A part of Respect Due: Symposium on the Work of Kwame Dawes
It was around three in the afternoon and I was hurrying down Bloomsbury to collect my children from school in the adjacent neighborhood of Covent Garden. The street was the usual confusion of tourists heading to the nearby British Museum and locals carving their daily path through this part of London.
“Kwame Dawes?” I sputtered, catching myself and the man approaching me off guard. “Kwame, what are you doing here?”
Had I crossed a block earlier to avoid the frenzied intersection of Bloomsbury and Oxford, as I sometimes remembered to do; or had I looked down to re-lace my shoes, which were ceaselessly becoming untied that winter and spring I lived in and walked miles around the city; or had I looked up to gawk at the architecture, as I often did while traipsing up and down the city’s corridors—any small alternation and I might have missed picking him out of the crowd.
I grabbed him by the arm, pulling him along on my dash to reach my daughters’ school by dismissal time, and plied him with questions of what he was doing in town and where he was staying and for how long.
“What a thing—how unbelievable that you are here for only two days and that your hotel is on the same street, four doors down, from the flat I’m renting!”
“What a coincidence,” I continued, “that in a city of this many people we would meet up like this.”
To which Kwame replied something close to, ‘But of course, Shara. It was meant to be,’ followed by his characteristically languorous laugh and smile—both of which I took as signs of bemusement with me over what, to him, I can’t or am too stubborn to see: the universe reveals its mystery to us over and over.
This exchange and our eight-hour-long banter the next day–as he, my husband, and I ambled along Southbank–to some extent epitomize the twenty-year-long conversation I’ve been having on and off with Kwame ranging across such subjects as poetry, politics, history, and faith. Perhaps the nature of our relationship, with him often in the role of mentor or teacher, was forged this way because I was in my early twenties when we first met and he ten years my senior, and I was on the cusp of publishing my first book when he had already published four or five. Perhaps it has to do with the way aspects of who each of us are get played out more dramatically in relation to another person: in this instance, Kwame becoming the one with faith and I the one without. Whatever the source, after our most recent meeting on that London street last spring I couldn’t help but think of him as the “Prophet Man” of his so-named poem, who—
…says to himself,
“Where do I go today?” and he goes,
and when he gets there, it is always
the same ’cause people never
expect him and yet they are always
expecting him, and even when they think
they are not, when he gets there, they
know they have been waiting for him…
The idea of a prophet offers a way to consider Kwame’s poetry and poetry’s rhetorical usages altogether. The prolific nature of his writing (does the man sleep? I’ve sometimes wondered) is not the primary reason his poems have enough gravitas to warrant my positioning them in relation to such an elevated speech act as prophesying. Rather, it’s the sweep and force of the intellect behind his poems which lends them their air of authority, moderated by humility. There are times in reading Kwame’s work when I am reminded of the discourses on Babylon I grew up hearing as a child raised Rastafarian in Kingston. Such discussions and debates were the language and fabric of my daily life: far-reaching and commonplace at the same time.
Like Marley, whose sensibility I hear echoes of in Kwame’s poetry and prose, Kwame is a poet invested in recasting the Caribbean experience in the highest of artistic terms. He too retraces how various peoples have come together in the context of the Caribbean and finds power in acknowledging the resulting fault-lines of history. He too, from the vantage point of a seer, invokes faith as a means to face fractures in ourselves and in the world as we experience it.
Like another of Kwame’s influences, the 19th century English religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, there is a literary and spiritual ‘grandeur’ afoot in Kwame’s poetry as well. There are many instances in his poems where the diction and syntax lift the lines from speech into song or, in other instances, evoke the shared roots of the lyric and the discursive modes. There is in Kwame’s work, as in Hopkins’, a voice and tone present which is at once sure and self-questioning. Moments of insight in the poems often resonate all the more because of this paradoxical stance. Kwame’s brand of wisdom is frequently dispensed, against the conventions of the day, without a trace of self-protective irony. In his poems, the opposite occurs: sincerity becomes a deftly handled vehicle for reconsiderations of truth.
And is this not what prophets gift us, after all: a way to reevaluate ingrained beliefs? Their avowals most often affix what exists now to what has come before and also imagine this reconstituted past and present in relation to what could yet be. To treat prophesying as a poetic device, as I have here, is to signal an idea of the poet as one who ought to be regarded not solely for his or her aesthetic achievements but also for his or her ethical engagements—or, more precisely, as one who ought to be held up for refusing to separate the two. The body of Kwame’s poetry warrants such regard, awash as it is in lyricism, politics, and spirituality.
In some interpretations of the philosophy underpinning reggae and Rastafari, critique must be linked to hope, each accusation flung tempered by the possibility of redemption. The same gestures abound in Kwame’s poems. When confronting injustice and its seeming arbitrariness and continuance, the persona of the ‘Prophet Man’—whether so-named or implied—asserts again and again that “There is a surfeit of love hidden here; / at least this is the way faith asserts itself.”
Shara McCallum is the author of five book of poems, including her forthcoming collection, Madwoman (which will be published in 2017 by Alice James Books in the US and Peepal Tree Press in the UK). She also writes essays, which appear regularly in print and on-line journals, magazines, and anthologies. Originally from Jamaica, McCallum lives in Pennsylvania where she teaches and directs the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University.