The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878

X/Self is a book-length work divided into five parts, which are further divided into individual, closely connected poems. The thematic and stylistic connection among these shorter poems is so strong that the work is best thought of as a single, unified poem. As such, it is also the final third of a larger sequence that Edward Brathwaite began with the publication of Mother Poem (1977), continued in Sun Poem (1982), and concluded in X/Self.

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The title of the poem has a complex meaning. The figure of an “X” within the poem implies the crossing of cultures, such as the crossing of an imperialist European culture with African and Native American cultures, which is the collective legacy of the Caribbean peoples with whom Brathwaite, a native of Barbados, identifies. Because of the confusion that such a legacy can cause within an individual, the “X” also has a second meaning as the “X” in a mathematical formula, the unknown element that the mathematician—or in this case, the poet—is trying to identify. As a whole, the title X/Self implies that the self of the person born into a colonized state is, to an extent, an unknown element. Further, it becomes clear throughout the poem that Brathwaite is writing not only about Caribbean people but also about people from colonized and Third World nations throughout the world.

Two lines repeated throughout the poem are “Rome burns/ and our slavery begins.” By this, Brathwaite implies a connection between the fall of the Roman Empire and the enslavement of various peoples around the world. In his many references to such things as slave revolts against Rome, the re-enslavement of a Brazilian republic of ex-slaves by the Portuguese in 1696, and the slaughter of children by South African forces during the Soweto uprising of 1976, it becomes apparent that Brathwaite views the fall of the Roman Empire as an event that made future empires feel justified in resorting to slavery to suppress “others” whose independence might threaten the might of the empire. That is, the devaluation of women that Brathwaite writes about, as well as the enslavement of African and Native American peoples, have been politically justified throughout the ages as a means of maintaining political order.

Brathwaite conveys this idea through an astounding array of poetic techniques, among them, a facility with words that seems to decompose language even as it composes with it. Thus, many visual and verbal puns are apparent in his writing: “Cincinnati” becomes “sin/cinnati,” “hallelujah” becomes “hellelluia,” and in a pun that has to be read aloud to be appreciated, Christopher Columbus’s first name becomes a question when written as “Christ/opher who?”

Similarly, just as he tries to re-envision language by looking at it differently, so he tries to reimagine history and culture by looking at familiar figures in a new light. Christopher Columbus, for example, appears many times throughout the poem, not as the brave explorer of legend, but as the man who began the process of enslaving and destroying the people of the new world. Prospero, from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), also appears, but envisioned as a plantation owner rather than a benevolent magician, while Caliban, from the same play, appears as a native who has been enslaved and forced to speak his master’s tongue. Similarly, Richard Nixon appears as Augustus Caesar, while a character in a 1960’s television situation comedy, Julia, is compared with a daughter of Caesar, also named Julia.

These elaborate references and jokes are part of what Brathwaite himself, in notes that follow the poem, refers to as “magical montage.” Taken together, such images have a jazzy feel to them in that, much like jazz, they provide what seems to be a freshly improvised version of old tunes. More than simply a spirit of play, however, is being conveyed. Brathwaite is also deliberately trying to subvert traditional views of culture and history by improvising his own views from his own perspective. That is, the rapid, freewheeling associations that are made in his poetry are a way of saying that European culture and history belong to him, as a member of a society that has been shaped by European imperialism, as much as it does to the Europeans. He has a right to provide his own interpretations.

Because his references are so wide ranging—from the Greek philosopher Socrates to the black actress Diahann Carroll, and from T. S. Eliot to the Martinican poet of negritude Aimé Césaire—many readers will find his poetry quite dense and difficult. As an aid to readers, the poet includes eighteen pages of notes at the end of the poem, explaining and commenting on many of his references. In a brief introductory comment to these notes, Brathwaite admits that he provides these notes with “great reluctance,” afraid that some readers will be misled by them into reading his poem as an academic exercise built around these notes. Perhaps because of this reluctance, the notes have an idiosyncratic flavor all their own. They do not read as dry, academic notes, nor as mere comments, but often as an integral part of the poem, which not only clarifies but extends the type of interpretation of history that is going on in the main poem.

