is a craftsperson, oral or literary, ideally both, who deals in metrical and/or rhythmical—sometimes riddmical—wordsongs, wordsounds, wordwounds & meanings, within a certain code of order or dis/order—what Antonio Benítez-Rojo calls creative chaos These word/sound/meanings are caught out of the mind or moment’s sky as it were & etched into the ground and underdrones of the poet’s/of the artist’s culture. And from the ground of that culture is he/ she grown// is he/ she known// is he .she be/ come
Some definitions,” Barabajan Poems (1994)
IT WAS 1987. I was 21 years of age, freshly returned to Barbados having graduated from university in Canada, and a young published poet. Determined to be a real poet (in the years since, the word “poet” has expanded to writer—poet, essayist, journalist, scriptwriter, novelist—and I have no idea what “real” means anymore). I had come to the realization that I could not know where I was going as a poet until I understood from whence (what literary tradition) I had come.
It is with that thought firmly planted in mind that I embarked on my quest to discover my literary forefathers and foremothers.
My enquiries led to many names. Kamau was chief among them.
Of course, I’d heard of Kamau and Lamming, Callender (whom I’d met as he sold his graphic novels, of which I was a fan, in supermarket parking lots) and Collymore, and I had been taught by Bruce St John, another of our noted poets, at Barbados Community College. However, up to that point the only Barbadian literature I recalled formally studying at secondary school in Barbados was Christopher by Geoffrey Drayton (the poignancy of which lingers even today—30+ years later).
In one quick visit to the university’s bookshop, I was armed with his poetry trilogy The Arrivants.
I read it.
Slowly but surely.
Assisted by my trusty sidekicks Dictionary and Glossary.
And I was enchanted!
I fell into the rhythms of the work, the way the words rolled around and resonated in my mind’s ear.
Yeah, I danced with it.
Not a cultured waltz. More a foot-stomping, body-pulsing, wuk up….
I also understood little of what I’d read.
But I felt it! (Years later I would come across Dreamstories—of which the back-page blurb announces, “Not always immediately accessible, but always enthralling…,” and think, Oh, good! It’s not just me!)
This was my first, or at least my most memorable, taste of Kamau.
It was only after reading The People Who Came—a trilogy of Caribbean History books written by Kamau (at that time Edward Brathwaite)—that I began to understand that this giant of a poet was beautifully weaving the story of the Caribbean in this poetry trilogy (Rights of Passage, Islands and Masks). Here we see unfold the history of our region, from our origins in the Motherland (“The Making of the Drum”) through the formation of the islands (“Calypso”) through the horrors of middle passage (“New World A-Comin’”) through slavery (“Prelude”) colonialism and neo-colonialism (“Trade-Winds”) through immigration (“The Emigrants”) to modern-day slavery of the mind (“Pebbles”) and back to our African roots (“The Awakening”).
This history is interwoven with his story, his journey into and throughout the world—the Caribbean, Europe, North America, and Africa—as an Afro-Caribbean man. His physical/mental/spiritual return to Africa (where he was gifted the name Kamau—quiet warrior) is central to his work. Indeed, it is essential (if deeper overstanding is to be attained) to approach Kamau’s poetry with, at the very least, an academic awareness of African and Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices. How else would you truly appreciate the references to and invocations of Negus, Legba, Ogun, Olodumare, Damballa, Shango, and the Iwa?
My journey into/through/with Kamau’s words did not end with The Arrivants, naturally. There are the lessons well taught and learned from Mother Poem, Sun Poem, X/Self, The Zea Mexican Diary, and Dreamstories as well as from his wide body of non-fiction, perhaps chief among them History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. These lessons were in the use of and experimentation with rhythm; the need for complete honesty—a baring of the breastbone, so to speak—in one’s writing; and perhaps, most importantly, the need for a certain measure and type of fearlessness in creating one’s own literary landscapes.
As my writing career progressed and as I became more involved in the administration of the literary arts in Barbados, I had many opportunities to interact with Kamau in person, via email and by phone. (It is evident from his letters that, for him, Sycorax is not just an artistic fancy. He lives it. He uses the style in his everyday communications, too.) His humility, his quiet but fierce passion—not just for the arts and for culture but for justice—are awe inspiring.
On my quest, I expressed to Kamau my concern about still not knowing my literary foremothers. He pointed me in the direction of Elizabeth B. Clarke (who has reaped success as a writer mainly of TV screenplays) in Britain, and who, I discovered many years later at a family reunion, is a cousin of mine—literally a literary forebear) and to Margaret D. Gill—still one of the foremost poets in Barbados today. Thanks to Kamau, this history of poets is available to all who are interested in becoming “real poets,” documented as it is in Barabajan Poems.
