A part of Respect Due: Symposium on the Work of Kwame Dawes
BOSOMTWA: The sacred and profane in Kwame Dawes’ Prophets
I am thinking of the word ‘sacred’. A word whose etymology is one of deep and at times troubling ambiguity. The original term, found in ancient Roman religion, sacer, is incongruent with the meaning it took on in Christianity. According to some, the original term more convincingly coheres with the term haram in Islam. A person or thing that is ‘set apart’, which encompasses something at once ‘sacred’ and ‘cursed’. This shift is more seismic than one may think especially for the spiritual life of Caribbean people. Instead what obtains is a more simplified notion of the sacred as being symbolic of all that is ‘good’ and ‘God’. This is of course compounded by a static concept of what is ‘good’—a bigoted sense of it in fact, which scarcely veils its cultural bias. It also completely delimits human experience within an entirely moral framework. Kwame Dawes’ work constitutes an intervention of sorts into the stodgy definition of the sacred and its hegemonic status in the Caribbean and beyond.
What first appealed to me perhaps as much as it confused me was this aspect of Kwame Dawes’ aesthetic: the complex sacred. A sacred beautifully vitiated if not by the cursed then certainly by the profane, the quotidian. In his own words in The Missing Slate:
I am not sure that there is ever anything but the quotidian. In other words, even when there is pomp and splendor there is probably a streak of fecal matter in the briefs of the King. I am as interested in the alarums as I am in that telling streak—that thing that makes us all human beings who will eventually die and become quite ordinary things. I can’t say that poetry represents anything for what it is. I am not sure though that the elevation of things is the opposite of representation. Instead, I think that poetry heightens our perception of what is out there—it complicates and simplifies all at once. Poetry distils and muddies.
This is the conflict which Clarice is faced with in Dawes’ book Prophets; a prophetess, whose visions become increasingly ‘tainted’ by not merely her own erotic desires, but by the awareness of her body as something more than a mere vessel for revelation. The two however, the sacred and the ‘profane’, are never presented by Dawes as discreet domains, but always overlapping, as palimpsest. To wit, the space where Clarice and her congregation meet, is also a space where the ‘Ninevite city’s’ (as Kingston is referred to) putative debauchery takes place: “In the air the stale renk/ of spilt Red Stripe, curdling vomit, ganja and/ sweat is thick as in the drifting carcass of an old slaver/ after the liberation of the encumbered souls./ This is the hangover of Saturday night’s rite of carnival/ release before the righteous glare of Sunday penance” (17). Into the wonderful, confluent pun “the slow deliberate march to the chapel door/ where the congregation rocks its own lamentations” (ibid) (emphasis mine). While the word ‘own’ could suggest an adversarial relationship between the two, the word march—which is a word used to describe one form of carnivalesque movement in the Caribbean—and the word rocks cohere with the vocabulary of mas’ and reggae—the popular culture of the Caribbean. A better example of this mixing of sacred and profane spaces is the beautiful juxtaposition, thrown into sharp relief by a line and stanza break:
“Shifting mountains // of flies dance around the gnawed remains” (17).
We are repeatedly met with such palimpsests of place in the work which are also concurrently palimpsests of time. From Thalbot’s “instinctive return/ to the place of his navel string’s burial” to take up grimy, brazen tenantry in the ‘jaded pink mansion’ formerly a plantation Great House, to the “horny ghost” of Castleberry, Clarice’s house’s erstwhile white owner, lusting after her. Or Last Night’s fantasy shrivelled into confession, of “a bad drunken woman with bold bright eye,” who can “dance the bogle, with her knees/ supple as guava switch.” His description of her (“An all the while is pure slackness from her mout/ a slap me one side an the next wid her stinking word/ dem.”) is almost identical to an actual occurrence which the great Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite recounts in his encounter (like Clarice with Castleberry) with the ghost of a dead slave called Namsetoura, who almost seems to embody the kind of contradictions and juxtapositions and palimpsests that structure and anchor Dawes’ work:
She [Namsetoura] did it in a way which was quite unexpected because normally one would expect a sybil to speak in an oratorical manner, in a very correct, abstract system. But instead of that she used very salty language. She spoke in a mixture of Asante Twi, Ga, and Barbadian Nation language. But she spoke in a very—not a hostile manner—but she used a lot of four letter words. I mean, she chewed me out properly.