Forms and Devices

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Without a doubt, the most important poetic device employed by Brathwaite in this poem is his use of historical and cultural allusion. Brathwaite, however, relies on allusion so heavily that this allusion becomes cultural and historical revision.

Although the poem does not adhere to a strict outline, the reader will notice a general progression throughout the poem. The earlier sections, sections 1 and 2 especially, focus on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. His view of the Empire, though, is not of a unifying force throughout the world but of one that spreads death and destruction. Not only does he call attention to many revolts against the Empire, but he also associates these with later revolts against other empires, such as (in the section entitled “Salt”) a Haitian rebel, Toussaint Louverture who, near the turn of the eighteenth century, led a successful revolt against France. Similarly, later wars and battles, such as (in the section entitled “Nix”) the 1961 United States-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, are compared to battles waged by the leaders of Rome to maintain the Roman Empire.

As the poem develops, however, it becomes clear that at least as much as the poem is interested in reinterpreting the grand sweep of history, it is interested in the human cost of individual battles and revolutions and other such mayhem.

In the section entitled “Edge of the Desert,” for example, he writes:

rome burnsthe desert multiplies its drought into this childwhose only drying water is his pools of singing eyes therechad sinksand forest trees crash down.

The relation between the destruction of these empires and of the land is not purely a metaphorical one. Empire building and empire destruction has a very real ecological cost.

Among the most important allusions the reader of X/Self encounters are the allusions to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, particularly to the characters of Prospero and Caliban. In the section entitled “X/Self’s Xth Letters from the Thirteen Provinces,” a character writes (in a dialect characteristic of Barbados) to his mother on a computer. In the references to Prospero in this letter, he is recast as a plantation owner, while Caliban, his unwilling servant, is seen as an enslaved native of the island whose attempt at rebellion failed. Readers who recall that Shakespeare’s Caliban appreciates language only because it allows him to curse will appreciate the pun Brathwaite makes when he says “for not one a we should responsible if prospero get curse/ wid im own/ curser”; even others will appreciate the wordplay in the footnote that describes a “curser” as the “tongue of the computer.” The wit, however, should not overshadow the meaning: Use a man as a machine, and the “machine” that is created will rebel, if only in language.

Not the least important echo within this poem is that of T. S. Eliot. Not only might a long, footnoted poem remind one of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), but the title of the last section, named “Xango” after an African god of thunder, recalls the final section of Eliot’s poem, entitled “What the Thunder Said”; more important, Brathwaite’s poem comments on The Waste Land by re-envisioning it. That is, Brathwaite’s poem (like Eliot’s) traces the descent of Western civilization. It does so, however, not through tracing its devaluation of art—a common reading of Eliot’s poem—but by tracing the destruction this Western tradition has caused by looking at its sometimes devastating effects on peoples’ lives.

X/Self

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Long relegated to the margins of the “English” literary tradition, Caribbean poetry has begun to emerge as a significant influence on the development of politically aware aesthetics throughout the Western hemisphere. In part, this emergence reflects an increased awareness of the region on the part of cultural power brokers. Derek Walcott’s MacArthur Fellowship, for example, drew attention to the fact that the writing emanating from St. Lucia, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados is of far more than provincial interest. Combined with the established audiences for “mainland” Latin American writers (Gabriel García Marquez, Manuel Puig); for Afro-American writers of Caribbean descent (Paule Marshall, Michelle Cliff); and for Caribbean music—particularly reggae and dub—the attention granted Walcott and Trinidad-born novelist V.S. Naipaul may now translate into an increased awareness of other Caribbean writers grappling with their region’s complexity and contradictions.

