Tidalectic Lectures: Kamau Brathwaite's Prose/Poetry
by Anna Reckin
Anna Reckin is a Ph.D. student in the Poetics Program at the
State University of New York at Buffalo. Her poems, essays, and
reviews have been published in the U.S.A. and in England.
This paper looks at the ways in which Kamau Brathwaite draws
on spatial paradigms in his work, in particular, paradigms that
call attention to dynamic, sonic, and performative aspects of spatiality.
I am interested in bringing together and overlaying some ideas about
the key words in my title: Kamau Brathwaite's use of the term "tidalectic"
and the notion of a sound-space. Three works, "History of the
Voice," Barabajan Poems, and ConVERSations with Nathaniel
Mackey, are discussed here as examples of a particular kind
of sound-space, the transcribed lecture: an all-too familiar cultural
space in the academy and the literary world that Brathwaite transforms
into a venue for a dazzling performance on the page that encompasses
drama, bibliography, autobiography, poetry, polemic, geography,
literary theory, history, and much else besides.
Key to an understanding of this kind of space are its dynamic
qualities. Brathwaite proposes “tidalectic” as “the
rejection of the notion of dialectic, which is three–the resolution
in the third. Now I go for a concept I call 'tide-alectic' which
is the ripple and the two tide movement” (Naylor 145). Even
the word-play between these terms, with its unsettling near-anagramming
of "tida-" and "dia-," seems to perform a tidalectic
movement in microcosm. On a larger scale, Brathwaite has suggested
that it describes the structure of trilogies such as Mother Poem,
Sun Poem, and X/Self, and the reprise of these three
in Ancestors shows the “tidalectic” as a creative
process; a process that I would argue also shows up very clearly
in his radical reworking of the lecture form in the three texts
I discuss here.
The tidalectic also describes a nexus of historical process and
landscape, as in the following passage in ConVERSations which
provides a defining image of the Caribbean and its origins, an "on-going
answer" in Brathwaite's words (29): the image of an old woman
sweeping the sand from her yard early every morning, who is
in fact performing a
very important ritual which I
couldn’t fully understand but
which I’m tirelessly tryin to .
And then one morning I see her
body silhouetting against the
sparkling light that hits the
Caribbean at that early dawn
and it seems as if her feet,
which all along I thought were
walking on the sand . . . were
really . . . walking on the wa-
ter . . . and she was tra
velling across that middlepass
age, constantly coming from h
ere she had come from – in her
case Africa – to this spot in
North Coast Jamaica where she
now lives . . . (33, ellipses as in original)
“Like our grandmother’s – our nanna’s –
action,” Brathwaite says a little later, “like the movement
of the ocean she’s walking on, coming from one continent /
continuum, touching another, and then receding (‘reading’)
from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future”
This trans-oceanic movement-in-stasis, a to-and-fro and back
again that is idealized and mythologized as well as highly particularized
("North Coast Jamaica") and historicized (the reference
to the "middlepass") can be thought of as one aspect of
something that can be termed a space--I would argue, a sound-space--with
the following defining characteristics:
- It presents a kind of recursive movement-in-stasis that is
anti-progressive (the tidalectic) but also contains within it
specific vectors: the westward, northward movements of the slave
trade, the westward push of the harmattan, for example.
- It is concerned with a sense of relation that is expressed in
terms of connecting lines, back and forth, not only across the
surface of the ocean–and there are clear parallels here
with Glissant's "poetics of relation" and the shipping
routes that Paul Gilroy discusses in his Black Atlantic–
but also in the form of airwaves and "bridges of sound"
(radio broadcasts and sound recordings, for example) that connect
colony with colony and colony with metropole, often enacting tidalectic
- It has access to something "beyond;" typical of Brathwaite's
work is a fantastical layering of New, Old, and other worlds.
Vital here, and of course connected with the formal features noted
in the previous item in this list, is the phenomenon of "hearing
through" between layers, and between times and places, which
has a particular application in Brathwaite's work in terms of
the practice of vodoun.
