Modern Metamorphoses and the Primal Sublime: The Southern/Caribbean Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Derek Walcott

By Turner, Daniel Cross | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Modern Metamorphoses and the Primal Sublime: The Southern/Caribbean Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Derek Walcott


Turner, Daniel Cross, Southern Quarterly


Mythic metamorphoses and evocations of the sublime in poems by Yusef Komunyakaa and Derek Walcott cross over into matters of ethnic history and identity, expanding the traditional borders of the American South. My reading of Komunyakaa's and Walcott's poetry invokes what I term the primal sublime, in which the ineffable is inextricable from the material. My argument moves past important previous versions of the sublime, including the "Enlightenment" sublime of Immanuel Kant, which relates the ineffable to an internal moral law and the transcendence of mere sense; the "Romantic" sublime of Edmund Burke, in which the experience of awe creates a spontaneous overflow of emotion that at first threatens but ultimately deepens the autonomous individual; and the "postmodern" sublime of Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard, which exposes the void over which our lives are suspended and attempts to revive the notion of an aesthetic avant-garde in a way that gives it a kind of ethical force. The primal sublime, by contrast, sutures the physical and the trans-subjective, presenting what Amittai F. Aviram (1994) calls "a sense of infinitude, or excess, specifically in relation to language - that which exceeds one's ability to put it into words and thus fills one with a sense of speechless wonder."1 Transcending the individual only insofar as "it is before and beyond the limitations of individual consciousness," this vision of sublimity "does not transcend the world of the physical senses. On the contrary, it is the world of physical sensation unmediated by imaginary and symbolic constructs."2 The primal sublime foregrounds an excess of physical reality that, while pleasurable, also threatens to disintegrate the autonomous psyche through its inassimilable materiality. This vision of sublimity holds particular resonance with regard to poetic form, since the inarticulate impulses and strong participatory drive of poetic rhythm imitates and inspires parallel movements in the readerly body, temporarily disrupting "the commerce of meanings" and imposing "its own transindividual order."3 The driving, unconscious pulse of rhythm, ineffable in itself, counterbalances abstract sense with primal sensation, its insistent aural repetitions speaking directly to physical being in ways that we can only describe indirectly.4

Whereas Aviram stresses primarily the synchronic, ahistorical power of the sublime, my analysis concentrates on how Komunayakaa's and Walcott's poems allow us to read the unnamable force of poetic form in relation to significant historical uprootings and disseminations of the African diaspora. Rather than reinforcing hierarchical structures of self and society by restoring faith in the cohesive self (as in Kant's and Burke's conceptions), the dynamic, disruptive excess of the primal sublime counters the fiction of mastery, individual and collective. Instead, in Komunyakaa's and Walcott's poems, the latent, excessive force of sublimity unveils the illusive nature of rational control and categorization, challenging socio-cultural forms of mastery that inform the South's and the Caribbean's shared histories of colonization, enslavement, and apartheid. Komunyakaa's and Walcott's verse summons the transfixed and transfixing doubleness of primal sublimity through stunning images of transformations of humans into things.

Recent readings of metamorphoses by Jonathan Lamb (2001) and John Frow (2001) emphasize the thinning of boundaries between humans and things. Writing on species transgression and the motif of metamorphosis in "it-narratives," Lamb comments that "humans may be propelled towards another kind not for sentimental pleasure but as a refuge from loneliness or self-loathing. Sometimes it is terror or hatred that supplies the energy for a change of shape."5 Similarly, Frow advises that "rather than thinking in terms of an opposition of things to humans or of inanimate material entities to bodies endowed with consciousness and intention," we should acknowledge "both the heterogeneity of things in the world - complexly ordered along intersecting scales running from the material to the immaterial, the simple to the complex, the functional to the nonfunctional, the living to the inert, the relatively immediate to the highly mediated - and the fluidity of the relations between these categories.

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