HIS BROKEN GROUND: Edward Brathwaite’s trilogy of Poems

On the beach there is a blind fisherman, one of the poem’s symbols for the poet. “His eyes stare out like an empty shell”, recalling the “hacked/face, hollowed eyes” of the returning Negro in Masks. The fisherman (poet) “has his voices”, one of them a dark woman (apparently his Muse) whose singing “explores/ ruins, touches on old immemorial legends/ everyone but himself has forgotten.” “He hopes/ that light will break in the clearing/ before her song ends … ” The poem shifts back to slavery: no light breaks under the decks of a slave-ship. Attention turns from the slave to a Quaker slaver “buying/ a new world of negroes, soil-/ ing the stars.” A few lines earlier “soil” had been “shallow”. Who, it is now asked, “will till this soil”? (Two senses of “soil” are being used – earth, and shame.) The poet’s task is implied: “whose toil/ butting into this sweat-sweetened rot/ will soften these roots./ loosen the shoots under pebble and shale?”

The section “Legba” reinforces two of the main points being made so far: that there is deprivation in the Caribbean, and that the African gods are forgotten. The god Legba came “like a lame old man on a crutch” (my italics) but he is immediately made present as a particular human being who fought in wars and has pot-bellied children. The pot-bellied children are also, of course, children of the black god. The god does not get “very much attention”; contact with the old meanings has been broken. “The shorn rain” has been “cut from its thunder”, there is drought, and doubt. It is to such conditions that the black Caribbean man comes home. The dust jacket calls this “the fertile, waiting Caribbean.”

In “Limbo” (Part Two) the poem returns to the pernicious influences of the Christian church. When the small boy’s mother introduces Columbus into hrs imaginings, the boy sees “three nuns of fear”, “Santa Marias with black silk sails.” Christianity divides those who accept it from those who do not: ”you/ took/ my children/ and now I cannot reach/ them./ Christ on the Cross/ your cruel laws teach/ only to divide us/ and we are lost/ without your faith/ without your ·rear/ without your tender’d/ love.” And if God means anything useful, then why are there hurricanes? The hurricanes seem to signify not only literal storms but also waves of cultural aggression (“riding from allotted lands”) which break the fisherman’s boat on the white hills, leave ‘his nets tangled on a lonely tree (“tree” here has Christian over-tones), and confuse the trapped fish: the Caribbean poet (or other artist), attacked by waves of European culture, finds his talent battered into isolation and his work become confused. How can the balance be restored?

After this breach of the sea’s balanced treaty, how will new maps be drafted?

Who will suggest a new tentative frontier?

How will the sky dawn now?

The section which follows immediately is the beginning of the answer to those questions. Restoring balance in a European-dominated black society means swinging closer to Africa, paying closer attention to those elements and those persons in the society that are closest to the ground of Africa. The pocomania “Shepherd” is one such man. The pocornania service is evoked. Drums tumble, tambourines tinkle, and the whirling Shepherd is possessed; through him, the god speaks. It is a god who has lived the anguish of slavery.


Now I can smell

his sweat

his musk of damp and slave




his heat hurts

me, my belly is tight

his hands hit


  me into sound.


And so “the dumb speaks.” The next section asserts that we have our gods “but we do not see them.” They are everywhere, in everything. We are a long way from Africa “but the gods still have their places”. Then the poem returns to its other main concern, wicked social conditions and weakness or corruption in public life. When, in Masks, the Ashanti nation was breaking up, the leader complained: “My people cannot collect tribute.” In Havana “the police toured the gambling houses/ wearing their dark glasses/ and collected tribute.” Elsewhere the morals squadron is fleecing whores (ironically named Mary and Mary Magdalene – the Christian church again!), newspapers are reporting social titbits. Life in the Caribbean is in too many phases trivial or corrupt. The two sub-sections which follow present playing pan. for Carnival and dancing the limbo as necessary and related escapes from harsh or vapid reality, and as ways of renewing contact with the dark forgotten gods:


ping down

and the black

gods call-

ing, back

he falls

through the water’s





where the music hides




down where the si-

lence lies.



limbo like me


sun coming up

and the drummers are praising me


out of the dark

and the dumb gods are raising me





and the music is saving me





on the burning ground.