"Hearing- / reading-through" is also one of the key
mechanisms articulating the inter-generic qualities of the texts,
particularly noticeable when they are produced in "video-style:"
the kinds of moves that use, for example, different type-sizes
for what might be identified as secondary material or explicatory
notation–although these may also have independent lives
as poems or songs. Such interpolated materials, Brathwaite's version
of modernist collage, are not so much interruptions or even digressions
but rather add a sense of enlargement and revelation. If annotation
and citation can often be seen as devices to restrict the meanings
of a text by calling attention to detail, particulars, specified
authorities, Brathwaite's additions simultaneously particularize
and extend. Often playful as well as deeply serious, they insist
on the on-going importance of traditional academic and bibliographical
tools for scholarship for West Indian history and literature–especially
in the face of the neglect he considers them to have suffered,
an important theme in all three texts discussed here. At the same
time, they work transformatively, making creative use of typographical
convention and opening up the work to new contexts, and to wider
and deeper layers of signification.
In fact, the reader's movement in amongst some of the most thickly
layered parts of Barabajan Poems and ConVERSations
itself resembles a tidalectic action that is very different from
the straight up-and-down-the-page, or front-to-back-of-the-book
reading that is required by conventional scholarly annotation.
To give one example from ConVERSations, the tidalectic
in the movement of an old woman sweeping (33) is embedded in the
course of a long answer by Brathwaite to a question from Mackey
in ConVERSations about new trends in his work since 1986
(24). Surrounding this passage are interpolations in a cursive
typeface and shown in a narrow column that describe the poverty
of the Jamaica North Coast, for example: "is not a Jamaica
North Coast bikini situatio /(n) that you would go to tomorrow
or at Thank / sgiving. This is not the North Coast of the great
/ hotels, James Bond, 'GoldenEye' and tourism. / This is a ole
yard, okay? . . ." (29-30). There are also various footnotes
that deal with what Brathwaite calls "the Sisyphean statement"
(30), Brathwaite’s negative paradigm for Caribbean repetition
which always ends, like Sisyphus’ stone, back where it started,
hope and effort wasted, in stark contrast to the back-and-forth
flow of the tidalectic. Brathwaite’s notes at this point
become more and more scholarly identifying Walcott's phrase "the
testament of poverty" as its locus classicus, providing a
date for it, giving a lengthy quotation from Walcott's poem of
that title with a citation for its publication in the magazine
Bim, and supplying commentary locating "this negative
tra-(d)" within Anglophone rather than Hispanic Caribbean
writing, this time with bibliographical references to Brathwaite's
own work (30-31)
- It exhibits the performativity of sound: sound that reveals
trans-oceanic relation (through rhyme and rhythm); sound that
animates sound-space and brings the living and the dead into our
presence–on the beach, under the tonnelle, through
the "cool & glint & trinkle" (Ancestors
29) of water in limestone; sound as manifested in the calypso
rhythm of the skipping stone that skids, arcs and blooms "into
islands" ("History of the Voice" 272). For all
these reasons, form is of crucial importance; the old woman's
"moment and movement and grace and terror walking on the
water" described in ConVERSations cannot be caught
in "imposted meters," Brathwaite says, meaning iambic
pentameters and tetrameters (35) and revisiting one of the key
arguments of "History of the Voice." The revelations
that are brought about by interconnecting sound and landscape
can work at many levels. For example, the very next move in the
passage quoted above about the old woman in the coastal landscape
is to Miles Davis, "that muse/ical who was himself creating
a spine of coral sound along our archipelago. . . . singing the
shadows of the clouds that move across our landscape" (35),
at the same time as Davis is described as making song/ making
landscape / making movement and connection in landscape, a series
of combinations of c and l, often threaded with s's, loop through
the lines, and picking up key words--muse/ical, coral, archipelago,
- It exploits the potential of typography and book design to
produce a textual kinetics. This is achieved partly through the
use of a layered, palimpsestic text the trace of the tidalectic
on the page–which can be connected with an understanding
of particular topographies as palimpsestic, as always holding
the possibilities of a variety of readings, histories, levels
of interpretation; and partly through what Brathwaite terms his
"video style," a mixture of typefaces and font sizes
that features the distinctive Sycorax face designed by Brathwaite
himself, and which is often decorated with graphics styled to
look like elements from a font type. The books in the video style,
which include ConVERSations and Barabajan Poems,
are also very attentive to the space of the page and the way that
the reader moves within the space of the book.
