Reading Rice: A Local Habitation and a Name

by Kwame Dawes
Reading Rice: A Local Habitation and a Name
Kwame Dawes
African American Review
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Reading Rice: A Local Habitation and a Name

Preamble: A Way In

Nikky Finney, a South Carolinian Black woman, wrote Rice, her second collection of poems, over an extended period of gestation and personal growth. I read the collection two years before it was eventually published by Sister Vision Press in Canada. At the time, it made absolute sense to me that the collec- tion be published, and I was convinced that it would be just a matter of time and the right publisher before the work would see the light of day. I read the work under peculiar circumstances. I did not really know Nikky. I had met her in passing, but a friend of mine had talked extensively with her and had been blessed with a copy of fice. After listening to Nikky read in Sumter, I demanded that my friend allow me to read the poems. She did, and the letter that follows emerged as my spontaneous response to the work. Since that time, I often considered writing a more formal cri- tique of the work, but every time I returned to my letter, I was struck by the energy and clarity of the reaction. I became con- vinced that this reaction was the most deeply felt response to her work and needed to be exposed to the eyes of others. I also began to realize that something about the epistle lent itself to the kind of direct and free-flowing reaction to Nikky Finney's work that is so necessary. The reflections in this piece are by no means compre- hensive and do not take into full consideration the edits that Finney did to the text prior to publication. However, because the essential qualities of the book remain the same, I am convinced of the comments' validity. I also find it interesting that my reading of the poems intersects wonderfully with some of the structural changes that Finney made with the manuscript that was finally published. It is my conviction that Nikky Finney brings a distinctive voice to American letters that needs to be heard. It is an intimidat- ing voice because of its directness and its open engagement with issues that are often on the fore of the American consciousness. Perhaps this is the reason that Finney was unable to secure an American publisher for the book. At the same time, there is little doubt that Finney is blessed with such a facility for metaphors and turn of phrase that much of what she has produced is bril- liant in its evocation of time, place, and mood. There is a rugged- ness to the sprawl of her verse that is reminiscent of another poet from another time and culture: Like Walt Whitman, Finney seeks to discover the heart, the core of the experience and often allows that to subsume an instinct toward the constriction of form. But

African American Revrew, Volume 31, Number 2 O 1997 Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes has published six collections of poetry and won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in the United Kingdom in 1994.

there are also verv fine moments that


showcase Finney's capacity for intense control and rhythmic precision in her writing.

AS-an alien to this country, I have found myself discovering this land- scape and culture through a myriad of encounters which range from the music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the great blues women, to the jaundiced of Hollywood's magic and the very coherent and homogenous ingenuity of television. I have married these encounters with an examination of the history and culture of the South and a close examination of the literature that has been generated by this culture. Finney's poetry has offered me another dimension to the picture. As I encounter her personal history, I real- ize that I am encountering a more pro- found and deeply American reality-a realitv that beautifullv allows me to feel & if there is a ceAain affinity in much of America to the South from whence I have emerged. And here I speak not of the Southern States of America, but the large body of people from the Southern hemisphere. As I read her work, I hear the strains of reg- gae music; I hear the sweet falsetto of Cameroonian jive, and the calm groundedness'of Ghanaian high-life. I also sense the blues-like earthiness of country folk trying to make sense of their diasporal existence. It is in these things that I have discovered a close- ness to the work of Nikky Finney. My hope is that the following piece cap- tures what I regard as the clear energy of Finney's writing. Perfection will never be her goal, but there are moments of sheer perfection even as she explores the imperfections of her society.

