Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Kamau Brathwaite and the Poetics of (Re)possession

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Kamau Brathwaite and the Poetics of (Re)possession

Article excerpt

Repossession is the driving force of Brathwaite's poetry. It is part and parcel of the West Indian response to the idea that "Africans in the New World are doomed to conspire in their own futility and despair, unless they repossess themselves by repossessing their hidden past" (Ramazani et al. 542). Brathwaite's poetic figures attempt to repossess a culturally sound identity in the Caribbean. It is of necessity that this identity subsumes the "African" side of West Indian existence. He presents images of Africa that suggest necessity "is even better understood with some grasp of West African history, language, and culture upon which he situates much of his imagery, allusions, and themes" (Dawes 202). Observe the mythic references in "Veve" from The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy: those which challenge cultural despair and whose intent exists for all West Indian culture to embrace their African heritage: "And so the black eye travels to the brink of vision / but not yet; / hold back the fishnet's fling of morn- /ing; unloose the sugarcane;" (20-3). This seemingly ambiguous example of repossession portrays the native's indigenous search for cultural wholeness.

Perhaps a compelling question is what shape Brathwaite's repossession takes. Just how do we understand, how do we even comprehend these lines in "Veve": "possession of the fire / possession of the dust / sundered from your bone / plundered from my breast" (3.69-72)? At first our persona has the "fire" and "dust" of his African heritage, and then it is stripped away. Forcefully, the speaker recovers the repressed heritage from the oppressor who seeks to obscure it. There is an element of necessity here. In his essay "E. K. Brathwaite and the Poetics of the Voice," Simon Gikandi suggests the "meaning of [repossession] in Brathwaite's poetry hence lies in the reader's ability to [interpret] common structures of address and images which have become reified [as African]" (730) in West Indian literature. Brathwaite's necessity corresponds with the need to repossess cultural wholeness in the West Indies.

As it concerns Brathwaite's use of Africa, repossession cuts to the heart of most intriguing issues in postcolonial studies. In particular, critics often debate whether poets should incorporate images of African heritage into West Indian poetry. Brathwaite engages this debate in his essay "The African Presence in Caribbean Literature," in which he denigrates the romantic writing of Africa in literature, when writers use Africa as a "mask," expressing their desire to make an African connection but failing.

This essay investigates the question of how Brathwaite's repossession intervenes in the debate concerning the use of Africa. Particularly, theorists Edouard Glissant and Gikandi help begin an answer by drawing attention to a conscious effort on the part of West Indians, namely Brathwaite, to insert afrocentricity into their literature. Glissant claimed in Caribbean Discourse that West Indian blacks are at odds with past oppression: "No community would tolerate the notion of 'dispossession,' and that is a discouraging point with which to begin a scrutiny of the real. But not to do so is becoming dangerous, when dispossession is camouflaged" (37-8). In other words, representing Caribbean consciousness marks an attempt by any writer to raise a cultural dialectic. Glissant's consciousness is associated with what Derek Walcott, in his epic poem Omeros, refers to as the "prophetic song," which signifies how all indigenes must restore the Caribbean nation within themselves. Walcott's poem makes a connection between representations of transcendental ancestry and its redemptive nature. For Walcott, the notion of a redeemed culture is satisfactory because the historical and the contemporary are interweaved in a colonial and postcolonial journey. Where Omeros focuses on the cyclical realm (Western imperialism/West Indian culture) of repossession, Brathwaite's poetry more extensively targets the achievement of a repossessive culture in and of the Caribbean itself. …

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