Brathwaite's highly developed use of typographical marking, which
manipulates the hierarchies of graphic design, provides stepping
(and skipping?) stones for a range of intra- and inter-textual
manoeuvres, including, as Cynthia James (360) and Rhonda Cobham
(300) have noted, a mimicking of hypertextuality.
A detailed discussion of the video style would warrant a separate
paper; here I'd like to emphasize what it shares with other aspects
of Brathwaite's treatment of sound-space: its textual dynamics and
its function as a site for other-wordly presencing. For example,
ConVERSations describes the Sycorax typeface in terms of
a recuperation of Caliban's mother as "the lwa who, in fact,
allows me the space and longitude – groundation and inspiration
. . . that I'm at the moment permitted" (189). In other words,
through her foregrounding of one important aspect of textual materiality,
typography (in this case the remarkable innovation of a type that
has been made by the writer himself), she produces the conditions
for poeisis–which the reader sees in process, performed
on the page and in the book through the application of the video
style. The loa doesn't merely inspire the poem, nor does she speak
through the poet; her first task is to make space and ground from
which to speak, from which the poem can be heard.
Examination of the spatial aspects of literature can sometimes
be used as a way to identify what may be seen as conservatism, essentialism,
or regression to a static pastoral ideal in a text–Afrocentrism
seen purely in its regressive aspects, for example. Implicit in
such critique is the idea that spatial constructs necessarily work
prescriptively. Here I would like to argue for Brathwaite's work
as an example of the way that attention to the spatial can offer
the reverse–possibility, subversion, transformation, multi-directional
openness. Whether the soundspace configures itself as lecture (as
delivered, as written, as recorded), or ocean, as shore or radio
broadcast or hounfort, one of its primary functions is as a channel
of communication. But sound-space as described here is more than
simply an exuberant and joyful place where diverse sounds meet and
jam together. What is being described is also, of course, a metaphor
for the complex operations of creolization. Brathwaite's video style
is evidenced in O'Grady's tyrannical trickery, enforcing mimicry,
refusing "nam, the precious deep vibrations of the
mmmmmm. . . . [and] against Kinta Kunte. . . . against
woodsmoke & breadfruit cookin / down in de gully . . . against
Damballa dancing in the D'Ogou belly" (Barabajan Poems
248). And all three texts here are sited at Legba's cross-roads:
"on this ground / on this broken ground" (The Arrivants
266, Barabajan Poems 266).
This discussion focuses primarily on the more innovative features
of Brathwaite's treatment of textual, historical, and geographical
space. Also important, but not discussed in detail here, are conventional
uses of spatial reference; for example, the lyrical descriptions
of Barbadian landscape which inform the poet's discovery of his
voice through his connection with specific places, a theme that
is particularly powerful in the early sections of Barabajan Poems.
Or, the use in that same text of a series of landscapes to structure
biography and the development of consciousness / mythology, and
thence the shape of the book itself–as shown in the sequence,
Brown's Beach: "Genesis;" Mile & Quarter: "Revelation/Possession;"
and Bathsheba: "Re/Creation of the Gods/Cosmos/" (96).
The three lectures that are the subject of this paper provide
arenas for the performance of the kind of sound-space I have been
describing and also discuss it thematically. The earliest, "History
of the Voice," exists in at least three published versions.
One of its appearances in print was in English Literature: Opening
up the Canon, a collection of papers from the English Institute
meeting in Harvard of 1979, edited by Leslie Fiedler and Houston
Baker, where it was given the title of “English in the Caribbean:
Notes on Nation Language and Poetry, an Electronic Lecture.”
Baker gives an interesting frame for that lecture in a note:
Professor Brathwaite says of nation language that, “When
it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you
lose part of the meaning.” Surely this written representation
of Professor Brathwaite’s unscripted remarks, which I have
edited, loses some of the magnificent force and meaning that his
live performance conveyed in Cambridge. The reader, for example,
will not only miss the sound of Professor Brathwaite’s voice
but also the sound of the taped recordings and accompanying music
that added much to his presentation. Nonetheless, the following
remarks are in themselves quite remarkable in what they convey of
a new sense of sound, and noise, emerging from the present-day Caribbean.
