Ashley E. Smith Dr. Robin Cohen Postcolonial Literature May 6th, 2007

Tid(e)ilation and the Margins of the Page in the Work of Kamau Brathwaite

“Before we begin, we haffe discuss SYSTEMS” is how United States Poet Juliana Spahr begins a talk on the influence of Kamau Brathwaite by quoting the opening lines of his book MR Magical Realism.(Spahr 1) The book itself is a collage of historical facts, literary criticism, and re-imagined information in which author crosses continents to weave submerged “New World” presences with recovered “dreamconnections” since the arrival of Christopher Colombus. It is in this sense of addressing the shifting margins and cross-cultural nature of Brathwaite’s work that I would like to consider the formation of a visual poetics that the author has dubbed “Sycorax video style”. It is a style that he himself has described as coming from the margins of the screen “which, as you know are not really margins, but electronic accesses to Random Memory…” (Dawes 37) In this case, proceeding as Brathwaite on the seams of the intertextual, I would like to begin with an earlier image lifted from Homi K. Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders”, which entails “the fortuitous discovery of the English book” (Bhabha 1) in the hands on the colonized outside Delhi. In the story of Annund Messeh, the “catechismist” encounters a group of worshipers who have in their possession a number of printed and hand copied Christian Bibles. Rather that having converted to a British form of Christianity, these worshipers accept the book as given from god to them. In doing so,

2 they begin to syncretize autochthonous beliefs with Christian customs in a way that destabilizes the Western authority signified by the introduction of the Gutenberg book. In this moment, Bhabha notes the form resistance opened by hybridity. From here, I would like to fast forward to 1987, to a poem by Kamau Brathwaite that marks the invention of what he will later call Sycorax video style. mamma! I writin you dis letter/wha? I pun on a computer o/kay like I join the mercantilists? well not quite! (“X/Self xth letter to the thirteen provinces” X/Self 43) In this moment, Brathwaite locates the technology of computer mediated communication on the European mercantilist side of a digital divide, acknowledging its origins in a techno-industrial complex, but he immediately adapts it to a Caribbean context. By the last lines of the poem, the act of communication has been to converted to the nearly spiritual method of “writin in light”(Middle Passages 115). As Stuart Brown notes: “Even that phrase carries connotations of the middle passage; one ‘justification’ the slavers made for the continuing trade in human beings over four centuries was that it delivered savages Africans from darkness into the benign light of Christianity…” (Brown 2) In Brathwaite’s poem, the computer is noted as coming from a Euro-American industrial complex (as external to the Caribbean), and yet his embrace of it creates a space from which to address the lingering justifications for slave trade and colonialism, but also sets off a series of creative re-envisionings. From this point in the pre-Sycorax style of the original publication of X/Self,

3 Brathwaite began to introduce into publication the computer generated typography that largely constitutes the video style. The author describes this innovation as coming from his “time of salt”. Between the years 1986-1990 Brathwaite was struck by the death of his wife Doris Monica Brathwaite (whom he refers to as Zea Mexican), the destruction of his home and archives by hurricane in Irish Town, Jamaica, and a brutal break in to his Kingston apartment in which a gunman shot him at point blank range in the head. In this final incident, the bullet lodged in the gun, but Brathwaite believes that a “ghost bullet” entered his body rendering him “dead” and incapable of writing by hand afterwards (McSweeney). Thus, Doris Brathwaite’s early MacSE, and what the poet describes as “Sycorax lurking in the corner of the screen” (McSweeney) became a way for the author to reconnect to his earlier work and write through these tragedies and towards public reconnection. The resultant style is a composite of visual elements: pictorial graphics intersect with text in varying font sizes, many of which are deliberately pixilated – recalling the dot-matrix effects of early Macintosh computers. Often these cyberneticinfused typographies are brought into contact with normalized type faces, as if challenging the concept of standardized literature and interrogating modes of literary distribution and reception. In Brathwaite’s own words, the process becomes both sculptural, spiritual, and a secular extension: “… the video style comes out of the resources locked within the computer, esp my Mac Sycorax & Stark (but not particular to them or mwe) in the same way a sculptor like Bob’ob or Kapo wd say that the images they make dream for them form the block of the wood in their chisel When I discover that the computer cd write in light, as X/Self tells his mother in that first letter he writes on a computer, I discovered a whole new way of SEEING things I was SAYING…” (Wordsongs & Wordwounds 2)

