plain, ordinary, unexotic, even dry. Mother Poem begins in the southerly parish, with its wide, bleak, wind-beaten plain; the opening lines of the very first poem, “Alpha,” suggest the mood: “The ancient watercourses of my island / echo of river, trickle, worn stone, / the sunken voice of glitter inching its pattern to the sea, / memory of form, fossil, erased beaches high above the eaten boulders of st philip // my mother is a pool” (M [Mother Poem], 3). The poet makes a kind of grim sense of the country when he goes on to speak of his mother's “grey hairs” and “green love” and her association with nature: “she waits with her back / slowly curving to mountain / from the deeps of her poor soul” (4).

In political terms Brathwaite's ability to envision a wholeness amid the fragments of postcolonial societies can be clearly seen here. The landscape of Barbados becomes a vehicle of his mood to depict “[slavery's] effect upon the manscape.” The island's history is condensed for us in the story of Sam Lord, a kind of English pirate, in lines that echo the Twenty-third Psalm: “The lord is my shepherd / he created my black belly sheep // he maketh me to lie down in green pastures / where the spiders sleep” (8). The images contained in such titles as “Bell,” “Fever,” “Lix,” and “Cherries” evoke the various African cults of the West Indies and their permutations over time, and the poems document the experience and practices of the slaves who kept such traditions alive, often within the confines of their cabins and always in spite of their “unhappiness” and servitude. In one hymn it is suggested, “let unhappiness come / let unhappiness come / let unhappiness come” (49). The plague of 1854 killed about 20,000 in Barbados alone. To describe the havoc of such events, the poet cleverly uses the image of a black dog “blinding the eye balls” and “prowling past the dripping pit latrines” (80). In such lines and poems Caribbean culture and history are vividly brought to life.

Mother Poem is an exhilarating exploration of the land and people of Barbados, in a vocabulary that blends standard English and “Bajan,” but in a larger sense it represents the poet's continued movement toward a concept of West Indian identity. In almost kinesthetic terms he says, “so she dreams of michael who will bring a sword / ploughing the plimpler black into its fields of stalk, / of flowers on their stilts of future rising / who will stand by the kitchen door and permit no stranger entrancement” (112).

Sun Poem (1982) has the ring of authority and the sureness of rhythm of The Arrivants. It supplements Mother Poem, exploring the male history of Barbados. The opening poem, “Red Rising,” seems to be universal in the broadest sense of that term: “When the earth was made / when the wheels of the sky were being fashioned / when my songs were first heard in the voice of the coot of the owl / hillaby soufriere and kilimanjaro were standing towards me with water with fire.”11 There is a change in the method here, for the lines can be set to music. The swiftly growing “sun” moves from one generation to the next, from grandfather to father to son, the relationships realized through the imagery of the seven colors of the rainbow. With sprinklings of Barbadian dialect, the clearly fascinated poet describes sunsets and sunrises around the world. Sun Poem shows Brathwaite's ability to recast biography into poetry; it is built principally around his childhood and youth and his relations with his father: “this pic- / ture shows him always suited dressed for work hat / on his head no light between his him and me” (S [Sun Poem], 87).

The collection has poems in both prose and verse, all suggesting a certain naturalness. On seeing the Krishnaraja Sagar illumination at Mysore, Brathwaite expressed the thought that some civilizations create things for the enjoyment of others whereas some are selfish, money-minded. What strikes one most is how flexible and beautiful Brathwaite's writing often is, and how different in word and feeling individual pieces are from one another. Sun Poem deals with Rastafarianism and Ethiopia, with Yoruba traditions and the black New World God, with landscapes both African and Caribbean. Truly the historian is seen here as a poem of great authenticity. “History, after all,” wrote Carlyle, “is the true poetry. Reality; if rightly interpreted, is greater than Fiction; nay, even in the right interpretation of Reality and History does genuine poetry lie.” This statement seems to find a true exponent in Kamau Brathwaite. Neither history nor poetry is repudiated at the cost of the other in his work, as Sun Poem amply illustrates.

Brathwaite, who has used the metaphor of Caliban to depict the subjugation of the West Indies, is now like Prospero, whose “charms are all o'erthrown,” supplanted by the sweetness and harmony of “Son,” where “my thrill- / dren are coming up coming up coming up coming up / and the sun // new” (S, 97). The later Brathwaite writes a bare kind of poetry, with lines that are austere but images that are real, as in this selection from Jah Music, a collection of poems of incomparable music and rhythm:

He grows dizzy
with altitude
the sun blares
he hears
only the brass
of his own mood
if he could fly
he would be
an eagle
he would see
how the land
lies softly
in contours
how the fields
lie striped
how the houses fit into the valleys
he would see cloud
lying on water
moving like the hulls of great ships over the land
but he is only
a cock
he sees(12)

Brathwaite has faced the problem of creating a nation language and has worked steadily to arrive at a solution. The problem is one which has beset many countries as they have thrown off the yoke of English imperialism. Indian poets have moved from Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu to Nissim Ezekiel, Leel Dharma Raj, A. K. Ramanujan, and other moderns whose work is characterized by quick, deft touches and a style that renders native idiom and nuance perfectly. Nissim Ezekiel's hymns are distinctively native. The late Ugandan writer Okot p'Bitek, the unique author of the long dramatic monologue Song of Lawino, gave voice to the dispossessed, the urban vagrant prisoner, and the ubiquitous malaya (Swahili for prostitute) and became a social reformer in verse. In New Zealand both Maori and Pakeha (white European-descended) poets have searched for a broad “symbolic language” natural to the indigenous people of the land. Thus writers of the new lands have gone beyond the inherited modes of English and modern European poetry and have de-educated themselves, escaping the tyranny of the sonnet in an effort to be more genuine, more true to their medium and milieu. The new poetry of the Commonwealth is no longer the prisoner of the colonizer but instead has found the rhythmic audacity and wherewithal to express local realities and, in so doing, has become a part of world poetry. Kamau Brathwaite, a towering poet, has moved from the margins of language and history, from the peripheral realm of “the other exiles,” to the center of civilization, effecting a renaissance of oral poetry and remaking the poetic world.


  1. Edward Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 167. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation A where needed for clarity.

  2. Kamau Brathwaite, The Colonial Encounter: Language Speeches by Kamau Brathwaite, published as Power Above Powers 7, ed. H. H. Anniah Gowda, Mysore (India), Centre for Commonwealth Literature and Research, University of Mysore, 1984, p. 46. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation CE.

  3. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry, London, New Beacon, 1984, p. 8. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation HV.

  4. Salman Rushdie, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, 14-20 September 1990.

  5. Comparative Approaches to Modern African Literature, ed. S. O. Asein, Ibadan (Nigeria), University of Ibadan, 1985, p. 134.

  6. Edward Brathwaite, writing in Savacou, 2 (September 1970), p. 36.

  7. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Other Exiles, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1975. The individual poems collected in this volume date as far back as 1950.

  8. Gordon Rohlehr, “Blues and Rebellion: Edward Brathwaite's Rights of Passage,” in Caribbean Literature, London, Allen & Unwin, 1978, p. 63.

  9. Kamau Brathwaite, “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” in his Roots, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 55-110. Roots was originally published in 1986 by Casa de las Américas in Havana.

  10. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Mother Poem, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1977, “Preface,” n.p. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation M.

  11. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Sun Poem, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 1. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation S.

  12. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Jah Music, Mona (Kingston, Jamaica), Savacou, 1986, p. 16.

Norman Weinstein (essay date autumn 1994)

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SOURCE: Weinstein, Norman. “Jazz in the Caribbean Air.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 715-18.

[In the following essay, the author, a noted jazz critic, provides examples of poems showing how Brathwaite's love of jazz is a strong influence on his poetry, a claim made by Brathwaite himself. In particular, the author finds the influence of such jazz geniuses as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.]

If one could assemble in imagination an ultimate jazz band to honor the literary achievement of Kamau Brathwaite, one could not do better than to choose the four musicians his poetry heralds: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Duke Ellington. This jazz quartet particularly noteworthy in Brathwaite's poetic world has as much to do with the heroism Brathwaite finds in their lives as with the rich intellectual and spiritual rewards he has discovered in their music over the decades. Without hyperbole, one could look upon Rollins, Coltrane, Ayler, and Ellington as primary sources of poetic inspiration, “muses,” or, even more strikingly, archetypal poetic figures. While it is belaboring the obvious to state that jazz has been a lifetime influence upon Brathwaite's poetry, it is perhaps a revelation to discover just how central the lives of these four musicians have been to his evolving notion of his role as a poet as well as to the forms of his poetry.

In an interview with the American poet and editor Nathaniel Mackey, Brathwaite described his adolescent experiences as a jazz deejay:

It [jazz] was regarded as devil music in Barbados, especially bebop, which I grew up on in the fifties there. We had a radio program as schoolboys—Harrison College, you know, the elite school of the island—and when we went on the air that first evening, the one and only evening, the people flooded the station with phone calls demanding the incarceration of the perpetrators, the, as they saw us, cultural traitors. Instead of Mozart or Rogers and Hart we were playing, I think, “Oop Bop s'Bam” or “Shaw Nuff” or “Ornithology,” certainly something hard by Dizzy and Bird, followed by Thelonious Monk.1

Several facets of this early jazz memory deserve illumination. Bop, a jazz style favoring extravagant thematic improvisation based upon reformulating the structures of pop tunes, was Brathwaite's first embraced jazz style. Further, it was the first jazz style to wholeheartedly integrate Afro-Cuban rhythms, sacred and profane, thus bringing jazz listeners close to the African roots of this originally American music. And bop's most heroic single figure, “Bird,” Charlie Parker, offered Brathwaite the image of a master saxophonist whose art and life-style were in opposition to bourgeois Caribbean societal standards, a true “cultural traitor” who, if he would play a Rodgers and Hart tune, would only do so by deconstructing its chords and accelerating its original tempo into the stratosphere.

Parker's saxophone style influenced virtually every major saxophonist of the fifties. It is not surprising to discover that the earliest recordings of Rollins, Coltrane, and Ayler, to differing degrees, all bear the stamp of Parker's influence. It was only in the 1960s, when the three saxophonists fully matured into highly individual styles, that the Parker sound fell away from their recordings. Brathwaite's poetry about these three appears to focus exclusively upon that period in the sixties when their true artistic voices crystallized.

One particular image of Sonny Rollins haunts Brathwaite: that of the saxophonist practicing alone on a catwalk on the Williamsburg Bridge, over New York's East River. Rollins did this repeatedly in 1959 during a period when he retired for a few years from public performance in order to rethink his musical direction. Brathwaite's first mention of the Rollins image occurs in “Jah,” a key poem in Islands, the third book in the trilogy The Arrivants [A]. Here are the poem's first two stanzas, with Rollins introducing himself symbolically in the second.

Nairobi's male elephants uncurl
their trumpets to heaven
Toot-Toot takes it up
in Havana
in Harlem
bridges of sound curve
through the pale rigging
of saxophone stops
the ship sails, slips on banana
peel water, eating the dark men.(2)

The surreal layering of unlikely imagery juxtaposed from Africa and the Americas creates a violently vivid set of impressions of urban life. Federico García Lorca's Poet in New York and Hart Crane's The Bridge are two book-length poems that come to mind when reading “Jah.” The opening stanza plays on the cliché of “the city is a jungle,” the locale where a Harlem jazz trumpeter's sound resonates with the ancient African jungles. But it is in the second stanza, where the image of Rollins playing saxophone on a city bridge is symbolically declared, that the power of jazz is illuminated. In one of many shocking puns that fill his poetry Brathwaite plays with multiple meanings of the word stop. Stops are the holes in the body of a saxophone, opened or closed by keys the player digitally controls. Stop is also utilized in its common meaning of “desist.”

Brathwaite's second stanza is a striking compression of images, a knotty mass of complementary meanings. First, without mentioning Rollins by name, he is evoked by “bridges of sound curve / through the pale rigging / of saxophone stops.” Simply juxtaposing the bridge and the saxophone will conjure the image of Rollins for almost any modern jazz fan. But Brathwaite takes the Rollins bridge imagery further than simply dropping an aside about a very unorthodox and talented player. Punning on “bridge,” he compels us to hear Rollins's jazz as a bridge, a path to spiritual transcendence. The poem, like Rollins's jazz, is that artfully constructed bridge which allows us a view from the heights (metaphysical if not physical). In the poem's ninth stanza the reader is offered a divine gaze: “But here God looks out over the river / yellow mix of the neon lights / high up over the crouching cottonwool green / and we float, high up over the sighs of the city, / like fish in a gold water world” (A, 163).

It is not that the jazzman performing on the city bridge is God per se. That would entail the quite human saxophonist having the power literally to stop the sailing ships that eat dark men, as Brathwaite graphically and symbolically described the marine commerce that brought us the horrors of capitalism and slavery. What Rollins as a saxophonist is able to offer in the poem is an image of artistic and spiritual power which can at least interrupt “business as usual” in an oppressive urban center. It is a transitory interruption, quick as a saxophonist's finger pressing a key to stop a hole, but a wholly meaningful gesture, an act of rebellion against economic and political forces transforming the earth into a dead mass of commodities for sale. The closing lines of “Jah” are a woeful reminder of that world: “The sun that was once a doom of gold to the Arawaks / is now a flat boom in the sky” (A, 164). If the gods will not allow this to happen, they must cry through a saxophonist's horn, as they do through Rollins's, and through Brathwaite's dramatization of Rollins assuming a godlike stance over the East River.

Pessimism about the earth's fate—and about the artist's capacity to offer alternative scenarios for the earth—can be found in a poem written nearly two decades after “Jah.” In “And now a soft commentaries from Angelo Solimann Africanus the Neumann,” from the book X/Self, Sonny Rollins on the bridge is once again evoked, but this time more directly and more darkly than in “Jah.” In a catalogue of horrifying imagery describing a greed-driven world gone mad sometime in the near future we discover: “there will be / no more sonny rollins // practising his tenor sax among the spires of the brooklyn bridge.”3 It is curious that Brathwaite chose to rewrite the Rollins incident by having him on the Brooklyn Bridge rather than on the Williamsburg. While both span the East River, it is the Brooklyn Bridge that was heralded as a symbol of urban American's decadence by the poets García Lorca and Hart Crane, a symbolism perhaps prompted by the fact that the Brooklyn Bridge, unlike the Williamsburg, is exactly on the edge of New York City's financial district.

Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane recorded together in the fifties. The album was released under the title of Tenor Madness,4 suggesting that both saxophonists allowed themselves highly abandoned and free-form improvising. The recording suggests nothing of the kind. It sounds like two young saxophonists who had not yet found their signature styles, playing with reserve, careful to stay out of each other's path. It is unfortunate that no recordings are available of Rollins and Coltrane playing together in the sixties after they had found their mature voices; that might have created a recording truly worthy of a title like Tenor Madness. Rollins and Coltrane grew into sharing more musical ideas during the sixties, working independently of each other, than they did sharing a bandstand in the fifties. They never appear together in a Brathwaite poem, though, like Rollins, Coltrane makes frequent appearances, both as a heroic figure and as an artist whose art builds bridges between Africa and the Americas.

The image of Coltrane in “Trane,” a poem from Brathwaite's 1976 collection Black and Blues, is straightforward: “Propped against the crowded bar / he pours into the curved and silver horn / his old unhappy longing for a home.”5 The poem's concluding fourth stanza reprises the first stanza quoted above: “and pours his old unhappy longing for home.” Whether that “home” the saxophonist is longing for is Africa or some Christian dream of heaven is never made explicit. That is the gist of Coltrane's depiction on the surface of the poem: the jazz man pours out his soul into his instrument to declare this longing for home.

The connection to Coltrane's life and music, however, is far more subtle than what can be quickly read on the surface. The second stanza introduces some obvious end rhymes: “the dancers twist and turn / he leans and wishes he could burn / his memories to ashes like some old notorious emperor.” The rhyming continues in the third and fourth stanzas, quite obvious and quite musical. Since rhyming is used rarely in most of Brathwaite's poetry, when it does occur the reader should be alert to the reasons for it. The poem moves in and out of conventional (rhymed) poetic shape—in much the same fashion that Coltrane's famous renditions of “My Favorite Things” move in and out of conventional song structure. The shape of “Trane” actually enacts what the saxophonist became famous for: the ability to deconstruct conventional artistic forms creatively and subversively for the sake of adding spiritual dimensions to the performance of superficially banal art works.

Still, for all the artistic splendor Coltrane executed by articulating his longing for home through his music, Brathwaite's poem insists that the saxophonist could expect little reward. “This crowded bar … holds all the fame and recognition he will ever earn / on earth or heaven,” claims Brathwaite. But when the image of Coltrane resurfaces in the poem “Noom” a few years later, Coltrane gets his just recognition—in the heavens. In an incantation to the power of the sun (again, Brathwaite is punning on “sun” and “son”), Coltrane is transformed into a loa, a divine spirit in Haitian voodoo, akin to the Yoruba god Shango: “sun who has clothed arethas voice in dark gospel / who works on the railroad tracks / who gave jesse owens his engine / who blue coltranes crippled train.”6 As was the case with Rollins, Brathwaite compresses multiple references to the saxophonist in a few knotty lines. Coltrane is joined to a pantheon of African American heroic figures, real as well as folkloric (“John Henry” is suggested by the mention of the railroad work, which simultaneously evokes the Yoruba god Shango). It may seem peculiar that Brathwaite has included the Olympic athlete Jesse Owens with musicians on the order of Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane. Yet by forging this association, Brathwaite is reminding us of the physical strength necessary to play saxophone as Coltrane did. Think of the sheer stamina, the pushing of lungs and nerves required to improvise for over an hour on the melody of “My Favorite Things.” It was an “olympian exercise” of body and mind, and perhaps, like Owens's performance at the Nazi-saturated Olympic Games of 1936, an act of artistic beauty to fly in the face of a racist society.

Puns once again abound in Brathwaite's poetry. “Blue” refers to Coltrane's roots in the blues, to the title of an album, Blue Train, on the “Blue Note” label. Hearing the poem read before examining it on a printed page, one could easily hear “blue” as “blew,” implying that the power of the sun blew through Coltrane's saxophone as he recorded Blue Train, an album which marked a turning point in the saxophonist's career. There is also Shango's symbolism brought into play by the title of Coltrane's album, since locomotives are associated in West African and Caribbean mythology with Shango. Coltrane was referred to by fellow musicians and fans as “Trane,”7 an allusion to how often he played with locomotive energy a long unraveling train of thought. An additional linkage of Coltrane to Shango, the Yoruba god linked not only with railroads but more commonly with extreme bursts of rage against dishonesty and injustice, occurs in “Word Making Man,” a poem from Brathwaite's Middle Passages. [MP] The word Coltrane seems now to transcend mere reference to a divinely inspired jazz musician; Coltrane is now a common noun referring to a force of nature: “& the sea between us yields its secrets / silver into pellables into sheets of sound / that bear our pain & spume & salt & coltrane.”8

Coltrane viewed his jazz as chiefly a spiritual exercise once he discovered his mature voice on saxophone. That view of jazz as a kind of religion links him partially to Rollins (who has moved in and out of highly commercially compromising situations in the last two decades), but it links him totally to the other major saxophonist of the sixties, Albert Ayler. More radical in his musical thinking than either Rollins or Coltrane, Ayler developed a highly dissonant and free-form style of saxophone playing which ran counter to all saxophone styles of previous eras. At the heart of Ayler's style was an extremely unconventional sense of how musical time could progress in a composition. While Rollins and Coltrane were known for “swinging” saxophone solos—a rhythmic momentum hard to define but easily felt by how one's body moves while listening to certain patterned relationships between long and short notes—Ayler's music never “swung.” It seemed to issue forth in asymmetrical waves of pure sound, impossible to indicate on paper using conventional music-scoring notations. Ayler's saxophone playing seemed to defy any regular time measure. Metronomes and clocks seemed to have no reality in his music or life. Yet, of course, he lived in the world that accepted their absolute reality.

The contrast between Ayler's sense of time and that of conventional society is at the heart of Brathwaite's poem “Clock,” dedicated to Ayler. The opening lines present the saxophonist as a kind of surreal flower blooming through plate-glass barriers, with roots anchored in the solid and nourishing mud of the earth. What uprooted him was the “clock / ground up / to tick / the time.”9 Ayler is seen as attempting through his art to counter the mechanizing impact of commercially defined uniform time by telling liberating tales through his saxophone.

of the
in its cradle of          alarms
ing what
ever tale


The shape of the poem suggests bursts of staccato notes rapidly executed, a favorite stylistic trait of Ayler's. The poem looks like an attempt to score an Ayler solo for the page.

The tales that Ayler told on his saxophone, however, were stopped by the musician's possible suicide or murder. His body was found in the East River, the same river Sonny Rollins towered above on a bridge a few years earlier. Brathwaite does not offer a theory concerning Ayler's demise; he lets the image of the clock dramatize it: “the / clock / stopp. / & the rock of his skull fall down” (35). This “Poe-like” conclusion seems also to introduce the image of the heart as a jazzman's time regulator. It is Brathwaite's bleakest image of the jazz saxophonist. There is no hint of transcendence through his art. But there is a potent image offered which is as applicable to Brathwaite the poet as to any of these jazz artists: they are the ones whose art sounded alarms. That is why we need to heed their cries.

Brathwaite's poem of tribute to the artistry of Duke Ellington, “Duke Playing Piano at 70” (from Middle Passages), lets more than saxophone cries resound. Female vocalists (Bessie Smith, Ivie Anderson), percussionists (Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard), and a broad assortment of brass and reed players are heralded. They attain significance in the poem as they constellate about the radiantly central figure of the elder Ellington, their pianist and band leader. The poem opens with the haunting lines “The old man's hands are alligator / skins” (MP, 21), conjuring the image of the crocodile in Egyptian mythology, a creature embodying ancestral wisdom. But the evocation of this ancient mythic realm superimposed upon Ellington suddenly shifts to a summoning of Bessie Smith's power in wailing the blues. This is then followed by one of several starkly written lists of nouns. The first is a catalogue of places where African Americans confronted racism most dangerously: “Watts / St Louis / Selma Alabama / Chicago / Montgomery Bus Boycott / Cairo” (23). The second catalogue, which sets up a call-and-response pattern in the poem, is a list of Ellington's original compositions: “Caravan / Perdido / Cotton-tail / … / Creole Love Call” (25). The final list is of Ellington's star soloists, whose instrumental styles so colored his compositions, among them Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, and Sam Nanton.

What all these names of places, musicians, and compositions suggest is jazz embodying a moral vision. In lines echoing that other great poet of the Americas closely associated with jazz, Langston Hughes, Brathwaite writes: “[It] is a matter of hope of keep hope alive of the right to continue the / dream / about our rightful place at the table” (MP, 24). Ellington's way of establishing “the right to continue the dream about our rightful place” was through jazz informed by a strong historical racial consciousness. “We must be proud of our race and our heritage, we must develop the special talents which have been handed down to us through generations,” wrote Ellington.10 Ellington's musical vision not only encompassed generations but also continents. He composed extended jazz suites to celebrate the statehoods of Liberia and Togo, wrote jazz tunes to celebrate African women and African flowers, and even composed pieces to herald the Afro-Caribbean cultural world. In the concluding stanzas of his poem Brathwaite notes the range of Ellington's musical vision: “the old man's hands are striding through / the keyboard sidewalks alleyways & ages // from / Shakka spear and guinea Bird // to / Caribbean stilt dance / vèvè / masquerade” (27).

By concentrating on Ellington the pianist, Brathwaite focuses upon an artist with a highly percussive and rhythmically surprising style, drumlike at times, evoking the thunder of African ancestors. And Ellington often conducted his band from his vantage point as the group's pianist, his percussive keyboard attacks calling forth rapturous responses from reeds and brass. Those hammering hands of Ellington the pianist, as wrinkled with age as a crocodile's skin, undergo a transformation in the closing lines of Brathwaite's poem: “& look / the old man's alligator hands are young” (28). By presenting the great jazz composer as a creator who can defy even aging, Brathwaite puts Ellington in that sacred pantheon where he places Coltrane in “Noom,” in the holy and timeless realm of African spirits.

The value that the adolescent Brathwaite sensed in jazz recordings has become for the mature poet a vibrantly inspiring driving force and knowledge source for his poetry. In Ellington, as in Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, African spirits have found ways to communicate their messages in New World settings. Brathwaite's poetry touching upon jazz sharpens our awareness of these African voices singing in the Caribbean air.


  1. Nathaniel Mackey, “An Interview with Edward Kamau Brathwaite,” Hambone, 9 (Winter 1991), p. 57.

  2. Edward Brathwaite, The Arrivants, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 162. Subsequent references use the abbreviation A.

  3. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, X/Self, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 59.

  4. Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness, Original Jazz Classics compact disc OJC-124.

  5. Edward Brathwaite, “Trane,” Black and Blues, 1976; reprinted in The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, eds., Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 17-18. References are to the anthology reprint, since Brathwaite's book is currently out of print in the U.S.

  6. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Sun Poem, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 53.

  7. See Brathwaite's explanatory notes to X/Self, p. 130.

  8. Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages, New York, New Directions, 1993, p. 6. References use the abbreviation MP.

  9. Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, eds., Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose, Minneapolis, Coffee House, 1993, p. 33.

  10. Barry Ulanov, Duke Ellington, New York, Da Capo, 1975, p. 190.

Timothy J. Reiss (essay date autumn 1994)

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SOURCE: Reiss, Timothy J. “Reclaiming the Soul: Poetry, Autobiography, and the Voice of History.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 883-90.

[In the following essay, Reiss links the structure of Brathwaite's poetry to seventeenth-century England by positing that the poet's work often has an underlying structure derived from iambic pentameter, a meter that Brathwaite has tweaked to reflect the historical changes that have led to the postcolonial culture of Barbados.]

Through Kamau Brathwaite's work run three favorite metaphors. The earliest uses the iambic pentameter that had become a norm in English poetry from roughly the seventeenth century. The second represents the Caribbean Islands as the result of a child's (or god's) skipping stones in a great curve across the ocean from the coast of Guyana to the tip of Florida. The third transforms the waters buried deep in the porous rock that is Barbados into the welling of a buried culture whose very concealment has made it the more vital to the life above. The first concerns the constitution, practice, and differentiation of a poetic voice; the second holds an individual's sense of a home place; the third captures something like a collectivity's living cultural and political consciousness.

At the same time, each one works and plays with the other two. More than tropes in language, the finest metaphors are alive and capture vital actualities. Such are these. Barbados is rock of the sort Brathwaite takes for his image. Beneath and in it is the fresh water making life on the island possible. As the poet/historian has also been able to show, Barbados does have a hidden culture, living remnant of Igbo consciousness. Then too, Barbados is geologically unique among the islands, and the more-than-metaphor grasps that singularity as it simultaneously situates it among its companion islands geographically, historically, and culturally. Lastly, the skipping stones, as well, offer not just an image of place but a rhythm and the curving shape of an imagination.