September 11,1993

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. (Shakespeare, MNDV.i.15-17)

Dear Nikky,

There is little else that I can do but respond to your collection (I confess, it was clandestinely acquired) which I read with the furtive excitement of a child reading taboo which, much to his amazement and glee, is actually in print. It is now one day later, and its contents have settled in uneasy fer- mentation in my mind/soul. While I leave Joie Dyes (who is, despite being an accomplice in all this, an honorable woman) to stew in her own throes of guilt a& regret for letting me have the collection, I am writing to let you know that I am very impressed by Xice, the collection. I mentioned in my last letter that your work reminded me a great deal of Lorna Goodison's. I am now convinced that you are indeed kindred spirits. I was talking to our friend Eric Bultman yesterday, still giddy from reading the poems, and I found myself struggling to explain to him what I found so appealing (even enviable) about your work. The words were hard to come by. It is a feeling-a sense--of confidence that allows the complex to become distilled into simple wisdom. Very often, your poems assume the claritv and directness that one associ- ates kith prophetic utterances or the sage-like wisdom of grand people:

The quality is "herstorica1"-it represents an act of what Daphne Marlatt, I Canadian writer, calls salvaging. The 2oems retrieve a feminine vast and restore images that have been sub- merged for too long. In a real sense the :ollection is an assertion of a positive goice that is oracular even if subtle on .rony and self-deprecation. It is a quali- ty that is not easy to achieve. Many of us simply hide behind irony and witti- cism because ~7e feel awkward when we attempt to sound like truth-sayers. You cut through this and yet emerge a poet, speaking with a voice that sparkles with imagery and guile. You accomplish all this while still allowing the truths you tell to float on a wave of musicality:

We should've let Grandpop

loose on him from the start

and he would've held him up

higheye to the sun

and looked straight through him

just like he held us up

and then he would have known first

like he always knew first

and brought to us

the very map of his heart

then we would have known

just what his intentions were

with our Carlene. ("The Afterbirth,

1931" 71)

I describe the quality as enviable because it is one that is very difficult to achieve. The sad thing is that some- times, even when it is achieved, there are many who are skeptical about it- who feel there is something barefaced and pretentious about a poet telling folks not to watch garbage on televi- sion in a poem; about a poet telling folks not to believe all that stuff about forgetting the past; about a poet telling folks to do this and to do that-people feel that it is the kind of didacticism that poetry should not be about:

It does not take courage

to watch a screaming television illumi-


another technicolor rape of myself to


with a one way screen I cannot step


the action of and say

Stop. Wrong. Incorrect.

Before you look again

batten down your lashes. ("Pluck" 81)

But too many do not understand the role of the griot. They have not began to understand the question of the community and the artist vis-a-vis the community. The Western tradition has, over the last hundred years or so, worked hard at dismantling the meta- physical proposition of the poet as priest, as the voice that finds context ind place among the hearers. The poet has been allowed to cloister his/her lit- tle self in closets and dusty drawers, therein to write secret tales about the self, only to die with them in boxes. Later they are found by others who publish them and own them. G. M. Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, two tragic souls who had no chance to sing to their communities, to truthfully bare their hearts and souls and thus become the voices of their communities-their villages--come to mind. Very often, the way to achieve the posture of dis- tance and isolation that is so valued in modern poetry is through irony-the somewhat disingenuous craft of self- deprecation and cynicism which prides itself in always being able to devise a way to let the clever feel even more clever because they have understood our cleverness. We become victims of that quest for this irony that Mervyn Morris, a Jamaican poet, describes as an ailment:

Yet, though so often self-deflating

you held court all day long. I loved it.

While I was there I loved it; but,

free from that bright ambience,

irony, my cancer, spread. ("Meeting

the Mage," Examination Centre 43)

What a poet like you does is reinstate the concept of the poet as griot-as priest, not void of subjectivity and a private self, but able to contain the voices of the community, and able to 1be virtually empowered with the gift to Ibecome the soul of the people. Like all prophetic gifts, it is at once a given art,


3 learnt art, and an art that is purely

~cidentaland related to circumstance.

Your circumstances have placed you in 1the South and provided you with a Ilegacy of strong African people who Ihave always understood themselves as 13eing doers, changers, and drivers of 1kheir own destiny. They are never a

2erfect people, but they have always


Ihad the capacity to discover their 1~veaknesses and failings. The legacy is '3 mantle that you must wear with the


pride and suffering with which you wear your glorious dreadlocks.

