VOL. 26 NOS. 1 & 2
Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden.
1. Tradition, Society, the Figure of the Poet
13. Bridges of Sound: An Approach to Edward Brathwaite's "Jah"
32. Notes on Background Music to "Rights of Passage"
41. The Dust A Tribute to the Folk
49. The Concept of the Mulatto in Some Works of Derek Walcott
70. The Exile and the Prodigal: Derek Walcott as West Indian Poet
83. Painters and Paintings in "Another Life"
94. Self Portrait
97. The Magic Circle: Elucidations on a Theme
A review by John Hearne
103. Notes on Contributors
104. Books Received
105. Publications of the Department
106. Information for Contributors
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
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for the Derek Walcott photograph
and also to
for the Edward Kamau Brathwaite photograph
This issue of Caribbean Quarterly is in tribute to Derek Walcott and Edward Kamau
Brathwaite, two of the most distinguished and challenging of our creative writers writing
in the English-speaking Caribbean today. They belong to that generation of West Indians
who have been able to write, publish and have their being without the pleasure of exile
in the metropole. It is true that Brathwaite's major works from the poetic trilogy through
the several critical and analytical essays to his "Mother Poem" all followed on his home-
coming from his student years at Cambridge University and a spell of teaching in Ghana,
West Africa. But as in the case of Walcott, who did his student sojourn at the Mona
campus of the University of the West Indies and later made only a short hop from his
native St. Lucia to Trinidad, the cultural pulse-beat of the Eastern Caribbean, Brathwaite's
artistic discoveries, work and vision have really been made in the Caribbean. life forces,
worldview(s), perceptions about the universality of the human condition are all firmly
rooted for both Walcott and Brathwaite in the Caribbean experience. Both writers remind
us through all that they have produced that the Caribbean experience, for all its
wearying, tiresome, and contradictory omens or because of them, is sufficiently complex,
textured and unique to give a focused and definitive picture of the human condition.
They have both had the advantages of catching the emerging West Indian society at a
time when the society was not only in political and social transition but also in circum-
stances which permitted to its creative minds the purposive contemplation of self in terms
of the changing society's own sense and sensibility. If Walcott found no reason to leave
the region Brathwaite found an urge to return before embarking on his major career of
writing. Both found in their native region a place in which to find a purpose. Yet there
was movement within the region-the St. Lucian Walcott established residence in
Jamaica and Trinidad at different periods of his life; the Barbadian Brathwaite worked
first in St. Lucia and then in Jamaica. Both therefore have more than a working know-
ledge of different points of the archipelago and with the different facets of the complex
cultural configurations which are the result of a history of conquest, settlement and
The growth and nurturing in one's own soil, difficult as it is, have produced not just
monuments in these two artists to boost chauvinist egos of admiring constituents to be
found among the chronically deprived and culturally marginal intelligentsia. Rather, both
writers offer vital correctives to perceptions of self and of a society which is frequently
tempted to oscillate between self-indulgent hubris and impotent self-negation. The soil
which has nurtured them has been fertilised indeed! Walcott's avaricious consumption of
the great writings of English literature in his fledgling years is a case in point. But this,
somni would say, has not imposed on Walcott the limitations of vision which in his own
words ("The Muse of History") would result in that "self-torture which arises when the
poet also sees history as language [and so] limits his memory to the suffering of the
victim." The soil remains his own though the fertilizer may have come from the
masters. Brathwaite, an island-scholar and a Cambridge graduate, could hardly have
escaped exposure to metropolitan conditioning but the journey to and sojourn in African
ancestral hearths provided other nutrients for the potentially rich, if yet untilled, turf
of his nativeland.
In their own persons the two writers manifest, in any case, the pluralist imperatives of
the Caribbean psyche; and this has provided added source of energy for the dynamism
which informs the creative process. Brathwaite is not only a poet, he is historian,
lecturer, critic, essayist and jazz enthusiast as well. Walcott, the poet, is also Walcott the
playwright, drama producer/director, critic, essayist and Walcott the painter. They are in
their separate ways also men of the world traversing the metropole and the colonial
periphery with admitted ease, though not without the reservations and ambivalence that
affect the most sophisticated and liberated of ex-colonials. For they are also intensely
human writers who have existed in the hustle and bustle of everyday life in their native
region. They are as capable of attracting intense loyalties (sometimes by self-appointed, if
misguided, rival cults) as they are of stimulating intense envy and jealousy in which the
West Indies abound. They know or respond as if they know, that they have a place
despite the deeply felt anguish over the uncertainty that sometimes attends their art at
the treatment by their sometimes grudging compatriots.
This issue of Caribbean Quarterly may indeed serve to make the much deserved
tribute to these two important writers and, hopefully, without the error of disrespectful
sycophancy or misplaced skepticism. As before, this journal will in future be open to
critical comment on the works of these two Caribbean writers along with others. But
their brilliant record of work so far and their contemporaneity in the vibrant, con-
tradictory, and dynamic world of Caribbean letters and West Indian development quite
rightly prompts at this time the dedication of this issue to them.
The contributors below cover a wide range of subject-matter from the theorizing
about poetry to which the intellectual Walcott often turns his mind (Lawrence Breiner's
Tradition, Society and the Figure of the Poet) through recurrent thematic foci in the
work of Walcott (Diana Lyn's The Concept of the Mullato in Some Works of Derek
Walcott and Edward Baugh's Painters and Paintings in 'Another Life') or Brathwaite's
musical sensibility and defiance of the usual metropolitan ideas on specialisation (see
Gordon Rholehr's Bridges of Sound: An Approach to Edward Brathwaite's 'Jah' and
Background Music to 'Rights of Passage') to the perceived bases of Caribbean culture as
expressed by Brathwaite in his tenacious hold to the view that the "life, music and
philosophy of the people... [are] the basis of culture" (see Velma Pollard's The Dust-A
Tribute to the Folk), and the reflection/manifestation of personal and social experience
in Walcott's struggle with the themes, languages) and landscapes of his native region
(see D.S. Izevbaye's The Prodigal: Derek Walcott as West Indian Poet). The issue also
includes a poem by Walcott himself (Self-Portrait) and another by Pamela Mordecai in
homage to Brathwaite (Eddy). There is, as well, a review article by the novelist John
Hearne (The Magic Circle: Elucidations on a Theme) who takes as his point of
departure the three studies (one of them of Walcott) published as part of the new series
"Critical Studies of Caribbean Writers." In his review Mr Hearne asserts that Caribbean
literature is eagerly sought by larger cultures "...because it measures, without senti-
mentality or calculation, the relevance of keeping individual faith and the obligation to
abide by an individual honour." Perhaps "these manners" are indeed what Derek Walcott
and Edward Kamau Brathwaite "are trying to hammer into that permanent present tense
in which all great art abides."
TRADITION, SOCIETY, THE FIGURE OF THE POET
(North American theory of influence arid the situation of West Indian poetry)
Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe.
By openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it.
Revolutionary literature is a filial impulse.
Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.
Derek Walcott, The Muse of History
Literary tradition is an important focus of attention just now in the most active
centres of North American, and to some extent European, critical thinking. The
practical limitations of this activity are implied in one of its jargon terms: "inter-
textuahty." As that word suggests, texts are to be thought of as originating in the con-
frontation between authorial consciousness and other texts, while literary criticism
occupies itself not so much with poems or novels as with a growing system of
Such emphasis excludes, often preemptorily, the complex of external relations of
literature to its audience and to society at large. This development is as disturbing as
it is widespread. Even in France, if critics are any indication, it seems that literature is
no longer engaged (Sartre, "Qu'est-ce que la litterature?" 1948), but contentedly
living in sin (Barthes, Le plaisir du texte, 1973). In America, established academic
criticism is marked by postulates that writing is fundamentally alienated, that words
are nearly exhausted, and that nothing remains to be said.
Viewed from the West Indies, where so much literary discussion is about fit
audience, or fitting the audience, and where poets probably have a smaller public
than those recondite critics, the withdrawal even of mere criticism from the work's
relationship to a society is a remarkable thing. This paper originates in that sort of
re-vision of American theorizing about tradition. Since that reference point is probably
unfamiliar, I will begin with an exposition, though at times it will be more of a
critique, of the work of a leading practitioner, Harold Bloom. Then for the sharpest
divergence from that line of thought, I will be referring to some essays of Edward
Brathwaite which, by insisting on the poet's commerce with society, necessarily offer
a different conception of both tradition and the poet. Finally I will turn to Derek
Walcott, who uses terminology often strikingly similar to that of Bloom, but arrives at
a very different position. My aim here is not for an exhaustive treatment of the views
of any of the three writers, but to direct attention to an endeavour they share. The
complex of my title tradition, society, the figure of the poet maps the ground
upon which any theorizing about poetry must take place. I believe tie West Indian
example can help us avoid the cul-de-sac that seems to tempt literary thinkers in the
This tradition of theories about tradition starts like so many things with T.S.
Eliot with the allusive technique of The Waste Land (the poet called it theft) and
with the critical essays, especially "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919). Some
of Eliot's ideas were further developed by J.L. Borges as contributions to what he
called "the halting and rudimentary art of reading," in the bogus essay "Pierre Menard,
Author of Don Quixote" (1929) and the real essay "Kafka and His Precursors"
(1951), both of which became available in English in the mid-1960's. Eliot and Borges
shared an emphasis on the dialectical relation between any author and his tradition,
particularly with the ways in which a writer transforms the tradition that nourishes
The whole subject was cast in its present form with the appearance of the first full-
scale scholarly treatment, W.J. Bate's The Burden of the Past and the English Poet
(1970). Bate adapted Eliot's abstract dialectic to the development of a myth of decline,
or exhaustion, placed within historical limits, as a creation of the Enlightenment and
an obsession of Romanticism. According to this myth which owes something to
Eliot's own myth of the Enlightenment, the "dissociation of sensibility" the com-
pounded glory of Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Elizabethans presented later
poets with the stultifying double-bind of an inimitable example. Called upon to be at
once equal to and different from these predecessors, their work suffered from
Bate begets Harold Bloom, who since 1973 has been carrying out an idiosyncratic
and often arrogant exploration of the myth and period staked out in The Burden of
the Past.2 We can begin with what is offered as the central principle of the first book
Bloom devoted entirely to this subject, The Anxiety of Influence:
Poetic influence when it involves two strong, authentic poets, -
always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative
correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The
history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradi-
tion of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety
and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism
without which modern poetry as such could not exist.3
Bloom makes it clear that "influence" in this sense is not concerned with source
study or the history of ideas or images that appear in poetry:
Battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites,
Lais and Oedipus at the crossroads; only this is my subject here ....
That even the strongest poets are subject to influences not poetical
is obvious even to me, but again my concern is only with the poet in
a poet, or the aboriginal self. .. A poet's stance, his Word, his
imaginative identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and
remain unique, or he will perish, as a poet, if ever even he has
managed his re-birth into poetic incarnation. But this fundamental
stance is as much also his precursor's as any man's fundamental
nature is also his father's, however transformed, however turned
about (11, 71).
This central idea of poetry as an Oedipal battle between the father-poet and the
son-poet, whom he usually calls the precursor and the ephebe, derives of course from
Freud, and is pursued along Freudian lines. To the poet, according to Bloom, every
poetic voice of experience sounds like an Oedipal father: "I have already done all you
can do." Perhaps that is meant to comfort, but instead it threatens.
A notion that the modem poet has arrived on the scene too late is clearly built into
the historical framework Bloom employs. There was a golden age for poetry, when
influence was a matter of affection rather than anxiety. But that was "the age before
the floor," what Bloom calls "the Cartesian engulfment" (72) that transformation
of consciousness, and so of the universe of which we are conscious, carried out during
the Enlightenment. As a result of it, the individual finds himself the only conscious
thing in an infinite and indifferent universe of matter whose God has departed. He is
condemned to profound isolation, because there can be no mediation between mind
and matter; reality is reduced to the self, known only subjectively, and everything else,
known only objectively.
This perspective initiated by Descartes and Pascal, is explored during the nineteenth
century by such tinkers as Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, and Emerson, and comes to
be adopted as axio natic by Bloom and most of his associates.4 This is why, for Bloom,
the figure of the modern poet is Milton's Satan: since the Enlightenment the poet,
indeed the ego, comes to itself with a realization of having been cast out into a void.
Like Satan his objective must be to transform solitude and exile which he perceives as
imposed into an autonomy to make a Hell not his own into his own Heaven. Satan
must ask, "If the universe is God's, what is mine?" and ihe poet has an analogous
question: "If poetry is already marked with the names of so many poets, what will
bear my name?" His problem is how to make a name for himself; or in other words,
how to make himself, as a poet.
That for Bloom is the central issue for poetry since Milton:
All quest-romances of the post-Enlightenment, meaning all Roman-
ticisms whatsoever, are quests to re-beget one's own self, to become
one's own Great Original. We journey to abstract ourselves by
Yet an implicit irony should be noted: for a consciousness that feels alone in the
universe, without even an observing God, the prospects of confrontation with an
audience are slim.
Within the intellectual history just outlined, Bloom develops his model of the
quest-career of the poet. The actual account is terribly obscure, but the gist is as
follows: the poet's anxiety is that he will produce "just another poem," that is, just
another poem, undistinguished in the series so rapidly filling the available space, or
just another poem, somebody else's. Seeking the untrammeled revelatory Word, fire
from heaven, he dreads both mere invention and mere imitation.
We have been reviewing the historical context of Bloom's thinking, and his concep-
tion, of the poet in that situation as crucially self-assertive hero: Miltonic Satan,
Cartesian ego. But the core of this theory of influence as a working critical tool is the
series of six manoeuvres by which those self-assertations articulate themselves. Bloom
emphasizes that these revisionaryy ratios" are in principle defensive manoeuvres,
intricate evasions of the precursor by the ephebe. Through them he explores the rela-
tionship called influence.
1 Clinamen. This is poetic misreading or "misprision" proper. Ephebe sees
precursor as accurate up to a point, and then mistaken. The later poem attempts
to take a correct route from that point.
2 Tessera. Here the ephebe looking at the precursor's work sees that more
remains to be done. A trivial form of tessera is the revival, in which some work is
"brought up to date." A more interesting form is exemplified by the relation
between Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre, where the later work develops an aspect
of the earlier, and in so doing affects our view of the earlier as a whole.
These first two ratios cover every clear instance of one work inspiring another.
They are typical of, though by no means limited to, apprentice work. The earlier poem,
so to speak, lures the new writer into competition. The remaining ratios are more
sophisticated, and associated with a later stage in the poet's career. They apply, as
Bloom admits, not so much to the genesis of individual works as to the relationship
between the poets who write them, and especially to the now-professional new poet's
calculated development of a voice. Beyond this point the poet is conceived as seriously
engaged in getting himself a name, and the anxieties increase proportionately.
3 Kenosis. In this strategy the late poet tries to isolate/insulate himself from his
most influential precursors by giving up the part of his poetic self that seems to
come from them. The voluntary gesture of abjuring a source of inspiration is expect-
ed to reveal the poet's own identity.
4 Demonization. Like kenosis this is a manoeuvre of limitation, but what the
later poet tries to limit is the precursor, rather than himself. The power which the
ephebe senses as radiating from the precursor is intentionally (and defensively)
reinterpreted as belonging to something larger, and not to the precursor alone. The
earlier poet is regarded as an instance rather than a source of power.
5 Askesis. Here is Bloom's own description:
Poetic askesis begins at the heights of the Counter-Sublime, and
compensates for the poet's involuntary shock at his own daemonic
expansiveness. .. He cannot afford another kenosis. Useful surren-
der, for him, is now a curtailment, a sacrifice of some part of himself
whose absence will individuate him more, as a poet (120-21).
This seems to me essentially an intensification of kenosis: the poet gives up not only
the precursor's share in him, but even parts of his poetic self that are not fully charac-
teristic of the poet he is. In a sense, he is reduced to an idea of himself so as to wrestle
on an equal footing with his own idea of the precursor. Bloom's examples are Stevens
and Wordsworth, and although he does not make this point, the examples imply a
further distinction between askesis and kenosis. In askesis a poet gives up what he
knows his predecessors are capable of, but poets like these two seem to concentrate
themselves in an area of poetic character where they cannot imagine meeting an inter-
loper even from the future.
6 Apophrades. This is not actually the name of a manoeuvre, but the name of an
event which Bloom sees as characteristic of a late stage in a poet's career, and to
which his manoeuvre is a response. The return of the great precursors is a kind of
second childhood for the poet, since he associates their presence with the lirst sense
of vocation that came through his naive response to them. If all has gone well, he is
now strong enough to pay his respects: "the poem is now held open to the precur-
sor, where once it was open" (16). Bloom theorizes that sometimes the poet is
drowned again in influences, but that where apophrades is successful, the dead seem
to speak again, but in the voice of the living (141).
The apophrades even in its outlines depicts a remarkable vision of the full maturity
of a poet, but here the author seems uncomfortable with his subject. Committed to
the remoteness of any revelation (even Milton's), and to the poet's remoteness from an
audience, Bloom seems to shy away from the prospect of the dead speaking through
the living and (it is part of the transaction in any cult of possession by ancestral
spirits) to a living community. As my epigraph from Walcott should indicate, it is
particularly this timidity about the apophrades that invites a confrontation with West
Edward Brathwaite's "Timehri" is an inaugural essay; it marks a beginning by
augury, by checking the omens.5 Bloom of course would tell us that every poet insists,
must insist, that it is morning yet on creation day, that he comes at the beginning of
the world, and that he does so every time he speaks. The poet claims priority knowing
the claim is false. But in the West Indies a claim of priority is more than a gesture. In
an "absence of ruins" there is even, at times, a burden of priority.
Like his earliest poems, this essay shows the mark of T.S. Eliot. The experience of
rootlessness is called a "dissociation of sensibility" and the phrase "individual talent"
appears with intentional reference to Eliot, as we will shortly see. The poetic influence
of Eliot preceded Brathwaite's going up to Cambridge. He expected to find roots in
England "When I saw my first snowfall, I felt that I had come into my own; I had
arrived; I was possessing the landscape" (32). Significantly the poem on that occasion
is the earliest thought worthy of publication in Other Exiles (1975), largely a retro-
spective collection. But Brathwaite goes on to say how he came to learn that England
was not the land to be possessed. First In The Castle of My Skin made it possible to
think of Barbados as fit matter for "literature" (this is an experience several West
Indian writers repeat: the discovery that one's own streets could be put in a book).
But then after Lamming came eight years in Ghana:
Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly; obscurely, slowly but surely, during
the eight years that I lived there, I was coming to an awareness and
understanding of community, of cultural wholeness, of the place of
the individual within the tribe, in society. Slowly, slowly, ever so
slowly, I came to a sense of identification of myself with these
people, my living diviners.... When I turned to leave, I was no long-
er a lonely individual talent; there was something wider, more subtle,
more tentative; the self without ego, without I, without arrogance.
And I came home to find that I had not really left. That it was still
Africa; Africa in the Caribbean (33-4).
Here the individual talent makes contact with its tradition, and the language of The
Arrivants rises up all around it; Brathwaite's early career in a nutshell. But the move-
ment involved is a variety of what Bloom called "demonization." By seeing communal
wholeness elsewhere, he knows what he is looking for, and that provides individual
wholeness. Communal wholeness remains a problem for the individual to work on;
not to imitate the society in which the African lives, but to press for a society in which
one can live as he does.
Most significant in "Timehri" is what has happened to the word "tradition." Here
it is not, as for Eliot and Bloom, a body of work, but a function, a place in society.
For convenience of reference let me adopt a drastic shorthand: the "Western" poet is
responsible to his predecessors, but Brathwaite's "African" poet is responsible to his
community. That contrast probably does not apply to the facts about any poet any-
where. All have their audiences, communities, fathers and posterities. But it certainly
does apply to how poets, and their critics, seem to feel about their network of rela-
tionships. Bloom's poet is surer of his relation to ancestors than audience. Brathwaite
seems to draw his strength from the magnitude of the relationship to an audience that
can exist; so, while it is so far only potential, it draws his attention away from poetic
ancestors and toward communal ones, making it possible for him to reevaluate the
scope of his activity, his vocation.
For Bloom, the ancestors are a burden the image is Anchises/Homer on the back
of Aeneas/Vergil, Empire builder. But after making this "African" adjustment, the poet
is not responsible to the ancestors, but for them, to the community of the present -
still Aeneas, but carrying his father for his son's sake. Far from trying to overcome the
precursors, he is trying to keep them alive, to facilitate his own task of showing the
community an image of themselves which is not yet themselves, but to which they can
aspire (for it is themselves). To paraphrase another colonial, he thereby forges the un-
created conscience of his race. The last English poet who thought of himself in this
way was probably Ben Johnson who, being alive among the people, felt he had suffi-
cient edge over the dead to cooperate with them in clear-sighted interdependence.
Milton was in this company, but was convinced he was better than the dead, while
Eliot, who in poetry and prose wished for this sort of relationship, was burdened with
both alienation and anxiety, and thought himself much worse. It is appropriate that
Eliot should provide the language for a iindamental shift in the understanding of what
a tradition is, a shift which seems to open up the role of the poet, and strengthen the
individual who takes it on. For he lives, as poet, not among the words of the dead,
primarily, but grounded in a community as custodian, in part, of necessities.
This sketch of Brathwaite's contribution to the subject can be carried further by
reference to his review article on The Islands In Between. His quarrel with the book is
essentially that it takes a Eurocentric view of culture and the role of the artist in a
culture which is not fully appropriate to the West Indian situation. The critique is
along the lines laid in "Timehri":
We are therefore faced with the strange situation where the work of
a body of writers, mainly concerned with the communal values of
their creole society, is examined in a more or less "academic"
fashion by a body of critics trained to respond almost exclusively to
European influences, and whose main concerns are with "the artist,"
and "the individual."6
But here the reorientation from "Western" to "African" function, experienced by
Brathwaite himself, is extended to West Indian writers as a group, leaving the critics
to catch up. And again the change is individual before it is communal. The European
artist, alienated from his society, turns to his art, and the Bloomian analysis follows.
West Indian writers, having changed as Brathwaite did, "are concerned with . con-
structing an alternative to their imposed and inherited condition" (271). So in fact
neither is satisfied with his own society. The difference is that one feels put out of a
society to which he used to belong, while the other is moving toward a community he
envisions, and hopes to carry his present society along with him Aeneas again,
hefting Anchises to make him a Roman.
The fact that the West Indian artist has an "African" perspective without the
"African" society to match it brings up a point of controversy. The work of an
alienated artist is nevertheless taken to be universal throughout the world of art. But
once the artist is reconsidered as functioning in a community, the ideological matter of
commitment, engagement obviously arises. The issue is too large to be taken up here,
but I mention it because it is in this connection that the "African" version of tradition
has its own characteristic anxieties: not about handling the demands of the dead, but
about handling the demands of the living community. For no poet simply gives them
what they want; he decides what they need, or observes what they want, and provides
accordingly. That preemption is where the wedge of anxiety can be driven, where a
Bloomian vocabulary of "swerves" and "evasions" could be appropriate. We will see
anxiety transferred in the same way in Walcott.
Like Brathwaite, Derek Walcott is actually conscious of both areas of anxiety. His
essay, "What the Twilight Says: An Overture" (1970) is a complex, often ruthless
examination of the shifting and contrary attitudes of a dramatist to the society he
serves.7 As such, however, the essay is not so much about this transferred anxiety as
an example of it: raw material for a theory of the anxiety of audience. For that reason
I am going to set aside, for the present, this whole area of Walcott's thinking. It is
centrally relevant to my subject of course, but for our immediate purposes it is enough
to acknowledge its centrality, and then concentrate attention on Walcott's contribu-
tion to the kind of anxiety analyzed by Bloom, instead of trying to break new ground
at this point.
Like "Timehri", "What the Twilight Says" is an inquiry into beginnings and priori-
ties. The main theme recurring in variations throughout the "Overture" is twilight
itself and the range of its ambivalent symbolic values: It makes ends resemble begin-
nings and beginnings ends; Its light is doubtful but enhancing; The shopworn can seem
new or the genuinely new go unregarded. Walcott has in mind particularly the twilight
of Empire in which his own career began:
Then the twilight most resembled dawn, then how simple it all
seemed! We would walk, like new Adams, in a nourishing ignorance
which would name plants and people with a child's belief that the
world is its own age (6).
Twenty years ago the end of Empire seemed a new start "If there was nothing, there
was everything to be made" (4) and one dealt in simple solutions:
What would deliver [the New World Negro] from servitude was the
forging of a language that went beyond mimicry, a dialect which
had the force of revelation as it invented names for things, one
which finally settled on its own mode of inflection, and which
began to create an oral culture of chants, jokes, folk-songs and fables;
this, not merely the debt of history was his proper claim to the
New World (17).