They ground a different poetry and a consciousness not best rendered by that pentameter whose exemplar Brathwaite finds in the English eighteenth century: “The Cúrfew tólls the knéll of párting dáy.” He observes that before Chaucer no such dominant meter was to be found, but that since then poetic effort in the anglophone world has had to be expended in its terms. (Whitman sought to overcome it by noise, “a large movement of sound,” Cummings by fragmenting it, Moore “with syllabics.”) Yet it stays. And that rhythmic inertia is a dilemma, for “it carries with it a certain kind of experience, which is not the experience of a hurricane. A hurricane does not roar in pentameters. And that's the problem: how do you get a rhythm which approximates the natural experience, the environmental experience?”1 That rhythm, of course, is grounded and trammeled in the skipping stones and rock-concealed water, both bearing spirit of place. But that is not the only problem. With experience of place bound in form goes a bond of culture.

In the essay just quoted, Brathwaite did not dwell on Thomas Gray's celebrated poem, and for good reason: he wanted to get on to the forms of a new voice. Here, though, we may grant it a bit more attention, and I would like to quote its beginning at a little more length:

The Cúrfew tólls the knéll of párting dáy,
The lówing hérd winds slówly ó'er the léa,
The plówman hómeward plóds his wéary wáy,
And léaves the wórld to dárkness ánd to mé.
Now fádes the glímmering lándscape ón the síght
And áll the áir a stíllness hólds,
Save whére the béetle whéels his dróning flíght,
And drówsy tínklings lúll the dístant fólds.

If you look at where the accents fall in the first stanza, you see how the long vowels echo tolling bell and “lowing herd.” Fading landscape at dusk, evening quiet of late summer, wheeling beetles, tinkling sheep bells, the later “ivy-mantled tow'r,” “mopeing owl,” “rugged elms,” “yew-tree's shade,” and “swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed” are stereotypes meant to summon the image of an age-old country England to frame the elegy on humble folk that is the principal weight of the poem: “the short and simple annals of the poor” (l. 32). They frame a nostalgic musing on those who might have been great churchmen, rulers, or musicians, except only that “Knowledge to their eyes her ample pages / Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll” (ll. 49-50). So these remain a gem unknown in ocean cave (53-54), a flower “to blush unseen” and “waste its sweetness on the desert air” (55-56), “a village-Hampden,” a “Cromwell guiltless,” or “some mute inglorious Milton” (57-60).

The marching, endlessly expansive pentameter, then, contains a very particular history and cultural experience. “The madding crowd's … strife” may be called “ignoble” (73), but the nostalgia grounding the poem's theme depends entirely on the achievements of those who supposedly formed and sprang from that crowd. Indeed, the Hampdens, Miltons, and Cromwells, who, lost in poverty, misery, and illiteracy, never did share the expansive culture, would have done so if only they had had the wealth and learning to give them the necessary competitive edge. Gray glories in a “loss” that proves the depth of English culture, with its myriad putative conquerors, preachers, and poets scattered about the countryside. The Hampdens, Cromwells, and Miltons raise before us the image of those great churchmen, rulers, and artists who were not silent or “wasted” in the desert or under the seas; those who did “wade through slaughter for a throne” and “shut the gates of mercy on mankind” (67-68), whether at home on those of a different class, abroad on those of a different race, or everywhere on those of a different sex.

We may also perhaps be permitted to see how the marching linear pentameter (or its equally normative counterpart in the alternating masculine and feminine rhymes of the French alexandrine, with its more or less clearly set caesura) corresponds to a broader cultural reality, one anchored both in political theory and in historical actuality. I mean the argument that what makes a “healthy” state, society, and culture is expansion. The notion dates at least from Machiavelli's suggestion that the reason a society needed to think constantly of outward expansion was clear in its image as a place composed of endlessly active animals that would turn destructively against one another if not directed elsewhere. Bacon thus thought of war as the health-giving exercise of nations; so did Hobbes, Locke, and many other successors. The individuals whose threatened warring necessitated the founding covenant of civil society provided the very image and model of the states that those individual societies were to become. Reason, knowledge, will, and power to act became their organizing axioms. The order of reason matched that of the world, the accumulation of material knowledge allowed such reason instrumentally to adjust the world to its own benefit, will urged one to it, and power gave the tools to make intervention sure.

What came to be termed “literature” participated in these changes, adopting what I have elsewhere called “epistemological,” “ethical,” “aesthetic,” and “political” roles—the last being initially the most important. It confirmed a (sometimes complicated) politics of singular authority, however embodied; it claimed to be ordered by a syntax that was both that of right language and that of universal reason; it portrayed and asserted an ethics of individual interest whose virtue lay in simultaneously benefitting the community; and it placed beauty in a personal “taste” that echoed general reason.2 Literature's “guarantee” of political claim and historical practice ultimately helped “universalize” these developments, so that the assertion of a right to intervene in others' histories and cultures became grounded in Europe's claim to being the vanguard of human progress, with no less than an obligation (God- or History-given) to put others in the way of such progress.

We do this, of course, only with the deepest regrets and the most profound awareness that something has been lost. Gray's mid-eighteenth-century nostalgia was quite typical of that of many others: Oliver Goldsmith's, for example, in poems like The Deserted Village or The Traveller. And that such as Samuel Johnson made fun of the linguistic archaisms used by Gray changes not a whit the significance of the nostalgia. Alexander Pope had put it perfectly in his Essay on Man not so long before (1730-34) of the “lurking principle of death” that dwells within the body: “The young disease, that must subdue at length, / Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength / … cast and mingled with his very frame” (1.134-37). This death lurking in the heart of expansive Enlightened Reason finds its modern currency among such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Georg Lukács, and many others, who have argued that within such Reason lies a virus destructive not just of the European—Western—world and its culture, but of all civilizations. Some think it means the need to find something quite new; others to complete an unfinished, unperfected Enlightenment; yet others a rediscovery of what came before, of some supposed wholeness with the universe.

Whatever the solution, golden age or Eldorado lost meant golden age or Eldorado had to be found. With or without regret, expansive Europe would have to march out in file and find it. Death could not be allowed its victory. And whatever they might be, right reason and knowledge would first be Europe's. Others, Asian, African, or American, untutored like those inglorious Miltons and guiltless Cromwells, poor like Gray's “rustic moralist” (84) or “hoary-headed Swain” (97), without power and the knowledge of right reason, would justly be put in order by the vanguard. For after all, as James Thomson put it in the artful pentameters of his rewritten Summer of 1744:

Ill-fated race! the softening arts of peace,
Whate'er the humanizing Muses teach,
The godlike wisdom of the tempered breast,
Progressive truth, the patient force of thought,
Investigation calm whose silent powers
Command the world, the light that leads to Heaven,
Kind equal rule, the government of laws,
And all-protecting freedom which alone
Sustains the name and dignity of man—
These are not theirs.(3)

One can but admire these “softening arts of peace” that, by teaching us that we alone rightfully possess “the name and dignity of man,” so readily justify the manipulation of those who therefore do not.

I am not—need I say?—suggesting that pentameters create (or in themselves are) a tool of oppression, a title of hegemony. Nor, of course, was Brathwaite. Language and style alone no more make hegemony than revolution. Yet they confirm and guarantee them. They are nonetheless the form of a particular pattern of thought, bearer of certain structures of feeling, and expression of specific kinds of practice. Those, too, are crucial to this experience that never had to learn to roar with the notes of a hurricane, to curve with stones skipping across the ocean, to limp with the life of Legba or dance with the rhythm of Shango. In his 1992 “Columbus poem” Brathwaite aims Colón westward into the future as a linear missile whose sure systems become less assured when he looks out upon the changed history and geography for which he has been willy-nilly responsible. Not for him the view of Keats's Cortez in Darien. Both the rhythm and the typography of the poem are aimed to undermine the patterns, structures, and practices which Columbus was to come historically and culturally to embody and exemplify.

The move is essential. Voice, language, forms of expression, we know, capture and colonize the mind no less surely than more overt ways of seizure. As James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus put it in a famous passage: “His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”4 Brathwaite has inevitably put the matter rather differently: “It was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in his (mis-)use of it that he perhaps most effectively rebelled. Within the folk tradition, language was (and is) a creative act in itself.”5 Again, language is not and cannot be separated from a whole culture, and the West Indian case was graver still than such a one as the Irish to which Dedalus referred. The modern peoples of the islands never had a tongue alive in and imbued with the place where they dwell, for they were forcibly brought to lands whose own peoples had been destroyed. Further, the languages whence they came were both robbed of their source and shattered to fragments. The language Dedalus holds at bay is their only possibility: a language bent first to a victimizer's will, desires, and interests.

Brathwaite argued the consequences in 1963, characterizing anglophone Caribbean prose writers as producing, at home or abroad, “the same story, expressed in the same rhythms and a similar technique: frustration, bewilderment, lack of a centre, lack of faith in the society into which they were born or in which they find themselves.”6 It was a story of endless emigration, no matter the direction in which it went. In this regard, one reads now, with the surprise that even a mere twenty years of changed awareness can bring, the pride with which Kenneth Ramchand viewed such emigration in 1971: “Since 1950 … every well-known West Indian novelist has established himself while living [in the English capital]. London is indisputably the West Indian literary capital.”7 One recognizes economic and cultural pressures that still drive a Caryl Phillips to “establish himself” in London and indeed to tell the same story of exiled “frustration, bewilderment, lack of a centre, [and] lack of faith in [their] society,” as that to which Brathwaite earlier addressed himself.8 The point, though, was the pride Ramchand could then take in such emigration.

In a very real way, one may characterize Brathwaite's own work as historian, storyteller, cultural archivist, educator, essayist, and poet as a lifelong effort to take up the gauntlet he threw down in his criticism. The effort to find a poetic form that would not just pick at or disrupt the dominant pentameter but use a quite different rhythm, one from another place, another environment, another experience, was just the earliest of the shapes that work took. It has also led him from the rock of Barbados and the curving stones of its habitat, through Europe to Africa, and eventually back to the Caribbean. Its aim has been to discover, to invent (in that word's double sense of finding and making: invenire) that Caribbean—especially his own Barbados—as a home, not as a displacement or a surrogate for something else, be it “little England” or robbed Africa.

The first part, and understanding, of that geographic and historical story was told in the Arrivants trilogy. There, Rights of Passage “tells the story” of the passage from Africa to the Caribbean as a displacement that remains a displacement, simply the obverse, in a sense, of the coin that had Europe as center and exile on its other face. Indeed, that particular passage was quite evidently part of the same story. Masks then tells the further tale of a modern poet's return to Africa, less as a search for “roots” than as a way to compose cultural remnants into something more “whole,” whose masks become successive distancings from a self that will ultimately be thereby able to become part of a collectivity. Can this itself be shipped back, as it were, to the poet's home in the “islands” whence he came? Islands, the third book of the trilogy, seems to answer this question with another one: the remnants that Africa may “put together” can surely only remain remnants in those displaced islands? But it is as remnants, pieces fit for recovery, creation, building, that they can be fitted into a cultural space that is, precisely, Caribbean—a home space.

Brathwaite's poetry has never sought any easy answers. There was certainly no hope here for one. This last “conclusion,” if it was not to remain only a pious wish, demanded considerable and wide cultural work. Already in the late 1950s, Brathwaite had started writing criticism of Caribbean literary work, and it has always accompanied his poetry and, equally importantly, his work as a historian. That latter work was clearly essential: to understand the place that was and is Barbados and its island companions, and the European, African, and American history in which it and they participated. This is not the place to examine the details of that work. What is important here is how it informs the poetry and criticism, infusing it with that very sense of an “environment,” a place, of particular historical experience, which is and is not that of Europeans—or Africans, or other Americans (although it may be worth noting that the effort to make anew a culture's voice is seconded by an educative one, where he has made his scholarly work the basis of textbooks for schoolchildren of the Caribbean).

Suffice it to say, as the three metaphors with which I began suggest, that this work has always explored issues similar to that found in the poetry and criticism. One way to get at this, perhaps, is to suggest that the ten years Brathwaite spent in Africa (mainly Ghana) enabled him to make a passage akin to that expressed by George Lamming's Trumper, who comes back from the United States having discovered his group identity as a black. Memory, a sense of place, and above all a culture-consciousness are embodied for Trumper in this recognition, so that the old “big bad feeling in the pit of the stomach,” the dizziness and emptiness are forgotten: “A man who knows his people won't ever feel like that.”9 Brathwaite came close to paraphrasing these sentences in the characterization we saw of the anglophone Caribbean novel. In West Africa he found both the possibility of such group belonging and a place which grounded many of the fragments he had found and was to find in the Caribbean. But that was assuredly not to say, as some critics have, that he set aside Europe. “West Indian literature” had to be seen, he wrote in 1967, in its “proper context of an expression both European and African at the same time.” It is to say, however, that fragments of the one had to be set against, recovered from, built into the “imposure” of the other.10

Brathwaite was now prepared to go beyond both those he had once criticized and his own criticism. He would seek the home from a discovery of Caribbean geography and its meaning in history (the skipped stones and their fall; the rock hiding vital waters; windstorms of Africa, the Saharan harmattan, that are now—after him—understood to affect the December-February droughts that strike the islands and the aforementioned hurricanes) by reconstructing the shards of fragmented cultural memory, by historical recovery, folk recall, and exploration in a poetry that would set out to find not only a Caribbean “content,” but its own form of expression, its own rhythms and music. This last he would eventually draw from his work on jazz forms, his sensitivity to local sounds and images, and his deep awareness of the cultural importance of drumming rhythms. But he would also explore the wider and more general possibility of “nation language”: a language that would itself echo “the environmental experience.”

For one—disastrous—way for the colonized mind to face down its colonizer is to do what some did to the normative pentameter: fragment it, take it apart, break it up—even though, as Brathwaite argues, to do so still leaves it as the only hegemonic form. And what the fragmenter risks getting, and indeed gets in the end, is “a frantic impoverished dialect.” This is to quote Wilson Harris describing the speech of one of his protagonists, Hassan, in The Far Journey of Oudin. He is matched by Kaiser, who had but “a few words of formal English.” Neither of them can possibly come close to grasping the “unearthly delicate writing on the sky.” And to Hassan's imagined wish to go back to India, Kaiser responds by protesting: “What language had he save the darkest and frailest outline of an ancient style and tongue? Not a blasted thing more.” “You have no language,” says another; “you have no custom.” That is why the Hindus' Indian father feels so distanced from them: “we got to forgive he,” says one of them, “for the strict unfathomable way he got of looking at we like if he grieving for a language. In ancient scorn and habit at the hard careless words we does use. But is who fault if the only language we got is a breaking-up or a making-up language?”11

One cannot just “create a language” or “rescue … the word” from its possessors, as Eduardo Galeano writes. No doubt a writer's feel for “his or her people—their roots, their vicissitudes, their destiny—and the ability to perceive the heartbeat, the sound and rhythm of the authentic counterculture” must be intense.12 But what and where is such “another culture”? How can one recognize its “authenticity”? To say so much leaves yet unsaid the matter of how one might create or rescue language and word. One does neither ex nihilo: one uses, combines, fuses, and recombines myriad elements from the varied sources that forge everyone's homes or home. These elements already always exist, doing so in cultural experiences and environments whose ramifications may often escape notice. Whatever impoverishment is theirs, they remain remnants of a particular culture, and will do so until we know enough of that experience and ours to be able to use them otherwise. “Collective identity is born out of the past and is nourished by it.”13 We must know the working of the elements composing that past and the identities which arise from it. To think one can adopt them without preparation, as if they were neutral, is almost surely to fall back into the patterns customary to the words one supposed one was rescuing: not—perhaps—impoverished, but still colonized.

Brathwaite traced those difficulties—with anger—in Black and Blues.14 There the angry breaking away from the consequences of colonization and oppression, of cultural “imposure,” made use of his gradual uncovering of jazz forms, local sounds and images, the rhythm of the drum—the fragmented shards, as I said, of cultural memory—to recombine them into something potentially new. Anger, while it is surely the only appropriate response to the theft of a language and a culture, clearly risks rejecting altogether the very elements it must of necessity use: “like a rat / like a rat / like a rat-a-tap tappin // like a rat / like a rat / like a rat-a-tap tappin // an we burnin babylone” (“Conqueror,” pp. 19, 23). These lines were to be repeated in Sun Poem (1982), where they signal even more emphatically Caliban's revolt. Black and Blues then takes the reader through a triple sequence of understanding.

The opening anger emphasizes the dismay and disgust of the poet who has been forced to pick through the “fragments” marking the loss of his own culture and the sinister “gift” of the pieces permitted by another only to serve its own interests. Then comes the outrage of “Drought,” facing the consequences of oppression: Caliban as “victim of the cities' victory” (30), Madrid or Paris, Amsterdam or London; Caliban, too, confronting visions of a place that “is no white man lan' / an' yet we have ghetto here” (32). This yields to the further outrage of being forced to violence to avenge what has been taken (a violence that usually destroys its own), and at the adulteration of African memories: “a forgotten kingdom” (43), a yearning still borne in pain. Yet, at the last, we find the hopefulness of “Flowers”: the rediscovery of fragments, African and Caribbean, based in firm geography of place: “the seas drummers // softly softly on sound … / it is a beginning” (“Harbour,” 83); in the symbol and existence of “Crab,” who holds memory and geography together; and in the final hope of “Koker,” with its “coastline” lying beneath “the sounds of stretched light … the don drumming light, against / sky that is their living monument” (90).

Black and Blues captured the dismay, frustration, bewilderment, decentering, and grief of Harris's characters in their linguistic and cultural deprivation, but found a way to tap new rhythms, a confident history, and a solid sense of place(s) to start making something otherwise. In a way, it repeated in concentrated little the movement of The Arrivants. We seem to be shifting here from what we may once more call, again after Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, a decolonizing of the mind, toward something that may be considerably harder, something that requires remapping the terrain, reclaiming the soul. Brathwaite's second trilogy, consisting of Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self, furthered these themes. The first was, so to speak, a discovery of the place of Barbados. The poet's quest to know and remember his mother became a rediscovery of Barbadian geography, imbued with the Atlantic call of Africa and Europe, but essentially now itself, its own, with its own no longer buried culture as well. Out of the submerged coral of the island come its waters of life as out of various cultural practices, now seen for the first time, come submerged but ever less fragmented cultural forms, completing the hope expressed at the end of Black and Blues. The poet himself gets a grounded (new, but also culturally old) name.

Sun Poem next pursued the poet's paternal “genealogy,” confirming his place in the land less “mythically,” through the family grounding of grandfather, father, son, and memories of the boy's childhood. The son's name of Adam symbolized this rooting, discovery, and, no doubt above all, the poet's invention of the new. X/Self finally explored the poet's now affirmed grounding in past and present, in Europe and Africa, in violence and oppression as well as in tact, grace, and renewal. The islands have become, too, a place of and for their own people: “not fe dem / not fe dem / de way caliban / done // but fe we / fe a-we.”15 This poem was to be reworked, rewritten, and lengthened as “Letter Sycorax” in Middle Passages, where the poet himself became and superseded the old Caliban of a past that still depended on fragments tied to a particular hegemonic memory.16 Answering (for example) Galeano's dilemma, this shift may prove as important a one for the Caribbean imagination as was Roberto Fernández Retamar's replacement of José Enrique Rodó's Ariel by Caliban himself. The negation, aggression, and denial with which Rodó's “Uncle Tom” was finally rejected yield here to new cultural creation.

Not for nothing did Brathwaite finish the second trilogy by rewriting “Shango,” a poem that came toward the end of Black and Blues. There the poem had started: “huh / there is a new breath here // hah / there is a sound of sparrows” (75). “Xango” begins: “Hail // there is new breath here // huh // there is a victory of sparrows” (X [X/Self], 107). The more European-like “hail” (befitting conquering Rome of the beginning of X/Self) was now combined with the thunder god's “huh”; noncommittal “sound” became the more optimistic “victory”—still, perhaps, not altogether freed of indecent hegemonies, for those “sparrows,” after all, are the New Testament birds whose fall God would heed as much as a human's. Their victory risks being understood as a version of a central tenet of a text crucial to the European imagination: “And the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Yet at this end, even if only momentarily, the poet of the second trilogy seemed to have found a moment of that “tact and selfless grace” he found necessary for such peace and balance in the much earlier Contradictory Omens (61). It is in light of this that we should read the humorously expressed sense of hope maintained in Middle Passages (even after the most catastrophic losses, personal and intellectual): “is a matter of hope of keep hope alive of the right to continue the dream / about our rightful place at the table,” he wrote in “Duke: Playing Piano at 70” (MP [Middle Passages], 24). Of this collection, Fenella Copplestone observed: “Its menace is real, its compassion touches the deepest springs of sadness, and its mythology is potent and frightening. People die in his world.”17

But people also live there, and if the world has menace, it is to those whose control is overthrown by it. For here death is not the lurking disease, at least momentarily endemic to Enlightened Reason, recorded, as we saw, in unthreatening (?) expansive linear pentameter. Death plays its accepted and unfearful part in the ineluctable rhythm of life, the balanced experience of tact and grace. The “menace” of this poetry (poor, but revealing, word) is of a site composed from fragments no longer just remnants of things lost, but living crystals recombined and fused into consciousness of a place that does now capture fully “the natural experience, the environmental experience” of which Brathwaite was writing ten years and more ago.

It touches the deepest springs of sadness because the people who die there are vital, crucial to the remaking; their loss—one loss, anyway—is incomprehensible disaster: “without reason,” he wrote in the dedication of X/Self, “all you hope gone / ev'rything look like it comin' out wrong. / Why is that? What it mean?” But these lines come from the last part (“The Return”) of Rights of Passage, first book of a trilogy whose last word was of hope—“making / with their // rhythms some- / thing torn // and new”18—so that the loss itself was now tied to the sense of place. Geography, poetry, self, history come together. The “missile” that was Columbus, that was the whole mighty power of an expansive culture imposed on Africa and the Americas, has yielded to a changed rhythm, a changed voice, the networked circle of Shango hidden in the watered rock beneath the still ongoing destructions of multinational capital.19 Another major impingement of Europe on the Caribbean was of a different missile: a German torpedo sinking the Cornwallis in Bridgetown Harbour—but that was fifty years ago. Here too, marks of European aggression were quickly swallowed by Barbadian waters, becoming a plaything for local boys (BP, [Barabajan Poems], 153-54, 347-61). This swallowing may also be a harbinger of creation and hope.

Now, the poet returns to his uncle's workshop of his youth, to his limping Bob'ob. In the ruins of the old workshop he discovers that Bob'ob had carved a forbidden African image; as surprising and mysterious as the carving itself is its survival over the years in the ruins of Bob'ob's home (BP, 155). Limping Bob'ob, holding a lost past of Africa but also opening it unbeknownst to the poet, can be recognized as Legba, “the limping / crippled African god of the crossroads of beginnings & opening doors—as Bob'ob as Toussaint Louverture—the Liberator or ‘Opener’ of S Domingue into Haiti—himself a cripple—fatras baton they once called him … and whose French sobriquet—‘Louverture’—was surely a direct translation of the Dahomey Legba (Open/Doorway) & why not?” (172). And what of the poet himself? New “Adam” of Sun Poem, inventor of new names, opener of culture, finder of lost presences, sewer of remnants—may he not fill the same role? And why not? He discovers too that Bob'ob's ruined workshop has become a Zion meeting hall, a place of worship for a fundamentalist “Christian” group not happily accepted by authorities (166).

Listening outside, the poet hears the rhythm of their worship, their singing/chanting, and their movement/dancing slowly change, “the sound of their voices has gradually gone through an alteration of orbit & pitch. they are into the pull of an alteration of consciousness as if the tides of their lives have paused on the brin(k) of falling onto our beaches & instead have slowly lifted themselves up up up so that the cries that should have been breaking from their crests do not move anymore but glisten in the deep silence of their throats until they begin to sweep slowly backwards like away from our shore from our trees from our hills away from Barbados” (181-82). The rhythm changes, the motion changes, the dance becomes the hoarse rhythmic deep breathing of Shango's visitation. The Christian hymnal pentameters give way to a different syncopated drumbeat, that is also the echoed blues and jazz rhythms of the old trains, “sulphur and fire into a sibilant & quiet acceptance of her trans-formation like Aretha coming home in Pullin*” (196-97).20Until there is at last what there always was / Shango / as she struggles to name almost names him the train comin in / comin in / comin in wid de rain” (200-1; see also Mother Poem, 98-103).

Barabajan Poems is, for the moment, the culmination of the movement I have been seeking to trace. Bringing together the three metaphors with which we started, it transforms them into the vital essence of a culture. Legba, Shango, the rhythms, voice, and history that together make a whole have come together with other shards of other cultures: steam trains and blues, Christian hymns and jazz, the “rattle and pain” of loss and deprivation (BP, 201) with the vivid hope of new names and endless depth of proverbial orality (268-83). Brathwaite is here far indeed from Pope, Thomson, and Gray—not to mention the falling snow of his Cambridge youth. He is also very distant from those bewildered tales of emigration typical of the Caribbean writers of his youth—and still perfectly usual, we saw: both are, we have of course been suggesting, aspects of the same, very partial and interested, history—and place (which is not—not just, and not first—Caribbean). Barabajan Poems confirms the hopefulness of the lighted living coastline that ended Black and Blues and affirms the embedded collective “self” of X/Self into what seems a quite new cultural, natural, environmental surety.

Galeano wrote that “a literature born in the process of crisis and change, and deeply immersed in the risks and events of its time, can indeed help to create the symbols of the new reality, and perhaps … throw light on the signs along the road.”21 Brathwaite, poet, historian, and critic, has brought us—and himself—somewhere else, into a “web,” it may be, as Wilson Harris puts it, “born of the music of the elements.”22 The poet offers a reply of grace and tact to inertias of a European literature whose forms still by and large correspond to needs fixed four centuries ago and query them, sap them, only with a great tentativeness of difficulty, striving against political, economic, and cultural forces whose interests lie in pursuing and retaining a familiar and customary history into the present (pretending its conflicts over).23 He has found/created experience natural to the place that is his, itself made (into a) whole from what had been the blighted fragments he recorded in earlier poetry. This is, we suggested, to go beyond decolonizing the mind, becoming aware of the forms and content of colonization, so as to remove—or at least see past and between—the accretions of alien “imposure.” It is to remap an environment, a history, a geography, a culture, and an experience. It is to reclaim the soul.


  1. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry, London/Port of Spain, New Beacon, 1984, pp. 9-10. I thank Patricia J. Penn Hilden for her attention to this essay.

  2. Timothy J. Reiss, The Meaning of Literature, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1992. Others of these matters are in Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1982, 1985.

  3. James Thomson, The Seasons and the Castle of Indolence, James Sambrook, ed. [1972], Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 61-62 (ll. 874-84).

  4. James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1916], New York, Viking, 1960, p. 189.

  5. Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 237.

  6. Kamau Brathwaite, Roots: Essays in Caribbean Literature, Havana, Casa de las Américas, 1986, p. 36.

  7. “Introduction” to C. L. R. James, Minty Alley, London/Port of Spain, New Beacon, 1971, p. 5. The novel itself first appeared in 1936.

