The awarding of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature to Derek Walcott helped bring poetry of the Caribbean region to world attention. Readers of Kamau Brathwaite did, however, detect a downside to this news. While Walcott’s own achievements in poetry are certainly worthy of recognition, and while the attention given to him may have helped to shine a little more light on other literature of the region, Walcott was a decidedly safer choice for the award than the equally worthy Brathwaite would have been, if only because Walcott generally sticks to the conventions of standard written English. Kamau Brathwaite, who stands with Walcott as the other living giant of Caribbean poetry, writes in a mixture of dialects drawn mostly from the Caribbean region, which are used to create a poetry that is inclusively pan-Africa and pan-Third World. To read through a number of Brathwaite’s poems with any degree of understanding is to explore this internationalist, pan-Africanist aesthetic that Brathwaite has charted.
In poetry circles, Brathwaite is best known as the author of two trilogies of poems focused on the Caribbean islands. The first three volumes, Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969), were republished as a single volume called The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973). Taken as a whole, The Arrivants constitutes a spiritual journey through the Caribbean, to the English and African sources of Caribbean culture, and back to the Caribbean with a vision transformed. The second trilogy, comprising Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poem (1982), and X/Self (1987), takes a slightly broader view, focusing on the mix of voices in the Caribbean region rather than the growth of an individual consciousness, and adds consideration of the nature and limitations of sex roles to Brathwaite’s discussion of race and geography. He is also well known as the author of many nonfiction works about Caribbean society and literature, including The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (1971) and History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984).
MiddlePassages is a collection of fourteen poems, many of which were included in his earlier trilogies, some of which are more recent. Though the book was published in 1992 by a British publisher, its publication by New Directions marks the first time one of Brathwaite’s books of poetry has been published by an American-based publisher. As the title suggests, there is a running theme regarding the effects of slavery on Caribbean culture and indeed on the world, but the title also carries other suggestions. In The Zea Mexican Diary (1993), which includes excerpts of Brathwaite’s personal diary, recorded around the time of his wife’s death in 1986, the entry that reports his wife’s death is titled “Middle Passages.” This suggests that the title has deep reverberations for Brathwaite, not only of the grief caused by the passage of slaves across the Atlantic but also of the spiritual passages that death entails for both the dead and the living. Journeys, especially the journey to African roots, is a recurring motif in MiddlePassages.
Written from the perspective of an inhabitant who watched Christopher Columbus landing, “Colombe” suggests the lyric beauty that this inaugural European visitor to the Caribbean islands must have seen: “yellow pouis/ blazed like pollen & thin/ waterfalls suspended in the green.” Did Columbus understand the violence to which his discovery would lead? “But did his vision/ fashion as he watched the shore/ the slaughter that his soldiers// furthered here?” In the final image of the poem, Columbus strides to shore, oblivious to the crabs snapping at his feet. Columbus as Brathwaite envisions him is not an evil man, nor particularly a great man. Instead, he is a dreamer who is oblivious of the effects of his dreams upon others.
“Duke Playing Piano at 70” pictures Duke Ellington’s wrinkled hands as alligator skins, swimming easily along a piano keyboard. In the old musician’s music, the poet hears echoes of Bessie Smith, the great blues singer who was known as “Empress of the Blues,” as well as of Jesse Jackson running for president to “keep hope alive.” For Brathwaite, Ellington’s “alligator skin” hands are at once artifacts of the past, participants in the present, and harbingers of the future. By the end, a renewal has taken place; the poet urges, “look/ the old man’s alligator hands are young.”
Music is central to Brathwaite’s poetry; he uses any number of devices to bring the sense of music to the printed page. His poems sing and sway and bounce and thunder with all the African-based music that he can squeeze into them. For sheer beauty, no poem in this collection tops “Flutes.” Describing the sounds of bamboo flutes, Brathwaite...
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