ALPREDO VILLAIN EVA
A A i~a
JOSEMILo GONZ LEZ
.MARIA C. R.IGUEZ
NC ENT jL EE. .
S ICHAEL SHARP...
p*, ,i e:!' -., !
E"t. ** * *
;Sar.gasso, an independent literary. magazine published at .
S:the University of Puerto' Rico, publishes critical :essays,"..
S: interviews, and some short: stories and poems. ".Sargass .." ..::
particularly welcomes material written by the people :of;.
: the Caribbean and/or about the Caribbean. :
. ... .S.argasso strives to make current studies in literature,
language, and' culture, accessible to non-specialists.
S The prose should be clear, lively, and understandable to
.'those not among .the initiate. Essays and critical studied
should conform to the style of the MLA Handbook. Short :
stories should be no more than .2,500 words in length .
: and poems should be kept to: no more than twenty to.. thirty
: .. lines. All correspondence must include S.A.S.E.
. :; Sargasso .. .
Department of English
Box BG .
University Station "
Rio P:iedras, Puerto Rico 00931
S .:.. Editorial :Committee
*. .'!. iLo eil.Fiet, Editor
r Aart4Cristina Rodriguez, Co-Editor
:..': aHaiman, Co-Editor; 'Book Review Coordinator
.... : ' Associates
.: ''iileene AKvarez., Treasurer; librarian; Translator
y a Landr6n, Translator
A,::. el1 D. Rivera, Technical!: Consultant; Layout: .
INbta, Mauirosa, Typist
Opinions -and views expressed in Sargasso are those ofthe: ...
Sdiv dual authors and are not necessarily shared, by ...
:":"' "i::Sargs':s Editorial Committee. Copies of Sarasso 5...
"... ;.'.:. (I.8), as well as previous issues are on deposit ti :the
i.a.,' ry of Congress.
!.. .. .. ..
Publishing in Sargasso
Sargasso has no official policy for accepting material
for publication. As stated in the editorial note of the
first issue, we are particularly interested in good, clear
writing by and/or about the people of the Caribbean,
although the door was left open for other work as well.
Then, as now, we were also concerned with interchange
between Puerto Rican and other Spanish-language Caribbean
writers and English-language readers, and we considered
Sargasso to be mainly a critical and scholarly publication
and only secondarily a poetry or short story magazine or
review. But creative writing has played an important
role, and we ask that unsolicited poems be kept to
between 20 and 30 lines and stories submitted to be no
more than 2,500 words in length.
With the exception of solicited manuscripts, we try
to read all submissions--critical and creative--"blind,"
that is, without knowing the writer's identity (this,
for obvious reasons, does not apply to book reviews).
But writing has a way of identifying its author, and
especially if the writer attempts to adapt to
Sargasso's Caribbean bias. We have published work by
English Department colleagues and/or North American
residents in Puerto Rico, but that writing has more
usually focused on the non-Caribbean experience of the
writer or on Caribbean life "as observed" and not "as
Sargasso 5 is the first in a series of issues that
deals with Caribbean Poetry, Fiction (Sargasso 6),
Theater (Sargasso 7), and Film (Sargasso 8), and critical
articles, translations into English of Spanish and French-
language Caribbean writing, and book reviews are required.
There is space for creative work in English--and
especially that in "Caribbean English"--as well, but our
greater immediate needs are literary translations,
criticism, and reviews. As Sargasso moves towards an
increasingly bi/trilinqual focus and format, we look
forward to publishing more materials originally written
in French, Spanish, and various creoles, "Patwahs," and
"nation" languages as well as in English.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Elaine Savory Fido ................................ 4
Ian McDonald ............ ......................... 5
Anthony Hunt ...................................... 7
Alfredo Villanueva ....... ........................ 8
Lorna Goodison: Gleanings .............................. 9
She Walks Into Rooms ......................... 10
Elaine Savory: on forgetting dust bins ........... 11
crossings ..................................... 12
Ian McDonald: Amerindian Sequence ................ 16
Christine Craig: The Chain ....................... 23
In the Shallop of the Shell ................... 24
Film Script ................................... 26
Anthony Hunt: Dawn: Lajas Valley ................ 28
Alfredo Villanueva: Exilados ..................... 30
Contaminated by America ....................... 31
Maria Arrillaga: Little Feet Cold ................ 32
Josemilio Gonzalez: An Interview ................. 34
Six Poems on Haiti ............................ 40
James Collins: An Interview ....................... 54
The Gas Mask ..................................... 57
Waiting For The Canadian Geese at Farr's Cove and
Bicycles ................ ........................ 58
Pentecost Sunday in La Hinch ................... 59
Carol Tennessen: Discursive Seduction: Creole and
the French of France ........................... 60
Maria Cristina Rodriguez: Ana Lydia Vega;
Pasi6n de historic ............................. 84
Michael Sharp: The Caribbean Writer. 1, no. 1 .... 87
Vincent Jubilee: Cooper, Parris, Lisowski:
Three Islands .. ............................. .. 89
Michael Sharp: Jonathan Small; Death of a Pineapple
Salad: Selected Poems 1976-1986 ............... 92
Lowell Fiet: Gordon K. Lewis; Grenada:
The Jewel Despoiled ............................ 94
CONTRIBUTORS ....................................... 103
TABLE OF CONTENTS Sargasso 4 (1987) ................ 105
ON CARIBBEAN POETRY
I cannot speak generally very much. The poetry of
the region is so richly diverse now that it is unwise to
make bold statements. I love this extraordinary range
of styles and forms--certainly there is no narrowness,
but a lot of energetic development here. I don't think
we should prescribe--whether the work is in creole or
international English forms, it is valuable as an
expression of this community, although clearly creole
forms predominate and draw the strongest response. But
many poets write in both creole and international registers.
Speaking personally, I just want to write with as
profound an understanding of the old power of the word
as possible. It is important, I think, that poets fight
constantly against the threat to living language from
modern, technologically orientated social trends. Poets
give new life to dead or decaying language and give us
alternatives to jargon, cliches and other abuses of the
word. It is therefore vital that we give all serious
poets support and an audience--so that their collective
presence can be a forceful one--and their individuality
should also be celebrated. Variety is a sign of a
POETRY THAT MATTERS
Formal poetry is not just a minority taste, it is a
mini-minority indulgence in Caribbean society. There is
no conception of what Pushkin was talking about when he
wrote: "That hour is blessed when we meet a poet. . .
he stands on a basis of equality with the powerful of
the earth and the people bow down before him."
We inherited a society in which poetry was viewed
with non-comprehension if not with scorn. It was the
most discredited of the arts. As Arnold Bennett said,
in English-speaking countries the word "poetry" disperses
a crowd quicker than a fire-hose. The breach between
formal poetry and ordinary people widened until the
divorce came to be accepted as a sort of law of nature.
And yet there could never be any doubt about the
deep and abiding importance of poetry. Language is the
most potent force in any society and poetry is the
purest form of language. When language in this purest
form is neglected, soon language itself will be corrupted
and perverted. When societies descend into such a
condition true poets find it hard to exist and, in
despair, go into exile. Soon a vicious circle of corrupted
society and poetry in exile begins to spin. Such a
phenomenon is well known. What is less measurable is
the incidence of internal exile arising from a cultural
indifference to native creativity and contempt
specifically for the art of writing poetry. Who can forget
the devastating judgement of Derek Walcott that the
contempt in which some people hold their own culture
has done proportionally as much destruction to the
individual artist as political imprisonment or purges.
In this context of poetry endangered a way to get
through to the ordinary person had to be discovered or
rediscovered. Verse in "nation language," folk ballad,
calypso, dub poetry, performance poems have accordingly
emerged and thank God for them all and their growing
But as a "formal" poet myself I am uneasy in this realm
of newly popular poetry. I desperately want Caribbean
poets to close the gap between ordinary people and
poetry. I hate the idea of poets in their ivory towers.
I loathe the thought that nobody should learn and love
poetry except poets themselves and teachers of poetry.
But I am very doubtful that I myself can ever join the
performance poetry bandwagon. So I hope my own poetry
can somehow fit in somewhere between the "formal, unread"
and the "fashionable, dub."
I want poetry to gain influence by telling truth,
giving pleasure, and creating fascination. Like all
art, poetry must be inextricably bound up with giving
pleasure and stimulating the ordinary imagination.
If a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost
the audience most worth having. I believe that profoundly.
I cannot get out of my mind some lines written by Osip
Mandelstam that great poet who lived and died in
The people need poetry that will be their own secret
To keep them awake forever
And bathe them in the bright-haired wave
Of its breathing.
POETRY FOR ALL
I believe that all poetry, like all good creative
writing, whatever its nationality, whatever its place
and time, must walk a tightrope between the local (as
Wm Carlos Williams called it) and the universal. In some
writing the local may predominate, in others the universal,
but the best poems will render the moment and place
sensually vivified while striking deep at some part of
the nature of the human condition--its thought, its
feeling, its spirit. On the one hand, Caribbean poetry
must reveal the smell of its sea, the taste of its fruit,
the tone of its own voice; it must sway like palm trees,
flutter like bamboo, or vibrate like Reuben Blades. In
other words, something must mark it as belonging to these
places we call the Caribbean. Yet the humanity of its
very mind and feeling must be exactly that--of and for
the humanity in all of us, male and female, European,
Asian, North or South American, Australian, or Caribbean.
As such, the poetry of the Caribbean in the 1980s and
1990s must reorient us to ourselves. It must continue
to tell us something special about the places where we
live and the events which are or will be special to us,
but it must show us how we are connected to other islands
and continents. Whatever events--political, religious,
social, technological--may lie just over our regional
horizons, we must not be carried away by the arrogance
of the explorer when we discover them, claiming them
only for ourselves or only for our own country. Poetry
belongs to all the earth and all its peoples.
THE FUNCTION OF POETRY
What must the function of Caribbean poetry during the
1980s and 90s be? Behind this question there are two
premises: (1) that there is a poetry which can be
identified as "Caribbean"; (2) that poetry has or must
have a function. Both are premises that should be
explored in depth, and even perhaps discarded. However,
let me go along and say that because I was born in a
Caribbean island my poetry is "Caribbean," and that it
does have a function. If anything, I was born in an
occupied territory with a history of internalized
oppression; one function of my poetry, then, must be
exposing not only the relationship between invaders and
invaded but also the ways by which the invaded have
accepted invasion and internalized their own vassal
status. So, Caribbean poetry must be political--and go
beyond politics to serve as a critique of the victimizer
as well as of the willing victim. This, I realize, will
not make me any more popular among the latter, but my
commitment is to my perception of reality, not to
cultural mystifications of history and national character.
The very fact, though, that I employ the oppressor's
language may constitute an act of bad faith; the use to
which I put it--the creation of a counter/discourse--
Poetry creates universals out of particulars. Thus,
I am moved by and identify with a Nineteenth Century
American poet who speaks with my voice--and there occurs
an abolition of time and space leading to a renewed
vision of what she and I and others have in common.
That is also my goal; from my time and my space to speak
with the voice and the thoughts of others, but with the
Caribbean heat and color and intensity which shape my
being. This may sound trite; nevertheless, I maintain
that those geographical factors are portable states of
the soul which even now, in the midst of winter, in the
land of exiles, sustain me. So, Caribbean poetry of the
80s and 90s must help those who feel but cannot express
feelings--many of them trapped in the hell of migration
--to find the voice they lack, not the social, but the
personal, intimate voice. It must help them preserve
ties, exorcise longings and fears and celebrate joys.
Alfredo Villanueva Collado
For Ngugi Wa thiongo
Often, it's a field at dark
where the hooded bowed outcasts
go, after the reapers have passed
collecting then, the gleanings.
Sometimes after the harvest is in
and the fields are lying spent
they still move in twilight foraging
for the seeds the birds have missed.
(What a hard time the post-harvest is!)
We glean outside the system
Our candidate did not win.
We glean outside our father's yard
the stewards are self serving
We glean outside the temples of fullness
for charity dropped careless
from full sheaves above.
It is time to come into the kingdom.
SHE WALKS INTO ROOMS
She walks into rooms
and they run for towels
say "girl, dry yourself."
And she says no, it's only light
playing upon my water-wave taffetta
But her host put his hand to her face
and it came away wet.
Sometimes at nights
she has to change the sheets,
her favourite brown roses
on a lavender trellis
and that water has salt
and that's no good for roses.
He left her all this water
to hold in the purple throat
of a flower
it overflowed onto the floors
and her silver shoes sailed
like moon-boats in it.