  8. See e.g. Caryl Phillips, The Final Passage, Harmondsworth (Eng.), Penguin, 1985.

  9. George Lamming, In the Castle of My Skin [1953], New York, Schocken, 1983, pp. 300-1.

  10. Kamau Brathwaite, “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” in Roots, pp. 62-63. The term imposure comes from Brathwaite's Contradictory Omens, Mona (Jamaica), Savacou, 1974, p. 61 and passim.

  11. Wilson Harris, The Far Journey of Oudin [1961], in The Guyana Quartet, London/Boston, Faber & Faber, 1985, pp. 179-82, 155.

  12. Eduardo Galeano, “In Defense of the Word,” in We Say No: Chronicles 1963-1991, tr. Mark Fried et al., & New York, Norton, 1992, pp. 141-42, 138.

  13. Ibid., p. 138.

  14. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Black and Blues, Havana, Casa de las Américas, 1976. References to this work in this paragraph and the next are indicated directly in my text.

  15. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, X/Self, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 84-85. Subsequent references use the abbreviation X.

  16. Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages, Newcastle (Eng.), Bloodaxe, 1992, pp. 76-88; New York, New Directions, 1993, pp. 93-116. Subsequent references use the abbreviation MP.

  17. Fenella Coppleston, review in P.N. Review 89, 19:3 (January-February 1993), p. 61.

  18. Edward Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, Oxford (Eng.), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 69, 270.

  19. Kamau Brathwaite, Barabajan Poems 1942-1992, Mona (Jamaica)/New York, Savacou/Savacou North, 1994, p. 187. References to this work are henceforth indicated directly in my text and use the abbreviation BP where needed for clarity.

  20. I cannot, needless to say, hope here to capture completely Brathwaite's typographical play, echoing visually the changing sounds of voice and rhythm of dance.

  21. Galeano, p. 139.

  22. Harris, The Guyana Quartet, p. 7.

  23. I refer here to the “Epilogue” of my Meaning of Literature, pp. 338-47, and to work in progress.

J. Michael Dash (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7346

SOURCE: Dash, J. Michael. “Edward Kamau Brathwaite.” In West Indian Literature, 2nd Edition, edited by Bruce King, pp. 194-208. London, UK: McMillian Education Ltd., 1995.

[In the following essay, the author claims that Brathwaite views himself through the Modernist assumption of the poet as divine interpreter, an individual with the power to give one voice to multiple identities and histories. In the case of Brathwaite, this power is used to give voice to the Islands' African ancestry and colonial history.]

Probably the best introduction to the poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite is his largely autobiographical essay entitled ‘Timehri’. In this account of his own experiences and how they combined to form an awareness of certain literary and cultural problems, the poet attempts to situate himself in terms of the evolution of West Indian writing. In tracing various tendencies among his fellow-writers, Brathwaite isolates two important phases in a gradual movement from an initial sense of dispossession and fragmentation towards a more recent attempt to go beyond this sense of disintegration and to envisage the positive forces of creolization in the Caribbean context:

The problem of and for West Indian artists and intellectuals is that having been born and educated within this fragmented culture, they start out in the world without a sense of ‘wholeness’. … The achievement of these writers was to make the society conscious of the cultural problem. The second phase of West Indian and Caribbean artistic and intellectual life, on which we are now entering, having become conscious of the problem, is seeking to transcend and heal it.1

There is no attempt by Brathwaite to disown any of the writers who preceded him and whose preoccupations he sees as different from his. What he is taking care to outline is a crucial shift in sensibility within recent West Indian writing. The evolution is away from that obsessive sense of loss, that once fed the violent protest or inveterate cynicism of the earlier phase, towards a newer, more speculative vision of ‘wholeness’ in the Caribbean situation. He not only identifies closely with the second phase but sees it as a way of resolving the problems posed in the work of his literary forebears.

Indeed this notion of estrangement from one's community and landscape becomes in Brathwaite's various critical articles or surveys of West Indian writing the main criterion for judging individual Caribbean writers. For instance, Claude McKay's ability to visualize Bita Plant's reintegration into Banana Bottom makes him a precursor of the second phase. In contrast to the vision of V. S. Naipaul, McKay presents a positive world from which one was not tempted to escape. In this progression Wilson Harris emerges as the artist whose work represents a conscious investigation of the previously overlooked creolizing forces or ‘native consciousness’ in the Caribbean experience.2

An insight into Brathwaite's formative literary experiences can be had from the early poems published in the literary journal Bim in the 1950s. In what must be one of the first poems published by Brathwaite, ‘Shadow Suite’, we have a private, contemplative mood which has obviously drawn on the abstract metaphysical brooding of T. S. Eliot for inspiration:

You who expect the impossible
Know that here you will see
Only what you have already seen
What you hear
          is only what you have already heard
For life is an eternal pattern.(3)

This sombre, meditative verse does not indicate the poet's alienation from reality; it illustrates the introspective quality present in his early period of literary apprenticeship which also directly informs his later vision of the New World.

A pattern emerges from this poetic contemplation of the human condition. What the poet seems to be doing is linking a fundamentally religious notion with the process of artistic creativity. Brathwaite seems to consider reality in general in terms of a world fallen from grace; the poet's special role revolves around his awareness of this fall and his capacity to recapture the lost state through his vision. For instance, the poem ‘South’, which first appears in Bim in 1959 (and is later included in an edited form in Rights of Passage), concerns the poet's ability to transform this fallen world through his creative imagination. The poem's first line indicates the difference between the vision and the ordinary world: ‘But today I recapture the islands.’ This poetic fantasy comes to a climax with: ‘And gulls, white sails slanted seawards, / fly into the limitless morning before us.’ The restoration of a state of grace is seen as fragile and tentative in the 1959 version. The ending, which he later removed, suggests a world which easily relapses into its former state as the vision fades:

Night falls and the vision is ended.
The drone of the groaners is ended.(4)

The same is true of the poem ‘The Leopard’ which, when it later appears in Islands, can be made to suggest the Black Panther organization and certainly a more militant context. The caged animal in the first version of ‘The Leopard’ becomes a metaphor of betrayal with obvious religious overtones. It connects with the poet's concern for a world heedless of spiritual values and vainly attempting to tame or shut out a deeper dimension to human existence:

We breed our haggard rages
And lock Christ up, a leopard
in cold unheeded cages.(5)

A final illustration of this quality in Brathwaite's early work is seen in the short poem ‘The Vision’. This might be considered a poetic manifesto, as it stresses the need for restoring that lost hallowed quality to the world, what he would later term ‘wholeness’. The poet's role in this process of recreating a sense of wonder before reality is made explicit here:

Without fear or faces. There
should be places where the roots
can grow, where green shoots
Sing, where the gold blown pollen
Blossoms. But feet that walk
the rootless walk, find no way here
No water. And so the blind eyes, wells,
Lack tears, lack pity, lack their proper use.(6)

The poem is a prototype for the world of Brathwaite's trilogy. The very images of roots, pollen, green shoots are to recur in the later work as symbols of a world restored. The blind eyes that ‘lack their proper use’ relate to the inhibited and insensitive world that has lost its sense of the fantastic which can only be regained through a poetic consciousness.

The Other Exiles completes the pattern we have been examining. This collection of miscellaneous poems has no dominant theme. Many of the poems are largely personal poems of his early period, and their inclusion seems to be based on their success in evoking certain impressions or moods. For instance, a love poem such as ‘Schooner’ reveals Brathwaite's ability to use sustained imagery to suggest, in this case, a relationship between two individuals. The collection is given some coherence by being enclosed by two poems that allude to the theme of re-creation and that awesome moment of wonder in which communion is made with the spiritual. The first poem, ‘Ragged Point’, refers to the east coast of Barbados where the landscape is untamed and is easily linked with the idea of freshness associated with the dawn light, and the new year:

We watched what there was to watch
saw the cold rocks come clearer
sky rise.

The vision cannot be sustained:

Next morning the weather was clear
we'd forgotten our notions.

The final poem, ‘New Year Letter’, symbolizes the same moment of intense revelation:

So softly now this moment fills
the darkness with its difference.
Earth waits, trees touch
the dawn.(7)

Brathwaite's work can be seen as a slow progression towards this moment when the vision of ‘wholeness’ is established.

In his early work Brathwaite conceives of the poetic imagination as a superior way of perceiving the world. The poetic reconstruction of the world could redeem reality from its fallen state. In another early poem in Other Exiles Brathwaite expresses the need for ‘words to refashion futures like a healer's hand’. The same line recurs in the trilogy as the poet is attempting to liberate the region from its sterile fallen state. The poet's public voice has its roots in this early recognition of the role of art as a means of discovering unconscious figurative meanings behind the concrete and the visible. What was essentially a private literary quest for the young Brathwaite later becomes the point of departure for an aesthetic exploration of the Caribbean that transcends the historical stereotype of pluralism and fragmentation.

Even though Brathwaite situates himself in a new vanguard of West Indian writing, his actual career and experiences are not unlike those of the generation of the ‘first phase’. Born in Barbados in 1930, he follows the familiar pattern of metropolitan exile and an eventual return to the West Indies. He receives his higher education in Cambridge in the early fifties and becomes in his own words ‘a roofless man of the world’ before returning to the Caribbean. As is the case with most artists who underwent this sequence of experiences, the odyssey served to heighten the poet's sensitivity to the dilemma of alienation which plagued West Indian intellectuals in exile.

During this period of exile Brathwaite's work reflects his various experiences. For instance, ‘The day the first snow fell’ (1953) is basically about the poet's disappointment at discovering his estrangement in Britain from a world which he thought he could possess. The frustration normally expected at this point in the career of the exiled artist, when all worlds appear strange to him, never really emerges in Brathwaite's work. We have an important departure from the sense of dispossession that comes with exile, in the poet's eight-year stay in Ghana (1955-62). It is here that he discovers that sense of the sacred so crucial to the poetic imagination. He discovers a world which he cannot adopt but one which seems to retain a communion with the mysterious and numinous which is absent in the historically disadvantaged New World. His awareness of the customs and language of the Ghanaian people is seen in his adaptation of Antigone to a Ghanaian context in Odale's Choice (1962). This does not represent an original project since the adaptation of classical drama to local situations was not unknown, but it does show a closeness to the environment in which he found himself, which is central to his dramatization of this experience in his trilogy.

Brathwaite returned to the Caribbean in 1962 and began work on the trilogy, The Arrivants, which meant a coming-to-terms with his European and African experiences. The earlier, more introspective mode would now yield to an epic reconstruction of the cultural and historical situation of the Caribbean. The first section of this long work, Rights of Passage (1967), evokes the sterility and dispossession inspired by his own experiences growing up in Barbados and his awareness of Caribbean history. Masks (1968) draws heavily on the world observed during his stay in Ghana and is in marked contrast to the fragmented and desecrated world of the previous section. The final part, Islands (1969), treats the poet's physical and spiritual return to the Caribbean and attempts to restore that vision of grace that was absent in his first negative picture of waste and sterility.8

When one considers the epic and dialectical structure of Brathwaite's trilogy, a comparison is inevitable with Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Essentially the same pattern emerges in both these poets, from an initial evocation of devastation in the Caribbean, the poem moves to a concluding vision of renascence. This progression can be shown by the following examples.

The Cahier first presents the islands ‘shipwrecked in the mud of this bay’ and later returns to the islands as ‘scars upon the water … waste paper torn and strewn upon the water’. The movement is from the static and pathetic to an image which, while retaining the sense of absurdity and tragedy, suggests new possibilities. Brathwaite in his long poem locates the progression in his work in the same way. The cabin presents Old Tom as a casualty of history, his suffering forgotten by his descendants. The later section, Islands, contains the poem ‘Anvil’ which evokes a less resigned Tom: ‘But from the edge / of dark, defeated silence, / what watchful patience glitters.’ Césaire's poem could easily have had some influence on Brathwaite. The Cahier is an unprecedented attempt to deal with the Caribbean region on such a scale and with such insight. Indeed, solely on the evidence of the literary activity in Bim in the 1950s, there was obviously an awareness of the literary renascence in the French-speaking Caribbean. Translations of Haitian and French West Indian poets are present as early as 1953, and in a review of Harris's poetry in 1960 Brathwaite mentions the influence of Césaire and French West Indian poets on modern French writing.9 Yet it would be a simplification to present The Arrivants as an English version of the Cahier. The Cahier may have presented identical issues a few decades earlier than Brathwaite's poem and was in general a shaping force on the younger poet, but the latter work can be more usefully interpreted in terms of a response to certain issues raised within Anglophone West Indian writing.

These issues touch on two important areas—the history of the New World and the problems of the literary imagination in such a context. V. S. Naipaul, because of his outspoken views, can easily illustrate what these ideas meant. The tension between Naipaul and Brathwaite has been overworked but it is important to see the distance between these writers in order to state the point of departure of The Arrivants. The two stereotypes that emerge in Naipaul's essays hinge upon a particular attitude to the absurdity of the New World situation. In The Middle Passage the Caribbean is presented as uncreative and philistine:

The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.10

Brathwaite's trilogy can be conceived as a demonstration of how the writer can emerge from such a despairing attitude to the Caribbean. The second notion which follows on this one concerns the enormous difficulty faced by the writer who attempts to use such an environment as a source for literary creation. Naipaul is perceptive on the question of the problems faced by such a writer attempting to repossess this experience and landscape:

Fiction or any work of the imagination, whatever its quality, hallows its subject. To attempt … to give a quality of myth to what was agreed to be petty and ridiculous … required courage.11

Brathwaite as a writer of the second phase saw it as his duty to resolve this question. For him George Lamming started this process with In the Castle of My Skin (1953) in his attempts to ‘hallow’ the commonplace and the petty. The Arrivants can be read as a metaphor of the literary process, namely an attempt to redeem through literary means a world thought to be trivial and debased. This latter preoccupation neatly ties in with the attempts to retrieve a communion with the spiritual values present in Brathwaite's earlier work. The poet's own literary development is now tied in with our ideological debate and is the prime motivation for the literary and psychic journey traced in his trilogy.

The poems of Rights of Passage are clustered around the theme of spiritual dispossession. They are an attempt to remove the amnesia about historical events in the West Indian psyche and create an awareness of the historical injustice perpetrated in the region and the blind materialism of the present. In this instance, the actual historical events in the New World are symbolically related to the Fall of Man; one of the most effective fantasies describes the arrival of Columbus in the West Indies. This arrival is an important hieroglyph for the poet, as it marks the transition from a state of grace to a desecrated and profane reality. It is one of the few instances when images of decay and waste are not used to describe the Caribbean. Columbus first sees an untainted world:

Columbus from his after-
deck watched stars, absorbed in water,
melt in liquid amber drifting.

‘Liquid amber’ suggests a state of sustained harmony existing before Columbus's intrusion. The latter is portrayed as an innocent, not fully aware of the horrors this encounter would precipitate:

What did this journey mean, this
new world mean: dis-
covery? Or a return to terrors
he had sailed from, known before?

Brathwaite's reconstruction of this moment is not done as a strident protest against the European conquest, but rather he imagines it in terms of a process of desecration that makes the Spaniard no different from self-seeking politicians, from Mammon.

This section is devoted to a recall of the violations that are part of the New World heritage. In the same way that Césaire shattered the picture of an exotic, fun-loving Caribbean, Brathwaite undermines such superficiality with a sustained tableau of absurdity and frustration. This is interestingly done in ‘Calypso’ as the tragic consequences of the Imperialist Adventure emerge. The contrast lies between the glorification of the adventure and the awesome truth of what took place. The light-hearted jingle of the following lines emphasizes the irony of what is suggested:

O it was a wonderful time
an elegant benevolent redolent time
and young Mrs P.'s quick irrelevant crime
at four o'clock in the morning.

This picture of ‘the hurt of history’ is continued in the numerous references to the historical suffering of the black race. This is a repeated theme of the negritude writers and the Harlem Renaissance; Brathwaite adds his voice to tracing the journeys of ‘the wretched of the earth’ or in his words, ‘Columbus' coursing Kaffirs’. Poems such as ‘Didn't he ramble’, ‘The journeys’, ‘The Emigrants’, all suggest the sufferings and humiliations of the black diaspora.

The images that dominate Rights of Passage convey the atmosphere of desolation the poet sees around him. In ‘Prelude’ these images are introduced as engraved in the landscape:

Dust glass grit
the pebbles of the desert:
Sands shift
across the scorched
world water ceases
to flow.

These lines recur in ‘Epilogue’ with the same suggestion of a sordid, barren world: ‘desert / sands still shift’.

The religious associations of this sterile world become clear in a poem such as ‘Mammon’. The title is significant in itself and the poem deals with a profane world trapped in a blind materialism. The Caribbean of the present makes no attempt to retrieve the spiritual, or to establish traditions, but forges ‘brilliant concrete crosses’. This ties in with the general picture of a paralyzing materialism in the Western world not unlike the dry, sterile Europe of Senghor and Césaire. New York epitomizes this tendency, ‘soilless, stainless, nameless’.

The following sequence, Masks, is a contrast to the first in that it is an evocation of serenity and reverence totally absent in the violated New World. It is tempting to locate Brathwaite's vision of Africa as part of the mythical, nostalgic picture evident in such poets as Senghor, to cast Brathwaite in the role of the prodigal son returning to his roots. However, it is significant to note the section is entitled Masks and not ‘Africa’ and to see the extent to which we witness something more complex than blind romanticizing of the ancestral past.

What Brathwaite does is situate his quest for a hallowed world in the Ghanaian experience. There he makes contact with a world where there is still communion with the spiritual. So Masks, as the word implies, represents a borrowed way of interpreting the world, of making contact with the numinous:

So for my hacked
heart, veins' mem-
ories, I wear this
past I borrowed.

Three hundred years have made him a stranger and the agony of this recognition is felt in a poem such as ‘The New Ships’. Masks is not a reintegration into the African past. It is a significant stop on the way back to the New World.

Masks is also used to provide a corrective to the traditional myth of savagery and primitivism in African societies. It describes the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, Songhai and the growth of these civilizations with the historian's eye for setting the record straight. Central to Masks, however, is the poet's encounter with this universe and his initiation into a world of rituals and mystery. ‘The Forest’ describes such a recognition of a hallowed state. The images of desolation in the previous section are replaced by a sense of awe and calm appropriate to an unfallen world, the poet's ‘wom'd heaven’:

was the pistil journey in-
to moistened gloom. Dews
dripped, lights twink-
led, crickets chirped and still
the dark was silence, still
the dark was home.

This vision of ‘wholeness’ is not permanent. It is the preparation for the final stage of the poet's return. It is the attempt to restore such a moment of stillness and contemplation in his own broken landscape that represents the fundamental movement of the trilogy.

The analogy with Césaire's Cahier is useful in discussion of the final phase, Islands. In the Martinican poet's work we find that the process of return and fashioning a new poetic vision draws on Rimbaud and Surrealist technique as literary antecedents. The Cahier, even more than an ideological prise de position, is an attempt to dislocate the traditional meanings of words so as to set the poetic imagination free. It was through such directed anarchy that language could be cleansed and become the poet's miraculous weapon for reconstructing the world after the flood. This is precisely what the poet is referring to when he speaks of ‘the madness that sees’. Brathwaite's ‘the eye must be free / seeing’ also suggests this feature of modern poetry as he wishes to reach beyond the static and sterile to retrieve his world through his poetic vision. In this, an important literary ancestor is T. S. Eliot.

Eliot is as important to Brathwaite's creative imagination as the overwhelming moment of revelation in the African experience. To this extent Eliot's poetry almost becomes the literary pretext for the Caribbean poet's trilogy. This is not to say that Brathwaite supports Eliot's religious and ideological dogma; what he does endorse is the latter's plea for the restoration of the numinous and his indictment of man's enslavement to materialism. In the same way that Eliot criticizes modern man's attempt to fix time—indeed, his servitude to linear time, ‘the enchainment of past and future’, and the accompanying notions of material progress—so Brathwaite attempts to defy such a view of the New World which would make it an uncreative adjunct to Imperial expansion.

At this point Brathwaite the poet upstages Brathwaite the historian, in that he feels the need to go beyond the formal recorded history to a more open and speculative view of the New World experience. This is one way to avoid the knowledge that falsifies, to rediscover in myth a new, liberating sense of self and of possibilities in the Caribbean. When this intense moment of revelation is attained, the poet begins to see his community and landscape for the first time. It is his poetic vision that has the redemptive force of defying the tragic, mutilated, historical stereotype. Brathwaite is alluding to this moment of quasi-mystical illumination when he explains:

Like a worshipper possessed at shango or vodun, as with a jazz musician, time past and time future speak to the community in the trapped and hunting [sic] moment of awareness.12

The artist/shaman in this creative trance becomes a medium, the community's link with a world of mystery which involves a new potency for change.

Islands casts the poet in such a role and can be seen as the raison d'étre of the trilogy. It begins by restating the sterile, materialistic world of Rights of Passage. In ‘Homecoming’ this initial state is made explicit:

To this new doubt
and desert I return,
expecting nothing.

The universe to which the poet returns represents a harsh encounter with a lifeless, secular reality: God ‘is glass with his type- / writer teeth’; the land ‘has lost the memory of the most secret places’ and the people ‘float round and round … without hope of the hook / of the fisherman's tugging-in root’. This state is poignantly evoked in the epigrammatic poem ‘Pebbles’ which in a sustained image presents a world which is barren and unheeding:

But my island is a pebble.
It will slay
but never bear children.

The humpbacked turtle of ‘Francina’ is a symbol of the past, of the sacred (like Eliot's river in ‘The Dry Salvages’) which is ignored and unpropitiated by an insensitive, complacent world. Francina's quiet, daring act of retrieval is mocked by a world that cannot comprehend such an act.

For the poet to accomplish his mission he must find the poetic equivalent to Francina's act. He must reinstate a sense of the sacred in this empty, destructively secular world. Ideology and political solutions are not adequate for this level of restoration. Yet this spiritually impoverished world resists the poet. The poetic word in its full literary and religious significance is the only means of redemption but the poet is daunted by the task. The ‘word has been destroyed / and cannot live among us’, and the poet has difficulty restoring the word to its real importance. The way in which this strange, desecrated waste land defies the poet is referred to in such lines as ‘the stars / remain my master's / property’ and ‘they'd rob the world I ruled’. The world is at least temporarily possessed by the Other. It can only be retrieved by an imagination and a language that have been set free.

Some of the poems in Islands can be seen as an allegory of the poetic act, namely the act of retrieving and renaming the landscape. A poem such as ‘Veve’ suggests this process of ‘hallowing’ as the fisherman's net or poetic vision falls gently over reality and retrieves it. The lyricism of the poem revolves around the invoking of this state of ‘wholeness’ and images of rebirth: ‘The black eye travels to the brink of vision: / look, the fields are wet, / the sea sits gentle on the dawn.’ Significantly placed towards the end of Islands, this poem represents the end of the quest, the attainment of this transcendental vision. The final poem, ‘Jou'vert’, is more than an attempt to re-use a local ritual—the carnival. It also represents the dawn of the risen god/word and the poetic vision retrieved with all its positive and healing resonances.

Brathwaite has included himself in the ‘second phase’ of West Indian writing because his work is so deeply involved in an aesthetic renascence. It is interesting to see how this vision of salvation for the Caribbean has certain implications for the poet's role. The relationship of the poet to his community becomes more complex than that of a poet-politician. It is no longer a question of a readily accessible ideal of commitment which would inspire some collective action. Central to Brathwaite's conception of the poet is the element of possession. Even though he identifies closely with his community, his superior vision inevitably isolates him. Each metaphor of the artist as he appears in Brathwaite's work is presented in terms of a sensitive but essentially lonely figure. For instance, ‘Ananse’ suggests such characteristics, ‘creator / dry stony world-maker, word breaker’ who survives with his memories in the ‘dark attic’. The same is true of ‘Littoral’ with the frequently-used image of the solitary fisherman/artist; ‘his head / sleeps in the surf's / drone, his crossed / legs at home / on the rough sand’. He shares the same spiritual resources as Ananse—a voice in the dark—‘his fingers knit as the dark rejoices / but he has many voices’. The distance between this creative consciousness and the materialistic world around it is made clear in ‘Ogun’. Ordinarily he appeared to be nothing but a carpenter making ‘what the world preferred’ but secretly he is a divine craftsman shaping the block of wood ‘that would have baffled them … breathing air … still tuned to roots and water’. This sombre communion with the spiritual has little to do with the rhetorical gesture and iconoclasm of protest poetry. The contemplative state which frees the creative imagination creates an overwhelming kind of self-awareness in the poet. As the trilogy progresses, Brathwaite focuses more intensely on the relocation of his vision of the Caribbean in an artistic consciousness and not in the external history of the region.

So far we have treated literary preoccupations in Brathwaite's work and the emergence of a poetic self-consciousness. Such a resumé of his poetry would seem adequate if he simply saw himself as a cerebral poet, but even the most casual reading of Brathwaite's verse would reveal different or even conflicting voices in his work. The voice we have examined so far is easily recognized as the product of various literary concerns of his initiation into poetry. The other voice that is apparent is more direct and closely linked to the speech patterns and rituals of the folk.

Along with the use of sustained visual imagery and the dislocation of words, Brathwaite favours the use of speech patterns for purposes of irony or to bring immediacy to what he is saying. These intonations that often relieve the apparent plainness of his verse are frequently drawn from local dialects. This has both ideological and literary implications. Brathwaite accepts the need for a writer to be part of a tradition, indeed to be its growing edge. He has sought such a tradition in the creolized cultures of the Caribbean. The use of dialect (like the use of various deities and rituals) is his articulation of the consciousness of those who survived in the New World. The literary significance of what the poet is doing presents a more complicated problem.

The use of dialect in poetry is never considered just another literary device which a poet can exploit to dramatize certain features in his work. It has traditionally been seen as part of an anti-intellectual rejection of formalism in poetry. The spontaneity and simplicity of folk poetry did not seek academic acclaim—in the case of Langston Hughes it meant a defiance of the literary establishment—and so was apparently exempt from critical evaluation. However, it would be a simplification to see Brathwaite's use of dialect as a gratuitous rejection of formal poetic devices, especially with his own closeness to the conventions of modern poetry. The seriousness with which he considers this issue is revealed in a series of articles written in 1967 entitled ‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’. The analogy between the novel-form and jazz may be overdone but the point is that Brathwaite sees Caribbean writing in terms of literary improvisation, which explains the comparison with music. This improvisation is also part of a general shift away from traditional literary models towards the articulation of indigenous cultural forms. Repeatedly stressed is the need to bring the literary work closer to speech and the community experience. What are never really discussed are the inevitable differences between speech and the language of poetry.13

Essentially any language in poetry is subjected to the conventions of the genre in that the language of everyday speech undergoes a process of transformation. The language of poetry moves beyond the familiar to a new mode that brings new ambiguities, new clusters of resonances and a certain atemporality to what is expressed. Brathwaite in his more successful poems subjects the English language to this process. The same should apply to his use of dialect. Brathwaite's better dialect verse is subjected to enough of a formal re-ordering and control that it rises above the commonplace to become the language of poetry. The poem ‘Dust’, which recounts the explosion of Mont Pelée in Martinique in 1902, effectively captures a feeling of deep-seated terror as well as the notion of a world that has become contingent, where bewildering things occur ‘widdout rhyme / widdout reason’. The metaphor of the dust from the volcanic eruption is used with its full biblical resonance to suggest a world where the people ‘can't pray to no priest or no leader / an' God gone and darken the day’. Similarly the cricket-match of ‘Rites’ is more than a celebration of a certain community ritual. It becomes an insight into a debilitating passivity which afflicts the crowd. When a poet uses a language in his work he makes it his own. Dialect is a tool for exploring the Caribbean landscape and is moulded by the poet's creative authority. It is in this way also part of the conscious process of repossession.

