Letter from the Caribbean: A Dark and Coming Thing – Badmind in Caribbean Literature

A Dark and Coming Thing: Badmind in Caribbean Literature
By Vladimir Lucien
                                   
A photo of the author Vladimir Lucien.
Photo Credit to Nikita Lucien.

It was Lorna Goodison’s latest book that first made me aware of our canonical Caribbean writers, in older age, speaking more candidly in their work about badmind, as a force —that the abiding malevolence of others is not merely a “social” factor, but also a cosmological one. It is there in Walcott’s reference to “my enemy’s atrabilious spite” in his poem ‘In Amsterdam’ and other references to malevolence enacted by enemies both social and cosmic in his collection White Egrets. Kamau Brathwaite’s latest book Strange Fruit looks at what he refers to as his CL: Cultural Lynching and is a fascinating look at how badmind operates and its effect on poetics and what the collection says about Brathwaite’s lifelong project to champion a Little Tradition in the face of a more settled Great tradition and the potential cosmic and social implications of such ambitions. Badmind is usually presented as a preoccupation of the socio-economically-downtrodden who are making attempts to rise up and persistently have such efforts thwarted, many times by the very people among whom they live, and who share their condition— by badmind. This is what makes it exceptionally significant in a collection in which the poet-persona is making reference to her encounters with it.

Whenever I am forced to talk about the force of badmind or Obeah, I have no choice but to return to this passage in Toni Morrison’s Beloved which to me captures the actual cosmic movement of badmind in what otherwise seems to be a ‘merely “social”’ context. In doing this, Morrison expands the “social” or “socio-economic” as the dominant context and framework within which human beings are “made” and human action is to be read — expands it into the cosmic:

“…it grew to a feast for ninety people. 124 shook with their voices far into the night. Ninety people who ate so well, and laughed so much, it made them angry. They woke up the next morning and remembered the meal-fried perch that Stamp Paid handled with a hickory twig, holding his left palm out against the spit and pop of the boiling grease; the corn pudding made with cream; tired, overfed children asleep in the grass, tiny bones of roasted rabbit still in their hands— and got angry….124 rocking with laughter, goodwill and food for ninety, made them angry. Too much, they thought. Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy? Why is she and hers always the center of things? How come she always knows exactly what to do and when? Giving advice; passing messages; healing the sick; hiding fugitives, loving, cooking, cooking, loving, preaching, singing, dancing and loving everybody like it was her job and hers alone…..

… It made them furious. They swallowed baking soda, the morning after, to calm the stomach violence caused by the bounty, the reckless generosity on display at 124. Whispered to each other in the yards about fat rats, doom and uncalled-for pride.

…she got proud and let herself be overwhelmed by the sight of her daughter-in-law and Halle’s children — one of whom was born on the way— and have a celebration of blackberries that put Christmas to shame. Now she stood in the garden smelling disapproval, feeling a dark and coming thing…”

This is the world within which Lorna Goodison’s latest book is to be read, in a “social” that is consciously anchored in —and extended by— the cosmological, which is to say that it is anchored in an ancient knowledge of forces, and how they work, and that human being is not altogether exempt from operating as such forces.

Lorna Goodison’s Oracabessa named after a rural and “remote” part of Jamaica is a book that can be described as “global” or “international.” In it is poet-persona, travelling. In mostly this way, the book reminds of Derek Walcott’s The Prodigal and is in fact dedicated to Derek. Yet, whereas the tension between Walcott’s fascination with the wider world he encountered through his love of Literature and his commitment to his beautifully insignificant island is dramatised in Prodigal, there is a way in which Goodison obviates this tension by localising all of her travelling by situating it not in the desiccated boundaries of “society” or “nation” but in a cosmology she shares with people the world over but which she has also nativized and personalized: the nirvana or spiritual home of Heart-ease; the “golden city” of Oracabessa. Goodison seems to be travelling— in the vessel of an Ancient Knowledge that she is rooted in— through the world, and therefore is not entirely of it. So that she is in motion but also at a still point in the turning world.

***

In that rootedness in personal cosmology and a tradition that echoes it, Goodison finds that ancient battle against dark forces with which man is going to have to reckon. Badmind. What is described in Beloved as “a dark and coming thing”. For this, Goodison, rooted in her faith and the traditions around it, is ready for resistance:

“Dear hatchplotter, plothatcher, springe setter.
Pitdigger, diggerofpit, whosoever diggeth.
You think you will be the exception, the only
one who does not fall into the trap you set
to trip and catch the innocent. Want to bet?”

It deepens:

“Dear carnal-minded: unable to distinguish
spirit from flesh, what you grab and grasp at,
that is flesh. This: which blows like wind
when and wherever it listeth; this is spirit.”(18)

What situates this in badmind for me is the interchangeability of the “local” and the universal/cosmic standoff: “You’re claiming I dug first; /except mine was no pit, more a grace space/ hollowed with my knee-cup begging for rain/ blessing to fall on you who blessed with your/ mouth even as you inwardly cursed.”(18) Like with Baby Suggs holy in Beloved, or Jesus in the Bible, the badmind begins to settle in over the act of feasting: “So what if you(persona) hosted a generous supper?/ So what if they who ate of your labour/ now lift callous heels against you?” (19) At times this somewhat personal-sounding apprehension of badmind widens to “the enemy of souls”(21). But the “nearness” and familiarity with “the enemy of souls” is indicative of the ways of knowing out of which badmind comes.