This is why I like Bob Marley so much. He is a griot who possesses a voice that is both intimate and public. On one hand he lets out his idiosyn- cratic secrets of lost love and hurt ("Misty Morning," "Waiting in Vain") and then on the other his found myself reacting like this to most of poems in the collection. For the few that did not illicit such a response, my thought was, "She could say this bet- ter, much better."

"The Goodfellows Club" is a mar- velously developed narrative. It is a narrative-a poetic celebration-of a

certain kind of man, a

pronouns are we, us, and The Western dying breed of man. In it, our. At times he is the ora- you demonstrate a quality

All along the ocean's floor
There are attics
And storm cellars of .hearts
Castanetting for a key
A Black cobblestone of family
has never held its breath

Tell them I am on my way

I a woman with keys Unlocking the buildings That now belong To me ("A Woman With Keys" 172)

tradition has

cle speaking of "my chil- that I found missing in dren"-this youth, speak- worked hard at your first collection, On ing of my children like he Wings of Gauze (1985).It is Moses or something! is that capacity to fire a And out of all this emerges the metaphysi- narrativewith sharp the poet, the wielder of ,,I proposition metaphors and turns of words who can fashion phrase that literally brings images as sharp as a knife's of the poet as smiles to the hearer and edge and as tender as the reader: "They love wom-


soft, open palm of caress Marley speaks from his living history and from the specific realities that shape him. He found his voice after much experimentation and explo-

ration-but he found it. I admire those voices that can find the quality of responsibility and self-discovery all at the same time. It is this that has made me a genuine admirer of your work, and yet it is this that makes me feel for your struggle to be heard and under- stood. Because when you start to assume this role, the general concep- tions of who or what a poet should be begin to assert themselves in a negative and debilitating manner.

I read the poems quickly and devoured the images and ideas. I did find moments that jarred and that made me feel "I would have done this differently." I stopped at those points and tried to understand why I was thinking like this. Then it struck me that this happened rarely. And, any- way, was I reading the rest of the mate- rial and thinking, "Yes, this is how I would do it"? No. In fact, I was read- ing the rest of the material saying, "This is how it is because this is what it is and that is all there is to be said about it." The completeness of the poem that emerges and asserts its iden- tity is compelling and satisfying. I

ens / and still take them- selves a look that way / their old necks might rivercrack into another line or two / but they wouldn't yell out a rolled down window / no matter how pretty the face." The position of an out- sider-an observer (the alienated female child)-looking into this world of male ritual with an eye that evokes fascination and a certain pleasure is positive. Very positive. Positive in a world that has become intent on announcing the negative. To celebrate this breed of male (albeit a dying breed) is a dangerous action because it runs counter to the more popular act of celebrating the other, dying breed of man: the abuser, the neglecter, the criminal. This quality reminds me of a comment that was made about Lorna Goodison's poetry by a critic who was comparing her with a number of other Jamaican female poets. Elaine Savory Fido, an admitted admirer of Goodison's, is somewhat unsure about the constant celebration of the positive that is Goodison's work: "I find [Christine] Craig's endearing sense of awkwardness of the crow's wings makes more vivid sense to me as an articulation of the consciousness of a woman who is aware of many things than either [Esther] Phillips's tendency to polemic or Goodison's wonderful warmth and ability to give a sense of comfort and security through her work" ("Textures" 42).

The statement is a curious one for a few reasons. The first is that Goodison's poetry does deal with painful topics such as wife abuse, the suppression of the woman's ability to develop her own destiny and to live it out by a male-dominated society, the violence of crime-infested Jamaica, the twisted nuances of Jamaican politics, and so on. But the spirit of Goodison is one of faith and hope. She celebrates her mythic place of peace called "Heartease" through a series of poems that, while acknowledging the pain of the human experience, the Black expe- rience, and the female experience, dis- cover in their midst reasons to sing and dance. I thought of her poem on South Africa when I read your piece "South Africa: When a Woman is a Rock." The success of your poem lies, for me, in the deft use of metaphoric language that does not announce itself self-con- sciously. Intimate objects become evocative images:

are there
raising the hands the heads
of the twenty million
who wear coffin lines
like bracelets
on their shoulders (106)

What a deftly rendered juxtaposing of the beautiful and ornate with the grue- some and deadly. Herein lies a metaphor for our times that is drawn from echoes of the past. The image has been extended in our times by the use of the ironic and euphemistic term necklacing in South Africa.