But the West Indian Adam had to be an Adam with a past, and such bold conceptions
one cannot simply lay claim to; they must be arrived at. Even the language itself had
because the soil was stranger under our own feet than under those of
our captors. Before us they knew the names of the forests and the
changes of the sea, and theirs were the names we used. We began
again, with the vigour of a curiosity that gave the old names new
life, that charged an old language, from the depth of suffering, with
awe. To the writers of my generation, then, the word, and the ritual
of the word in print, contained this awe, but the rage for revenge is
hard to exorcise (11).
That rage for revenge is the special burden of the past, encompassing far more than the
literary, that impinges on any Adamic pretensions.
This is what. stands in the way of the Adamic role for the West Indian poet. How
can he lay claim to this kind of priority? It seems no distortion to say that what
Walcott proposes, though rather patchily in this essay, is for the poet to take full
possession of himself by an askesis that will make possible a successful apophrades.
The askesis is clear enough; it is the psychic journey Walcott proposes for both
actors and poets:
They must return through a darkness whose terminus is amnesia.
The darkness which yawns before them is terrifying. It is the journey
back from man to ape. Every actor should make this journey to
articulate his origins, but for these who have been called not men
but mimics, the darkness must be total, and the cave should not
contain a single manmade, mnemonic object (5).
The anxiety being overcome by this movement is a very Bloomian one, the fear of
being mimic men. If the journey succeeds, the poet, as Bloom would put it, is no longer
afraid of being flooded and can freely open himself to influences; he accomplishes
a successful apophrades. Certainly Walcott's conception of his own poetic maturity
(whether he feels it achieved or not) is nothing else. He is not much troubled by
influence because he thinks of it as appropriation: "Maturity is the assimilation of the
features of every ancestor."
But as I said the proposal here is patchy. A return of the dead is not very appro-
priate to the figure of Adam. The provisional result here is a radically compromised
Adam if you will, a Darwinian Adam. The poet goes back to the moment (psychic
more than historical) when what would be the first man stopped mimicking his fellow
apes and "swerved", no longer condemned to mimicry, but free to use it selectively,
as an act of imagination.8 But we should turn to a later essay, "The Muse of History",
to see these discrepancies ironed out.
In this essay, though it predates The Anxiety of Influence, Walcott often seems to
be addressing Bloom directly:
It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the
weight of the present (4). Fear of imitation obsesses minor poets.
But in any age a common genius almost indistinguishable will show
itself, and the perpetuity of this genius the only valid tradition (25).
We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time
to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have
absorbed all the poetry which they have read, entire, that their first
work appears to be the accumulation of other people's trash but
that they become bonfires (25).
These statements reject Bloom by anticipation, and their authoritative tone resembles,
perhaps imitates, that of the poets Walcott praises in this essay: Whitman, Neruda,
Cesaire, Perse, Borges the voices of America. "Classicists," he calls them, "patri-
cians," whose arrogance and elation come from the vision they share of man and of
It is this awe of the numinous, this elemental privilege of naming the
new world which annihilates history in our great poets, an elation
common to all of them, whether they are aligned by heritage to
Crusoe and Prospero or to Friday and Caliban. They reject ethnic
ancestry for faith in elemental man (5).
The vision of history that Walcott projects into these poets marks the resolution of
an obstacle that arose in "What the Twilight Says," the fact that awe was marred by
rage for revenge. In this later essay he distinguishes two versions of history: history as
time, as a force which realizes itself as progress, and history as myth, a timeless habit-
able moment, the partial recall of the race, a fiction subject to memory (2). He rejects
the first view, because it imprisons the man of the present in the past, committing, in
the West Indies, the descendants of masters to remorse and the descendants of slaves
to revenge. "The truly tough aesthetic of the New World," he writes, "refuses to recog-
nize it as a creative or culpable force."
This is to spurn any Hegelian, Marxist, or Christian notion for a distinctively poetic
idea of history, according to which it is a thing like language; not a force or a pressure
of events, but a complex structure which, while created over time, exists entirely in the
present. A system, hence a myth the immediate fiction one inhabits. We may wish
that history comprised "what happened," but it can never be more than "what is said
about what has happened." The material of history is not the past, as such, but words
and things which have survived into the present and now constitute part of the present.
The composition of these bits of the present into the structure we call history is the
work of memory and the agents of memory: historians, poets, politicians, curators.
Walcott is not denying the past, the experience from which we issue, but for him that
is not history; history is the current fiction of the past, created in and for the present,
subject to the needs and interests of the present. Thus the Greeks considered history
one of the-arts, and assigned it a Muse, Clio, daughter of Memory.
Walcott's apparent revisionism emerges very close to Brathwaite's "African"
situation: the agents of memory have a responsibility to be more familiar with the
material of history than their people are. Out of the available materials they select
some to construct the fiction (history) suited to the needs of society in the present
as they perceive them. That license or responsibility is what society barters for their
skills, and it is the area subject to censure (from others) and so to a now familiar breed
of anxiety (in oneself).
Against those who aim to reject metropolitan language as the final shackle, Walcott
usually argues that it is rather a captured weapon, part of the booty. His treatment of
metropolitan religion is similar (11), and it seems that he wants to commandeer
history in an analogous way. He insists that the American, the creole, can take sides
among his ancestors, and therefore that he needn't do so, that he can write the fiction
of his history through the memory of the hero or the victim or any other figure. He is
free to choose his precursors not only as a poet, but as a man. With that step he moves
from the New World poets' vision of history to their view of man, which is in the end
their view of themselves: "Their vision of man is elemental, a being inhabited by
presence, not a creature chained to his past (2)."11
So we encounter again this strange figure, an Adam inhabited by presence, virtual-
ly a shaman full of ancestral spirits, a second Adam. In fact, when Walcott describes
Perse's version of the figure, even Aeneas seems again appropriate: "His hero remains
the wanderer, the man who moves through the ruins of great civilizations with all his
worldly goods by caravan or pack mule, the poet carrying entire cultures in his head,
bitter perhaps, but unencumbered" (3). Here part of the point is that history is what
the poet carries in his head, not the ruins, or their absence, that he passes through.
We have come a long way from the Cartesian Satan. This poet is the point of inter-
section of tradition and society, the guardian of the crossroads. As the most effective
way of summarizing where we have been, I want to conclude by juxtaposing the figures
of the poet generated Harold Bloom and Derek Walcott. Bloom's myth showed us
Satan thrown and coming to himself in the lake, in the universe which in a sense is
God, is all his "property", his poetry. Satan then goes off to make a name for himself
as a poet, as other presence, counter-presence, in that universe.
Walcott's myth answers that one by functioning similarly. It too begins in throw-
ness, after the Middle passage of whatever race, by Babylon waterside. Walcott notes
the possibility of "oceanic nostalgia" (7), the invitation to what Bloom calls "repeti-
tion", but he rejects it as a denial of this new place, a lack of faith that the place will
provide all the tools needed for survival. The shipwreck is a disaster for the Old World,
but it frees the man of the New (Walcott may be thinking of the shipwreck off Bequia
that "created" the Black Caribs). For the West Indian, throwness is an Adamic condi-
tion, not Satanic; he is cast up on the shore. What was wrecked was the old world
dream of returning to Paradise. Europe imagined America as its own oldest world, and
meanwhile made it an economic extension of itself. As a place in its own right,
America had not yet really been discovered; Europe was imposing on its own dreams.
But the imposition failed. Even in Paradise only Adam's dreams come true, and Colum-
bus was no Adam. You don't come to Eden, you wake up there, come to yourself
there. So of course it is the people thrown here, cast up, that are the Adams of this
place. Not another European Adam, condemned by his own history to the same cycle
of mistakes, but an American Adam, facing his own first Eden, but with some know-
ledge of the lineaments of that cycle he has escaped.
Walcott is not perversely insisting that this Adam has no history, in fact, but that if
history is understood not as a force but as myth the idea of Adam comprehends a
history. Here I must take responsibility for opening Walcott's compressions. But it
seems that we are invited to look upon Adam not at his birth, but later when he truly
names things; that is, when he is Adam father, not just noting the presence around
him, but giving them meaningful names others will use. This seems to me the best
version of the second Adam; not an innocent, but experienced elemental man, capable
of naming everything, experiences as well as objects. Capable of naming even the past,
as he chooses, given Walcott's conception of history as fiction. Adam-father, Adam in
the eyes of his children, is a shaman who has talked to God, knows all the names
because they are his own, and teaches his children not only the names for "bread,"
"rain," and "dove," but also "pain," "loss," "exile."
1. The preparation of this paper was assisted by a grant from the Joint Committee on Latin
American Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of
2. Bloom's thinking is developed in The Anxiety of Influence, 1973; A Map of Misreading,
1975; Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976; Poetry and Repression, 1976.
3. The Anxiety of Influence, p. 30. Subsequent references will be given in the text.
4. This view of intellectual history is developed with reference to literature by J. Hillis Miller
in The Disappearance of God, 1963, and Poets of Reality, 1969.
5. "Timehri," Is Massa Day Dead?, ed. Orde Coombs (Garden City, 1974). References are to
6. "The Islands In Between," Southern Review 3:3 (1969), p. 267.
7. "What the Twilight Says: An Overture," Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays
(New York, 1970).
8. "The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry," Journal of Interamerican Studies 16:1 (1974),
9. "The Muse of History," Is Massa Day Dead?
10. In "The Figure of Crusoe," a lecture delivered at U.W.I., St. Augustine (Trinidad), Oct. 27,
1965, Walcott observed that, "the metaphor of the bonfire, in the case of the West Indian
poet, may be the metaphor of tradition and the colonial talent." Again Eliot is the secret
11. In such a statement Wilson Harris is certainly being invoked. See for example his essay, "A
Talk on the Subjective Imagination," New Letters 40:1: 37-48.
BRIDGES OF SOUND
An approach to Edward Brathwaite's "Jah"
Over the last twenty years Edward Brathwaite has published a large number of
reviews and articles on West Indian literature, history and society. A bibliography of
Brathwaite's publications done in 1974, ran to thirty-five pages. He has also published
six volumes of poetry, three of which, Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and
Islands (1969) have been presented as a single long poem, entitled The Arrivants
(1973). The other three collections are Other Exiles (1975), Black & Blues (1976) and
Mother Poem (1977). Other Exiles consists partly of poems published in Bim between
1950 and 1964, and a number of occasional poems written after 1969. Black & Blues,
emerging from the holocaust of Jamaica in the 1970's, continues and consolidates
the explorations in form which Brathwaite started in The Arrivants. It won the poetry
first prize in the Casa de las Americas literary competition, held in Cuba during 1976.
Mother Poem has been recently published and is the beginning of another trilogy of
poems. It is Brathwaite's first extended exploration of his Barbadian experience, and
grew out of his first long sojourn in his motherland between October 1972 and July
1973, when a Guggenheim fellowship earned him brief respite from UWI routine.
Brathwaite's poetry has since 1967, been the occasion of a fair amount of critical
commentary. He is the first writer to have elicited statements from so many members,
both past and present, of the University of the West Indies English Departments -
Louis James, Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh, Maureen Lewis, Winnifred Risden, Jean
D'Costa, Patricia Ismond, Kenneth Ramchand, Richard Ho Lung, Michael Gilkes, and
Gordon Rohlehr. This is an achievement of some sort, and is due partly to the poetry
itself, which has been deeply admired and just as deeply detested, partly to the fact
that Brathwaite has constantly questioned the raison d'etre of the English Department
and the content of its syllabus, and partly to the vigorous polemic which exists on the
West Indian literary scene, and to which Brathwiate's essays have been a major
contribution. It would take a long article to deal with the criticism of Brathwaite's
work emanating from the English Department, University of the West Indies, and a
longer one to trace the polemic back to its hidden and often unstated sources, at times
in the personality conflicts inevitable in such a small, frightened, dread-shocked and
spiritually incestuous world as the Mona Campus; at other times in differences of
ideological or aesthetic or even ethnic position.
Apart from departmental criticism, there have also been statements from Derek
Walcott, Wilson Harris, C.L.R. James, Marina Maxwell, Earl Lovelace, Wayne Brown
and Velma Pollard, the reactions of English commentators such as Anne Walmsley,
Gerald Moore, Damien Grant, Edward Lucie-Smith, once of Jamaica, and K.L.
Goodwin, and the responses of African critics, Samuel Asein, Ama Ata Aidoo and
Kojo Senanu. As is to be expected, the range of response from such a diverse group of
commentators, has been wide. After ten years, opinion has silently hardened into
schools of old talk from which lines have emerged along which credit or blame might
now be easily assigned. We have reached the end, therefore, of the first phase in any
new criticism: that of general commentary, the useful overview, the discussion of
content and context, and the provision of hints towards a methodology for approach-
ing new and innovatory writing.
In spite of this, however, Islands, the most complex book of the trilogy, has remain-
ed the least elucidated and the most misunderstood with respect to content, context
and form. Standing as it does, however, at the beginning of Brathwaite's exploration
of the meaning of his return to the Caribbean, it is a work which one will need to
understand if one is to enter into the more difficult poetry in Black & Blues or to
appreciate the even more substantial achievement of Mother Poem.
It is for this reason, therefore, that I have undertaken to publish as a series of
articles, (This article was originally one of five, which have so far appeared in the
Trinidad and Tobago Review throughout 1977. See Vol. 2, No. 1, (Sept. 1977))
sections from a long and close reading of The Arrivants which I completed in 1975. I
will focus on Brathwaite's treatment of "gods" Jah, Ananse, Legba, Ogun and
initiate discussion on his metaphorical treatment of myth, music and folklore. I shall
from time to time comment on his notion of historical process, as a dialectic, not
simply of socio-economic forces, but of contrary currents tendencies and potentials,
deeply embedded within the psyche of the Caribbean peoples. It is, indeed, this sense
of an inner spiritual dialectic, which has informed the structure of Islands, where
movement is by turns internal and external, from psyche to society, and often master
and slave, ruler and ruled assume the same face, need the same disguises, and sweat
the same fears as the nightmare past finds its logical fulfilment in the nightmare
In this article, I will look closely at "Jah", the opening sequence in Islands. Here
Brathwaite shows how the music of the Black diaspora, faithful to the impulse of
African music, has always been a direct reflection of the social conditions in which
Black people live. This is true of the Blues, Jazz, Soul, Calypso, and more recently of
Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae; and part of Brathwaite's aim in Rights of Passage was
to illustrate this close correspondence between social experience and emerging musical
form. In "Jah", Brathwaite enters the music and interprets it as concept and metaphor.
The poet, perched in imagination on the high crest of a jazz trumpet riff, sees "God" -
that is, America, as Puritanism and capitalism, as force, world power, centre of hemis-
pheric gravity and mind-shattering ambivalence.
He notes in particular, the peculiar position which America still accords the pro-
ducts of its even more peculiar institution. He examines the central paradox of
America on the one hand, boundless dream and youthful energy, a freedom to soar
which is almost hubris, and on the other hand the reality of descent into glass cage,
steel prison of pylons, and death of the Adamic dream with which American literature
and the American people started. As one proceeds through Islands, one realises that
the position of the Black musician in America's "bright bubbled bowl" is a metaphor
of the position of the West Indies in the face of an even more efficient imperialism in
this post-Independence era. More than that, the West Indies display the same inner
ambivalence as the great continent which overshadows them, because the Islands have
partaken of the same history of transplantation, plantation, dream of renewal in the
face of culture shock. Thus the oscillation of the jazz trumpeter between euphoric
illusion of ascent and descent into squalor and stagnation, is an exact parallel of, say,
schizophrenic Trinidad with its celebrated extremes of Carnival and crucifixion, and
recently, the arrogance of new-found wealth and the traditional uncertainty and
But while the islands reveal similar neuroses to those of the continent, the differ-
ence in size, and power, and the fact that the islands are caught in a relationship of
subservience and at times subjugation to the continent, are not forgotten by Brath-
waite. It is the theme of "Caliban." The struggles of both the Afro-Americans and the
Caribbean peoples to break this yoke, the absurdity of the conflict when one considers
the relative size and strength of the antagonists, and the mixture of limitations and
potential which both peoples bring to the struggle, are the substance of the second
half of Islands. If in Rights of Passage Brathwaite dealt with the parallel journeys of
the Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean peoples from plantation to city centre, in
Islands he is concerned with the final fading of any romantic illusions which either
people might have had about the big city as heaven or harbour. Tom's grandchildren
learn to accept the hard atonality of city life. Hence the atonality of their music, or of
Brathwaite's poetry which seeks to transmit something of the mood of this music.
This is why "Jah" employs the imagery and metaphor of jazz, particularly the jazz of
the post-1945 period, to provide an impressionistic summary of the years of transition
from World War II to the late sixties when, as it were, the Black world drew its breath
and counted its dead, after the unparalled militancy of the Civil Rights and Black
Power struggles for the rights of passage.
"Jah", Brathwaite informs us in his notes, is "Hebrew Yah, a short form of Javeh of
Jehovah. It is the name of God most commonly used by the Rastafarians of Jamaica."
This could lead one to expect a rather different sort of poem; for Jah in Islands is
neither the Hebrew Javeh, though the poem was published elsewhere as Yaveh1
and "Jehovah"2 nor the Rastafarian Jah Jah! In Islands Jah is rather the white
Anglo-Saxon Protestant perversion of the Christian message. Jah is the colonizer's
God; or he is the colonizer as "God"; the capitalist system preying; the age-old link
between Puritanism and economic individualism.3 Jah, then, is the god officially in
charge of the Western Hemisphere; controller of the Promised Land towards which the
Blacks have been travelling for so long. In the poem "Jah", Black musicians, blessed
with as much purity of heart as is possible in America's Promised Land, see "God"
"Jah" begins with the sound of the mmenson, the elephant tusk orchestra on whose
ceremonial note Masks ended.But it is an East African orchestra which is playing now.
Nairobi's male elephants uncurl
their trumpets to heaven.
Brathwaite is referring here to the Mau Mau liberation struggle in Kenya during the
1950's, which triggered off the fight for independence in West Africa during the
fifties and sixties, and influenced British colonial policy to the extent that Britain
eventually realized that the new era called for a strategy whereby political freedom
should be granted to the colonies, but economic control preserved by the imperial
power. The word "uncurl" suggests awakening, the movement of a snake before it
strikes, as well as the gentler coming to life of a foetus, or the unwinding of a tendril.
The idea first appeared in the Prelude to Masks, and was repeated at the two moments
of affirmation in "Adowa" and "Tano." Here, as throughout Islands, the link between
cultural and political awakening is made more explicit than was the case in Masks.
"Trumpets" is partly a reference to the "trumpeting" sound which the elephant
normally makes, and to the characteristic gesture which the jazz trumpeter shares with
the bull elephant, of uncurlingg", or suddenly leaning backward, pointing his horn to
the sky, and blowing with all his power. Dizzy Gillespie, the trumpeter who is probably
being referred to in the next lines:
Toot-Toot takes it up
went further than most and invented a trumpet whose bell is placed at an angle to the
rest of the instrument, so that it naturally points upwards. The sound of the African
political/cultural/revolutionary awakening is taken up in Havana (heaven/haven) and
Harlem because these have been centres of both music and revolution, and of the
revolution in music which eventually produced the jazz of the sixties. Havana of the
1950's was coming alive with the Cuban revolutionary struggle, while Harlem exploded
a few years later with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. All of these
waves of political activity helped determine the sound of Black music in the sixties.
Brathwaite is concerned with the dense interlocking of all of these forces, and with
their ultimate effect on art and sensibility in the New World.
The first ingredient of this revolution in sound was the link which was being
established in the fifties between Black American musicians and their counterparts on
the Continent of Africa. Art Blakey, for example, one of the "quick drummers"
referred to in the next few lines of the poem, went to North Africa to perfect his
drumming technique, and together with Sabu Martinez, a conga drummer, recorded
his Message from Kenya in 1953.4 Max Roach, another leading drummer and one of
the first Black nationalists in jazz, did not go to Africa himself, but studied in Haiti
during the period. Horace Silver, a musician from the Cape Verde Islands, those ancient
outposts of the Portuguese slave trade, was enriching the jazz mainstream with Afro-
Portuguese melodies from across the other side of the middle passage, as well as from
Brazil.5 Moreover, a number of Black American musicians had embraced Islam, a fact
which naturally expanded their interest in non-Western cultures, and particularly in
Africa where Islam had taken early root.
This was also one of the periods when jazz was absorbing influences from Cuba
and the rest of Latin America. Stearns has noted that since 1900 when the Tango
emerged from the Afro-Cuban/Latin American continuum, there have been the
Rhumba (1929), the Conga (1937), the Brazilian Samba (1946), the Mambo of the
late 1940's and the Cha Cha of the fifties. All of these influenced jazz to the extent
that during the fifties the word "Cubop" was coined to describe the blend of Cuban
music and Bebop.6 This marriage of Havana and Harlem led in 1947 to the brief
partnership between Bebop avantgardist, Dizzy Gillespie and Havana's Conga and cult
drummer, Chano Pozo:7 and later to Gillespie's pioneer work in marrying jazz and
Afro-Brazilian Samba and Bossa Nova. It was as if jazz was becoming the form in
which a triumphant in-gathering of the scattered tribes was taking place.
Hence the surface meaning of the next lines:
bridges of sound curve
through the pale rigging
of saxophone stops
is that fragile links are being re-established between Atlantic and ancestor. The "black
chord of birth" which the omowale could not find in his self-conscious and naive
quest in Africa, has remained alive underground, and is now exploding in the musical
and political revolutions of the Third World. Brathwaite's hope is that what is only a
bridge of sound in the sixties will eventually become a far more substantial link.
The term "bridges of sound" is also a reference to a brief solo linking two state-
ments of the theme by the band in ensemble. This solo is called a "bridge", and is
quite literally a bridge of sound. It often emerges against the muted shading of a
quietly answering chorus of horns in the background "the pale rigging of saxophone
stops." "Jah" is carefully patterned on the idea of a jazz band in performance, and
naturally draws its images from the rich argot of the jazz experience. Indeed, Brath-
waite settled for the name "Jah" rather than "Yaveh" or "Jehovah", because "Jah"
sounds almost like "jazz." The suggestion is that the jazz musician becomes a man/
god in the Afro-Caribbean cult sense of being possessed, filled momentarily with the
spirit, or in the Rastafarian sense, where the individual is in fact the incarnation of Jah.
"Bridges of sound" is also an allusion to the famous story about tenor saxophonist
Sonny Rollins, who in 1959 "held his practice sessions on the footwalk of the Williams-
burg Bridge over the East River bordering Manhattan."8 Strangely enough, this was a
period when Rollins, an introspective, lonely artist, decided to retire from the world in
order to improve his art through contemplation. The poignant irony is that he could
find no place to practise, so that his quest for private space and silence led to
exposure to all the noise and harshness of the inner city. Rollins's next album was
called "The Bridge." A blurred impressionistic picture emerges, then, of the Black
musician making his affirmative cry against the white man's world of steel pylons
("the pale rigging") and concrete. He is still entangled in the snare ("rigging") of the
white ("pale") world; still being consumed by the insatiable hull of the slave ship;
"rigging" in this sense being the ropes which run from the mast to the deck of any
Hence the next lines, which tell of the eternal recurrence of Columbus, Conquista-
dor and pirate:
the ship sails, slips on banana
peel water, eating the dark men.
The ship here belongs to Elder's and Fyffe's or the United Fruit Company, controllers
of Jamaica's banana trade since the first quarter of the twentieth century, and inheri-
tors of the old plantation. It is these who ensure that Evan Jones's Banana Man, if
stoutly independent and proud, will remain perpetually poor, and become in time a
migrant, stowing away in the hot hull of one of those same banana boats in order to
get to the promised land up north. The specific musical allusion is, of course, to the
Banana Boat Song, made famous by Harry Belafonte, an American-bred West Indian,
whose essentially pleasant, but thoroughly inauthentic renditions of West Indian folk
songs and Kaisos, triggered the West Indian into the visibility of America for that brief
moment in the 1950's when Calypso competed with Rock 'n Roll on almost equal
One can sense, even in the few lines examined so far, the bewildering density and
variety of allusion, some of which relates directly to the jazz of the "era of transition"
between 1945 and 1960. Brathwaite is able to build his bridges to connect Africa,
America and the Caribbean, and to bring into focus the growth of the tiny Caribbean
presence on the metropolitan scene. In Rights of Passage this was done in a direct
fashion, here it is achieved through allusion. The feel of the era of transition is evoked
through the changing metaphor of jazz style. During that period, the styles of "Swing",
"Big Band", "Bebop", "Cool", "Third Stream", "Hard Bop", "Funk" and "Rhythm
and Blues" not only followed each other in rapid succession, but existed side by side
cross-fertilizing each other and preparing the ground for the "exploding dimensions
of song" in the sixties. It is this co-existence of moods and modes of musical statement
that Brathwaite explores as a complex metaphor of the experience of Black America,
and by extension, the Caribbean people, three or four generations from the land. The
fact that he alludes to several phases of jazz, indicates that he is concerned not with
the critics' division of jazz into genres and eras, but with the musicians' awareness of
the continuum of forms, and with the continuity of cultural political and economic
experience out of which these forms grow.