I should also mention a second (anonymous) note (the first one
was signed H.A.B.), which tells us that “Professor Baker’s
sensitive version has been further revised by the speaker, who has
added footnotes and some texts.” Here, in the revisions and
revisitings of the text and in its early title as an "Electronic
Lecture" can be seen practices that carry on into the production
of the other lecture-poems. Barabajan Poems, published in
1994, developed out of a lecture given in 1987 at the Central Bank
of Barbados. What was originally a speech given at a formal occasion
and attended by such dignitaries as the Prime Minister of Barbados
(who introduced Brathwaite's talk), is transformed into poem, autobiography,
vodoun performance (at key points we are explicitly invited into
the tonnelle), and protest against the mistreatment and neglect
of Barbadian history, culture, and landscape. Lastly, ConVERSations
with Nathaniel Mackey, published in 1999, started out as the
transcript of a particular kind of literary occasion, a public discussion
between the two poets in 1993, and builds on their on-going poetic
conversation, including an earlier published interview in Mackey’s
magazine Hambone in 1991. Similar to Barabajan Poems,
it expands into autobiography, bibliography, history, and polemic.
These lectures can also be seen as manifestations of sound-space
and the tidalectic process in some of the details of their production.
The "taped recordings and accompanying music" that Houston
Baker referred to in the note quoted above included some items that
worked as illustrations and examples alongside others that seem
to produce acoustically one kind of creolized heteroglossic sound-space
I am arguing for in Brathwaite's work. For example, a recording
of a reading of one of McKay's poems by the poet himself is followed
by the Agnus Dei from Fauré’s Requiem
(276); while a recording of George Campbell's work read by “our
Milton of the Caribbean” (the words that Brathwaite uses to
describe George Lamming), is followed by the opening of Beethoven’s
Fifth (278). It helps that Campbell’s poem mentions “destiny”
and “knocking at the door ”! Playfulness apart, the
point is to make an argument about the ways in which rhythm communicates–an
argument that is extended by bringing West Indian nation language
and its precursors into the sound-space of the Cambridge Massachusetts
academic lecture: the words and music of the Mighty Sparrow singing
calypso mocking English nursery rhymes, Miss Lou's "folk poetry,"
as well as John Figueroa, Miss Queenie, Michael Smith, Bongo Jerry,
and Derek Walcott, to list but a few, along with references to sounds
that would be closer to home for the North American audience, for
example, Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Miles Davis (296).
The complexity of the sound relationships that Brathwaite traces
can be seen clearly in the reasons he gives in "History of
the Voice" as to why Eliot’s poetry had been influential
for Caribbean poets of the 1960s. One of these reasons has to do
with voice: “What T.S. Eliot did for Caribbean poetry and
Caribbean literature was to introduce the notion of the speaking
voice, the conversational tone. That is what really attracted us
to Eliot” (286-87).
This aspect of Eliot can be seen, for example, in the opening of
Brathwaite's “The Dust:”
how you? How
you, Eveie, chile?
You tek dat Miraculous Bush
fuh de trouble you tell me about?
Hush, doan keep so much noise
in de white people shop!
But you tek
it? (Arrivants 62)
“The Dust” echoes on theme and tone various passages
of The Waste Land, for example, the pub scene:
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children? (35)
But for Brathwaite, it is the sound of Eliot’s
voice that made the difference. In an important footnote to “The
History of the Voice,” he says, “For those of us who
really made the breakthrough, it was Eliot’s actual voice,
or rather his recorded voice, property of the British Council (Barbados)–reading
'Preludes,' 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' The Waste
Land, and later the Four Quartets–not the texts–which
turned us on" (286). I want to point to the nesting that's
going on here, and the complexities of the mediations: young Caribbean
poets find inspiration, courtesy of an official body sponsored by
the colonial government, in the recorded voice of an exiled and
Anglophile American. The connections continue beyond the metropole
as Brathwaite's gives a second reason for emphasizing Eliot: "In
that dry, deadpan delivery, the 'riddims' of St. Louis (though we
did not know the source then) were stark and clear for those of
us who at the same time were listening to the dislocations of Bird,
Dizzy, and Klook” (286). So what is finally (and of course,
this isn’t by any means to exhaust the layers) tuned into
is jazz. Eliot provides not only evidence but a model of subversion
through the agency of the British Council.