The water took all the curl
from her hair
It runs slick to her shoulders
where his hands spread
tributaries of rivers.
on forgetting dust bins
'Writing my poems, I forgot the dustbins'
sometimes the writing
there are dust bins which
ought to be forgotten:
the walls of what is considered
life must be pushed
into a new shape.
one hand and one
here i am mother
here i turn again
here is a new side of this person
which must be thought of. .
did i know i could. .?
happens so often
in between poems
laugh and make soups
and stack the garbage right.
poems lie next to the stove
rising and waiting
for my next moment
when, emboldened by mastery
of simple things,
the layers of a word
can properly be faced
(no fleeing to the page).
as the waves
weaving thin waters
so do the lines of cultures
reach us here
and we reach
in this Caribbean
in this necklace of races
in our time
as it is that
nothing too much
it is more common
than we suppose
through some spaces
which the child built
to hold an education
through some forgotten tears
in the net of separations
we can find a song
ashore in an island
somewhere behind a village
which does not know
we are there
where four or five
and for you
child of worlds
gone and coming again
tides can always
that you row only against their
whose skin can be a pale decision
but if they see your eyes
black from the past
if they see your bone
which comes from India
or the hands of the Celt
who polishes stones
buries the dead
if they can see
you will confuse them
which your eyes
with ancient memories
than to answer
I was for you
thousands of other voyagers
I carried you
to this beginning
on the assumption
of that river of histories
and an ancestor
ships oars in silence
fleeing from France
as the work
the wandering decides
not for centuries
have we buried our dead
in the same places
and from your father
as from me
and the temptation of open sea
this migrant urge
swims in your blood
where are we born
to tell tales
paid in the quests of others
with my third century
to the sky
and the ship
strains to be gone. .
University of the West Indies
Cave Hill Campus
Life and Death
Along the dark,lovely river
Silent as leaf-drift
An opening in the cliff of white quartz:
A grove of dead-looking trees
Stark in the burning sun.
Out of the black, bare sticks
Velvet-white blossoms spring:
The life-and-death tree.
Green leaves will sprout from it
As bright flowers die.
The scent of the gold-centred flowers
Pours out of the live and dead grove.
Four girls from the yam farm,
They are preparing a sister's wedding.
They throw up stones in the branches
Accurately shaking down the blossoms.
Their clothes are coming down too.
The dips of their navels fill with sweat,
Gleaming drops run down like diamonds.
Nearby, the stink of a killing place:
Black flies, bright knives.
Gleaming with sweat too
Three boys gutting fish
Marvel and fidget.
Last of Her Race
A walk in the morning:
Sun burning off the early mist,
River-bank ablaze with Lady Slippers.
Old hut in a green clearing:
No sign of fire-side or children.
Friends who know the forest:
"Come and see this wonder,
Maybe she's a hundred years.
Talk to her, see if you can get her story."
Room is misty with strong tobacco smoke,
Old woman in a corner croons and drools,
Lifts up her terrible blue-stone eyes.
Miaha, "last of her race,"
Frail, desolate, decayed,
Greets no one in the mornings,
Relates no heroic deeds to anyone:
Children, children's children, not there anymore
All gone, all gone.
She wears one green stone of Amazon,
Amulet against the snake-bite threat,
The gaze of Spirits that accuse.
A trembling voice saying nothing:
Deer have grazed for long
Over the rain-worn tribal mounds.
Her cloudy eyes skim past
Missing mine by centuries
Seeking something deep, eternal, lost.
I am shy, I am ashamed,
Edge out into the sunlight
Saying nothing to the picnicers,
Breathe in the green deep forest air.
Old toothless woman comes and goes
In this forgotten place smelling of orchids:
Past and gone, the wind whispers,
Past and gone, the forest hardly stirs.
Travelled miles that day
Gold savanna sun to shadows of darkest green.
A day of such beauty
I have not seen before,
The air gleaming like the start of the world.
On the edge of forest
Hawks hanging in the blue heaven:
Black wings beat once
And they are aloft forever.
They have always been in this great sky
Eyes scanning the long horizons
Where suns have burnt to black the short-grass valley-fields.
Amidst orchid-covered granite blocks of white
Gold and scarlet cocks-of-the rock sport and fight.
Then the dense-dark forest green:
In the cold creek canopied with branches
The bright, dark-red water runs like wine.
Mora-trees, breaking into new leaf everywhere,
White, liver-coloured, green, and deepest red
Stand like huge chandeliers in ancient rooms.
Flashing messengers of light and swiftness,
Grey-blue kingfishers lead downstream to a village.
Well-kept habitations in a green glade:
Bustle with life, women bake and cut,
Children play with rolling balls of silverballi wood,
Hunting dogs snooze amidst the cooking smoke.
Red-stained hammocks swing in evening air,
Strings of red beads are heaped for market day
Making mounds of brilliance on the brown earth floor.
Relaxed, at ease, on mats of yellow cloth,
Chewing Indian corn parched white as jasmine buds,
The men extend an unsuspicious welcome,
Offer pepper-hot iguana eggs and wild red cherries,
Cool, week-old paiwari spiced with sugar-gum.
Their eyes are black and impenetrably bright.
It looks a place well-settled in good routines.
Alone, outside the evening light,
Alone with black arrows,
Who is that man, wrapped in black,
Squatting in twin-circles of dropped black pods,
Crouched like a crow, stirring a black pot
Sizzling on red ambers like a black cat spitting?
A chant of mourning comes from this figure of the night.
Why does no one approach him? Why so far removed?
Why will he never join the hum of life and light?
They shrug and smile like children who are happy:
"The poison-maker," they murmur, "he is the poison-maker."
Cold wind creeping on the skin,
A Shaking-ague deep in bone,
All night in and out of sleep,
Fitful skin-damp wakings every hour
And a restless dream recurring:
Huge caimans thrashing in the river
Tails beating the water egg-froth white
Eyes blazing as they struggle,
Musky odour rising in the night.
I smelled and feared the grappling beasts.
Shivering in a misty river dawn
I meet Majesta who minds this house,
Ancient-slow but cooks a perfect pot.
She gives a look and knows the whole thing true.
"You have the caiman fever bad."
(How can she know my deep-down dream?)
Her old bright eyes turn full on me:
"Caiman fever shake the bone."
She has the cure for me she says,
Cold water from a baked earth jar,
A pinch of golden powdering.
A dip of lemon grass put in:
Drink it off in one great gulp.
Taste of woodsmoke
And old nights
Moon in cloud-scud
Red jasper round the throat.
The powder like a golden dust
She pinches carefully from a stone box
With sacred ointments and white spider cloth:
Caiman's penis dried golden in the sun
Scraped to powder on a fish's spine
It's chased the fever
Down a thousand years
I will not dream the great beasts anymore.
Ten miles along a logger's trail,
Greenheart in flower smelling rich and sweet,
A camp abandoned long ago
Has nowadays a few huts rotted by the rain.
Enter the chief hut by a slack-nail ladder.
Three old men squatting down like stones
Convey a welcome with their shrunken eyes.
We squat and take small gourds of drink
Brewed wild cashew and sapodilla skins.
The ramblings of the old men grow wild
Soon others leave to hunt the angry pigs
And fish the clear, cold, black as satin streams.
The old men begin a chorused chant:
Memories of remembering their father's father's tales.
The old men squat scratching withered genitals,
Sucking pipes of scented, strong tobacco.
Black tongues lick across half-blackened gums.
The chant rises, falls, whispers, shouts
Where it begins
And they are stone again.
The Caribs were the great ones,
Greater than the tall trees,
No forest man would conquer them.
Out of the arm-bones of their enemies
They made flutes to sing their triumphs.
Courage was dear to them as life
Their war-songs sang of bravery alone:
No word for cruelty except for "love of pain."
Before they chose a warrior
They sliced his skin and rubbed in pepper bush,
Tied him in a hammock filled with tiger ants,
And if he made a sound he failed.
Fear they did not know,
Death they despised, a puny thing.
Battle was good:
To feel the heart beat fast
Was life itself,
The sweetness and the song of life.
The hearts of men they killed,
Dried in fires made of wood and jaguar bone,
They pounded into "chieftain's dust"
To drink with shining eyes like blood.
And when great warriors died
Their bodies wrapped in snake-skin shrouds
Washed and watched by chosen women
Rotted slowly under suns and moons
Until the flesh was ready to shred off
Then women cleaned the bones as bright as dawn.
Painted the clean bones gold of sun and earthen black
And placed them in honoured virgin-women baskets.
Carried everywhere, more treasured than a home,
Such great bones last longer than gold or settlements.
Kept forever, the old men chant,
Forever kept, forever and forever,
Forever to match their courage against foes
To guard the people against defeat
To guard the people against all ill
To guard against the giants of the dark
Forever guard, these strongest of the strong,
For however long forever ever lasts.
I no longer care, keeping close my silence
has been a weight,
a lever pressing out my mind.
I want it told and said and printed down
the dry gullies,
circled through the muddy pools
outside my door.
I want it sung out high by thin-voiced elders,
front rowing murky churches.
I want it known by grey faces queuing under
greyer skies in countries waking
and sleeping with sleet and fog.
I want it known by hot faces pressed against
dust streaked windows of country buses.
And you must know this now
I, me, I am a free black woman.
My grandmothers and their mothers
knew this and kept their silence
to compost up their strength,
kept it hidden
and played the game of deference
and agreement and pliant will.
It must be known now how that silent legacy
nourished and infused such a line,
such a close linked chain
to hold us until we could speak
until we could speak out
loud enough to hear ourselves
loud enough to hear ourselves
and believe our own words.
In the Shallop of the Shell
On this beach the figure sets feet
calmly into powdered coral, silicates,
horned shells and fragments of wood.
Here, on this shore, under webbed
sea grape leaves time feels, smells
as it did years ago. Sand has the same
lustre and sudden dull crescents when
blue tongues, lightly foamed with white
lick quickly inland.
The same when boots
and sea dirty horse
strode to a meeting
Brown feet stood soft here
and gave way, gave way
to white and black
rippled over the sighing cane
of those who moved
through the arches
of this sea.
Cathedrals, stained glass and years
nestle mustily in sculpted
corners like algae on rocks.
Wooden pews remain straight-
backed defying the sour notes
of history sounding just past
the door. Laid to rest now
under wingless angels and urns
garlanded with stone roses.
Oh God out help in ages
brushes past the scrolled
tablets and is lost in
the rolling of the sea.
All history, all secrets
are laid to rest, here
where children's toes curl
brown in a past powdered
into sand, scooped into
shells that curve by the
child's ear, she listens,
her eyes glimmer
and grow old quickly.
Desolate, this time of rain fall
streets rich with brown rivers
where cars churn and splutter
or pause watchfully on one bank
gauging the best route to make it
safe to the other side.
Desolate, these streets of begging
children with scaly skin and small
malnourished limbs a plea stamped
on their aging faces. Don't want it
the weight of this grief
the stress of this country.
Must go, must move must break
this stasis, this gloam where
day ends too early
night falls too swift.
Must go where women
are plowing the fields
patting tender seedlings
into the deep earth smell.
Must go where birds call
from high mountain trees
and coffee blossom blurs
slopes where lilies mix
their fragrance with
cool, clumped thyme.
Must go where fishermen spread
their notes in a dark vigil
and later pour the dancing
catch into the noise and baskets
and cries of the market.
these summoned, ordered images,
a film of longing through which
the real landscape grows, glows
bright in this shadowed time.
DAWN: LAJAS VALLEY
For a moment in the early morning
When the sky turns amber rose,
When the valley and the sun
Lie far beneath
The silhouetted hills,
Everywhere upon the hills
The sharply outlined palms
Probe their angled dance,
Defining space within
The confines of the dawning air.
The horizontal hills appear
To lean in lines from left to right
Or right to left, or right around us.
And we are down
Encompassed by the circling hills
And all distinctions rise above us.
Then the sky begins to lighten; swiftly,
Colors merge from many into one.
All the petaled strokes of pink and blue,
All the finer shades of green,
Each and every one begins to fade;
Then wash into the dawning gold
That soon will turn to pallid white.
When trees defined upon the hilltops
Begin to lose their lines,
They shift into the light that blurs;
The light that is just light.
The houses come; the cars arrive;
The noise occurs.
And we arise.
And all distinctions drop upon us.
University of Puerto Rico
Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
No home to return
to. No happy air-
port. No happy land-
An imprint of
a city covered in
fog high in the
print of a city
like a fried
egg in frothy
imprint of a
city covered in
red astride its
An imprint of a
white in another
for a dream and
found it to
CONTAMINATED BY AMERICA
America I buy
machines to help
me do what my hands
Wear braces, stretch
my skin, tuck
in my tummy, lift
up my chin.
Demand that all
parks and unheated
apartments be rid
of god's vermin, his
Kneel in tax-
sheltered churches, pray
from a holy comic
book and give early
sunday morning testimony
of my born-again
Hostos Community College
LITTLE FEET COLD
Little feet cold
cold little hands
looks for warmth.
Little legs wrap
around my pubic hair
Little hands press
the other collapses
stares into my eyes
I see myself.
becomes a pool
in which we play
She, a woman
I, a child.
Discover each other's warmth
There is no man
but there is warmth.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
Josemilio Gonzalez and James Collins have been
professors of literature for many years at the University
of Puerto Rico. Both have decided to retire from teaching
this year. Both have dedicated themselves throughout the
years to the writing of poetry.
In this special issue of SARGASSO we dedicate this
section to these poets/professors and include an inter-
view with each one followed by a selection of their most
recent poems. In the interview they speak about their
concept of poetry, their work as poets, Caribbean poetry,
and their role as poets in this region.
I deliberately chose to write what is called literary
criticism because it was almost imposed on me by social
circumstances. But ever since I've been aware of myself,
I have seen myself as a poet. I regard literary
criticism as a job I must get done and not as a vocation.