Goodison, in her poem, uses an absurd "arrest" of a blanket to lam- poon the fascist and totalitarian subju- gation of blacks in that society. In the end, the poem literally laughs. It is a laugh of derision, a laugh that cele- brates its ability to be what it is and where it is. For me that laugh is like the stone-the rock-that ends your poem. The final proverb of the Native American is weighted with the wisdom lier:

The gentlest
The angriest
The women
live beyond sea level


"A nation is never conquered

until the hearts of its women

are on the ground." ("South Africa:

When a Woman is a Rock" 107)

Lorna Goodison's poem "Dream," from her Selected Works (1993), is a more apt companion piece for your cel- ebration of the South African woman in your poem "South Africa: When Woman is a Rock." The intonations and prayers that end your poem frame her piece, as well. Typically, she relies on a "private" narrative to draw her into the political "public." I have to quote the entire poem because I suspect that you will enjoy it and under- stand, in the process, what I am noting in the connections between your work and hers:

An airport waiting room

the decor is perfection

the handiwork of an Eastern lady

skilled in preserving plants

in geometry

I am seated next to a Western lady

who draws secret pictures

in a book of numbers

and covers her sketches from me.

Then a voice erupts from a

box embedded in the wall

and calls, "All who are from South


must not go forward, must not

board this freedom-flight

for which we are here waiting."

And a stream of black people exit

driven by the voice in the wall

which uncoils now and is a whip.

A boychild among the driven people

unreels a red kite of a scream

its razor rigged tail cuts the

bullwhip, a rising red kite of resistance

or a scream, lacerates the air

but all the perfect people around

do not hear.

The plane is late

but it will come.

I for one will board,

rise and if HE wills, sing

But no matter which heaven

I ascend to or whose hymns of praise

I bring, that scream


will be a red girdle around my belly

from a child who could have been born

from me,

a child whose tongue is surer

around the name Azania.

To all the perfect people-Azania

who wait in this terminal-Azania

know that this scream will grow-


to strangle your dreams-Azania

For no one is free-Azania

till the people of Azania

are free to board this plane.

Azania, 0people

0kites of freedom

Azania in our children's names . . . (86)

Goodison relies on the reader's rec- ollection of the old folk hymn that has been popularized in 13hythm and Blues, Gospel, and Reggae, and Lord knows what else: "This Train." The poem becomes a hymn and it allows the scream that "lacerates the air" to become something of a call to prayer- a call to intone the mantra of possibili- ty. Is this blind hope? Hardly. It is the same thing that you demand from us in the poem "Pluck": "Let your brown inner iris act as shutter / . . . Close your eyes and see" (86).

And the vision seeks to reintervret the current re-visions which distort and twist our perceptions of self. Instead, we must find historv in those eyes, and the road toward t6at history is a road through our oral tradition, our unwritten past that is contained in our prayers and chants--our litanies. Thus the "Black folks who left Kentuck in 1877," the "Scottsboro boys," "Thurgood Marshall," "Langston Hughes," the "four little Black girls in Birmingham," Arthur Ashe, and Jesse Owens (all listed in "Pluck), and the other host of witnesses that Kamau Brathwaite conjures up in his fantastic trilogy The Arrivants (1973),who watch our every move from their van- tage point in the halls of the dead, become a critical part of our collective imagination. And it is clear that once the litany has taken root, once the read- er has been drawn into the prayer, s/he is ready to hear the guiding words, which defy the facade of mod- ern Western poetry that pretends to be non-didactic:

Make a decision
Draw a line in the sand
And don't cross it
stomp your foot
write a protest song
snap a photo of something real
teach a child something forever
scratch out a new picture
and sit and explain it to somebody
who might not yet understand
then ("Pluck" 87)