The other example Brathwaite gives of a subversive voice, this
time one heard over the airwaves, is that of John Arlott, the British
cricket commentator; and again, what is valued is the sound and
rhythm of his voice, and the way it provides a model for difference
from some "official" version of English, through that
other very important official organ, the BBC. According to Brathwaite,
stunned, amazed, and transported us with his natural,
'riddimic' and image-laden tropes in his revolutionary Hampshire
burr, at a time when BBC meant Empire and Loyal Models and Our Master’s
Voice, and cricket, especially against England, was the national
sport . . . Not only was Arlott 'good' (all our mimics tried to
imitate him), but he subverted the establishment with the way he
spoke and where: like Eliot, like jazz . . . (“History of
the Voice” 286).
Brathwaite’s “the way he spoke and where” is
important here: sound and its subversion are heard through place.
The BBC broadcasts and the British Council library make a place
where Eliot and Arlott, (even the sound-echo of their names is interesting),
and beyond them, the voices of exile and the metropolis, rural England
("Hampshire burr" as set against the language of cultured
London) and St. Louis are encapsulated and transmitted.
The relationship between original sound-space (the discussion
at Poet's House, New York) and published transcription in ConVERSations
is more straightforward than in "History of the Voice,"
uncomplicated by external sound recordings. The overall outline
of the book follows the typical shape of this kind of occasion,
from the conversation between Mackey and Brathwaite, presented in
Q&A format, to questions from the audience. From the beginning,
however, the book presents itself as a performance before a group
of people. Sections I and II are deferrals of the event, and frame
it. The first is a dialogue between four voices, two of them children
on their way to the performance still befuddled by "trying
to remember the dream that makes us possible” (8). But "if
we don't reach this lecture in Time," the voice goes on, "we'll
never be real" (8). The second is a confession of the "dread"
(in very large capitals) with which Brathwaite says he approaches
interviews and their "threshold precariousness of improvisation,"
some notes on "the mechanics of this document," and a
series of acknowledgements, including a long one expressing thanks
to the audience–not so much for their attention, as for their
movements within the room. He thus thanks
the audience at Poets House that night, for creating
this ebb & flow of the tides from time to time – esp at
the beginning, a few people still coming in, getting suttle etc
– when I think - even tho these movements are ever so 'slight'
and unintentional etc – that I might lose the very momentum
of the genesis – the no longer THRESHOLD – but the intrant
ideas & how best how ACCURATE to wrestle them upon the threshold
Just as Sycorax's loa, in the form of a potential in a machine
and a typeface on screen and page, makes location an occasion for
enunciation so that the tidalectic movements of human listeners
settling into a physical space create the conditions both for the
"momentum" of the "improvisation" of the conversation,
and for the attention to detail that the reader of the published
version will recognize in the precise movements of the book's intertextual
Another example from the three lectures, Barabajan Poems,
has to do with transmission of a different kind, the operations
of sound in the hounfort. The text makes explicit reference
to places where lecture may overlap with religious performance.
The formalities with which the book/lecture begin include not only
thanks for the invitation to speak, and a reminder of current events
(the death of James Baldwin, the 21st anniversary of Barbadian Independence,
and the overthrow of the newly elected president of Haiti), but
"a libation to three great peaceful powerful beautiful spirits"
both present and not present at this occasion: Brathwaite's mother,
his wife, and the writer Frank Collymore (19). The first words of
the first page of the lecture, picked out in large gothic script
are "first of all;” the last words to appear on that
page, on the last line, can be read with them: "welcome you
into the tonnelle"(19).
This invitation is reiterated at the end of Section V of the
book, when the narrator makes a pause after a series of reminiscences
about his early life as a writer in Barbados, Cambridge, and Africa,
and with it a strategic turn to the presence of Africa in the Caribbean
as personified by great-uncle Bob'ob, who is also a manifestation
of Legba and Ogoun (152). The drama of the pause at this point,
which opens a section of memories of Mile & Quarter where Bob'ob's
carpenter's workshop is located, and which will lead to a video
re-styling of the poem "Ogoun" from The Arrivants,
is heightened by its typographical treatment; it is started on a
new page in a fairly large type. The typeface itself, however, is
highly informal; its different-sized letters jiggle up and down
to give a jaunty, offhand effect, reinforcing the text's message
as it coaxes the audience about "gettin too lull too sleepy
too relax . . . doan leff me nyet try hole on a bit longer"
(147). The passage ends with a pun that is part-joke, part-ritual,
part-serious train-journey-styled transition: "But you are,
I hope, beginning to see the light an we comin in comin in comin
in comin in commin in inna the tonnelle" (148).