Hence "Jah" opens with the call of big-band trumpets, followed by a short bridge-
passage played against a background of answering saxophones. This is the structure of
Big Band jazz, which Brathwaite describes in "Jazz and the West Indian Novel" as a
model of the interplay between the individual and the group in folk/urban society.
The relevant passage from Brathwaite's 1967 essay is:
So the trumpet calls, the ensemble answers, comforts,
screams out its tight collective protest against the
(white) withholding world.9
Next, the drummer fills a pause with such driving rhythms that the listener marvels
how such skills have survived both the middle passage and the constant onslaughts of
Protestantism against Black culture. The drummer, what with all the laws which were
passed both in America and the Caribbean against religion, dance and the drum, ought
to be dead. But he is marvellously alive ("quick"), a source and nerve-centre of ancient
polyrhythmic energy in that land of the dead. The poet wonderingly asks:
Has the quick drummer nerves
after the stink Sabbath's unleavened
cries in the hot hull?
Again the bridge between Atlantic and ancestor is being suggested. Just as the mmen-
son faced into the cry of the trumpet in Harlem, so the "quick sticks" of the
kyereme (drummer) in Masks become the staccato clarity of the jazz drummers of the
fifties Kenny Clarke, Max Roach or Art Blakey.
The link between African and Jew, one of the great cliches of Afro-American myth-
ology, is implied in Brathwaite's use of the word "unleavened", which is an allusion to
the Jewish Feast of the Unleavened Bread. But Brathwaite is more concerned here
with the ironies which emerge when one compares the experiences of the two peoples.
The Israelites observed the Feast of the Unleavened Bread to commemorate their
deliverance from Egypt.10 This feast was also associated with the Feast of the Passover,
when Jah/Javeh/Jehovah, the God of the Jews, destroyed all the first born of Egypt.
It later came to be associated with the expiation and sanctification rituals which the
Israelites instituted while in the wilderness between Egypt and the land of their
Brathwaite's tribes also make their exodus from Egypt into the wilderness, though
this is an act of desperate flight after the destruction of Meroe by the Axumites.
El Hassan, no Moses, does not know the way to the Promised Land. Neither Onyame
nor Ananse proves to be a deliverer. Both are associated with a "trap of doom" in
Masks, and the colonizer's God, New World Jah/Javeh suffers a sea-change when he
crosses the middle passage on John Newton's slave ship, and becomes very much like
Pharaoh, who held the Israelites in bondage for four hundred and thirty years.
Brathwaite is concerned with the pollution of both Akan and Christian rituals of
expiation and sanctification; for the Feast of the Passover itself came to be associated
with the Crucifixion of Christ. The Easter liturgy of the Anglican Church contains the
beautiful modal chant to verses taken from First Corinthians (5, 7):
Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us
us keep the feast:
Not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of
malice and wickedness: but with the unleavened
bread of sincerity and truth.
"The unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" is a far cry from "the stink sabbath's
unleavened cries in the hot hull"; for in "Jah", the "dark men" are themselves the
unleavened bread, baking, consumed, crucified, interred and rotting in the underworld
of the slave ship. The bondsmenn and bishops"12 who preside over the "stink
sabbath" of the Christian Church in slavery days, rationalise their eating of the un-
leavened bread of Black lives with arguments which recall their Akan counterparts,
the priests and elders of the tribe. They too explain that this strange Passover is to
purify the tribe by bringing the nations to Christ, and that the Blacks are being slaught-
ered for their own good. The phrase "stink Sabbath", then, refers generally to the
perversion of Christianity which both Roman Catholics and Sabbatarian Puritans were
able to reconcile with slavery and the slave trade. 3
The patterns of the past are relived in the present. "Columbus" whose role as
Christ -- bearer or Christopher is hinted in Rights of Passage, arrives again here.
From the top
of the music, slack bwana
Columbus rides out of the jungle's den.
The modern descendant of the heroic mariner is a night-club owner. He is "slack",
both in the sense of being sexually impotent and spiritually sterile. He emerges from
the top of the music because here he is "God." He is also Phantom, the Ghost who
walks, the Supreme Commander of the Jungle Patrol. He owns the music which he
cannot create and the musicians whom he exploits. He is thus the direct descendant of
the mariners, pirates, slave traders, bondsmen and bishops who have played such a
significant role in West Indian History.
The "jungle's den" may be a direct reference to the Jungles Casino, a 1921 "dancing
school" where James P. Johnson played boogie-woogie and blues piano for down-
home migrants from the South.14 Or it may be a simple sarcastic thrust at both the
early white critics who referred to jazz as "jungle music", and the nightclub owners
who did their best to maintain either the minstrel or the cannibal stereotype of the
Black artist. Even Duke Ellington was forced to conform to the stereotype during the
Twenties when he played at the white-owned Cotton Club in New York. According
to Marshall Stearns, the motif of the club was a jungle and Ellington was hired to play
"jungle music." Stearns writes:
I recall one [show] where a light-skinned and magni-
ficently muscled Negro clad in an aviator's helmet,
goggles and shorts burst through a papier-mache jungle
onto the dance floor. He had obviously been forced
down in darkest Africa, and in the centre of the floor
he came upon a white goddess clad in long tresses
and being worshipped by a circle of cringing "blacks."
Producing a bull whip from heaven knows where,
the aviator rescued the blonde and they did an erotic
dance. In the background, Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam
Nanton, and other members of the Duke Ellington
band growled, wheezed and snorted obscenely.15
It is, presumably, this sort of experience which led to a composition such as Ellington's
"Jungle Night in Harlem"16 or "Jungle Blues" of the Goodman/Miller repertoire.
The jungle stereotype may also have given rise to a play such as Eugene O'Neill's
The Emperor Jones (1920) which depicted the downfall in a tropical jungle of a
Black American ex-convict who proclaims himself Emperor of a West Indian island,
and proceeds to exploit the island people as he has seen white people do in America. A
number of significant Black actors have played the Emperor, and the play, a product
of the traditional stereotyping of the white world, has been regarded as a pointed and
accurate summary of the abuse of power by Black fantasists and mimic men. The
reaction of the Black folk-urban audience in Harlem to one performance of the play,
however, is worthy of note. Loften Mitchell writes that:
The Harlem revival of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones
at the Lincoln Theatre during the twenties illustrates
this. The great Jules Bledsoe played the Emperor, and
Langston Hughes tells us that when Bledsoe ran
through the jungle, Negroes shouted from the aud-
ience: "Man, you come on outa that jungle! This is
The Blacks, who could measure the distance between Harlem's concrete jungle and
the stereotyped tropical jungle of white imagination, knew well enough when their
greatest talents were being exploited to present the most degrading caricatures of their
true image, and expressed their resentment in terms of sarcasm.
It was during this period that Ellington played a particularly dissonant chord and
declared that "That's the Negro's life, hear that chord. That's us. Dissonance is our
way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part."18 Brathwaite's
allusion to the jungle, then, creates the era of the Big Band sound of Ellington and
Count Basie, and the humiliating conditions within which and against which this music
often had to be played. The sarcastic tone of this allusion suggests something of the
secret bitterness and the urbane mockery which creators such as Ellington cultivated
in order to transcend the sordidness of the conditions under which they served.
"Jah" then, has begun by describing a typical jazz performance of the twenties and
thirties. It descends within the music to the surreal heart and hinterland which lies
beneath its smooth bland surface. Ellison's narrator in Invisible Man explores
Satchmo's "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" "not only in time, but in space as
well. I not only entered the music, but descended like Dante into its depths."19 In
"Jah" descent becomes more profound as the music grows more introspective with the
close of the thirties. Introspection starts when a solo trumpeter emerges from the
ensemble of horns, to play a dry, hard, sardonic riff which, nevertheless, contains an
amazing density of tradition:
With my blue note, my cracked note, full flatten-
ed fifth, my ten bebop fingers, my black bottom'd strut, Panama
worksong, my cabin, my hut,
my new frigged-up soul and God's heaven,
heaven, gonna walk all over God's heaven...
The soloist here is consciously rebelling against the stereotype of "jungle music"
and the exploitation of the Black artist by "slack Bwana" in a way that rarely happen-
ed during the twenties and thirties. Hence his hipster tones, his bitter bewildering
brilliance which can call simultaneously on so many and so various aspects of the jazz
tradition; and his growing isolation from the ensemble, as is indicated by his repeated
stress on the word "my." It was an age of both awakening consciousness and concomi-
tant self-consciousness, when style was the possession of an in-group which set the
pace in threads, hip talk, and musical innovation, constantly changing masks, meta-
phors and fads. The real beboppers and hipsters excluded the prying outsider and
lived life with the urgency of both iconoclasm and despair.
Yet these were strangely rooted men, in their thorough possession of the very
traditions which they mocked. The trumpeter in every line that he plays enumerates
his aesthetic possessions, his alternative to the tradition of slack bwana, his spiritual
and technical equipment. There is the famous "blue note", the flattened third and
seventh, which were the result of the early Black musicians' memory of an untemper-
ed non-diatonic, non-Western scale. There is the "cracked note", which was generally
the result of the use of a musical instrument as an extension of the human voice. The
instrument is thus forced to speak, laugh, scream or cry, as well as play a tune. The
result is that often the note breaks in two as the effect of "vocalisation" is produced.
Here the word "cracked" is also employed to suggest mental agony, neurosis and
breakdown. It will recur throughout Islands, a whole section of which "The
Cracked Mother" is devoted to the schizophrenia caused by the unequal cultural
collision under colonialism's unnatural conditions.
The "flattened fifth" was, according to Stearns,20 added to jazz during the Bebop
age, that seminal period of formal development. Brathwaite identifies the period by
referring to "my ten bebop fingers." But Bebop, with all its eccentricity, is rooted in
the earlier down-home music of the field holler and worksong, and in the country
pleasures of Uncle Tom's cabin and the Black Bottom. This last was a dance of 1926,
of which Paul Oliver has written: "In its original form it made few concessions to
respectability, but when it entered the White dance halls many of its frankly erotic
features were modified."21 The term "strut" with its suggestion of style and arrogance
was an old name for any kind of dance party in Black communities, and together with
"black bottom'd" illustrates how the beboppers mocked both themselves, by project-
ing an image of excessive sexuality, and by the same token laughed at the prudery of
"slack bwana", the representative of "mainstream" America. The Bebop voice is still
blue under all its sarcasm (indeed, "Black Bottom Strut" is the name of a composi-
tion of the Blues era) but it is a subtler and more complex shade of blue, one that
is tinged with painful laughter.
In the middle of this solo riff which has touched briefly on so many splinters of the
jazz tradition, the trumpeter remembers his grandfather's (Tom's) dream of an escape
to Harlem, the Promised Land of white liberal Carl Van Vechten's famous novel,
Nigger Heaven (1926). It is probably to this novel and Van Vechten's patronage of
Black writers and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance, that Brathwaite alludes
when he writes in Rights of Passage, "Harlem was Heaven." Now the trumpeter
laughingly/cryingly remembers that dream of the Promised Land as he alludes to the
spiritual "All God's Chillun." His tone is ambiguous because he knows that his "new
soul" (perhaps a reference to the Soul music of the sixties) is thoroughly
"frigged-up." The "walk all over God's heaven" of the spiritual, has long ago flattened
into the Blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, with their constant reference to walking
The allusion to roots in the worksong and spiritual, helps to place the music in
time once more. For the soloist has taken the music from Bebop (1940's) into the
period of the mid to late fifties, when several musicians, Art Blakey, Horace Silver,
Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd, to name a few, who felt that Bebop had taken jazz
too far away from its roots in spirituals and Blues, consciously attempted to reintro-
duce the tonality of the Church meeting and the Blues in their compositions. This was
a few years before the same thing began to happen in popular party music, leading to
the Soul revolution of the sixties. Brathwaite's aim is to show how each era of jazz
grows out of and contains its predecessor, while adding to a continuum of sound and
In the next section of the poem, the poet, entering the imagination of the trumpet-
er, abstracts himself from the music, and dreamingly watches his solo taking shape in
the coils ("furl") and tight spirals which were an emergent style of improvisation in
the late fifties and early sixties period. John Coltrane actually named a composition
of the early sixties "Spiral."22
away from the trumpet
my bridge stops in the New York air
elevator speeds me to angels
heaven sways in the reinforced girders
Suddenly the trumpeter/poet stops in mid-air and savours God's withholding heaven
of skyscrapers and elevator cages from the crest of his cracked high blue note, his solo
cry an unfinished bridge of sound, suspended in precarious space. And there in this
heaven of air and steel, Manchild, grandson of Uncle Tom, sees "God", descendant of
Christ-bearer Columbus, at so long last. The voice is sardonic, the vision surreal.
God is glass with his type-
writer teeth, gospel
jumps and pings off the white
paper, higher and higher;
"God" is the executive who becomes the glass behind which he executes; the newspaper
editor, a bringer and manipulator of the good news (gospel/godspel) who becomes his
typewriter; the grinning mercenary evangelist who fades into his dentures; and the
White House politician who is all of these disguises simultaneously, with his hot edicts
jumping ("jumps" and "pings") off the "white paper." All of these men, from
pepsodent preacher to presidenture, are Jah. Like slack Bwana, they own the system.
After this beatific vision, the bridge of sound continues "higher and higher." This
phrase refers not only to the high trumpet note, or to the heavenly ascent of elevators,
but to the cocaine and even heroin which were virtually inseparable from the post-War
jazz scene. They destroyed Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, to name the most famous
victims, but there were many other minor casualties. It is partly drug-taking that
creates the surreal atmosphere of fragmented dream-like leap from thought to thought
and image to image, as well as the trumpeter's illusion that he can soar "further than
hope, further than heaven" (Masks).
The trumpeter's "high" makes him feel as if he were flying:
the eagle's crook neck,
the vulture's talons clutching tight
as a blind baby's fist, still knows
the beat of the root blood
up through the rocks, up through the torn
hummingbird trees, guitar strings, eyrie;
The eagle is king of the birds and has appeared in Brathwaite's "Solo for Trumpet"
(1960) as a symbol of the Daedalus-like dream of transcendence which the jazz artist
shares with all others.
If he could fly
He would be
He would see
How the land lies
Softly in contours
How the fields lie
Striped, how the
Houses fit into the valleys.23
The fate of such aspiration is to plummet "through the sunlight / Like a shining stone."
The reference here may be not only to the classical Daedalus, celebrated in modern
times by James Joyce, but to Tennyson's eagle, which falls like a thunderbolt, and
becomes an archetype of Fallen Man, of Lucifer cast out from heaven.
In "Jah", the eagle image is ambiguous. The eagle is America's national bird, and
appears on the U.S. Dollar bill as it appeared on Rome's and appears on Germany's
insignia. The emblematic eagle on the U.S. Dollar bill grips a sheaf of arrows in its left
talon and what appears to be an olive branch in its right. On its breast, worn like a
shield, are the many stripes of the American flag, while above its head is a galaxy of
thirteen stars, representing the place reserved in heaven for the original thirteen states
of the Confederation. In its crooked beak is the motto, "E pluribus unum", "Out of
many, One," which Jamaica has copied as her national motto.
The Afro-American is never more American than when he imagines himself to soar
in the soaring liberty of the eagle. Yet for the Blacks and the Indians, the American
eagle has also been the symbol of rapacious imperialism and genocide. He is a bird of
prey which is why Brathwaite specifically mentions the "crook neck." The jazz
trumpeter, longing for his place in the sun and his panoramic view of the land, wants
to see whether the motto grasped in the eagle's beak applies to him at all. This motto
was the founding Fathers' (Hamilton's and Jefferson's) dream of democracy which, of
course, did not include the Blacks, who were then defined as being only three-fifths
human. The American eagle soon emerged as the symbol of triumphant individualism,
and lived off the flesh and blood of whole nations exterminated until, like the Roman
or German eagles, it came to resemble that other bird of prey, the vulture. As vulture,
it now clutches blindly with an instinctive rapacity at whatever comes into its grasp.
The comparison of America's "vulture's talons" to a "blind baby's fist", suggests the
perversion of a dream of innocence; the corruption of the belief in Adamic renewal
which was prevalent in nineteenth century American Romantic literature. The com-
parison conveys the dichotomy of youth and decay, as well as the monstrous paradox
of helpless innocence and blood guilt.
The fact that the vulture is a black bird may suggest that the Afro-American is
thoroughly part of the wider American paradox. Yet despite the dope, the fantasy and
the surreal vision, Black musicians remain in miraculous imaginative touch with their
roots. The soaring soloist "still knows / the beat of the root blood," in spite of the
rocks of Jah's concrete heaven. Literally, what the passage says is that the trumpeter,
(eagle), however wild his solo flights into space may seem, however lonely and lofty
his attempt to escape the parasitic system (vulture), still feels the deep pulse of the
double bass keeping him anchored surely to roots. Interpreting all the metaphors, the
passage now paraphrases:
The Black American, dreaming the All-American
dream of success in America's crooked system, and
caught instead in its relentless vulture's clutch, can
still feel the basic pulse of Black blood, and the thrust
of roots up through the rocks (Jah's city of stone
skyscrapers); in spite of the rapings of Black wo-
men and lynchings still going on in the 1950's of
Black men ("the torn hummingbird trees"); the des-
truction of music, values and men ("torn .... guitar
strings"); and the denial of rest, comfort and a safe
harbour ("torn .... eyrie").
It is because the common pain is inescapable that the soloist never really loses touch
with his ground. This, incidentally, is where Brathwaite parts company with surrealism
or notions of "marvellous realism", popular in some Latin American literature and
becoming increasingly so in the literature of the cricket-playing Caribbean. He
qualifies their vision of the power of the imagination to transcend gross reality. Magical
realism in the face of Brooklyn's paenumbra or Harlem's rotting slums, may be little
more than drugged escapism, and may indicate more one's inability to cope with what
is than one's capacity for wonderful movement beyond the tawdry limits of the ordi-
nary. What Brpthwaite does consistently present is the possibility of movement
through pain, of confrontation and creative exploration of one's "broken ground."
Thus the torn guitar strings are not only a symbol of destruction, but a reference to
the music which the guitarist is "tearing" out of his instrument. In the final line of
Islands, the steelband is presented as a symbol of "something torn and new" growing
out of the Caribbean experience. This is probably an improvisation on Ariel's song
"Full Fathom Five" in the Tempest, where the sea-change of suffering and death
produces the "something rich and strange" of art. Here Brathwaite is reiterating the
truth perceived in "The Making of the Drum", that the artist must move through
before he moves beyond pain, if he is to discover his voice. Or, as the jazzman say, he
must pay his dues.
The "torn hummingbird trees" are an extension of the image of the shattered tree,
which in the Prelude to Rights of Passage is described as "ravished with fire", and in
Masks as having been "split by a white axe of lightning." The process of despoliation
and rape continues in the New World. The torn hummingbird trees are therefore those
lives which would glitter and reflect light as do the wings of hummingbirds, had they
not been stripped of their foliage that is, their green promise, their resurrected
growth. Literally the torn tree refers to the lynching tree, a familiar enough image in
American literature. It occurs, for example, in a poem by Richard Wright:
There was the charred stump of a sapling pointing a
blunt finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves,
and a scorched coil of greasy hemp .24
It also occurs in the famous and profoundly disturbing Billie Holiday song, "Strange
Brathwaite next describes what the rest of the band are doing while the trumpeter
soars in imagination and sound like an eagle.
the buffaloes' boom through the dust plains,
the antelope's sniff at the water, eland's sudden hurl
through the hurdle of fire, runnels upwards to them
through the hoof of the world.
They too are metamorphosed, but into beasts of the fertile tropical grassland of
Africa, or the primal life of the American prairies of innocence. The drummer's
polyrhythms become "the buffaloes' boom", sound suggesting image, as the perform-
ance deepens into tone poetry. Again the period of music has changed. We have left
the transitional fifties and entered the revolutionary sixties. Here the music is released
from time; the drummer and the bassist assume a larger measure of freedom, and an
amazingly free music results which is all fluid movement and sound-colour. The
soloist chains himself no longer to the melodic line, but fragments melody and explores
each splinter in as many ways as he can before restating and restoring coherence and
wholeness to the theme. A whole new world in all its agony and intense energy of
both prayer and celebration, comes alive in this music.
The leaders in this revolution were the John Coltrane Quartet, which consisted of
John Coltrane on the tenor and soprano saxophone, Mc Coy Tyner on piano, Jimmy
Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Held together by the vision and spiritual
energy of their leader, this group became the articulate musical voice of the Black
nationalist movement, and achieved in form what the Black nationalists achieved in
verbal articulateness.25 Brathwaite tries to capture the feel of this new music, which
was rooted in a rediscovery of Africa (see Coltrane's "Africa", "Afro-Blue", "Kulu
Se Mama", "Ogunde", "Dahomey Dance" and "Gold Coast") in an awareness of
the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements (see "Alabama" and "Reverend King")
- and in an immersion in non-Western religions, the doctrine of universal love, and
the African and New World idea of the sun as a primal source of cosmic energy
("Sun Ship"), which led to the transcendental meditative slow movements of "Song
of Praise", the "Psalm" from A Love Supreme (1965), "Welcome", "After the Rain"
and "Dearly Beloved." Culture, politics, religion and revolution met in the music of
the John Coltrane Quartet (1961-1966), which was to become for Brathwaite a meta-
phor of the sort of synthesis he himself was seeking in his poetry.
Hence the images of energy and liberation in the passage under discussion. The
buffaloes, indigenous to both Africa and America, are a symbol of primal life, massive
energy which triumphantly thunders in the midst of sterility. "Dust plains" echoes
"the plains of dust surrounding us" in "Timbuctu." The static buffaloes ablaze in the
pre-historic sun of "Chad" are now caught in vivid, magnificent motion. The "old
horse left at the hurdle" which in Rights of Passage was an image of the frustrated and
beaten Black sensibility, is now metamorphosed into "the eland's sudden hurl/
through the hurdle of fire." The eland is famous for its grace in leaping which is here
related to the concept of the liberating dance. The hurdle of fire is the barrier which a
history of torture has created and through which the Blacks suddenly and surprisingly
leap. It is analogous to the fiery furnace in which Daniel and the other Israelites were
tested by command of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon and conqueror of Jerusalem,
an old time archetype of the New World Jah. The "leap" or "hurl" is an image of faith
and affirmation in spite of dread, made famous by Kierkegaard in works such as The
Sickness unto Death and Fear and Trembling. It is also what happens in the cult at the
moment of possession. Here then, the ideas of fire and dance, omni-present in the
trilogy, are gracefully and graphically linked in a brilliant and precise image.
Each impulse of grounded life "runnels upwards" to the soaring lonely trumpets.
"Runnels" is an unusual verb. A runnel is a fresh spring or a river or brook in its youth-
ful primal stages. Brathwaite's use of this word echoes his use of the word tunnellingg"
in "Adowa" to describe the drummer's exploration of his roots of rhythm. "Runnels"
is used to convey the idea of a current and flow of water and life-blood, which
reconciles the apparently discordant activity of each individual player into the fluid
harmony of collective improvisation. Here the drummer ("the buffaloes' boom"), the
bassist ("the beat of the root blood") associated with the grounded hooved power of
animal life (buffaloes, eland, antelope) are in total communion and harmony with
the trumpeter, guitarist and saxophones, associated with flying things (eagles, vul-
If Jah, the "God" of the city lives up there somewhere in the New York air, he does
not participate in this celebration of life.
But here God looks out over the river
yellow mix of the neon lights
high up over the crouching cotton-wool green
and we float, high up over the sighs of the city,
like fish in a gold water world.
After the blinding vision in subliminal space of fecundity, continuity, primal power,
movement and liberating grace of dance, the ensemble ("we") of horns now plays
legato, floats, still on a drugged high over the "sighs" (size) of the inner city, its
blurred lights, lack of clear vision, its T.S. Eliot yellow fog and hospital ether of
unhealthy smog, and its Whitmanesque/Emersonian dream of adamic rebirth ("green")
corrupted through plantation slavery ("cotton-wool") and the market-value placed on
human life by the factors of Wall Street, who control the Southern plantations.
