January 14, 2009

"Mule Train: Version" by Geoffrey Philp

read write poem promptI’ve decided to take part in read write prompt #61: reveal your dialect with a poem from my latest manuscript, DUB WISE.

In the poem, “Mule Train,” I am signifyin’ on the song that was written by Johnny Lange, Hy Heath, and Fred Glickman and itself signified on by Count Prince Miller in 1971 and then again with Sly and Robbie in the 1980s.

Of course, the Jamaican manner of signifyin’ in pop music is known as a “version” and there have been countless “versions” of “My Conversation,” “Queen Majesty” and the ubiquitous, “Satta.”

In my version of “Mule Train” the speaker is a young, female “drug mule” on a flight from Jamaica to Miami and she is worried about the moral implications of her involvement in the drug trade. This is just one of the ways that the writers of my generation, especially those from Jamaica, have responded to what Kwame Dawes has called the “Reggae aesthetic.”

Mule Train: Version

Lawd, me know it wrong,

but, do, doan mek de boots

buss, fa me an de pickney

cyaan tek no more. Fa yu know

de reason I mek de deal

fe carry dis poison

inna me belly an heart.

Ev’ry mornin’ me an de pickney

wake up from sleeping pon de col’

floor, an me haffi clean dem eye,

wipe way de matta, send dem

go school with jus a prayer

inna me heart

that so fassy fassy now

is like smady close de door

inna me ches’, an lef me one

fe walla naked in de dus’.

Lawd, do, I know I shud trus’

only you, but dis plastic

is de one t’ing dat stan’

between me and certain deat’

or money--an t’ings not looking

so good wid de acid bubblin’

up me throat an unda me tongue

an I wonderin’ even if I mek it,

how I gwine live?

For the “Jamaican challenged,” here are a few translations:

“doan mek de boots/ buss”: A condom is called a “boots”—the preferred method of cocaine transportation for drug mules. Because the speaker is also a mother, there is a certain amount of irony.

“fa me and de pickney/ cyaan tek no more”: the children and I can’t bear any more troubles.

“me haffi clean dem eye”: I have to clean their (the children’s) eyes

“wipe way de matta”: the dried stuff in the corner of your eyes when you wake up.

fassy fassy”: a cut or sore that’s infected. There’s also the repitition for emphasis in Jamaican that has its roots in West African speech patterns.

“smady”: someone

“fe walla naked in de dus’”: to wallow naked in the dust

“even if I mek it, / how I gwine live?”: even if I make it/ how am I going to live (with myself?)

Writing in dialect always poses a problem for me because it’s very idiosyncratic—it’s how I hear the character’s voice. There are also the added challenges of communicating to a wider audience and the exodus and exchange between home and abroad in a digital age.

And then, whom does one trust with the definitions and spelling? For example, I grew up in Kingston and we called a long knife, a “kitchen bitch,” but in the country, a “kitchen bitch,” according to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, is a lamp.

So how does a Jamaican author, who grew up reading the Queen’s English and listening to Bob Marley, but who is now living in Miami, Florida, navigate through all of this linguistic soup?

My solution has always been to stay true to the voice and negotiate the twists and turns of the language, so that the poem remains intelligible to an English reading audience. For despite the objections to writing in dialect by poets such as Derek Walcott, my reason for writing in dialect remain clear: it is rooted in my belief that everyone's story should be honored and to be as faithful as I can to create an authentic visual or if it's spoken, aural impression of voices that are often ignored.


Look out for my guest post @ Middle Zone Musings's BLOGAPALOOZA: "What I Learned From 2008." It will be published on Jan 21 at 6 pm CST (+6 GMT).



Crafty Green Poet said...

I love the voice in this, I need to read it out loud to get the sounds. I think you can get so close to characters by writing in dialect.

I agree with you about definitions in dialects, i've been puzzled by some of the definitions (not to mention missing words!) in my new Scots dictionary.

Thanks for taking part in the Read Write Poem prompt!

Geoffrey Philp said...

This was a pleasure, Crafty. It also gave me the opportunity to clarify for myself why I write patwa.


PS. I'm looking forward to writing more prompts.

claireylove said...

Your poem dances on my tongue, Geoffrey!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Welcome, BB and give thanks!

Ana said...

Thank you for sharing this. I love the images. To wallow naked in the dust it is just amazing in dialect as well as in its literary American English version. But in this context :
” that so fassy fassy now/
is like smady close the door/
inna me ches’, an lef me one/
fe walla naked in de dus’.”
it is even more powerful. Because the voice becomes authentic. Because these words do not have the same meaning in “proper” English.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Annamari, yes, and that's why I write in dialect--it couldn't be said any other way, or any other way would strip the words of their power...

Thank you & Welcome!

Stephen A. Bess said...

Love Love dialect poetry. Thanks for the translation. I didn't know the meaning of "fassy fassy." This poetry captures the flavor of the culture. I can smell the Ackee and Saltfish.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks, Stephen.

As you know, it's always a stretch. I'm always asking myself, did I hit it right?

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey --

This was warm, immersively engaging, completely genuine -- and I loved sounding aloud what you have written.

I struggle with the pronunciation and lack the lyrical aptitude to make it flow and sing as it should -- but it came so alive simply in my endeavor to speak it.

Wonderful post!! :-)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Rob,

Greetings & Welcome!

Give thanks for the sounding out because dialect poetry truly lives on the tongue, but it must also survive on the page.


Anonymous said...

big up!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Great to hear from you,eemanee


FSJL said...

Mi woulda seh dat 'di' prefar to 'de' nowadays. A boss poem dat, Geoffrey.

I'd question the use of the term 'dialect', both because 'Creole' or 'Nation Language' would be truer, and because, increasingly, Patwa is coming to be a national language of its own (like Lowland Scots) rather than a mere dialect of English.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Fragano.

Jenn Jilks said...

Very enlightening poem. What would be col is a YouTube video or audio of you reading it!

/middle-aged, white woman!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Jen,


I'm working on that... stay tuned...