4 I began this paper wanting to discuss the unique visual records and uniquely visual effects of Brathwaite’s video style, which is recognizable foremost by its emphatic appearance on the page. I came to this topic by what I felt was a strange absence in critical attention to Brathwaite’s work. Even recent studies have either brilliantly focused on pre-Sycorax formal properties in the poet’s oeuvre -- such as drastic line breaks, permutations of language, and interwoven punctuation (as in Nathaniel Mackey’s essay quoted bellow) or wholly connected the typography of Sycorax style to Caribbean oral traditions. The question that emerges then is “Do we loose something when we discuss the visual work of Brathwaite attending only to aspects of punctuation and the “auralitive” dimensions outside the page?” The problem with discussing Brathwaite’s Sycorax style as only a manifestation of the audible is that one easily “looses sight” of the visual construction and collage-like interplay offered by video style. It is this attention to visual systems that I would like to proceed with. And yet, as video, from the Latin “I see”, contains for us now an association with sound – a relationship to oral traditions plays an inextricable part in Brathwaite’s re-envisioned text. As in the highly visual layout of the poem “Heartbreak Hotel”, which is based on the transcription of a call-in radio program, Brathwaite’s relationship to written poetry consistently resists categorization and even a privileging of senses. One must have the mind of a cinematographer to fully enter the liminal spaces opened by the poems. This is to say that while audible systems and the traditions of oral cultures play an indivisible role in Sycorax style, I would like to emphasize that this does not make the visual dimensions of the work invisible.

5 The challenges that have contributed to what Brathwaite himself has noted as a critical blindness to the post-Sycorax work (Dawes 37) are multifold. The first may be the sense of constant “development” and revision Brathwaite has attached to these experiments. Initial introduction to the video style comes in the book Middle Passages which reprints/rewrites a number of earlier poems. The publisher notes that the “Text is based on Sycorax video style being developed” by the author (MP1) and it is certainly a style in constant development. Since this, Brathwaite has rewritten virtually all of his earlier works in video style, most notably the three books (Mother Poem, Sun, X/Self) that comprise Ancestors. Furthermore, variations of the poems exist in editions of the “same” book by different publishers (as with the original edition of Dreamstories and the American edition of DS2.) This indeterminacy is characteristic of Brathwaite’s aesthetics in general. As Kwame Dawes notes, he revises and visually alters even his interviews (Dawes 23) – again apparent in the book ConVERsations with Nathaniel Mackey. The result is that multiple versions of the same poem or text may be simultaneously in print, in a way that emphasizes that the more recent versions are not meant to supplant their earlier counterparts, but be in dialogue. This sense of a body of work under constant revision presents a difficulty to certain critics in search of a stable or definitive text to work from, though this may, in fact be his purpose. A second problem arises from critical conventions slow to adapt to visual presentation. Both Elaine Savoy and Kenneth Sherwood, (among others,) begin essays by apologizing for not reproducing Sycorax style in quoted passages according to formatting conventions of an academic publication. The problems of reproduction are realistic difficulties not strictly confined to academic conventions, and they are certainly ones that