Any attempt to extract either cultural or political prescriptions from Brathwaite's work takes us on to treacherous ground. The poetic concept of ‘wholeness’ and the importance of myth and ritual can become distorted when converted into ideological formulae. Brathwaite does not opt for the simplification of cultural decolonization and does not see the colonial past as a complete void. He has attempted to discover tangible evidence for his essentially poetic perception of reality in the investigation of the continuing process of creolization in Caribbean society. His historical work, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica (1770-1820), is original in its attempts to substantiate the integrating Creole features which he sees at work in Jamaican society. He has more recently returned to this refutation of cultural plurality in his monograph, Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean.14

This work, which sets out to be an objective account of the creolizing forces in the Caribbean, becomes somewhat impenetrable as the language moves further away from historical documentation towards the poetic imagination. Brathwaite's main thesis is that

In spite of efforts to socialize individuals into separate racial groupings as demanded by the ethos of slavery, the ramifications of personal relationships … brought new, unexpected exchanges into each group's repertoire of behaviour. This slow uncertain but organic process (from initiation/imitation to invention) … is what we mean by creolisation.

Art sometimes offers a way of seeing reality which may be left out of account in other kinds of investigation. Contradictory Omens is an attempt to combine poetry and history. The difficulties of such an endeavour are apparent in the obscure and paradoxical nature of this text.

In contrast to this monograph, Brathwaite's Mother Poem is a more appropriate medium for articulating his intuition of an authentic Creole presence in the Caribbean. The monograph ends ‘Unity is submarine’ and the main theme and dominant imagery of Mother Poem are drawn from this idea. This is the continuation of the process begun in Islands as the poet returns to Barbados to discover the ‘ancient watercourses’ secreted in its limestone landscape. The collection presents a specific focus on Brathwaite's own beginnings and the landscape of Barbados. To this extent it is different from the more panoramic trilogy. We have a narrowing-down of the same act of retrieval, the same desire to transcend a dehumanized, materialistic world and restore a sense of the past and a sense of ‘wholeness’. The mother, however, is neither Europe nor Africa; the Caribbean poet is no longer a provincial. The image of ‘black Sycorax’, like the old Amerindian women of Wilson Harris's stories, is that of an ancestral, hidden symbol of survival from which the poet derives his vision.15

To conceive of Brathwaite as either a folk poet or a political poet is to limit and even distort what has emerged from his creative imagination. Perhaps the most important single idea behind Brathwaite's work is the rejection of man as a product of ideology. His ability to shift back and forth between a palpably desolate world and the realm of the imaginative, and his consistently anti-materialistic position suggest that for him art has provided a way of liberating the individual from the confining grip of privation and brutality that cloud the documented, external history of the New World. It is this subversion of the traditional myths of an uncreative past and fragmented present that provides the crucial transition to the ‘second phase’ and enables the artist to conceive of the possibilities of growth and an authentic Creole culture in the Caribbean experience.

Mother Poem is the beginning of another poetic cycle, a seventies sequel to his earlier trilogy. This time, however, the focus is shifted away from the black diaspora as a whole towards Brathwaite's own island home, Barbados. The Barbados that emerges in this largely autobiographical phase in Brathwaite's work is not a sentimentalized or nostalgic one. It is a world of eroded memory, and silent suffering.

This ‘tear shaped island’ is a space of unresolved conflicts. The island-mother is a far cry from the healing, restorative force of that other mother, Africa, of Masks. Here, the image of the island-pebble of Islands is extended to describe an entire landscape of harsh limestone and dried-up water courses. Perhaps, even more than in his earlier works, Brathwaite gives free rein to his considerable dramatic skills in the multiple voices heard in Mother Poem. The Barbadian female condition appears in diverse forms—from the nagging matriarch to the hapless prostitute; from the stoic victim to the maternal figure of black Sycorax. As the epigraph from Wilson Harris implies, there is in all this a ‘porous underside’, the silent dreaming of these women suggests crucial but latent possibility.

In the final section of Mother Poem, entitled ‘Koumfort’, Brathwaite imagines the possibility of spiritual renewal. Coined from the Haitian Creole word for temple, houmfor, the title of this section suggests ways in which African connections are preserved despite appearances. For instance, ‘Angel/Engine’ reenacts a victimised female's capacity to reach back through Christian worship to the god Ogoun whose hissing presence is evoked as the poem closes. In the final poem ‘Driftword’ a fertile union of sea and land allows for a vision of coherence and wholeness as the ancient water-courses are flooded again and rush down to foaming beaches of Barbados's Atlantic coast.

With each book in the second trilogy the need for convulsive resolution grows more insistent. In giving meaning to Caribbean landscape, Brathwaite chooses as his focal point the violent and the explosive. In the rugged, scarred topography of Barbados's eastern shoreline, he locates the ideal terrain for defiance, negation and marronnage, always reminiscent of the Césairean image of the volcano. The Eliot-derived moments of transcendental stillness of early verse have been replaced by an almost Whitmanesque celebration of primal energies.

In his meditation on the male image in the second book of the trilogy Sun Poem (1982), Brathwaite more than ever longs for an ideal of convulsive potency. This is suggested in the poem's title. The sun is here the male principle. As in all his work, Brathwaite seeks to bridge the personal and the universal. In Sun Poem the poet looks at how boys turn into men in terms of his own memories of boyhood. Childhood is evoked in passages of lyrical prose as the central persona, significantly called Adam, grows in a ‘shower of green light’. Childhood is a fragile bubble, however, and the world intrudes, preventing him from growing ‘down to the dark soil of himself’.

The idyll of boyhood yields to the eclipsed masculinity of ‘Clips’, of ‘the afternoon of fathers growing grey’. The fathers evoked by Brathwaite are a pathetic parade of negritude denied. It is all summed up in his lament over ‘this death / of sons, of songs, of sunshine;’ in the Caliban poem of Islands. If Caliban lives at all it is in the dim memory of the rebellious slave Bussa or in the sexual and racial potency of Rastafarianism. Like Mother Poem, Sun Poem ends with the retrieval of the life-force, of ‘Inam’. In the rainbow image, the play of light on water, the poet rediscovers the powers of dreaming, of light and song. The triumphant image of the rainbow is not one of flaccid reconciliation, but the dawning of mobilized and boundless energy.

The final work in the trilogy X/Self (1987) contains few surprises. Brathwaite moves away from the personal to concentrate on the theme of empire. This book is a passionate indictment of capitalism and materialism. The impatience of the visionary voice is more emphatic in these poems, which are shriller because of a feeling of failed revolution in the Caribbean—from Haiti to Grenada. The villain of the piece is Europe, Babylon is located in Mt Blanc. Everywhere, from the gas of Nazi extermination-camps to the chemical disaster of Bhopal, the poet sees the wheeling vultures of imperialism. The poet's visionary voice articulates new possibilities of rebellion in the Soweto riots and the muse of black rebellion in ‘Xango’. Brathwaite here celebrates the body electric as he invites an apocalyptic redemption in the embrace of Xango, the ‘Pan African god of thunder’.

Two aspects of Brathwaite's work in the eighties become increasingly apparent: the frustration of the demiurgic voice in its project to create a Caribbean negritude and a growing tension between the poet as sacrificial figure at the mercy of the philistine and uncaring ‘status crow’. Both are naturally related and have much to do with the changing ideological scene of this decade. On one hand the poet's quest for Calibanesque reversals of Prospero's mischief leads to one disappointment after another. In two collections in 1986, The Visibility Trigger and Jah Music, a number of poems are dedicated to murdered artists and revolutionaries. The killing of Mikey Smith and George Rodney as well as Brathwaite's own personal misfortune lead to almost hysterical shrieks of isolation and gloom. This sense of catastrophe pervades his hurricane poem Shar (1990).

He may well be the last poet to believe with such fervour in the Modernist legend of the artist as priest or divine interpreter, favoured by the Gods and a victim of the System. Brathwaite, nevertheless, defiantly pursues his belief in ‘The Voice’ and not in the multiple voices that would be the preferred mode in contemporary writing. The title of his essay History of the Voice (1984) is telling in this regard. Familiar dichotomies emerge in this essay as the Western pentameter is opposed to Caribbean ‘nation language’. This revival of the old negritude belief in the white voice as opposed to the black voice reveals Brathwaite's deep interest in performance poetry, in sound and freeing the poetic line. The new graphic presentation of his poems could be seen not as eccentric doodles but as an attempt to integrate the acoustic into the written text.

Perhaps it is still useful to locate Brathwaite on that threshold between the everyday and the abstract, between island reality and ancestral presence. However, this posture seems to have become increasingly precarious. An inexhaustible fluency is evident in his work as old themes and fragments of poems are combined to reappear in new publications. His Middle Passages (1992) is characteristic of this tendency. These must be aimed at a new international audience as they do not address some of the current issues in Caribbean writing. Zea/Mexican Diary promises to be a personal response to the uncaring Caribbean, demonstrating how problematic the relations between artist and community have become. No one can doubt Brathwaite's powerful influence on what he called the ‘second phase’ of Caribbean writing. Perhaps the problem now is that this phase is coming to an end.


  1. Savacou 2 (September 1970) 36.

  2. See ‘West Indian Prose Fiction in the sixties’, Critical Survey (Winter 1967), 169-74.

  3. Bim, 3, 12 (1950), 325.

  4. Bim, 7, 28 (1959), 191.

  5. Bim, 9, 33 (1961), 18.

  6. Bim, 10, 40 (1965), 250.

  7. Other Exiles (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  8. The Arrivants (A New World Trilogy). (London: Oxford University Press, 1973). It is the subject of Gordon Rohlehr's Pathfinder: Black Awakening in the Arrivants (1981).

  9. Bim, 8, 30 (1960).

  10. The Middle Passage (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 29.

  11. The Overcrowded Baracoon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 26.

  12. Savacou 2, p. 43.

  13. Bim, 44/45/46 (1967-68).

  14. Savacou, monograph no. 1 (1974).

  15. Mother Poem (London: Oxford University Press, 1977). Black and Blues (Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1976) won the Casa de las Américas poetry award for 1976. It is a compilation of material old and new which tends to restate themes raised in the trilogy.

Mervyn Morris (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4719

SOURCE: Morris, Mervyn. “Overlapping Journeys: The Arrivants.” In The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 117-31. Melksham, UK: Cromwell Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, a poet praises The Arrivants as “a major document of African reconnection” that “draws attention to Caribbean continuities out of Africa.”]

Of the many useful and interesting discussions of The Arrivants1 or of individual books in the trilogy, there are two I am anxious to recommend. Maureen Warner-Lewis' Masks: Essays & Annotations2 and Gordon Rohlehr's Pathfinder3 are of value not only for their critical judgements but also for the wealth of information they provide about the contexts of the poetry. Inter alia, Warner-Lewis guides us through West African detail, and Rohlehr elucidates many allusions to jazz and other manifestations of Africa-related New World culture. Anyone studying The Arrivants should make early contact with these two items, and will no doubt wish to explore the rest of the bibliography.

The present essay is introductory, offering a very brief outline of the trilogy, its origins, its shape, its main concerns, and a glance at some of its techniques.

In an autobiographical essay called ‘Timehri’4 Brathwaite describes himself as a Barbadian “from an urban village background, of parents with a “‘middle-class’ orientation” who made friends “with boys of stubbornly non-middle class origin”. From Harrison College, “originally founded for children of the plantocracy and colonial civil servants and white professionals”, Brathwaite won one of the prestigious Barbados scholarships “that traditionally took the explanters' sons ‘home’ to Oxbridge or London”. It took him, “a potential Afro-Saxon”, to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read History. He wrote poems, most of them rejected by the Cambridge magazines. He felt neglected and misunderstood.5

Then in 1953, George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin appeared and everything was transformed. Here breathing to me from every pore of line and page, was the Barbados I had lived. The words, the rhythms, the cadences, the scenes, the people, their predicament. They all came back. They all were possible. All the more beautiful for having been published and praised by London, mother of metropolises.6

After graduation, he applied for jobs all over the place. “I was a West Indian, roofless7 man of the world. I could go, belong, everywhere on the world-wide globe. I ended up in a village in Ghana. It was my beginning”. He began to feel connected to Africa.

Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly; obscurely, slowly but surely, during the eight years that I lived there, I was coming to an awareness and understanding of community, of cultural wholeness, of the place of the individual within the tribe, in society. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, I came to a sense of identification of myself with these people, my living diviners. I came to connect my history with theirs, the bridge of my mind now linking Atlantic and ancestor, homeland and heartland. When I turned to leave, I was no longer a lonely individual talent; there was something wider, more subtle, more tentative: the self without ego, without I, without arrogance. And I came home to find that I had not really left. That it was still Africa; Africa in the Caribbean.8

Brathwaite returned to the Caribbean in 1962. “I had, at that moment of return,” he writes, “completed the triangular trade of my historical origins. West Africa had given me a sense of place, of belonging; and that place and belonging, I knew, was the West Indies”.9

Like many other publications by Brathwaite, The Arrivants draws attention to Caribbean continuities out of Africa, which a European overlay may sometimes obscure, and argues that the psychic wholeness of Caribbean black people requires fuller recognition of our African heritage. As Damian Grant wrote in an early review article:

The theme, over the three books, might be summarized as the rediscovery of Africa; a rediscovery that has to be made by the twentieth-century Negro, a condition of his own proper freedom, selfhood and political independence. Brathwaite offers in fact to define and articulate the modern Negro consciousness, seen as a complication of past experience, present problems, and future possibilities.10

In response perhaps to talk about the trilogy's public mission, Brathwaite was emphatic in an interview: “This trilogy as a whole, is concerned first of all with my own experiences. I am trying to come to terms with being a West Indian who has travelled to Africa”.11 But he is trying also to present “the self without ego” and to express “an awareness and understanding of community, of cultural wholeness, of the place of the individual within the tribe”. In The Arrivants he speaks through a series of personas or masks or, to put it differently, through a shifting persona who represents black experience in various manifestations. As Brathwaite notes, in Rights of Passage the persona, Tom, “undergoes a series of transformations—from ancestor to slave to prophet to Uncle Tom, and is finally translated into an image of the past out of which the future springs”.12 With reference to Masks, Warner-Lewis writes:

The poet found that he could not get to the heart of his questionings unless he became other people and felt as they did at the crucial points of their existence: the slave, the ancestor, the king, the villager, the pioneer and clan-founder, and he himself, Brathwaite, the descendant and inheritor of all these. But the poet needs at times the detached mask of an onlooker, an outsider, the scholar with history at his fingertips.13

The Arrivants brings together “three long poems that … deal, in their different ways, with journeys”.14 “Time's walking river is long” (The Arrivants, 120). The order in which the books appeared is part of the point: the African book is the centre of the trilogy; and though the journeys never end, the poem leaves us in the Caribbean. The final book signs off with a series of present participles, whose suggestion of a continuing process is reinforced by the absence of punctuation after the final word:

now waking
with their
rhythms some-
thing torn
and new(15)

(The Arrivants, 269-270)

In Rights of Passage we meet personas of the New World Negro, the dislocated African, forever on the move and with little memory of ancestral Africa. “Where then is the nigger's / home?” “Will exile never // end?” (The Arrivants, 77). According to the author, “Rights of Passage … is about the black diaspora: the shattering journey out of Africa into New World plantation slavery, the song and dance of illusory emancipation, and the first recognition of identity. Masks is the necessary and countervailing journey: ingathering of the multitudes: return of scattered psyches to the ancestral homeland: a movement from hurt to heart”16 The epigraph to Masks is an Akan proverb: “Only the fool points at his origins with his left hand” [i.e. disrespectfully]. In the first half of the book, we travel through sections of African history and culture; in the second half, an African returns from the New World, in unavailing search of his buried navel string. Though the attempt at reconnection has been fraught with disappointment, contact with Africa has strengthened the persona. He will rise and stand on his feet. In Islands we are in the Caribbean, mostly, exploring Africa forgotten and retained; and, through a series of Afro-Caribbean figures, considering “the certainties/uncertainties of the Caribbean, taking up the theme of ‘the gains and the losses’, implicit in Masks”.17 As understanding deepens, there is movement towards correcting the cultural imbalance of the colonial heritage which has tended to privilege Europe. Near the end of the trilogy, in ‘Vèvè’, when the Word is invoked (The Arrivants, 266), Legba—“the Dahomean / Haitian god of the gateway”18—emerges from St John chapter one. “Christ will pray / to Odomankoma // Nyame God / and Nyankopon” (The Arrivants, 267). As Rohlehr puts it, “Christ and Odomankoma are recognized as different names for the same concept of God as communicable immanent force in the universe and incarnate Word.”19

Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands were republished together as The Arrivants in 1973. Reprints from 1978 at least have included a new and closely relevant epigraph.

Well, muh ol' arrivance(20) … is from
Africa … That's muh ol' arrivants family. Muh
gran'muddah an' muh gran' fadda. Well, they came
out here as slavely … you unnerstan'?
Well, when them came now, I doan belongs to
Africa, I belongs to Jamaica. I born here.
Well, muh gran'parents, she teach me some of the
African languages an' the rest I get it at the
cotton-tree root … I take twenty-one days to get
all the balance …
So I just travel right up to hey, an' gradually
come up, an' gradually come up, until I experience
all about … the African set-up …
                                                  Kumina Queen, Jamaica

The epigraph foregrounds African ancestry; and slavery as the reason African ancestors came to the Caribbean. It makes a point which is extensively explored in Masks: the speaker, a leader in an Africa-derived religious ritual, says plainly that she does not belong to Africa, she belongs to Jamaica, she was born here; and that she has been taught some African lore by her ancestors and has received some of it by intuition or by supernatural means (“at the cotton-tree root”). There is a direct connection with various concerns in the trilogy. The trauma of slavery is evoked in all three books. In Masks the African returning from the New World is forced to recognize that he no longer belongs in Africa. Islands examines manifestations of Africa in the New World, finding ancestral memory retained to some degree in religious ceremony (‘Shepherd’, ‘Wake’, ‘Eating the Dead’, ‘Negus’, ‘Vèvè’, for example) and the intuitive gropings of art (as in ‘Jouvert’ and ‘Ogun’).

Each book is divided into parts, each part into sections, some sections into numbered subsections. The transitions are often introduced by connectives (such as “and now”, “but”, “so”, “for”) which strengthen the appearance of continuity. Many sections seem to be poems complete in themselves, and some have indeed been published separately. But meaning in the trilogy is partly a function of placement, as passages extend or modify ideas introduced earlier and as their music plays against the movement of other passages. Acknowledging the influence of T. S. Eliot, Brathwaite has said: “The tone, the cadence and above all the organization of my long poems (and all three poems of my trilogy are long poems, not collections of poems) owe a great deal to him”.21

Brathwaite also shares with Eliot a recurrent concern with memory and time. “And the wheel turns / and the future returns / wreathed in disguises” (The Arrivants, 168).22 History repeats itself. As Mark McWatt has observed, “the reality one confronts in the poems, however clear or ‘raw’, is always coloured, as it were, by a sense of historical time, an overlay of reverberations from past events and personalities which cause in the reader a kind of mental or imaginative shift toward a historical perspective”.23

For example, there is a sense in which the West Indian emigrants travelling to Europe in the 1950s replicate Columbus in the fifteenth century travelling in the other direction.

What do they hope for
what find there
these New World mariners
Columbus coursing kaffirs
What Cathay shores
for them are gleaming golden
what magic keys they carry to unlock
what gold endragoned doors?


Columbus from his after-
deck watched stars, absorbed in water,
melt in liquid amber drafting
through my summer air.

(The Arrivants, 52)

So too in Masks “the omowale/ex-african reverses the movement of the poem (ship to heartland rather than heartland to ship) and undertakes a journey of re/discovery of origins”24 In the third part of Masks, at a moment centuries ago, the Africans captured for slavery reach the sea, where “voyages ended; / time stopped where its movement began;” (122) and at the beginning of Part IV (which follows) the persona recently arriving in West Africa is welcomed as a stranger: “you who have come / back a stranger / after three hundred years // welcome” (124).

Images merge cinematically, as again in ‘Littoral’ (170-173), near the beginning of Islands. In section one the blind fisherman (whose head is like a mask) is weaving a net, “his fingers knit as the dark rejoices / but he has his voices …”. Section two presents one of those voices, a woman singer who “travels far back, explores / ruins”. When the poem was published in 1960 the singer was Billie Holiday;25 but in the immediate context of Islands she is an African ancestral memory, becomes Yaa Asantewa, “warrior and queen and keeper of the tribe”. Between sections two and three we make another leap through time: from the blind fisherman on a Caribbean beach more or less now, into the hold of a slave-ship long ago.

                                                                                                                                  He hopes
that light will break in the clearing
before her song ends …


But no light breaks under the decks
where the sails sing

The trilogy is held together partly by patterns of recurrent imagery. Journey, movement, time, river, sea; dust, sand, dryness, pebble, stone, rock, earth, soil, water, tendril, pistil, green, tree, hurricane; sun, moon, night, fire, sleep, awakening, dawn, morning, day, light, dark, womb, birth, blindness, sight; speech, shout, whisper, silence; drum, mask, dance, circle, music, song; gold, silver, black, red, whip, lash, iron, shackle, clink, clank, Uncle Tom; spider, fisherman—these are some of the images and some of the ways they cluster. They are of multiple significance, they inter-relate variously, they develop and change. So the spider, for example—Ananse, “the spider-hero of the Akans; earthly trickster, but once with the powers of the creator-gods”26—is both positive and negative, is used to suggest diminished memory of Africa (“Creation has burned to a spider”, 164), is an agent of rebellion (heard by Tacky and L'Ouverture), is both untrustworthy and supremely creative (“stony world-maker, word-breaker, / creator”, 167), and connects with the blind fisherman weaving “nets, embroideries” (170), the fisherman whose “fine webs fell softly” (263). The fisherman in turn shades into a mask: “his eyes stare out like an empty shell” (170): which reminds us of “his- / tory bleeds / behind my hollowed eyes” (148) and connects with many other references to masks, masking, role-playing, disguise.

Or take, for example, pebble, stone. “It will slay / giants // but never bear children” (196). Its potential in battle is acknowledged, but the emphasis here is on sterility. When “my island is a pebble” (196), when lightning strikes a “world of stone” (268) the main implications are negative. In ‘Negus’, on the other hand, “stone” is more positive, the instrument of existential rebellion: “fling me the stone / that will confound the void” (224).

There are references throughout to the drum, a central symbol of African culture. “God is dumb / until the drum / speaks” (97). “Drum” is the very first word of The Arrivants, and it is there at the end in ‘Jouvert’. Wrenched from Africa, the New World blacks still remember the talking drum, “Atumpan talking and the harvest branch- / es” (13). The angry man in ‘Folkways’ feels “like a drum with a hole / in its belly” (31), an image later associated with Tom, in whose cabin there is “A rusted / bucket, hole kicked into its / bottom” (70, 248). The Rastafarian in ‘Wings of a Dove’ summons us to “beat dem drums / dem” (44). The poet-persona in the ‘Prelude’ of Masks invokes creative power: “Beat heaven / of the drum, beat” (91). Near the beginning of Masks we share in a ritual of creative preparation, ‘The Making of the Drum’ (94-97). The “quick drummer” (162) is part of the jazz scene in ‘Jah’. Drums are crucial in ‘Shepherd’, helping towards possession: “the room rumbles / clouded with drums” (185), “the drum trembles” (186), “the drum speaks” (187); and when the Shepherd senses an ancestor, “can smell / his sweat / his musk of damp and slave // ships”, the Shepherd himself becomes metaphorically a drum with which the ancestor communicates: “his heat hurts / me, my belly is tight / his hands hit // me into sound” and “Slowly / slowly / slowly / the dumb speaks” (188), the form of words suggesting—since “God is dumb / until the drum / speaks” (97)—that the drum and the Shepherd are divine instruments. Drums are important also in the voodoo ritual, “Att / Att / Attibon // Attibon Legba / Attibon Legba / Ouvri bayi pou' moi / Ouvri bayi pou' moi …” (224), open the gate for me. In ‘Vèvè’ the gods will arrive “welcomed by drumbeats” (265). There are also the drums of steel band music, the booming bass drum and the ping pong tenor pan as in “flowers bloom / their tom tom sun // heads raising / little steel pan // petals to the music's / doom // as the ping pong / dawn comes // riding / over shattered homes” (269).

Rhythmic patterns recur in various contexts. For example, the “It / it / it / it is not” (222) and “Att / Att / Attibon // Attibon Legba …” of ‘Negus’ (224) recall the beginning of ‘Tano’ (151), “dam / dam / damirifa / damirifa due …”, each clearly suggesting drumbeats. But damirifa due is “an Akan cry of pity and sorrow meaning ‘condolences’”;27 the soul of the returning African is gathered back into the ancestral fold. “Attibon Legba” moves in the opposite direction: it is an invocation to the gateway god, Legba, who facilitates access to other gods. The drumbeats return in ‘Shepherd’ (“Dumb / dumb / dumb”, 185-187) but, through possession, there is reconnection with ancestors, and “Slowly / slowly / slowly / the dumb speaks” (188). Here “Slowly / slowly / slowly”—also recalled in ‘Timehri’—reminds us of Osai Tutu, royal founder of the Ashanti Confederation, rising in ceremonial dignity (141).

The Arrivants is richly allusive, connecting a range of detail in the history and culture of various communities. Each volume has its prevailing tone, created partly by the diction, the rhythms of speech, and partly by allusions to music. We hear in Rights of Passage a New World soundtrack—worksong, Negro spiritual, various styles of jazz, calypso, ska; in Masks, Akan drum rhythms, and jazz; in Islands—centred in the Caribbean—jazz again, and aural motifs of steel band, limbo dancing, Jamaican folksong, Haitian drums. Some of the music allusions28 are to the words of songs—“just call my blue / black bloody spade / a spade” (29), for example, echoes “What did I do / to be so black an' blue”. Some are to the titles of tunes, such as ‘New World A-Comin’ (9) which alludes with irony to a Duke Ellington composition. There are musicians mentioned by name or nickname (such as Charlie Parker's, ‘Bird’). Some of the allusions assume an intimate knowledge of the music.29 Here, for example, is Brathwaite in response to an enquiry about the final pages (82-85) of Rights of Passage.