Less widely recognized in the United States than either Walcott or Naipaul, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, a native of Barbados, is a figure of equivalent importance. Throughout his career, Brathwaite has struggled to unravel and reweave the tangled strands of a cultural heritage which combines European, Native American, and African elements. Repeatedly, Brathwaite has emphasized the impact of Euro-American value structures, especially as propagated by electronic communications media, on the Caribbean matrix in which he—and his people—must construct workable individual and communal identities. The final volume of a trilogy begun in Mother Poem (1977) and Sun Poem (1982), X/Self is Brathwaite’s most comprehensive statement on these ongoing themes. In Mother Poem, Brathwaite examines the actual and archetypal situations of Caribbean women as they have adjusted to a pervasive, Euro-American-inspired devaluation of the “feminine,” including the land itself. Emphasizing the failure of Caribbean men to respect or support the women and children, Brathwaite explores their compensatory but—in purely economic terms—inadequate strengths. Moving beyond the cliché of masculine irresponsibility, Sun Poems focuses on the nature of the men’s attitudes, identifying a Euro-American denial of black masculinity equivalent to the denial of the feminine. Manifested in a brutal economic system and a nearly surreal media environment, the Euro-American presence establishes a vicious cycle which drains vitality from both men and women.

X/Self seeks to move beyond the impasse described in the first two volumes of the trilogy. Writing in an appropriately complex voice that combines the intricacies of modernist poetics with the politically assertive rhythms of dub and reggae, Brathwaite envisions a new form of Caribbean identity based on the invocation of powers associated with African spirituality and the Caribbean landscape. In general outline, this project parallels those of Brathwaite’s poetic ancestors in the diaspora—Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Aime Cesaire—and contemporaries such as Walcott, Audre Lorde, and Jay Wright. Perhaps Brathwaite’s most important individual contribution to this communal project is his attempt to educate the counterforces on the nature of the Euro-American problem. Brathwaite offers no hope of an immediately realizable Afro-Caribbean alternative to Euro-American culture. Rather, as the “X” of his title intimates, he envisions a crossing of identities. Resonating with multiple cultural symbolisms, “X” can represent Christ, the lost names of Africans taken into slavery or, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., observes in Figures: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self (1986), the “trope of chiasmus” which is basic to the subversive expressive traditions of the diaspora. Perhaps the letter’s most basic significance in the context of Afro-Caribbean expression is its reference to the crossroads where the desperate individual can encounter and bargain with powerful spirits, whether the Devil of the Afro-American South or Legba in the voodoo traditions. As Houston A. Baker, Jr., observes in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1985), the crossroads “X” incorporates both the aesthetic and the cultural dimensions of the black writer’s literary situation. Like Robert Johnson in his classic blues “Crossroads,” Brathwaite stands at a cultural crossroads which, even as it threatens to render his life unlivable, offers unique resources for creating a voice capable of subverting the language—expressive and institutional—in which it speaks.

In X/Self Braithwaite traces the patterns outlined in Mother Poem and Sun Poem to their historical roots in recurrent patterns in European history and psychology. Several thematically integrated sequences of poems in X/Self focus on the tendencies in European culture toward devaluation and destruction of other traditions. Sounding the leitmotifs of Brathwaite’s critique, the opening lines of “Salt"—“Rome burns/ and our slavery begins"—are repeated a dozen times in the volume. The fall of the Roman Empire plays a crucial role in Brathwaite’s historical meditation for two major reasons. First, it established at the core of subsequent European thought a fear of the “other,” whether barbarian invader or black African. Second, it encouraged the globalizing tendency of the Western tradition, giving impetus to attempts to unite church and state in the service of an absolute truth:

in romegod and his armies have become identified with each othereach sees the others amber’d facerivets and clanks obey certain immutable lawsthough nobody opens their mouth to say what they are what theymean

Viewing the history of the post-Roman Western world from the eyes in his “others amber’d face,” Brathwaite asserts that the underlying meaning of the “immutable laws” linking “god and his armies” is the destruction of alternative cultures. In “The Fapal State Machine,” Brathwaite traces the origins of this tendency to an underlying fear of chaos, the unknown:

without this apparat this parthenonthis fapal state machine..............................there will beriots fires insurrections nkrumah’s heedless statue broken downthe universal sun eclipsed by man and time and chaos

Rather than risk this chaos, Europe attempts to reconstitute a unifying social structure even more imperial—less tolerant of diversity—than that destroyed at the fall of Rome. Imaged in the broadcast media and the “industry” which “out proportions the parthenon,” contemporary extensions of such tendencies do not differ qualitatively from their medieval antecedents.

