Kuwabong’s poems work best in raw images of human suffering

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This article by George Elliot Clarke about Dannabang Kuwabong, a Ghanaian professor at the University of Puerto Rico, appeared in Canada’s Chronicle Herald.

I commence African Heritage Month with a consideration of Ghanaian-Canadian poet Dannabang Kuwabong, who keeps a home in Hamilton, Ont., but teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, and globe-trots the Caribbean and Africa, tracing the invisible Trail of Tears that is the transatlantic slave trade.

Kuwabong’s fifth — and newest book — is Voices from Kibuli Country ($20, TSAR), which extends the concerns visible in his fourth book (released in 2008), Caribbean Blues & Love’s Genealogy ($17, TSAR) to address the haunting of the contemporary world by the ghosts of African diasporic history.

Kuwabong takes up Malcolm X’s command: “Remember.” (Indeed, if Martin Luther King, Jr., may be interpreted as saying forgive, X may be interpreted as having said never forget.)

So Voices from Kibuli Country (the title refers to the Commonwealth of Dominica) is a chronicle of journeys, out of the claustrophobic, occasionally Negrophobic, immigrant headspace of urban Canada to, not sightseeing, but insight-seeking, in Ohio, Puerto Rico, St. Croix (all U.S. territories), St. Martin and Dominica.

Hamilton — Steeltown — is “a smoky downtown” and bellies “Hungry for crispy cold salad and sweaty Labatt”; it is also the memory of ex-UN peacekeepers “who saved our dreams in our wallets to purchase our escape / when news came of coups and counter-coups.”

But the Canuck city is also full of folks, “Sputtering their interrogations of my origins on Concession Street.”

Kuwabong is bitter about being asked, “Where ya from?” for that question, when addressed to Canadians of colour, is heard as a subtle questioning of (our) citizenship.

Kuwabong’s English can sound stilted, at times, as if it is a foreign language (“anguish” says black Canuck bard M. Nourbese Philip) that he has absorbed fitfully — as more Latinate and abstract than it is grounded and earthy.

So he can rattle out lines like “We all one and sundry receive our desired bags of absolution and penance,” but also — to my ears — preferable phrases such as “squishy bag of guts,” or a line in phonetic Ghanaian pronunciation: “So derfor we no get eni problem egen for wan wik for os” (So, therefore, we no get any problem again for one week for us.)

Certainly, when Kuwabong echoes the great Afro-Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire and less the too-stultified style of Anglo-Saxons like W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, he is magnificent.

So one reads pithy, robust phrases: “i fired invectives / i shout them down / i pushed them out.”

Or one is spellbound by Kuwabong’s use of repetition: “Power: It is not in us to create / Power: it is not in us to transform / Power: it is not in us to donate,” etc.

Consider also these lines: “A woman named Hetty, my property / A likely BLACK NEGRO woman, my property / She carried away with her my property / In the form of a child she bore for me, my property

Or spy the effective repetition here: “but they died, the Caribs died / they died so we might know death / death of our tongue / death of our culture / death of self to self.”

Kuwabong’s content is best when he is spewing discontent: “Scars are disgusting on the skin / Scars are scary but sublime / Scars unveil your body’s lies / Scars complete your humanity.”

When he is committed to scribing History’s raw wounds, the imagery itself scars: “My poem will be a badly restored mashed-up sawn cartilage / My poem will not discriminate between fresh flesh and rotten meat.”

Thinking of the Haitian earthquake, Kuwabong confronts the red “blood for destruction,” “black for salvation,” and “blue for forgiveness”; in St. Croix, he recalls slaves suffering “whiplash and chain fire / broken shoulders on hot boulders,” but also the European conquistadors and imperialists who “defeated their fear of beauty in a bottle of rum.”

Kuwabong is a bard of fine talent, although I would like him to edit more and editorialize less, to strip the poems of rhetoric so as to accent raw power.

When his persona says, “I have come because I want to be angry at history,” I’d like him to spit fire and pull down “the Bastilles of consumption,” and make sure “no treacle is squeezed out here.”

Plenty of time later to let “the flood waters of our love (snuff) out the fires of hate.”

For the original report go to http://thechronicleherald.ca/thenovascotian/1268021-kuwabong%E2%80%99s-poems-work-best-in-raw-images-of-human-suffering

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