I conceive poetry as something essentially revolutionary
because it adds new dimensions and perspectives to the
world we have inherited. In that sense, poetry is
revolutionary. In regard to specific commitments, I
believe that a commitment is something acquired voluntarily,
something which can not be imposed. A commitment is an
effect of the socio-political and economic circumstances
experienced by the poet. Accepting a commitment without
feeling for it becomes an act of hypocrisy, and from this
point of view, it becomes an anti-poetic act.
When I talk about the Caribbean I mean the basin,
the countries whose immediate limits are the Caribbean
Sea. I am not talking about those regions which are a
little further away although culturally they might have
affinities to some Caribbean countries. I studied the
poetry of Latin American countries, such as Venezuela,
Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, and
Mexico as well as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. I
used to study literature as an art of the Latin American
world, and Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico
as specifically Antillean countries. The critical issues
that made me more aware of the Caribbean as a geographical
and cultural entity was the Cuban Revolution. I became
more interested in countries such as Jamaica and Haiti
and St. Croix. My readings of the literature of this
region had been limited because the literature of these
countries is not very accessible. When I went to Cuba to
be part of the jury of Casa de Las Americas, I spent a
few days in Jamaica. There I came in contact with some
Jamaican writers and started discovering Jamaica's culture.
I was very interested and tried to have a more complete
knowledge of their literature by reading on my own. It
must be pointed out that Cuba's Casa de Las Americas has
done an enormous job of disseminating Caribbean literature.
It has granted awards to poets from these islands and
published their works. Many times it has published
,Spanish translations. In the case of Jamaica, Barbados
and Trinidad, many of their books are published in London
and don't circulate in the rest of the Caribbean. Our
main book distributor is the United States so a large
number of books published in the West Indies never
reaches Puerto Rico. I have some of these works because
I have befriended their authors and they have sent them
to me directly.
As for Haiti, I had the privilege of meeting Rend
Depestre in Cuba. I also have become acquainted with
Haiti through Jean-Claude Bayeaux, and he has lent me
some books about his country. When I visited Haiti
around 1971, it was very difficult to get Haitian books.
When I went in the summer of '86, I could hardly get any.
You have to be aware that this was the time when Haiti's
situation was very unstable. One could hear shots and
see soldiers riding the streets in armored cars.
There are things in the Caribbean that bring us
together and things that keep us apart. I would say
that what brings us together are the common social and
political problems. Of course, to a great extent our
problems are different, especially among the Spanish-
speaking world. So we have in common the awareness of
having to rescue the oppressed groups, the oppressed
populations of these Caribbean islands. We have to face
the political and social problems of these countries,
but the way of expressing it will naturally vary depending
on the circumstances.
The experience of exile, as well as the experience
of travelling, is one of the concerns common to all the
Caribbean. We have many things in common, but basically
we need to rescue the oppressed, the historically
oppressed. I understand that the same thing is happening
in Martinique and Guadaloupe, but I haven't had the
opportunity to visit these islands. I have travelled to
countries willing to make contact with their writers,
poets and artists. I frequently find it very difficult
to communicate because we have been brought up in an
individualistic culture where mistrust is one of the
factors which affects communication.
I believe that in all Caribbean countries there is
a growing tendency towards unity. Not one of those
macabre, boring unities, but one of dynamic exchange--of
exchanging ideas and feelings. .the true unity. In
this sense I believe universities, government departments
and institutes of culture can play a very important role.
There are two ways of being a Caribbean writer:
someone who expresses some Caribbean reality even if he
is not aware of it. For instance, an alienated poet who
shows that alienation. He may consciously reject the
Caribbean and in this way betray himself. There is also
the poet who is concerned about the Caribbean and tries
to express these concerns in some way. There are some
Caribbean poets who play the flute by chance, and there
are others who choose to play. For me the element of
awareness is indispensable to human sensitivity; it can
not be a purely aesthetic or artistic consideration.
I went to Haiti in the summer of 1986 when Baby Doc
had fled. I saw terrible things: hunger, poverty,
deception. The people went about wearing t-shirts with
Haiti Liberg printed on them precisely when Haiti had not
been freed. You could see the ton-ton Macouttes and the
militia everywhere. When I came back I talked to Peri
Coss the director of Dialogo, and he asked me to write
something about Haiti. I wrote a short article which
appeared in Dialogo entitled "Haiti: A Powerful Nation"
because the Haitian people awakened enthusiasm in me for
their great creativity. Upon writing this article, the
first song (poem) sprang forth and I continued writing
and all the others flowed. I though about the children
I saw suffering there. Some of the images are real,
taken from all the places I visited. I would go out and
walk about those terrible slums; I saw those children
dying from hunger, with bellies full of parasites, women
bathing in the brackish water of the gutters, and then
drinking the same water. All of it makes Haiti a marvelous
and terrible country at the same time. This is the
experience I wrote about.
(Translated by Aileen Alvarez)
SIX POLMS ON HAITI
By Josemilio GonzAlez
To Sylvie and Jean Claude
In Haiti the night rings
like a clear bell and
sleeps comes with a shudder
at the drums of dawn.
On the hills of Jacmel
a child spins his top.
The whole world beckons
from that humming point.
Heights of Petionvillet
Roads that climb up and down,,
a steady stream of women
between markets and plazas.
This is the rich poverty
of those whose only property
and solitary hope
is their own effort.
The Palace" rears up
over the empty Champ de Mars
like a white elephant
in solitary confinement.
Haiti's heart is
a frozen tear,
and freedom quivers and sings
in its bloody center.
*Reference to the Presidential Palace.
CHANSONS POUR HAITI
A Sylvie et Jean Claude
En Haiti la nuit tinted
come une cloche claire
Ella ne s'endort frissonnante
qu'a 1'aube des tambours.
Par les months de Jacmel
danse la toupie d'un enfant.
Sur son bec bourdonnant
le monde entier 1'appelle.
Hauteurs de Pdtionvillet
Rues montantes descendants
avec leurs fences incessantes
entrees places et marches.
Voici la riche pauvretl
de ceux qui n'ont rien
sauf leur propre vaillance
come unique espsrance.
Face au Champ de Mars
se dresse le Palais
au cachot condamn4.
Haiti a le coeur
fig& come des pleurs
mais dans son sang cache
vibre et chanted la libertS.
SEIS CANCIONES DE HAITI
Por Josemilio Gonzalez
A Sylvie y Jean Claude
En Haiti suena la noche
como una clara campana
y se duerme estremecida
por los tambores del alba.
Por los montes de Jacmel
un nifo su trompo baila.
En su punta zumbadora
el mundo entero lo llama.
iAlturas de Petionville!
Calles que suben y bajan
con mujeres incesantes
entire mercados y plazas.
Esta es la rica pobreza
de los que no tienen nada
sino su propia proeza
como dnica esperanza.
Frente al Champ de Mars vacio
el Palacio se levantal
como un elefante blanco
condenado a solitaria.
Haiti tiene el coraz6n
cuajado como una l1grima
en cuyo centro de sangre
la libertad vibra y canta.
1El poeta se refiere al Palacio Presidencial.
CHILDREN OF HAITI
Poor children forage
through the alleyways in Haiti
like black lizards
among dry-rotted boards.
Their emaciated feet
run through dried dung
and trace symbols of misery
on dusty slates.
Here, a mother stretches out
as if extending a rush mat
so that her child may enjoy
headboard, pillow and spread.
There, another one takes out her
gaunt gourd of a breast
so that her baby may suck
her meager lifeblood.
A sleeping child stares,
darkness in his eyes.
Another looks vacant
as if already dead.
That one washes his face
with water from the gutter.
This ones jumps like a deer
pver the broken sidewalk.
They look like gray ghosts
garbed in gowns of dust
under the hammer sun
beating down on their heads.
Children who sell candy
and buy indifference.
My poor Haitian children,
Who remembers you?
Par les ruelles d'HaTti
rodent les enfants pauvres
come des lizards noirs
sur du bois pourri.
Leurs pieds squelettinues
tracent des signes de misare
sur des ardoises de poussiAre
et des grelots de merde.
Ici s'allonge une mere
come un tapis tressi
Par amour pour son fils elle est
sommier, couverture, oreiller.
L1, une autre sort de sa poitrine
un palma-christi d6charni
pour que son bdbd aspire
un peu de sang sdch&.
Tel enfant endormi observe
du fond des ttnAbres
Tel autre rest hib6tG
a-t-il cessi d'exister. .
Celui-ci lave son minois
avec l'eau d'un bourbier
Celui-11 saute come un chamois
sur des trottoirs irr6guliers.
On dirait des fant8mes grisitres
aux vAtements poudreux
sous un soleil de plomb
qui martele les cranes.
Enfants qui vender des sucreries
et achetez l'indifference
Mes pauvres enfants d'Halti
qui de vous se souvient?
NIROS DE HAITI
Por las callejas de Haiti
niios pobres merodean
como negras lagartijas
entire podridas maderas.
Sus esquelticos pies
trazan signs de miseria
sobre pizarras de polvo
y cascabeles de mierda.
Aqui una madre se extiende
como si fuese una estera
para que su niio goce
colcha, almohada y cabecera.
All& se saca del pecho
otra, una escullida higfera
por que su beb4 le saque
la poca sangre que le entra.
Un nifo mira dormido
con mirada de tiniebla
Otro se queda alelado
como si ya no existiera.
Aquel se lava la cara
con agua de las cunetas.
Este salta como gamo
por desiguales aceras.
Parecen fantasmas grises
vestidos de polvareda
Bajo un sol que es un martillo
aplastando las cabezas.
Nifos que venden confites
y compran indiferencia.
Mis niios pobres de Haiti
zculntos de ustedes se acuerdan?
THIRD SONG OF HAITI
to Maud Wadestrand
People say that Haiti's soul
glints like a splintered star.
Its wound is an open light,
a shimmering message.
There is a school in Leogane
where only the wind learns
the laws of movements
that offer no comfort.
Jacmel lines with blue
the contours of its gaze.
City of shuttered houses,
loyal Haitian spirit.
Beyond the mountain,
the undulating slopes
echo with the true voice
cast from the mountain.
A man digs in the earth.
I can't tell if a furrow or a grave.
His burning skin twitches.
I can't tell if out of love or rage.
There is a child of agony
oin the center of the wind.
His arms outstretched, like a cross,
questioning his silence.
Over the gentle bay
Port-au-Prince is a bird
soaring high and white
on wide encompassing wings.
I lost my way in Rond-Point,
I leave Champ de Mars behind,
I speak with Haiti while
strolling through the Iron Market.
CHANSON TROISI12E D'HAITI
A Maud Wadestrand
On dit qu'Halti a li'me
couleur d'Stoile qui se fend.
LumiAre ouverte est sa blessure
et mot phosphorescent.
A Ldogame il y a une cole
o4 seul le vent apprend
les lois du movement
don't rien ne console.
D'azur peint Jacmel
l'ourlet de sa paupigre.
Ville aux maisons fermies:
Haitien au coeur fiddle.
Au-dell de la montagne
sur le coteau ondulant
on entend la voix sincere
qui natt de la montagne.
L'homme creuse la terre.
Est-ce une tombe ou un sillon.
Il gratte sa peau ardente
Est-ce 1'amour ou la colbre.
Un enfant d'agonie
est immobile au coeur du vent.
Il a les bras en croix
et interroge son silence.
Sur la douce baie
Port-au-Prince est un oiseau
aux large ailes d'espace
qui court tout blanc dans 1'air.
Sur le Rond-Point je me perds
Du Cahmp de Mars je m'dloigne.
Avec Haiti pour bavarder
sur le Marchg aux fers.
CANCION TERCERA DE HAITI
A Maud Wadestrand
Dicen que Haiti tiene el alma
color de estrella partida
Abierta luz es su herida,
En Lgogane hay una escuela
donde solo aprende el viento
las leyes del movimiento
de lo que nada consuela.
De azul se pinta Jacmel
el ruedo de la mirada.
Ciudad de casas cerradas:
haitiano espiritu fiel.
Mas allay de la montana
por la ondulante ladera
se escucha la voz sincera
que nace de la montana.
El hombre cava la tierra.
No s6 si es surco o es tumba.
Le raspa la piel ardiente.
No s4 si es amor o furia.
Hay un nino de agonia
parado en mitad del viento.
tiene los brazos en cruz.
Pregunta por su silencio.
Sobre la dulce bahia
Puerto Principe es un ave
con anchas alas de espacio
que corre blanca en los aires.
En el Rond Point me he perdido.
Desde el Champ de Mars me alejo.
Voy con Haiti conversando
por el Mercado de Hierro.
11 de febrero de 1987
STREET PEDDLER OF PORT-AU-PRINCE
Along the Rond-Point,
With his mahogany sword
and manmmee apple,
M'sieu peddles his brooms.
His forehead shines,
a polished ball.
His shins as thin
as rock splinters.
His skeletal figure
rattles down the sidewalk,
the bones so loose and
tied with streamers.
The day darkens
between the burlap eyebrows,
although air is food
for each and every one.
Up and down the street
a shadow ghost goes by.