I'd never be able to write “bird calls” … without having Parker in mind: especially since there is an LP of that name. So when I wrote it I heard that saxophone in addition to what I was really talking about: Noah's dove after the rain: which is again connected with Coltrane's greatest lyric ‘After the Rain’: which derives its beauty not only from itself, but also from its juxtaposition to his greatest storm, ‘Impressions’.30

The music allusions are not just cultural background. They are often an important element of the meaning, as again, for example, in section two of ‘Folkways’ (33) which ends:

rat tat tat
on the flat-
out whispering rails
on the quick
boogie woogie
boogie woogie
long long
boogie woogie
long long
hooey long
journey to town.

Pointing out “the connection between this passage and traditional railroad blues”, Gordon Rohlehr has argued that Brathwaite is here “establishing the connection between Jazz and Journey; seeing jazz as yet another gift of the archetypal tribal experience in Africa, and its counterpart in the New World”.31

Sometimes Brathwaite will more or less mimic the music or imitate rhythms as in that brilliant passage, or in “Kon kon kon kon / Kun kun kun kun” (98), or “Come-a look / come-a look / see wha' happen” (240), patterned on a Jamaican folksong. More often, however, there is a subtle tension between the speaking voice and the music reference, as in these lines which parody Caliban's drunken song (The Tempest, Act II, Scene ii) and also suggest the syncopation of road march music in Trinidad carnival:

like to play
at the car-
cing up to the lim-
bo silence
so the god won't drown
to the is-
land town

(The Arrivants, 192)

But Brathwaite does not insist that the speaking voice always be equal or dominant. He sometimes gives absolute priority to the music rhythm. In ‘Wings of a Dove’, for example, the emphatic rhythm is sometimes expressed in normal creole syntax, but at other moments normal syntax is ignored. “So beat dem drums / dem, spread // dem wings dem, / watch dem fly // dem” is normal speech; “soar dem / high dem” (44) is not.

This seems to be a choice he makes from time to time: to let the music rhythms take charge. When he prefers to, he convincingly represents speech. Indeed a major area of Brathwaite's achievement in The Arrivants is his flexible command of speech rhythms. His ear allows him to register various accents, including American and African:

See them zoot suits, man? Them black
Texan hats?

(The Arrivants, 23)

Akwaaba they smiled
meaning welcome
akwaaba they called
aye kooo
well have you walked
have you journeyed

(The Arrivants, 124)

He captures many West Indian voices, from standard English as in ‘Mammon’ (73-76) to Barbadian creole (he says “nation language”)32 in ‘Cane’ (225-229) and ‘Tizzic’ (260-261), Jamaican Revival preaching in ‘The Stone Sermon’ (254-256), Rastafarian speech in ‘Wings of a Dove’ (42-43). In section two of ‘Francina’ (215) standard English modulates into creole. In ‘The Dust’ (62-69), one of our finest poems in creole, he presents Barbadian women talking about their world and its worries, moving without strain into ultimate questions about the meaning of life.

An' then suddenly so
widdout rhyme
widdout reason
you crops start to die
you can't even see the sun in the sky;
an' suddenly so, without rhyme,
without reason, all you hope gone
ev'rything look like it comin' out wrong.
Why is that? What it mean?


‘Rites’ (197-203; a prose version had been published earlier33) is a West Indian classic, our quintessential cricket poem. It is clear from the cricket-loving tailor's lively monologue that the test match is, as Orlando Patterson has argued, “not so much a game as a collective ritual”.34 When things are going well for their side, spectators feel empowered. “All over de groun' fellers shakin' hands wid each other // as if was they wheelin' de willow / as if was them had the power” (200). When the batsman is doing well, a spectator brings a votive offering, as to a god—“a red fowl cock // goin quawk quawk quawk in 'e han'”. A man who for twenty-five years has been “lickin' gloy / pun de Gover'ment stamps” (200-201) is transformed, noisily calling for blood. But when the game begins to favour the invading English, there is silent consternation—“could'a hear de empire fart” (202)—then a babel of advice. The moral is drawn explicitly:

when things goin' good, you cahn touch
we, but leh murder start
an' ol man, you cahn fine a man to hole up de side …

(The Arrivants, 203)

The umpire/empire pun is characteristic of The Arrivants. Wordplay abounds. “Miss- / issippi painfields” (51) is typical. The pun is arguably an aspect of the jazz technique, the literary analogue of the blue note (the flattened third or fifth or seventh), a note that makes you hear an adjacent semitone. In “Boss man lacks pride: / I am his hide // of darkness” (19) the Hyde is emphasized by the line break: I am his Hyde, his other self, the self of darkness. In “to hell / with Eu- / rope too” (29) we get: to hell with you, and with the rope as well. Sometimes the lineation visually reinforces meaning as in:

the wise
are di-

(The Arrivants, 130)


O who now will help
us, help-
less, horse-
less, leader-
less, no
hope, no
Hawkins, no
Cortez to come.

(The Arrivants, 10)

Some early readers of Rights of Passage were disconcerted by the frequent division of words, by passages such as

in Af-

(The Arrivants, 35)

especially as the division was often not aurally detectable in Brathwaite's own reading of the verse. Lineation is far less obtrusive in Masks and Islands. But Rights of Passage, Brathwaite has explained, was “a tale of deprivation, paradoxically balanced upon a sense of hope, of continuity and of unity: fragments that still held secrets of the whole. And this paradox came to be expressed in the poem in the counterpoint between the broken lines of the verse, and the shifting but basic rhythms of its impetus”.35

The Arrivants is a major document of African reconnection. Brilliantly, it charts a set of overlapping psychic journeys to, from and within the New World and Africa, acknowledging achievement and some painful realities, examining self and community, past and present. The final lines of the trilogy celebrate awakening consciousness and the creative growth of the artist-persona and other Caribbean black people:

hurts for-
gotten, hearts
no longer bound
to black and bitter
ashes in the ground
now waking
with their
rhythms some-
thing torn
and new

(The Arrivants, 269-270)


  1. Pronounced ar-RIVE-ants. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), comprised of Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969). For other works by Brathwaite and a selection of Brathwaite criticism, see the bibliography at the back of this book.

  2. Maureen Warner-Lewis, E. Kamau Brathwaite's Masks: Essays & Annotations (Kingston: Institute of Caribbean Studies, 1992): a reissue of Notes to Masks (Benin City: Ethiope Publishing Corporation, 1977) with a revised version of ‘Odomankoma 'Kyerema Se’, an essay published in Caribbean Quarterly 19: 2, June 1973.

  3. Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder: Black Awakening in The Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Trinidad: private publication, 1981).

  4. Edward Brathwaite, ‘Timehri’, Savacou 2, September 1970, 35-44. For a slightly different version see Orde Coombs ed., Is Massa Day Dead? (New York: Doubleday/Anchor Press, 1974), 29-44.

  5. ‘Timehri’, Savacou 2, 36-37.

  6. Ibid.

  7. In Is Massa Day Dead? “rootless”, 33. The word as in Savacou is much richer, playing against “rootlessness” earlier in the paragraph, and suggesting “unaccommodated man” and a Barbadian pronunciation of “ruthless”.

  8. Ibid., 38.

  9. Rosalie Murphy & James Vinson eds., Contemporary Poets of the English Language (London: St James Press, 1970), 129.

  10. Damian Grant, ‘Emerging Image: the poetry of Edward Brathwaite’, Critical Quarterly 12:2, Summer 1970, 186-187.

  11. The Poet Speaks Record Ten, ed. Peter Orr (London: Argo, 1968).

  12. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, Record Notes to Rights of Passage Record One (London: Argo, 1968).

  13. Maureen Warner-Lewis, Masks: Essays and Annotations, 15.

  14. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, Record Notes to Islands (London: Argo Records, 1973).

  15. The concluding lines of Rights of Passage and Masks also emphasize process—each marks a stage in the psychic journey—but with a full stop at the end of the one, an ellipsis at the end of the other. Images of journey, dawn and music figure in the final pages of each book.

  16. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite. Recorded Notes to Islands.

  17. Ibid.

  18. The Arrivants, 273 (Glossary).

  19. Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 314.

  20. “Ol' arrivance” would be the same sound as “whole arrivants”, meaning all my ancestors here (as well as my old ancestors or ancestry).

  21. Rosalie Murphy & James Vinson eds., Contemporary Poets of the English Language, 129.

  22. Cf. the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps in time future, / And time future contained in time past.”

  23. Mark McWatt, in Daryl C. Dance ed., Fifty Caribbean Writers (Newport: Greenwood Press, 1986), 60.

  24. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, Record Notes to Masks (London: Argo, 1972). The omowale is one who returns.

  25. Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 192.

  26. The Arrivants, 272 (Glossary).

  27. Maureen Warner-Lewis, Masks: Essays and Annotations, 93-94.

  28. See Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 333-340, Appendix One, ‘Black/Ground Music to Rights of Passage’.

  29. “Knowing precisely what music is being alluded to, one can fruitfully explore the hidden network of allusions beneath the taut or casual surface of things”, Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 333. In a passage at the beginning of Masks (90-91, “Gong-gongs / throw pebbles in the rout- / ed pools of silence …” etc), Jimmy Carnegie hears a John Coltrane solo. “Brathwaite,” he writes, “has accomplished an almost impossible feat of ‘transcription’.” (J. A. Carnegie, ‘The Face's Soul’, review of Masks, Public Opinion (Kingston, Jamaica), August 2, 1968.

  30. Pathfinder, 55.

  31. Gordon Rohlehr, review article on Islands, Caribbean Studies 10:4, 178.

  32. See Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon Books, 1984).

  33. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, ‘Cricket’, in Andrew Salkey ed., Caribbean Prose (London: Evans Brothers, 1967), 61-67.

  34. Orlando Patterson, ‘The Ritual of Cricket’, Jamaica Journal 3:1, March 1969.

  35. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, Record Notes to Rights of Passage (London: Argo, 1968).

Silvio Torres-Saillant (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14816

SOURCE: Torres-Saillant, Silvio. “Kamau Brathwaite and the Caribbean Word.” In Caribbean Poetics: Towards an Aesthetic of West Indian Culture, pp. 93-122. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, examples of the Caribbean language, religion, and culture are teased out of Brathwaite's poems, leading to the conclusion that “Brathwaite insists on a theory of language, culture, and on a philosophy of history that have strong political implications insofar as they aim to liberate the Caribbean mind from the throes of a colonial heritage.”]

… isn't it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?

Jamaica Kincaid (1989: 31)

Few oeuvres stress Caribbean literature's deep concern with language as sharply as that of the Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite. A poet, historian, fiction writer, and critic, Brathwaite became known in the archipelago starting in the early 1950s primarily through his contributions to Bim, then the leading cultural journal in the Anglophone West Indies. He had already gained distinction as one of the leading producers of intellectual discourse in the area when, in 1967, his first published volume of poetry brought him quick recognition throughout the Third World. His more recent honors include the 1986 Casa de las Américas Prize for a collection of essays entitled Roots, which was republished in the United States seven years later by the University of Michigan Press (Brathwaite 1993c). He also won the 1987 Commonwealth Prize for Poetry, granted by the London-based Commonwealth Institute, received the 1994 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and had the Autumn 1994 number of World Literature Today (Vol. 68 No. 4) devoted to his life and work. Today his prestige as a major contemporary poet has spread through Africa, the Caribbean, England, and the United States. A glance at the large body of criticism generated by Brathwaite's literary production reveals a common thread that normally points to the element of sound in his texts. Decades ago a reviewer in England referred to Brathwaite's Rights of Passage (1967) as “very much a ‘script’ for recitation,” and over twenty years later a West Indian critic has observed that “acoustic effect and phonetic play have always been an important element in Brathwaite's poetry” (Lucie-Smith 1968: 100; Dash 1987: 88).

The pages that follow provide a wide socio-aesthetic and cultural frame within which to view the implications of the sonority identified by critics in the poetry of Brathwaite. The recitative element, the acoustic effect, the phonetic play, the centrality assigned to sound in his texts, form part of a complex vision of art, culture, and society. That vision, as we shall see, corresponds to an overall philosophy of language with aesthetic implications for virtually all facets of Brathwaite's literary practice. His poetry, prose fiction, historiographical essays, and literary criticism, all reflect a scheme of thought wherein language is seen as a means of communication, a vehicle of cultural identity, a potential instrument of liberation from the vestiges of colonial education, and the principal ingredient of an aesthetics that delves into the sociohistorical specificity of the Caribbean to uncover the elements of an authentic manner of utterance.


Brathwaite's idea of language is inextricably linked to his notion of culture and the artist's relationship to the community in a given sociocultural context. His 1957 essay “Sir Galahad and the Islands” described what he perceived as a dichotomy in the attitudes of literary artists in the Caribbean regarding their native “island cultures.” He distinguished those writers who choose to remain in the West Indies, whom he called “Islanders,” from those he dubbed “Emigrants,” the ones who feel they must leave “whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor” (Brathwaite 1957: 8). Among the former, he spoke positively of those who in their writings absorb their surroundings by claiming a “heritage.” They reflect an attitude of alliance with the folk, the peasant tradition, evincing their recognition that they do “depend on” people, and in so doing augur a bright future for Caribbean letters (8, 11, 13). George Lamming would later reinforce that view by claiming that the West Indian novel at its best is essentially rooted in peasant life (Lamming 1978: 25).

Although Brathwaite privileged the “Islanders” over the “Emigrants,” he made a significant reference to the latter's peculiar use of language. Speaking of the fiction writers, he praised their use of narrators who “speak what is practically a West Indian language” (1957: 8). Brathwaite furthered this point in his 1960 review of the anthology Voices of Ghana prepared by Henry Swanzy. There he hailed the compiler's effort for “bringing in the voices of the people of the new nation making patterns of sound in hammer, engine, power saws, and the movement of earth and water” (Brathwaite 1960a: 131). He particularly stressed the fact that the texts collected in the book were written in English by young Ghanaian writers “whose native language is not English” and who face the challenge of converting their “own forms and speech-rhythms into English,” producing a sort of English which “while retaining its peculiar West African flavor” may be deemed “acceptable at any level by the critical intelligence.” What Brathwaite referred to as “the power and certainty of the writing,” primarily “the way it celebrates and takes confidence from the culture and traditions of the land” in the Ghanaian anthology, appeared to him to have exemplary implications for West Indian writing (131-2).

Brathwaite's early criticism was prescriptive along the lines suggested by the above dichotomy. He applauded, for instance, the achievement of the Jamaican Victor Reid's novel New Day for its capture of “a feeling for the poetry of the spoken word, and an imagination capable of giving those spoken words life,” an element he found lacking in the novels of Edgar Mittelholzer (Brathwaite 1960b: 207). Mittelholzer's novels, in Brathwaite's view, also lack “the actions of people in a given, recognizable society, acting under compulsions that we can understand” (206). Brathwaite requires in literature a “sense of social and moral values.” The perceived absence of those values caused him to see a failure in John Hearne's The Autumn Equinox, and their perceived presence made him hail the “peculiar distinction” of A Quality of Violence by Andrew Salkey (1960c: 217; 1960d: 219). Likewise, despite his good words in praise of the “intuition” in Wilson Harris's poetry, he found it “limited through its inability to communicate at the level of religious significance” (1960e: 114).

The judgments Brathwaite has passed on the literary artists of the archipelago are all linked directly or indirectly to his conviction that the “value of the artist's work is in the inter-communication between himself and his special public” (1960b: 206). In the essay “The New West Indian Novelists,” he argued that writers have their native public that will best appreciate their style. When one writes as an “Emigrant” one becomes divorced from one's natural literary habitat and suffers the lack of “that special criticism and appreciation” that only the writer's own home public can provide (1960b: 206). Brathwaite declared in effect that “the final responsibility for the future and achievement of West Indian literature lies in the sympathy and sense of proportion of the West Indian reading public” (1961a: 280).

Brathwaite's early critical writings made the ability to communicate a part of the merit of literary artists. There must be a correspondence between the literary text, which is a cultural product, and the society and culture that inform it. A literary text, consequently, has its autochthonous audience, whose human drama it must address if it is to be considered authentic. V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas earns praise from Brathwaite because in it the novelist exhibits an acute awareness of the predicament of his own sociocultural community, the East Indians of the Caribbean, “first brought here as indentured labor after Emancipation in 1838” (1963a: 16; 1968: 159). But the relationship between writers and their people must be genuine and not based purely on aesthetic and intellectual gymnastics. His essay “Roots” decries the practice of those West Indian novelists who derive their folk talk and rhythmic prose style from Anglo-American literature, “the Lawrence-Steinbeck-Hemingway tradition,” contending that their use of “the people's speech” is not authentic since it does not arise from a real contact with the people (1963a: 20). Because practically none of the writers referred to by Brathwaite could earnestly be said to form part “of the people,” belonging as they do to the middle class, he conjectures that these writers' use of folk rhythms might actually be “a sign and symbol of their rejection of society” (20). Thus he proposes “a prose style which can catch the varying shifts and shades of narrative, action, and speech” in the West Indies in light of his conviction that a literary text that lacks an authentic relationship between writer and society cannot succeed artistically. Following that line of reasoning, he deems The Scholar Man, a novel by O. R. Dathorne, “a failure at all levels” (1965: 68). At the same time, he praises Derek Walcott's The Castaway because there the St. Lucian poet succeeds in addressing “our great dichotomy: the split in most of us between Africa and Europe” without exhibiting the “frustration” or the “bitter choice” that seems to beset so many when confronted with the same realization (1966a: 140). Characteristically the aesthetic valuation focuses persistently on the writer's relationship with the people, the society, the cultural habitat informing the creation of his or her text.


Brathwaite's literary practice as a creative artist during this early part of his career accords with the socioaesthetic doctrine he had been expostulating in his critical writings. A short story entitled “The Black Angel” published in 1955 presents us with characters whose destiny follows the ups and downs in the town's factory, the sole source of employment for the people. Although the town remains unnamed, the narrator's descriptions, even at the topographical level, place the setting unmistakably in the Caribbean. More importantly, the protagonist wins his battle against the unknown through the strength derived from the wisdom of the folk, symbolized here in Ta Mega, the “high priestess.” Guardian of the spiritual well-being of the townspeople, she uses her “necromancography” to help him fight the forces of evil (1955a: 84).

The narrative tension of Brathwaite's early fiction piece “Law and Order” is maintained basically through the cultural distance between the young sweethearts Emma and Horace, the main characters. The action takes place in a Ghanaian village where she is a native and he a foreigner. While strolling down the beach, they are harassed by a group of Ga fishermen, and it is up to Emma to confront the marauders, communicate, and negotiate with them. Though feeling that “after all this was a man's palaver,” Horace has to stay out of it because “he couldn't understand the language” (Brathwaite 1955b: 197). Here as elsewhere in the story what amuses the most is the crisis of communication between Emma and Horace: her efforts to translate her culture to him, his almost unavoidable misconstruing of her rendition, and, consequently, their failure to say anything meaningful to each other. Here, as in “Cricket,” a story published years later, language acquires centrality as a means through which to measure cultural authenticity. “Cricket,” told almost entirely in West Indian dialect, re-creates an eventful match in the recent history of West Indian cricket. By enacting an encounter between a Caribbean team and a British team, the story symbolically dramatizes a colonial confrontation. The British invented cricket and brought it to the islands just as they brought the English language during the colonial transaction. Rendered mostly via a dialogue among the Creole-speaking characters, the dynamics of the match evoke the need felt by colonial people to prove their worth at the former masters' own game, “de very game they invent” (Brathwaite 1973a: 66).

When the Caribbean players excel in the cricket game, they demonstrate their appropriation of the formerly British sport. Parallel to this, when the characters tell the event in the West Indian vernacular we are witnessing the nativization of English, that is, the appropriation of the formerly British language. At the linguistic level too we see a colonial confrontation. Resorting to dialect means asserting the local culture, the culture of the folk. How the relationship between the colonial language and its nativized counterpart can affect human interactions in the Caribbean is suggested in an episode from the 1961 story “Christine.” The contrapuntal effect of the dialogue between the two main characters, Adam and his teenage girlfriend Christine, dominates the narrative flow. They speak in a demotic language using recognizable forms of West Indian dialect. Playfully and with an unmistakable tenderness, the conversation revolves around their elders' supposed opposition to their romance. The one time Adam feels the need to scold Christine, we hear him say: “Don't you know you shouldn't jump down like that from the branch of a tree?”—the only standard English sentence we hear him utter in their whole dialogue (Brathwaite 1961b: 249). This switch from the nativized speech to standard English insinuates the characters' deep understanding of the linguistic codes available to them and their societal implications. Adam seems to sense that to sound for a moment rigidly prohibitive, he can do no better than to step outside the aura of intimacy and love that has been established through their Creole communication. To achieve a momentary distance from his sweetheart he reverts to the official language of the establishment, the standard English of the schools and the upper classes.

Brathwaite's theatrical writings illustrate his preoccupation with language and cultural authenticity no less than his prose fiction and his criticism. He wrote plays primarily while serving as an education officer in Ghana, a country with a complex linguistic situation. “English, the major language of education in this country, is not indigenous,” says S. Addo in his introduction to four plays by Brathwaite (Addo 1964: iii). These plays, intended for primary schools, evoke the emblematic texture of Medieval mystery plays and derive much of their dramatic tension from their incorporation, in both form and content, of the linguistic situation and the sociocultural reality of the people of Ghana. The collection includes The Children's Gifts, a reworking of the Nativity in an African setting, Rabbit at the Well and Ananse and the Dinner Drum, both of which draw on moralistic animal fables from African lore, and The People that Walk in Darkness, a re-creation of another moment from the Nativity. The playwright allows for “improvisation sections” meant to be filled with words spoken by the children acting in their own mother tongue, as he recommends to future producers in his preface (Brathwaite 1964a: v). Three of the four plays feature a character who goes by the name of “the Linguist.” In a characteristic scene from The People that Walk in Darkness, the birth of Mary and Joseph's child, made possible after defeating personified Darkness, is announced to a group of fishermen who are able to rejoice in the glorious news because the message is brought by angels who speak to them “in their own language” (38).

Brathwaite's book-length play, Odale's Choice (1967a), takes up the Antigone story. The story here preserves the ethical dilemma and the existential predicament facing the heroine in the play by Sophocles that so delighted the mind of Hegel, who thought of it as “the most excellent and satisfying work of art” (Hegel 1962: 74). For the German philosopher, Creon and Antigone “stand fundamentally under the power of that which they battle, and consequently infringe that which, conformably to their own essential life, they ought to respect” (72). Hegel further observed that the play dramatized a clash between the two highest moral powers: “family love, what is holy, what belongs to the inner life and to inner feeling, and which because of this is also called the law of the nether gods,” collide terribly with “the law of the State” (325).

But, by placing the action against the backdrop of a tangible neo-colonial setting, Brathwaite manages to incorporate into the drama a sociocultural dimension and to season it with the conflict of varying linguistic codes. The social stratification of the characters is revealed in that the soldiers speak dialect while the higher ranking members of the power structure speak standard English. Thus, when the sergeant comes to Creon with the news that his edict has been violated, the head of state demands to be addressed in the official language: “For God's sake speak the language man! Don't talk to me in that damn pigeon all the time! Speak the language” (Brathwaite 1967a: 23). There is the suggestion also that Odale's challenge to the power structure may have the unexpressed support of people in the lower social ranks as represented in the character of Musa. Brathwaite's plays, like the other genres he has practiced, seek to localize all human experience within very discrete historical circumstances. The characters have conflicts that correspond to the demands of a given society and their actions are colored by distinct cultural variables. Language, whether it be imposition of an official code or affirmation of an alternative one, occupies a central position in the people's grappling with history, society, and culture. Even when dealing with an African setting, the plays bear relevance for the Caribbean and could probably be hailed for their “essentially West Indian or even suggestively regional” nature, to borrow the words of a reviewer (Marshall 1965: 71).


Brathwaite's poetry continues and expands the socioaesthetic paths suggested by his texts in the other genres, particularly since the publication of Rights of Passage, his first book-length poetic work to appear in print. His verse production before 1967 appeared in Bim and in various anthologies (Murphy 1970: 129). A good many of these early poems have found their way into the poet's subsequent volumes. One could easily concur with Brathwaite's own assessment that his “verse until 1965 had no real centre” (cited in Murphy 1970: 129). For him, the “centre” of his poetry came about only after he completed “the triangular trade” of his historical origins—that is, the passage from Barbados to England, from England to Ghana, and from Ghana back to the West Indies. His verse developed a definite direction, he affirms, after he acquired a “sense of belonging.” And although he acknowledges a “European” influence through T. S. Eliot, he insists that his “major influence was perhaps the West Indian novelists who from the very beginning have been putting the speech of our people into our ears” (cited in Murphy 1970: 129). His explanation of how his verse production arrived at a point of aesthetic coherence clearly suggests a link in Brathwaite's mind between literary creativity and an awareness of one's sociohistorical ontology.

Rights of Passage is the first part of a poetic trilogy that subsequently appeared under the title The Arrivants (1973b). Divided into four sections, the poem announces its theme in its epigraph from Exodus (16: 1), which, in telling of the peregrination of the “children of Israel” upon their departure from Egypt, brings to mind the idea of journey, which pervades the text. The first section, “Work Song and Blues,” begins with a “Prelude” that sets the predominantly epic tone of the poem. Despite its peculiar line arrangement, the first stanza preserves a distantly perceptible echo of the Virgilian proemium: “Drum skin whip / lash, master sun's / cutting edge of / heat, taut / surfaces of things / I sing / I shout / I groan / I dream / about” (1973b: 4). The Aeneid is the story of a historic voyage, one which traces in mythopoetic terms the origins of the people for whom the poem is written. In Rights of Passage one is presented with “an impression of the centuries of migration Westward across the Sahara, from Egypt to the West Coast of Africa,” thus preparing the reader for the historic travel of the African people to their New World experience, which is a central concern of the poem (Rohlehr 1981: 23).

Early in Rights of Passage we come upon Brathwaite's stylistic exploration of a distinct sound quality to his subject matter. Passages such as “Here clay / cool coal clings / to glass, creates / clinks, silica glitters, / children of stars” (5) draw on phonetic resources to convey meaning. Scholars have identified this practice as a common feature of Brathwaite's poetic production (D'Costa 1968: 25; Rohlehr 1980: 15-31). The preference for language that highlights sonority has thematic implications. The poet often uses sound to suggest an antidote to the destructiveness of silence. In the poem, the fight for life, for survival, is frequently seen as a charge against silence. Silence evokes the predominance of desolation in the African soil where the slaves were first seized: “… Flies / nibble and ulcer: / tight silver- / back swarms bringing / silence, the slender / proboscis of rot” (Brathwaite 1973b: 6). Images of death and destruction accompany silence: “… until sudden burst, / the buzzing black ones that were / silence, swirl through the / sunlight” (6). Toward the end of the “Prelude,” the first person singular that opened the poem transforms itself into a collective voice, saying: “Flame is our god, our last defense, our peril” (8), enacting the bewailing of the slaves when faced with impending doom before the Middle Passage. This switch from singular to plural suggests a Protean conversion of the voice that occurs at various points throughout the poem. Implicit in this practice is Brathwaite's notion of the harmony between the one and the many in a social group as the ideal relationship between an individual and his or her community.