One of the most problematic implications of the Western drive for unification involves its attitude toward language. Brathwaite’s translation of the Western attitude reads: “There is no other world or worlds or word for world or eyes.” Brathwaite responds to this linguistic and aesthetic imperialism in two ways. First, he demonstrates a mastery of European idioms—particularly that of high modernist poetry. A common strategy employed by Afro-Caribbean poets from Claude McKay to Walcott, this ironic homage serves both to defuse attacks from the aesthetic representatives of imperialism and to establish the ground for the second element of the subversive voice. Informing Brathwaite’s use of modernist forms is his awareness of poetic resources which articulate the survival of Afro-Caribbean consciousness. Place names, vernacular expressions, and, most important, musical rhythms echo throughout X/Self, infusing every aspect of Brathwaite’s work with the complex irony intrinsic to what Afro-American theorist W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.”

As a result, when Brathwaite alludes directly to T.S. Eliot—as he does at least a dozen times in X/Self—he encourages the reader to reassess the significance of the high modernist treatment of a particular situation. In “Shaman,” for example, Brathwaite revoices the tarot imagery associated with the hanged man in The Waste Land (1922) to comment on the quintessential modernist theme of the “unreal city”: “when i saw where rome was burning/i cried out jesus christ was the hanged man of industrial/bir-mingham...” Indeed, recasting a “philosophical” or “psychological” theme in starkly economic terms is one of Brathwaite’s characteristic methods of subverting the modernist idiom. Although it would be simplifying Eliot to say that his concern is purely individualistic—he certainly recognized Prufrock as representative of a large class of people inhabiting a cultural wasteland—Brathwaite’s political assertiveness differentiates his voice sharply from those of his Euro-American modernist predecessors.

Acknowledging an important model for his own subversive project, Brathwaite pays homage to Robert Hayden, probably the most influential Afro-American poet to draw heavily on high modernist aesthetics. Echoing Hayden’s “Runagate Runagate"—an onomatopoeic term based on the sound of a fugitive slave stumbling through the darkness—Brathwaite’s “Stone” asserts a shared experience;

i remember the chainand the chain gang sweatand the gong gong of disasterrunagaterunagate

Paralleling the climax of Hayden’s poem, which juxtaposes the heroism of the “anonymous” runaways to that of abolitionist leaders such as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, “Stone” celebrates South American freedom fighters such as Simón Bolívar. Located outside the symbolic Babylon of the United States, the Afro-Caribbean poet strikes a clearer revolutionary note than does his Afro-American contemporary.

Ultimately, Brathwaite—like Hayden, Walcott, Lorde, and numerous other poets who have revoiced traditional Anglo-American poetic forms—seeks to go beyond subversion, to envision a truly alternative Afro-Caribbean identity. Invoking the Afro-Caribbean spirit/power Xango, Brathwaite urges his readers to

touchhimhe will healyou

The primary expression of this healing power is the music of the African diaspora which, like Xango, assumes a variety of forms depending on the precise location—temporal and spatial—in the diaspora: “bop hard bop soul bop funk/ new thing marley soul rock skank.” At his most powerful, Brathwaite writes not only of, but with, the implicitly political power of his musical heritage. Envisioning a form of language less compromised by its contact with Euro-American power, Brathwaite writes of an experiential language based on “black and bone and riddim” in which

his syllablestaste of wood of cedar lignum vitae phloxthese gutteralsare his own mon general mon frere

For the present, this alternative language remains a vision. The implicit identification of Afro-Caribbean expression with an “untainted” nature is certainly susceptible to philosophical and political critique. Yet Brathwaite is by no means simply naïve. Even as his lines suggest a psychological and aesthetic space beyond Euro-American power, they acknowledge the actuality of that power; here he echoes Charles Baudelaire’s famous address to the reader—“mon semblable, mon frere"—which had previously been echoed in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Once again the individual/psychological malaise of the modernist tradition assumes a political/revolutionary form in the Afro-Caribbean world. Although it does not create a new world, X/Self provides one of the most incisive analyses of the problems that must be faced in negotiating the crossing.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11

Source for Further Study

The Times Literary Supplement. September 4-11, 1987, p. 946.

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Themes