6 I encountered in the space of this paper. What should be noted, however, is that an ever increasing body of work on the visual dimensions of poetry exists – though primarily in terms of a European avant-garde. Brathwaite’s allegiance to the development of postcolonial poetics, and particularly to the creolized vernaculars he understands as Nation Languages of the Caribbean, has placed him outside of the range of books such as such Los Pequeño Glazer’s Digital Poetics or Geoff Huth’s numerous essays on Vispo and modernist experimentation. Brathwaite’s situation is unique, but there may in this case be a parallel in what Terry Goldie identifies as the commodification of orality by dominant cultures in regards to the indigene (237). While Brathwaite is certainly a contemporary “writer”, and while Goldie is concerned with what he sees as a “mystifying” of indigenous cultures in regards to oral traditions, Brathwaite’s stated connection to the “spoken word” history of the Caribbean has perhaps led these critics to place him outside the “contemporary” realm of visual experimentation. Even when noted critic Marjorie Perloff addresses Brathwaite’s work, and his own description of it, there is a somewhat condescending tone to her acknowledgement that “[d]efined this way, ‘video style’ may be understood as another name for what we call visual poetics.”(Logocinema of the Frontiersman) Perloff, however, is interested specifically in Brathwaite’s multilingual “compounding of English and Jamaican dialects”(LF) rather than visual hybrization of the page. The greatest challenge, however, to discussions of the visual dimensions of Sycorax style come from the centrality of oral traditions to Brathwaite’s work itself. In interview with Leonard Schwartz, Brathwaite describes the video style as “basically a way to give the orality of Nation Language back to the word on the page.” (Schwartz)

7 Furthermore, in his influential essay, “The History of the Voice”, Brathwaite lays out an argument for considering the particular creolized forms of Caribbean speech not as pejorative dialects, but as legitimate Nation Languages. The roots of Caribbean Nation Language are: “not found in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song. That is to say that the noise it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what I you would think of as noise, I shall say) you ignore part of the meaning” (History of the Voice 271) Thus a break with the European pentameter became an essential means of recovering sound patterns inherent to the Caribbean and echoed through the larger African Diaspora as an historic reclamation. Central to this break for Brathwaite was an incorporation of dactylic patterns from the Trinidadian calypso and kaiso forms, but also the improvising techniques of the American jazz tradition. It is in particular, this essay that had led critics such as Elaine Savory and Anna Reckin to focus on the “sound/space” of Sycorax Style, which Joyelle McSweeney dubs the poet’s “visual vernacular.” In keeping with Brathwaite’s comments, I would like to consider ways of addressing this “visual noise” as part of the poet’s meaning. In Nathaniel Mackey’s “Wringing the Word” he juxtaposes Brathwaite’s use of the word pebble with remaining colonial-era statues in the Caribbean that continue to monumentalize the stability of imperialist power – and thereby remain a mark of alienation. Brathwaite terms these statues “stammaments”, a combination of the words monument and stammer, which Mackey describes as “a neo-logism that names a predicament while exemplifying the innovation that seeks to overcome it, the taking of linguistic liberties aimed at decolonizing the word.” (Paracritical Hinge 44) For Mackey, this juxtaposition between

8 pebbled language, and the symbolic impermeability of the statue: “primarily alerts us to the monumentality of language itself, the role played by notions of a stable, standard English in the maintenance of metropolitan norms. Returning to the smallest particles of language, syllables and letters, he assaults the apparent solidity and integrity of words, destabilizing them (showing them to be intrinsically unstable) by emphasizing the points at which they break…” (PH 45) It is this breaking apart and in to language that I would like to suggest becomes foremost visible in the pixilated typography of the Sycorax video style, thus connecting the visual strategies of the work to what Mackey notes as characteristic of the poet’s innovative approach. In the video style, words are not simply broken into letters, but the surface of visible language itself becomes porous, not so much in an act of occlusion, but crosspollination between lines as concomitant with the shifting (and integration) between registers of language. In the following passage from DS2, Brathwaite rewrites the final pages of his poem “Salvage(s)”. The originally published poem pursues, across continents, a lost boat-mate whose name keeps shifting from Gareth, to Gawth, to Garath ect. The work deliberately asserts the word “salvage” from within the colonial connotations of the term “savages.” In the rewrite, Brathwaite synchronizes the search in the poem with tragedy of 9-11, which occurred within view of the apartment where he was staying as a visiting professor at NYU. This event opens a space from which he attempts to sympathetically connect a poem haunted by the middle passage of slavery “which was an event the Caribbean people had not asked for, to the moment of tragedy in New York, which the people of the United States had not asked for.”(Schwartz) The effect is strangely moving as Brathwaite widens the atomized font on the page to address the critical search under debris:


The original passage becomes intermixed with the United States National anthem; the lower banner line indicating the American wound in the “stars and strips”, which move towards “the pale/ fading stripes/ of the beaches.” (DS2 257) This insistence on cultural hybridity as essential to the fostering of post-tragic and post-colonial identities has become inextricable from Brathwaite’s alternating, “pixelgrated” use of typography. In discussion of the novelist Daniel Maximin, Chris Bongie notes “Rather than stressing the separation of cultures, Brathwaite identifies hybridity, cultural metissage, as the necessary pre-condition for the future emergence, at the local level, of successful Caribbean societies, and at the global level, a functional world…”(627). In this sense, the refusal of the video style to be contained in a smooth, homogenous font attests to continual confrontations and the consistent differences and integrated presences at play within the production of culture, and made visionary in the text itself. In fact, the naming of “Sycorax video style” emphasizes the dimensions of this

10 this hybridization. The name situates the new magic of computer mediated production within the older magic of the witch mother of Caliban from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In doing so, Brathwaite moves to locally cannibalize and reinvent English literary inheritance – but also situates the work within an ongoing Caribbean tradition of re-writing The Tempest. The depth of this tradition, documented recently in books such as Jonathan Goldberg’s Tempest in the Caribbean and Chantal Zabus’s Tempests After Shakespeare, dates back to, at least, 1929 with Guyanese writer Samaroo’s latin-creolehindi text “Tempus est” (Dabydeen). However, Brathwaite’s more contemporary influences can be seen in the work of Barbadian ex-patriot George Lamming’s postProspero trilogy of novels and scholarship and Aimé Césaire’s influential reworking of the play from a Martinican slave’s perspective. As Charles Pollard points out, this alteration of Shakespeare can also be seen in the work of Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet Brathwaite is most frequently compared to. In Walcott’s Omeros, Brown notes, the poet “transposes his father’s biography to make it resonate with Shakespeare’s life and work (Pollard 153). Pollard connects this to a chain of modernist versions of Hamlet in Eliot, Joyce, and Seamus Heaney, but he could perhaps more proximately connect it to Lamming’s discussions of the author, in which he studies the name Caliban as an anagram for cannibal, or Oswald de Andrade’s influential “Manifesto de Anthopofogo” which opens with the lines “Tupi or not Tupi” (Andrade 1). Both are acts of what Brathwaite terms “Calibanism”, a term that marks the political significance of neologism in postcolonial cultures (PH 187). But rather than the paternal anxieties Pollard locates in Walcott’s work, Brathwaite’s poetics are directly oriented to maternal reclamations, and ultimately to the construction of what he recognizes as a “Caribbean Cosmology.” As the

11 poet himself states, he sycretizes Sycorax with voudoun deities – as “the Iwa who, in fact, allows me the space and longitude – groundation and inspiration … that I’m at the moment permitted” (PH 189). Furthermore, Brathwaite’s Calibanized cosmology has stretched at points to readdress questions of gender, as well as representation. In introduction to Paule Marshall’s work, he calls forth, in a play on Virginia Woolf’s envisioning of Shakespeare’s Sister, the hitherto unknown figure of Caliban’s sister, who he gives the name Sister Stark (Returning to Sycorax 210). This naming is an attempt to address what the poets calls the “visibility trigger” that moves significant work from a position of underground status into a larger cultural visibility. Brathwaite’s orientation towards these triggers of visibility as deeply significant should alert us to the dimensions of visuality concurrent in his work with the reclamation of orality and public performance. In this sense, orientation of the Sycorax style is toward what we see – and hence read – as culturally significant. To play off Brathwaite’s post-Hegelian term “tidialectics”, as a recognition of alternatives to either/or dichotomies, we may consider the Sycorax style as moving towards a tid(e)ilation of the visual registry, in which the poetic image becomes concomitant with tidal shifts in typographic rendering. These alterations of visual rendering, Brathwaite suggests, may be read as creating a porousness of language through which historically repressed presences resurface in the space of the page. Along these lines Linda Lizut Helstern points out that aside from the obviously cybernetic appearance of the Sycorax fonts, Brathwaite incorporates a number of Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec, and West African symbols into the video style (147). Helstern reconnects this to Brathwaite’s 1974 essay “Timehri”, the title of which is taken from the