The speaker in the poem, “Tom,” has a very clear sense of sociohistorical identification, a definite idea of his origins, and a complete understanding of his place in his community. Derived from the central figure in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the character of Tom has been seen, particularly among African-Americans, as archetypical of the individuals who passively submit to oppression and who become champions of the interests of their masters (Malcolm X, 1966). This poem, however, presents us with a view of Tom that shows the character's human depth and obdurate dignity. His apparent servility and submissiveness conceal a profound sense of resistance, to “mouth ‘Massa, yes / Massa, yes / Boss, yes / Ba as’ and hold my hat / in hand / to hide / my heart / hoping my children's eyes / will learn” (15-16). Lloyd Brown has correctly pointed out that “considered as a whole Tom is as ambiguous as the circumstances of his conception. His habitual self-negation is actually a thinly disguised mode of defiant survival” (Brown 1984a: 150). Tom's use of the first person plural indicates a clear awareness of his unique history as well as of his sociocultural alterity vis-à-vis those in relation to whom he must live in subservience: “we who have achieved nothing / work / who have not built / dream / who have forgotten all / dance / and dare to remember” (Brathwaite 1973b: 13).

“The Spades,” the second part of Rights of Passage, also begins with a “Prelude.” It explores the various transformations of the African descendant in the New World and Europe and surveys some of the many human types that have arisen from the African diaspora. The multiple vocal characterizations that surface here have struck Mervyn Morris as a “lack of unity of tone” (1967: 64). It would seem more reasonable, however, to interpret these vocal shifts as an attempt by the poet to represent the “typical transformations of the Negro,” as Edward Baugh put it, or, in the words of Gordon Rohlehr, as “the several faces, masks, poses, and voices of the deracinated African in the New World” (Baugh 1967: 66; Rohlehr 1978b: 64). This part of the book, at any rate, concerns itself less with historical reminiscence and more with an assessment of the contemporary descendants of the African slaves. Their presence is undeniable in the cultural centers of Africa, the Americas, the United States, and France: “in the fall we reached De- / troit Chicago and Den- / ver; and then it was New / York selling news- / papers in Brooklyn and Harlem. / Then Capetown and Rio; remember how we / took Paris by storm: Sartre, Camus, Picasso and all?” (Brathwaite 1973b: 36).

The text entitled “Folkways” explores some of the known stereotypes constructed around African descendants, including their sometimes demeaning self-characterizations. But most evident here is the concern with the music of the folk: “o' this work-song singin' you singin' / the chant o' this work chain” (32). Through the allusion in the title and in the text to Folkways Records, the concern established by Alan Lomax to promote American Negro music around the world, we are reminded that music has often been one of the avenues of survival used by the African descendants. In lines such as “quick bugle / train, black / boogie- / woogie wheels / fat / boogie / woogie waggons / rat tat tat” (33), the language clearly aims to reproduce onomatopoeically what has been called “train blues.” Also, the somber languor of the blues is intended in these characteristic lines: “Ever seen / a man / travel more / seen more / lands than this poor / land- / less, harbour- / less spade” (39). That these echoes of specifically Negro musical forms are central to Brathwaite's aesthetic plan in this book has been thoroughly demonstrated by Rohlehr (1980b: 32-40).

But certainly music has not been the only vehicle of survival. There has also been outright resistance in more militant terms. “Wings of a Dove,” whose speaker identifies himself as a Rastafarian, covers this aspect of the New World experience of the African. Here the speaker recounts the plight of his people, their articulation of the oppressor in ethnic terms, and their appeal to a favorable god. The text begins with stanzas spoken in standard English, but as the speaker reproduces the voice of what he calls “my people,” the tone of protest is heightened and a drastic change occurs in the morphology of the words: “Rise rise / locks- / man, Solo- / man wise / man, rise / rise rise / leh we / laugh / dem, mock / dem stop / dem, kill / dem an' go / back back / to the black / man lan' / back back / to Af- / rica” (Brathwaite 1973b: 43). Here is certainly an instance of what Louis James in a review of Rights of Passage referred to as Brathwaite's deliberate fracturing of “the conventional English cadences” to awaken the reader's attention to “the cadence of Caribbean speech” (James 1967: 41). But the practice has thematic implications as well. It presents language as being closer to the expression of the folk the farther it is from the standard forms of the schools and the upper classes. It insinuates also that the folk utter their wish for liberation in more militant terms than do those in the higher sectors of society. Marcus Garvey, one of the most intransigent leaders the black liberation movement has known, came from the folk. Similarly, Malcolm X, the most influential proponent of black nationalism in the United States, came from the lowest ranks of society. Perhaps those at the bottom, those suffering oppression in its crudest form, are quicker to speak an authentic speech of liberation. That possibility, at least, seems to be behind the switch in linguistic codes from standard English to Creole forms in the above lines.

The last two sections of the book, “Islands and Exiles” and “The Return,” dramatize the condition of dispossession of people in the Caribbean and their condition of permanent exile. A text suggestively entitled “The Emigrants” describes the lot of Caribbeans who for want of a productive existence in their lands often opt for testing their luck abroad. In the other Americas, the United States, and Europe, Caribbean people retrace the route initially charted by Columbus, but inversely, and find that those shores do not hold in store for “these New World mariners” the wealth and the prestige that awaited the Admiral in the fifteenth century. It is only rhetorically that the speaker asks: “What Cathay shores / for them are gleaming golden / what magic keys they carry to unlock / what gold endragoned doors?” (Brathwaite 1973b: 52). These deracinated Caribbeans do not often fare well abroad, especially in the Christian West, where they are often met with outright hostility: “Once we went to Europe, and a rich old lady asked: / Have you no language of your own / no way of doing things / did you spend all those holidays / at England's apron strings?” (55).

What is left for Caribbean people seems to be the option chosen by the speaker in “South.” There he turns his eyes back to the archipelago, declaring: “But today I recapture the islands' / bright beaches” (57). He rejoices in the natural beauty of the region and extracts from nature's very elements a source of historical hope: “And gulls white sails slanted seaward, / fly into the limitless morning before us” (58). That hopeful evocation of the area's potential gives the strength needed to assess realistically the otherwise hopeless situation of the West Indies as perceived by the speaker. He can then see the Caribbean soil as an intricate mixture of hope and frustration. From a picture of desolation, “the landscape with the broken homes” (61), in the poem “O Dreams O Destinations” we move to “The Dust,” where we find a moving portrayal of the wisdom of the folk. While evincing a measure of sociohistorical misunderstanding about themselves as a people and about their affinity with the people who “speak so / in they St. Lucia patois” (66), and while mouthing the conformism that often comes with Christian religious devotion, they instinctively sense things happening “widdout rhyme widdout reason” and feel dissatisfied with the prevailing order of things. Far from explaining their sorrows away, as their biblical training would encourage, they give vent to their doubt: “Why is that / what it mean?” (69). Because of its sensitive delving into the experience of the folk, “The Dust” has been called a “near perfect expression of the life, music and philosophy of the people” (Pollard 1980: 41).

When looking panoptically at the region, the speaker in Rights of Passage does not fail to pass judgment on the disciples of Mammon among African descendants, those with a strong proclivity to imitate their former masters when governing themselves in the Caribbean. Through mass education, they preserve the same patterns of thought fostered by the former slave-owners. Imitating the manners of the British and relishing their books, they, deprived of selves, go to school to learn how to be good British subjects. The pertinent question here seems to be: Where is the home of those who have been trained to be other than themselves: “In Paris Brixton Kingston / Rome? / Here? / Or in Heaven?” (Brathwaite 1973b: 77). The text poses a disturbing question and promises no easy answer. The speaker's historical past has not been easily visible to him and its legacy has often given cause for self-mockery and shame: “the old / unflamed remains / of Tom we sometimes / joke / about” (78). He seems to see no other alternative but to seek to define himself by his dispossession, which he, oddly enough, construes as an avenue of self-affirmation.

Rights of Passage closes with an “Epilogue” in which the speaker, after examining the journey of the children of the diaspora and their various legacies in the New World, declares that: “There is no turning back” (85). The conclusion is neither sad nor happy but crudely true. Uprooted from their African abode, the slave descendants became deracinated through the colonial transaction. Living now for centuries in the New World, they cannot truly call Africa their home. Any true search for a constructive existence in the present must begin with the conviction that the Middle Passage is irreversible. Clearly, we can read here an utter dismissal of the alternative proposed by Garvey's “Back-to-Africa” movement in the early twentieth century. This should not be seen, however, as a negation of the past in the search for origins, the valuation of cultural authenticity, and the coinage of an efficacious language. The point here, instead, seems to be that Africa provides not a home to which one returns but rather a source from which one draws understanding in order better to grasp the meaning of one's life in the Caribbean setting. As would later be said of the third volume of Brathwaite's trilogy, Africa becomes here a “fructifying interlude in the long task of finding a language and a ritual” befitting the Caribbean experience (Moore 1970: 186). One could infer from this the teleological notion that home is where one ends up, as opposed to the etiological proposition: “Home is where one starts from” that we read in the “East Coker” section of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (1971: 129). In Brathwaite destination takes precedence over origins, although the ability to go forward presupposes the empowerment that comes from knowing where one came from. For someone who has to contend with an ignominious past of slavery, dehumanization, and dispossession, home is not “where one starts from” but rather a stage to which one arrives, after one has survived the misery of the earlier stages. The collective title of Brathwaite's trilogy is called, not incidentally, The Arrivants.


The use of Africa as a source from which to draw understanding forms the core of Masks (1968), the second volume in Brathwaite's The Arrivants. “Only the fool points at his origins with the left hand,” says the Akan proverb that serves as epigraph to the book. The book is divided into seven parts. Its first part, “Libation,” begins with a “Prelude” that identifies the geographical and historical setting of the poem: “Out / of … the seven / Kingdoms: / Songhai, Mali, / Chad, Ghana, / Tim- / buctu, Volta, / and the bitter / waste was / Ben- / in, comes / this shout / comes / this song” What we have here is a lyrical—though not romanticized—exploration of the African past from the ancient empires of old to the arrival of the Europeans. Masks has been the subject of various close readings, chiefly by Rohlehr (1981) and Maureen Warner Lewis (1977a). The reading here focuses primarily on the poem's emphasis on tying the search for origins to a preoccupation with language and communication against an aura of religious significance.

Throughout Masks we find an emphasis on sounds and the rejection of its antithesis: silence. Particularly meaningful in this respect is “The Making of the Drum,” which enacts the stages involved in the construction of the drum in ancient African culture. The ceremony surrounding the creation of the instrument symbolizes the awareness of these traditional people with regards to the need for an antithesis to silence. This is clear when we hear of the exigencies around the choice of wood for the barrel of the drum. It has to be the kind of wood whereby “we hear the sounds / of the rivers; / vowels of reed- / lips, pebbles / of consonants, / underground dark / of the continent” (Brathwaite 1973b: 95). In her reading, Warner Lewis has found that sound (speech, song, music) and water are images of life and attainment whereas “silence and dumbness betray inactivity and death,” consistently revealing a clear dichotomy throughout the poem and occasionally appearing as a juxtaposition (Warner Lewis 1977: 19, 40). If one accepts this dichotomy as mythopoetically plausible, the meaning of this particular part of the poem emerges clearly. We can see that the drum is the most valuable object of these traditional people's craft because it is the vehicle through which the divine order can communicate with them. “God is dumb / until the drum / speaks,” we hear (Brathwaite 1973b: 97). The drum serves as the language of ultimate communication. This first section concludes with “Atumpan,” a text in which the actual sounds of the drum are reproduced (“kon kon kon kon / kun kun kun kun”) to conjure Odomankoma, the sky-god Creator, who in turn speaks through the sounds of the drum (98).

In general, the sonorous quality of Masks is achieved by a combination of onomatopoetic reproduction of drumming vibrations, the incorporation of ritual song forms and hymns, the introduction of various Akan words and phrases, as well as the exploration of Akan syntactical structures in English. One critic at least has, in an otherwise favorable review, objected to passages in the book that she finds more functional in sound than in sense, suggesting that the poem is bound by its rhetoric and exterior dimension (Risden 1968: 147). However, the more common view agrees with another critic for whom in Brathwaite the use of “sound itself” constitutes “another extension of the literary uses of language” (New 1978: 368). Warner Lewis, for her part, sees sound and sense in the poem as inextricable, proposing that, even in such instances as when the text is dominated by the “drum,” sounds cohere into the overall “voice” of the poem (1977: 60). Even when the result appears to be what a critic calls “a hybrid prosody,” the diction, syntax, and rhythm in Masks contribute to what Edward Baugh once called the “oneness of overall tone” (Lieberman 1969: 56; Baugh 1968: 209).

In the second section of Masks, “Pathfinders,” the text entitled “Ougadougou” (referring to the capital of Upper Volta, West Africa) significantly illustrates an important technique employed by Brathwaite. The words here are spoken by the Niger state as a persona. Talking in the first person as a character in a play, the speaker recalls in a spirit of self-recrimination the coming of warring visitors to the land: “Our errors before them; too soft, / too blandished, too ready for peace and for terror” (Brathwaite 1973b: 104). The states of Chad and Timbuktu also join the dramatis personae, and they too regret their lethal passivity. Finally, Volta, the personified river, symbol of the civilization that once flourished on its banks, speaks of a longing for the ancient glory of the empire (109). In every case, the speaker (state, river, or person) comes summoned by the mmenson, the orchestra used on state occasions to relate history in ancient Akan tradition, to “recount now the gains and the losses” (107), the past events of the land and its people. Through these various speakers, the poet allows himself the opportunity to rehearse diverse forms of telling in the text.

“Limits,” the third section of Masks, explores the desolation of the ancient lands and their inhabitants. The collective memory, in desperation for a better time, appeals, for spiritual refuge, to the Egyptian past: “But the lips remember / temples, gods and pharaohs, / gold, silver ware; imagination / rose on wild unfolded wings” (113). The speaker, however, reflects on the futility of overestimating a past which may also be filled with cruelty: “And Ra, / the sun / god's gold, / demanded blood / to make it sacred” (114). It is, therefore: “Time to forget / these kings. / Time to forget / these gods” (114). One can read into these lines the suggestion that one must, when assessing the past, sort out the recoverable values from those that are to be rejected. Much has certainly been lost, abused, and misused, but, as the speaker in “Techiman” affirms, “the way lost / is a way to be found / again” (119). The hope remains that the errors of the past can be averted in the future. Nor is it too late for repair because “Time's walking river is long” (120).

The next two sections of the poem, “The Return” and “Crossing the River,” are particularly important because they enact the return of a New World African descendant to the original soil of the West African coast. The speaker evokes a pathos-filled encounter with the ancestral land and people. Their meeting becomes the most touching when it comes to verbal communication. When the New World Negro looks at the ancestral Africans, he sees their “white teeth / smooth voices like pebbles / moved by the sea of their language” (124). They, of course, speak to him in the mother tongue: “Akwaaba they smiled / meaning welcome / aye koo” (124). He is treated ceremoniously according to the demands of traditional hospitality. They realize that he has come “back a stranger / after three hundred years” and would wish to activate his memory: “here is a stool for / you; sit; do / you remember?” (124). He does not recognize them and their manner any more than they remember him. Here as elsewhere, the poem dramatizes the near amnesia that separates the survivors of the diaspora from their ancestral ways, as Warner Lewis has appropriately observed (1973: 96).

The speaker here does not succeed, as Alex Haley in Roots (1976) presumably would, in tracing his beginnings to an original progenitor in the African continent. The return to the ancestral land leaves him with a sense of his disconnection. He utters this recognition: “I travelled to a distant town / I could not find my mother / I could not find my father / I could not hear the drum / whose ancestor am I” (125). The disconnection from people and from the land manifests itself also in language (Warner Lewis 1977: 56). For the fall of the glorious tribe in the past, as told by the speaker in “The Golden Stool,” can be expressed as triumph of silence and death over the reign of the living word: “the priests cried: / die. Let the tongues, / lips' labials, rot; / withering words in the hot / wind. If / you must speak, / wear a black mask / of silence; ask- / ing no elder to lead you / again through the branch- / es, through the path- / ways of prayer, / to Onyame's now / leafless air” (Brathwaite 1973b: 145).

The final section of Masks, “Arrival,” continues to dwell on the loss, but this time the speaker, who continues to be the New World African descendant, addresses contemporary African interlocutors. The arrival of the Europeans to the West African coast and the subsequent misery endured by their captives from the moment of uprooting through the various stages of the colonial transaction have colored the intervening centuries. Reddened by the legacy of bloodshed and darkened by the oblivion resulting from the obliteration of ancient cultural traditions, history for the African descendant can hardly evoke pride and joy: “I wear this / past I borrowed; his- / tory bleeds / behind my hollowed eyes” (148). The ancestral land also shows as much desolation as the New World abode: “Beginnings end here / in this ghetto” (149). The African soil cannot help, nor can the ancient household gods since they, when the invaders came centuries ago, did “not save us from pride, / foreign tribes' bibles / the Christian god's hunger” (149). Too long the machinery of destruction has prevailed, undoing the African people's sense of self and their creations, in the long colonial domination of the Europeans. In other words, “the termites' dark teeth, three / hundred years working, / have patiently ruined my art” (150).

Despite the irreparableness of his separation from the ancestral landscape and its people, however, the New World African descendant and his counterparts in the old continent preserve a deeper memory that makes itself felt at the level of language: “welcome your brother now / my trapped curled tongue / still cries” (148). Reference is made here to a sort of communication that transcends the centuries of uprooting and depredation. Perhaps the yearning for reconnection expressed implies a reliance on the oneness of the peoples of the black diaspora with those who remained in the ancestral lands. This sense of an urge for communication between Africans and the children of the diaspora may have to do with a human experience that encountered equal misery at both ends of the Middle Passage. The last words in Masks are “I am learning / let me succeed” (157). Spoken in the context of an invocation to Asase Yaa, the Akan earth goddess, those words would insinuate that it is in the areas of communication and understanding that the contact with the ancestral heritage can best equip the New World slave descendant. In this sense, the African journey of Masks' narrator justifies itself in the end as a journey of enlightenment and as a prelude to a “rediscovered voice” (Grant 1970: 187).


Brathwaite's Islands (1969) completes the poetic trilogy The Arrivants and significantly brings to closure the poet's “triangular trade.” Just as the previous volumes dramatize the plight of the West Indian “emigrating” from the New World soil, going to Europe and then searching for “roots” in Africa, Islands brings the speaker back to the Caribbean. Divided into five sections, the poem begins with a part entitled “New World” that fathoms the spiritual climate of the region. The first text, called “Jah,” the name the Rastafarians of Jamaica use for God, illustrates this religious concern. The initial impression bespeaks a blatant spiritual poverty prevailing in the area: “the land has forgotten the memory of the most secret places” (Brathwaite 1973b: 164). Then follows a prodding into the slave past to gather the remnants of a strong religious cosmology. We come upon the evocation of “Ananse,” the Protean “spider-hero of the Akans; earthly trickster, but once with powers of the creator-gods” (272). The epithets associated with the divinity (“dry stony word-maker, word-breaker, / creator”), whose close relationship with language is made evident, suggest to a significant extent that the search for a spiritual tradition in the area is not disconnected from the search for an authentic speech.

It becomes clear in “Shepherd” that, as far as the speaker is concerned, the local milieu, despite the initial appearance, is rich in spirituality. “The streets of my home have their own gods / but we do not see them,” he regrets (189). All it takes to “see them,” it would seem, is to enter into a sort of communion with one's surroundings so that one may be attuned to the language they speak. For they do try to communicate since: “the drum praises them / and the rope that loosens the tongue of the steeple; / they speak to us with the voices of crickets, / with the shatter of leaves” (190). The speaker utters his predications as a “shepherd” in the religious sense and more specifically as a “leader of the pocomania and other religious groups in the West Indies,” as Brathwaite's “Glossary” explains (275). His words, therefore, carry the weight of a collective regional voice. The general title of the second part of Islands, “Limbo,” also sheds light on what we see here as an attempt to emphasize expressions which, like the religion of the folk, can be considered authentic Caribbean forms. For “limbo,” a very popular kind of performance in Caribbean night clubs, was created in the area. Brathwaite's glossary describes it as:

a dance in which participants have to move with their bodies thrown backwards and without any aid whatsoever under a stick which is lowered at every successfully completed passage under it, until the stick is practically touching the ground. It is said to have originated—a necessary therapy—after the experience of the cramped conditions between the slave decks of the Middle Passage.


“Caliban,” another text in the second section of the book, contains implications for Caribbean religion and language. Inherited from Shakespeare's The Tempest, Caliban here becomes a spokesman for the region who clearly sees himself in contradistinction to the interests of the colonial power structure of the West. Curiously, Une tempête, Césaire's adaptation of Shakespeare's play in which Prospero appears as “le colonisateur” and Caliban as “l'esclave nègre révolté,” appeared in print the same year as Brathwaite's Islands. At any rate, Brathwaite's Caliban begins with a bitter assessment of the dismal condition of people in the Caribbean: “Ninety-five percent of my people poor / ninety-five percent of my people black / ninety-five percent of my people dead,” he says (191). A panoptic look at the region's history draws his eyes to pivotal moments which are also violent ones, and he asks: “How many bangs how many revolutions?” (192). His survey of contemporary events yields a no less problematic picture. Present complexity is symbolized here by two opposing poles. The “limbo stick,” on the one hand, smacks of sociohistorical alienation: “stick is the whip / and the dark deck is slavery” (194). The music, on the other hand, points to those elements in the local setting that contain the stuff of survival: “out of the dark / and the dumb gods are raising me / up / up / up / and the music is saving me” (195).

To resist his indentured existence, Caliban must fight off a history that has deprived him of many of the symbols of his human integrity. Spiritual elevation becomes a potential vehicle of his liberation. But implicit in the choice of the Shakespearean character, who wields the ability to curse as a weapon of resistance against Prospero's domination, is the realization that his rebellion must also occur in the sphere of language. The choice of Caliban as a persona presupposes a confrontation which is no less dramatic than the one enacted in “Rites,” a reworking in dialect verse of the short story “Cricket.” In “Rites,” as Kenneth Ramchand has pointed out, dialect and cricket are used in conjunction to suggest the drama of the islands (1976: 139).

In the third part of Islands, “Rebellion,” the connection between history, spirituality, and language is articulated in ways that are deeply meaningful for cultural authenticity in the Caribbean. The first text here, “Wake,” which a scholar describes as “a highly formalized poem whose function is to summarize this journey from negation to self-affirmation,” presents us with a speaker who seeks sociocultural self-assurance through the spiritual equipment contained in language (Rohlehr 1981: 239). We hear him beg: “mother me with words, / gems, spoken talismans of your broken tongue” (Brathwaite 1973b: 210). It is in the absence of “the Word” that the moral poverty of the islands is most deeply felt. “For the Word is love / and has been absent from our butterflies. / For the Word is peace / and is absent from our streets” (212). The Word here, apart from its religious connotation, refers also concretely to language. As Rohlehr has indicated, it is for language that the speaker begs his Ibo ancestors, whose “incarnation must result in poetry” (1971: 196). For the speaker in “Naming” it seems an unequivocal equation that the absence of language necessarily amounts to an absence of meaning, for: “What is a word to the eye? / Meaning” (Brathwaite 1973b: 217).

Languageless peoples lack the power to name things and, in a certain sense, to make things happen: “The tree must be named. / This gives it fruit / issues its juices” (217). The magical possibilities here attributed to naming recall the creative power of the Word in the African concept of Nommo as expounded by Janheinz Jahn in Muntu (Morris 1970: 19). Similarly unproductive is the use of language that cannot be called one's own. For the speaker in “Eating the Dead,” this can lead to confusion and, eventually, to muteness, marking the triumph of silence: “My tongue is heavy with new language / but I cannot give birth to speech” (221).

The political implications of the need and the quest for an authentic language are explored most meaningfully in “Negus.” The title of this piece alludes to “one of Haile Selassie's titles which Rastafarians freely employ as a substitute for Jesus” (260). The persona, placing himself in a postcolonial moment, speaks decidedly from the vantage point of one opposed to colonialism. In the modern period, the most overt signs of classical colonialism have been removed. But certain mental structures that get translated into cultural expressions still obey the command of a colonial social order. It is quite clear to the speaker, in that sense, that “it is not enough to be free / of the whips, principalities and power / where is your Kingdom of the Word?” (222). To direct one's destiny one must first be able to control one's language. Language is the ultimate confirmation of decolonization. Decolonization entails a possession, an appropriation of language. Therefore, the speaker declares: “I / must be given words to shape my name / to the syllables of trees / I / must be given words to refashion futures” (223-4). For Negus, as Rohlehr has aptly put it, “Independence must mean a new language, a redefinition of self and milieu” (1971: 197). The last line of “Negus,” which ends in an invocation of Attibon Legba, the vodou god of the crossroads, suggests that the struggle for the affirmation of “self and milieu” in the Caribbean has simultaneously political, linguistic, and religious dimensions: “fill me with words / and I will blind your God. / Att / Att / Attibon” (Brathwaite 1973b: 224).

The fourth and the fifth sections of Islands, “Possession” and “Beginning,” offer an inventory of the historical legacy of the West Indian region with the purpose of determining what can rightfully be owned. Toward the end of the poem one gets a suggestion of the youthfulness of Caribbean culture in the eyes of the poet and how such a view informs his artistic project. The emphasis on the past supposes an effort to create new possibilities for the future. One picks up the fragments of the lost heritages in order to better build a durable tradition. In this sense, a time that is past is an announcement of a beginning. Reconnection with one's surroundings and possession or appropriation of language must mark that beginning which corresponds to the refashioning of one's future.

The speaker recognizes that the region has created various forms and types. In “Tizzic” we find an individual who recalls the lumpen-proletariat. Indigenous to the sociohistorical condition of the area, this individual enjoys a sort of alienating freedom that tends to perpetuate his oppression (Rohlehr 1981: 302). There is also “Vèvè,” sign of the vodou religion and, consequently, symbol of the most authentic cultural forms forged by the Caribbean experience. The following lines are suggestive: “For on this ground / trampled with the bull's swathe of whips / where the slave at the crossroads was a red anthill / eaten by moonbeams, by the holy ghosts / of his wounds / the Word becomes / again a god and walks among us” (Brathwaite 1973b: 265-6). This is no mere resuscitation of the Western Logos, but a refashioning and validation of it via the power of Nommo as inscribed historically in the human experience of the people of the Caribbean. The revitalizing potential of this spiritual legacy has to do with the fact that, having survived the Middle Passage and the inhumanity of the colonial transaction, people here are just beginning.

