“Set Dem Free Again”: Duppy Conqueror and the Invocation of Legacy
Kwame Dawes is an award winning poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, reggae artist and scholar. His conquest of genre is representative of the diversity in his background, which in turn is augmented by his geographical dislocations. He was born in Ghana, grew up in Jamaica, spent formative years in the U.K. and Canada, and has been a resident of the United States for decades. These migrations—of both geography and genre—are in part what make Dawes an important figure in contemporary literature. His awareness of the transnational moment, the issues of migration and exile, his groundbreaking studies on the role of reggae in developing literatures of the Caribbean, and his engagement with the black diasporic experience are just some of the facets that make his writing a vital part of the contemporary literary landscape.
A little over a month ago, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak in a Studies in Poetry class about the work of Kwame Dawes. The class was reading Duppy Conqueror, in preparation for Dawes’ visit to campus. I started by asking if the students were familiar with Bob Marley, whose work the title of Dawes’ collection references, and most of them shrugged or stared at me blankly. One seemed to have an involuntary eruption of “Yeah! Marley!” but with the kind of excitement that suggests Bob Marley means a good time on a Friday night, and without the enhanced awareness of Marley’s important cultural and social messaging. It made sense, then, that the first step in talking about Dawes and Duppy Conqueror, was to talk about Marley, the cultural contexts of reggae, and the concept of the duppy. I started by explaining to the students that the title of this recent collection shares the title with Bob Marley’s popular song about overcoming the malicious people or energies in his life. The refrain in “Duppy Conqueror” is:
Yes, me friend, me friend
Dem set me free again
In a collection like Duppy Conqueror, Dawes’ use of Marley’s words is not simply an allusion—it’s an invocation of the social and cultural conventions Marley’s music rebelled against. It’s an invocation of the legacy of Marley’s work and the international effect of his music and his politics. It’s an invocation of a historicity—and a recording of history—that challenges the mainstream (white) narrative of slavery, of Jim Crow, of the Middle Passage, of blackness and of colonization. According to Dawes, reggae became a sense of being and a way of viewing the political and cultural moment that infused the visual and literary arts—as well as music—of Jamaica and spread through the black diaspora.
Dawes’ relationship to reggae music is a very self-conscious one. As a reggae musician himself (he was a member of a reggae band called Ujamaa) Dawes is intimately aware of the messages carried by reggae music. As he details in Natural Mysticism (1999) and in A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock (2007), reggae was part of his life from an early age, but it was not until he was living away from Jamaica—when he was in Canada—that he was fully cognizant of the influence reggae music had had on his own personal and literary formation. Thus what Dawes calls the Reggae Aesthetic, like many other theories of Caribbean aesthetics, originates from a position of distance.
Reggae, Dawes claims, is a form of literacy that influenced Jamaica and the development of the Jamaican national identity, and which then ricocheted around the Caribbean. Reggae inspired a self-awareness, a legitimizing of blackness as a cultural voice, something that in the nascent stages of decolonization proved a remarkable and essential element in the process of independence. Reggae is the sound of the resistance narrative, and for Dawes, it was the music that led him to develop his voice as a writer. Reggae is a recognizable force, a recognizable beat and sound that automatically informs its listeners that a given song subscribes to the tenets of reggae: cultural power, economic equality, the true reflection of what is happening in society, and the honest expression of what it means to be a human on its most human level. The intertextuality employed through the use of reggae references and the lyricism of reggae invoked in his compositions shape Dawes’ writing.
To understand this collection, the reader must understand the concept of the duppy as a malevolent spirit that hangs around, unwanted but unwilling to leave. The duppy serves as a metaphor for burdens or obstacles—to conquer the duppy, as in Marley’s song, is to overcome obstructions or ill-will. The poems in Duppy Conqueror share with Marley’s song a sense of liberation, of emancipation. The sense of conquest is a powerful undercurrent—practically a riptide—in Dawes’ collection, particularly in the section entitled “New Poems.” But what Dawes’ section called “New Poems” suggests is that liberation and emancipation do not necessarily mean an escape. Instead, by references to other writers and cultural artists, to historical events and through clear depictions of the black experience, Dawes shows the lingering presence of the duppy as a form of cultural memory.
