May 7, 2007

"Epitaph" by Dennis Scott: An Appreciation

Jamaican poet Dennis Scott

According to Greek mythology, the Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which is another way of saying that our relationship with the infinite is conditioned by memory and that poetry and history are forms of memory. And memory, despite the objectivists is never neutral. For example, how should the years of slavery and British colonialism be remembered? As a long nightmare of dehumanizing shame or as Derek Walcott has said, "I feel no shame in having endured the colonial experience…It was cruel, but it created our literature" ("Meanings" 50)? In Dennis Scott's aptly named "Epitaph," the speaker examines the difficulty of writing about historical events by using the language of composition to describe the physical and emotional effects of slavery.

They hanged him on a clement morning, swung
between the falling sunlight and the women's
breathing, like a black apostrophe to pain.

The poem begins with an indefinite pronoun "they" which does not have a clear antecedent. One may assume "they" refers to the masters who have hanged the slave on a "clement morning" which implies justice (clemency) but is also an ironic detail about the weather. The speaker also uses the word "apostrophe" to introduce the difficulty of writing about slavery (an obvious trope), and the hanged slave (imagine his body curled in pain) becomes a "black apostrophe." An apostrophe is not only a symbol of punctuation, but is also '"the addressing of a usually absent person or a usually personified thing rhetorically" (Webster's)

All morning while the children hushed
their hopscotch joy and the cane kept growing
he hung there sweet and low.

The emotional impact of the hanging results in the children's "hushed" hopscotch joy." Added to the previous statement of the "women's breathing," the speaker highlights the physical/emotional effects of the hanging balanced against nature's indifference, " the cane kept growing" and the slave becomes part of the oral histories of so-called Negro spirituals, swinging "sweet and low."

At least that's how
they tell it. It was long ago
and what can we recall of a dead slave or two

The speaker reinforces the idea of the master's version of history, "at least that's how they tell it," which implies emotional distance and doubt, "it was long ago" and indifference, "and what can we recall of a dead slave or two."

except that when we punctuate our island tale
they swing like sighs across the brutal
sentences, and anger pauses
till they pass away.

The tone of the poem changes with "we" --those who "punctuate our island tale," and the emotional difficulty because "they,"' the hanged slaves, "swing like sighs across the brutal/ sentences." "Brutal" contradicts the idea of clemency and "sentences" is pun not only on the idea of justice, but a clear reference to the writing trope. However, the last line of the poem is ambiguous because it raises the question, how will the text be written after "anger pauses? The speaker's word choice emphasizes the uncertainty because "they," could refer either to the slaves or masters. Both masters and slaves have become joined in the detritus of memory.

Never a facile polemicist, Dennis Scott's Epitaph," explores the complexity of memory and the emotional difficulty that "we" as inheritors of the island's history have in writing about the period. In fact, the complexity that marks much of Scott's work is reflected in Uncle Time (from which this poem was taken) winner of Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1972) and an International Poetry Forum Award.


Dennis Scott (December 16, 1939February 21, 1991) was a Jamaican poet, playwright, actor (best known for appearances on The Cosby Show) and dancer.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Scott was educated at the University of the West Indies and taught in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and at Yale University in the United States.
Scott was one of the most significant poets writing in the early post-independence period in Jamaica, and his first published collection, Uncle Time, is marked by an effective literary use of the vernacular. He was also a successful playwright, theatre director, and drama teacher.
Related article: Dennis Scott


If you are searching for posts about Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, Rastafari, or Dennis Scott, please check the archives.

Also, if you enjoyed this article, please visit my Author page @ 



Frances-Anne said...

Thanks very much for this, it's gorgeous.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Frances-Anne, it was a pleasure to do this. Dennis was the best teacher I've ever had.


Michelle said...

This is such a compelling, painful, important poem. Thank you, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Michelle,

Yes, Dennis's work continue to be an inspiration & I hope for others.