I listened to part of a very interesting discussion on Q100 on Thursday morning dealing with the work of Kamau Brathwaite and how we can honour his legacy. The moderator was Tony Thompson, and the panellists included David Commissiong, Sonia Williams and two UWI lecturers whose names I, unfortunately, did not find out. All of them showed a good grasp of Kamau’s work.
On things political, I seldom agree with Commissiong, but his contribution to the discussion was praiseworthy.
One thing the discussion did was to remind me that I had promised to write a tribute to Kamau. I have decided to move away from the norm and to present one of his poems, along with a brief review.
It is from “leopard” and goes like this:
Caught therefore in this care-
ful cage of glint, rock,
water ringing the islands’
not blink. A nervous tick-
like itch picks
at the corners of his
lips. The lean flanks quick
and quiver until the
tension cracks his
ribs. If he could only
strike or trigger
off his fury. But cunning
cold bars break his
rage, and stretched to strike
his stretched claws strike
Brathwaite uses the symbol of the leopard to portray the frustration of Caribbean people whose energy is stifled. Whenever we try to break free, the “cunning cold bars” of colonialism keep us in check. The image of the cage pervades the poem, acting as a barrier to full expression of self. Anger is a wasted emotion since we seem unable to find any way of escaping the conditions of oppression and subjugation.
The syntax and line structure as well as the rhythm emphasise the tension being experienced in circumstances designed to restrict freedom.
Note that although the leopard, symbolising us, is ready for action in the cause of liberation, its attempt is frustrated by the strong cage the oppressors have constructed. We have strengthened the bars through ignorance of our history and suspicion of one another. Lack of self-confidence continues to plague the people of our Caribbean islands and we are caught in a “careful cage of glint, rock, water ringing the island’s doubt.”
When will our people break the shackles of our colonial past? Kamau challenges us, not only in this poem but also from his Coral Ridge resting place to rid ourselves of self-doubt and release the pent up energy which can be used to build the kind of Caribbean civilisation he envisaged.
Rest in peace, griot, scholar, world class literary giant, outstanding son of the soil. Gone, but your work will live on.
John Goddard, retired but always an educator.