Black dreamers are still prisoners of this world. "God" here is now Barry Goldwater
the Republican delegate from the cowboy state of Arizona, who voted against the
1964 Civil Rights Bill and later was nominated for President. Goldwater was for Black
people, a symbol of traditional white supremacist ideology. He is what Black revolu-
tionaries in the field of politics or creative art have to face when they descend from
their high, their dream of a natural power beyond Jah's glass and typewriter teeth.
Thus, having descended to "reality", the Blacks, whether as politicians or artists find
that they too are behind glass. The fresh life and fluid movement suggested by the
word "runnels" here becomes the stagnation of tap water in a goldfish bowl some-
where in a rich city penthouse. Even water, archetypal symbol of life, becomes dead
and sterile here.
we float round and round
In the bright bubbled bowl
Without hope of the hook,
of the fisherman's tugging-in root;
eyes without bait, snout
without words, teeth with nothing to kill,
skill of fin for a child's wonder,
pale scales for collectors to sell;
The musicians are again in limbo. If at the start of the poem they were playing Big
Band Swing against the background of the degrading nightclub/jungle/casino, where
their role was that of the traditional blackface minstrel, here they play cool jazz on
muted horns, which express depression and exhaustion, not energy. This had happened
in the late forties and early fifties, when the so-called Age of Cool produced a muted
music that drifted in stagnant circles. Here the post-Coltrane phase is being described,
and the music is now a metaphor of the unchanged socio-political status and the
mood of confusion and disillusion which has returned to the Black scene after the
militancy of the sixties. The "bubbled bowl" is the American business environment,
the word "bubble" suggesting inflation, wild-cat investment, stocks and shares, soapy
froth, the emptiness of the South Sea Bubble of the eithteenth century, as well as
Jamaica/Babylon's "bright bright baubles", which in "Wings of a Dove" Brother Man
has predicted will burst under the joint onslaught of divine retribution and the revolu-
tion of "de poor dem."
The "bubbled bowl" is also the emotional and existential void in which Black
sensibility (fish) is now afloat. The fisherman appeared in both Rights of Passage and
Masks (and in Carter's "Till I Collect" and Walcott's Ti Jean and His Brothers) as
an image of the questing man/artist in search of his true subaqueous self. Here the
fisherman (questing intellectual Mi Jean or artist) is schizophrenically divorced from
his sensibility, which has lost its ground and roots. His divorce is so acute that he can
observe that sensibility through glass, floating in a neuter existential void. Brathwaite
is particularly concerned with the literature of paralysis, void and solipsist alienation
which in the late sixties had begun to attract several Caribbean writers most notably
Orlando Patterson, Derek Walcott, Vidia Naipaul, George Lamming, Garth St. Omer
and Wilson Harris of Eye of the Scarecrow. (See "Timehri", Savacou 2, 1970) where
Brathwaite voices this concern).
The image of the disinherited psyche seen through glass and floating in a void, will
be repeated in "Ananse", where the Caribbean mind observes its dark, instinctual
alter ego crawling crippled and spider-like outside the window of perception. In "Jah",
the sense of separation is so extreme that the artist desperately yearns to hook his
disinherited psyche from the neuter void; to bring it back to ground. This is why the
hook, normally associated with the torture of slavery, represents here an act of rescue,
retrieval of sensibility; an act which now involves painful self-laceration, because of
the distance which separates the questing artist from his subliminal subaqueous self.
Brathwaite here is perilously close to the theoretics of the Theatre of Cruelty, which
was itself an extreme reaction by European artists to the sense of loss, schizophrenia
and distance from the disinherited Self.
In "Jah", Brathwaite suggests that the sense of void is reinforced by the context in
which the artist is asked to perform. The musicians return to a world in which they
are simply performing animals, pets, playthings, fish without words, but worth their
weight in gold to slack bwana; without objectives ("bait"), in spite of the fact that the
preceding generation had been so full of revolutionary clarity and fervour, hope and
rhetoric. They still bare their teeth in the approved minstrel style, or in mute helpless
protest ("teeth with nothing to kill"). Their brilliant hard-won talent, ("skill of fin") is
still the wonder of America's blind babies who, lacking their ground in pain have
absolutely no clue as to the meaning of an adult, mature music. But it is these children
who own the Black man's music.
The word "scales" not only extends the goldfish metaphor, but is a reference to
musical scales; so that "pale scales" are a reference to the repetitive ("round and
round") bloodless ("pale") tunes which many Black musicians are forced to play in
order to entertain the pale faces who own them.26 The "collectors" are both record
collectors, and the Mafia's debt collectors. It is also a general term for those who have
economic control over the Black musicians, the descendants of the slave trader who
buy and sell lives nightclub owners, radio stations, critics who kill what they cannot
understand,27 recording companies and disc jockeys, behind all of whom rides "slack
Bwana Columbus", who is the State Department which in 1969 granted $20 million
to maintain operatic companies and philharmonic orchestras, but left jazz substantially
in the hands of the Syndicates and Corporations.28 It was, of course, jazz, not opera
or symphonies, that the same State Department used throughout the forties and fifties
to beam to Third World countries ravaged by Europe's and America's bombs and
throttled by their economic stranglehold, the good noose that America was a land of
the free, of democratic, energetic people, who had created a free, hopeful music, the
best medicine in an age of angst and depression.29
It is to this lie and the idea of cultural exploitation that Brathwaite returns. The
final vision of "God" is in his strange incarnation as the white jazz musician -
Whiteman, Goodman, Miller, Brubeck, Getz and etc. "God" is trying his best now to
filch some of the soul of his humble servant.
And God, big eyes bulging
his glass house aglobe
floating floating in heaven
without feet without wind.
without wing without thunder
no stone under him
no sound to carry earth up to his fathoms
no ground to keep him down near the gods. (my emphasis)
The white musician, whom critics employed by Jah's jazz magazines elevate into kings
of this or that era of jazz, is still caught in the pose and imitated style of Louis Arm-
strong. His "big eyes" bulge in mimicry of the old Satchmo; but of course, he is faking
the feeling, copying as ever, the style and the minstrel pose. He can't keep time
("without feet"); he lacks the energy or emotion to sustain a trumpet-cry ("without
wind"); he cannot soar even in imagination because, owning heaven and earth, he lacks
dreams ("without wing"). He has a kind of power and as we have seen both from
the ambiguous eagle/vulture image and the unambiguous demands of Tom's sons for
"bright bold cash", many Blacks imagine that this is the only power that matters. But
such power is by itself, lacking in vital primal life ("without thunder") and ultimately
loses point and meaning. "God", the hawk/corbeau, has no real tradition, having made
no music out of his pain in America ("no stone under him"). He lacks "sound",
earth, roots and a ground of being on which he can base his faith. Having created only
a prison for his slaves he discovers that he himself is in a void. The idea holds true for
the entire hemisphere. The rest of Islands will explore the alternatives of choice which
lie open to the caged peoples of the Third World: void or rebellious negation ("Negus")
and creative rebellion ("Ogun").
1. BRATHWAITE, E.,
2. BRATHWAITE, E.,
3. WEBER, M.,
5. SILVER, Horace,
8. WILSON, J.S.,
9. BRATHWAITE, E.,
"Yaveh", Critical Quarterly, (Winter 1968) pp. 366-369.
"Jehovah", Jamaica Journal II, No. 4 (Dec. 1968) p.50.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Lon-
don, Unwin University Books, 1930.
Religion and the Rise of Captialism, New York, Mentor
Books, 1947 (first published 1926).
"Message from Kenya", on Blue Note Gems of Jazz,
33rpm LP record, BLP 2001.
The Cape Verdean Blues, 33rpm LP record, Blue Note
The Story of Jazz, Ch. 19, "Afro-Cuban Music".
ibid. See also Chano Pozo with James Moody and his
Modernists, playing "Tin Tin Deo", on Blue Note Gems
of Jazz, BLP 2001.
Jazz: The Transition Years 1940-1960, New York,
Appleton-Century-Crofts 1966, p. 59.
"Jazz and the West Indian Novel", pt. I, Bim,No. 44,
(1967 pp. 276-277).
12. BENNETT, J.,
13. WILLIAMS, E.
14. JONES, L.,
15. STEARNS, M.,
16. ELLINGTON, E.,
17. MITCHELL, L.,
18. WALTON, O.,
19. ELLISON, R.,
20. STEARNS, M.,
21. OLIVER, P.,
22. COLTRANE, J.,
23. BRATHWAITE, E.,
24. WRIGHT, R.,
25. KOFSKY, F.,
26. SPELLMAN, A.B.,
27. KOFSKY, F.,
28. WALTON, O.,
29. WILSON, J.S.,
Exodus, Ch. XII, v.17; Ch. XIII, vs. 3-10; Ch. XIII vs.
Leviticus, Chs. II-VIII.
Bondsmen and Bishops: Slavery on the Codrington
Plantation of Barbados, Berkley, Univ. of California
Capitalism and Slavery, New York, Russell & Russell
1961, pp. 42-43 (first published 1944).
Blues People, New York, William Morrow & Co. 1963,
op. cit, p. 133. Compare Jones L, op. cit., pp. 161-162.
"Jungle Night in Harlem", RCA Victor, 33rpm record,
VI 23022; also Bluebird 6338.
Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the
Theatre, New York, Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1967, pp.
Music: Black, White and Blue, New York, William
Morrow & Co. Inc. 1972, p. 77.
Invisible Man, Penguin Books, p. 11.
op. cit., p. 229.
The Meaning of the Blues, New York, Collier Books,
1960, p. 187.
Giant Steps, 33rpm LP record, Atlantic 1311.
"Solo for Trumpet", Kyk-Over-Al, IX, No. 27 (Dec.
1960) p. 85.
"Between the World and Me", in "The Literature of the
Negro in the United States", White Man Listen, New
York, Doubleday/Anchor 1964, p. 94.
Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, New
York, Pathfinder Press Inc. 1970.
Four Lives in the Be Bop Business, New York, Pantheon
Books, Random House, 1966 (Compare Walton, O. op.
op. cit., Ch. I.
op. cit., pp. 128-129.
op. cit., pp. 110-111.
EDWARD KAMAU BRATHWAITE
BACKGROUND MUSIC TO "RIGHTS OF PASSAGE"
1. New World A-Comin Duke Ellington (piano) from, Duke EUington's Concert
of Sacred Music. R.C.A. SF. 7811.
Ellington described his composition as being about "a very distant future
place .... where love is unconditional and no pronoun is good enough for God."
The title is used ironically by Brathwaite, who is writing about Africans on the
verge of captivity, and the hell of the New World of the Caribbean. [Rights, p. 9].
2. Trouble of The World Mahalia Jackson (vocal) Bless This House
Columbia, CS 8761.
"where the sick
back dries, where no one knows
if he lives
or dies" [Rights p. 12].
This spiritual is chosen because it illustrates the mixture of world-weariness and
serene hope typical of gospel music. It is, however, far more serene than the
mood of the poetry at this stage.
3. Go Down Moses Paul Robeson (vocal)
Spirituals, Columbia ML 4105
This spiritual is chosen to illustrate the more militant aspect of gospel music,
and the identification of the Negro with Jewish mythology of exile and deliver-
ance. Robeson was a militant Black long before it was popular. A Marxist and
Africanist (he learned to speak an African language in the 1930's) he was perse-
cuted by the American government during the MaCarthyite witch hunts. One of
Lamming's characters (Trumper) in In the Castle of My Skin towards the end of
that novel communes with Robeson's music which for him is a symbol of a
wider concept of African identity than his Barbadian Village is at the time
capable of grasping.
"but let them
let my children
in the path
of the morning .. ." [Rights p. 14]
This is the sort of music Tom's sons reject as they mock their father:
Cut the cake -
walkin', man; bus'
the crinoline off the white woman
man; be the black buttin' ram
that she makes you
an' let's get to hell out 'a Pharoah's land" [Rights p. 21]
The phrase "black buttin' ram" is an allusion to lago's insulting description of
Othello at the beginning of the play Othello. It reminds us of how much the
figure of Othello was accepted as a symbol of Black nobility. Robeson, a
brilliant actor was noted for his portrayal of Othello. Tom's sons reject not only
the dignified mournfulness or militancy of the spiritual, but the idea of a
"noble Othello", the respectable dream of Black "dignity" without any real
power. But unable to achieve either power or dignity themselves they become
4. All God's Chillun. Marian Anderson (vocals) Spirituals (Heav'n Heav'n).
RCA, Victor, RB 16285.
Marion Anderson, famous contralto, was used by the U.S. State Department as
part of their post-World War II propagandist/goodwill mission, whose target was
often the very Third World countries that the U.S. was exploiting, or seeking to
control. She was particularly effective in Thailand, Turkey, Korea, Vietnam and
in India, where she became the first visiting dignitary from any foreign nation to
be invited to speak at the Ghandhi's Memorial. It was the same era when the
State Department was using Black music to spread the illusion abroad that
America was indeed democratic.
Brathwaite's use of the title "All God's Chillun" for a section of Rights of
Passage is, of course, ironic. It indicates that Tom's sons have rejected their
father's equation of the Negroes and Jews as being God's elect. They live without
dream or illusion.
5. Strange Fruit Billie Holiday (Vocals) The Incomparable Billie Holiday
Verve, VLP 9096
6. Strange Fruit Nina Simone, (Vocals). Pastel Blues Philips, PHS 600 -
This song about lynching was the result of collaboration between Lewis Allen
a poet who wrote the words sometime in the late 1930's, Billie Holiday, and a
pianist Sonny White. A helpless, bitter song, it summarizes the mood of the
times, the as yet invisible rebellion among the Blacks. It aroused all sorts of
emotions when Billie Holiday sang it from nervous silence, to masochistic
enthusiasm and hatred. Billie Holiday herself said "When I sing it, it affects me
so much I get sick. It takes all the strength out of me."
[Holiday, B. Lady Sings the Blues, New York, Lance Books, 1956, p. 83]
Two versions, one by Billie Holiday and the other by Nina Simone have been
recorded in order to show the change in mood and attitude among Black
Americans from the 1930's to the 1960's. Billie Holiday's version is quieter,
more delicate and helpless. She sings with wonder and pain and pathos at the
strange lynching: "pastoral scene of the gallant South." Nina Simone's version is
stark, deliberately histrionic and harsh with bitterness. She sings to inspire
rebellion not pathos. This shift in mood parallels the process traced by Brath-
waite from Rights of Passage to Islands, from Blues to rebellion, invisibility to
"for I fear
to see them
teeth their own
by the balls" [Rights, p. 20]
7. Didn't He Ramble, played by Bunk's Brass Band, Jazz Vol. 3, Folkways Records,
FJ 2803. New York 1951.
Originally an up tempo tune played by New Orleans jazz bands on their way
from cemeteries. The name is again ironic since it indicates -
(a) that the Black is under the illusion that he has left the cemetery of the
(b) that his experience up north will be one of rootless wandering.
(c) that his very liberation is attended by shades of the cemetery. [Rights
8. Cake Walking Babies From Home,by The Red Onion Jazz Babies, Folkways,
FJ 2803 [Louis Armstrong, cornet; Sidney
Bechet, Soprano Saxophone] Recorded in
This is a good example of the kind of sound Tom's children reject when they
tell their father to -
"cut the cake -
walkin" [p. 21]
The "cakewalk" had become a symbol of minstrelsy. It was the music Southern-
ers took North, and along with the Blues the cakewalk continued to be popular
during the Harlem Renaissance [1920-29].
"That summer was fine
what the heart lacked
we supplied with our hips
and the art
of our shuffle shoes ..." [p. 22]
9. Days Beyond Recall ) Sidney Bechet, Jazz Classics, Blue Note.
10. Dear Old Southland ) 81201
11. Chilly Winds Don't Blow Nina Simone, Same as (6).
The first two of these tunes illustrate the nostalgia for the South which, since the days
of the plantation poets of the 1850's and musicians such as Stephen Foster, had always
been the reverse side of the minstrel tradition. Brathwaite attempts to capture the
mood of this nostalgic music on [p. 23]. N.B. A guitar is strummed in "Dear Old
Southland." There are also traditional tunes such as "Where the Chilly Winds Don't
"Bring me now where the warm wind
blows, where the grasses
where the rivers are
and the minstrel sits
on the logwood stump
with the dreams of his slow guitar ." [p. 23]
12. Black and Blue, Louis Armstrong, V.S.O.P. Vol. V, CBS 62474
A famous blues tune composed by Fats Waller in 1929, with words by Andy
Razaf, it is here sung and played by Louis Armstrong. It was the tune chosen by
Ellison's nameless protagonist of Invisible Man to summarize the Afro-American
experience. The words grew out of a traditional tendency among black Americans
to pun on the words Black and Blue .... this has continued.
"just call my blue
black bloody spade
a spade ....." [p. 29]
13. St. Louis Blues Bessie Smith/Louis Armstrong The Bessie Smith Story
Vol. I, CBS BPG 62377. [Recorded Jan. 1925].
... .the blue bell
o' this horn that is blowin, the Lou-
eee Armstrong blues ...." [p. 32].
14. Portrait of Wellman Brand, from Duke Ellington's New Orleans Suite, Atlantic
Recording Corp. SD.1580.
15. Haute Mon. Duets,
Dizzy Gillespie Trumpet; Sonny Stitt; Verve MGV 8260.
Verve MGV 8260
Nos. 14 and 15 are chosen to illustrate the impressionistic jazz created from the sound
and rhythm of trains, the cry of horns, and the general idea of journey.
train ... ." [p. 33]
16. How Long, How Long Blues Ella Fitzgerald, These Are The Blues
(Tell me how long has the train been gone).
Written by Leroy Carr in 1928 this blues has become the title of the James
Baldwin novel Tell Me How Long Has the Train Been Gone, from which
Brathwaite takes the epigraph to Islands. This sort of Blues was associated with
the pain of separation from the South. Here it is the cry of one who has been
left behind ..
journey to town"
17. Hip Strut,
from Jackie McLean, New Soil, Blue Note ST 84013
Donald Byrd (trumpet); Walter Davis (piano). Jackie
McLean (alto sax); Paul Chambers (bass) Pete La Roca
Selection chosen because of its hipster cool and poise,
its big-city urbanity. Dozens of such compositions exist,
products of both the "be-bop" and "cool" phases of
jazz i.e. mid-forties to late fifties.
"Tall, with slow
goes the saying
went the dream)
steps his way among the follies"
18. Wings of a Dove Carlos Malcolm, Skamania Upbeat 101. Jamaica (about
A Pukkumina tune set to the popular beat of the Ska.
Brathwaite restores the ritual quality to the words by
placing the Rastafarian at the centre of his poem.
"Wings of a Dove" in Rights of Passage is about the
emergence of the Ska as a type of Jamaican Blues.
19. A Rastafarian/Pukkumina Chant excerpted from The Jamaica Story. 1962.
This chant blends the melody of a Protestant hymn with Afro-Caribbean drum-
20. Lumba from Grounation by The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari,
New Dimension Sounds 0001.
".... and hear my people
cry, my people
man ....... [p. 43]
21. Addis Ababa Don Drummond, In Memory of Don Dnummond CSL -
This ska composition expressed the Rastafarian hope to go:
to the black
rica." [p. 43]
22. Marcus Junior Don Drummond, from Ska-Boo-Da-Ba
This tune which celebrates the reincarnation of the militant spirit of Marcus
Garvey in the sixties, is a good example of how the ska alternated between the
requirements of entertainment and ritual.
"So beat dem drums
dem wings dem
watch dem fly
dem, soar dem
clear in the glory of the Lord."
23. John Buddy Williams Road March played by the Brute Force Steel Band of
Antigua. On Cook LP 1049-A. Beauty and
the Brute Force.
This tune illustrates the kind of rhythm Brathwaite used for his "Calypso" poem.
24. Back Bay Shuffle
Recorded on the road during Carnival 1957. On Cook
LP. 5016. Calypso: Lore and Legend
"Steel drum steel drum
hit the hot calypso dancing
hot rum hot rum
who goin' stop this bachanalling?"
25. Backwater Blues
Bessie Smith with James P. Johnson :The Bessie Smith
Story Vol. 4; CBS BPG 62380 (1927)
Brathwaite flashes back to the American experience and recalls the people who
died constructing the levees along the banks of the Mississippi.
Bessie Smith in this
26. Ghetto Lights,
"the Mississippi mud is sticky:
men die there
and boquets of stench lie
all night long along the river bank" (pp. 53-54).
Blues sings of the flooding of one of the great rivers.
Bobby Hutcherson, Dialogue, Blue Note, ST 84198.
"The train rolls in from darkness
with our fears
and leaves a lonely soft metallic clanking
in our ears.
In New York
nights are hot
in Harlem, Brooklyn,
along Long Island Sound"
27. Manhattan Cry, Don Cherry, Symphony for Improvisers Blue Note, BLP
This avant-garde composition illustrates the rage protest and tragic breakdown
of sensibility in the face of the inhumanity of the big city of concrete and glass
and police cars ... It is also an attempt by the lonely human voice heard in
the trumpet, to affirm its life.
"The city is so vast
its ears have ceased to know
a simple human sound
Police cars wail
an ambulance erupts
like breaking glass
an elevator sighs
like Jews in Europe's gasses
then slides us swiftly
down the ropes to hell. [p. 54]
28. Weed Song Traditional . Vocal by Lloyd Simmons with the Esso
Steelband of Bermuda, Cook, CC. 5870 A.
Brathwaite alludes to this song in "The Dust."
spinach, wither-face cabbage
muh Caroline Lee an' the Six Weeks, too;
greens swibble up an' the little blue
leafs o' de Red Rock slips getting' dry
dry dry." [p. 64]
The "Weed Song" celebrates the survival of herblore in the West Indies.
Brathwaite however is talking about its slow withering as the city consumes the
29. Selah The Ethopians
"Where then is the nigger's
In Paris Brixton Kingston
Or in Heaven" [p. 77]
This Rastafarian version of a traditional Jamaican folk-hymn asks the same sort
30. Tougher than Tough... Derek Morgan and the Aces
up we tools fuh the hit
an' run raid
an' you better
look out for
31. After the Rain
An' watching' me brother
here sharpen 'e blade.
John Coltrane, Impressions,
Brathwaite claims to have had this composition in mind while writing the end of
Rights of Passage.
from the trees
in the dawn;
in the morn -
opens a crack."
32. Welcome John Coltrane, Kulu Se Mama Impulse, A 9106.
Welcome according to Coltrane, a great influence on later Brathwaite, refers "to
that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, an understanding
which you have earned through struggle. It is a feeling of peace. A welcome
feeling of peace."
See Brathwaite's "Dawn" Islands. p. 238 [The Arrivants]
Till the sun enters fine, enters fine, enters fin-
ally its growing circle of splendour
into the eyes of my father,
the fat valley loads of my mother
of water, lap-
ping, lapping my ankles, lap-
ping these shores with their silence ....
[The Arrivants, p. 238]
THE DUST A TRIBUTE TO THE FOLK
Comment and criticism in anglophone Caribbean literature in the last decade or so,
have established the Euro-tradition and to a lesser extent the Afro-tradition, as the
pervasive influences on the themes and forms of Caribbean poetry. Too little attention
has been paid however, to a third and eminently valid influence, derived from both of
these yet essentially different from either-the 'creole or 'folk' tradition; the tradition
which accounts for the life-style and the way of seeing things, peculiar to the people
who form the bulk of our Caribbean populations. It represents their reaction to their
method of coming to terms with, the events and circumstances conditioning their
lives on this side of the Middle Passage. This is the tradition which has evolved out of
the historical, social and economic hodge-podge that has been the Caribbean situation.
It has assumed a unique personality and has inevitably imposed on creative activity in
the area, an influence that cannot be ignored; an influence that is becoming even more
pervasive as our writing describes with increasing candour, the different realities of our
This paper will look at one Caribbean poem, the now classical "Dust",1 and will
comment on it as a near perfect expression of the life, music and philosophy of the
people who have been described as the "basis of culture"; people who "from the
centre of an oppressive system have been able to survive, adapt, recreate; have devised
means of protecting what has been so gained... and who begin to offer to return some
of this experience and vision."2 It is not possible to put off any longer, the appraisal
of our more "typical" works using a frame of reference that is peculiarly our own
particularly when we dare to point the way for young readers. Matter, style and music
in this particular poem, have all managed to side-step the effect of our learned
responses the whole oppressive world of school and books and emanate entirely
from within the folk tradition. The result is a song, internally whole and as deceptive-
ly simple as the life-style of the people it portrays.