It is not until Section VII of the poem, however, that the audience
is taken fully into the hounfort, and the "Gods of the Middle
Passage" make their entrance. The narrator revisits the building
that had housed Bob'ob's carpentry shop, now used as a Zion meeting
place. It's a Wednesday night, and the prayer meeting is about to
begin. A prelude to what will unfold is given in a passage that
moves out from the beaches and coves of Barbados into
a great slow glowing listening of
meaning . there on the simple unknown countryroad but known to all
of us & lived & loved like all its smells of smoke and cooking
all its ghost(s) & children all its birds & insects twittering.
all altering as I listen listen listen . from being
'Bajan' into something other something else
- and nearer nearer better known than we had ever known before .
so mething forgotten yes and far & far & (170)
The way into the space of listening is through the remembered
presence of Bob'ob, who has now become Legba, preparing the way
for Ogoun, Shango, and Damballa. Shango's presence is brought into
the text by the evocation of trainsongs, represented first by means
of a textbook-like list, an accumulation of facts and commentary
interlined with additional commentary in smaller type, through which
sing out the names of musicians, forms,
the titles of songs (a parallel perhaps to a lengthy list of African
place-names a few pages earlier), and then by a quotation in very
large type from the most onomatopoeic section of "Folkways"
from Rights of Passage (The Arrivants 33): "so
come / quick cattle / train, lick / the long / rails . . ."
(174). All this precedes the entrance of Damballa, which is announced
with a hissing "which was like an 'opposite' or rather / /
cattacorner // sound & rhythm to what the rest of the room/
sound (womb/ song) was doing" (177). The speaker finally enters
the building and puts together what's happening there as a "choreography
of sound" (180) that takes in the various loa, the church worshippers,
and the panting sound of a woman who is possessed. These combine
towards a climax that is also a tidalectic movement:
By now the people in the shop are no longer singing in
English or Bajan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 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 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 . sweeping away into a new dark wail that sweeps
us all up . . .
out out towards a new meaning out there . (181-182)
Lecture hall (named after Collymore), workshop, church, hounfort,
Barbados, seashore, ocean, and Africa; family, academe, government,
nation, loa, and geography have all come together at this point
in the book:
it takes me back & drags me tidalectic into this
tangled urgent meaning to & fro . like foam . saltless as from
the bottom of the sea . dragging our meaning our moaning/ song from
Calabar along the sea-fl-oor sea-floor with pebble sound & conch
& sea-sound moon
It could have been Yemanjaa . That night it was Damballa . dancing
with th-at whisper of a sound inside a simple unsuspecting shop
in Mile&Q, Barbados (182)
This is also a crucial turning point in the book, the occasion
for a deep examination of "how we cope with the persistent
legacies of the plantation” (184)--loneliness, disappointment,
dispossession, poverty, and fear–through narrative, memory,
drama, possession, reclamation of Bajan/African spiritualities and
their complex intermeshings.
The focus shifts to the story of the woman, a regular attender
of the Wednesday night service at the Zion church, who is possessed.
This is a version of a poem first published as "Angel / Engine"
in Mother Poem (Ancestors 131) collaged with commentary
by an observer. It's
this observer who locates the woman's experience, sees the image
of Brathwaite's cosmological missile and capsule in the room, and
who emphasizes the terrible struggle and break between a stuttered
"G" that will not spell God and the fiery thunder and
hiss of Shango. This much fuller account of the woman's possession
is far more jagged than the one in "Angel/Engine," but
like that poem it shows the transformation as being brought about
by trainsongs–literal lines of connection/communication that
are also layers of sound: the hiss and thump and rumble of the train
and its rhythms (the sounds that signal Shango in the description
of the early stages of the ceremony). In a characteristic appendix
to Barabajan Poems, Brathwaite identifies the words of the
songs as coming out of West Africa and spreading through Brazil,
Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Trinidad, "early New Orleans,"
and the USA (369).
