Kamau Brathwaite: Making magic with Liviticus


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A review by JEAN ANTOINE-DUNNE for Trinidad’s Newsday.

IT WAS surprising that Kamau Brathwaite’s work, Liviticus, published by the St Martin publishers The House of Nehesi, while being long-listed, did not win the Bocas prize for poetry.

This news came after the judges in “an unprecedented move” also decided not to long-list any works for the non-fiction prize. The latter seemed to be a comment on the current state of Caribbean writing. Of course, the category of non-fiction is a somewhat nebulous one, since it excludes works of reference and apparently seems to also exclude works of literary criticism.

Brathwaite’s work has become increasingly eccentric and fits very neatly into what is called “new poetry” even though he is a poet of some 70 years standing. Over that period, his writings, in particular the first and second trilogies, The Arrivants and Ancestors, and his essays, have had a profound influence on Caribbean writing.

Brathwaite has stood alongside Derek Walcott as one of the great writers of the Caribbean. He founded the Caribbean Artists Movement with John La Rose and Andrew Salkey in the sixties and his theoretical writings underpin a great deal of scholarship across many disciplines. He has been a controversial figure nonetheless.

Brathwaite and Walcott were seen as adversaries for decades and in particular after the rise of the Black Power movement in the late sixties and early seventies. This debate centred on the accusation that Walcott was Eurocentric and Brathwaite as a disciple of Negritude and an advocate of an African-based aesthetic was more relevant to the Caribbean.

The work produced by this poet-historian and thinker has consistently sought to reshape the language of Caliban and to restore the powers of Sycorax, his mother. The invocation of Shakespeare in the reference to The Tempest is not made in isolation but in the company of other great writers of his generation, in particular George Lamming. Brathwaite’s invention of Sycorax video text or a form of montage poetry engages the reader through a trance-inducing form that moves toward incantation. The first and immediate visceral effect of the poems and writings of Liviticus is quite literally a sensation in the flesh. It makes magic. Its form may appear uneven and even meandering in its use of various fonts and styles, but these are designed to simulate both emotion and even possession. The calculated effect is of a soundscape that directs the desired experience and sensation in the moment.

Sycorax attempts to make presence tangible through a conflictual play of forms or through the resonance generated by sound and visual sign. The idea is in itself seductive and woos us. Words and the shape of the words and the signs that accompany them burrow into the spirit and connect the living with the dead. The technique demonstrates a belief in the capacity of the poet to summon ghosts.

Words slip across the page and find new meanings because of word play or context. Or because the word is broken like the bodies of the enslaved. Language is being reshaped and meanings wrenched from their accustomed historical scaffolding. The book and its musings are situated at an intersection between a westernised spiritual tradition and an African ethos. Its two poles are Liviticus which, in its biblical reference, heralds Brathwaite as poet, priest and prophet and Obatala, who is called in Orisha the creator of earth and the sculptor of mankind. The poem therefore evokes the syncretic world of the Caribbean, already crystallised in Islands, published in 1969, of Brathwaite’s first trilogy.

Liviticus is a performance that seeks to make words and images on a page have the effect of a film or a video. It references a new age of technology where the computer is the new weapon. The poems in Liviticus echo lines and themes from his earlier poetry, a system that has become familiar in Brathwaite’s rewritings over several decades.

What we also find is a technique that seeks to move the reader deeper and deeper into the subconscious place of memory and of spirit. This is an active summoning of ghosts of the past that seeks to demonstrate how history and, in this instance, a history of the lynching of black men and women continue in a different way today in what he calls cultural lynching.

Liviticus intervenes in debates about Facebook and social media and makes a statement about the sociological and cultural changes that have occurred in our time.

FB becomes a metaphor for alienation. As with all of his works, Brathwaite juxtaposes past and present to show that the “wheel turns but the future returns wreathed in disguises.”

Liviticus appears ultimately as a materialisation of an old ghost that continues the moral and spiritual degeneration begun at the time of enslavement and continued after emancipation in the historical abuse of the black.

In this present time it is a cultural manifestation of a repeated lynching of creativity and the soul.

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