The time is evening; perhaps one of the favourite times of the "little" people,
when the prescribed money-earning masks are discarded. The place is a grocery shop,
a natural centre for chance congregation. It is a rural shop; if it is urban, it is one where
rural habits persist; where the impersonal supermarket has not displaced the small-
time shopkeeper and the credit system;
cake o'soap an half
pung-a flour in Olive black balance
book fuh me, Maisie muh dear....
A kind of tableau unfolds, beginning with a greeting in which everyone is identified
by name each with its appropriate elaboration:
you, Evie, chile?
You tek dat Miraculous Bush
fuh de trouble you tell me about?
I int see you there
wid you head half hide
in de dark o' dat crocus bag .....
and with intimate concern:
The response to this ordinary question sparks off a discussion of the general ill-faring
of things, in which Bible History and Oral History are called upon for parallels to the
now situation. The discussion ends with a naming one by one of the blessings that
offset the dissatisfactions of life and a reiteration of the eternal unanswerable question
concerning the meaning of things; the joys and sorrows of this life.
It is in the description of the present and of the comparable past that the reasoning
informing the voice of the people, and the nature of that voice, come to our attention.
The interpretation of fact, described at first hand or relayed to us by the main speaker,
is sometimes incredible and unrealistic to the ear of sophistication.4 But there is no
imagination here. The normal response of our people to unusual phenomena is indeed
as the poem illustrates it. Those who listen in country buses or in route taxis find no
cause to doubt the connection between say the withering of things described as current,
and World War I; or its connection with the eruption of the volcano in nearby St.
Lucia. And in the actual discussion, narrative and description, inextricably bound
together, depend for their reliability not on science or logic in the sense in which these
are usually interpreted but on the actual physical effect of phenomena on man and
nature and on the rearrangement of these in the mind of each recounter, within the
framework of a particular philosophy.
The description of things in terms of their concrete effects and not in abstract
terms is a commonplace of folk articulation. It is part and parcel with the kind of living
and growing metaphors that make ordinary folk speech a miracle of images, easily dis-
tinguishable from its educated counterpart. Here the ill-faring of things, the theme that
begins and ends the discussion and the historical parallels sighted in support of its
naturalness are illustrated in graphic representations characterized by this precise
imagery which owes little, if anything, to the world of books and writing and every-
thing to the world of life and speech. It is a "Pestilence" they say, that is affecting
both animal and vegetable alike: "Darrington mule" is
...still sicky-sicky. An now
..... de cow
gone down too...
same kind o' sickness,
like wickednesS, man, dis
favour de yams....
The pestilence is seen as part of a natural cycle. It is one "test of the times" comparable
to earlier tests. Michael Gilkes is reported to have compared it with his experience in
World War I:
..when they bur out 'e balls
wid dat yellowin mustard gas...
It is later compared with another test, the important May Dust which Gran had des-
cribed and which presumably, other very old people remember. This event is recreated
in picture terms complete with sound effects. Nature is given human and here terrible
they have a mountain near hey
that always smoking' an boilin'
like when you belly got bile...
whole bloody backside
o' this hill like it blow
off like they blastin' stones
in the quarry.
The pictures from that far-away time are clear and down-to-earth all made from "stuff"
within the experience of the listeners and by implication, of all the readers of the
Rocks big as you cow pen hois'
in the air as if they was one
set o' shingles..
Gran say, in de broad
day light, even de white
o' she skylight went out...
It is only Pastor who comments without the benefit of concrete examples. He bypasses
the usual representation of effects and suggests rather ominously: ". .The Writin
'Han' pun the Wall." But the fact that his frame of reference, the Bible, is special and is
in fact concerned with what gives meaning to all these tests, whenever they come,
allows him the freedom to inter his examples.
The response to Mr Gilkes' comment mentioned earlier, illustrates the kind of
general comprehension Pastor can afford to take for granted. The Bible is the encyclo-
paedia for folk reference, freely quoted by literate and illiterate alike. It is called
upon to say Amen to Mr Gilkes' comparison of the present with World War I and
further, to predict a possible World War III:
An' if you as'
me, there soon going
to be fresh wars and rumours
of wars. ...
A constant current of deep religiousness symbolized by biblical quotations or by
simplified Christian dogma runs through the piece. So Pastor is allowed to mention
the "Writing Han' and infer a reference to Belshazzar's vision with its connotations
of subsequent calamity.5 There are times however when the inspiration of the Bible,
the kind of Christianity-inspired fatalism, intermingles freely with superstition or
black people's intuition (the kind that knows that when the leaves of the Trumpet/
Congo Pump/Bois Canot, are inverted, a storm will come whether meteorologists
announce it or not). At the advent of the May Dust, for instance, when the air turned
grey before it turned black, Gran, one of the district elders and therefore a natural
repository of wisdom reported that:
.even the fowls in the yard
jump back pun they coops....
.an' the cocks start to crow
as if it was foreday morning .
In the panic of the moment no prayer to priest or leader was possible and "God gone
and' darken the day." The symbols from the two kinds of inspiration are almost
The Bible and its God-myths are consistently stronger and the biblical sounds that
we know, to punctuate, as a matter of course our daily lives, are intoned over and
over again throughout the varying circumstances of the narration in gratitude, trust, or
we got to thank God
fuh small mercies.
I say is Amen
Miss Evvy, uh wants
you to trus' me half
pung-a flour an' two
cake o' soap till
Mundee come wid de will
o' de Lord.
.. .you int got to call
the Lord name in vain
to make me swallow
The Bible intonations with their sometimes rhythmic repetition form one kind of
music throughout the poem. There are however, other kinds of music used perhaps less
self-consciously in folk situations but with equal beauty. Here they are picked up very
effectively but with the same naturalness the same deceptive effortlessness that is
maintained throughout the poem. Darrington's mule, the cows, the yams are all suffer-
ing from the same withering sickness. With no warning at all the description of the
thoroughness of the withering moves directly into a part of our musical history recall-
ing a tea-bush seller's song known in some shape or form in all the English-speaking
Caribbean territories, sometimes beginning;
"Man peaba, woman peaba..."
We have here:
spinach, wither-face cabbage
muh Caroline Lee an' the Six Weeks, too...
And when the comparison of this test with the volcanic eruption is first made, the
credibility of the story is questioned in the form of another kind of music. The Calypso
rhythm is unmistakable here, the hand on the first pan almost visible, the tune is
picked out clearly while the other pans are muted in the background:
Now how you
body live there? You
body from there who
live out near here?
exactly you say this place is?
The action of the volcano is described in terms which make use of a kind of onomato-
paeia common to several of the more descriptive words in our "nation language",
words which imitate sounds with amazing precision and become music:
...One day suddenly so
this mountain leggo one brugg-a-lung-go.6
The description of the dust itself makes use of repetition for intensification7 and
repetition for rhythm together:
But it black black black
from that mountain back:
in yuh face, in yuh food,
in yuh eye.....
In the folk milieu every narration is an unrehearsed dramatic presentation with varying
The beauty of the imagery and the music of the voice should not distract the
attention however, from the most powerful of all the testimonies this poem gives of
the importance of the folk the underlining of their life philosophy. For in the midst
of all this happening that they cannot affect but must endure, our people have always
held firm a kind of fatalism and a blind gratitude that has made tolerance levels high.
And if the suggested rationale behind the inexplicable happenings reviewed in this
story, seems naive, it surely is an attempt to inform irrational events with some kind of
rationality, some kind of sense or plan. A cycle is made to unite science, politics and
nature, a trio at whose communal whim people seem to exist. God, the ruler of the
universe is made to oversee everything and to him is offered constant gratitude. Indeed
without this philosophy, the morale of the poor would be constantly low; there would
be no spiritual strength. It is perhaps in this blind gratitude more than in anything else,
that the folk have begun to offer "to return some of (their) experience and vision."
The main singer of this song counts out each blessing lest we regard them as common-
place and pass over their value:
the possibility of a child for a man you love
(.... meet yuh man
an' if God bless yuh, beget. . Perhaps we understand
here the uncomplimentary attitude to barrenness in the peasant context and the lack
of cooperation with birth-control agencies);
the suppleness of the body;
breasts not yet shrivelled-up
pride and camaraderie
a piece of land small, but productive and your own
healthy children and
the unfailing progression of time with its implication of hope
and faith in continuity as nature's cycle runs parallel to the
human birth-cycle mentioned earlier:
.... Dry season
follow wet season again
an' the green crop follow the rain....
The chronicling of all these blessings, the recital of all that hope brings us, in the
sequence of the poem, back to the note of concern on which the discussion started;
the response to the inevitability of an unpredictable fate leading to the eternal, frantic
you crops start to die...
an' suddenly so, without rhyme,
without reason, all you hope gone
everything look like it coming out wrong.
Why is that? What it mean?
It would be a mistake however, to use its sequence in the poem to interpret the cry of
questioning and pain on which the piece ends, as a cry of despair. The earlier and
lengthy documentaiton of the "small mercies" is the cue here; almost a rebuke to the
sufferer for even the thought of "flying in the face of the Lord." If there is ever a
message from the folk, it is one of survival in spite of mistortune, of great beauty in
spite of ugliness, and of hope where despair is indicated. Their strength is in their
ability to "survive, adapt, recreate" and so construct a worthwhile existence even in
the most crass circumstances. It is this strength that "The Dust" tries to illustrate with
its faithful representation of some of the life-patterns of the people it portrays, in the
voice of the people it celebrates.
In an early review of Rights of Passage, Edward Baugh, sometimes poet and critic
himself, recognized the poem as a new and different contribution to the archives of
Caribbean creative writing. He saw it as a new dimension in dialect poetry. "One of the
most satisfying sections," Baugh wrote then, "is the dust in which Bajan dialect at last
finds its muse. I know of no other West Indian who has used dialect more subtly, prob-
ingly or suggestively. ..here he removes himself and allows the characters to be com-
But "The Dust" is more than a victory of language. The very distance the poet
affords himself and Baugh recognizes, allows the work to construct itself as a song in
which voice, image and matter, are all woven from the same fabric. It is as if the
integrated Caribbean muse allowed all other influence to dissolve and yielded itself
completely to the spirit of the folk. The artist has picked up the essential beauty of
this people and given their forms a place in the creative sun. In Walcott's words:
. .beauty has surrounded
Its black children and freed them of homeless ditties.9
The poet has called us to listen.
For Brathwaite, this is perhaps another first in Caribbean literary history. He more
than any other poet has uncovered for our benefit, much of the magic of the Afro-
tradition and its nearness to our present.10 But even while he sits at some kind of
literary cross-roads with his ear to the ground, interpreting the sounds from the flutes
the drums and the bamboo-fifes, the music itself is changing. The need to record the
present which is almost already past has never been greater. When our need and the
urges of our poets meet, we give thanks.
1. Edward Brathwaite, Rights of Passage: London. Oxford Univ. Press 1967, pp 63-70.
2. Edward Brathwaite, Contradictory Omens; Savacou Publications, Mona, Jamaica, 1974,
3. Gordon Rohlehr's comment ". ..But one will have to study the Caribbean people and listen
to them before one can learn to make important or relevant critical statements on the new
writers. ." is to the point here. See F.G. Rohlehr "Afterthoughts" Bim Vol: 14. No. 56 pp
4. A group of urban youth downright rejected the possibility of this kind of reasoning in the
twentieth century until discussion and true-to-life examples from their colleagues convinced
5. See The Book of Daniel Chap. V. 27.
6. This device reaches a high point of excellence in Wordsworth MacAndrew's famous "Ole
Higue" where the witch is beaten to the sounds:
"Whaxen, Whaxen, Pladai, Plai."
7. The notion of repetition for intensification or for diminuition is, by now, one of the stock
phenomena of creoles of African origin.
8. Edward Baugh, Review, Rights of Passage, Bim No. 45, 1967 pp 66-68.
9. Derek Walcott, As John to Patmos In a Green Night; Cape, London.
0. See Maureen Warner, "Odomankoma", Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1973, pp
THE CONCEPT OF THE MULATTO
IN SOME WORKS OF DEREK WALCOTT
"It is no easy fate to be a West Indian of sensibility and live in the Caribbean
today"I and Derek Walcott, a mulatto, is perhaps the most sensitive and conflict-
ridden Caribbean artist who makes creative use of his schizophrenia to touch the
sensibilities of his people.
An examination of his play Dream on Monkey Mountain will serve as a basic
reference and the most significant point of departure for a meaningful discussion of the
concept of the mulatto. For it is clearly a mulatto play where all the conflicts, fears,
anxieties and aspirations of the mulatto are externalised and presented in compressed
In Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott explores the displaced searching psyche
of modern man groping for a truth: and more specifically, the mulatto searching for
his roots and his sense of identity and purpose in life. "It is a journey from man back
to ape" which everyone "should make ... to articulate his origins."2 "The darkness
which yawns before him is terrifying . but for those who have been called not men
but mimics, the darkness must be total."3 In Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott
uses "all the subconscious and deliberate borrowings of poetry"4 in a "complex but
steady trance of progress towards a truth" which involves "charting the subconscious,
taking the temperature of the senses and any number of indefined feelings, hesitations
and memories all disciplined by the logic of the imagination."5 He makes valid use of
the ambiguous nature of a dream to depict the contradictory impulses that lie deep in
the unconscious and often tend only to surface in our dreams. His symbols are like
simultaneous presentations of
the paradoxical flash of an instant in which every
facet was caught in a crystal of ambiguities.6
The deliberate technique of the dream as representative of the unconscious is therefore
a particularly ingenious and dramatic device to explore and lay bare the angst-ridden
sensibilities of the mulatto. It allows for the obtrusion of unconscious or suppressed
urges: love/hate impulses, and all other attitudes that have been shaped or distorted
by isolation or the memory of ancient grievances: childhood fantasies as well as
mature instincts. Images of "abuse by Bible and by sword." In short, all the mulatto
sensibilities that have "soaked too long in the basin of the mind"7
Like leaves like dim seas in the mind;
Or as a sunken sea-cave, carved, in sand.8
My aim in this study, is to work from the initial symbol of 'the dream', referring to
other works such as Wine of the Country, What The Twilight Says: An Overture,
Muse of History, Another Life, and some of Walcott's earlier poetry to show continui-
ties with, or movements away from, the concept of the mulatto in his earlier works.
The truth of human existence/experience is the theme of Dream on Monkey Mountain
- a truth that has to be apprehended in its totality rather than defined.
The Mulatto Sensibility
Derek Walcott, like the moderns who have come under the spell of Eliot, has tried
to abstract the essences of the past, and to give us a classicism distilled through ages of
history "to record the anguish of race"9 pointing to possibilities for the future when
"niggers everywhere could walk upright like men".10
For some of the apes had straighten their backbone,
and start walking upright, but there was one tribe
unfortunately that lingered behind, and that was
This statement is significantly made by Lestrade, the mulatto who at this point,
rejects his negritude and dissociates himself from the 'niggers': "If you apes will
behave like gentlemen, who knows what may happen ... "12
Walcott suggests that "In the subconscious, there is a black Atlantis buried in a sea
of sand",13 and that if the blacks, and by extension, the mulattos, are to attain self-
knowledge and discover "the beautiful depth of their blackness"14 and become con-
scious of the "roots of delight growing downward",15 it is essential to cross the dark-
ness and "descend/Down to the desolation of self".16
It is the "straining after the old truth"17 and a creative use of schizophrenia
whereby the conflict and duality of the mulatto, by their very compulsion, will serve
as an impetus to the propulsive forces that generate positive, creative affirmations of
being and of identity. Derek Walcott has exploded the "myth of the uncreative,
parasitic, malarial nigger" 8 "the black fawning verger" whom he felt "needed to
be stirred into bitterness, thence perhaps into action" for "action was better than
nothing, better than that embittered affection with which each called the other
nigger"19 because "out of it, with patience, new reverberations would come."20
It is indeed the universal "straining after the old truth" the descent into "the
desolation of reality"21 the inner subjective self the noumenon, to which Yeats
referred in his poetry. The play therefore, thrusts us inward toward psychological
complexity and outward toward symbolism Walcott uses richly complex symbols
that take on shifting implications within the play as an index to the duality of any
given experience the duality of our being.
It is necessary for those who read Walcott to recognize at the outset the duality of
his being, and if he is to progress in his understanding of Walcott's works, he must
take an intelligent position between contraries, since conflict and dividedness are at
the heart of this "mulatto of style."
Without conflict there can be no progress and as Yeats had asserted "Between
extremities/ Man runs his course"22 and intimated that all effort is futile except our
confrontation with futility. It is out of the tension of opposites that Walcott achieves
a true balance with his own hybrid vigour.
One of the main characteristics of Dream on Monkey Mountain is that the irony
should be expressed through metaphor and that the meaning of an ironic expression
can be appreciated only in relation to other expressions that are clearly symbolic.
The central design of the play is composed of a group of symbolic metaphors and his
irony is inherent in the meaning of his symbols. By interpreting them and seeing how
they unify the experience of the play and how they externalise the mulatto angst, we
can also understand the peculiar character of Walcott's irony. The very title of the play
is ironic. A mountain implies ascent and upward progress which is equated with the
laborious communal ascent of the blacks towards the summit of consciousness of
their own being and yet the deliberate juxtaposition of the word 'monkey' is a
ridicule of that ascent. This is a subtle and double use of irony: The protagonist of the
play is Makak. ('Macaque' means 'monkey' in French). Makak is also a primordial
creature. 'Ape' or 'monkey man' is one of the most crude and hurtful epithets thrust
at black men by white racists or their mimics. Yet Walcott implies that in this image
lies salvation. Apehood is a revolutionary stage to which we must regress in order to
escape the blind alley of mimicry, in order to capture the true vision of elemental man
in his anthropomorphic stages. "In the beginning was the ape, and the ape had no
name, so God call him man"23 (not black, not white, but man). My emphasis is
used to emphasise the fact that in this statement Walcott makes no racial distinctions
but creates a universal situation.
Every great work operates on multiple levels of meaning and suasion and this dream
unfolds within a larger archetypal frame of reference. Set against the evanescence of all
things are the suggestions of infinity they contain. Walcott is as deliberately ambiguous
in the specific use of his title as he is in the use of his symbols throughout the play,
the total design of which moves toward no clear resolution. The subtlety of the un-
answered questions, the deliberate riddles he poses and the unresolved issues raised,
are endemic to his creative genius. Although they tend to point to the total uncertain-
ty that dominates the future of man, they are also suggestive of the possibilities and
the existential choices that face him, and always "the cure is in [himself] ."24
In every instance the meaning of a symbol always implies its opposite, an ambi-
valence finely suggested by the very first statement at the beginning of the play:
The play is a dream, one that exists as much in the
given mind of its principal characters as in that of its
writer, and as such, it is illogical, derivative, contra-
dictory. Its source is metaphor and it is best treated
as a physical poem with all the subconscious and
deliberateborrowings of poetry.25
The development that is taking place within the play is one which has been
germinating and maturing throughout his earlier works. Young Walcott who describes
himself as a "prodigy of the wrong age and colour" was obviously groping towards
something in his earlier years which could not be defined except within a deepening
cycle of exploration and expiation:
I weep for hearts like mine continually driven as
these lost leaves across earth's barren ground.26
Walcott moves boldly from the simple definitions of areas of conflict to explore
the psychological depths of human experience and of transcendental awareness. A
style which necessitates the submersion of the self into the greater transcendent
reality. There are three distinct phases in Walcott's difficult maturation that issue in
self-knowledge. The Twilight, "through tortuous thickets of Darkness", to the Dawn
which illuminates "with vision the mind of primeval peoples".27 'These things are
not written without their pain, for their heroes still suffer the abrasions of that life."28
Walcott thrives on ambiguity and ambivalence, and the twilight is as ambiguous as his
other symbols. There are three recognisable phases of twilight: the colonial twilight,
the creative twilight, and the twilight that "transmutes despair into virtue."29
(a) The Colonial twilight
Beminger, the "mongrel mulatto" in Wine of the Country, is described as "a
phenomenon cast up on the beach/By the ebb of monarchy, in a colonial
You have no hopes, you are a twilit soul caught
in a dimness between black and white.31
This perception by Margaret, of Beminger's state of mind, confirms the anguish he
experiences of belonging neither to the white race nor to the black race. His earlier
outburst to Mrs Vertlieu, a white woman, betrays his angst-ridden mulatto sensibili-
Spurned and booted between two cultures and two
Between desire and despair, between death and hope
My people mock me as I am not black
Your people mock me as I am not white
And yet I am divisible to both
What has my skin
To do with my desire:32
And as Tigre says later of Lestrade, the mulatto is
neither one thing nor the next,
neither milk, coal, neither day nor night
neither lion nor monkey, but a mulatto,
a foot-licking servant of marble law.33
Lestrade accuses the blacks of their "rage for whiteness which does drive niggers
mad",34 but like Beminger, his very mind is a "colony, an island outpost of the
hypocritical white."35 Walcott must have written of this 'rage for whiteness' fully
conscious of ". . the duality of time, past and present piercingly fixed as if his child-
hood were now frighteningly alive."36
As a child, Derek Walcott himself could not understand the reasons for his rejection.
He recalls having looked from his window at other children playing, and wished that
he could have joined them in their games. But he was obviously not the "right colour".
He was neither black nor white, but as he described himself in his poem: "Blues" -
he was a "yellow nigger".37 Small wonder then, as he confessed in his recent autobio-
graphy under a section significantly entitled 'The Divided Child", "he had prayed/
nightly for his flesh to change/his dun flesh peeled white."38 He was, he felt, "a
prodigy of the wrong age and colour"39 and was of "a generation" that "yearned for
whiteness".40 It is in this particular phase of the colonial twilight, that the mulatto
seems to experience this 'rage for whiteness'.
It has often seemed to be a characteristic of the mulatto to try to "identify" with
the white race which had always been, during colonial times, the dominant and seem-
ingly more progressive race. But the emergence of the New World Negro in all fields
of endeavour, in industry as well as the arts, has given him a new sense of his worth
and has helped resolve the conflict. "Black faces/white masks" is a recurring image
that points to the dimness between black and white another area of colonial twi-
light where the mulatto will remain transfixed in the shadow of the white man's
mind if he refuses to progress to the area of darkness. Makak had admitted: "We are
... ourselves shadows in the firelight of the white man's mind".41
Nicolas Guillen, a Cuban mulatto poet, hinted at the menacing quality of shadows
lurking in the mind, in his poem: "Ballad of the Two Grandfathers" and of the necess-
ity to grapple with these shadows:
Shadows which only I see
I'm watched by my two grandfathers,
Africa's humid jungles
with thick and muted gongs ....
(My black grandfather says).
Waters dark with alligators,
mornings green with coconuts...
(My white grandfather says).
Shadows which only I see,
I'm watched by my two grandfathers.
They raise their sturdy heads;
both of equal size,
a Black longing, White longing,
both of equal size.42
In an interview with this writer,43 he explained that he was referring to the dual
heritage of the Cuban mulatto: the twin cultures of Spain and Africa, both intimating
separately, his grandfathers' roots. The mulatto's self-discovery and resolution of the
dichotomy born of a dual heritage, would involve a merging of the two cultures,
which by implication, would result in a positive affirmation of negritude in the merg-
ing of the two shadows, "both" (significantly) "of equal size."
The mulatto's preoccupation with the image of the grandfather is significant. As
the initiator of the cross-breeding, the latter is usually singled out for scrutiny as the
focal point of interest in any attempt of the mulatto to grapple with problems of
identity, of roots, of a sense of belonging a sense of 'home'. If we examine Derek
Walcott's poem "The Train", we notice a slightly different connotation, compared
Guillen's grandfathers (both of equal size both of equal stature). Walcott's "randy
white grandsire" hints of the mental and physical rape of a people by the white
Where was my randy white grandsire from?
He left here a century ago
to found his 'farm',
and, like a thousand others,
drunkenly seed their archipelago.
Through dirty glass
his landscape fills my face.
Black with despair
he set his flesh on fire,
blackening, a tree of flame.
That's hell enough for here.
His blood burs through me as this engine races,
my skin sears like a hairshirt with his name.
