Book Review: "Elegguas" by Kamau Brathwaite + Update

First Published : 2/28/11

Updated: 3/ 7/ 2011




Imagine a Cambridge trained historian for whom the Atlantic holocaust is not merely another tragedy of a foregone era, but a memory whose evidence he carries in his DNA. Now imagine a poet who has been engaged in the cultural naissance of the Caribbean and who has been a witness to political assassinations, personal attacks, and the harrowing death of his loved ones. This is the world of Kamau Brathwaite and in Elegguas, he has combined an elegiac tone with a play on the name of Eleggua, the name of the Yoruba deity of the crossroads, to create a collection of poems which challenges the aesthetic assumptions of Anglo-American aesthetics and expands the Afro-Caribbean maronage.

Poems are an evocation of an experience—a continuum of emotions and ideas. The lyric poem assumes that experiences can be revealed through an intelligible medium. However, Braithwaite’s poems and his experimentation with his Sycorax style, “the graphic rendition of nuances of language…deliberate misspellings (calibanisms) and deviations in punctuations,” questions  the assumptions of the lyric and places the reader at the crux—the crossroads of the ideas and emotion that the poet seeks to evoke.

Every turn of the page of Elegguas is disquieting and it’s meant to be. As readers we have grown accustomed to easy sweep of the line and the casual simile, but Brathwaite’s poems force us to interrogate not only the forms of postmodernist aesthetics, but also the medium. If read properly, a poem such as “Defilee” explores not only personal betrayal, but also the political and spiritual implications:

the meat they make of you I cannot sell
tho i sell sutler meat at Ogoum all my life
the fragments of yr body’s dream I can but touch
O cruel piece by piece I can but gather

from the entrail entrance of the knife

Yet, Elegguas is also a deeply personal book. Taking its name from the Yoruba deity of the crossroads, Eleggua, Brathwaite takes us on a journey through the political assassinations of Walter Rodney, the death by stoning of Mikey Smith and the death of his wife, Doris Monica Welcome.

In a sense, Elegguas is a love letter to Doris, whom he has dubbed Zea Mexican. In “Letter to Zea Mexican (2),” Brathwaite describes the first time that he met her to the last time at her funeral. He is also unsparing in his observations about their life together and the possible effects of his behavior on Zea’s health. Brathwaite leads is through the harrowing loss of her death:




I have not paraphrased nor changed how the poem appeared in the book because Brathwaite’s Sycorax style is meant, as Nicholas Laughlin has explained, as "a rebellion against “Prospero’s” poetry, staid lines advancing in orderly fashion from left to right, and stanzas marching in ranks down the page." But this is not merely rebellion for rebellion's sake. Like his celebrated contemporary, Édouard Glissant, Brathwaite attempts to define Antillean space by the creation of forms that are specific to the region. His act of  poetic maronage against Anglo-American aesthetics demands our attention.

In this section, Brathwaite is grappling in an almost childlike manner with Zea’s death and the terrible change that has occurred in his life and his loved ones. Does death really change those we love into monsters with whom we should not communicate—that we should banish for our lives forever more? Yet, paradoxically, the very rites that suggest banishment also encourage communion under special circumstances.

Elegguas continues the poetic maronage for which Brathwaite has built his career as a poet and historian by quilting Afro-Caribbean religions into an aesthetic that assumes a “submarine” unity. His use of “nation language” through his Sycorax style in poems such as “Stone” demonstrate his commitment to the life and breath of Caribbean peoples. Despite his observations in “Tell me how close (3)”:

and all the critics ganging up to happ-
ily put down my books or worse sideline & ignore
me and you nvr speaking to me anymore from yr womb until this morning

Elegguas is a major work from a poet whose stance averts the reader’s gaze from Anglo-America and rightly toward the myths and legends of the Afro-Caribbean peoples.


2/28/11

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from    kamau brathwaite
date: Fri, Mar 4, 2011 at 2:36 PM
subject: ZMD

She wake me lass night to answer the ref nag i had yr review - 'Does death really change those we love into monsters with whom we should not communicate - that we should banish for [from] our lives forever more?'That's why you need more space - is not Kb5 banishing the loved one - no wonder she come wake me up!! . The passage in the Diary is to the 'rites', as you call them - which we find all over the Caribbean - that i had to undergo and altho i understood/recognized them as part a-we culture, was acutely aware of their slavery implications - that these 'rites' wd nvr be possible in Africa because of the place of the liVing continuity of Ancestors - one of the key/cruel things we lost on the middlepassage - even in Ja, where else the linkages remain so strong


from: Geoffrey Philp <geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com>
to: kamau brathwaite
date: Fri, Mar 4, 2011 at 5:15 PM
subject: Re: ZMD
mailed-by        gmail.com

Dear Kamau,

Thank you!

May I publish this as a necessary correction? 

Does death really change those we love into monsters with whom we should not communicate - that we should banish for [from] our lives forever more?' That's why you need more space - is not Kb5 banishing the loved one - no wonder she come wake me up!! . The passage in the Diary is to the 'rites', as you call them - which we find all over the Caribbean - that i had to undergo and altho i understood/recognized them as part a-we culture, was acutely aware of their slavery implications - that these 'rites' wd nvr be possible in Africa because of the place of the liVing continuity of Ancestors - one of the key/cruel things we lost on the middlepassage - even in Ja, where else the linkages remain so strong

That's why I love this medium. It opens up the discussion...

1Heart and much love,
Geoffrey


from    kamau brathwaite
to         Geoffrey Philp <geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com>
date     Fri, Mar 4, 2011 at 5:33 PM
subject Re: ZMD

Not a 'correction'! - but as you say, opportunity fe discussion - By the way, how much (discussion) goes on in yr blogg?


from    Geoffrey Philp <geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com>
to         kamau brathwaite
date     Fri, Mar 4, 2011 at 5:38 PM
subject Re: ZMD
from    kamau brathwaite
to         Geoffrey Philp <geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com>
date     Sat, Mar 5, 2011 at 1:35 PM
subject Re: ZMD

Continuing the thot/dialogue - why don't you publish the whole thing i send? it giVes in contxt the Kb mwe as well as link-ins to we culture contxt/complex And you have the space & skills to dwit


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