Section VII ends with the declaration, in some of the largest
type to be used in the book, and spread over two pages, that
After this it
possible – more
possible? – for
mwe/ for us
to begin to
This opens the way for a series of evocations of specific Barbadian
landscapes, a kind of interlude before the return to a discussion
of history and politics in Section XII, but of course it is far
more than an introduction to these. If poet (and text) are to extend
themselves beyond nostalgic pastoral memoir, beyond even a Wordsworthian
recollection of the growth of a poet's mind in a specific landscape,
it is essential that they enter the sound-space of the Bajan hounfort,
hear its cries and rhythms, witness what Brathwaite calls "the
kinesis of ‘possession'" in his discussion of Shango
trainsongs in Appendix VII of the book (370).
I would like to conclude by revisiting the discussion of the
way that Brathwaite manipulates the formal structures of the lecture
in Barabajan Poems. In a fascinating edit from lecture to
book, the formula "first of all" (in the same gothic script
as on the first page of the book) is repeated in the closing pages
of the book, beginning a second set of thanks and grateful formalities
that originally appeared at the start of the lecture: "before
I launch into this. . . not lecture. . . but a sharing with you"
(268). The thanks start
with an expression of gratitude for the recognition received that
includes a joking reference to "The Artist's Dressing Room
with NAME . . . on the legba door (remember?) and large photos all
over the palace" (268). The casualness and geniality of this
is followed by a long and increasingly lyrical riff on ancestors
and ancestral landscapes, and ends with wording that echoes the
"first of all" (268): "and look now, Mr Chairman,
Yr Xcellencies, ladies & gentlemen . . . look how far . . .
we are be/come" (269, ellipses as in original).
This tidalectic move brings the performance of book, lecture,
ritual, and history together, making what has happened since the
first description of the lecture's formalities seem like an exploratory
insertion--but it does not in fact close the book. The rest of page
269 is blank, with the symbol for Shango placed like a seal or a
publisher's colophon in the center. Then the text shifts voice again,
to show a series of Bajan folk proverbs in very large type, one
or two per page, another tribute, Brathwaite writes, this time to
the collector of the proverbs, Margot Blackman, and to "our
NYU Bajan Fola."
The final reaching out and drawing in happens on the last two pages
of the main text (it's worth noting that the book is supplied with
particularly rich critical apparatus: notes and references, seven
appendices, and an index), with yet another movement of reversal:
from the final proverb, "sea / doan
have no / BACKDOOR" (282) to the
declaration "X- / cept that our house on Brown's Beach was
just / that – the sea's / BACKDOOR"
(283). The word "backdoor" is written in very heavy, almost
impenetrable gothic capitals, and looks like a fence. Underneath
it, the final typographical element of the main text, are three
squared dots, centered; do they mark the end of a section, or are
they ellipses? Either way, the implication is of more to follow.
The very last movements in the book's main text are thus from ocean
back to island/origin, and between seeming closure and opening:
But this is also one part of one of the book's large-scale tidalectic
gestures. If one turns back to the first mention of Brown's Beach,
in an anecdote about a discussion between the critic Gordon Rohlehr
and Brathwaite's mother" that provides the opposite book-end
to this passage, we read that "when she was growing up on Brown's
Beach, the sea was much further out . . . and her mother told her
that even before that, that out there. . . there were farms. . ."
(24, last two ellipses as in the original).
This description, which takes the sea back and away, is immediately
followed by a backwards/forwards movement that takes the reader
into the first childhood memory of that beach, "First as it
is now, / or almost now" (24). Text and physical landscape
alike are subject to the sway of the ocean, the ultimate tidalectic
on acoustic technologies here derives partly from Adalaide Morris's
very useful discussion in "Sound Technologies and the Modernist
Epic: H.D. on the Air." Morris includes the telephone in her
list of sonic devices, and as Aldon Nielson points out in reviewing
Brathwaite's Words Need Love Too, the telephone call, which
he describes as a "neo-space" (203) can provide a complex
metaphor through which to explore diaspora, community, memory, and
the transmission of "vowels of glistance." The poem Nielson
is discussing here, "JerryWard & the fragmented spaceship
dreamstorie," is yet another reassemblage of lecture, an attempt
to retrieve via a telephone conversation what had been "staining
in" the mind of a listener since hearing a lecture of Brathwaite's
some years earlier (203).
revisions of older work now routinely involve a process of transcription
into the video style; the most significant example to date is the
"reinvention" (as Brathwaite describes it on the title
page) of Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self
as Ancestors. The video-style reinventions can be considered
to be another aspect of the recursive tidalectic process, this time
at the level of typography.