Like you, grandfather, I cannot change places,
I am half-home,44
This concept of loveless breeding, of "drunkenly seeding the archipelago" on a farm (a
place for animals) is again reflected in Walcott's play Wine of the Country, where
Beminger, the mulatto is described by Williams (a negro), as a "Black Englishman" a
"freckled spaniel . a weakling" who was "begotten in a sad industry of loveless
breeding."45 And Beminger states that he is the "shadow of an English gentleman."46
(b) The Creative Twilight/The Creative Impulse:
'The sun would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the
withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.'47
The parallel established here between the doubting and thinking process is reminis-
cent of the existentialists who assert that the creative impulse is born of doubt and
uncertainty. Perhaps man exists by aping himself by creating himself as he goes
along: more specifically by creating his own existential choices. A Spanish philosopher
Unamuno, had written a novel called Niebla48 which means 'cloud' or 'mist' and
which is essentially a rejection of Cartesian thought: Descartes' famous dictum
"Cogito ergo sum" "I think, therefore I am" was a reduction of life to the level of
idea or mere rationalism. Unamuno gave this expression an ironic twist and his
predilection for a new credo: "Dudo, ergo sum" "I doubt, therefore I am" reflects
the choices of the creative procedure endemic to the thinking, doubt-initiated process.
Unamuno's doubt is not a mental abstraction but the passionate self-questioning of
agonised creatures struggling in the living contradiction of a life that is a constant
approach to death,
Have mercy on these furious lost
Whose life is praising life in death49
of reason that must battle reason in order that the quality of life survive
Ablaze with rage, I thought
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake50
There is evidence in Walcott's works, of an intermittent or sporadic resurgence of that
old anger at the 'leprosy of Empire' but his rage is always tempered by his compassion
And still the coal of my compassion fought:
That Albion too, was once
A colony like ours,
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:51
A recognition of the "vain expense of bitter faction" elicits from Walcott, an admit-
tance which betrays an anguish that lies in his very resignation to a fate conditioned
Our lives are mapless, until grief makes us feel
A need to simplify and to forgive;52
It is above all, a creative doubt, for without it, there can be no really positive belief.
Life is not a rational formula, it is a living paradox.
... in the struggle and wrestling of my mind to find
out who I was, I was discovering the art of bitterness
S. .Like Stephen53 .. I was a knot of paradoxes
. I was thus in boyhood, estranged not only from
another God, but from the common life of the
island . .54
The Paradox is the only expression adequate to the fundamental contradiction of
existence for it lies beyond reason. It destroys irremediably those neat divisions of
reality into mutually exclusive categories which are devitalised schematisations of
pure reason. When rationalism is overcome, the lines of demarcation between the
spheres of existence disappear and all becomes a mingling of indistinguishable elements,
an indecipherable confusion, a mist.
I will tell you my dream. Sirs, make a white mist
In the mind; make that mist hang like cloth
From the dress of a woman, on prickles, on branches,
Make it rise from the earth, like the breath of the dead
On resurrection morning, and I walking through it
On my way to the charcoal pit on the mountain.
Make the web of the spider heavy with diamonds
And when my hand brush it, let the chain break.
And this old man, walking, ugly as sin,
In a confusion of vapour,
Till I feel I was God self, walking through cloud.
In the heaven of my mind. Then I hear this song.
Not the whistling of parrots
And the bandage of fog unpeeling my eyes,
And my feet grow roots,55
It is in this doubting process, "in a confusion of vapour" that Makak paradoxically o7
arrives at self-knowledge a sense of rootedness. The "web of the spider" and the
"mist" (niebla) can be creative forces that "let the chain break" (the chain of mental
and physical enslavement) thus shaking off the "leprosy of Empire". The spider also
ambiguously represents the spider of prejudice. The mist confuses as well as it enlight-
ens. It hints of a sense of mystery and an awe of the numinous that pervade Makak's
The resurrection morning reflects so much more hope, and a creative, affirmative
belief than the anguished hopelessness echoed in an earlier poem:
... some grill of light
clanged shut on us in bondage, and withheld us from
that world below us and beyond, and in its swaddling
cerements we're still bound.56
It is significant that the song he hears is not the whistling of parrots to which Walcott
referred in an earlier work with regard to colonialism and slavery:
Since we small they have us singing
Like parrot-fish trap with bait57
This is Walcott's subtle indication that the black man will continue to ape and imitate
the white man mindlessly, like a parrot, until like Makak, he discovers and creates his
own identity. The fact that the 'mist' is deliberately ambiguous in the sense that it can
illuminate as well as confound and confuse, points to the need for a creative act of
affirmation. That is the principal significance of the title Niebla, which itself represents
an intentional jumbling of 'opposites'. "Indefinir" and "confundir" that is to say,
to confuse, to jumble and confound the rationalist. To live an authentic existence is
not to flee from the problem of life, (as Walcott recognised even in his early years -
"So I . should no more ask/For the safe twilight"58), but to accept the conflict of
opposites, as the basis of our personality.
Within the same person, it is the tension of opposites that provides the dynamic
life that is denied to those who reduce life to the level of idea and objects, or those
who would opt for the false security of "The Harbour" and "the night, urger of old
lies".59 Those who would ask for the "safe twilight" rather than "progress outward/
On a sea which is crueller than any word.. ./Braving new water in an antique hoax."60
Or those who would avoid the grace "that gives us vision"61 "Create thyself, in order
to know thyself." It is only when the negro, and more specifically the mulatto,
divests himself of all "malarial enervation" and begins to create himself by knowing
himself, will he be able to shake off the "leprosy of Empire."
Augusto, the protagonist of Unamuno's novel Niebla is a direct descendant of
Segismundo in Calderon's Life Is A Dream,62 who almost three hundred years before
had fluctuated between belief and doubt in his existence. "What is the real world,"
asks Augusto, "but the dream that we all dream, the common dream?63 In Makak's
dream kingdom in Africa, in the scene of the apotheosis, where the black race seems
to be vindicated, Makak is noticeably trapped in continuing anguish and uncertainty.
After all, "Makak lives where he has always lived in the dream of his people."64
Is our upward ascent a mere dream after all? The higher we climb, the more confused
we may become, or conversely, the wiser. The irony of the title: Dream On Monkey
Mountain is substantively borne out in all the symbols throughout the play, and the
mist can be as confounding as it can be enlightening. And vision can be equally exact-
ing in its penalties as it can be ennobling in its graces.
The technique of the -dream, of illusion versus reality is deliberate. By ignoring the
conventional search for an unequivocal idea or answer to an issue, Walcott allows him-
self and the audience, to entertain antithetical or even paradoxical statements in which
multiple elements are recognisable.
Derek Walcott therefore by recognisable elements in the play, creates himself by
externalising his conflict in his works, through his characters, who are the realisations
of different aspects or facets of his own mulatto personality. The psychic unease we
detect in so many of his lines, betrays an embarrassed self-consciousness that
"prickles in [him]" "mongrel"65 that he is. Lestrade, the mulatto in Dream On
Monkey Mountain manifests so clearly the desires, the anguish, the despair and the
psychological needs that had been echoed in earlier works. Walcott's preoccupation
with the condition of the mulatto recurs again and again in both his poetry and his
plays. His entire collection The Gulf is concerned mainly with the dichotomy: his
personal dichotomy as much as the gulf between civilisations, peoples and states of
mind, particularly the gulf between black and white, within whose dim twilight the
mulatto seemed trapped. ("Some grill of light/Clanged shut on us in bondage"66)
Even when the concept of the Mulatto is not the main theme of a work, he interpolates
some very revealing statement on their condition or their attitudes to people, or of
people's attitudes towards them, in almost every major work. In Malcochon for
instance, one character (the Husband) refers to "Augustin, the shabin. The red nigger
that think he is a white man."67 This phrase is significantly repeated in Dream On
Monkey Mountain, in a description of Lestrade, who before his 'conversion', had
conceived of himself as a white man. He was a corporal, "an officer of British rule"
and insistently asserted that he had the "white man's law" to uphold. With a typical
colonial attitude, he took perverse pleasure in restricting and penalising the 'natives':
"There's nothing quite so exciting as putting down the natives!"68 ("the abuse of
of ignorance by Bible and by sword").
Lestrade is an interesting and intriguing personification of the dichotomy that had
plagued Walcott all his life: "I am a kind of split writer. I have one tradition inside me
going one way and another tradition going another."69 Walcott realized that he was
the heir of a peculiar legacy a dual heritage and it was never easy for him, a very
sensitive Caribbean man, to reconcile the two:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?70
These words for which he has been so highly criticised, reflect the great dichotomy,
the split in most West Indian writers between Africa and Europe. It is a problem that
he grapples and wrestles with, in an intricate and complex manner in Dream On
Monkey Mountain and manages to achieve an equilibrium still very rare in West
Indian writing. "The focused dilemma is real" says Bill Carr, and Walcott has "the
integrity, not merely to put it, but to feel it, to make an art out of it."71 It is "that
wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body."72
The recurrent image of "black faces/white masks" underscores the imitation of the
white man by the blacks for a mask is used when a desired image is being projected.
This constant imitation of the whites had once made him "look on with hopelessness
and rage at their new apish habits"73 but Walcott's rage had always been paradoxically
"tempered in violence."
... the older and more assured I grew,
the stronger my isolation as a poet, the
more I needed to become omnivorous about
the art and literature of Europe to under-
stand my own world.74
Walcott deliberately used a charcoal burner as the hero of Dream On Monkey
Mountain. He was a "type essential to our own mythology."75 "To me, this figure
represented the most isolated, most reduced, race-containing symbol. In addition, I
have my own associations of our forests, of rain, of mists, plus of course, the inherent
violence or despair in a person of that type the mad woodcutter."76
Makak is described by Lestrade as a "being without a mind, a will, a name, a tribe
of its own",77 and is one whose very dream does not distinguish God as black or
white. This is significant because it is he who will be the "healer of leprosy" and the
"saviour of his race". Moustique's reference to the "crack coal pot [he] call [his]
head"78 is indeed the repository of compassion. As Walcott stated in "Steersman, My
Brother", "what gives some hope to the worst human cause" is "The final coal of
Twilight transmutes Despair into Virtue':
(c) "On heights where the charcoal burners heap their days,"80 "... the noblest are
those who have accepted the twilight"81 This phase of twilight that "transmutes
despair into virtue"82 is an integral part of the creative impulse and leads directly to
"the mind's dark cave"....83
Walcott suggests that with patience it can alchemise our lives...
..... Only the gift
To see things as they are, halved by a darkness
From which they cannot shift.84
Darkness assumes ambiguous meanings as in all of the symbols in Walcott's Dream On
Monkey Mountain. The most obvious meaning of darkness is black as opposed to white,
darkness as equated with evil versus good; it refers to the dark history of slavery:
And I, with a black
Heart, and my back
Healing from history,
Bearing time's bitter legends85
In a universal sense, darkness refers to the origins of man "the dark past from whence
we came".86 Darkness can also mean that which is unknown or unexplored, and on a
psychological level, the concept of darkness, as in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, refers
to the dark unconscious (related to Jung's theory of the unconscious).
In the inner recesses of the mind of every man, below the level of consciousness,
on a dark unconscious level, lie the inner truth and reality of the self. To attain to
some knowledge and understanding of the essence of our being, our inner reality, it is
necessary to delve below the conscious level and contend with the darkness of the
unconscious in an act of self-discovery. The fact that this area of darkness exists below
the level of consciousness, implies the numerous difficulties and dangerous risks involv-
ed in the actual descent into the unconscious. It is an essentially isolating and alienat-
ing experience since the descent must be made alone, but self-knowledge is impossible
without this descent into the unconscious. As one writer, in referring to the artist,
says the creative use he makes of his potential will depend very much on the risks that
he is willing to take with his psyche.
Walcott recognized that this journey into the unknown, into the darkness, is not an
easy one and that it can be terrifying
The darkness which yawns before them is
terrifying. It is the journey back from
man to ape. Every actor should make this
journey to articulate his origins, but
for those who have been called not men
but mimics, the darkness must be total,
and the cave should not contain a single
man-made, mnemonic object. Its noises
should be elemental, the roar of rain,
ocean, wind, and fire. Their first sound
should be like the last, the cry.
The voice must grovel in search of itself,
until gesture and sound fuse and the blaze
of their flesh astonishes them.87
The fact that the "black Atlantis" is buried in a sea of sand implies that the search for
self will be a difficult one. The sea is the archetypal symbol of the unconscious, and
the black, and more specifically, the mulatto may have to delve very deep into the
unconscious. The sand denotes confusion and chaos, so that he will have to sift
all the "silt that clogs the river's skirt"88 until he arrives at the level where the "river
flows, obliterating Hurt."89 As Walcott indicated, it is "that whole history thing that
we have to go through again . We have to purge ourselves of that whole night-
Walcott insists that it is necessary for the blacks and especially the mulattos -
"those who have been called not men but mimics" to delve into the unconscious to
discover their true identity and attain an affirmation of their being; to perceive in pro-
per perspective, the "black Atlantis" buried there.
It is in the forest, in the heart of darkness, that Lestrade experiences a kind of con-
version, when he is confronted by death in the appearance of Basil, the figure of
death. Then and only then, does the mulatto acknowledge his negritude, which he had
Too late have I loved thee, Africa of my mind,
sero te amavi, to cite Saint Augustine who they
say was black. I jeered these because I hated
half of myself, my eclipse. But now in the
heart of the forest at the foot of Monkey
Mountain. I kiss your foot 0 Monkey Mountain.. .91
It is only in this moment of truth that Lestrade is compelled to work out his problems
of race and identity and grapple with all the dark contradictory impulses that had
plagued him before his acute awareness that in "some places the law does not allow
you to be black, not even black, but tinged with black."92 All the racial and psycho-
logical problems and conflicts that as Tigre told him earlier, had been "eating out [his]
soul"93 and which had made him punish Makak, because in so doing, he was punish-
ing his own grandfather (the root cause of the racial disintegration). In this moment of
truth and confrontation with reality, all his guilt-ridden and hitherto suppressed emo-
tions now surface with the equally brutal force with which he had meted out the
"justice" of the white man, and are compounded with his deep love/hate impulses
("I jeered thee because I hated half of myself"). In a superb visual and dramatic
presentation in the play, they seem to writhe at him in the agony of an impotent
despair. The mulatto angst is here presented in compressed metaphor with the hybrid
vigour of the conflict-ridden mulatto, Derek Walcott. He had himself felt like an
outsider, an alien outside his skin. He too had that rage for whiteness once. Now
through Lestrade, he wrestles psychologically with the contradiction of being "white
in mind and black in body."94
Naked, stripped physically and psychologically, Lestrade gropes toward self-
awareness until his "feet grip like roots".95 "I have become what I mocked. I
always was, I always was. Makak! Makak! forgive me, old father."96
The physical stripping is the necessary casting off of the borrowed robes of the
white man and his law "the withdrawal of Empire". By stripping himself psycho-
logically, he finds himself. He attains selfhood in this crucial confrontation with
reality in an act of self-discovery that was only possible after he had grappled with
the dark forces in the unconscious depths of his mind.
.. now I am myself, Now I feel
better. Now I see a new light.
I sing the glories of Makak! The
glories of my race .... Come all
you splendours of imagination.
Let me sing of darkness now!97
"Once we have lost our wish to be white, we develop a longing to become black, and
these two may be different, but are still careers."98 Lestrade moves from one extreme
to the other almost "one death to another." His previous hatred of the blacks is
now replaced by a hatred of the whites, because his act of self-discovery is still not
complete. In the scene of the apotheosis, it is he who insists that it is necessary for
Makak to kill the white goddess, who is "the confounder of blackness." Makak is the
psychological projection of Lestrade's needs, and it is Lestrade who still needs to
"discover the beautiful depth of his blackness." The sands of confusion have not yet
settled in his mind so that he still cannot discern black and white in their true per-
spective. He tells Makak: "She is the white light that paralysed your mind." But
having himself wielded the sword of the white man, it would appear that Lestrade, in
a reversal of roles, would
"chop off her head" in a physical act of psychological self-assertion.
Such an act would savour of the "cancelling out of the white blood with the black
blood"99 so he compels Makak (whom he has now acknowledged as his black father)
to the murderous deed which he himself cannot summon up the courage to perform.
Makak who is the embodiment of a more instinctive, more primitive, less rational
being, could be the projection of Lestrade's black self his black alter ego; so that
goaded on by Lestrade, he commits the act and kills the white goddess.
Walcott deliberately refrains from making any statement as to whether this is a good
or an evil act, but only implies, that it was necessary. In the unconscious mind of each
of us slumbers infinite capacities for good and evil "the old original curse" ..
Africa as an Experience of the Mind:
". . .What survives in the slave is nostalgia for imperial modes, Europe or
One cannot discuss the concept of the mulatto without mentioning the question
of the African experience. In the straining after the old truth, in the quest for
identity, it has seemed natural for the mulatto to look to Africa for his origins, his
roots and traditional values. Young Walcott had himself undergone this phase:
.. how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I turn from Africa and live?101
But the mature Walcott is able to place both Africa and Europe in their proper per-
spectives. By the time he has come to Dream On Monkey Mountain, Africa is clearly
for him, an experience of the mind. For as he said, "I would no longer wish to visit
Europe as if I could repossess it, than I wish to visit Africa for that purpose."102
In Dream On Monkey Mountain, Moustique had said to Makak:
Look, turn your head, old man, look
there, and that thing shining there
that is the ocean. Behind that, is Africa!103
Africa behind the ocean is significant, because as Moustique points out to Makak, to
get to Africa, it is essential to cross the ocean. On a psychological level, the sea as the
archetypal symbol of the unconscious lies between the mulatto and Africa. To
perceive of Africa qua Africa, the descent into the unconscious is necessary, whereby
the concept of Africa becomes not so much the physical transference of a set of
people to a specific geographic region, as it is a psychological experience an area of
darkness that allows for a meaningful conception and re-shaping of values.
In a recent interview, Walcott was very explicit about this message:
The ultimate message in Dream On Monkey Mountain is for
us to shed the African longing, and to say that we are here,
whatever the historical process that brought us, and this is
where our roots have to begin; and with that whole cycle
of reclaiming the territory, spiritual territory, where we
have been put.
The whole cycle of Makak's experience is that he makes
the journey (to Africa) but when he returns, the idea is that
he repossesses, or for the first time, has a feeling of possess-
ing where he belongs where he h;s been found.104
Walcott has come to realise that hankering after Europe or Africa cannot be a very
valid or enlightening exercise. "The intensity of defining what is black or what is
African or so on becomes a very silly game after a while..... The profounder things
are what cannot be changed and that's where the values are."105
Walcott points to a way to voyage beyond Africa or Europe to new dimensions of
consciousness, perceptible only to those who have accepted the twilight, in a creative
act of affirmation. This is a vision of the new consciousness of which those "twilight
intellects on the edge of light" are dimly aware, but could never achieve without
crossing the darkness over the brink "The gulf, your gulf [was] daily widening"1 06
to the dawn of a new consciousness.
The imagery in Dream On Monkey Mountain hints of a return to a kind of Eden.
An ascent to the mountain, followed by the descent into the darkness and the forest
and a return to 'the green beginnings of this world . ." There is a type of 'tropical
reincarnation' "I return to this earth, my mother."107 a sense of 'at-one-ness'
in the womb of nature which provides an all-encompassing frame of reference extend-
ing far beyond all human limitations. Walcott gives sensuous reality to a number of
ideas we can infer from the work. That co-existing with, and possibly outside of Time,
and greater than human consciousness, is an 'unruined consciousness' of which we
have unexpected, seemingly supernatural intimations: that these intimations take the
form of parallels, correspondences, continuities, premonitions and intuitions. And
that, paradoxically, it is possible to become conscious of these precarious establish-
ments of unruined consciousness, which can alchemize our lives, even out of the ruins
of history and civilizations.
The ability to focus black and white in essential relationship and to perceive of the
good and evil in both, an awareness of the racial complexity and cultural diversity of
different civilizations, is a far greater gift and vision than either the children of black-
ness or the children of whiteness could claim as their own separate inheritance.
"Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor."108 This perception
makes Walcott's mature works and especially Dream On Monkey Mountain, not a
mere racial probing or search for an identity, but also a subdued testimony to know
the worst and remain loving. To see "the decaying stem of the rose and to smell the
manure that makes the oleander bloom."109 To be acutely aware of the stench of
rotting limes ("the leprosy of Empire"), even as it quickens in the nostrils while
giving cognizance to the fact that "Albion too was once a colony like ours, 'Part of
the continent, piece of the main' "110
I feel absolutely no shame in having endured the
colonial experience. There was no obvious humilia-
tion in it. In fact I think that many of what are
sneered at as colonial values are part of the strength
of the West Indian psyche, a fusion of formalism with
With maturity, Walcott has a better understanding that the bonds that bind us are
greater than the shibboleths that separate us. Of colonialism, he confesses that it was
"cruel, but it created our literature."112
Out of such savage, tangled roots, was born
This monolithic, unforgiving face
Wrought in a furious kiln, in which each race
Expects its hundredth dawn.113
His sense of outrage has been refined in the "furious kiln" of experience, and the coal
of his compassion has triumphed over threatened extinction by the "white rain."
Men of diametrically challenging backgrounds, racial
opposites . balance on the axis of a shared sensi-
bility, and this sensibility with or deprived of the
presence of a visible tradition, is the sensibility of
walking to a New World.114
Walcott has captured a new vision. His vision of man is now elemental, a "being
inhabited by presence, not a creature chained to the past."115 It is the profound and
difficult vision of essential unity within the most bitter forms of latent and active
historical diversity. A vision that can neither be 'given' nor simply 'inherited.' It had
to be discovered by its author with "a pain so alive that / . edges a scream/... in
silent thunder"116 and has to be discovered by his readers, by imagination at full
stretch, laying hold of a complex truth perceptible in no other way.
I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange and
bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental
groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the
halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that
exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in
the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance
and your gift ...117
1. Orde Coombs, Editor Is Massa Day-Dead? Black Moods in the Caribbean, Anchor Press,
New York, 1974. Introduction Page XV
2. Derek Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux,
New York, 1970) "What The Twilight Says: An Overture" p. 5.
3. Ibid. p. 5.
4. Ibid. A note on Production, p. 208.
5. Walcott, "Poetry Enormously Complicated Art" Trinidad Guardian, June 19, 1962.
6. Walcott, Another Life, (Jonathan Cape, London: 1973) p. 58.
7. Ibid. p. 9.
8. Walcott, In a Green Night, Poems 1948-1960, Johnathan Cape, London: 1962. "Tales of
the Islands", Ch. I, Vs. 1, lines 4 and 6.
9. Walcott, What The Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 5.
10. Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain, p. 254.
11. Ibid, p. 217.
13. Walcott, "The Muse of History An Essay" Is Massa Day Dead? Black Moods In the
Caribbean, p. 22.
14. Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain, p. 319
15. Walcott, "Alegre" In a Green Night, Verse 3, Line 2.
16. Walcott, "Conqueror" In a Green Night, Verse 4, lines 14/15.
17. Walcott, What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 30.
18. Ibid. p. 33.
20. Ibid. p. 26.
21. Poem: Meru W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry, ed. A.N. Jeffares. (MacMillian Publishers,
London 1962) line 7.
22. "Vacillation" W.B. Yeats, lines 1 and 2.
23. Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, pp. 216/217.
24. Ibid. p. 268.
25. Ibid. A note on production p. 208.
26. Walcott, Steersman, My Brother In a Green Night, St. 1 Vs. 3., lines 7/8.
27. Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain, p. 256.
28. Derek Walcott, "Leaving School", London Magazine Vol. 5 No. 6, September, 1965. p. 10.
29. Walcott, What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 3.
30. Derek Walcott, Wine of the Country, unpublished manuscript, University of the West Indies,
Mona, p. 5.
31. Ibid. p. 35.
32. Ibid. p. 15
33. Dream on Monkey Mountain, p. 283.
34. Ibid. p. 228.
35. Wine of the Country, p. 45.
36. What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 38.
37. Walcott, The Gulf And Other Poems, Johnathan Cape, London: 1969. "Blues" verse 2,
38. Walcott, Another Life, pp. 4/5.
39. Ibid. p. 3.
40. Ibid. p. 4.
41. Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, p. 304.
42. Nicholas Guillen, Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicholas Guillen, Instituto Cubano
del Libro, La Habana, 1972 "Ballad of The Two Grandfathers", Verses 1, 2, 4/6.
43. Personal interview with Nicholas Guillen, Kingston, Jamaica, November 1975.
44. Walcott, The Gulf And Other Poems, "The Train" Verses 2, 3 and 4.
45. Walcott, Wine of the Country, p. 32.
46. Ibid. p. 39.
47. What the Twilight Says: An Overture p. 4.
48. Miguel de Unamuno, Niebla, Coleccion Austral, Spain 1959.
49. Walcott, In a Green Night, "Pocmania", verse 5, lines 4 and 5.
50. "Ruins of a Great House", In a Green Night, verse 7, lines 1 and 2.
