The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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:...

(The entire section is 587 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Source for Further Study

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