Nonetheless, my reaction to this voem is somewhat ambivalent. I admit ;hat this ambivalence is shaped by a central conflict that has troubled me ever since I began to write and to think of myself as a writer. I read the poem and iind myself chanting in the-"~men Corner," "Amen, sister; preach it, sis- ter; tell it, sister!" and so on. And yet, there is a quality in the poem that seems to reproduce the uncontrolled wave of the overcome preacher who is no longer shaping andlselecting, but is now trying to get in every revelation, every truth that has been given to him in those salt-dry nights of prayer and fasting. There are moments when the poem appears cluttered, charged with so many allusions and images that make the same point, but that need to be said.

To use another metaphor, it is like the women from the market who all need to get on the last bus to their vil- lage. The bus collapses half-way there. Overloaded. The women begin to talk to each other and discuss whether they have done the right thing by cramming into the bus. One woman says, "At leas' we reach dis far. All a we. Ef we neva come 'pon de bus, some a we woulda be fighting tief an' crook inna de market." And another argues back: "Well, what good it gwine do us now, anyway? If some of unoo did stay, maybe some a we woulda reach home an' get 'elp fe come fin' the res' a yuh. Now all a we stranded in dis godfor- saken wilderness." And the debate goes on all night in this limbo. Reading the poem is like riding happily on the surfeit of images and profoundest wis- dom, but riding with that sinking awareness that the bus could crumble at any point. I think many of the poems barely get us there, and it is often an exciting ride, with a few flat tires and shot shocks along the way. Yet I cannot imagine not taking the bus. What is more telling about the observation is that you are aware of the problems inherent in speaking these ideas so boldly, and you reflect, in the very con- tent and form of the poetry, your own struggle with the contradictory instincts of control and abandon which are so critical to the poet. The tension creates a kind of vitality that is at once daring (because of its vulnerability) and refreshing (because of what it ulti- mately achieves).

I think of the bus analogy because of what happens when I re-read the poems. I start to think, "Okay, there must be a way to trim this poem." Then I start to look into the face of each stanza, each line, each idea, each image, and every single one is crying out for attention and is justifying its poetic place in the whole. I cannot jetti- son anything. I simply wait for the col- lapse. Who, for instance, could have watched Queen, that saccharine injus- tice to the pain of slavery and the tri- umph of Africans to succeed, not according to the terms of white society, but according to the terms of their cowries and shells, and not explode "Amen!" on reading this stanza?:

It does not take a resolute heart

to watch an electric tube iridescently

portray the pain

of my slavery of my Chicken George

accepted self

I won't watch

Black women baiting white men

daring them to go back to their wives

or else close up their legs

How dare this scene be created then

sent to Nielsen

express to me

and how dare we look

Slavery was no opera

soaped or staged

was no historical moment

when African women conceived chil-


out of love from white men

African women were raped by men

who hauled them away from the auction block like red hot vaginas on wheels . .

This was no love story ("Pluck" 83)

The case is made with such clarity and it is far too compelling to ignore. It cuts through bone and marrow with the knife edge of found truth. It would not surprise me, Nikky, if a poem like this is one that would make editors balk and hesitate a moment. Some edi- tors would argue that they don't get it. They would have trouble getting it because there is a secret code that is inherent in the voem which demands access to popular television and film culture. This code is deeply time- locked because you do not try to help us through the density of allusions. In five years' time, there will have to be notes beside many of these allusions. It is hard to tell whether the poem main- tains its intense wit and intelligence without an understanding of those allusions. An editor would hesitate, especially a white editor whose encounter with these films and televi- sion programs is minimal and unin- formed. An editor could balk because there is something aggressive and radi- cal about the polemics. This collection is a cry for pluck. It is a dangerous cry because it demands from people an examination of those very things that Americans regard as evidence of their accommodation of the races (read: Blacks).Roots, Queen, Good Times, Porgy and Bess, Temperature's Rising, Cosby, Martin, Sinbad, and the long list of "accommodating" sitcoms and television programs, constitute, for many white Americans, evidence of their openness to Black culture. To sug- gest otherwise, like you are doing, is to "fling a stone / that will confound the void," and to cause people to start questioning certain assumptions about race. Essentially, you are obeying Kamau Brathwaite's challenge in his poem "Negus," which was written some thirty years ago:

It is not
It is not
It is not enough


To be pause, to be hole to be Goid, to be silent to be semicolon, to be semicolony,

fling be the stone that will confound the void find me the rage and I will raze the colony fill me with words and I will blind your God (The

Arrivants 224)

Your poem embraces the challenge and forces the reader to ask questions about so many things that are taken for granted in our societies-like the valid- ity of a brilliantly produced and acted program like I'll Fly Away. What is going on in that show? To what extent is the first- person narrative voice of the Black woman truly reflective of the narrative of the various episodes? Is this her life? To what extent is the apparent compromise of focusing so overwhelmingly on the white experi- ence a product of Hollywood and white pressure in terms of ratings? And why, despite its brilliance and sheer critical success, is it having such a hard time staying on a major net- work? Your poem is asking us to ask these questions. Is it an important Doem or what?

I have lived in Sumter for only a year, and I am only beginning to understand how virtually everything that happens in this community is predicated upon race. People think dif- ferently and understand their realities in very different ways. It was no sur- prise to me, for instance, that one of the comments that reached me about your speech at the our Annual Opening Convocation here at USC-Sumter, was the suggestion that your speech was racial-too racial. I said little in reac- tion. I simply disagreed and left it at that. Then I went home and thought about it for a long time. It struck me that much of what was said represent- ed the kind of reaction that could be evoked by your verse. I tried to remember what you said about race- if anything at all. I recall that you did identify yourself as Black. I remember your recognition of the experiences of the Civil Rights Movement. I recall that


honed that you had been in'~frica when she introduced you. I recall that vou looked Black. You had dreadlocks. ~hesewere the racial things that you were saying? These were the things that were alienating some of the white folks who sat there? It was amazing! You said America is not a melting poet, it is a salad bowl, because you like being Black and don't want anyone to change that. This is what bothered them. This is the problem. You see, you articulated a conviction that you were not trying to be like a white person. To mention this unheard of idea is to raise anxieties among some white people. Today, it is still puzzling for some whites to hear, "Say it loud, I am black and I am proud!" Why? Because you have not said that "whites are lovelv,


too." So you are accused of reverse racism. You are accused of foreground- ing your blackness when they (the whites) have never done so. What they fail to recognize is that they have always foregrounded whiteness, but they have been so inscribed in the mvth that whiteness constitutes uni- versality that they cannot appreciate that they are indeed celebrating white cultural values in their daily lives and, in the process, excluding those of any other culture. Because your verse is very direct about exploring life through the roaming eye of a Black woman, your poems must contend with the inevitable, though unfair, label of parochialism and regionalism. The labels are unfair because, while the poetry celebrates the particular, the parochial-through the use of personal 3etail and specific landscape-it speaks eloquently out of the world with a clarity and a sensitivity that 3nly a focused and intimate view of the world can produce. As V. S. Naipaul ~sserts,"All literatures are local" (New Statesman 24 Sept. 1965: 452). What he neans is that our grasp of any litera- :ure requires effort-an effort deter- nined by how much we need to know ibout the locality that we are reading

bout. Your poetry challenges the read- er to discover new localities-new places. The reward is universal only in the sense that the reward for expend- ing such effort is often an insight into the workings of the human spirit.

After so many years of white beau- ty queens, after years of excluding with such ease all others in the determina- tion of what is beautiful, as soon as a Black person says, "I am beautiful and I love being Black," somebody's soul screams, "There is something racial about that-s/he is privileging his/her blackness and that is not racial equali- ty." Your poetry will evoke such reac- tions in many readers, but that is not a bad thing because we need such excla- mations to emerge if we are to begin the process of partaking in healing dia- logue.