Brathwaite, like Clarice, takes down the prophecy fed to him, “gye only the redemption of my bosomtwa/ mi tell yu // an de chilldren chilldren dis-yah wound/ mi seh” (Brathwaite, 121). Brathwaite translates Bosomtwa in a footnote to the poem recounting this encounter, thus: “The sacred lake of the Asante is Bosomtwi. Bosom means sacred and secret. Twi is the name of the language. Twa refers to the female sexual organ. In her ‘presentation’. Namsetoura is very gesturally xpressive [sic] about this. She is able to combine all the meanings…” (emphases mine).
But this fluidity between worlds, times and ontologies reaches Clarice’s mind as breach, taint, but beyond her, the word preserves the fluidity with images of creation, germination and inextricably, eroticism, with, for instance, “The voice of her saviour breaking through the erotic twilight.” Yet Clarice finds these revelations “difficult: the clutter of potent seed spilling like this/ germinating in her fertile mind” (21). Or when, after the purchase of Castleberry’s nineteenth century mansion, “For two weeks Clarice delays her occupation—/ the exact count is nine days, but the pagan/ in her decision remains unspoken” (46) (emphasis mine). A nascent awareness of the continuity between worlds however looms, when after meeting the dross of Kingston’s brimming excesses of the night before “Clarice picks her way through the debris of sin/ and bows in prayer while the brothers broom // the mess into mounds to be burned: pyres of sacrifice/ turning in the morning air” (18) (emphasis mine). Note how the debris becomes the ritual sacrifice of the devotees. This takes us beyond a world delimited totally by morality and a simplified moral battle between good and evil, but instead speaks to these excesses as a cosmic counterprinciple to the ideals of Clarice and her faith. An almost cyclic relation is established in the lines above in which “debris of sin” becomes ritual pyre. Clarice’s conflict however remains one between the corporeal and the ethereal which she sees in a fraught relationship with one another, though she is perhaps the manifestation of their not dialectical but tidalectic resolution.
Such conflict ripples out into Dawes’ other works for it is in fact a key aspect of his aesthetic: the palpable imagery, the juxtaposition of the scatological and sexual with the holy, the “serious” with the frivolous. Probably it is this aspect of his aesthetic that makes for the fluid, palpable, richly-textured and human quality of his verse. You feel like if you touch the page, after a beautiful passage you might meet the slickness of stale sweat or some other unabashedly human thing. Although ubiquitous in Dawes’ work, his aesthetic is perhaps most clearly isolated and actualised in this long poem. For these putative contradictions are the stoff of Jamaican creole Christian traditions, and of Jamaican society at large. The prepared space of the sacred, and the raw (in the best sense), priapic affirmation of the profane. One comes to the revelation that the speaker in Dawes’ poem “Eat” in his collection Wheels, for example, comes to: “A man must know when night’s/ reflux—the throat burning/ with half-digested meals—is the heat/ of the spirit blessing his head” (16). This capability of rendering even the body’s inner violence with the redemptive power of the spirit.
The very idea of sacred space, holy ground, is unsettled. It is no one’s domain, nobody’s nation, but like the Caribbean tradition of sporadic social gatherings (as sporadic as Clarice’s visions which she sometimes gets on the toilet), the ‘lime’, it is a moveable feast. Like the lime, it is flexible, capable of harbouring contradiction, strange bedfellows, capacious enough to harbour Biblical stories being recast with Third World African peoples, the pure word of the spirit entering a voluptuous black woman afraid of her curves, the locksman Christ, the violence and beauty and creativity of the Jamaican nation, this island that “spawns its prophets in plenty/ their ministry brilliant in the squalor” (36).