12 Warraou Indian word for rock paintings or petroglyphs. In the essay, Brathwaite attempts to readdress and give space to indigenous American and transplanted African presences suppressed in the colonial construction of the “New World.” Helstern further notes that the serpentine glyph that Brathwaite has increasingly associated with the name Sycorax is strikingly similar to the Mesoamerican glyph for “sacrifice”, which may be used to represent “the smoke offered through burning incense, breath offered through music or poetry, or the flowing of blood”(Helstern 151). A front page to the U.S. edition of Dreamstories (DS2), for example, again utilizes this double scroll as a form of sacred offering:

The glyph is incorporated into the name Sycorax, and the text below it reads “as i seal these stories. fly their flag of sorceries. w/a new humility” The sorceries that Brathwaite refers to are largely secular and yet act to unseal the definitive nature of the book as a closed document. In Brathwaite’s vision of the book, the text becomes a series of “dreamstories” where what was once marginal to the record becomes visibly enfolded through a tide-ilation of the page. This includes the presence of spoken traditions as well. This inner-tension between oral and visual facets is further illustrated in the poem “Letter SycoraX” in Middle Passages. The poem first appears as “X/Self xth letter from the thirteen provinces” in the 1987 pre-Sycorax edition of X/Self. While the original publication predates the video style, the discussion of computer mediated communication clearly anticipates it. Significantly, the poem has been consistently described as an

13 epistolary written on a computer (Helzner 148, Savory Wordsongs/Wordwounds, Josephs). But what has so far gone unnoted is the instantaneous deformation of epistolary space, in which the letter writer is immediately responded to by the addressee who interjects “wha?” Because this so quickly occurs in the text, it suggests that we should not merely read it as part of (enfolded into) the letter, but a fracturing of epistolary/written space into a reclamation of communal/performative space. As Brathwaite has noted elsewhere, the construction of Caribbean oral traditions is dependant on communal feedback (HV 273). In radio interview with Leonard Schwartz, Brathwaite concludes with a wish to connect to an oral space in which he imagines “a person RING RING RING what’s that guy Brathwaite about? Or I had a similar experience.” His very shift in mid-sentence to the onomatopoetic sound of a telephone attests to the depth of his association of the communal to syntactic interruption and reconnection. In the poem “Letter SycoraX”, this interruption is registered in two ways – by the use of a slash, and hyper-bold font. Unlike Shakespeare’s Sycorax, who is voiceless, Brathwaite’s mamma comes in “bold” on the page and redefines the structure of the poem at multiple points. In a later version of the poem, Brathwaite returns to the earlier title and resituates it as part of the book X/Self in Ancestors. In this version, the initial interjection of the word “wha?” is set on its own line without the use of a bold type face. However, as part of a larger book, the interjection of secondary voices has already been established. Take, for example, a proceeding passage from “Bubbles” which utilizes opposing page justifications for multiple voices. (approximated below)

dat’s why adam say i going to have to in-

vent it

invent it he tell her to breed underwater he tell her as if i’s a summarme

in what int?

summarine! cause dem I cud dive to de pilate he tell her

yous a what!

rine! adam tell her rine! adam tell her

but a mahn cyaan dive like a summachine ting


but a mahn cyaan dive like a summarine ting

Brathwaite’s consistent breaking on the words “in-/vent” attest to a reinvention of page space which literally “vents” or creates airspace and communicative space within the poem. The stakes in this passage are similar to those in “X/Self xth/Letter SycoraX” in that a technological innovation becomes necessary for communicative survival. This is again reflected in Brathwaite’s statement that in order to understand emergent Caribbean literature “one must understand…the very software… of the language.”(Nation Language 311). In a sense, this comment may be seen as part of a larger technophyllic moment in