Computer is called Sycorax because one of the main concerns in my teaching and in the way I see things, is in the use of Shakespeare’s—the people out of Shakespeare’s tempest Is my conviction that Shakespeare spends two important “missing” years in the Caribbean and writes The Tempest out of this experience. Is the most amazing accurate protean and applicable description of colonialism and slavery and their consequences that we have. Is a blueprint, a report on something that is coming into being. And the people that Shakespeare produces in that dream, in that poem….. Sycorax being the submerge African and woman and Iwa of the pla(y), Caliban mother and person who deals with the herbs and the magical sous-reality of the world over which Prospero rules. And therefore I celebrate her in this way—thru the computer—by saying that she’s the spirit/person who created an(d)/or acts out of the video-style that I workin with She’s the Iwa who, in fact, allows me the space and longitude—groundation and inspiration….
ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackay (1997)
To observe how Kamau has used his academic background to create his art, to tell his story as well as history; to watch him wield his knowledge of the past, of language and culture, to subvert semantics, deconstruct and then reconstruct as he does in Barabajan Poems and ConVERSations and Born to Slow Horses, using his Sycorax style (has anyone else noticed the similarities between Sycorax and modern-day texting? The similarities exist, proving once again, at least to my mind, that Kamau is a word warrior ahead of his time), has been an invaluable education and priceless honour. Just as special is the process of experiencing the work he has created out of his personal, traumatizing life experiences (the loss of his first wife, an assault at his home in Jamaica, the shock of 9/11) and arriving at the overstanding that his distress is not merely his, but a reflection of the trauma of Caribbean (indeed, world!) history.
To witness his distillation of a language—and what that language stands for—to reveal what was truly lost during those years of legalised human trafficking—nommo, nam/man, nyam (as Kamau defines itnam: “secret name, soul-source, connected with nyam (eat), yam (root food), nyame (name of god)”) is to experience linguistic enlightenment and emancipation.
Kamau has said, “What I am trying to do is create word sculpture on the page, word sculpture in the ear.” This is easy to see, for his manipulation of words is nothing short of …. (I am at a loss for words here. I want to say “amazing,” but the word seems so banal! In true Kamau style, I make so bold as to create the word “amaz.on.ing” to approximate what I mean.)
So i turn back turn back to ship & journey here & water
flowing my beginning. quiet ending
the great mass of the memory mountain
rising up slowly out of the sea before sun
for when when it is dark. it is dark. it is home. it is here
the presences appearing thru the power thru the light. which is still dark.
which is still dark. the great fish underwater breathe. ing time
but w/the poem still largely unwritten really
the metaphors not properly in place
not properly the property of the poem
red riddims intervene/ing
w/too many other intertwining doubts too many clumping cloud
too too much lovevine still entangling the soar and soil
of my confession to the muse
too many fault-lines marking where I sorrow
craft & hurting heart and diligence of art
the poem “finish” but not yet complete—
is yr compassion helping me to see
it. say it
“Mountain,” Born to Slow Horses (2005)
My favourite of Kamau’s offerings is a slim volume of his early work Black and Blues, which won the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1976. (A poem in this collection, “Blues,” inspired my own “This Ain’t No Blues.”) It’s my favourite because in this book the poet and the poems interact with the reader on a more personal level. There is a sense of ease, of familiarity, intimacy even, which does not present itself to me in any other of Kamau’s work. It is a slim volume (23 poems) in which he masterfully captures the rhythms of his environs—urban, island, African—to explore themes of fragmentation, despair and rebirth/rediscovery as they relate to race, culture, nationhood, heritage, and self-definition (in both senses of the word).
Words Need Love Too follows closely on my list. It is in this tome—the slimness of which belies the depth and weight of its contents—that he reminds us that we begin and end with the word, we live and die by the word… for we are the word. We must embrace our Self.
they need our hands to undercover them
nourish rebel revel & at last reveal them
our palms on their wet cheeks of future
hold them so soon so vulnerable so soft
after their burn
That early tearing cry. that open mouth-shape morn
-ing w/its dark space of world
howling from void to violence of what will become
yr teeth yr tongue
shreds torn at least to text to silence
“Words Need Love Too,” Words Need Love Too (2000)
John Wickham, another great Barbadian writer and one of Kamau’s contemporaries, once told me: “A writer reveals as much about himself through his writing as he does about his subject.” (It was cautionary advice.) Through Kamau’s work, I have discovered that he is, at heart, griot; he is historian, keeper of memory, preserver of language, protector of culture. He is biographer, storyteller, poet, bard. He is the voice of primordial rhythm as much as a man of letters.
He is a national treasure.
Our national treasure.
We must treasure him.
NAILAH FOLAMI IMOJA is a Barbadian/British writer. A teacher by day, she has been published in numerous anthologies and is the author of several novellas. These include titles from her Romance Series—Caribbean Passion. One of these short novels, Pick of the Crop (2004), was published by Heinemann. Her greatest opus thus far is her daughter.