No coins tinkle
along his torn veins.
He is a mirror mannequin.
An oasis of shining halos.
An old chest full of agonies
tolling its victories.
High up on the mountain
he roofs his hut with defeat.
For death lying in wait,
his hand is a dove.
VENDEUR DE PORT-AU-PRINCE
Avec l'abricot jaune
et le dos d'acajou
par le Rond-Point va Missif
vantant sea balais.
II a le front poli
rasi come un boulet
at la jambe aussi fine
qu'un filon de granit.
Par les trottoirs se faufile
sa squelettique personnel
et ces os mal soud6s
cousus avec des banderoles.
Voill que le jour s'est covert
sur les sourcils d'Atoune
bien que 1'air soit denrie
qui nous revienne h tous.
Vers le haut vers Ie bas
passe un fant8me d'ombre
On n'entend pas les monnaies
sonner dans leas veines brisdes.
C'est un mannequin de miroirs.
Un oasis d'aurdoles.
Vieille armoire d'agonies
,qui carillonne sea victoires.
LA-haut la montagne
diplie des beaches de d6faite.
Pour la mort aux aguets
sa main est un oiselet.
VENDEDOR DE PORT-AU-PRINCE
Con el mamey amarillo
y la espada de caoba
por el Rond-Point va Musid
pregonando sus escobas.
Tiene la frente pulida,
pelada como una bola.
Tiene la pierna tan fina
como una astilla de roca.
Por las aceras desfila
su esqueletica persona
y aquellos huesos tan sueltos
cosidos con banderolas.
El dia se le ha nublado
entire las cejas de estopa,
aunque el aire es alimento
que a todos igual nos toca.
Calle arriba calle abajo
pasa un fantasma de sombra.
Las monedas no se escuchan
sonar por las venas rotas.
Es un maniqui de espejos.
Un oasis de aureolas.
Viejo armario de agonfas
repicando sus victorias.
All& arriba la montana
tiende toldos de derrota.
Para la muerte que espera,
su mano es una paloma.
febrero de 1987
SONG OF THE BOULEVARD*
to Maud Wadestrand
The shadows in the boulevard
cut through sheets of fire
between spires of light
and cedar sentinels.
In the corners, naked walls
spread out their veils
and show off new words
in silent conclaves.
A blue pyramid
revolves over the pavement.
the sky with red moons.
on metal cylinders.
Under the floating boulevard
the street is a black river.
The pearl of the Antilles
leaves its violent velvet nest
and bedecks its nack
with transient jet beads.
Behold the flat silhouette
of a heart struck in mid-flight,
a plastic blind
through which a dream peers out.
Green circles circle
and true triangles.
A strict geometry
rules over the echoes.
Life on the boulevard
is a reflection of silence.
The scissors of space
snip the designs of time.
*Boulevard Dessalines, Port-au-Prince.
CHANSON DU BOULEVARD*
A Maud Wadestrand
Les ombres du boulevard
coupent des lames de feu
entire des fuseaux de lumibre
et des chapiteaux de cbdre.
Dans le coins, des murs
dinud6s tendent leurs voiles
et 6trennent des mots nouveaux
dans des conclaves de silence.
Une pyramid bleue
tourne sur les paves.
Les feux repandent
des lunes rouges dans le ciel.
Les mystlres s'alimentent
de cylindres de metal.
Pour le boulevard de 1'air
la rue est un fleuve noir.
La perle des Antilles
laisse son Stuit violent
et se pare de colliers
de jais passagers.
Voici la plate silhoutte
d'un coeur bris6 dans son envol
une fenetre plastique
par ou se montre la rAve.
Des cercles circulent verts
et des triangles sinceres.
Une strict glomgtrie
domine tous les echos.
La vie sur les boulevards
est un cristal de silence.
oh les ciseaux de 1'espace
coupent Ie bristol du temps.
*Boulevard Dessalines, Port-au-Prince.
CANCION DEL BULEVAR
A Maud Wadestrand
Las sombras del bulevar
cortan liminas de fuego
entire espadaias de luz
y capiteles de cedro.
En las esquinas, paredes
desnudas tienden sus velos
y estrenan palabras nuevas
en c6nclaves de silencio.
Una piramide azul
gira sobre el pavimento.
Los semaforos esparcen
lunas rojas por el cielo.
Con cilindros de metal
se alimentan los misterios.
Por el bulevar del aire
la calle es un rio negro.
La perla de las Antillas
deja su estuche violent
y se adorna con collares
de azabaches pasajeros.
He aqui la silueta plana
de un coraz6n roto en vuelos
una plastica ventana
por donde se asoma el suefo.
Circulos verdes circulan
y trilngulos sinceros.
Una estricta geometria
domina todos los ecos.
La vida en los bulevares
en un cristal de silencio.
Cortan tijeras de espacio
las cartulina del tiempo.
Nota: Este poema es un paisaje del Boulevard Dessalines,
en Puerto Principe, Haiti.
11 de febrero de 1987
to Lydia Milagros GonzAlez
Standing at his doorstep
and in the heart of the canefield
the Haitian is a slave
bathed in blood and fire.
When the green furrow burns
and sweat cuts the stalk,
the sun of fatigue climbs up
on the edge of the machete.
The williwaw swoops through the ravine
scouring both mud and grief.
The Haitian's lament
is his only comfort.
He bends his spine
like a wasted reed
and his eyes flood
like a dark fog.
He dreams of the humble hut
where his wife wastes away,
lost in the reverie
of all things impermanent.
And his heavenly children
wounded in their very lives,
of earthly worms.
The endless canefield
dogs himdogs him,
and the white--world-owner--
follows him everywhere.
He's the negro, free and brave,
who knows how to fell the chain,
who wasn't born to pain
in an academy of slaves.
A Lydia Milagros Gonztles
A la limited du batey
et au centre du champ de canna
l'Haltien eat un esclave
qui dans sang et feu se baigne.
Quand brQle le sillon vert
quand la sueur brise l'6pi
par le trenchant de la machette
monte le soleil de la fatigue.
Par le foess descend le vent
trainant boue et desolation.
1'Hattien pour consolation
n'a plus qua son tourment.
Son dos est tout courbd
tel une fleur de canne Apuis6e
et son regard s'inonde
come d'un brouillard sombre.
Il rtve sa cabane disol6e
ob son spouse g6mit
lui 6perdu, &gar&,
tout est-il fini.
De ses enfants c6lestes
4ont la vie est bless6e
il voit le venture gonfl4
farci de vers de terre.
Il te pursuit, il te pursuit
le champ de canne profonde
et le blanc patron du monde
enconre et partout te suit.
Toi le noir libre at brave
qui sais briser les chaTnes,
tu n'es pas nd pour la pine
dans une academie d'esclaves.
A Lydia Milagros Gonzalez
A la orilla del batey
y en el centro de la cafa,
el haitiano es un esclavo
que en sangre y fuego se baia.
Cuando arde el surco verde
y el sudor rompe la espiga
por el filo del machete
sube el sol de la fatiga.
Por la zanja baja el viento
arrastrando barro y duelo.
El haitiano por consuelo
solo tiene su lament.
Se dobla sobre su espina
como guajana agotada
y le inunda la mirada
como una oscura neblina.
Suefa el humilde bohio
donde su esposa padece
perdido en el extravlo
de todo lo que perece.
Y sus hijos celestiales
que tienen la vida herida,
con la barriga extendida
por gusanos terrenales.
Lo persigue, lo persigue
el cafaveral profundo,
y el blanco--dueno del mundo--
por todas parties lo sigue.
Es el negro libre y bravo
que sabe talar cadenas,
que no naci6 para penas
en academia de esclavo.
He sinks his machete in the dirt
and looks at the smoldering sky.
He is no longer a slave. He is
the mountain shouting war.
Translated by Myrsa Landr6n
Enfonce ta machette dans la terre!
Regarde 1'horizon enflamm!I
Tu n'es plus esclave. C'est
la montagne qui a declard la guerre.
Hunde el machete en la tierra.
Mira el rojizo horizonte.
Ya no es esclavo. Es el monte
que ha declarado la guerra.
24 de febrero de 1987
I have written poetry continuously over the last
thirty years. I had not intended to be a poet nor a
professor; I initially began my writing career as a
journalist. I covered everything in small newspapers,
a multitude of things from sports to the notorious, which
is an excellent background for any writer. It gives you
the ability to work under pressure and to get things out,
a sense of deadline which I find extremely important for
I went to Spain when I was in my 20s still working
as a journalist. I had thought I'd like to be, as most
people from my generation, a novelist. I tried that,
but it didn't work very well. So almost by accident,
I drifted into poetry, to very early romantic stuff,
which I have saved but never published. That went on for
a while, then I went back to journalism, then to teaching,
and it was about that time that I started really getting
quite serious about poetry. I decided that was the one
genre that I was continuing to work in. It was by no
means the only genre that I was continuing to work in;
I also did a lot of academic publishing. Poetry by
necessity has been somewhat sporadic because I was a drama
critic for about twelve years, and that took a tremendous
amount of time which was one of the reasons that I gave
it up. I find that I need rather large spaces of time
to work on poetry. Not necessarily that the poems are
long; the poems are usually quite short. A five or
eight line poem might take three or four days or longer.
Drama is a communal experience whether you are
sitting on my side as an audience, or whether you are on
the other side of production or acting. You are part of
a community, you get together, it is a communal celebration.
I may not have been the most popular guest at these
feasts, but I was always there. Poetry for me is a more
private thing. My audience would embrace all countries
or anybody who would be sufficiently interested or moved
by my poetry. I know that it would definitely be a very
I don't know how my long Caribbean experience has
been affecting my poems, although I know it has. Let me
give you one example. When I first came to Puerto Rico
twenty-five years ago, I lived at the beach in Naguabo.
At that time my first wife, who was a painter, was doing
a lot of lovely paintings which very definitely reflected
the landscape around us. I wrote a number of poems
in that period which was one of my richest periods when
I first came here. I never felt that I had to write a
poem about the Caribbean. It's very possible that my
images, now that I am somewhat removed from the Caribbean,
(in the sense that I am still here but I'm not involved,
in teaching, criticism or journalism) could draw a lot
more from my Caribbean experience and incorporate it into
the imagery of the poem.
Both Derek Walcott and John Figueroa have a very
definite European background. They tend to write in a
more classical manner. In that sense I identify with them
very much because my background has been rather somewhat
classical European-oriented, moreso than North American.
I don't see myself as a Caribbean poet, nor as a North
American poet. I don't see myself in any context as being
a part of a particular country because I've lived in so
many different countries.
THE GAS MASK
Digging for his roots
Beneath the cellar stairway
His garden spade turned up
The faceplate of an ancient warrior.
He touched the rubber stump of nose
And sifted through the broken
Portholes of the eyes
A little mound of dirt,
A skull an enemy has crushed,
He thought, and someone kind
Had given decent burial
Now he had dug it up.
WAITING FOR THE CANADIAN GEESE AT FARR'S COVE
They are not constant
As the lake is constant
But come and go like splendid
Strangers in an airport lounge,
Elegant, mysterious, unruffled,
Poised always for flight,
Their few accoutrements
Decorous and obviously genuine.
They please, and yet do not
Expect pleasure from a lesser kind.
They contain themselves but somehow
Us as well. For their sweet mercy's
Sake we are gladly slaves
Content merely to be noticed.
If only they will come.
If we could share a common dream
Bicycling, perhaps through Patagonia
When a sudden rain would find us
Inextricably in one another's arms
There would be no time for questions
In that intolerant forest, only the hawks
Going down at sunrise to the innocent walleys
And the dark music of their homeward flight.
We would love in-between and after
And before, not caring that the rain
May never stop nor noticing the different
That clot the rusting wheels.
PENTECOST SUNDAY IN LA HINCH
Has it after all come to this
A squalid hall on some forsaken cliff
The small birds songless, huddling against the wind
In the doorways of rocks, and the morning papers
Sweeping the mean streets like stricken gulls
And everywhere the traffic stalled and cursing.
Inside, the wit of miracle unfolds
Homely as the notices of death
And marriage bans and prayers for peace.
Inside, word becomes flesh
Easily as the glove slips on the hand,
And nobody notices the blood
Nor wonders at the tongues caught fire.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
DISCURSIVE SEDUCTION: CREOLE AND THE FRENCH OF FRANCE
This paper deals with the nature of linguistic
control in majority/minority situations and cites
examples of resistance to such control in a specific
discursive arena, that of the French-speaking West
Indies. It suggests that Creole talk of these islands
is a form of disruptive language not so much because it
occupies a marginal position with regard to the more
authoritative position of the official linguistic code
but rather because it is a form which moves back and
forth between the two positions, endlessly reversing
itself. The premise is that language is often subject
to sudden and unpredictable reversibility and for this
reason, it can be turned around and used against authorized
spokespersons. I will argue that Creole in the French
Caribbean is a case in point.
Creole languages, it has been said, developed as a
sort of bricolage, as a made-up or improvised solution
to a particular set of problems and contradictions and
therefore represent a deep-seated tension between those
in authority and those in subordinate positions.