A photo of Lorna Goodison. Photo Credit to Bernd Böhner.

Goodison’s overstanding is the key to overwhelming badmind. And that overstanding comes from an immersion in and a keen awareness of cosmos, an awareness that is shared and affirmed by a community of faith, an awareness that convinces her that she is not alone in time, place or circumstance. In ‘In Praise to the Limping Angel’ for instance, Goodison describes for us how grace and angels sometimes work, demonstrating their work in favour of a girl who narrowly escapes being shot— a testament to her apprehension of some of the workings of cosmos:

“…she was unsure
who it was, she knows now, seraphs are themselves.
Praise to the one with whom damsel lockstepped

the second she turned down Thirteenth; it imped her
stride to its halting own, as they stepped, a shadow

wicked in a doorway pitched a missile meant to kill
or bring down flat. Hail to that host whose footsteps

young woman stepped in; praise moment; too soon
too late, for weapon went wide before or behind

girlchild is sure of nothing but that it bangaranged
with clang din of old iron, as seraph bound her close

and hipjoined they sackraced toward the sign above
Fifth Avenue cinema between Thirteenth and Twelfth.” (33-34) (emphasis mine)

So that just as grace manifests in that momentary indistinguishability between the girl and the angel taking her step in his own imperfect step, so is badmind a manifestation of the universal “enemy of souls” lockstepped and indistinguishable from the local, particular and perniciously close hatchplotter, seated at the table, feasting on the food that is the fruit of the labour of one whom he seeks to bring down.

Less personal, even historical acts of badmind, are cited in Oracabessa, and are established — again according to this Ancient knowing or overstanding of the ways of men— as inevitable. A young James Baldwin, just arrived in France, eats at the table of Richard Wright’s generosity: “Wright helped Baldwin to find a room/with room to wield the pen he used/ to stab up the reputation of the older man/ in an age-old pagan rite that demands/ the son is duty bound to slay the father./ One rough business this writing life.”(41) (my emphasis)

Part of the resistance against badmind, is balance, not getting separated from one’s “life rhythm” a life rhythm that becomes apparent, in part, through overstanding.. And this separation from one’s life rhythm can indeed come about from placing too much emphasis on grand discourses, their worldly taxonomies and their aim to monopolize truth. Goodison’s ‘Hope Gardens’ is a great reminder of this, in which the persona remembers childhood spent in Hope Gardens in Kingston, Jamaica and juxtaposes the pleasure she feels at such memories against what a post-colonial scholar at a seminar“reveals” in his academic excavation as the real truth behind these experiences— “unearths plot/after heinous imperial plot buried behind/ our botanical gardens.” So not only is Goodison describing what the scholar excavates as the historical badmindedness of imperialism but even this scholar is presented perhaps as being bad-minded. He may also be implicated in the word“imperial”, making him a plothatcher, complicit in the very thing he claims to have unearthed and condemns. The persona first pities those (herself included) that were ignorant of these “facts” as they posed for “Brownie camera captured photographs”. But then the persona claims that “ignorance” or obliviousness as a sort of strength, and undermines the authoritative status the scholar’s history has over reality, by asserting the reality of experience, what these gardens were/are and did for “We the ignorant, the uneducated, unaware”:

“……………………this colonial design
was nowhere in mind or sight; but even if
and so what? as long as they flung wide
those two-leaved wrought iron double gates

there we would be; gentlemen and ladies all
human beings come in order to draw strength
for the week from our own Hope Gardens.”(54)

Goodison is grounded in overstanding rather than the under-standing that prevails in the strictly cumulative gathering of observable fact that is characteristic of modern society and the adopted/imposed education system in the Caribbean as well as the social-realist single stories it promotes. More pointedly, her way of knowing seems less limited and provincial than a way of knowing that so desperately needs to situate things fixedly in place and time, and to thereby, under-stand and only “make sense” of human experience according to the social factors native to that place and that time.

Kei Miller rightfully bemoaned (and was puzzled by) the lack of criticism and celebration of Lorna’s work, in a blog for Carcanet Press (see here: http://carcanetblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/kei-miller-appreciation-of-lorna.html) some years ago. Just like Melvin Rahming suggested of Erna Brodber’s work in his article Toward a Critical Theory of Spirit, criticism will not be able to cope properly with Lorna’s work if it is not able to grasp the cosmological underpinnings of the world behind and infusing the poetry. For Lorna’s poetics are irretrievably bound up with her own cosmic and spiritual grounding and cannot easily be parsed into categories that conveniently separate one thing from another without some attrition acting upon the separated/fragmented things. Maybe it can be said of the critic, literary criticism and the world in which it imagines itself that:

what you grab and grasp at,
that is flesh. This: which blows like wind
when and wherever it listeth; this is spirit.”(18)

Perhaps what eludes the critics’ grasp in Goodison’s work, is spirit.

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