Other versions of
the talk appeared as a book-length publication of 1984; and as an
essay in the collection Roots, (originally published by Casa
de las Américas in Cuba in 1986 – the essay itself
is dated 1979 / 1981 in that volume).
Brathwaite is quite
explicit about Eliot’s subversive influence: “it is
interesting that on the whole, the establishment could not stand
Eliot’s voice – and far less jazz” (286).
This poem is also
excerpted in Barabajan Poems (142-144).
For example, "worksong
fieldhollers . howlinwolf blues gospel & boogie-woogie . R&B.
some rock. and all that soul" (173).
As described earlier
for the operations of the Sycorax typeface, the presence of the
loa and its enunciations are important particularly insofar as they
open up a sound-space, something that "allows . . . the space
and longitude – groundation and inspiration." The expansion
out from the single consciousness of the possessed woman in "Angel/Engine"
– which is like a single point traversed by the sounds of
the railroad line and the oncoming trajectory of the train –
into the two- and three-dimensional "choreography of sound"
in the Barabajan Poems version is interesting in two respects:
first as a recognition of the increasing importance of multi-dimensional
sound-space, and secondly perhaps as a move away from describing
possession primarily in a way that invites direct bardic identification
(the loa riding the woman is also the loa riding the poet) to a
more complex representation that acknowledges place and ground as
the antecedents of enunciation. As the space is opened up, so are
numerous other perspectives that add to and do not dilute the still
highly accessible and extremely powerful voice of the woman / loa.
Rhonda Cobham's vivid description of the use of typography in this
passage calls attention to the way that positioning (literal and
figurative) includes emotions like embarrassment on the part of
the "scholarly" observer, whom she sees as "cower[ing]
on the periphery of the ritual he is describing" (303).
In fact, the main
statements of thanks (to the Central Bank of Barbados "for
bringing me here at this time" and the statement about launching
and sharing are repeated verbatim. The rest of the text at these
two points branch in different directions; one of the significant
differences between them is that the first one acknowledges friends
and family, while the second emphasizes landscape and "the
long journey," in effect supplying a geographical summary of
Fola is identified
as a " Plantation" Personality Type in the index to Barabajan
Poems, alongside such "icons, ancestors and loa" Bob'ob,
Caliban, and Anancy (395, see also 316); she a character from Lamming's
Season of Adventure who typifies a woman who finds herself
through possession. Here the reference is to her manifestation in
the person of a Barbadian student of Brathwaite's at NYU, who finds
a way to engage positively with her "submerged" Caribbean
heritage through the study of its literature, and in particular,
the proverbs that Blackman collected (328).
This anecdote is
itself a playful twist on the theme of reworked lectures, describing
an occasion when Brathwaite's mother was in the audience for a lecture
by Rohlehr at the University of Sussex, and set out to correct some
biographical details "so that in the end it was she giving
the lecture and it was he (he also tells the story) who was happy
to listen & learn " (24)
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Literature: Opening Up the Canon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins,
Brathwaite, Kamau. Ancestors: A Re-invention of Mother Poem,
Sun Poem, and X/Self. New York: New Directions, 2001.
—. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy: Rights of Passage, Islands,
Masks. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973.
—. Barabajan Poems 1492–1992. Kingston and New York:
Savacou North, 1994.
—. ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey. New York: We Press,
—. "History of the Voice." Roots. Ann Arbor:
U of Michigan P, 1993.
—. Words Need Love Too. Philipsburg, St. Martin: House
of Nehesi, 2000.
Cobham, Rhonda. "K/Ka/Kam/Kama/Kamau: Brathwaite's Project
of Self-Naming in Barabajan Poems." For the Geography
of a Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite. Ed. Timothy
J. Reiss. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 2001.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. New York: Harcourt, Brace &
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1993.
Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing.
Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1997.
James, Cynthia. "Caliban in Y2K – Hypertext and New Pathways."
For the Geography of a Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite.
Ed. Timothy J. Reiss Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 2001. 351–361.
Mackey, Nathaniel. "Interview with Edward Kamau Brathwaite."
Hambone 9 (Winter 1991): 42-49.
Morris, Adalaide ed. Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical
Technologies. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997.
Naylor, Paul. Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History.
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Nielson, Aldon. Review of K. Brathwaite, Ancestors and Words
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