August 11, 2011

Looking for the Nation’s “Passion” in the Pelican Heart of Lasana Sekou

Reviewer:  Dr. Sara Florian

American professor Dr. Ivette Romero affirmed that one can experience “Defiance, movement, and renewal” by reading the bilingual anthology Corazón de pelícano – Antología poética de Lasana M. Sekou / Pelican Heart – An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou edited by Emilio Jorge Rodríguez. But I think that Passion for the Nation is what comes out of Sekou’s poems at a first glance and at a deeper reading.

The book is a selection gathered from eleven of Sekou’s poetry collections between 1978 and 2010. Rodríguez is an independent Cuban academic, writer, and essayist. He has been a researcher at Casa de las Américas’s Literary Research Center and founded the literary journal Anales del Caribe (1981-2000). María Teresa Ortega translated the poems from the original English to Spanish. A critical introduction, detailed footnotes, and a useful glossary by Rodríguez are also found in the book of 428 pages. The collection has been launched at conferences in Barbados, Cuba, and Mexico.

Rodriguez’s introduction to Pelican Heart refers to Dr. Howard Fergus’s Love Labor Liberation in Lasana Sekou, which is the critical commentary to Sekou’s work that identifies three cardinal points in his poetics. I would add as cardinal points: Belief or Driving Force of people in political processes, like his political commitment to make St. Martin independent, as the southern part of the Caribbean island is a territory of the Netherlands, while the northern part is a French Collectivité d’outre-mer; Excitement over his literary passions, which led him to found House of Nehesi Publishers at age 23; co-found the book festival of St. Martin, organized with Conscious Lyrics Foundation and to expand his culture considerably; Enthusiasm, which springs out of his eyes and words when you listen to his poetry being performed or when you speak to Sekou in person.

In his proliferous production Sekou has published fifteen books, among which resides thirteen collections of poems since the 1970s: Moods for Isis – Picturepoems of Love & Struggle (1978); For the Mighty Gods…An Offering (1982); Images in the Yard (1983); Maroon Lives – A Tribute to Grenadian Freedom Fighters (1983); Born Here (1986); Nativity & Dramatic Monologues for Today (1988); Mothernation: Poems from 1984 to 1987 (1991); Quimbé: The Poetics of Sound (1991); The Salt Reaper – poems from the flats (2004, 2005); 37 Poems (2005); The Salt Reaper – selected poems from the flats (Audio CD, 2009), Corazón de pelícano – Antología poética de Lasana M. Sekou / Pelican Heart – An Anthology of Poems (2010), Nativity/Nativité/Natividad – Trilingual edition (2010), and two collections of short stories: Love Songs Make You Cry (1989) and Brotherhood of the Spurs (1997, 2007). Among his critical works are The Independence Papers – Readings on a New Political Status for St. Maarten/St. Martin (1990); National Symbols of St. Martin – A Primer (1997); Big Up St. Martin – Essay & Poem (1999). He also produced Fête – The First Recording of Traditional St. Martin’s Festive Music by Tanny & the Boys (LP/cassette/CD, 1992, 2007).

The poems elected (an anthology is a selection and election of the best poems by a poet) are from Moods for Isis, For the Mighty Gods..., Images in the Yard, Maroon Lives, Born Here, Nativity, Mothernation, Quimbé, The Salt Reaper, and 37 Poems. From Moods for Isis (1978) we can read a poem like “Rebel hunt,” which professes the Black thought and unity. Despite being an early collection, Moods for Isis hints at revolution and struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and poverty.  

The Cuban writer Nancy Morejon recognized in Sekou “ritmo de tambor innombrable,” unmentionable or is it shocking drum rhythms that echo the African origins of this oral poetry, this performative storytelling, modus narrandi typical of Sekou, which moves from African griots to contemporary dub poets to Rastafari. Its parallels with Cuban literature have already been imbricated and compared to Cuban writers like Nicolás Guillén. But the relation that comes to my mind between Cuba and Sekou’s poetry is related to runaway slaves and to what I define as his “aesthetics of the village and the maroon” (English maroons, French marrons, Spanish cimarrónes, Brazilian quilombos), see for instance his 1983 collection Maroon Lives—A Tribute to Grenadian Freedom Fighters, written that same year during the period of crisis for the Grenadian Revolution. The “aesthetics theory of the village chiefs and the maroons” of the St. Martin poet is concerned with a general attitude of Caribbean heads of states or politicians being very much xenophiles and suppressing their people’s culture or even the spirit of marronage among the nation’s population.