Certainly this is a valid theory. But at the same time,
I should like to propose that Creole goes beyond mere
representation of the ambivalent social relations of a
people deprived of "authentic speech" and enters another
space altogether, one where words and forms no longer
strive to resemble things or circumstances but deliberately
undermine them. It is in this other space that the very
structure of the "official" language, French (and with
it the structure of the "official" order of things),
can be questioned, indeed challenged. For Creole
presides in the realm of the in-between, the ambiguous,
the composite, those things which, as Julia Kristeva
insightfully tells us in Powers of Horror, most disturb
identity, system, and order. From this perspective,
Creole talk is more than simply an alternative means of
communication in certain situations, it is also a highly
original form of linguistic resistance. And furthermore,
many scholars now think it was precisely that from the
very beginning. This is a provocative argument and one
which deserves closer examination.
Every colonized people. .finds itself face
to face with the language of the civilizing
nation; that is, with the culture of the mother
country. The colonized is elevated above his
jungle status in proportion to his adoption
of the mother country's cultural standards.
Frantz Fanon (1967: 18)
Ti parole fait grand zaffais.
The French first set foot in the West Indies in
1626. Guadeloupe and Martinique became French possessions
in 1635 and remained so, with the exception of three
brief occupations by the English, until the end of World
War II when the colonies themselves voted to become
Departements d'Outre-Mer (D.O.M.). It is important to
know that, from the earliest days, the French by their
systematic extermination of the original inhabitants and
by the introduction of sugar cane and black slaves from
Africa as early as 1640, actively promoted acceptance of
all that would eventually be imported from abroad:
language, culture, law, and authority. Methods of
repression (physical violence, forced baptism, destruction
of African customs) during the era of slavery gave way
in time to methods of persuasion, until finally the French
language itself came to be given as a means to take on
a world and a culture.
Traditionally, the assumption was that black people
of the Antilles wanted to speak French because it was a
key to open doors, to advance socially, and to get a job.
But more important, to speak French also meant "I made
an effort to assimilate, to rise above my non-culture--
the fact that I express myself well is a symbol of my
The language spoken officially in the French islands
today is French. Yet there exists, at the same time,
a disharmony between this "legitimate" language and the
language of the people, which is Creole. Creole was
formerly considered an inferior or infantile form of
French--it was, in fact, called a "corrupted French" in
the 1934 edition of the Quillet dictionary--and was
long thought to have been invented by the master in his
dealings with his slaves. A close look at early writings
such as those of Pare Labat, however, tells us that white
planters and their families learned Creole from the
slaves and not the contrary (Labat 1743).
It would appear, then, that those early Creole
speakers found themselves in a curious double bind:
in order to survive they had to resort to the language
of the opposition, i.e. to the prevailing authoritative
discourse. Yet if they did this and did it well, then
they condemned themselves to speak an alien tongue which
only drew them closer to the enemy. Their unique
solution to this dilemma was to confiscate the language
of the master and learn to use it against the master,
that is, to distort and "de-construct" that language
until it became their own.
Thus Creole, says Martinican writer Edouard
Glissant, arose as a creation of the uprooted African
who, faced with very limited linguistic tools, chose to
limit those tools even further, to take language, in
this case the French language, and warp it to make it
his/her own. Creole developed as a sort of secret pact
whose true meaning was hidden from the master, claims
Glissant, who also suggests that in the very unrolling
of the Creole sentence is heard again the syncopation
of drums and that the meaning of a sentence is sometimes
concealed in "accelerated nonsense rumbling with
sounds," a nonsense which "ferries the true meaning while
keeping it from the master'sear" (Glissant 1976: 97).
Glissant's theory also emphasizes the fact that
French and Creole are two distinct languages, not two
varieties of the same language. Historically, Creole,
as spoken by some six or seven million people in the
Caribbean region and on the islands of Reunion and
Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, is an idiom based on a
French-derived vocabulary and a syntax which mixes
African structures from the Sudanese with speech habits
from 16th and 17th century Norman sailors. Admittedly,
the use of Creole today varies a great deal from island
to island--and most of these differences have to do
with particular histories, the fact that Martinique
and Guadeloupe are now an integral part of France
whereas Haiti has been an independent republic since
1804--yet depreciated attitudes toward Creole remain
widespread in most areas.
Thus, both in Haiti and in the French D.O.M. one
finds a "legitimate," authoritative language, French,
being constantly reinforced by a language of compromise,
Creole, which most people want to, or seem to want to,
be rid of as soon as possible. But while it is
certainly true that authoritative discourse only ever
governs with the collaboration of those over whom it
exercises its authority, in the case of the French West
Indies the alternate discourse has functioned and
continues to function as an act of defiance as well.
So even though Creole, like any new language, was
originally fashioned out of the materials of the past,
that is, out of what was perhaps constituted to serve
completely different ends at another time and place,
something else happened, too, somewhere along the way--
and that something else was that the rules of the game
French sociologist Jean Baudrillard has made some
very interesting observations about the logic of the
game and the order of the rule. The liberating thing
about the latter, he writes, is that rules don't
require us to believe in them--this is irrelevant--rules
only need to be observed. Playing the game means
entering a ritual system of obligation where the choice
of rule frees us from the authority of the law precisely
because we don't have to interiorize the rule but only
be faithful to it. This means, says Baudrillard, that
we are not required to transgress the rule in order to
defy it. Operating within such a logic, true defiance,
linguistic or otherwise, does not proceed as a
confrontation between two terms or as a transgression
of meaning but rather always works to exterminate the
structural position of both terms. It is more a process
which reverses and destroys meaning than one which sets
up new meanings in place of old meanings: "Defiance
always comes from that which has no meaning, no name,
no identity," writes Baudrillard, "it is a defiance of
meaning, of power, of truth, of their existing as such,
of their pretending to exist as such. Only this reversion
can put an end to power. ." (Baudrillard 1983: 70).
In other words, ritual systems of obligation--and these
can range from a particular manner of speaking, like
slang, to the ceremonial language of Haitian voodoo
ceremonies--are liberating (and subversive) practices.
People and societies tend to make order out of
chaos by dividing the world into opposing entities like
raw and cooked, sane and mad, proper and improper, and
so forth. They place limits and boundaries and talk
endlessly about what are legitimate transgressions of
those limits. One function of ritual, in fact, says
another contemporary French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu,
is "to make licit. .unavoidable transgressions of the
boundary" (Bourdieu 1977: 124). But transgression is
tricky business. It is inefficient to merely talk
outside the limits of propriety--a priest, for example,
can not speak with much authority outside of his parish.
True linguistic resistance, on the other hand, like
ritual, crosses boundaries and plays on the lack of
distinction between true and false.
If we agree that everything depends on one's under-
standing of terms which are never fixed but are
reversible, if all that is needed to reverse the facts
is a slight manipulation of appearances, as Baudrillard
insists, then it is indeed a futile activity to set up
one meaning or one category over against another. Yet
traditional resistance, in the media especially, has
always been to reinterpret messages according to a
group's own code and for its own ends. A more devastating
resistance, however, will seduce. Seduction, as
Baudrillard calls this reversibility of meaning,
corrupts truths. It is a "magie noire de detournement
de toutes les verites," a black magic which reroutes
truths and plays on unspoken implications, producing
not alternate meanings but ambiguous ones instead
(Baudrillard 1979: 23). These meanings can be reversed
or denied at will, disclaimed at the slightest sign of
withdrawal or refusal. Like the Creole language which
goes about things in a roundabout way, in a circle, we
might say, seduction maintains "uncertainty about
intentions that hesitate between playfulness and
seriousness, abandon and reserve, eagerness and
indifference" (Bourdieu 1977: 10). Baudrillard's
seductive discourse is much like Roland Barthes's
"amorous dis-cursus," that is, it is not dialectical--
the root of the- word discourse, in fact, implies
circular speech: currere (to run) dis- (in different
directions)--but turns, says Barthes, like a perpetual
Circular discourse puts an end to power in the
classical sense of something handed down from above
(in the way, say, that an orator in the time of Homer
was given a scepter as he was about to speak) precisely
because it functions in terms of a cycle where positions
of dominator and dominated interchange in endless
reversion. Such discourse is able to effectively resist
authoritative discourse because the power of the word
is located not in words themselves but in the position
of the person speaking them. If the position is shaky,
authority falls apart. The disruption of order and
authority, however, serves no purpose in itself. Total
liberty is not what is opposed to meaning because chance,
as Baudrillard points out in de la seduction, can produce
meaning too. In other words, we do not escape meaning
and logical sequences by disorder but rather by imposing
an order even more conventional than the original one
that is being imposed on us. This is the only way that
we can outwit both disorder (that is, chance) and (the
order of) meaning, be it political, historical, or
Langage, which is sacred language used in Haitian
voodoo ceremonies, is an extreme example of how a ritual
order can abolish meaning. Langage occurs in songs
and various litanies and it is used primarily as a means
of direct communication with the loa, or Haitian deities.
Its origin is unclear. Some say (Maya Deren, for one)
that it is a vestige of African speech, yet we know
that there also existed at the time a secret language
used by Arawak priests when they were possessed by
spirits--and indeed, some of the prayers of Haitian
language contain Indian and Spanish words as well as
African. Be that as it may, the fact remains that only
the houngan, the Haitian priest, understands what the .
words actually mean, although even this is doubtful.
I think it is more likely that nobody understands
language anymore (except, of course, the loa) which
makes it even more exclusive and more sacred than ever.
Only the ritual abolishes meaning, Baudrillard reminds
us. Ritual discourse resists the arbitrariness of
language not by rejecting that authority (i.e. by merely
opposing it) but by imposing an even more arbitrary
ritual which, in the case of language, has become
completely incomprehensible to those who make use of it.
One could also say that circular discourse brings
about an overturning of the signified and furthermore,
it does so by throwing into confusion binary opposition
like those of positivist thinking: truth versus error,
etc. Returning once again to the example of French and
Creole, we might argue that French, like most modern
Western discourses, is logocentric, that is, it assumes
that the word can yield immediate access to "true"
meanings. Creole, on the other hand, makes no such
claim and, in fact, prefers to take detours instead of
the straightforward path. In the D.O.M. French still
functions in the context of a male-governed society,
that of Paris, while Creole is an element within this
society which undermines it. The struggle is political
as well as linguistic because Creole disrupts both stable
meanings and institutions--the Catholic church and the
institution of marriage are frequent targets of the
Creole joke. The very structure of the Creole language,
in addition, illustrates this point. Verb tenses, for
example, are sometimes open to more than one interpretation
--li manj6 in Haitian Creole, for instance, corresponds
to il mange and to il a mange in French, that is, to both
the present and past tenses. In general, distinctions
between masculine and feminine do not exist in Creole
and the plural is only indicated when a noun is determined
(in the grammatical sense). Creole talk is disorderly
because it rearranges a status quo that we have come to
take for granted. This disorder, it should be added, is
not so much an absense of order as it is a reversal of
an established order, a reordering, so to speak; that is,
it does not do away with definitions and categories but
rather reconstitutes them.
In the Creole folktale it is the political status
quo which is turned upside down. Certain characters
such as le roi, who symbolizes Europeans, and Compere
Tigre, who symbolizes the bgk6 colonialist, are always
fooled by a third, slightly disreputable character,
Lapin, who represents the cunning of the people.
In these stories individual solutions replace collective
ones, subtlety and shrewdness triumph over brute force,
and Lapin always comes out on top. Although the tales
most often end in tragedy--they are, one must not
forget, stories of a hungry and deprived people--one
character manages to outtalk all the others. He may be
small and childlike, but he nevertheless tricks those
supposedly stronger and wiser and he continually shakes
up the social and "natural" order of things through his
various sayings and doings. In the end only Lapin is
left, Lapin "le madr6, le ruse, le roublard. .le lacheur.
Abatardissement de la race" (C4saire and Menil 1978: 10).
While we may or may not agree with Aim6 Cesaire and Ren6
Menil that this slippery-tongued, fast-talking rabbit
is a degeneration of the race, there is no question about
his verbal skills. Compare Lapin, we have to admit,
certainly does have a way with words.
The Creole tale, moreover, always begins with a
Bo-bonne fois. .
Toua fois bel conte!
which sets the scene for the "d4tournement de toutes les
v6rites" to come. Things always come around full circle
in Creole stories, as I have said, and the practice of
magic--magic words, especially--plays a key role in this
reversal. There are numerous examples of characters who
hide in the bushes or in the bamboo in order to hear a
secret song or chant which will permit them to
outmaneuver their opponents. Thus in one story Coulibri
defeats both Chouval and Bef because his servant,
Crapaid, beats the drum and sings in a kind of language
whose power comes not from the words themselves but
from African magical formulas. The original African
couplets lost their meaning long ago and have been
further distorted by the insertion of French words, with
the result that neither the storyteller nor the audience
understands anything at all of them:
Ingoui, ingoua, gomboul6 zombis
Ingoui, ingoua, bam si boin, tambingoui
Timb si moin pret6 pou renne.
Ingoui, ingoua, gomboul4 zombi
Bam on 16 ga, gomboule zombi
Ingoui, ingoua, bam si gouin, timb,
Min goui; tamb min goua
Bann si moin pr@td pou renne (Herne 1977: 32).