51. Ibid. lines 3-5 and 9/10.
52. Steersman, My Brother, In a Green Night, verse 6, lines 3 and 4.
53. The Reference is to Stephen Daedalus, the protagonist of Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man, James Joyce, Penguin Modern Classics, Great Britain, 1916.
54. Derek Walcott, "Leaving School", London Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 6, September, 1965, p. 13.
55. Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain, pp. 226/7.
56. Walcott, The Castaway And Other Poems, Jonathan Cape, London: 1965 "Laventville",
57. Walcott, Introductory Calypso "In a Fine Castle", verse 2, lines 1 and 2.
58. Walcott, "The Harbour", In a Green Night, lines 3 and 4.
59. Ibid. line 5 c.f. "Topple that lie however appealing" from poem "The Day My Father
Died" by Mervyn Morris, The Pond A Book of Poems, New Beacon Books, London:
1973, verse 5, line 17.
60. Walcott, The Harbour: In a Green Night, lines 9, 10 and 12.
61. Walcott, To a Painter in England: In a Green Night, verse 5, line 1.
62. Calderon de la Barca, La Vida es Sueno, Espasa Calpe, Sociedad Anonima, Madrid, 1960.
63. Unamuno, Niebla, p. 49.
64. Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, p. 326.
65. Walcott, What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 10.
66. Laventville, The Castaway, verse 29, lines 2 and 3.
67. Walcott, Malcochon, Or the Six In the Rain, from Dream on Monkey Mountain And Other
Plays, p. 188.
68. Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain, p. 286.
69. Walcott, "Meanings" Savacou No. 2 September 1970, p. 48.
70. Walcott, A Far Cry from Africa, In a Green Night, verse 4.
71. Bill Carr, "The Significance of Derek Walcott" Public Opinion, February 28, 1964.
72, Walcott, What the Twilight Says: An Overture" p. 12.
73. Walcott, Laventville The Castaway, verse 17, line 1.
74. Walcott, The Muse of History, p. 26.
75. Walcott, "Meanings", p. 47.
77. Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, p. 227.
78. Ibid. p. 241.
79. Walcott, Steersman, My Brother In a Green Night, verse 9, lines 9/10.
80. Walcott, Return to D'Ennery Rain In a Green Night, verse 7, line 4.
81. What the Twilight Says: An Overture p. 5.
82. Ibid. p. 3.
83. Return to D'Ennery Rain, verse 7, line 8.
84. A Map of Europe: Castaway, verse 4, lines 2-4.
85. Choc Bay In a Green Night, verse 5, lines 1-3 and 7.
86. Tales of The Islands: In a Green Night. Ch. 5, line 9.
87. What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 5.
88. Ruins of a Great House In a Green Night, verse 4, line 2.
89. Ibid. line 4.
90. Raoul Pantin, "We Are Still Being Betrayed" Exclusive Contact Interview with Derek
Walcott, Caribbean Contact, July, 1973.
91. Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, p. 299.
92. Ibid. p. 280.
94. What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 11.
95. Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, p. 300.
97. Ibid. p. 299.
98. What the Twilight Says: An Overture, p. 20.
99. Kenneth Ramchand, The West Indian Novel And Its Background, Faber and Faber, London:
1970. Section! "The Fictional Image of The Mulatto", p. 41.
100. Walcott, The Muse of History, p. 26.
101. Walcott, A Far Cry from Africa: In a Green Night, verse 4, lines 4-8.
102. Walcott, The Muse of History, p. 26.
103. Dream On Monkey Mountain, p. 225.
104. Ric Mentus, "Nobody Wants to be a West Indian" Interview with Walcott Daily News,
Sunday, December 7, 1975.
105. Pantin, "We are still Being Betrayed", Caribbean Contact, July 1973.
106. Walcott, Title Poem: "The Gulf", verse 25, line 3.
107. Walcott, Dream On Monkey Mountain, p. 229.
108. The Muse of History, p. 1.
109. Orde Coombs, Is Massa Day Dead?, Intro. p. XV.
110. Walcott, Ruins of a Great House, verse 7, lines 4 and 5.
111. Walcott, "Meanings", p. 50.
113. Walcott, Bronze In a Green Night, verse 7, lines 2-5.
114. Walcott, The Muse of History, p. 16.
115. Ibid. p. 2.
116. Another Life, p. 14.
117. Muse of History, p. 27.
UNAMUNO, Miguel de,
"We Are Still Being Betrayed" Exclusive Contact
Interview with Derek Walcott by Raoul Pantin, July,
Ed. with Intro. Is Massa Day Dead? Black Moods In
The Caribbean "The Muse of History An Essay"
by Derek Walcott, Anchor Press, New York, 1974.
"Nobody Wants To be a West Indian" Interview
with Derek Walcott by Ric Mentus, December 7,
An Introduction To Jung's Psychology, Penguin
Books, Great Britain, 1953.
Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicholas
Guillen, Instituto Cubano del Libro, La Habana,
Ed. W. B. Yeats Selected Poetry, MacMillan,
"Leaving School" by Derek Walcott, Vol. 5, No. 6
The Pond A Book of Poems, New Beacon Books,
"The Significance of Derek Walcott" by Bill Carr,
February 28, 1964.
The West Indian Novel And Its Background, Section:
'The Fictional Image of The Mulatto' Faber and
Faber, London, 1970.
"Poetry Enormously Complicated Art" by Derek
Walcott, June 19, 1962.
Niebla, Coleccidn Austral, Spain, 1939.
Another Life, Jonathan Cape, London, 1973.
The Castaway And Other Poems, Jonathan Cape,
Dream On Monkey Mountain And Other Plays,
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1970.
The Gulf And Other Poems, Jonathan Cape, London,
In A Fine Castle, Unpublished Manuscript, University
of the West Indies, Mona.
In a Green Night Poems 1948-1960 Jonathan Cape,
"What The Twilight Says: An Overture" Dream
On Monkey Mountain And Other Plays, Farrar,
Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1970.
Wine of The Country, Unpublished Manuscript,
University of the West Indies, Mona.
THE EXILE AND THE PRODIGAL: DEREK WALCOTT AS
WEST INDIAN POET
One important factor in the achievement of Walcott as a West Indian poet is the
fact that in spite of his commitment to standard English, the themes and style of his
poetry relate closely to the personal circumstances of birthplace, place of work and
the fact of being a West Indian. His career as poet reflects the conscious cultivation of
this relationship, and his development as poet takes the form of a homecoming. The
importance of homecoming in Walcott's poetry relates his work centrally to the wider
concern with origins in West Indian poetry. He is often seen as representing one of two
divergent attitudes to the theme of identity in West Indian literature because, although
he acknowledges the provincial character of West Indian life and has often been its
critic, his later literary practice and pronouncements express his faith in being a provin-
The difference between these two attitudes to identity is felt mainly in the pre-
dominance of a particular cluster of themes and attitudes. The cluster in the case of
Walcott derives from the personal circumstances of the poet. Walcott is aware of the
importance of New World history in the consciousness of the West Indian poet, but he
sees this history through the lens of contemporary needs. To black artists quarrying in
the ancestral past for the substance and shape of their work, Walcott's message is that
the use of history as a medium often means not rediscovery but dependence. To the
contemporary poet who finds himself divided between the Old World of Europe and
the ancestral lands of Africa and Asia, the quest for these places should not, in
Walcott's view, be central to poetry. Instead he seeks the key to the problems of
poetry in the West Indies in the contemporary experience of exile and homecoming
and the recurrence of this theme in the poetry. The artist's relationship to his home
on the islands, and his rediscovery of this home is found viable enough as a subject of
poetry in the New World. The poet's career begins with his estrangement from his
home and matures with his reconciliation to it.
In two important accounts of life and letters on the islands, Walcott stresses his
own early estrangement from "that steamy, narrowminded climate" of his birthplace
as part of the process of growing up. "Leaving School", the first of these accounts,
begins with the idea that betrayal and infidelity are a key for understanding St. Lucia
and the poet's relationship to it. A later essay, "What the Twilight Says: an Overture",
ends on an identical note, with the "pardonable desertions" of West Indian writers as
"the inevitable problem of all island artists: the choice of home or exile, self-realisation
or spiritual betrayal of one's country." In "Leaving School" the young Walcott's
choice of exile is seen as a necessary step taken with the "exhilaration of departure"
by the aspiring poet. It involved the betrayal of an early love which, though at once
patriotic and personal, is represented as if it were after all nothing more than an
incipient political consciousness and an adolescent sexuality. The poems on this period
are, for Walcott writing in "What the Twilight Says", a reflection of his hankering after
my first poems and plays expressed this yearning to
be adopted, as the bastard longs for his father's house-
hold. I saw myself legitimately prolonging the mighty
line of Marlowe, of Milton....
The poems of this period belong to Commonwealth Literature, as Walcott's own
attitude suggests. Like most early writing from colonies and ex-colonies, the poems
are derivative in this case deliberately and creatively so, and therefore also tributary.
English reviewers of Walcott's first permanent volume, In a Green Night, have been
quick to recognize and take into their fold a writer who was not only learning to use
the language creatively by imitating the resources of past masters of the language, but
who also showed himself capable of making his own contribution to the development
of the language. One of the later poems in this collection, "A Letter from Brooklyn",
shows not only a close familiarity with English poetry which the allusions to
eighteenth-century poetry hint at, but also a grammatical standard not to be suppressed
by the poet's emotional appreciation of the good intentions of the old lady:
An old lady writes me in a spidery style,
Each character trembling, and I see a veined hand
Pellucid as paper, travelling on a skein
Of such frail thoughts its thread is often broken;
Or else the filament from which a phrase is hung
Dims to my sense, but caught, it shines like steel,
As touch a line, and the whole web will feel....
'I am Mable Rawlins,' she writes, 'and know both your parents;'
He is dead, Mis Rawlins, but God bless your tense.
Walcott's ambition, that of "purifying the language of the tribe", is also that of
many major English poets. The critical reception of him as a talented outsider seeking
entry into the metropolis, seems consistent with this goal. In fact, although he has con-
sistently defended his use of standard English, his argument in "What the Twilight
Says" shows his awareness that in the West Indies, "The urge towards the metropolitan
language was the same as political deference to its centre." Walcott's reference to his
position on the outskirts of empire at the early period of his career is brought to mind
by a review in which, because of the prodigal style of In a Green Night, the poet is
described as one who
has none of the self-made man's frugality. He
is a natural with all the confidence of a capitalist:
that words will never run short, that there will
always be fresh pleasures, new colours.1
The reviewers' criticism of the exuberance and excess in the language of the early
poems is to be seen in this context as their contribution to the development of the
poet as a user of language. There is a distinction here between Walcott's attitude to
language on the one hand, and to culture and identity on the other; his commitment
is not to English life, but to its language. This position is evident in a poem like
"Exile", the portrait of a (West) Indian novelist who came to England "Never to go
home again / for this was home! One detects the poet's own sympathy with the
novelist's commitment to "that first / indenture to her Word", and the poet's distaste
for England's "wretched weather" which was poetry to the novelist. Walcott's own
metaphor for his early status as poet that of the bastard suggests that although his
early yearning to be part of English literary culture set his mind on a tested medium
and a high standard of performance, the by-product knowledge of the Coramon-
weal, as he calls it in "Hic Jacet" has not been wholly satisfying. He has found
greater reward in the possibilities of exploration and self-discovery available to the
prodigal who recovers the value of his proper inheritance only when he becomes aware
of the cultural implications of his choice and settles for "the power of provincialism."
The relationship of this decision to the chosen medium is evident in parts of two of
his essays, "What the Twilight Says" and "The Muse of History", in which he takes the
position that mimicry is servitude. The attitude is strongly felt in former colonies
because of the economic and political history of English. Writers in these countries
almost invariably recognize this background as a history of wrongs, and it has an
important influence on the way that they regard and use the language. Behind the
exciting literary experience of dialect and other forms of deviation from standard
English is the mental satisfaction of a cultural independence of English. Dialect, c,-
one hand, is usuaLy offered in these countries as an alternative language of the people.
What Walcott says of the West Indian poet in "Some West Indian Poets" is true of his
own practice: he recognizes the rich and "raw spontaneity of dialect. . but is not
willing to sacrifice the syntactical power of English."
The other option for writers in colonies with their own non-English literatures and
languages is for them to turn to local traditions in forming their conception of poetry
in English. One result is the conception of poetry not as speech or prose as in Walcott,
but as song or chant. Such an awareness of a non-English model carries with it the
sense of cultural liberation from colonial history. Walcott is unable to use such a
conception of poetic language. "What the Twilight Says" brings out the difficulty: "If
one went in search of the African experience, carrying the luggage of a few phrases
and a crude map, where would it end?" In spite of the rejection, the cultural need for
such a quest is identified and acknowledged in the essay. The West Indian earth
is not an earth that has been fed long with the
mulch of cultures. . Death, which fastens us to
the earth, remains pastoral or brutish, because no
single corpse contributes to some tiered concept of
a past. Everything is immediate, and this immediacy
means over-breeding, illegitimacy, migration without
remorse. The sprout casually stuck in the soil. The
migratory West Indian feels rootless on his own earth,
chafing at its beaches.
This theme to which the essay returns, has been taken up earlier in "Laventville",
with its churchyard "stones planted on alien earth", and the question which brought
the poem into being, what has the West Indian poet to celebrate?
The idea of a cultural void implied in the essay is reminiscent of the familiar New
World plaint which was so common with American men of letters up to the end of the
nineteenth-century when writers, suffering from the effects of American nationalism
and struggling with the memory of the European homeland from which the American
umbilical cord had been severed, lamented the cultural tenuity of their new home.
Like Walcott's prose lament about the Caribbean lack of "cycles of tribalism,
feudalism, monarchy, democracy, industrialisation", the handling of this theme in
Another Life is reminiscent of this earlier New World complaint:
No horsemen here, no cuirasses
crashing, no fork-bearded Castilians,
only the narrow, silvery creeks of sadness....
The problem is however different in one respect. The American writer found a cultural
desert where he first espied Eden, whereas the West Indian poet is conditioned by the
memory of his slave ancestor in the wet hell of passage. The Caribbean severance from
the African mother is announced in Walcott's prose essays and interviews. But it is
clear from the recurrent theme of the split allegiance and divided consciousness in
some of the poems that the severance is not total. It however implies the beginning of
a growing away from both ancestors and the beginning of a new birth.
The story of this new birth is told in "Laventville." Walcott's story of the true
origins of the West Indian begins with the middle passage and does not reach beyond it,
as it does in Brathwaite's work. The significance of the middle passage is defined in
the context of the experience of Laventville community at the present time. The
generally accepted significance of the experience is brought out by a historical interpre-
tation in which a traumatic voyage causes not only amnesia, but also the death of
gods in the consciousness of the voyager, as in Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." But a
more subtle definition makes possible the relationship of birth and death, so that des-
cendants of New World blacks can change the order of the magi's words, and ask
whether their experience has been one of Death or Birth. The process of questioning
and verbal definition is Walcott's contribution. Throughout the poem and especially
at the end, the continuing struggle with the fate imposed by the middle passage is kept
in the reader's consciousness by the jostling of images of birth and death, with images
of passage playing a mediating role: tomb is placed against womb and the two are
linked not only by rhyme, but by the syntax. This helps to throw light on the physical
proximity of the christening ceremony to the graveyard in the poem's landscape; here,
the poet mocks the attempt by the church crowd to avoid the presence of death
during the photographic session when "the careful photograph [is] moved out of range
before the patient tombs." The complex association of images makes the experience
of birth and death flow into each other. One notices that the meaning changes as the
associations multiply: middle passage, groove, wound, and the open passage ("that
cleft the brain"). What seems a paradox in the final line the juxtapositioning of
"swaddling" and cerementt" is not only justified by the implied similarity of baby's
swaddling clothes and corpse's cerements, it has also been anticipated by the expanding
significance of "passage" in the earlier contexts.
Walcott's view of the middle passage in "Laventville" recurs in later writing. In
"The Muse of History", "amnesia is the true history of the New World." The true
beginning for the poet therefore is this psychic emptiness from which the poet might
begin to create. Like the actors in "What the Twilight Says", the poet "must return
through a darkness whose terminus is amnesia .. For these who have been called
not men but mimics, the darkness must be total, and the cave should not contain a
single man-made, mnemonic object." This need becomes the basis of themes and
technique in The Castaway. The two events that are central to West Indian history are
the discovery and settlement of the islands represented in the Crusoe-myth, and the
making of the West Indians as a distinct people, represented frequently in the meta-
phors of furnace and scorching sun which is used to recall the racial experience of the
middle passage. Behind the images in this volume is the poet's conception of the two
events not as history, but as myth. The historical ship of passage thus becomes for
Walcott's West Indian, both a mythical tomb of the old ancestral world and the womb
of the new, green world. The discovery of this "green, churning forest", must be pre-
ceded by "the darkness whose terminus is amnesia."
The amnesia is total only in respect of the prehistory of the slave ship. Crusoe's ship
preserves the history before the shipwreck. Although like Adam the shipwrecked sailor
names the objects on his desert island, his language is not just mimetic. It is also
mnemonic. The images reproduced in The Castaway reflect the fact that the words are
part of the cargo from the ship, "like those plain iron tools he salvages / from ship-
wreck." The sand castles, the fishing net, and the nailed hand are the memory of an
older civilisation. They are historically transmitted through the journals of Crusoe to
Friday and his descendants who recite their master's praise, parroting his style and
voice and making his language theirs.
In spite of treating the Caribbean as a virgin territory and its poet as Adam, Walcott
starts with the historical fact that much of the experience is derivative and colonial.
Crusoe, the Adamic figure at the beginning of the West Indian myth is also created out
of inherited materials, Europ-r.n writing on the Indies. The actual historical experience,
the discovery and settling of the West Indies is subsumed in the literary myth,
especially in the case of Columbus who, as Christopher, is discoverer and coloniser in
"Crusoe's journal." Critics have pointed out that the use of the Crusoe figure in The
Castaway is important in Walcott's development, helping to perfect his medium
through this experiment with a number of "Voices."2 In this way history is inter-
preted and understood.
The Caribbean history and culture which Walcott reconstructs in "Crusoe's Journal"
has been peopled by British literary imagination; just as the mercantile restlessness of
Europe re-populated the islands, Shakespeare, Defoe, Marryat and Stevenson provide
the ancestors for some of the Caribbean heroes in his poetry. Language and ritual are
the means of showing the forms of colonialism which contemporary artistic activity in
the West Indies must take cognisance of. Christofer, literally Christ bearer, is both the
legendary saint and the reputed discoverer of America. Crusoe, originally accepted as
the colonial culture hero, is placed in relation to Friday's descendants, and the old
relationship is redefined through irony:
like Christofer he bears
in speech mnemonic as a missionary's
the Word to savages,
its shape an earthen, water-bearing vessel's
whose sprinkling alters us
into good Fridays who recite His praise,
parroting our master's
style and voice, we make his language ours,
we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ.
History parallels myth, and like Crusoe's Friday, Christofer's servants also mimicked
his language, fashioning themselves after the image of the master. Walcott's interpreta-
tion of the West Indian experience emphasises the termination of the African phase at
the time of the slave-ship, and the transmission of the European inheritance beyond
Crusoe's shipwreck through the influence of language and writing. The result is a
mimicry which signifies the mental subjection to European traditions. Describing the
manner in which the West Indian artist solved this problem, Walcott says in "What the
Twilight Says" that only "the forging of a language that went beyond mimicry, a
dialect which had the force of revelation as it invented names for things" was capable
of delivering him from servitude. Walcott's translation of this into poetic practice
occurs in his use of irony and symbol achieved through juxtapositioning and allusion.
The method does not involve a complete rejection of mimicry, since the poet draws
his strength from "the faith of using the old names anew", charged "from the depth of
suffering." For a poet so preoccupied with his dual inheritance, this kind of language
use fulfils both the psychic and the verbal need.
In using the standard structures of English, Walcott is aware of the new range that
the meaning of some of the crucial terms has for the West Indies. The change is not in
the basic meaning of the words as in the effect on our consciousness of what these
words normally mean. This use of language is creation in a deeper sense than we
ordinarily associate with pleasure-giving poetry.
The basic technique of Walcott's poetry for this purpose is that of irony in handling
character and event and a depiction of landscape which becomes at once a description
and a history. Both "Laventville" and "The Almond Trees" which immediately follows
it, are poems in which the poet's description of a group of people involves the revela-
tion of their origins. "Laventville" is set in a landscape with a distinct regional character
on a hillside whose features we remember because of the poet's close attention to
details of place and land features, and the speaker's commitment to and involvement
with the community which he describes. The society is presented as a deeply divided
yet closely interlocked one in which "class / lay escalated into structures still", from
the comforts of magistrate and knight to the "height of poverty / for the desperate
and black." The speaker himself is estranged by the apish habits of the church group
he describes. Nevertheless the overall emphasis is on a shared historical experience
which the present reflects, especially the memory of "the hot, corrugated iron sea /
whose horrors we all / shared." And from the opening description of a landscape seen
from a detached, impersonal vantage point, the poem closes significantly not, as one
might expect, on a note of mere sympathy for "the desperate and black", but with an
awareness of the communal character of the West Indian fate, with all of "us" still in
the clutches of its history, since "in its swaddling cerements we're still bound."
"Laventville" is immediately followed by "The Almond Trees" in The Castaway.
Like "Laventville", "The Almond Trees" begins with an impersonal description of a
West Indian setting, an Atlantic beach gradually getting crowded with sunbathers. But
the vista widens, and the scene takes on the character of an outline history of the
characters on the beach, with emphasis on the theme of suffering and the ancestry of
the West Indies. In its emphasis on youth and faith the poem contrasts with the tragic
experience presented in "Laventville." But its reference to West Indian history is less
direct than that of "Laventville." Its secondary meaning depends on the immediate
description of the beach and emerges indirectly from the nature and intensity of its
Walcott's technique has that character with which Wilson Harris is concerned in
"Tradition and the West Indian Novel." The West Indian artist whose concern "is the
pursuit of a strange and subtle goal, the melting pot", presents an object or an environ-
ment in such a way that it is capable of revealing the history and process of its creation,
somewhat like Harris's own description of the landscape:
The native and phenomenal environment of the West
Indies . is broken into many stages in the way in
which one surveys an existing river in its present bed
while plotting at the same time ancient and abandoned,
indeterminate courses the river once followed.
Walcott does something similar in "The Almond Trees" by making a particular
experience reveal the history and genealogy of the characters through allusion and
metaphor before the actual statement of that history, so that some of the metaphors
seem to be direct historical allusions rather than figures of speech. In much the same
manner, the poor in "Laventville" are said to stew "five to a room, still clamped below
their hatch,/ breeding like felonies", thus preparing the reader for the information that
the lives of these people revolve round prison, churchyard and grave. The chain of
suffering linking the past, the present and the future of these people gives the refer-
ences to "stew", "hatch" and "felonies" a literal quality, though they are used as
What gives the metaphors in "Laventville" this quality is the sociological and histori-
cal basis of the metaphors. Caribbean ancestor and West Indian inheritor are not merely
similar in sharing a common fate, the experience of the latter derives from, and
reflects, that of the other. "Laventville" is the expression of this identity. What the
poem emphasises is not the similarity of the two experiences but their identical
character at different points in history. In "The Almond Trees", the similarity on
which the metaphor is based derives from the memory and association of similar
qualities and experiences: heat, endurance, colour, transformation.
The technique in "The Almond Trees" is that of myth and metaphor; to develop
the theme of identity, the Daphne myth merges with the metaphor of the copper-
coloured trees to reveal the genealogy of the girls. The trees are thus seen as the family
tree under which one of the girls shelters, spreading "her wrap within the bent arms of
this grove / that grieves in silence, like parental love." Much of essential West Indian
history is thus telescoped into the poet's observation of human activity of one day on
the beach, without sacrificing the particularity of the poem. For example, the theme
of endurance and survival is developed indirectly by linking the almond-tree with the
furnace-like heat of the sun with a resulting implied pun on the almond furnace which
is used to separate metal from dress. The references to the girls' cured skin and the
forging of a West Indian character are obvious.
"The Almond Trees" is a poem about the emergence of an island identity in which
the claims of the past and the fact of the present are given just recognition. The use of
metaphor in the poem is no less suggestive than the use of myth. The basis of the
imagery is the coppersmithy. After the opening description of the scene of the beach,
the first objects are noticed the imagery of brown twisted metal objects, which is
soon reinforced by a cluster of images from an identical context oil, acetylene air,
singed skin and welder's flame.