For instance, in the poem “Maroon Lives,” dedicated to Walter Rodney, Sekou addresses, in a Rastafarian tone, the Brazilian maroons, the “quilombos”: “Oh, restate the quilimbos / Organize there / In the camps of Accabre,” inspiring principles of the Cuban revolution and the struggle for freedom. But the theme of the maroon is still haunting Sekou’s poetics less than a decade after in the collection Quimbé (1991), where in “maroon nation,” he spans to the politics of Haïti, Argentina, Jamaica, and the US. That is how this phenomenon of the “runaways” and indefatigable warriors can be grouped under a same “family” or what I term, “resistance nation.” Similarly in The Salt Reaper’s “Visit&Fellowship II,” Sekou claims freedom and liberation: “para sembrar luces de libertad,” “to kindle fires of freedom.”

The poem “On Caribbean Aesthetics,” which was recited during Pelican Heart’s book launch in Santiago de Cuba by the poetess Teresa Melos, is taken from the 1986 collection Born Here, an affectionate chant to his own roots and origins and appropriation of identity:

I still question
The way my fathers danced
While our mothers bore children
Stooped in labor over the clean Salt Ponds of Great Bay
Where you can still see them
Chanting ponums (...)

So many musical references are made in Sekou’s poems that Rodríguez identified Sekou’s versatility as “fusion works.” In his poems we find a fusion of several different styles and rhythms, like the merengue, the Dominican bachata, African drums, new age, soft jazz, steelpan, electronic music, Spanish guitar, as in the CD he recorded in Hong Kong in 2004 when he was on a literary Fellowship at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Sekou shows other musical influences, such as the Caribbean musical forms of calypso, reggae, ponum, and quimbé.

After an “aesthetics of music/ality,” we can speak of – as I recognize in a study of the poet’s work – “an aesthetics of salt & sugar,” because the recurrent themes of Salt Pond as crop and sweat, of the hard labor of the enslaved in the colony translate into a “salty,” “tangy” wittiness in the use of language and of poetic forms. In his introduction to Sekou’s The Salt Reaper the academic and calypsonian Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool defined the poet as “the salt reaper, for his land, his labors, his ideals, and his values.”

Sekou’s use of language and graphic layout are variegated as his polymorphous use of graphic signs – such as brackets, periods, lower case, extension of vowels and reverberations of sounds – and his Plurilingualism, his use of French, Spanish, Dutch, and English (languages of European colonial successive dominations of the Caribbean), creole languages, as well as German or Chinese (the languages of his travels).

The delivery of the word comes across as a powerful performance both visually cemented on the page by means of many typographical devices and inventiveness and orally with his strong use of the voice. His rough poetics, and aesthetics, have been compared to those of the most-prominent Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite and his Video Style, with a graphic use of the fonts, spaces and pauses indicated in a written text by means of different font sizes or brackets and spaces, as in Sekou’s Nativity.

In 37 Poems there are what can be defined as his “Hong Kong poems,” among which particularly pregnant is “xinXin,” chosen by Rodríguez. Now, the word “xin” in Mandarin could mean “star” and “heart,” but also “new” or “fishy.” The word “star” might hint at the five stars on the Chinese flag. By describing his missed trip to the imperial palace of Beijing, the “forbidden city,” he thinks about certain historical incidents that occurred in China, this allows the poet to consider the different experiences or viability of various political or governing systems in the Caribbean region and to draw poetic international comparisons.

Enjoyable for the ear, powerful for the heart, this brain-teasing collection, Corazón de pelícano – Antología poética de Lasana M. Sekou / Pelican Heart – An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou, is available at bookstores, and

About the Author:

Dr. Sara Florian is an Italian Caribbeanist scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Modern Philology and is working on a new book about the writings of Lasana M. Sekou. Pelican Heart is a recipient of the Annual Culture Time (ACT) Award 2010.

Photo caption1: Dr. Sara Florian, Italian Caribbeanist scholar. (courtesy SF photo)

Photo caption1: Emilio Jorge Rodríguez’s bilingual Pelican Heart – An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou

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