In another tale the brother of Totoye persuades his
sister to put a basket over his head instead of sending
him away. This ruse, of course, enables him to hear the
secret song she sings to summon her beloved Blue Fish.
And in the well-known story of Y6. Ti Fonte, the crafty,
sly son of Y6, hides in his father's pocket. When the
two get to Morne Lacroix, Ti Fonte sticks just the very
tips of his ears out of the pocket in order to catch the
words of Bon-Did, the magic words that will rid the
family of Diabe-la: "Tam ni pou tam ni b6!" Language
remains of primary importance even when the words spoken
are not magical, as illustrated by the story of "Nanie
Rosette." In this tale the Devil has his tongue flattened
so his speech will be as sweet and clear as that of
Nanie's mother. The rest is easy: Nanie opens the door
and the Devil gobbles her up.
In French/Creole societies controlling power lies
in inherited position and, to a lesser extent, in skin
color. One way to counter such authority is through
magic or trickery. The Creole tale is effective precisely
because it is able, most often by means of a transforming
set of words, to readjust social positions and boundaries.
Creole stories (and jokes) upset people's expectations
of how an interaction should go and, in so doing,
reverse stable meanings and practices--suddenly
certain contrasts and divisions which in everyday life
refer to certain social relationships are subverted in
a not-so-playful manner. This is linguistic gamesman-
ship, to be sure, but as we have seen, it is clearly
no trivial pursuit.
In riddling, then, we see a structural process
operating on the level of systematic meaning and
sentiment that is closely related to the joking
seizure of power, for the moment, by performers.
(Roger Abrahams 1983: 168)
Humor, Sigmund Freud tells us, is not resigned; it
is rebellious, signifying the triumph not only of the
ego, but also of the pleasure principle. Freud, of
course, is not referring to "harmless" or "innocent"
humor here but rather to what he calls "tendentious"
humor, jokes which "are especially favoured in order to
make aggressiveness or criticism possible against persons
in exalted positions who claim to exercise authority."
(Freud 1960: 105). In short, there is a difference,
according to Freud, between harmless or innocent jokes--
these serve no particular aim and are an end in them-
selves--and jokes which have a facade of some kind, that
is, which have an ulterior motive (of aggressiveness,
satire, defense, or, in the case of obscene jokes,
exposure). The latter always have something forbidden
to say, a hidden message, as it were. Such messages
are prevalent in Haitian blag which, generally speaking,
seem to fall into two of the four classes of tendentious
jokes that Freud names: specifically those which are in
the service of aggressive (hostile) purposes and those
which have cynical (critical, blasphemous) purposes.
To illustrate this hypothesis more clearly, it will
be helpful to review the mechanics of the joking process
itself. In the beginning section of Jokes and Their
Relation to the Unconscious Freud tells us that the
witty character of a remark lies not in its thoughtful
content but in its formulation. It is the form and
technique of a joke, not its subject matter, which
causes laughter. In later parts of the book Freud
turns to the unconscious, hostile tendencies of wit.
He sees joking as a way of admitting dangerous aggression
to our consciousness, but in a form that has been
cleverly disguised from outright assault into wit.
A wish to insure is momentarily repressed and pushed down
into the unconscious where it is transformed by the
jokework. If the disguise succeeds, the aggressive idea
passes the censor, escapes further repression, and may
be consciously enjoyed. It goes like this: one person
makes a joke which is really an attack on a second
person, the butt of the joke. In order to test the
success of the disguise, however, the joker has to tell
the joke to a third person, who is only a listener.
When the third person laughs, the first person may then
join in the laughter with relief--the disguise has
worked. (It goes without saying that the better the
disguise, the better the joke). But in spite of the
disguise, which safeguards the guilt-free enjoyment of
the aggression, the hostile intent must remain
intelligible. This is what is meant by the double-edged
character of jokes. They can so easily slip from
pleasure to displeasure. When this happens, it is the
disguise that has slipped, allowing the tendency to show.
Then the censor punishes, with resultant feelings of
shame, disgust, or embarrassment.
We thus see how, in tendentious wit, a hostile or
obscene purpose can find release in a socially sanctioned
activity: the joke. Like the dream--Freud often
compares jokes to dreams--the joke makes possible the
satisfaction of an instinct, such as sex or aggression,
that would normally be forbidden. Pent-up instinctual
energies are freed from repression and find expression
in the form of laughter; or in Freudian terms, the
pleasure in jokes lies in the economy of expenditure
on inhibition (the economy principle so central to Freud's
thinking). More simply, this means that a saving in
energy is transformed into laughter. In tendentious wit
our pleasure corresponds to the psychical expenditure
saved by not having to repress. (In instances of
harmless wit, on the other hand, the saving of feeling
reduces the seriousness of a situation which would
otherwise produce strong negative emotion.)
Joking is also a distinctly human achievement in
that it is a social activity. We do not laugh at our
own jokes. Jokes are always for other people. The
listener laughs because s/he gets free the effect of the
joke, thus gaining the maximum economy of expenditure.
It should be noted, however, that this economy is
effected only if the listener's inhibitions match those
of the teller of Lhe joke, as anyone who has ever tried
to translate a joke into another language will surely
It will be especially important to correctly identify
the second person in Creole jokes, that is, the person
(or institution) that is the object of the hostile or
blasphemous aggression. The Haitian stories which
follow appear to be concerned with inferior or powerless
people who are laughed at because of their naivete or
their witlessness. Yet, if we are to heed Freud's
advice, we must ask ourselves if it is not the case
rather that these jokes and stories put forth the
character of the "little man," the Haitian "neg," only
to strike at something more important. Here are a few
Se yon jinnonm ki tapral nan
yon f4stin. Li t4 fek fi-n
acht6 yon souly6. Li abiyd,
li pran rout la. Min li pat
met4 soulyd-a nan pye-l. Li
t6 di: "Le-m pret pou rive, ma
mete-1." Pandan lap mach4 byin
vit, li frap6 py4-1 pi-ou nan
yon roch, yon doubt py4-1 rach6.
Li di: "Se Bondy6 ki fe soulye-a
pat nam py6-m, kouly6-a li tap
Once there was a young man who was
going to a banquet. He had just
bought himself a pair of shoes. He
got dressed and went off. But he
didn't put on his shoes. He said
to himself, "I'll put them on when
I get there." While he was hurry-
ing along, he hit his foot on a
rock and one of his toes was torn
off. He said to himself, "It's the
Good Lord who kept me from putting
on those shoes, otherwise they'd have
been ripped to pieces."
Here the aggressive tendencies seem to be directed
against an insignificant person, but we must not forget
that the object of a joke's attack can also be
institutions or even dogmas of morality and religion or
views of life which are highly respected in a particular
society. Freud reminds us, too, that in jokes
"nonsense often replaces ridicule and criticism in the
thoughts lying behind the joke." In other words, the
apparent stupidity of the young Haitian in the above
story might very well be a reflection of something else
that is equally stupid and nonsensical. This, indeed,
is the real sense of the joke. In the next illustration
the hostility becomes more obvious:
Set6 yon p4 ki tal prich4
lvanjil nan yon pdyi louin
louin. Yon lX konsa li tap
travls4 yon touf rajd. Li vi-n
kontr4 bab pou bab ak yon gro
bet sovaj ki rel4 lyon. Min
jan bet la t6 part sou msyd-a
sanbld li t6 gin yon df sinminn
konsa san manj4. Monp4 sezi,
li pantan, li di: "Papa Bondyd,
mete yon bon santiman krityin
nan lyon sa-a souplg." Minm
1A-a tou, lyon an fA yon ti
kanpd, li fA onondipe, li di:
"Mesi papa Bondyd, bdni-m pou
manje sa-a mouin pral manj4 la-a."
Once there was a priest who was
preaching the Gospel in a far-off
country. One day as he was going
through the bush he came face to
face with a huge lion which, from
all appearances, had had nothing
to eat for about two weeks.
Horror-struck, the poor father
prayed, "Papa Bondye, please
give this lion a good Christian
attitude." Whereupon the lion
knelt down, crossed himself, and
began to say grace, "Bless us
O Lord and these thy gifts which
we are about to receive. ."
And a final example:
Tijan fa yon rAv. Li oul li
kanpA d4van fothy papa Bondy4,
li di: "Papa Bondy4, pou ou
minm, yon milyon an6, se konbyin
tan sa y?-" Bondy4 reponn li
di: "0, sa se yon ti moman."
Tijan di: "E yon milyon dpla
se konbyin lajan?" Bondy4 di:
"Aa, sa s4 tankou 5 kob." Tijan
kouri r4ponn, li di: "Roy, papa
Bondyd, banm 5 kob." La minm
Bondy4 di: "Tann yon ti moman."
Tijan had a dream in which he saw
himself sitting at the foot of the
Good Lord. Tijan asked the Lord,
"Papa Bondye, for you, how long
is a million years?" The Lord
answered, "0 that's just like a
minute." Next Tijan asked, "And
for you, a million meals is worth
how much money?" The Lord
answered, "Ah that's like 5 cents."
Tijan then quickly said, "Your
Highness, papa Bondye, give me 5
cents." Whereupon the Lord said,
"Wait just a minute."
These three Haitian blag clearly belong to the class
of jokes Freud calls cynical jokes and, furthermore, they
are disguising aggressive tendencies directed toward
Christianity in general and the authority of the Catholic
church in particular. The fact that the original
aggression is masked permits its expression--the
aggression here is just barely recognizable though the
final message is unmistakable: in suggesting that the
bountiful goodness of the Almighty is not all that good,
the Creole joke rebels against the demands of a morality
laid down by those who are, in Freud's words, "rich and
powerful and who can satisfy their wishes at any time
without any postponement" (Freud 1960: 110).
Another common target of Creole jokes is the
institution of marriage, as in the story of the
unfaithful husband whose car breaks down in front of
his girlfriend's house as he is out taking his wife
and children for a Sunday afternoon ride. This
anecdote, it seems, is whispering that Western morality
is "not an arrangement calculated to satisfy a man's
sexuality" for indeed, says Freud, "there is no more
personal claim than that for sexual freedom and at no
point has civilization tried to exercise severer
suppression than in the sphere of sexuality" (Freud
Humor can also give a feeling of power and strength
in the midst of pain or ignorance--who among us, for
instance, has not felt inadequate and helpless in the
face of modern medical science ? The following story,
in which the hostile purposes, I might add, are directed
against women as well, needs no further comment:
Set6 yon neg ki t6 gin tet
fbmal. Epi mouche al lopital.
Dokte-a di-1: "Sa ou ginyin?"
Li reponn: "tet femal". Laminm
dokte-a bay mouch6 yon ti rembd.
Min li kanp6 toujou, li pa d6plas6.
Dokte-a di-1: "mouin fini ave ou
oui!" Mouche di: "Dok, monch6
ou poko fini. Se pou ou banm
yon piki pou tet femal la." Eh!
Mouchd fachd, lap jour4. Epi
dokte-a di: "Ddpi ou v14 pran
piki, desann pantalon ou." Mouch4
minm di: "Mouin pat di ou mouin
gin deyA femal dok. Ou pa ka
di-m desann pantalon ou. Si m-t6
gin chapo, ou ta di-m ouet6 chapo
ou pito. Mouin konnin s6 tet
fbmal mouin ginyin, s6 pou ou
banm piki nan tet."
Once there was a man who went to
the hospital because he had the
head of a woman. When the doctor
asked him what was the matter with
him, he explained that he had the
head of a woman. The doctor gave
him some medicine but the man
refused to leave, insisting that
the doctor also give him a shot
So the doctor said, "All right,
then, pull down your pants." The
man said, "I didn't say I had the
behind of a woman, doc, so don't tell
me to pull down my pants--if I had
a hat, you could tell me to take
off my hat. I know what's the
matter with me and what I need is
a shot in the head."
To sum up, then, we can see that the demands for
repression of unacceptable desires and wishes over the
years have changed aggression from direct assault into
wit. Wit lets us admit dangerous aggression since the
aggressive thought is repressed into the unconscious
where it is left to be elaborated on, only to reappear
later in our consciousness in disguised form, as a safe
form of resistance. It is obvious that assault for the
African slave was out of the question. Along with
carnival and flight into the hills (marronage), joking
patterns served, and still serve, as a counterforce
available to Creole peoples. The element of camouflage
here is significant. Masking in carnival is the extreme
example, of course, but we have seen that a similar
masking process can also occur in humorous language.
The phenomenon, moreover, is not unique to the French
Caribbean. Roger Abrahams has argued that the use of
nonsensical "broad" talk on the English-speaking islands
confounds "sweet" or "correct" talk and thus changes
the balance of power, producing a new sense of order,
based on a different logic (Abrahams 1983: 73).
One last point still needs further clarification.