Islands closes with a piece entitled “Jou'vert.” The word refers to the dawning of each Carnival Monday in the West Indies (Rohlehr 1981: 313). In re-creating the atmosphere of that festivity, the text suggests a possibility for synthesis between the liberated expression of certain regional types and the observance of authentic Caribbean forms. It proposes the grounds for a marriage between Tizzic and Vèvè under the aegis of the traditions of the folk. The carnival, an authentic expression of the creativity evident in what Brathwaite calls “the little tradition” of the folk, can serve for Tizzic as an outlet to his hedonistic energy, since this expression uses music and dance. Simultaneously, since carnival employs religious symbols and forms of worship, it can induce Tizzic into contact with native spirituality in a way that demands less sanctimonious sobriety than would be possible in “Vèvè” (Rohlehr 1981: 313 et passim). The location of these texts, at the end of the poem's last section, which is suggestively entitled “Beginning,” indicates that it is from these autochthonous types and forms that one must start any attempt to appraise authentic Caribbean culture. Cultural authenticity alone can provide the arena wherein there can be: “hearts / no longer bound / to black and bitter / ashes in the ground / now waking / making / making / with their / rhythms some- / thing torn / and new” (Brathwaite 1973b: 268-9). Brathwaite's review of Faustin Charles's volume The Expatriate draws parallels with his own Islands. He observes in closing that: “Both books, published late in 1969, are concerned with the possession of the Caribbean through word, metaphor, and symbol” (Brathwaite 1970a: 65).

Brathwaite's editorial success with Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands, and their collective republication in 1973 in one volume as The Arrivants, had little precedent for a poet of the region. Kenneth Ramchand credited the publication of Brathwaite's trilogy with having “at last brought poetry to the attention of the West Indian populace as something related to their lives” (1974: 197). The acclaim and popularity Brathwaite has enjoyed with an audience that encompasses readers from diverse class strata reveals the wisdom of the search for cultural authenticity. The trilogy brought him to the forefront of artistic discourse throughout the Third World, and his international reputation as a major poet rests largely on The Arrivants.

Shortly after the publication of the trilogy in one volume, three books of poetry by Brathwaite appeared in quick succession: Other Exiles (1975a), Days and Nights (1975b), and Black and Blues (1976). These lack the aesthetic cohesion of The Arrivants, their composition being in general less oriented by a systematic aesthetic program. Other Exiles, for instance, simply gathers shorter poems spanning a period of twenty-five years of Brathwaite's poetic career. In general, the tone of the book is subdued. The voice sustains a predominantly personal vantage point and at times engages itself in questions pertaining to the drama of the individual artist. Despite the absence of a sustained thematic core, however, geographically the locus is the Caribbean. Likewise, although the systematic exploration of language as a vehicle of cultural authenticity hardly surfaces here, one could detect in the sonority of the words a music which “is euphony related to, and expressive of, meaning” to use the words of a reviewer (Silken 1977: 230). Also, a good many of the poems included in the volume treat subjects related to local Caribbean history.

Days and Nights, containing basically a variation on a sequence of the same title that would appear in Mother Poem, the long poem Brathwaite was working on at the time, is a casual publication that ought to be seen as a fragment from a major poetic endeavor. Black and Blues, which competed for and won the Casa de las Américas poetry prize in Cuba in 1976, is also a gathering of shorter poems, many of which had appeared in earlier volumes while others would find their way into later ones. But despite the assortment of texts in Black and Blues, the organization of the collection gives it thematic unity. The experience evoked here is Caribbean and so are the voices through which the evocation happens. The voice that dominates the book at times speaks West Indian dialect, assuming the collective sound of the folk. Sometimes, inversely, a choric “I” expresses the sentiment of a collective consensus. Shango and Caribbean religion, Caliban and the history of the region, the tropical landscape, scarcity and dryness, beaches and sand, flora and fauna, the thirst for the word—most of the salient symbols of the local milieu are here. The following lines from “Harbour” evoke “self and milieu” in a way that evinces the contingent texture of the area's sociohistorical make-up: “yet here in the cup of my word / on the lip of my eyelid of light / like a star in its syllable socket / there is a cripple crack and hopple / whorl of colour, eye / it is a cool harbour” (Brathwaite 1976a: 82). The speaker's tone is, as in the conclusion of The Arrivants, optimistic. The optimism derives from the realization that the existence of multiple options provides the opportunity for a creative future. At any rate, “it is a beginning” (83).


The next major poetic text published by Brathwaite, Mother Poem (1977a), as the first volume of yet another trilogy, tackles the Caribbean experience with a focus on the plight of women. Localized in one specific island, Barbados, the text centers around the speaker's mother, who typifies women generally in Barbados as well as throughout the Caribbean. At the same time, the mother is also Barbados itself, a discrete historical locus in time and space, as well as all the other islands, “pebbles” floating in the unharvested sea of the Caribbean. Held together by a narrative voice that recounts the travails of the woman and the anxiety of her relationship with men (husband, son, preacher, boss, God), the poem occasionally intersperses monologues spoken by the mother herself. In general, the poem assigns the mother the role of preserver of culture, hope, humanity, and the word, anticipating the role given to Sycorax in Brathwaite's later work. Approximately one-half of the bulk of the book is written in dialect, “partly to create a voice for the speakers” and evoke the collective persona of the folk against the backdrop of a “search for an organic cultural tradition” (King 1980: 130).

At the beginning of Mother Poem the child-narrator speaks of the island-mother as a fountain of fertility: “my mother is a pool” (Brathwaite 1977a: 30). Though having endured depredation, she has kept her hope. Among her various calamities, she has suffered the dehumanization of her man, for whom she pathetically bewails: “My husband / if you cud see he / fragile, fraid o'e own shadow” (6). The official religion has not helped, so her telling of her present misery and grim future incorporates the language of Psalm 26 in a way that contradicts its biblical message: “and I will dwell in the house of the merchant for never” (9). Her history has made her privy to her country's conflicting spiritual legacies. While attending to the requirements of Catholicism, she must also answer the calling of the more autochthonous form of worship. She appeals to the bell, a symbol of official Christianity, to gain access to the depths of the vodou cosmology: “is the bell, pastor john / leh me racket / is the bell, pastor john. / leh me wreck it / till uh pour sounn in the Vèvè” (15).

The mother's sense of sociocultural self-recognition is clear. She sees herself in contradistinction to the colonizing legacy of the Christian West. She fears her children might get lost in the pit of alienating Western education, seduced by the crafty “Chalkstic the teacher” promising that for them “there would be the day” in order to beguile “another black hostage / of verbs” (24). Yet, she must remain occupied, ensuring the survival of the household by going to the “market bawlin' for fish” (25). She, who now goes “selling half-sole shoes in the leather / department” (36) as another way “of keeping her body and soul- / seam together” (36), has been on the go since she, as a youngster, “left school / taking up sewing since she was fourteen” and now has to keep selling anything she can find to make a living (38). The overall ambiance of poverty and suffering re-created in this part of the poem is set against sociohistorical and cultural opposites, with the Judeo-Christian capitalist tradition on one end and the native possibilities on the other. Brown, in alluding to these polarities in the poem, has termed them “cultural complexities,” that is: “standard English and island creole, Christianity and Afro-West Indian religious forms, the symbols of a deep-rooted, persistent colonialism and the musical modes (calypso, work-songs) of a vital, uncorrupted sensibility which the poet attributes to his Afro-West Indian folk” (Brown 1984a: 167-8).

The sequence entitled “Woo/Dove” juxtaposes thoughts on the ways of the creator “who calls the lightning down,” recalling the Lord's vaunting of his own almighty power when asked about the fairness of his designs in The Book of Job (Brathwaite 1977a: 41). Such is the background for a scene in which the mother, pressed by economic necessity, has to implicate herself in the virtual prostitution of her own child, whom she tries to soothe by saying things like: “it int hard, leh me tell he you / jess sad / so come darlin chile / leh me tell he you ready you steady you go” (44). The fate that befalls the mother and her children is really a microscopic representation of the lot of the people of the island. For, “all the peaks, the promontories” included, “there is more weed than food in the island” (46).

The desolation which castrates the West Indian's potential to become more fully human, as Paulo Freire would say, is associated in Mother Poem with a human disruption that comes with capitalist exploitation. In that context, even the people's proclivity to love themselves or their land finds itself impeded since “the broken lives, broken eyes / shattered syllables of leaves / cannot love you” (49). This desolation the mother, as a speaking persona, traces back to historical origins rooted in colonialism, whose remnants she sees in “the man who possesses us all / who has broken the heart of my father's hands” (54). The mother, who has somehow managed to preserve a potential for rebellion, refuses to accept passively the docility of her men. She urges them on, assuring: “i will carry the wit twitching rag / bearing your face, conveying you futureless race / in its burst bag of balls to your doorstep” (80).

The section of the poem entitled “Driftwood” suggests the possibility for the people of the region, the mother's children, to arm themselves with new strength, new meaning, freshly carved words. In essence, “they will wait: cutting their reeds / jagged eared knives working on wood / wreathing their own words” (113). The mother evinces her self-recognition as the voice of a community which defines itself by its subversion against a dominant order. The resources used by the poet in the text combine to highlight the contingent nature of the place, the situation, and the people appearing in the poem, what is called here “the manscape.” The contingency pervading the texture of Mother Poem has been noted by Warner Lewis, for whom the techniques of “line-internal rhymes,” a certain “Biblical lyricism,” the “oratorical crescendo of noun phrase accumulation,” and the echoing of “the phraseology of Rastafarian speech” all contribute to underline “the idiom of this anti-Establishment poetry.” The critic connects this element of socioaesthetic subversion to Brathwaite's nationalistic position which, as in Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wã Thiong'o, comes into view primarily through “an immersion in the language structures” of the metropolis and their recasting in the language of the people (Warner Lewis 1985: 111-12, 114).

Mother Poem closes with the speaker's recognition of the possibility of empowerment for people in the region. There is reference to a recovery of water, antidote to the gloom contained symbolically in aridity, paralleled by a recovery or possession of the word, antithesis of silence, to announce the rebirth and replenishment of the long crushed vitality of the mother and her children, the land and its people. Thus, “let it be hand and clap and tambour / and she will praise the lord / so that losing her now / you will restore her silent gutters of word-fall / slipping over her footsteps like grass / slippering out of her wrinkles like rain” (117). With its hopeful spirit and the expectation of a creative future for the “manscape,” the poem's conclusion signals an insistence on identifying human potential in the midst of pervading ruins.

The optimism typical of Brathwaite's idiom derives from the poet's belief in the indomitability of the folk, represented in Mother Poem by the persona of the mother, whose “soul goes marching on” (104), agent of resistance that she is. In a subsequent poem, Soweto (1979a), which deals with the moral annihilation to which the black majority in South Africa was put by the white regime, the speaker manages to see beyond the devastation of the human landscape to point to existing—albeit not conspicuous—sources of liberating productivity: “and we know, somewhere, there / there is real fire” (Brathwaite 1979a). Another poem published in the same year, written as a tribute to Cuba's national poet, the late Nicolás Guillén, illustrates Brathwaite's tendency to express the possibility for hope in terms of Caribbean people's access to what could be considered culturally authentic. Addressing Guillén as “the sunsum of our ancestors,” Brathwaite sings his solidarity with the Cuban poet intimating a linguistic commonality that goes beyond the limitations of English and Spanish: “and the sea between us yields its secrets / silver into syllables into sheets / of sound that bear our pain” (Brathwaite 1979b). Brathwaite's choice of title, Word-Making Man, for the poem to Guillén is worthy of note, since he appears to have inverted the title of the anthology of Guillén's poetry, Man-Making Words (1975) edited by Roberto Márquez and David A. McMurray. These anthologists in turn had taken the phrase from a sentence in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journals. Brathwaite's inversion gives to human beings power over words.


Brathwaite's Sun Poem (1982a), the second volume of the trilogy that begins with Mother Poem, stresses the connection—indeed, the continuity—between the plight of women and that of men. Using Barbados as its geographical focus, Sun Poem covers the same ground as Mother Poem but from the point of view of a voice that aims to capture the male experience in the island. The poem begins ab ovo, as it were, with a first-person narrator reminiscing the experience of things being born, stretching as far back as the beginning of time: “When the earth was made / when the wheels of the sky were fashioned / when my songs were first heard in the voice of the coot and the owl / hillaby soufrière and kilimanjaro were standing towards me with / water with fire / at the center of the air” (Brathwaite 1982a: 1). The main character in Sun Poem is a boy called Adam, which brings to mind the Creation in the Hebrew tradition.

The setting of the poem is recognizably West Indian. Most of the action recounted here takes place around Browns Beach, a clearly defined Barbadian setting. Likewise, most of the text consists of the boy's personal memories. He recalls discovering the sea on “that bright afternoon” (8), his compulsion to master the water by making it go “chow” as it did when the expert “beach-boys jumped / and the water wore wreaths where they disappeared” (12), his need to test his mettle before his peers by facing Batto “the shark of the sea-egg / season” (15), his final self-assertion against Batto (18), his boyish dreams induced by the sea (21), and his wish to transcend the respiratory limitations of humans so he could breathe under water like a fish (29).

The greater bulk of the material in Sun Poem centers around Adam's Bildung, his upbringing and coming of age in the island, his bitter-sweet passage to adulthood. Growing up inexorably entails a loss of innocence, and for Adam the bitter reality of his surroundings must speed and increase the sadness of the loss. “Looking back to the land / you would see that only the tallest trees were still / standing / but they were losing their colour / but they were losing their names / they didn't toss light anymore” (41), he says, recalling a world of physical decay. The picture of an environment marred by deterioration is perhaps paralleled by the memory of a corresponding dismalness in the human landscape: “the afternoon of fathers going grey / soft in the head / in the belly / in the heart / and where it hurts him most / is filled with looking out of windows / waiting for the bells to ring / bring news of recognition” (66).

There is much in the poem that could be read as autobiography, with Adam serving as the voice through which Brathwaite does his remembering. The sequence entitled “Fletches,” in which the speaker reflects on two family photographs, has an unmistakably autobiographical tone. The speaker uses these photographic impressions as a vehicle through which to recapture the memory of his father (87-8). In “Indigone” his “inward eye” relives the experience of seeing his father grieving the death of his “further progenitor” (94). Another sequence, the one entitled “Return of the Sun,” reproduces in verse form the chapter called “Christine” from Brathwaite's unpublished novel The Boy and the Sea, which Warner Lewis has described as an autobiographical text (1977: 1).

To say that the poem is largely autobiographical, however, does not limit the scope of its significance to the personal history of an individual. Here we find a practice that is typical of Caribbean writers, the tendency to connect personal experience with social observation. The picture re-created, remembered in Sun Poem is one of many men living in an oppressive social order, men who, powerless to extricate the root of their oppression, resort to behavioral patterns that connote forms of oppression, particularly against their women: “There is also the version of fathers / those who live on the dub side of mujeres” (Brathwaite 1982a: 69). The use of the word “dub,” which probably means “money,” as we gather from the Dictionary of Jamaican English authored by Cassidy and LePage (1980: 162), points to Caribbean men's economic exploitation of women. The very allusion to the genesis of everything at the beginning of the poem would bring to the fore the larger implications of Adam's recollections. In this respect, a critic has accurately stated that

by identifying the man's cycle of existence with the heavenly cycle of the sun, Brathwaite universalizes the autobiographical details and avails himself of a cosmic imagery of light and color which transfigures character, event, and situation and shifts the authority and effect of the poem from the autobiographical to the archetypal.

(McWatt 1986: 64)

There is in Sun Poem a meaningful marriage between personal memories and historical reflection. The mountains mentioned as central to the creation, for instance, would indicate an intent on the part of the poet to present the beginning in more global terms than are offered in the Old Testament. In referring to Hillaby (Barbados), Soufrière (St. Vincent), and Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), these “landmarks of the Third World” (98), the text incorporates into the large cosmic scheme of the Hebrew scripture a geographical scope which is more consistent with the world as we have known it in postbiblical times. At the same time, growing up for Adam entails his seeing himself as part of a larger community, a discrete people in a given regional reality and within specific historical, cultural, and spiritual legacies. The speaker learns of the time when “the loa came out of the sea” (51) and of his own closeness with the local pantheon. “Sun have you forgotten my mother / sun who gave birth to shango my uncle / who was fixed in his place by ogoun the master of iron” (53), he says in acknowledging his spiritual heritage of the archipelago's folk religions.

Adam grows not only “up” but also “down to the darker soil of himself fitting himself to new feelings,” coming to terms with the realization that, while “noisy on top,” he “was silent having no words to nourish that darker feeling” and “finding for the first time that there was other sea behind the high hills of the island's other shore” (39). Growing up (and “down”), then, leads to a historical “prise de conscience.” He recognizes the legacy of past events, whose repercussions connect him with people back in slavery times. “Soon after the blacks arrived plantations prospered” (53), he reflects. The reflection leads to an understanding of past sorrow, past subjection, past dehumanization, which must necessarily bring to mind the resulting history of rebellion, from the contemporary forms of anti-Establishment resistance symbolized in Rastafarianism (“an we burnin babylone”), to the more traditional forms of subversion represented by Caribbean preachers who used the pulpit to speak “brave words” (55, 61). His sense of connection with a tradition of resistance makes him see himself linked with Hannibal, revered by the speaker as a courageous, if pathetic, ancestor (63). Hannibal, having challenged the military might of the Roman legions in antiquity, may, especially given his African origin, serve as a handy symbol if one is looking for alternatives to the hegemony of the traditions inherited from Western imperialism.

From the allusions to a legacy of resistance, the speaker moves to the precognition of a future with potential for reconstitution and creation. The poem ends, in effect, with a further evocation of genesis. Instead of chronicling a completed event in the remote past, however, the vision of creation is rendered by means of the present continuous tense, highlighting, thus, the notion of present beginning and future possibility. The closing lines, “and my thrill- / dren are coming up coming up coming up / and the sun / new” (97), decidedly look forward in a spirit of hope. The use of the word “Sun” here, as in the title of the poem, suggests through phonetic association a threefold meaning: “Son” corresponds to the male child whose experiences are narrated in the poem; “Son” refers to the Afro-Cuban folk song form that is evoked in the last text in the book; and “sun” is the heavenly body that keeps us warm and in the poem is associated with the Afro-Caribbean divinity Shango. The word “thrilldren,” found in the texts that open and close Sun Poem, suggests both “children,” marking beginnings and potentialities, and the “thrill” connoted by the moment of creation either human or cosmic. Through the association of personal, historical, spiritual, and cosmic levels of significance and the contextualizing of language in the Caribbean experience, Brathwaite achieves here a harmonious fusion of “manscape” and words.


Brathwaite's second trilogy, still without a collective title, ends with the volume X/Self (1987). Suggesting the indefiniteness of the voice, that speaks neither for a he nor a she, the text features a collectivized self—hence “X”—which strikes one as an attempt to circumvent the pitfalls of individualism. An implication of the indistinct nature of the voice is that it conjures a speaker who reflects a condition of what Paulo Freire has called “dialogical” action, a state in which one has resolved the I/Thou contradiction and entered into a relationship of communion with one's fellow humans, all of whom become I's: “Subjects who meet to name the world in order to transform it” (Freire 1986: 167). Appearing four years after Third World Poems (1983a)—a volume which, consisting for the most part of poems gathered from his earlier books, does not merit a separate discussion—X/Self follows the historical explorations evident in parts of Sun Poem. But its tenor encompasses a wider spectrum, the Third World, and exhibits a more clearly subversive attitude vis-à-vis the Western tradition.

The voice that dominates the text in X/Self starts from a Caribbean reference point. But the vision of sociohistorical connection expands to the vast panorama of which the Caribbean is but a component. “Rome burns / and our slavery begins” says a refrain that recurs throughout the poem. The refrain suggests an indefectible link between developments in the history of the West and the events that have shaped the destinies of the people of the Third World. From the start, the superimposition of various slices of historical experience, sometimes chronologically distant and, on the surface, disparate moments and events within a boundless geography, becomes evident in passages such as this: “there are no olives left in lebanon / in the camp of the visigoths vercingentorix the arven in creole / chieftain / has met che has met kismet has met young doctor castro / liberators are being guillotined from heaven / along the ho chi minh trail / caesars daughter is pompeys wife” (Brathwaite 1987: 6). The layers of historical experience here pasted together, as it were, give us a sense of the temporal connectedness of events one has grown used to seeing as separate and isolated from each other.

One has grown used to seeing the human experience encircled within very limited geographies and has often failed to see either the links or the parallels that evince a global commonality among peoples in the world. Lines such as the following show a junction of human experience in the past along a geographically horizontal line of relationship: “cry babylon / galileo galilei is free / far out across the lake of galilee / the aztecs wheel around their painted whips” (9). The technique used here, as the author himself explains, is that of perceiving history as “one single, unfolding episode in montage: one image running into, echoing, continuing and extending another” (122). At times the geography serves as a unifying arena to combine stages of past time, as is the case with the characters of Hannibal, Patton, and Rommel (17), all of whom coincide in having led military campaigns in Africa. Arranged vertically in time and horizontally in space, the montage serves to expand the boundaries of chronology and geography. The thematic implication of this measure is that we can no longer see the experience of mankind in terms of a narrative that reduces everything to the history of the West, ascribing to all other human experience a merely tangential importance. Brathwaite's montage serves to reveal a picture showing a larger and more multifaceted mass of humanity than is made manifest in our history books, in which the “ascent of man” often appears to be equivalent to the rise of the West.

The expanded rendition of human history in X/Self sets the tone for critical analysis and occasional indictment. The sequence entitled “The fapal [sic] state machinery” explores the incestuous relationship of the Christian church and the powers of violence and exploitation through the centuries. It is the empire's adoption of Christianity as the religion of the state that comes to mind when we hear that: “in rome / god and his armies have become identified with each other” (17). In “Mont Blanc,” for instance, we come upon a reflection on the flourishing of Western technology and capitalism that recognizes modern advancements as indissolubly linked with the refinements of the forces of destruction: “industry was envisioned here in the indomitable glitter / … / there is more wealth here than with the bankers of amsterdam / more power than in any boulder dam of heaven / volt crackle and electricity it has invented / buchenworld nagasaki and napalm / it is the frozen first atomic bomb” (31).

Certainly the historical re-reading that we get in X/Self seeks to dissect some of the most cherished cultural myths of Western civilization. We get here a rendition of the story of Charlemagne, unifier of Christendom and first Holy Roman Emperor, that is very far from the saintly nobility with which he is depicted in La chanson de Roland. In Brathwaite's poem, “Charlemagne,” “hope / of the christians / destroyer of muslims / defender of rome” (24), made the glory of his name on the grounds that “he saved eu / rope from the so / called sterile fate of mulattoes” (24). Fountainhead of the Christian West which would later evolve into the stage of capitalist imperialism, Charlemagne as a cultural symbol could be seen as antithetical to the aspirations of the people of the Third World. The introduction of Caliban here, contrapuntally to the words of the Emperor, brings to the fore the contingent nature of the Western project. For the West becomes the West fundamentally through its self-differentiation from non-Christian cultures and peoples.

It is very significant that Charlemagne, portrayed here “dying at aachen” and prophesying “the downfall of the empire,” should foresee the imperial demise in terms of the destabilization of the language of domination: “the dialect of the tribes will come beating up against the crack / foundation stones of latin like the salt whip speechless lips / of water eating the soft stones of venice” (29). Implicit in highlighting the relationship between the predominance of the Latin language and the hegemony of the imperial legacy of Rome in the Middle Ages is the unearthing of a precedent for the subversive overtones perceptible in certain uses of language in the Third World, particularly in the Caribbean. Drawing on morphological variation, rhythmical devices, and a sonority that often rests upon semantic transmutations, X/Self aims to present language in a way that is divergent from the language of domination. “The poem's language, sometimes verging on incoherence, articulates the pathos of the two-way linguistic inheritance of the West Indies: the givens of an alien, dominant lexicon (the imported, educated langue de culture) and the remnants of African usages still existing in the islands,” says Joan Dayan in this respect (1988a: 506).

In “Dies irie [sic],” the speaker, clearly a voice of resistance, invokes the forces of justice in these terms: “day of thunder day of hunger / bring me solace bring me fire / give me penance give me power / grunt me vengeance with thy word” (Brathwaite 1987: 39). The word, we see, assumes the power of a weapon of redress. Consistent with that rationale, we see that those who are perceived as fighters for liberation earn the epithet of “sooth say / ers,” as Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Ghandi are called in “Mai Village” (69). In many respects the spirit of resistance to a power structure that seeks to undermine their sense of humanity is what most clearly connects the various peoples whose experiences figure in the poem. In Africa (“Nam”) and in the Caribbean (“Cap” and “Citadel”) people have had to struggle to maintain their dignity. The following invocation: “vieques porto bello choc guantanamo bahia O / black cat nany nanahemma do not desert us now” (94) appeals to the legacy of subversion against empire as it has taken place in the Caribbean region. Resistance takes place in the spiritual arena as well, and the speaker in “Sun song,” appealing to the local cosmology, invokes the restorative powers of the “spirit of the fire.” He conjures thus: “i summon you from trees / from ancient memories of forests / from the uncurling ashes of the dead / that we may all be cleansed” (98).

As X/Self draws to a close, there seems to be an increasingly perceptible relationship between spirituality, history, and language. First, the narrative voice recognizes the dual power of language to describe reality and virtually construct it. It is in language that “virgil invents aeneas as they set out for civilization,” and it is in language that, the speaker complains, “you make of me mysteries foundationless histories” (102). The word, therefore, ought to be appropriated by those whom it must serve. But that word must be changed, recast. It must be revitalized with the legacy of the folk, represented at one point by the figure of legendary jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson, so that it may, its sense of justice restored, set history aright: “word / and balm / and water / flow / embrace / him / he will shatter outwards to your light and calm history / your thunder has come” (111).

Characteristically, the volume ends in a hopeful outlook. Having appropriated the word, the central voice in the text offers a credo of empowerment. Abounding in historiographical and literary allusions, X/Self may be said to compare with Dante's Divina commedia and The Cantos of Pound in the wealth of its references. The text presents another stage, a global and more encompassing glance, in an aesthetic exploration that has marked Brathwaite's entire literary career. Twenty years ago a critic noted that Brathwaite's “most serious opposition is aimed at the Western Word, and his craft works carefully at expunging it from black modes of feeling and expression” (Ismond 1971: 58). Today that appraisal continues to seem valid, although one should probably warn that in Brathwaite blackness too undergoes a process of creolization. Nommo too is nativized by the Caribbean experience as much as Logos. This caveat should also ward off the temptation to construe Brathwaite strictly as the spokesman of the African heritage, with Walcott, as champion of European values, representing his polar opposite (Ismond 1971: 59). In keeping with the argument in the previous chapter, Brathwaite and Walcott reflect two of the ideological options available to Caribbean thinkers in their attempt to tackle the awesome dilemma of culture in the archipelago. Clearly, X/Self draws from diverse intellectual and cultural traditions just as Walcott's Omeros (1990) does. A fair treatment of this subject would avoid dichotomies. Reading The Arrivants, for instance, as “essentially a record of the stages of Brathwaite's life from feelings of exile,” as does King (1980: 131), tends to undermine the public tenor and epic breath of the trilogy and reduces its meaning. Similarly, focusing on the aesthetic distinction between the two major West Indian poets to celebrate Walcott and to slight Brathwaite's accomplishments, as does Walsh (1973: 63-5), is essentially an aberration. Avoiding extremes, one should instead explore the aesthetic and philosophical creeds behind the differences that mark the works of the two poets off from each other, starting, perhaps, with glossing the significance of Brathwaite's collective “we” and Walcott's personal “I,” as Anne Walmsley once proposed (1970: 157).