With this poem Dawes writes himself into a small (but Tallawah) tradition of the long poem in the Caribbean. His most notable antecedents, in the Caribbean, are Derek Walcott with his long poem Omeros in which he makes efforts at resolving his fraught relationship to ‘Africa-in-the-Caribbean’—what Miss Queenie, a former Kumina Queen of Jamaica, referred to as Africa/Jamaica, a “prismatic” overstanding of origins and space as Kamau Brathwaite would have it—and Kamau Brathwaite’s own Pan-African New World epic, The Arrivants, Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, or St. John Perse’s early long poem, Anabase. Dawes’ Prophets joins the conversation, perhaps at the point where Walcott ponders, in his 1974 essay “The Muse of History”:
Eliot speaks of the culture of a people as being the incarnation of its religion. If this is true, in the New World, we have to ask this faceted question: (1) Whether the religion taught to the black slave was absorbed as belief, (2) whether it has been altered by this absorption, and (3) whether wholly absorbed or absorbed and altered, it must now be rejected. In other terms, can an African culture exist, except on the level of polemical art or politics, without an African religion, and if so, which African religion? (43)
Dawes’ book is perhaps a fitting answer to Walcott’s musing. Not a simple one, but one that is able to have and to hold contradicton. But let us hear from Clarice, culled from one of the most moving passages in the book: “Call it a bargain basement faith, but I have to find/ something what can fit my broad hip and match my/ complexion. What you have for me?”
Dawes’ long poem is a beautiful tidalectic captured elegantly in Chapter XXVII in Prophets in a section entitled “The Last Poem”, with an epigraph paraphrasing Eliot (“For us, all there is is trying. The rest is not our business…”):
…So I sat among the roses
and chewed at the bitter leaves. The weight
of the Lord’s commanding drooped my
broken head, and the leaves of the slim
volume of verse, this quartet, this clandestine fantasy, this hope
for the power of earth-makers, stone-breakers,
rustled insignificantly and impotently like a poem. (150)
 The carnival is referred to as a ‘road march’, among other things.
 A Jamaican dance.
 According to Anna Reckin, in her Tidalectic Lectures: Kamau Brathwaite’s Prose/Poetry as Sound-Space, “Brathwaite proposes “tidalectic” as “the rejection of the notion of dialectic, which is three—the resolution in the third. Now I go for a concept I call ‘tide-alectic’ which is the ripple and the two tide movement.” She observes further that “The tidalectic also describes a nexus of historical process and landscape” (1). Brathwaite himself describes the process through the image of an old woman sweeping sand from her yard on a morning. He states “Like our grandmother’s—our nanna’s—action…like the movement of the ocean she’s walking on, coming from one continent/continuum, touching another, and then receding (‘reading’) from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future” (Brathwaite, 34).
Vladimir Lucien is a poet, screenwriter and actor from St. Lucia. His work has been published in several journals including The Caribbean Review of Books, Wasafiri, Small Axe, PN Review, BIM, Caribbean Beat and in the anthology Beyond Sangre Grande. His first collection, Sounding Ground (Peepal Tree Press), won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize.
Brathwaite, Kamau, Nathaniel Mackey, and Chris Funkhouser. Conversations with Nathaniel Mackey. Staten Island, NY: We, 1999. Print.
Brathwaite, Kamau. “Namsetoura.” Born to Slow Horses. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005. 118. Print.
Dawes, Kwame Senu Neville. Prophets. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree, 1995. Print.
Dawes, Kwame Senu Neville. “Eat.” Wheels. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree, 2011. 16. Print.
“Poetics, Revelations and Catastrophes: An Interview with Kamau Brathwaite.” Interview by Joyelle McSweeney. Web log post. Rain Taxi. Rain Taxi Review, Fall 2005. Web. 2 Dec. 2015
Reckin, Anna. “Tidalectic Lectures: Kamau Brathwaite’s Prose/Poetry as Sound-Space.” Anthurium 1.1 (2003): 1-2. Print.
“Roving Eye, Spotlight.” Interview by Jamie Osborn. The Missing Slate, 11 July 2014: n. pag. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Walcott, Derek. “The Muse of History.” What the Twilight Says: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. 43. Print.