Central to Freud's theory of humor, as I have said, is
the notion of a saving of energy: "By making our enemy
seem small, inferior, despicable, or comic, we achieve
in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him--to
which the third person, who has made no efforts, bears
witness by his laughter" (Freud 1960: 103). Freud's
interpretation is one of economy. Wit, he explains,
consists of using a single word (i.e., a signifier) in
more than one way and the two things, in addition, are
said simultaneously; that is, we get more meaning under
the same signifier. As in dreams, a kind of condensation
or compression of meaning takes place which produces
both a saving of psychic effort and the resultant
Jean Baudrillard does not agree, however. There's
not much chance of a "real" meaning behind the meaning,
he tells Freud, because meaning stays in suspension like
goods in symbolic exchange. Thus it is not meaning itself
or an increase of meaning which allows us to enjoy a joke
but rather the neutralization of meaning which fascinates.
Baudrillard's emphasis is not so much on the double
meaning of a witty remark as on the cancelling of one
meaning for another. His interpretation, contrary to
Freud's, is one of anti-economy. Baudrillard talks
about the infinitesimal time lapse in which the signifier
turns back on itself--here, he says, is where there is an
infinity of meaning (and pleasure). In that space of
time when one meaning is annulled, suddenly all meanings
are possible and there can be virtually endless
substitution of meaning. The result is not saving but
extravagant spending of meaning and at the same time a
sort of instantaneous and perfidious short-circuiting of
messages. For Baudrillard too much meaning is
considerably more dangerous than any hidden meaning.
It is excess of meaning (and of words), he insists, which
is the "fatal strategy." While Freud's position on this
point is not to be discredited, the possibility that
excess, in the form of intemperate language, for instance,
might be yet another means to challenge authority must
not be overlooked.
A gigantic circonvolution, circumlocution of
the spoken word, which amounts to irredeemable
blackmail and irremovable deterrence of the
subject supposed to speak, but left without a
word to say. . (Jean Baudrillard 1983: 78)
It seems to us that truth, lodged in our most
secret nature, "demands" only to surface.
(Michel Foucault 1980: 60)
Contemporary thinkers like Barthes, Baudrillard,
and Foucault have seriously questioned the idea, long
prevalent in Western culture, that confession "frees,"
that to write or to speak is a kind of liberating
activity. Confession is thought in our society to have
a therapeutic aspect as well. If we will only admit
our sins, we will be forgiven. And if we talk enough,
we will eventually arrive at the meaning behind the
meaning, that is, at the "true" meaning and we will be
cured. All of psychoanalytic practice is based on this
Thus, today, everything is divulged, even the
insides of buildings (the Centre Georges Pompidou in
Paris is a good example--indeed, Baudrillard has
published an essay on just that subject). Everything that
used to be interiorized, in people and objects, is now
to be found on the exterior, leaving us to wonder,
perhaps, if there is anything at all left on the inside
anymore. Social critics and philosophers alike allude
to a fact explosion, an information explosion which is
only matched by a concurrent explosion of discourse.
Our present-day compulsion to reveal everything coupled
with the rise of the personage of the "expert" has
resulted in what Clifford Geertz calls a rage to invent.
Consequently, says Geertz, we continue to produce words
and documents everywhere, in the form of public opinion
polls, intelligence testing, SAT scores, lie detecting,
electronic bugging, and the like. We will, he adds
wryly, acknowledge depositions from "anyone capable of
talking into a tape recorder" (Geertz 1983: 171).
The characteristic hysteria of our time, agrees
Baudrillard, is exactly this hysteria of production
and overproduction (of the real and of signs). All that
was previously hidden is reduced to speech and fact--all
the secrets of the body, all the secrets of language--
no longer just everything we wanted to know but surely
much more than we ever hoped to know. The real keeps.
getting bigger and bigger, says Baudrillard, there is
more and more meaning, a cancerous proliferation of
discourse and of signs. Modern man is obliged to
communicate, not only as an individual speaking subject
but collectively as well, for instance, in polls and
various other statistical surveys. Here the masses are
compelled to reveal their secret, Baudrillard explains
in les strategies fatales, even if they don't have one--
they must nevertheless cross over the threshold of
silence and say something. Yet, the very title of this
most recent book suggests that Baudrillard would agree
that saying too much is in itself a form of linguistic
resistance, another "subversion by reversion," namely,
a fatal strategy.
The point becomes clearer if we ask what happens
when there is excess of any kind, when there is too
much left over or there is a dangerous remainder--what
happens when, for example, there is a sudden influx of
cash into a monetary system. Basic economics teaches
that any surplus is capable of ruining the system of
equivalences, if it is disproportionately poured back
into it. And the outcome is exactly the same, no matter
if the surplus is a remainder of goods or a linguistic
remainder. This is why the influx of French words
into Creole is deplored by people like Edouard Glissant
who believe that such a practice can onlv contribute
in the long run to a banalization of Creole and its
eventual disappearance as a language of vitality and
But what complicates the Creole situation is the
fact that the language is in a certain sense intemperate
by its very nature. A close look at the origins of the
Creole speech act will show that excess (i.e., of noise)
was a technique used by the African slave from the start.
Because slaves were not allowed to talk to one another,
they disguised their speech either as shouts in the cane
field or whispers in the night and for a long time there
was really nothing in between. Thus, we might hypothesize
that Creole first sprung from both an extreme of sound
and from a lack of it. In this regard, it is interesting
to note also that the principle of excess (i.e., of
riches) is one of the constant features of Creole
folktales, as Glissant points out in Le Discours antillais.
The riches can be either quantitative, as when a story
enumerates things to eat or when we are told a castle
has 210 toilets, but there is also qualitative excess,
as when a tale records the extravagant price of goods.
There are endless descriptions of sumptuous meals in
Creole folklore--one character always seems to be
plying another with. food and drink. In a well-known
Martinican conte, Macaque is tempted as much, if not
more, by promises of 4crivisses and christophines au
gratin as he is by the prospect of seeing the jolie
porteuse de cafe in the morning. What Macaque forgot
(and what Lapin remembered) is that excess of any kind
can easily destroy its object.
All those whose interests lie on the side of the
prevailing discourse of authority, then, should take
heed: better to say too little than to say too much.
Better to hear too little than to hear too much.
Baudrillard discusses this theme at length in de la
seduction where his examples range from pornography and
horse-racing to Japanese quadraphonic sound. What makes
pornography the "baroque enterprise" that it is,
Baudrillard maintains, is, precisely, a surplus of
reality, the fact that too much is seen too close--we
see what we have never before seen anywhere (and lucky
for us that we haven't, he quickly adds). In short,
the argument is this: production (or overproduction)
takes and makes manifest what is of another order, the
order of seduction. While production establishes facts,
seduction, on the other hand, pulls something back from
view and from the ear. When everything is said and
expressed, Baudrillard tells us, there is no longer any
ambiguity but ambiguity is what must govern speech if we
are to be charmed.
And yet, does not Creole do exactly this, charm us?
Suddenly all things are possible, even, to borrow a
phrase of James Baldwin, the most unspeakable longings.
While on the surface it might seem that Creole is a
discourse of neurosis--the verbal delirium present in the
language mirrors the mental disarray of the people,
argues Glissant--I should like rather to emphasize the
"abjective," in Kristeva's sense of the word, aspect of
Creole talk; that is, it both attracts and repels those
who speak it. Although the French language is still
considered in the Antilles to be the only source of
culture and knowledge and although Creole over the years
has been consistently denied and banned, in schools and
elsewhere, at the same time the tenacious existence of
Creole alludes, it seems to me, to its rebellious nature.
It is very clear that French in the Caribbean region
continues to enjoy higher prestige vis-a-vis Creole,
yet I think it is equally clear that Creole is a
signifying practice which, on another level, actively
seeks to remain subversive. Furthermore, it proceeds
in this endeavor by adhering to certain principles which,
as I have tried to show, obey the rule of seduction.
The result is a language which, in very subtle ways,
denounces and confounds the foreign language, French,
being imposed. Creole marks, in West Indian societies,
a veritable seizure of power, however fleeting, by those
who, for four centuries now, have been refused the right
to speak and be heard.
To recapitulate briefly, then, Creole resists the
authority of French and of France through the use of a
number of specific devices or strategies. Inversion, or
reversal, of meaning is one of these. The process is not
so much a replacing of old meanings with new ones but
rather, as I have said, a way of playing on the ambiguity
in the words themselves. Thus, it is not just a problem
of contending with an alternate meaning--Creole opens
up the possibility of multiple meanings, virtually
meaning without end. Carried to the extreme, the words
become, paradoxically, emptied of meaning altogether, as
in the case of Haitian language. Wit and excess are two
other disruptive elements present in Creole talk and
folklore. Creole stories tell of measureless bounty
and recount delicious acts of imprudence. Jokes, on
the other hand, present a humbler front, yet they too
are far from innocent.
In the proceeding pages I have dealt with only a
few of the ways in which Creole speech refuses to accept
the status of French as "official" language and as the
sole transmitter of a respectable and universal culture.
A lengthier study would surely uncover many more such
strategies. For the moment, though, let us merely say
that it is the little word, the "ti parole," which
bears watching. A few of these little words put together,
says the Creole proverb, can easily turn into a big deal,
literally, a "grand affair." Or perhaps we should say
grand seduction--discursive, that is.
* Translation of Creole jokes and stories in this paper
are those of the author. Spelling and grammatical
irregularities in the original texts have been
** The author wishes to thank the National Endowment for
the Humanities Travel to Collections Program for
partial support of this project.
Abrahams, Roger D. The Man-of-Words in the West Indies:
Performance and the Emergence of Creole Culture.
Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1983.
Baudrillard, Jean. de la seduction. Parts: Editions
In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. .
or the End of the Social. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul
Patton and John Johnston. New York: Semiotext[e],
Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton
and Philio Beitchman. New York: Semiotext[e], Inc.,
Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice.
Trans. Richard Nice. New York: Cambridge UP, 1977.
C4saire, Aim6 and Ren6 Menil. "Introduction au Folklore
Martiniquais." Tropiques 4, 1942. Paris: Editions
Jean-Michel Place, 1978.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles
Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality.
Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the
Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey. New York:
Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in
Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic, 1983.
Glissant, Edouard. "Free and Forced Poetics."
Trans. Michel Benamou. Ethnopoetics. Boston, MA:
Alcheringa, Boston UP, 1976.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Trois Fois Bel Conte. Paris:
Labat, Pere. Nouveau Voyage aux Iles de l'Amerique
1693-1705. Paris: J. -B. Delespine, 1742.
Fort de France: Editions des Horizons Caraibes,
University of Wisconsin
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Ana Lydia Vega.
Pasi6n de historic.
Buenos Aires: Ediciones La Flora, 1987.
Ana Lydia Vega's third collection of short stories
entitled Pasi6n de historic (story-bound) includes six
stories as different from each other as their titles.
They are tied together by Vega's masterful use of street
language, literary and historical parody, play of words,
allusions to soap operas, T. V. programs, hit songs, and
a suspense ingredient that could lead to some bloody
outcome. Vega's previous books (Virgenes y mArtires,
1981 and Encancaranublado, 1983) dealt with short
familiar episodes in a common life setting. Her
characters and stories were drawn from all social groups
in Puerto Rico and their Caribbean counterparts in Haitt,
Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In Pasi6n de historic
Vega has included one more element: the way people's
thinking is changed by their reading of sensationalist
and gory news in El Vocero, the daily newspaper with the
widest circulation in Puerto Rico. How do people see
their own lives when every morning they read that
someone has been strangled, or chopped to pieces, or
burned alive, or shot twenty times because of passionate
The first story which gives the title to the entire
collection was awarded the prestigious Juan Rulfo Inter-
national Prize. It is a long story which encloses three
simultaneous plots: the narrator is writing a story
based on a true murder; her friend Vilma is telling the
narrator her own intimate story about wife beating,
repression and enslavement; the narrator is also going
through her own emotional crisis since she just broke
up with her "compaiero." All the stories are unfinished
and the reader is free to complete the missing pieces.
The language is so vibrant and rich in meaning that the
pleasure of reading this story comes more from the
language than the plot.
The second story, "Ajustes, S. A." (Adjustments,
Inc.) is a report with various addenda on a case that
could not be completed because every attempt at looking
for a reason for a divorce failed. The client sought
from the agency a legal pretext for her divorce, a very
hard task since she had a perfect husband. The story
gathers all the data to show how the agency used all
its resources to fulfill the client's wishes, but failed
In "Tres aer6bicos para el amor" (3 Aerobic Exercises
for Love), Vega includes three mental exercises that
contradict reality. What the protagonist goes through
in real life has nothing to do with what she imagines
she will do or what others think. In "Serie negra"
(Black serial), she also includes three parts, but each
one is only a page long and is an excellent recreation
of a murder or death scene. They remind us of Alfred
Hitchcock's half hour T. V. series where in a short time
the story was able to grip and suspend us in disbelief.
The other two stories are long pieces and are as
absorbing, colorful and humorous as "Pasi6n de historic"
"Caso omiso" (Ignored) has a 17 year old narrator
telling the story of how he was almost involved in a
crime, even though all he wanted was to lay this older
woman. Again we have a real story that is put aside to
let loose the imaginary story. The entire collection
ends with "Sobre tumbas y heroes" (On Tombs and Heroes),
title which signals a parody of Ernesto Sabato's novel
Sobre heroes y tumbas. Each part has a headline, and
it draws together three characters who otherwise would
never be involved in the same situation. There are
several narrators who instead of clarifying the story,
really complicate matters. One of the characters is
doing research on a historical period in Puerto Rico,
and he seeks the advice of someone who because of his
age could have a better knowledge of the event. But
each character has his own reasons for not revealing all.