15 which personal computers came to be a metaphor and catalyst for a host of utopian ideals. But in all honesty, Brathwaite is interested in the appropriation of these terms, and their extension, rather than the glorification of the computer itself. Along these lines, the biggest cyber-metaphorical draw for Brathwaite is certainly the concept of Random Access Memory (RAM) which he takes as a way of describing postcolonial (and postmodern) literature, but also descriptive of a re-emergence of the hieroglyphic and pictographic on the page fostered by technology (Dawes 37). This random access memory, again, fosters a porousness of the page with the sculptural reemergence of glyphs, but also at the level of the letter. In the Ancestors version of “X/Self xth Letter”, the poem is punctuated by a series of over-sized “O”s . The first is in the second line, and they continue through the poem. The effect is to problematize the traditional lyric apostrophe, or Oh, as it enters in unanticipated places. It is significant that in Brathwaite’s performances and readings, he reads straight through these visual exaggerations. Thus, Gordon Rohlehr’s statement that font sizes vary in the video style according to where the pitch would be louder or softer is generally untrue (Rohlehr 3). Most often visual exaggeration serves to underscore a metissage effect only visible on the page.

A parallel example can be seen in the “Letter SycoraX” version of the poem where the letter “X” appears in a digitized font that anachronistically recalls hand writing.

It is this “x” that Brathwaite emphasizes in the character X/Self as both “x” as in post, ex-

16 colonial, and as hybrid, as expressed in the botanical notation of cultivars. Brathwaite emphasizes the anachronism of letter stating:

wid dis

before you could say jackie robb inson or rt-d2 or shout wre




The poet merges the earlier words “write to” with the marooned Imperial robot from the pop cultural phenomenon Star Wars so that the former “sounds” through the latter when read. But more significantly, the “audible” word wrecks is altered by the visibly hybrid “x”. As in the poem “Salvage(s)”, it is the capacity for regeneration that is — not cross, x-ed out – but emphasized within collision. Towards the end of the poem, the mark becomes the long buried mark of signature in the Caribbean. The “x” is transformed from the Greek letter signifying Christ (as in Xmas), or the light of Christ, into a Calibanated writing in light

like i is a some. is a some. is a some body
the signature of the body then, becomes registered in the visibly pixilated word.

“Before we begin, we haffe talk about SYSTEMS” writes Kamau Brathwaite at the beginning of his book MR, or Magical Realism. The systems that Brathwaite wants to address are those in which we have historically been made invisible to each other according to the belief that discovery and innovation follow a linear path. It is from this

17 place that Brathwaite situates his work between the poetic and archival, between the lyric and narrative, between the oral and emphatically visual, between deeply local concerns and the global ones they necessarily intersect. It is a marginal space from which the center keeps shifting. And it is also this space emphasized in Dreamstories that in light of its very visual account lucidly registers what resists repression in the historical record. As with Sycorax herself perhaps, despite all the voices one may give her, she remains a figure for what cannot definitively or originally be reclaimed. In an essay by Marjorie Perloff, she focuses on an image that is central to the visually oriented poet Susan Howe’s book Frame Structures. It is an engraving called “The Second Oldest View of Buffalo” and it is an illustration of war (Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject 426). In this essay, she does mention Kamau Brathwaite but it is in a footnote to another American poet. One can’t really blame Perloff for that. Her subject is Euro-American poetry; it suggests an act of acknowledgement that she mentions Brathwaite. What she asks is “But if this is ‘The Second Oldest View of Buffalo’ what would the first look like?”(427) And of course we cannot know from Howe’s point of view, or perhaps ever know. There is a parallel moment in which Kamau Brathwaite visits a museum in Jamaica and sees a colonial photograph of a boat. He says “even though I had been on the committees of education, writing the books that stated that the Amerindians were irradiated from the Islands by the colonizers. It was part of the historic record and yet how could they have built the traditional native boat without presence of the natives there?”(ConVERsations 67) For Brathwaite, as well as Howe, the fractured visual dimensions of the page become a way of acknowledging the cultural palimpsest one arrives and writes within. Pressing language towards the graphic becomes a way of

18 readdressing hidden aspects within the written record, both in terms of what we can see, and at the limits of opacity, holding open the possibilities of what we have yet to see. In a different essay, Susan Howe is a footnote to Brathwaite. Or perhaps in this space, the margins are folded into and refracted through the center of the page. And we are directed from the center by an eradicably atomized x.

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