Thursday, June 03, 2004

Kamau Brathwaite, "Word Making Man"

Here's one of my favorite poems -- Kamau Brathwaite's "Word Making Man" (Middle Passages, NY: New Directions Books, 1992, pp. 3-7):


Poem for Nicolás Guillén in Xaymaca

not in ‘Sir’
but compañero
as you wd prefer it in hispañol

i have not yet been to cuba
& do not know the language of yr oradores
& as you said

‘some of us are champions
from the provinces, others
lo son olímpicos.’ & some of us
are nothing -- you will forgive me if i quote you again --
‘not even oradores

but i know that we are watching in a long circle for the dawn
& that the ruling class does not wait at bus stops
& i know that we are watching in a long circle for the fire
& that our compradores do not ladle soup out of the yabba

in camagüey
ave maría

silversmith turned silverfish. your father
in the leaves of the spanish classics. metallic needlework
in a tropic of paper. turblethumb thimbleprint journalist
who divined the omens of martí

when he was shot -- fusilamiento
you became a snake
circling circling circling renewing yr cycle of certainty

& you awoke to sleepy horses
sleepy snocone vendors
to hazy drunkards staggering to their homes

you tripped you cried you stumbled
on the dreams of those far-off days:

nicotine lópez, yr pharmacist & friend
the town clerk cores and the cop who died his name like caanan
what’s his name?

& serafin toledo. blacksmith steel-lightning tailor
‘& the school desk w/ the pen-knife scars
beneath a sky of fireflies & stars’

& we all learn
we all learn


that one does not kill a brother
that one does not kill a brother
that one does not kill a brother

& look how Sensemayá he is dead!

Now we rock-steady safely in the orisha of our dreams
& yr name has become the sunsum of our ancestors

to the pale salons of lippi song you brought the son
w/ the broad boa of the conquistadore violin you bent the tree

jack johnson kid chocolate muhammad ali
them jazzers w/ cow-punches in their smiles

the stylish patent-leather shoes, the creaking
downstairs down the stares from broadway stretching

out ‘its snout, its moist enormous mout
to lick & glut upon our canefields’ vital blood’

black little rock. the mau mau. emmett till
guevara & the beaten skulls of biko and lumumba

you have whispered it all. you have uttered it all
coriolan of blood. plankton of melt & plangent syllables

sunrise lucumi sparkle

against yr teeth of joy
sus dientes de júbilo

amerika laughs
west indies west indies west indies ltd

but suddenly in the night of possibility
it turns to the wall in its creaking bed of dollars

west indies west indies west indies unlimited

& yr voice rises like the moon
above the day of pigs. above the choruses of

who is it? who is it not?
the negro

who is it? who is it not?
my hunger

who is it? who is it not?
i&i talkin to ya

& the sea between us yields its secrets
silver into pellables into sheets of sound
that bear our pain & spume & salt & coltrane


not no
not bad
not bad, not velly bad’


velly well

so that we learn w/you the pleasure
of walking w/our roots across the country

owners herein of all there is to see
owners herein of all there is to see
of what our hands encompass as we dream

so that together we say wind
& understand its history of ghosts
together we say fire

& again there is a future in those sparks
together, comrade, friend
we say this is our land & know at last at last it is our home

now mine forever & so yours, amigo
‘w/ the vast splendour of the sunshine & the sunflower & the stars’
The poem is dense with allusions to a number of Nicolás Guillén's poems, so you can better saver its staging of rich imaginary dialogues between two Caribbean poets if you know Guillén's work well. If you are not familiar with Guillén's poetry, take a look at my notes on "Word Making Man."

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