This mystery is sustained throughout the story which
in turn never follows a straight line. Of course, the
young researcher is extremely interested in making love
to the old man's granddaughter.
All the stories in Pasi6n de historic have a morbid
attraction to sex, violence and death, everyday topics
in El Vocero and in everyday life in Puerto Rico. We
can see Ana Lydia Vega's development as a writer from
her first stories published in magazines and in the
weekly newspaper Claridad to this extremely effective
style where mystery, suspense and all the elements of
the thriller are incorporated. It is not your everyday
mystery story; the language bewitches the reader who
enjoys every word and moment of the story.
Maria Cristina Rodriguez
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
The Caribbean Writer, 1, no. 1 (Spring 1987).
It is a pleasure to review The Caribbean Writer, a
new literary journal from the Caribbean Research
Institute of the University of the Virgin Islands.
In editor Erika J. Smilowitz's words, "to read this first
issue is to know the vastness of the Caribbean. An
archipelago of numerous large and small islands stretching
between two continents, a sea of 750,000 square miles, it
is also a community of vastly different peoples, languages
and cultures." This community is reflected in the
"amalgam of various subjects and perspectives" that is
the poetry and short fiction chosen for this premiere
issue of a journal that seems destined to "encourage
quality and to showcase Caribbean writing."
'Guest poems' by Derek Walcott, Toi Derricotte, and
Lawrence Lieberman aside, the poetry is of impressive
quality. In it one reads of the sounds of things, of
"flame tree time" (Elaine Savory), of island fever, of
the "fragile Caribbean night," of "voodoo hymns" (Patricia
M. Fagan), of "Wooing Lady Luck in Philipsburg" (Donna
Baier Stein), of cricketers sipping tea "under a ninety
degree" (J. Robert Creque), of "the conch horns of the
eastern Maroons" (Joseph Bruchac), of mulatto Christs,
of great men and greater castles, of hurricane season, of
body bags in Grenada, of "Poverty's hut" (Patsy Anne
Bickerstaff), of tourist days and nights, of a land
"lashed/until it bled and oozed/and all the palm trees
died" (Joan Kelsey Eltman). Here is the Caribbean
context; these are her voices of sorrow and joy, terror
and dream, struggle and triumph. Patricia M. Fagan's
"Schoolday" places the general excellence of the poetry:
Mangoes on the road
Sister Mary say, "the North Pole
on top of the earth."
Mangoose chase iguana
'round the tamon tree.
Mommy having baby but
hospital too fa' way.
The church bell ring.
Charlie is a cha-cha balahou
and he live in Frenchtown too.
"Christ die for our sins."
Sister Lucy say.
The baby die and mango rot.
Of the five short stories, I was struck particularly
by Sunshine Vinzant's "Brathwaite's Dog" and Gabrielle
DiLorenzo's "Weekend Fantasy." If fiction is not minding
one's own business, then Vinzant's wry allegory on
oppression is the work of someone not afraid to throw
stones. DiLorenzo's "postcard" plea for a womanness other
that "cat," one not de-(w)humanized by place, "sweaty men,"
and ignorance, is charged with irony and resistance.
With poetry and fiction as its main focus, this first
issue of The Caribbean Writer also contains a photograph
by Tina Henle, reproductions of art work by M. Lisa Etre,
Maria Henle, Andre Normil, and El'Roy Simmonds, reviews
of recent publications from the Virgin Islands, and an
interesting review by Gloria I. Joseph of the Sistren
Collective's Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican
Women ed. Honor Ford Smith (London: The Women's Press,
Ltd., 1986). Just as Joseph calls Lionheart Gal a
"brave book," so The Caribbean Writer is a brave exploration
into the Caribbean text. As T. S. Eliot once said, "Fare
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
Vincent 0. Cooper, Trevor Parris and Joseph Lisowski.
University of the Virgin Islands Press, 1987.
Recently received at Sargasso is a small volume
containing poems by three professors from the University
of the Virgin Islands. Three Islands is a modest
publication commemorating the University's twenty-fifth
anniversary, and is the first to be produced solely by
means of the University of the Virgin Islands' own
Contributors to the volume are Vincent 0. Cooper,
Trevor Parris, and Joseph Lisowski. Prof. Cooper,
holder of a Ph. D. from Princeton, chairs the Humanities
Division at the University and also teaches classes in
English and Linguistics. His work previously has been
published in Caribanthology 2, VIP, Scholastic Voice,
and Proud of Our Land and People: A Virgin Islands
Trevor Parris is also in the English department at
the University. A versatile writer, Prof. Parris is
author of the novel Got a Bite: A Story for Children
and of many poems published in various magazines and
newspapers known in the West Indies.
Other English department professor-poet is Pittsburgh-
born Joseph Lisowski. Having left an early career as an
accountant, Prof. Lisowski received a Ph. D. in English
from SUNY at Binghamton. Besides his work in English
literature, Prof. Lisowski studied classical Chinese
under J. P. Seaton at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill. He now translates the poetry of Wang
Wei and P'ei Ti. Lisowski also has finished three
novels, two children's books, and several mystery stories.
The poems of the three range over a variety of
experiences--some local to the islands, some universal--
and represent steps successfully taken in mastering the
craft as well as the stumblings that come with taking on
impressive "poetic" themes.
Success comes, when, like the lilies that neither
spin nor toil, a natural leaning toward the subject is
allowed to develop un-self-consciously, without "a port's
stance," without poetizingg." If the "natural" leanings
or sensitivities of the three contributors can be
intuited from the selections in Three Islands--and this
analysis of a poet's observation is offered with the
caveat that any personality always carries risks--Cooper
seems to arrived at an unruffled acceptance of life's
follies and failures. In "Doin You Own Ting?" even the
racial superiority of the British colonial mentality is
subdued not by indignation or some other moral stance,
but by an oblique and sly humor:
"Hey? Chauffer?" de tourist beeped in
"Do you speak English?"
De chaufer loo roun, kind a puzzled like,
"Me no bin a Englan, Bo."
And in "After Indira," a sense of resignation seems
to muffle the intended irony:
Seven million sin-sick souls
Border on the brink of blood
Inspired by religious piety.
Trevos Parris devotes several of his contributions in
the publication to the love/hate dichotomy. He seems
to view the world as tainted by hate and in need of
cleansing, with love as the redeeming agent. The idea
as presented in "Good Friday Poem" has the volcano
Soufridre blakening not only St. Vincent but also nearby
islands, and leaving in its trail of "fallen dust/fallen
love" the question,
Who shall lift the ash?
sweep the dust?
wash the streets?
til love swallows its tail
consuming hate, . . .
In the poems of Joseph Linsowski, an ironic tone at
times resembling the T. S. Eliot of "Journey of the
Magi" or the Auden of "Musee de Beaux Arts" appears.
Lisowski's two poems dealing with incidents in the life
of Jesus--"The Presentation" imaginatively reconstructs
the recognition scene with old Simeon at the temple,
and "Agony in the Garden" contemplates the night in
Gethsemane--both reconstruct weighty events from the
point of view of participants unaware of the moment's
significance. The drama of both incidents is heightened,
as in "Journey of the Magi, "by the very human reactions
of the non-divine observers.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
Death of a Pineapple Salad: Selected Poems 1976-1986.
Barbados: Letchworth Press, 1987.
Jonathan Small's new collection entitled Death of
a Pineapple Salad Selected Poems 1976-1986 offers,
according to Elaine Savory Fido's introduction, "a new
vision of familiar kinds of experience: friendship,
isolation, death, love." While such experience makes
these poems, Savory's panegyric claims vision which
might be hard to substantiate in much greater poets
than Small. Her insistence on "a rhetoric which
captures a sense of the ordinary," a poetry which is
"deeply philosophical," and a "power" which takes "us"
beyond "surfaces and easy assumptions to a constantly
fresh assessment of our context and our experience" is
stuff pertinent to Wordsworth and stuff enough to
discourage introductions in books by young writers.
The matter of Small's poetry is diverse but traditional:
sex, religion, politics, and death. Small's speakers
explore the fragility of relationships, the inadequacy
of the pulpit, the solipsocracy of modern life, the
unknown territory of ends, in a poetry which seems in
search of a voice. Struggling in the inhospitable urbs
of Bridgetown and Philadelphia, London and Paris, Small's
personae lack the logos of their convictions: a poetic
language. The consequence of which is that the poems
read like the tracings of something yet to be.
If poetry is also mapping of things, then place assumes
the significance of home. While "all roads" may "lead to
the city" (Sitting Decent), the speaker in the "Bridge-
town" section of Reconstruction 1976-1984 writes: "There's
a safer place northside; you/head south. The road leads
into smaller alleys/blighted for life." Daring the dark
road, the speaker discovers home: a place of familiar
streets and cafes, of the "Zanzibar" with its "Copper
skinned women," of friends and ex-lovers. It is also
where "middle-class malaria/thrives on lies" (Sitting
Decent), where lonely ladies watch the soaps over "tea/
and crunchies" (An Anonymous Woman), where "home" is
"a red nest" full of "ants" (Taking a Midnight Sandwich).
"The best roads lead/from the city" (Sitting Decent),
the speaker concludes, but there is no way out. No exit.
Terrorists and gunrunners hold the boundaries. Anomie
And Jonathan Small? One suspects that he will break
through the perimeter, that future homecomings will
accommodate both place and word. He is a poet. While he
may feel like "Ulysses/caught between rocks," he has "a
trump" up his "sleeve" (Death of a Pineapple Salad).
In Remembering Dylan Thomas, we are told that Thomas
would have "fought/an octopod for words, risked life and
limb/to make a whole line patronymic." Similarly, Small
elects to "search for weapons/to outride the night."
He "will not go gentle in this uncertain/light:" his "bags
are packed with weapons/to spill blood." And poems too,
Michael S. Sharp
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
"NO BISHOP, NO REVO" or "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK"
Gordon K. Lewis.
Grenada: The Jewel Despoiled.
Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University
Gairy squander all the money,
and the Mongoose treat people like beast.
Then Bishop take over the country,
through party traitors he's deceased.
Bajan come, John Compton, Eugenia and Seaga,
had to import Yankee soldiers
to stop the Grenada massacre,
Cuba, que pasa?
(The Mighty Sparrow's calypso "Grenada")
. .the story of a retarded island community
hijacked by people with slightly more education
into the forms of a grandiose revolution. The
revolution blew away and what was left in Grenada
was a murder story.
(V. S. Naipaul in Harper's Magazine)
I find the blindness of dogmatism which transforms
reality in the name of the "scientific approach."
I find the intolerance which eliminates common-
sense in the name of so-called "ideological
level." I find, under a new disguise, the same
old contempt of the people, their knowledge and
emotions, their talents and their profound
(Jean Girard in Caribbean Contact)
Grenada wouldn't have happened if other little
island states hadn't been frightened into over-
reacting. . .it takes only twelve men and a
boat to put some of these governments out of
(Sir Shridath Ramphal. secretary-general of the
Commonwealth, quoted in the Trinidad Express)
No Bishop, no revo. No Bishop, no revo.
(Spontaneous slogan of the 10,000 Grenadians
who released Maurice Bishop on 19 October 1983.
All citations from Grenada: The Jewel Despoiled.)
More than four years have passed since the October
1983 events that marked the end of Grenada's short-lived
(1979-1983) socialist revolution: the brutal murder of
popular leader Maurice Bishop, the brief establishment
of a military government, and perhaps most numbing, the
massive U.S. military operation undertaken to "rescue"
and rehabilitate an island nation of 100,000 inhabitants
and measuring 120 square miles. Perhaps because so
compressed by time and place, the action has been
variously interpreted as a grade-B movie with Ronald
Reagan and the Cavalry arriving just in time, Victorian
melodrama pitting the popular hero, Maurice Bishop,
against the scheming villain, Bernard Coard, the
Shakespearean passion play of an ambitious Macbeth-Lady
Macbeth--the Coards--plot against the unsuspecting leader
or of Bishop cast as the noble Othello and Coard as the
spiteful lago, farce or comic opera--know-nothing-nobodies
from nowhere trying to be somebodies from somewhere--as
expressed in the cynicism of V. S. Naipaul, and the
spy-novel mentality of Caribbean leaders such as Edward
Seaga (Jamaica), John Compton (St. Lucia), Eugenia
Charles (Dominica), and Tom Adams (Barbados), who
apparently saw potential revolutions under their own
beds and were prepared to enter into whatever political
commitments necessary to prevent them.
In Grenada: The Jewel Despoiled, political scientist
and historian Gordon K. Lewis sees the process as the
working out of a Caribbean tragedy:
Taking place within a period of weeks, the
various stages of the drama--the house
incarceration of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop,
his release by the Grenadian crowd, the march on
Fort Rupert, the confrontation between the people
and the soldiers, the murder in cold blood of
Bishop and his loyal ministers, the imposition
by the Revolutionary. Military Council of a harsh
curfew, the U. S. invasion--took on the character
of a classical Greek play, with all of its