Matthew Shenoda does an admirable job collecting poetry that highlights the consistent themes in Dawes’ works: blackness, nationalism, exile, identity, sex, love, and a sense of place. The curating of the poems from the first sections of the edited collection foreground the shift that is apparent in the “New Poems” section—the restlessness apparent in so many individual poems is more obvious in this final concentrated selection in Duppy Conqueror because of the marked migration that appears over the course of the anthology’s pages. What ultimately emerges in this section is a feeling of unsettled observation, as if Dawes is that apparition he writes about in “Exorcism.” In the section “New Poems,” the narrative voice is a ghost that drifts from landscape to landscape in search of absolution, or of someone who can perform the titular act:
Any child who sees the bloated
body of a familiar spirit, even once,
will be marked for life—not a curse
but a queer anointing, as if
the dead are always with us. . . (304)
The themes of exile, slavery, oppression, placelessness, sex, love, evangelical religion, and survival make up the “familiar spirit” that marks the black diasporic experience. But this “familiar spirit” is one of those moments of word play that reflects the nuance and complexity of Dawes’ writing. The idea of ordinary and the usual—the recurring spirit—is suggested in this poem while at the same time “familiar” can suggest an allusion to the obeah sense of the animal embodiment of a spirit. Therefore the child who is marked by the haunting repetition of historicity will be both burdened and gifted by a cultural memory. In the poem, “The Burden,” the narrative voice says, “Young/man, you will die young once/ you have exorcised this century/of souls” (291). What emerges from the New Poems is a poetic wrestling with the legacy of a powerful Muse and an attempt to reconcile memory to some sense of peace through the balm of evangelical Christianity, and an earthy connection to the everyday experiences of his poetic subjects.
Dawes’ writing is invariably a grappling with a constantly shifting and constantly constructed and reconstructed identity. In addition to Bob Marley’s influence, his poems are often dedicated to or have epigraphs drawn from recognizable and significant literary and cultural figures such as Kamau Brathwaite, August Wilson, Leroy Wilson, Edgar Allen Poe, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Zora Neale Hurston. Invoking these figures and even geographical locations inserts a North American historicity into the earlier legacies of the African and Caribbean spaces foregrounded in his earlier poetic works and mimics Dawes’ own transcontinental movements. The result is that the New Poems in Duppy Conqueror depict the complicated path of the diasporic experience and these poems demonstrate that freeing is not the same as forgetting. Instead, freeing, or escaping, or emerging are still about a sense of remembrance—the poems are an acknowledgement and record of what has been escaped from, what has been removed from and what has been recovered from.
When teaching Dawes’ works, I am grateful for students’ willingness to tackle the complexity of his poetry; but the complexity of the poems and their intertextuality also can give rise to feelings of frustration with which I can sympathize. As several students in the Studies in Poetry class said, they just knew they were missing more references and allusions than they caught. Their turmoil brings to mind the words of “Apparition,” one of the New Poems in Duppy Conqueror:
Every story has a carrier, a patron
saint who must haunt every telling
until the story finds an ending. (234)
Does the reader become the patron saint carrying the poem until we discover an ending? Is it Dawes whose writing stirs the restless ghosts? I think the answer is perhaps a little of both: we walk away from the poems with a sense of the unfinished, of unease. Dawes has reminded us that history does not lie quietly in graveyards, but is instead born into every one of us and both willingly and unwillingly we live the legacies of our ancestors until we set them free.
Thank you to my colleagues Ashley Shannon and Nancy Zaice for their comments, and to Jim Persoon and his Studies in Poetry Class. Special thanks to Kwame Dawes for being generous of his time and for answering my questions.
Corinna McLeod is an associate professor of English at Grand Valley State University, where she teaches courses in Caribbean literature, world mythology, travel literature and anglophone world literatures. Her research centers on postcolonial theory, ecocriticism, and questions of national identity. Her recent articles appear in Small Axe and The Journal of International Women’s Studies and she is the author of Mapmaker: Kwame Dawes and the Caribbean Literary Aesthetic (Peepal Tree Press, forthcoming). She lives in Allendale, Michigan.
Dawes, Kwame. Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic. London: Peepal Tree Press, 1999.
Dawes, Kwame. A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative. London: Peepal Tree Press, 2006.
Dawes, Kwame. Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems. Ed. Matthew Shenoda. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Print.
The Wailers. “Duppy Conqueror.” Burnin’. Island Records, 1973.