For sheer poetic sinew and poten- cy, I think the poem "The Afterbirth, 1931" is the most superior work in the collection. This poem moves me because of the beauty of its language and because of the control-that incredible sense of control that belies a seething anger-that you show in this poem. You keep your cool without for- getting to announce the combination of abuse and insult and misguidedness on the part of those who watch the after- birth gangrene because of false assumptions. Nikky, this poem is a gem because of its complex treatment of issues of responsibility and racial injustice. It tackles the questions that many people still can't get a handle on. Who, they ask, is to blame for the woman's death? And when we roll our eyes and say, "You really have to ask that?" they grow angry or crumble and vanish in a cloud of guilt and confu- sion. But in this poem there is a quality of irony that is powerful because of its naturalness in the narrative. It is never forced, never yanked and pulled into the light of day, and it is rarely cynical. Instead, it asserts itself as the core of the poem. The stately voice that opens the poem will echo throughout the piece, and the core tragedy, the tragic note of the piece, is locked into the tar- nishing of that stateliness which hap- pens through that quest to do the good and be better. Is this not the narrative 3f our collective histories in this dias- poric world? Is this not the tale of our

zonstant participation in the undermin-

ing of our traditions and values by a

perceived sense of what is better? And

from whence does this notion spring if

not from the plantation order that

posits a series of paradigms about

what is good and what is evil that real-

ly amounts to a moralistic experimen-

tation with the dynamics of race: white

~ood,black bad-work out the rest by

~pplication. And yet, this self-correc-

tion, this admission of our fallibility-

Dur susceptibility to such wrong-mind-

2d ideologies-is wonderfully voiced

in the litany that celebrates what is

truly ours and what is truly valuable

2bout who and what we are. Suddenly,

this tragic moment of a woman dying

unnecessarily in childbirth, this

moment of forgetting, becomes a vivid-

ly evoked Achilles' heel, a moment of

zomplete darkness that gathers into its

depth all the errors of our lives when it

:omes to questions of our race and our

dignity. Consequently, it is unimpor-

tant whether a finger points or not. The

zelebration of what should have been

2nd what must be, is enough-is

2verything. This poem, Nikky, tells me

that somehow your work has to be

posted for all to see. It demonstrates

your ability as a storyteller and as a

truth sayer:

We were a Colored Clan of Kinfolk

who threw soil not salt

over our shoulders

who tendered close the bible

who grew and passed around the

almanac at night

so we would know

what to plant at first light. . .

he left and forgot he left and didn't remember the afterbirth inside Carlene Godwin Fimey to clabbor gangrene close down her place her precious private pleasing place to fill the house to the rafters


up past the dimpled tin roof

with a rotting smell

that stayed for nine days

that mortgaged a room

in our memories

and did not die along with her ("The

Afterbirth, 1931" 66-70)

I want to take that stanza, the latter stanza, and read it aloud to the world, and announce that this was written by a dreadlocked woman who under- stands something that is deeper than a story. The craft here is eloquent. The image of the room being mortgaged off invokes issues of commerce and pover- ty that are so right in this poem about a people who are trying to find dignity beyond their poverty:

Aware of just whose feet

walked across our tin roofs at night

we were such light sleepers

such long distance believers

we were a family pregnant

whose water had broken

and for once

there was ham money

'bacca money

so we thought to do better by our-


to begin our next row

we would go and get him (66-67)

And the "him," the young drunk and inexperienced doctor, is at once the object of our aspirations and the testa- ment of our doom and ultimate shame.

