HIS BROKEN GROUND: Edward Brathwaite’s trilogy of Poems

Reading Time: 22 minutes

With the publication of Islands, Edward Brathwaite’s trilogy of poems is complete. Of the trilogy’s major importance to West Indians there was never any doubt; its concerns are distinctly relevant to this society now. As a volume of poetry this latest book is the most consistently satisfying of the three; no one will dare to call Islands “a ‘script’ for recitation[1]“; its best is equal to anything in Rights of Passage or in Masks, and nothing in it requires that we wait to hear it brilliantly read aloud. Although, like the first two volumes, it has skillful changes of pace and careful imitation of strong recognizable rhythms, and although to hear so fine a reader as Edward Brathwaite perform Islands would no doubt deepen our experience of the work, it is, throughout, written tightly enough to reward the silent reader encountering it alone.

Now that it has all been published, it is clear that the trilogy is genuinely, as originally announced, a single continuous work brought out in three instalments. The detailed relationship between the volumes is quite complex, but the order in which the books have appeared is part of the structural point: the African book is the centre of the trilogy; our Journeys end with return to our Caribbean islands. The trilogy, having started with the dislocated” New World Negro, turns to the Africa he left, and suggest that there are problems in actually returning to an Africa which secs him now as a stranger; it recommends embracing, in his own New World culture, essentially African modes of feeling long repressed by the dominance of Europe.

In Rights of Passage we were made to feel the hock of encounter with armed slavers, and the uprooting from Africa.

It will be a long long time before we see

these forms again, soft wet slow green

again: Abun, Akwamu,

mist rising

 

We shared Negro suffering in many manifestations: Uncle Tom, controlled by the boss man, mocked by his own children, and in the end forgotten; the harshly ironic Negro spitting back the white man’s demeaning image of the black; Negroes sweating in ”this tin trunk’d house/that we rent from the rat/to share with the mouse”; the young miss who must “twist the music out -of hunger”; Brother Man the Rasta Man who “watched the mice/ come up through the floor·/ boards of his down-/ town, shanty-town kitchen,/ and smiled”; black Sam carrying “bucketfulls of water/ ’cause his Ma’s just had another daughter”; John whose “boss one day called him a fool/ and the boss hadn’t even been to school”; emigrants; the Negro cold in the London underground, hot in Harlem, despised or patronized in Europe. The West Indian who returns home hopeful (“gulls, white sails slanted seaward,/ fly into the limitless morning before us”) rediscovers a world that profoundly disappoints. The politicians are self-seeking and corrupt. Even nature is hostile: the peasant thanks God for small mercies but

suddenly so

widdout rhyme

widdout reason

you crops start to die

you can’t even see the sun in the sky.

Everywhere the Negro is disturbed. Towards the end of this vivid rendering of pain and dislocation the shifting “I” of the poem, at this time a young militant criminal, finds himself wondering “if/ Tawia Tutu Anokye or/ Tom could’a ever/ have live/such a life.”

It is part of the function of Masks to answer that Back in Africa all was not sweetness and light. After the religious ritual of “The Making of the Drum” we begin, in “Pathfinders”, to grasp that the lust for destruction and conquest was among the problems of Africa, as of everywhere else. El Hassan made war, burnt, destroyed, pillaged. Unprepared’ to resist, “too soft/too blandished, too ready for peace and for terror”, Ougadougou (one of the Niger states) “watched them come.” Restlessness is endemic. The travellers in “Volta” are tired but they travel on. For the African in Africa, as for the black man in Rights, the journeys continue. “There is a land, south/of here, where it is richer/… and further on fa? place where the water/boils white at its whispering/ edges.” The traveller recounts that in a dream he “heard/the sound of silver run-/ning with the clink of water.”, The imagery (“white”, “silver”, “clink of water”) anticipates the Africans being sold into slavery to whites for transportation overseas. The journeys continue. Leadership is ineffectual or ambiguous (“is he the king/or glutton?”). It is “time to forget/ these kings. It is Time to forget/these gods.” But the rejection of old certainties sets new uncertainties adrift within the travellers, there “is a new world discovered here;/new world of time and time’s uncertainty.” In the forest ”the new curled god” is discovered, “wrong ‘s/ chirping/lightning/ no longer harms”, the people dance and sing. “Time’s walking river is long” but at long last the voyages end:

Here at last was the limit;

the minutes of pebbles drop-

ping into the hourless pool.

Hands reached into water;

gods nudged us like fish;

black bottomless whales that we worshipped.

new world of want, who will build

the new ways, the new ships?

 

The painful irony is focused by “new world”, to which slaves will be transported.