HIS BROKEN GROUND: Edward Brathwaite’s trilogy of Poems
After this positive, the despairing negative: “But my island is a pebble”, an image of sterility (similar in poetic shape to the image of malevolence that ends Part V of Masks). Seeds will’ not take root in a pebble. “It will slay/ giants/ but never bear children.” That despairing comment is followed immediately by “Rites’:”, the superbly accurate representation of events, attitudes and voices at a cricket match in Barbados. Cricket in Barbados gets the respect due to holy rituals, the title implies. Hilarious as it is, “Rites” is a serious poem: watching cricket, the Barbadian discovers himself: when the “ballheaded sceptic snatch hat off head … an’ bawl/ out: ‘B … L…O …O… D, B … l…G B …O … Y/ bring me the B…L…O…O… D'” he is escaping from his prison of suffering, twenty-five repressed years in the Post Office “lickin’ gloy / pun de Gover’ment stamps”, just as surely as Caliban beating pan or the man doing the limbo. No hero stops the invading English, aided and abetted by “de empire”. The moral is explicitly drawn:
when things goin’ good, you cahn touch we;
but leh murder start
an’ ol man, you cahn fine a man
to hole up de side …
If “hope splinters” and people fail to do anything positive and useful, then “the rope/ will never unravel/ its knots, the branding/iron’s travelling flame that teaches/ us pain, will never be/ extinguished.”
In “Wake”, which opens Part Three (“Rebellion”), the dead one is asked to give our never-returning ancestors what has by now become the familiar message: “The land is unbearably dry.” The dead one himself is asked to “be a beneficent spirit/ and return to us in the morning.” “We seek we seek/ but find no one to speak/ the words to save us.” The gods are gods of unrighteousness and nammon. When the Mayor and Council have built a dance hall and a barbecue in a park that once was green, ugly Francina (who can scarcely afford the price) buys the dispossessed old turtle that used to live in the park. No one understands her private rebellion on behalf of life. (“I wish/ she wa’n’t was tin’ she cash pun a /turtle!” On places alive with history, Mammon builds tourist hotels; the Caribbean’s memories are being obliterated. Echoing the final words of Masks, the poem asks: “How then shall we/ succeed?”
We shall succeed through the creative power of the word. Brathwaite makes use of African significances of “naming” and “the Word”. As Janheinz Jahn explains it, “all the activities of men, and all the movement in nature, rest on the word, on the productive power of the word, which is water and heat and seed and Nommo, that is, life force itself. ” African resonances in “Word” – with undertones from the rejected Christianity (“For the Word is love”) – are being used for statements about the need for creative power in the Caribbean.
must be given words so that the bees
in my blood’s buzzing brain of memory
will make flowers, will make flocks of birds,
will make sky, will make heaven,
the heaven open to the thunder-stone
and the volcano and the un-/ folding land.
Art can be an agent of rebellion, confounding the cultural void, raging against injustice, blinding the Christian God. The mention of the Christian God is immediately followed by a Voodoo invocation to Legba, who must open the gate (“Ouvri bayi”) to the other gods:
fling me the stone
that will confound the void
find me the rage
and I will raze the colony
fill me with words
and I will blind your God.
Ouvri bayi pou’ moi
Ouvri bayi pou’ moi
“Razing the colony” is the hint taken up in “Cane”, where rebellion takes a harshly material form, the setting fire to canefields.
Goin’ to bum burn now
in dis willin’ wind
till we hurt, till we hate,
like it finish.
The slow building of the coral in the passage which opens Part Four (“Possession”) seems to be another image of poetic creation: “A yellow mote of sand dreams in the polyp’s eye;/ the coral needs this pain”; and finally “my yellow pain swims into the polyp’s eye.” “Dawn” finds “hands groping for prayer/ flowers knowing/ the sun-/ light.” “The cold fever of the day-/ light” reveals ugliness, appalling social conditions (“the dump/ heaps sprout pain again and again”). But the sun “enters fin-/ ally its growing circle of splendour” and the poem turns to some of its strongest positives, solid memories of recent ancestors in intimately remembered setting: a trap-driving butcher grandfather “six-foot-three and very neat”, lus wife who used to polish his shoes and who I remembered as singing “in a Vicks and Vapour Rub-like voice what you would call the blues.” These memories of dead ancestors are counterpointed by the short section in the insistent rhythm of “Sammy Dead-Oh”, a Jamaican folk song. Another uncle appears under the title “Ogun”, the name of a Yoruba and Afro-Caribbean Creator God. The title is suggesting the analogy between human and divine creation and (as the poem’s meaning requires) the god is black. The carpenter uncle was struggling to survive; he was poor and most days hungry. For just as the politicians had chosen to build “casinos where the casuarinas sang” so were consumers preferring metal to wood, buying mass-produced goods instead of work by the individual craftsman. This uncle had a block of wood on which he worked on Sundays. He “explored its knotted hurts” until he could feel the wood coming to life in his hands, and the creative exploration revived ln him memories of a distant past:
And as he cut, he heard the creak of forests: green lizard faces gulped, grey memories
eyes watched him from their shadows, soft liquid tendrils leaked among the flowers and a black rigid thunder he had
never heard within his hammer came stomping up the trunks.
Without consciously willing it, the artist found himself carbing a significant Negro head, “emerging woodwork image of his anger.”