Yet this image of birthing-the image of broken water as a sign of potential prosperity-is tied to the idea of memories becoming homes-and the home is that house that begins to stink with the rotting afterbirth. The abortion of the mother (that is, her untimely death) is an abortion of the home and family, the proverbial womb space of possibility. There is something larger taking place. Innocence is lost, and so is the blind faith in the patterns of white society. Quite simply, a lesson is learnt about the need to break away from a tendency to try to "make it" on the terms set by white society. These are often impossible and unnatural terms. These are terms that will only lead to greater debilitation. These are terms that are founded upon a rigid caste system. Abandoned, the room is a

mortuary, the room is a shrine of the canker of many aborted beginnings in our collective and individual experi- ences. The multiple wombs, the many dark spaces invaded by this drunk alien hand is an image that will remain with me for a very long time. It is for this reason that I love this poem. It is because, despite the vivid and painful descriptions of broken bones and the stinking death caused by the careless actions and drunkenness, there are those last few stanzas that speak of the people who have in their hearts the truth to undermine the hurt of this moment. You name them in a litany that really pulls the griotto the fore. Above all, the complex conception of the narrator, a floating voice that is able to enter and leave old places and still speak of "us," is a wonderful qual- ity that I think works brilliantly:

Before we knew his name

or cared about his many degrees

before he dared reach up then inside

our family's brown globe

while we stood there

some of us throwing good black soil

with one hand

some of us tending close

the good book with the other

believing and trusting

we were doing better

by this one

standing there

with waterfalls running
screaming whitewater rapids

down our pantslegs

down our pantaloons

to our manyselves ("The Afterbirth,

1931" 71-72)

rhere is a generosity of spirit in this dse of the collective "we," this trans- ?ortation of the persona into the past, md the resultant assumption of blame 3nd responsibility for the errors made >y the ancestors. As the poet owns the ragedy, she takes willingly upon her- ;elf the sins of past generations almost is an act of sacrifice-an act of atone- nent. She, in the process, retrieves a ;ense of tradition, an engagement with )Id stories that, despite their tragic juality, still serve as edifying noments-groundings in a history that is so essential to her understanding of Your poems are snapshots of things the present. And what is most elo<uent that were ignored in the past. In this about this passage is that it achieves

sense you are using your poet's eye to the stark intimacy of the poet's shock retrieve things that have been lost in and dismay at this story, while captur- the tradition that I have labeled "sal- ing the collective lament of an entire vaging":

family, an entire people, an entire gen-
eration. This is no mean achievement

as many as that
for a poet. The more

If I sound effusive, it because I am the proof
that moved by the poem. When I read That never got their picture taken
this piece, I allowed myself some time

Oh so high

to think of what to do next. I decided

Can you count

that I would write about it all. And this

Oh so high

is what I have done. But there are other

the missing the murdered

exceptional poems in the collection. In

the married the millions

fact, the poem "Daguerre of Negras" is

oh here and now

perhaps one of the most technically


sound of the poems in the collection. It

that many

is an exercise in voetic control that is sharpened by th; precision of the snap ("Daguerre of Negras" 164) images and the conceit of photography

You are doing a good thing and all this that shapes the piece: is encouraging to me. I think it is

Widowed by birth

important that we continue to under-

I cannot walk beside a sea and look out enjoy play like the others stand the poetry and prose of artists and not notice the pearls of old breath

who have emerged from the diaspora

of the then and there

bloating back in this light. There are still so many sto- around the frappe of holiday bathers ries to tell and I am glad that you are I am salted for seeing
trying to tell them in your own inim-

The Fortunate Orphan

itable fashion. "AS many as rain, there were" All the best, Nikky.

Come to snapshot the faces of the unwilling travelers Sincerely,that lay feces to face [nice pun] that back then no one dare capture on film ("Daguerre of Negras" 163) Kwame

Works Brathwaite, Kamau. The Arrivants. London: OUP, 1973.

Cited Finney, Nikky. Rice. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1995. -. On Wings of Gauze. New York: Morrow, 1985. Goodison, Lorna. Selected Works. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992. Morris, Mervyn. Examination Centre. London: New Beacon, 1992. Savory Fido, Elaine. "Textures of Third World Reality in the Poetry of Four African Caribbean

Women." Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Ed. Pam Mordecai and Savory Fido. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1993. 29-44. Wanyeki, Lynne. "Interview with Daphne Marlatt." CHSR Campus Radio, U of New Brunswick, Canada. 1990.


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