Independently of the relationship with Walcott, Brathwaite the poet continues to see himself as a builder of the sociohistorical reality in which he lives. Through a remodeling of the official language of the Establishment, he undertakes to recompose the fragments of a scattered history with the intention of chronicling the experience of his people in a manner that may be deemed culturally authentic. That is the program which informs the various facets of his literary creativity, and it is that program that provides the prism through which he looks at the works of others. One may note that three decades ago, he praised two anthologies of the literature of the archipelago by Coulthard (1966) and Howes (1966) for their contribution to expanding communication throughout the Caribbean, thus helping to break “down the barriers of language, politics and custom that separate us” (Brathwaite 1966b: 223). More recently, his various entries on individual Caribbean poets for a dictionary of contemporary poets (Vinson 1980) indicate a persistence of his view of the literary artist as a griot through whom the community speaks. In reviewing Dionne Brand's Winter Epigram, Brathwaite has continued to assign value to literary works in proportion to the writer's effort to reconstruct his or her reality with an eye on empowering the voiceless sectors of society (1985a). In that respect, I can hardly concur with a reading by Dash that depoliticizes the poet by stating that any “attempt to extract either cultural or political prescriptions from Brathwaite's work” could lead to treacherous ground, insisting on the “rejection of man as the product of an ideology” as presumably “the most important single idea behind Brathwaite's work” (Dash 1979: 226-7). My reading suggests, instead, that Brathwaite insists on a theory of language, culture, and on a philosophy of history that have strong political implications insofar as they aim to liberate the Caribbean mind from the throes of a colonial heritage.

Velma Pollard (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2178

SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “Francina and the Turtle and All the Others: Women in EKB.” In For the Geography of the Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 43-50. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Pollard examines the allusions and rhythms of Brathwaite poems that depict women as rescuers.]


He chooses Francina, a simple woman. She who “used to scale / fish in the market.” He makes her save the “humpbacked turtle with the shell-fish eyes …” (IS [Islands] 215).

Brathwaite, railing against the destruction of a park, something precious reserved for the use of the people, chooses a woman to be the rescuer. The turtle she saves is a symbol of what is dearest to him, to all people of similar mind-the island with all that is natural to it.

The poem rails against “the Mayor and Council / thin brown impressive men.” We meet them in the act of destroying the park to build a dance hall and a barbecue. We share the poet's outrage. The lake has become a parking lot. A macaw, monkeys and the “humped hundred /-year old turtle” must go. Francina rescues the turtle. She is the opposing symbol to what the city officials represent. A woman with no resources at all takes pity on the turtle which represents the real values of the islands. The city officials loudly declare that they will build

the island; hotels where there were pebbles,
casinos where the casuarinas sang,
and flowing fields of tourists for our daily bread

(IS 214)

This progress, this building of the island is in fact the island's undoing. Francina's act of rescue is an indication of some small hope; if any one will follow it up. While it is significant that she is poor:

… How she think she could spare
nine dollars an' thirty-five cents
for a wrinkle-face monster you can't
even eat, when she can't keep
she body an' soul-seam together—
I can't unnerstand it …

(IS 215),

it is even more significant that Francina is woman, nurturer, protector of the future for the next generation. It does not matter that she is not strong enough to fight powerful corporate men effectively. What is important is that she tries. The excuse, suggested with what sarcasm the poet can muster in these circumstances, is predictably not convincing:

… I suppose
she got a nose for slimy things
like eels an' red-tail lobsters
though muh eyes can't see
what she want wid a turtle that too old
to be yuh father. …

(IS 215)

Her act remains heroic. The poem is “Francina” from the collection, Islands, third book of Brathwaite's first trilogy, The Arrivants. He selects for the task of saving a civilization, a simple woman, an outcast of society really, scorned by most men. The creature she rescues is a turtle. The shell ensures its protection and survival beyond the century it has already lived. The lines exude the gratitude her poet creator feels towards Francina and wishes the reader to feel as well. There is deep warmth and affection here.


Before Francina (at least in order of publication) were the wise women gathering at evening in the small goods (grocery) shop in the village in “The Dust,” a poem which has become a true classic, appearing in most Caribbean anthologies. These women represent the people who, in Brathwaite's own words in another context, “from the centre of an oppressive system have been able to survive, adapt, recreate; have devised means of protecting what has been so gained” (Contradictory Omens 64).

They speak the language of the West Indian street-an anglophone creole (here a Barbadian version). It is what Brathwaite labels “nation language.” These women love, respect, care for each other. The latest arrival greets each one by name and immediately addresses problems:

Evenin' Miss
Evvy, Miss
Maisie, Miss
Maud. Olive,
how you? How
you, Eveie, chile?
You tek dat Miraculous Bush
fuh de trouble you tell me about?

(RP [Rights of Passage] 62)

Life is not easy. Times are hard. Nature is sometimes unkind. But they have forged philosophies which allow them to endure hardship without complaining, propped up by the support they receive from each other and by their faith in God to whom they constantly give thanks:

we got to thank God
fuh small mercies.
Eveie, chile …
an' agen
I say is Amen.

(RP 63)

There is no hopelessness here. The main speaker among the women names each blessing, lest we regard them as commonplace and pass over their value. They include the possibility of a child for the man you love, healthy offspring and a piece of land which is small but productive and your own. Perhaps most important is the faith and hope they find in the unfailing progression of time where nature's cycle repeats itself:

ev'ry day you see the sun
rise, the sun
set; God sen' ev'ry month
a new moon. Dry season
follow wet season again
an' the green crop follow the rain.

(RP 68)

This is the hope which allows them to endure the inexplicable tantrums of nature which make crops fail and visits other tragedies upon them.

These women bring to the world a message of survival in spite of misfortune, beauty in spite of ugliness and hope where one expects despair. This is the same message as that contained in the detailed description of Francina's saving the turtle. The difference is that where their actions are personal, protecting themselves and each other, hers is public. She is saving a world.


After her is a catalogue of women in Mother Poem, the first book of Brathwaite's second trilogy. Here he celebrates the endurance of woman who must nurture husband and children and on a grander scale, celebrates the Mother his island—Barbados.

“Calypso” (Rights of Passage) begins by explaining how the Archipelago of Caribbean islands came into being:

The stone had skidded arc'd and bloomed into islands …
… curved stone hissed into reef
wave teeth fanged into clay. …

(TA [The Arrivants] 48)

But when the stone does not skid it connects with the water and forms quick concentric circles around itself. The mind can draw an imaginary line from the stone center to the circumference of the farthest circle, a line that unites them all. Francina is the stone at the centre. The largest circle is the island-Barbados; the circles in between are all the women of Mother Poem. And all are linked ingeniously to Francina and in some way to the women in the evening grocery shop.

The cycle/circle in “… Dry season / follow wet season again” reasserts itself in Mother Poem. Rohlehr points out that mother is, “ultimately, a principle of renewal and rebirth” (Shape 191). Later, he comments that the sea is the major presence through which the perpetual ongoing movement of the life force is conveyed, and notes another cycle implied in the portraits of women ending with the death of the grandmother (193).

Francina is the kernel, the nam which is expanded into this major celebratory poem of woman. She has rescued the turtle, the symbol of the island and its future. There is hope if anyone follows the lead she has provided. In “Hex” (Mother Poem) we get a feeling of (temporary) despair. The poet loudly laments the signs of Francina's failure, on the body of the island:

all the peaks, the promontories, the coves, the glitter
bays of her body have been turned into money …
for master for mister for massa for mortal baas …

(MP [Mother Poem] 46)

And the Mayor and Council men, the evil male figures of destruction return here, in the various guises of plantation authority figures. They are embodied in the figure of Money/Mammon which breaks the land and breaks people. Through the complaints of women we find that he haunts the futures of children. Brathwaite's women, these wives and mothers, lament his effect on their husbands, watching with tears how he breaks them just as the council men broke the future of the Island. He is the “thin skinned merchant” who, in “Alpha,” represents “… the world Columbus found / … the world raleigh raided / … the plantation ground” where the husband works to death while the caring woman, the mother

sits and calls on jesus name
… waits for his return
with her gold rings of love …

(MP 4)

He is the Mammon who breaks the courage of the husband of the woman who in “Twine” is full of regrets as she compares his past with his present:

I know when I did first meet e
he did strong …
but if you look pun e now
fragile, 'fraid o' e own shadow

and explains that after all what made him so: “he never get no pension from de people” (6). He is the merchant the woman in “Bell” sings about:

the merchant own me husband
an me husband never home

(MP 12)

She curses and blames him for her husband's illness. She too notes the pensionless condition:

not a cent
not a bline bloody cent
not even a dollar a year for the rock he was wrackin
not even a placket to help pay de rent

(MP 14)

Predictably the poet records her resilience. She complains. This is not what she expected. But “to help enns meet,” she gets out and goes to work, “sellin shoes in de white people shop.” She becomes a worker like the other women in Mother Poem.

Like “Miss Own” who keeps “body and soul-seam together” singing “sign a bill here” as she sells “calico cloth on the mercantile shame / rock” (15), or the woman in “Horse Weebles” who sells “biscuit an saltfish in de plantation shop at pie/corner so she can keep “body and soul-seam together” (38), this woman is a prototype of mother. She sells in the shop full time but she also is doctor and seamstress for her family and she still finds the time and the energy to express the concern which links her to all other women in late night grocery shops, repeating accordingly the lines of an earlier poem:

evenin' miss
evvy, miss
maisie, miss
maud, olive
how you? how
you, eveie, chile?
yu tek dat miraculous bush
fu de trouble you tell me about?

(MP 38-9)

Eventually the woman becomes old and tired. In “Moth-air” she has worked too long and too hard. Her sigh comes from deep within her:

boy me feet heavy
de tiredness passin
like water clouds carryin
rain …

(MP 86)

She is gravely ill. The doctor comes around prescribing diet and pills. What folk wisdom says about dying is happening to her. Her whole life passes through her mind: her own mother's illness, her lifelong service to children and husband, her feeding the children coming home from the beach, rushing them off to “sabbath day school,” her bearing with silent endurance her husband's infidelities, all the while pretending not to know: “dese men doan know what a wo-/man does know …” (89). Near her end now there is no one to return nurture to her:

… she turns
alone to the o-
ven burn-
in burn-
in world


This is her end. The lines mark as well the endlessness of this kind of suffering that is the thankless reward for a life of sacrifice and hard work. There is a kind of passionate empathy here from the poet to this woman who is all women.

But Mother Poem will not end on a note of hopelessness, for Brathwaite is above all a poet of hope. Out of every “falling” situation he creates a “rising”: future out of past, birth out of death. The line “the midwife encircles us all” (“Mid/Life” 111) is perhaps his most eloquent expression of this way of seeing. “Kounfort,” the final movement of Mother Poem, indicates ways of comfort additional to those mentioned earlier, bound to the hounfort where world and spirit meet. In “Angel/Engine,” for example, the woman finds her comfort in the church/hounfort, an Afro-Caribbean version where the prayers are loud and there is breathless trumping:

praaze be to
praaze be to
praaze be to gg


and where the faithful are assured a seat on the Zion train.

Finally in “Driftword,” the last poem of the collection, all the mothers become one with the mother that is the island. The prototypical mother is drifting away. Through her “dead sea eyes” she sees the future generations who will save the island: those who

… will say no to distortions
who will pick up the broken stones
sloping them with chip and mallet out of the concave quarries …


Because of this kind of hope she is at peace at her death-“she knows that her death has been born”, and so is everyone else. On the page, that sense is achieved with Brathwaite's usual economy. He simply juxtaposes opposing notions:

so that losing her now
you will slowly restore her silent gutters of word-fall

(17: my emphasis)

I like to think that the composite woman at the end of Mother Poem is the transformed Francina who goes gently out

… into the sunlight
towards the breaking of her flesh with foam


Mark A. McWatt (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: McWatt, Mark A. “Looking Back at The Arrivants.” In For the Geography of the Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 59-65. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, the author looks back at The Arrivants, in which one can detect “subtle displacements and perturbations caused by the gravitational tug of the author's academic discipline.”]

My first publication after arriving at Cave Hill as a very green Assistant Lecturer in the mid-70s was a review of Kamau Brathwaite's Mother Poem in Bim magazine. The first paragraph of that review was not lacking in effrontery:

As a whole the poem sustains the reader's interest and there is much in it that is effective, but by some reverse alchemical process the golden poetic voice of the earlier poems has been transformed into that of a baser metal. …


At that time I had not yet met the poem's author, but someone suggested to me that he would be very displeased to read that and a few other sentences in the first paragraph of my review. This bothered me and I consulted my most approachable colleague at the time, Michael Gilkes, asking him what he thought. Michael said that he had not yet read the review but that Kamau was one of the most important and celebrated of Caribbean poets and why did I think he would care two hoots what was said about his work by a young Assistant Lecturer in his first published review. This advice was meant to console me, of course. Two days later Michael Gilkes came up to me and said: “I've now read your review and the first paragraph is not so much annoying as puzzling: after the negatives of that introductory paragraph you go on to show precisely why Mother Poem is a wonderful volume of poetry.” He then went on to give me a good piece of advice: “In future, don't worry with introductory rhetorical flourishes, just get down to the practical criticism.” I hope I've been able to follow his advice since.

Gilkes had seen through me—realized that the offending paragraph was mostly insincere rhetoric and was there more because of the precious alchemical image than anything else. Fortunately for me its point was lost as the review moved on to an appreciation of the poems themselves. The pretentiousness and posturing of youth? Certainly, but I also consider now that part of the problem may have been my inordinate love and admiration for the first trilogy—The Arrivants—which is something I still feel and is why I want to look back here at The Arrivants, in an attempt to assess something of what those poems have meant to me over the years.

Before that, however, I should say that I have long since come to consider Mother Poem [MP] one of Kamau's finest volumes of poetry, probably the one I most enjoy teaching, particularly to Barbadian students, and that, having got to know Kamau quite well (soon after the faux pas of my first review), I have found him to be entirely tolerant, helpful and generous, not only in encouraging my academic writing (on himself as well as on other Caribbean writers) but also my own efforts at writing poetry.

I read Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands [IS] as separate volumes during my undergraduate years at university in Toronto and they were an important part of my own self-discovery as a West Indian and a great influence on my thinking about the West Indies and its history. For me The Arrivants is still the most important of Brathwaite's works. In this trilogy the reader encounters most of the poet's major themes and obsessions and many facets of complex imagination and craft. Perhaps the foremost theme is history itself. Everything that Kamau writes is touched and coloured by a sense of history; sometimes this is very subtle—particularly when the poems are excerpted or appear in anthologies, taken out of their context in the trilogy—but if you read attentively you can always detect, in the orbit of each Brathwaite poem, subtle displacements and perturbations caused by the gravitational tug of the author's academic discipline, and this often makes for a mysterious, numinous quality in the poems and great richness of meaning and emotional impact.

The first volume of the trilogy, Rights of Passage [RP], begins with two poems which trace, in a rapid and highly evocative way, the large historical movements of a people across the continental desert to the west coast of Africa, and then the journey in chains across the sea to the new world. Here is the first stanza of the first poem, “Prelude”:

Drum skin whip
lash, master sun's
cutting edge of
heat, taut
surfaces of things
I sing
I shout
I groan
I dream
about …

(RP 4)

Thus are we introduced to the history of the New World Black man. The drum controls the rhythm of the poem as it does the rhythm of the life of the people, but in this poem it also reverberates with historical references: the stretched skin that is the percussive surface of the drum is or becomes also the skin of the black man which feels the slaver's lash and the fierce heat of tropical plantations. Thus the drum and its rhythm become part of the identity of the black man and, at the very beginning of the first journey, proleptically suggests the slave plantations many miles and years away. I can still remember vividly the excitement with which those drumbeat lines were read by me and probably by many of my generation in the late sixties. Now the technique is well known and ears well tuned to this poetic line and this rhythm (there are many imitators of Kamau among younger West Indian Poets), but then we were all like Keats looking into Chapman's Homer, savouring the wonder and newness of the poetry. However much the cruder Afro-Centrics and Cultural Nationalists among us may have beaten the African drum into a tiresome cliché, there's no denying the original power and freshness with which it was associated in those first Brathwaite volumes of poetry.

The other aspect worth pointing out in that first stanza quoted above is the way in which Brathwaite attaches an emotional freight to the historic references, indeed to history itself. The poetic form rescues the historical past from the dust-dry aloofness of the academic subject and reconnects it to the human subject in terms of fears and feelings. The four consecutive verbs at the end of the quoted paragraph—“I sing / I shout / I groan / I dream”—do not just fill in the emotional content of the particular historical reference, but also insist upon the varied and even contradictory nature of those emotional responses, as the verbs together indicate celebration, exuberance, pain and longing all at the same time. The dull continuum of historical time is thus compressed and conflated and its effects concentrated into paradoxical expressions and experiences. This is one of the aspects of Kamau's poetry that I value most—its sense of emotional and moral balance, achieved through its inclusiveness, through its paradoxes and seeming contradictions.

The first stanza of the second poem, “New World A-Coming,” is as follows:

Helpless like this
less like this
we meet you: lover,
warrior, hater,
coming through the files
of the forest
soft foot
to soft soil
of silence:
we met in the soiled
tunnel of leaves.

(RP 9)

Note the seeming contradiction in the sequence of nouns “lover, / warrior, hater” which nevertheless captures accurately the serial masks of the European in Africa, his various roles over time and the modulation of emotional responses from attraction to conflict to rejection. Perhaps this is how we arrive, at the end of the stanza, at “the soiled / tunnel of leaves,” where the very landscape or location has become morally tainted by the infamous acts that took place there. It's interesting the way the repetition of soft sounds reinforces the bitter leap from the soft physical soil of Africa to the harsh notion of the way in which the particular human encounter is “soiled” in a metaphysical sense—tainted for all time. Also the “tunnel of leaves,” suggestive of forest pathways where the encounters took place, also conjures up the morally darkened tunnels that led from the slave forts (like Elmina) to the ships of the middle passage. Such moments, when ordinary language leaps into extraordinary referential plenitude because of historical resonances, are frequent in Brathwaite's poetry, particularly in The Arrivants.

It is worth remarking that the pain of these historical memories does not lead Brathwaite to proclaim implacable enmities. The poetic techniques we have been looking at ensure that the scope and vision of the poems are always larger than the individual hurts they may contain. As with Walcott at the end of “Ruins of a Great House,” there's an inevitable movement towards compassion and understanding and a desire to learn from the experience. Hence we have the Uncle Tom figure in Rights:

hoping my children's eyes
will learn
not green alone
not Africa alone
not dark alone
not fear
but Cortez
and Drake
and that Ferdinand
the sailor
who pierced the salt seas to this land.


This passage at the end of the poem “Tom,” apart from indicating the generosity of Tom's dream that his children will acquire from their bitter experiences the skill and technology to master the physical world in which they live, lifts the mood of the poem out of the helplessness it expressed earlier, the way the frustrations and the despair of the “Spade” in “Folkways,” are alleviated and transcended by the rhythm of the “boogie woogie” train in the second section of the poem. This too is typical of Kamau and one of the reasons for cherishing these poems which taught a generation how to live with a painful past.

I'm suggesting that one discerns in The Arrivants the way drum rhythms, as well as phrases, themes and other aspects of content build into patterns which transcend individual poems or passages. The first two poems of Rights are about journeys across the desert and across the sea. Later on, in “The Emigrants,” we see the Black man on the move again:

These are The Emigrants.
On sea-port quays
at air-ports
anywhere where there is a ship
or train, swift
motor car or jet
to travel faster than the breeze …
Where to?
They do not know.


These later journeys contain thematic, verbal and circumstantial echoes of the earlier journeys and come eventually to create an inevitable pattern of journeying and to suggest drift and placelessness. In this way Brathwaite achieves a more powerful emotional impact that transcends all individual historical moments. I cannot but feel myself that this is where history should go, to the level of large patterns and designs which are entirely comprehensible in terms of how they came about and what they mean to a people, but are free of niggling scholarly disputes, individual hurts and dry dates and other particularities. To enjoy The Arrivants is to celebrate Kamau Brathwaite as historian as much as poet; by packaging history in poems, he teaches West Indians about themselves painlessly and without shrill polemic. (Perhaps if other prominent Barbadian historians had chosen poetry as the medium in which to educate their countrymen about history and historical figures, much recent controversy might have been avoided and fewer reputations called into question.)

Another aspect of The Arrivants that has always interested me is the persona, the voice we hear in the poems. Of course there are times when the voice comes from historical or archetypal figures, like “Tom,” literary and “folk” figures like “Caliban” and “Ananse,” and from contemporary figures of town or village, like “Tizzic” or the women in “The Dust.” But the voice is also that of a frequently undramatized but protean persona, who speaks to us throughout. What has always struck me is the range and the protean nature of Kamau Brathwaite's poetic voice in the trilogy. It can speak for a whole people, as in “Jah”; it can become the voice of the drum, as in “Atumpan” or, perhaps more interestingly, in “Tano”:

damirifa due
damirifa due
damirifa due
due …

(M 151),

or can express personal memories, as in “Ancestors” or “Ogun.” There are times when the voice stutters and claims to be unfamiliar with speech, as in “Eating the Dead” (suggesting strategies of resistance or for recovering lost modes of expression), and times when it gushes Nation Language like a river in spate, as in “The Dust” or “The Stone Sermon.” But one senses that behind this voice lie years of silence, of voicelessness. The poetry gives a people their history, but also their voice: the strategies for expression and self-discovery, for emerging from the “soiled” tunnel of the past. There's a sense in which the voice, the breath of the poems, is itself the interpellated subject, the one called into being or constructed by the specific ideological and discursive machinery that we all acknowledge, and this subject speaks for us all, with a voice that is our own, for, as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin contend:

Although ideology serves the interests of the ruling classes, it is not static or unchangeable, and its materiality has certain important consequences. For while ideology is dominant, it is also contradictory, fragmentary and inconsistent and does not necessarily or inevitably blindfold the ‘interpellated’ subject to a perception of its operations.

(Key Concepts 222)

Brathwaite's poetic voice transmits its perceptions and strategies to its people.

Finally, there are times when the voice seems to be simply that of, if not Kamau Brathwaite, then “the Poet,” the one planning future voices. To illustrate and celebrate this, I end with a passage from “Dawn” which seems to point, in terms of subject, rhythm and feeling, towards the second trilogy, especially towards Mother Poem and Sun Poem:

Till the sun enters fine, enters fine, enters fin-
ally its growing circle of splendour
into the eyes of my father,
the fat valley loads of my mother
of water, lap-
ping, lapping my ankles, lap-
ping these shores with their silence:
insistence of pure
light, pure pouring of water
that opens the eyes of my window
and I see you, my wound-
ed gift giver of sea
spoken syllables: words salt on your lips
on my lips …

(IS 238)

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612


Asein, Samuel Omo. “Symbol and Meaning in the Poetry of Edward Brathwaite.” World Literature Written in English 20, no. 1 (spring 1981): 94-104.

Examines symbols in Brathwaite's poems, especially symbols of circularity in individuals and civilizations.

Brown, Stewart. “Sun Poem: The Rainbow Sign?” In The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 152-62. Melksham, UK: Cromwell Press, 1995.

Sun Poem is given a close reading to reveal Brathwaite's use of rainbows as symbols and metaphors of healing.

Chukwu, Augustine. “Bridging the Gulf: The Ancestral Mask and Homecoming in Edward Brathwaite's ‘Masks.’” UFAHAMU 11, no. 2 (fall-winter 1981-82): 131-39.

Discusses Brathwaite's use of imagery in his poem “Masks,” especially in representing the poet as a “living diviner” who connects the past and present and Africa and the Caribbean.

Cobham, Rhonda. “K/Ka/Kam/Kama/Kamau: Brathwaite's Project of Self-Naming in Barabajan Poems.” In For the Geography of the Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 297-315. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.

Brathwaite's transformation from “Edward Brathwaite” to “Kamau Brathwaite” is traced through his collection Barabajan Poems.

Dawes, Kwame. “Kamau Brathwaite.” In Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, edited by Kwame Dawes, pp. 22-37. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Discusses the role of the writer in the Caribbean and themes like exile.

Ezenwa-Ohaeto, “From a Common Root: Revolutionary Vision and Social Change in the Poetry of Brathwaite and Chinweizu.” Journal of Caribbean Studies (1991): 89-104.

Ezenwa-Ohaeto applies a Marxist reading to the poetry of Brathwaite and the Nigerian poet Chinweizu.

Grant, Damian. “Emerging Image: The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite.” Critical Quarterly 12, no. 2 (summer 1970): 186-92.

Grant describes several themes running through the three volumes of The Arrivants, focusing primarily on the effects of memory and rediscovering African roots among the African diaspora.

James, Louis. “The Poet as Seer: Kamau Brathwaite.” In Caribbean Literature in English, pp. 185-91. New York: Longman, 1999.

Brathwaite's use of stone and mother images is shown to be present throughout his career.

Pagnoulle, Christine. “‘Labyrinth of Past/Present/Future’ in Some of Kamau Brathwaite's Recent Poems.” In Crisis and Creativity in the New Literature in English, edited by Geoffrey Davis and Hena Maes-Jelinek, pp. 449-66. Atlanta: Radopi, 1990.

Pagnoulle examines Brathwaite's “essentially ludic (though also extremely serious) attitude to language and reality” that helps him break down the walls between past and present.

Pattanayak, Chandrabhanu. “Brathwaite: Metaphors of Emergence.” The Literary Criterion 17, no. 3 (1982): 60-8.

Discusses how Braithwaite's poems are informed and enriched by his use of history, aesthetics, and music.

Warner-Lewis, Maureen. “Africa: Submerged Mother.” In The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 52-61. Melksham, UK: Cromwell Press, 1995.

Brathwaite's poems are given a close reading and shown to contain many examples of African words used in the contemporary context of Barbados.

Williams, Emily Allen. “Whose Words Are These? Lost Heritage and Search for Self in Edward Brathwaite's Poetry.” CLA Journal 40, no. 1 (September 1996): 104-08.

Discusses the continuities of the past in the present as found in Brathwaite's poetry.

Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. “Edward Brathwaite and Submerged History: The Aesthetics of Renaissance.” In Historical Thought and Literary Representation in West Indian Literature, pp. 182-222. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Brathwaite's poetry is described through the writer’s endeavor to find “community and image through a drama of consciousness ….”

Additional coverage of Brathwaite's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Eds 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 26, 47, 107; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 11; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; Discovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.

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