The setting of "The Almond Trees" contrasts with the regional particularity of
"Laventville." In spite of the concreteness of the group of trees on a sunny beach, the
image is tropical in a general sort of way, not particular as in "Laventville." The
difference is partly a difference between a mythical and a sociological view of the
landscapes. "The Almond Trees" sets the scene for the poet's role as Adam, in its des-
cription of the imagined emptiness of the landscape before the emergence of life out
of its airy void. Even as late as Another Life, the theme of nothingness is harped upon,
and the landscape is primeval, like the marshy void of creation:
Miasma, acedia, the enervations of damp,
as the teeth of the mould gnaw, greening the carious stump
of the beaten, corrugated silver of the marsh light,
where the red heron hides, without a secret,
as the cordage of mangrove tightens
bland water to bland sky
heavy and sodden as canvas,
where the pirogue foundered with its caved-in stomach
(a hulk, trying hard to look like
a palaeolithic, half-gnawed memory of pre-history)
as the too green acid grasses set the salt teeth on edge,
acids and russets and water-coloured water,
let the historian go mad there
In many of his poems Walcott treats the relationship of landscape and history in a
less metaphorical, more organic way than in "The Almond Trees." The treatment still
relies on qualities of myth and symbol without being metaphorical, the difference
between symbol and metaphor being, in the case of the symbol, the sense of its having
a history closely related to the theme. The recurrent image in this sense is coal. Like
copper, which is used in "The Almond Trees" because of its colour and its association
with heat, coal is effectively used as an image for exploring the historical experience of
man in the New World. Coal is organic to the theme of the black man in history taking
his present character from his survival under extreme conditions of great pressure,
high temperature, deep water. The coal image is as central to his poems as it is to his
major play, Dream on Monkey Mountain. We first come across the image in an early
poem containing many of Walcott's poetic devices and motifs, "Steersman, My
Brother" (1962), in which "Our souls like plants, yearn for the shores of light", then
in poems in later collections, till we encounter it again and again in Another Life. The
image itself comes naturally to Walcott, since he recalls the hundredweights of coal
carried by women in St. Lucia in his childhood, as he writes in "Leaving School." But
the peculiar application which Walcott gives the image, that of the soul of the black
man surviving the pressure of centuries,just as the buried plant survives by turning to
coal and light, could have been derived from the early influence on him of metaphysi-
cal writing, though he was to reject "the hermetic skill" in an announcement in
"Crusoe's Journal." The original source of the image for Walcott seems to have been
Herbert's poem, "Virtue", from which Walcott took the last stanza for use as an
epigraph for "Veranda", a poem which he first published in 1965 in the London
Magazine. The lines did not fit in with the significance of coal in Walcott's poetry, and
it is not surprising that he did not use it in The Castaway. Seasoned timber is the
image of integrity and endurance in Herbert, not coal, as in Walcott, coal being the
emblem for the end of the world in Herbert's poem. The two sources of this image
show the character of Walcott's poetry. Art and reality are both the basis of poetic
experience and creation in Walcott's work; the possible origins of the coal image in
Walcott are Herbert's poem and the memory of the coal-carrying women of St. Lucia.
Walcott's skill in creating new meanings out of old, that is, the creation of a new
language based on his commitment to standard English and a mythohistoric interpre-
tation of West Indian identity, is a central part of Walcott's achievement. The achieve-
ment is made possible by Walcott's commitment to the integrity of his art. It does
entail sacrifices; art is life, as he affirms in Another Life, where the first love, Anna,
suffers betrayal because quite early, her lover "found life within some novel's leaves /
more real than you, already chosen as his doomed heroine." The exact nature of this
relationship of art and life is made clear in the Malraux passage used as epigraph to the
first book of Another Life:
What makes the artist is the circumstance that
in his youth he was more deeply moved by the sight
of works of art than by that of the things which they portray.
This has two effects on the hero's attitude to life. First, for an artist-hero who is so
obsessed with amnesia as the starting point of the history and culture of his people, art
creates life where nothing was before. The artist in Another Life "fell in love with art,/
and life began", and the poems which create meaning out of the Caribbean "darkness"
underscore the importance of creative language for the emergence of Caribbean con-
sciousness, and thus of Caribbean humanity. Before the emergence of such a conscious-
ness the Caribbean image must be a colonial one; and in so far as that image was
defined in colonial terms its view of the Caribbean must remain a largely external
one. In colonial myth the Caribbean Adam was Crusoe, from whose journals later
generations learn to shape, "where nothing was / the language of a race"; but he loses
this status as culture here with the emergence into consciousness through language, of
Man Friday, at first parroting his master's style, later maturing into a new Adam who
learns, "not new names for old things, or old names for old things, but the faith of
using the old names anew."
This is the importance of Walcott's skill in charging with new meaning existing
concepts which, because of their colonial origins, have to be challenged and given new
significance in the light of the experience of the New World. Terms like "conversion"
and "cannibal" which normally have only one meaning, now become the means of
establishing a new interpretation of colonial history, and establishing an alternative and
new consciousness of the past: the knowledge of the faith which devoured "the
god-refusing Carib", and of those who survived, Friday's recognition of his status as
Crusoe's "converted cannibal", where "cannibal" is an irony pointing both ways.
The use of irony for the telescoping of a double consciousness the colonial view
of things and the New World consciousness is an extension of the view of language
taken in "Crusoe's Journal", that language is a creative tool.
Some of the critical reactions to Walcott reflect another view of such use of
language. Donoghue says of the poems, that they are "trapped in the politics of
feeling."3 But there is a cultural need for such involvement, and it is defined in the
eighth chapter of Another Life:
For no one had yet written of this landscape
that it was possible, though there were sounds
given to its varieties of wood...
whole generations died, unchristened,
growths hidden in green darkness, forests
of history thickening with amnesia,
so that a man's branched, naked trunk,
its roots crusted with dirt,
swayed where it stopped, remembering another name.
And later the act of re-naming is a necessary one, and the poet, not the historian, is the
man to do it:
... like his father, this child,
a child without history, without knowledge of its pre-world,
only the knowledge of water runnelling rocks,...
that child who puts the shell's howl to his ear,
bears nothing, hears everything
that the historian cannot bear, the howls
of all the races that crossed the water,
the howls of grandfathers drowned
in that intricately swivelled Babel...
and the crossing of water has erased their memories.
This makes the artist in such a society especially important. He has a special Adamic
function, as Walcott himself frequently stressed in prose and poetry. This function is
reflected in the preference for poetry with the virtues of prose, for its functions are
primary, not metaphorical and secondary, as it might conveniently be in Old World
Europe. But it nonetheless involves as great labour and as much pain as in the work of
a poet in a country with a different language poetry tradition to turn to.
This cultural function of the poet does imply not just a special talent but a special
way of viewing reality. Art is the element in which he has his being, and to be meaning-
ful, reality must be ssen through its lens. The measure of reality in Walcott's poems is
thus often literary. In The Castaway poems especially, he frequently associates art and
reality by making one an image of the other. The relationship is not conceived as a
merely metaphorical one because the experience of a poem is itself an experience of
reality. In the early "Steersman, My Brother", "what rides / The violent waters of my
life is a mere craft / Of words." And many of the poems are about the interpenetra-
tion of literature and reality: as in "A Map of Europe" and in "A Map of the Conti-
nent", one of the "Guyana" poems. The primacy of the literary imagination does not
make itself felt only in such figurative usage. History and contemporary reality are
understood on literary terms. Various poems on people and events are inspired initially
from a literary or artistic source the newspaper reports of the Mau Mau uprising, the
death of Che Guevara and the fall of an Ibo town during the Nigerian Civil War. The
last two are the records of his thoughts composed from photographs and newspaper
reports. Although is an effective means of straddling two landscapes and of imagina-
tive projection to distant places, such an approach does occasionally involve a certain
degree of estrangement from the actual issues in these places as in "A Far Cry from
Africa" and "Negatives."
The closing lines of "A Far Cry from Africa" contain the best known and the most
explicit statement on the theme of the divided man, and it is therefore important for
the insight it gives into the literary consciousness of a period in the literature of Africa
and the Caribbean:
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
The immediately apparent political issues raised in this poem are suggested by the
question, "Where shall I turn." This had been anticipated by another Caribbean poet
who implied by his own example that the answer for the man of African descent lies
in making a spiritual return to his roots. The issue at this level is a political one, and
the solution in poetry is equally political; it is the problem of the poet as exile. The
solution up till the end of the last decade in Africa and the New World was a spiritual
search for roots. In Walcott's statement of the issue, on the other hand, it will be
noticed, that the division in "A Far Cry from Africa" is not, strictly speaking, a cultur-
al one. At one level the dilemma he poses is one of choosing between "this Africa" and
"the English tongue", between a particular consciousness and a particular medium,
between theme and style. In later volumes this balance between the literary and the
cultural or political has gradually taken over in his interpretation of the poet's schizo-
phrenia. The change begins to be felt in The Castaway and becomes quite explicit in
Another Life. The psychic division is not just a division between two cultures, as in
"The Flock" and in "Lines from New England", but mainly a division between an
inner and literary experience, and an experience of reality. In some respects this later
position has been anticipated by the presence of three separate elements which enter
into the making of "A Far Cry from Africa." First, it will be noticed that the poem
starts off with a description of the struggle of Mau Mau freedom fighters and draws its
strength, as usual in Walcott, from its vital sense of place an early demonstration of
Walcott's peculiar poetic strength, that is, his ability to assimilate his language to the
specific subject and locale, clearly shown not only in the West Indian dialect poems of
In a Green Night but in the American poems of The Gulf, especially in "Elegy" and
"Blues." The features of the East African landscape provide the poet with his narrative
terms: "A Far Cry from Africa:"
A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
However, Walcott imposes on this objectively observed landscape a morality which
is not a factor in the struggle. The Darwinian "violence of beast on beast [which] is
read / As natural law" seems a more relevant explanation of the conflict than the mor-
ality of "upright man's" search for divinity. The conflict between "gorilla" and "super-
man" is governed by natural law, not moral law. Walcott places the emphasis in the
poem on the moral indignation which he expresses through the parallelism of "the
white child hacked in bed" and the "savages, expendable as Jews." It is this moral
indignation at the degradation of humanity which prevents a sympathetic expression
of kinship with either group: "I who am poisoned with the blood of both", with its
emphasis on poisoning, seems a stronger expression of estrangement than the sym-
pathies expressed elsewhere in the poem. Walcott's moral power is however literary,
However, the imaginative identification is made possible in poems about two
different landscapes. The central images in such poems are those from photography
and reading in particular images based on the camera negative and the page of an
open book. The negative, that of the camera and that of the X-ray, is particularly use-
ful for developing the racial pun on black and white, in a poem like "Negatives" or in
that brief illuminating comment on The Blacks in "What the Twilight Says": "its
first half a negative, its second half a print." The white page is the means by which
Walcott creates an emotional link between two landscapes, a tropical and a cold
temperate, in poems like "The Flock" and "A Village Life", in which a moon-drenched
tropical setting and a snow covered landscape are presented like paper records of the
poet's psychological history. In "Codicil" the moonlit beach is like a blank page for
the poet's imagination, and Another Life begins with a similar image of the seascape as
a book opening out into the childhood memory of the poet. But if the people are seen
mainly as characters cast in a literary role, "poor negatives [who] have soaked too
long in the basin of the mind", the poet nevertheless balances his imaginative excur-
sions by his physical exploration of places and things. The experience of physical
touch which the poet explores in "Coral" reappears in a fine passage ending the second
chapter of Another Life in which, while re-visiting his late mother's home, physical
feeling becomes the measure of a sense of tradition and history for the returning
Finger each object, lift it
from its place, and it screams again
to be put down
in its ring of dust, like the marriage finger
frantic without its ring;
I can no more move you from your alignment,
mother, than we can move objects in paintings.
The acid taste left by a historical experience, the dissatisfaction with the experiment
with exile, both are resolved in the physical experience of belonging to a particular
place and time.
1. Hugo Williams, review of In a Green Night in London Magazine (July 1962) p. 77.
2. cf. Sister Bernetta Quinn, review of The Gulf and Other Poems In Poetry (Chicago)
(February 1972) 301, and Kenneth Ramchand, An Introduction to the Study of West
Indian Literature (Sudbury on Thames) 1976, p. 117.
3. Dennis Donoghue, review of The Gulf and Other Poems in The New York Review of Books
(6 May, 1971) p. 27.
PAINTERS AND PAINTINGS IN 'ANOTHER LIFE'
In recreating the St Lucia of his memory in Another Life, Walcott draws heavily
on images from painting and related arts, especially photography. Sculpture, etching,
pottery, dance also contribute, and music provides a major 'cluster' of images and
allusions. This deliberate and extensive use of imagery from the arts is appropriate to
the recall of the youthful dream of a society dedicated not to power but to art. As he
says at the end of the essay 'What the Twilight Says': 'When twenty years ago we
imagined cities devoted neither to power nor to money but to art, one had the true
vision.'1 So the art imagery in Another Life helps to convey the poem's meaning
partly by being counterpoised against the martial imagery (soldiers, bugles, cannon
smoke and battle-charges), connotative of power, of history as a saga of great battles,
of victors and vanquished.
It is particularly appropriate that imagery of painting, including allusions to actual
painters and paintings, should figure as prominently as it does in Another Life, since
the lost life which the poem celebrates was a life of very active involvement in painting,
one dominated by two painters, Harold Simmons and Dunstan St Omer, the Harry
and Gregorias of the poem.2 By using painting so much as part of the poem's techni-
que, Walcott pays homage, over and above anything he says in the poem, to that life
and those painters. The poem not only recounts that period of his life when he saw
his future to be that of a painter; it not only fits that period into the shape of meaning
which he sees his life as having taken; it also uses that life (painting) as a major factor
or vehicle in the poem's way of expressing meaning. To put it another way, painting is
not only a subject of the poem, but also an important aspect of its style and texture.
Walcott's poetry has always shown a marked interest in and influence from painting.
Another Life is likely to remain the most profound and elaborate expression of this
Throughout the poem Walcott describes with a painter's and draughtman's eye:
the frieze of coal-black carriers, charbonniers,
erect, repetitive as hieroglyphs (p 29)3
A peel of lemon sand
curled like a rind across the bay's blue dish. (pp 65-66)
... the hills stippled with violet
as if they had seen Pisarro. (p 74)
... the framed yellow jungle of
the groyned mangroves meeting
the groyned mangroves repeating
their unbroken water-line. (p 149)
Every view is composed and coloured and framed as for a painting. We read of
'every view/assembling itself to say farewell' (p 111), and 'A landscape of burnt stones
and broken arches/arranged itself with a baroque panache.' (p 84). At the beginning of
the poem we are taken into the mind of the young Walcott straining to record his
beloved Vigie landscape in line and colour; in chapter 9 he achieves a remarkable
evocation of the act of painting; and one of the controlling images of the poem is that
of the island seen as a painting, particularly a Renaissance painting, 'a cinquecento
fragment in gilt frame' (p 4).
Many of the painterly images and the references to famous paintings derive from
one book which greatly influenced Walcott in his youth, Thomas Craven's A Treasury
of Art Masterpieces: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (New York, 1939).
He mentions it twice in the poem: once at the beginning of chapter 4 ('Thin water
glazed/the pebbled knuckles of the Baptist's feet. In Craven's book.' (p 23); and again
in chapter 12, when he asks his remembered young self, 'Starved, burning child,/
remember "The Hay Wain"/in your museum, Thomas Craven's book?' (p 78). In the
unpublished first version of Another Life, Walcott refers to it as
a book that I used as my imaginary museum and where I had learnt all I now
knew about the old masters and the great painters . a large black book from
which I copied, in water-colour, a number of great paintings: Turner's 'The Fighting
Tme'raire Towed To Her Last Berth', Goya's 'Night Execution' as my father had
once copied Millet's 'The Gleaners.'4
The many references to Renaissance painting and painters whose acquaintance he
made or maintained through this book, not only attest to the hold which Renaissance
art had on Walcott's imagination, but are also very apt for delineating the vision of
Another Life. In the Renaissance he found a supreme example of a great age defined
by its art, so to speak, the idea that it is the art that brings the age to fullest self
awareness, that 'signs' the epoch. So, 'as conquerors who had discovered home',
(p 53), he and St Omer, Walcott tells us,
disciples of that astigmatic saint,
that [they] would never leave the island
until [they] had put down, in paint, in words,
as psalmists learn the network of a hand,
all if its sunken, leaf-choked ravines,
every neglected, self-pitying inlet ... (p 52).
In the early poem 'Roots', Walcott, wishing himself to be the Homer of his own
people, had prayed that his poetry would
... make without pomp, without stone acanthus,
in our time, in the time of this phrase, a 'flowering
Make the rice fields and guinea-corn waving,
The creak of the bullock-cart, make
The fields with bent Indians in the rice marsh.5
Walcott keeps the idea of the Renaissance alive in the reader's mind through
imagery, as when he thinks of Pinkie, the dead child, as having '(g)one to her harvest
of flax-headed angels, /of seraphs blowing pink-palated conchs' (p 9). These angels and
seraphs are details from Renaissance painting, as, for example, is the 'chiton-fluted
sea' (p 5)6. And his account of his 'conversion', the epiphanic moment of dedication
to Art, which was at the same time a dedication of himself to his country, is expressed
through allusions to Renaissance art:
who floated in the vaults of Michelangelo,
of sienna and gold leaf ... (p 44).
A passage such as this also illustrates the fact that Renaissance art, by virtue of its
religious connections, was most helpful to Walcott in conveying the notion of the
identification between art and religion in his remembered life, as well as his transference
of much of his religious feeling to art. So, for instance, chapter 4, which recalls some
aspects of the religious life of St Lucia, begins by way of reference to one of the
Renaissance paintings reproduced by Craven:
Thin water glazed
the pebbled knuckles of the Baptist's feet.
In Craven's book.
Their haloes shone like the tin guards of lamps.
Verrocchio. Leonardo painted the kneeling angel's hair.
Kneeling in our plain chapel,
I envied them their frescoes.
Italy flung round my shoulders like a robe,
I ran among dry rocks, howling, 'Repent!' (p 23).
The painting is 'The Baptism of Christ' by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da
Vinci. Walcott no doubt got his information about the painting of it from a comment
The picture is memorable for the vaporous landscape in the distance, and for the
kneeling angel at the left, whose carefully drawn hair and delicate features touched
with radiance were not of Verrocchio's fibre. These additions were painted by an
apprentice, a boy of seventeen named Leonardo da Vinci.7
In the comparison of the haloes to 'tin guards of lamps', the reflectors on the
kerosene lamps which were common in his childhood,8 we see Walcott relating art,
and foreign art, to his day-to-day experience of life. So too with the 'seraphs blowing
pink-palated conchs', the conchs, replacing the more usual trumpets in the religious
paintings, being commonplace in the West Indies and used in St Lucia to border graves.
These details, like his general 'envy' of Renaissance art, underscore how much Walcott's
view of life and religion was coloured by his experience of art. Furthermore, they
contribute to the exploration of one of the main themes of the poem, the relationship
between art, life and reality-the idea, for example, that we are driven by a desire to
make life over into art. The centrality of this area of interest is indicated by the
quotation from Malraux's Psychology of Art which forms the epigraph to Book One
of Another Life. Also of special significance in this connection are those instances in
the poem in which a scene or a person fixes itself/himself in the poet's mind in terms
of some scene or character from a painting or a book. An outstanding example is the
case of the child Pinkie mentioned above-the girl whom Walcott knew being
confused with/made more real by Sir Thomas Lawrence's famous portrait.
The connotative identification of art and religion extends into many specific
details of the poem and enhances the impression of a richly integrated whole. For
example, our first glimpse of Simmons is of the scholar-artist-priest, with intimations
of sainthood about him, yet another image out of Renaissance painting and one to
which Simmons' baldness lent itself:
Within the door, a bulb
haloed the tonsure of a reader crouched
in its pale tissue . (p 5).
This imaging of Simmons deepens the significance of the master-apprentice aspect of
the Simmons-Walcott relationship, evoking all such situations in Renaissance art, as,
for example, the Verrocchio-Leonardo relationship alluded to above. This initial image
of Simmons develops easily into that of Simmons as martyr and saint, a kind of
I see him bent under the weight of the morning,
against its shafts,
devout, angelical . (p 138).
Eventually, the idea of Simmons as having been 'crucified' by his society, by a world
which knew him not, assumes inevitable rightness within the structure of the poem,
and is itself instinct with all the meaning of the art-religion nexus. So when Walcott
pronounces his curse (chapter 19) on that society for what it did to Simmons, what it
does to its artists, he ends with a reassurance against whatever destruction the 'enemy'
can perform; he ends with the vision of a 'risen' Simmons/St Omer/Walcott:
their vision blurs, their future is clouded with cataract
but out of its mist, one man,
whom they will not recognize, emerges
and staggers towards his lineaments. (p 128).
And Gregorias/Simmons is transfigured, translated, lifted up to be one with the
ached like a rusting hawser
to hoist him heavenwards towards
his name, pierced with stars
of Raphael, Saint Greco . (p 125).
Walcott's portrait of Anna is also influenced by Renaissance art:
profile of hammered gold,
head by Angelico,
stars choiring in gold leaf. (p 89)
her golden plaits a simple coronet
out of Angelico, a fine sweat on her forehead,
hair where the twilight sing:. and signed an epoch. (p 45).
Even his description of her as Judith with the head of Holofernes (p 89) obviously
derives from one or other of the Renaissance paintings on that favourite theme, as
much as from Dante's description of the headless trunk of Bertrans,'that bears for
light/Its own head swinging, gripped by the dead hair,/And like a swinging lamp.. .
The art-inspired descriptions of Anna, as indeed all the allusions to Renaissance art
in Another Life, help to convey the sense of epoch 10 which attaches to Walcott's
memory of that life, the feeling that he was participant in an epoch-making moment of
artistic awakening in St Lucia and the West Indies, the feeling that St Omer and him-
self, under Simmons' tutelage, were seeing and re-creating their world with new eyes,
in the same way that the Renaissance artist had rediscovered the world. Simmons 'had
beheld/a community of graceful spirits/irradiating from his own control and centre .
(p 120), and Walcott sees St Omer as a St Lucian Giotto or Masaccio, 'his primitive
companionable saints' (p 61), since Renaissance art just about began with Giotto and
Masaccio, especially the former, who arose almost self-created as it were to create a
Giotto and Masaccio, then, like some other painters mentioned in the poem, are
used by Walcott to define Gregorias, just as Gauguin is used in chapter 19 to define
Simmons.ll Giotto and Masaccio connote the 'primitive', original force of Gregorias,
as Van Gogh, 'saint of all sunstroke' (p 56), connotes his vibrancy and compulsive
energy, his 'madness.'
ached like a rusting hawser
to hoist him heavenward towards
his name, pierced with the stars
of Raphael, Saint Greco, and later,
not stars, but the people's medals,
with Siquieros, Gauguin, Orozco,
Saint Vincent and Saint Paul. (p 125).
In the original version of this passage, Walcott spells out the symbolism in his referen-
ces to these painters:
You [Gregorias] wanted to be not only Raphael, your 'sweet painter' (that was
your Catholic side) but Orozco, Siquerios [sic] and Rivera as well (your violent
Trinity, the new world rebel in you) but Gauguin and Van Gogh (madness and
The Mexican muralists-Orozco, Siquieros and Rivera-represent not only the idea of a
revolutionary New World art, to which Walcott and Gregorias dreamed of contributing,
but also the idea of art for 'the people.' This idea of community is held in tension
against that of isolation/madness as a major theme of the poem-the artist as man of
the people against the artist as outcast and alienated.
Even more essential to the web of the poem than the painterly descriptions and the
allusions to particular paintings and painters, is the poet's use of certain images relating
to colours and techniques of painting.
At the very beginning of the poem, when he is describing Vigie and Castries at
sunset, he uses 'amber' three times in two pages to convey the quality of the light. The
glare, he says,
. mesmerised like fire without wind,
and as its amber climbed
the beer-stein ovals of the British fort
above the promontory, the sky
grew drunk with light. (p 3)
As the painting completes itself in the boy's mind, the 'silence waited'
S. for the tidal amber glare to glaze
the last shacks of the Morne till they became
transfigured sheerly by the student's will,
a cinquecento fragment in gilt frame. (p 4).
This amber glow glorifies his memory of the island and his young life:
was your heaven! the clear
glaze of another life,
a landscape locked in amber, the rare
gleam. (p 3)
Like the amber glaze used by the Old Masters, the poet's imaginative memory
modifies and enriches the 'colours' of the world which it recreates. In this connection,