The Ocean’s Tide: Parentheses in Kamau Brathwaite’s and Nathaniel Mackey’s Decolonial Poetics

By | 1 November 2017

But to delve in closer to the level of the text, we can ask the simple question of why there are parentheses around the ‘e’ in Brathwaite’s last name on the seventeenth page of conVERSations. There is ostensibly little in the passage surrounding them to suggest that these parentheses are consistent with a certain editorial style. Detailing each variable of Brathwaite’s name in usage fits with the biographical mode of the passage. In this sense the brackets preempt what both Brathwaite and Mackey say about the ongoing formation of nation language:

English was… influenced by the underground language, the submerged language that the slaves had brought. And that new underground language was itself constantly transforming itself into new forms. (History of the Voice 7)

The brackets amount to a playing with time. They create a space in the midst of the sentence (in multiple senses of the word, sentence) by way of a distortion of the word, the name. The name is sacrificed for these purposes. As Brathwaite resoundingly states, it is the person and the people, and not the name that causes nation language’s radicality to take place (History 13).

The type of sacrifice active when a parenthesis is inserted into a name in this way is dissimilar to Christian sacrifice, which coheres to the either / or paradigm of symbolic death’s exchange for life. Such an economised sacrifice would allow, to use American philosopher Fred Moten’s words, ‘the value of the sign,’ which feeds on ‘the absence or supercession of, or the abstraction from, sounded speech,’ to creep in and arrest the affective capability that we, here, are wanting to recognise in punctuation (In the Break 13). Rather, Brathwaite’s bracketing of the ‘e’ of his name is a non-sacrifice of what we could alternatively call the valued sign-body (his name, in this example), which, in Moten’s Marxist formulation, is the ‘speaking commodity.’ A non-sacrifice involves marking the spot where a sacrifice could or would happen, but does not, at least does not fully. The usefulness of a non-sacrifice in the context of decoloniality is that the remnants of colonial linguistic architecture are left for us to observe, and are used as the material into which punctures can be made. Moten argues that thinking in this non-sacrificial way about speaking commodities ‘cut[s]’ Saussure’s notion that the phonic is ancillary to linguistic value, and thereby it ‘doubly’ cuts Marx’s thesis that value is not intrinsic to the sign-body (13-14). For Moten, value is intrinsic to the sign-body, and it is possible to say that the things a word indicates, such as its phonics, are intrinsic to it, too. Such cuts create space for not only the presence but also the abundance of previously proscribed figures.

As Brathwaite makes clear, nationalising and rationalising are of a piece. The parenthesis interrupts the middle of a linear syntax (one guided by this nationality and rationality) as the noise of a plurality of alternate lineages. Noise, then, operates like the punctum, arresting the colonic, and ‘interfer[ing] with the audition of a message in the process of emission’ (Attali 26). But then, returning to conVERSations, we are faced with other kinds of presences or non-presences that parentheses invoke, such as where there is an entirely missing ‘e’ from the word ‘hurricane’ in the line ‘the labor on the edge of the hurrican, the labor on the ledge of Africa.’ It is telling that such a lexical disruption is present in the word hurricane, when the hurricane is the environmental figure Brathwaite uses to represent the Caribbean language’s desire to know and describe itself without being tethered to the imposition of traditional English meter: ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameters’ (History 10). In writing the hurricane, Brathwaite emphatically enacts a para-pentametrical, spiral, and, of course, centripetal movement. And he emphasises this force playfully, isolating it in the spiral of the letter ‘e’, casting the letter ‘e’ as black subjectivity (where ‘e’ could be read as a nation language rendering of the words ‘he’ and ‘she’), and setting ‘e’ free.

Like the inspiration that forms a pivotal thematic, compositional, and performative element of Gertrude Stein’s work, which we could consider a bodily metaphor accounting for the way her repetitious and quotidian sentences build into paragraphs and books from the inside out, the hurricane’s breath is drawn from within: ‘like a perpet. / ual plant’ which springs as a plant, as well as from the plantation (History 86). Similarly to the hurricane, nation language people have ‘to rely on their very breath’ from within the body (the sentence (of the body)). Even in the way it looks, a parenthesis reminds us of a set of lungs, and broken cuffs, and ears to hear, and a bleeding womb, and the insertion of a womb-space into the too rational/national sentence, and the taking of a picture, and a reference. The parenthesis is a representation of revolution embedded in duration, where it makes the demand for a new kind of analytic procedure. In being both a visual, punctuational mark and the representative of a certain kind of puncturing event, the parenthesis represents the ‘rupture of two circles,’ the ‘familial,’ or the logical and local, and the larger, meta-circle of ‘hermeneutic’ significance (Moten 17).

So, the parenthesis intercepts the colonial sentence. The bracketed letter, especially the ‘e,’ is like a stowaway energy pill, stolen labor, indeed, from off the edge of the hurricane, where the hurricane also stands for Africa and its energy. It is a textually material version of what Mackey calls ‘fugitive spirit’ (Discrepant 273).

The parenthesis’s parts, in standing poetically for a range of imagined and symbolically rich objects and phenomena, can be read as bows, and we can have witnessed their creation. The bow existed already. It was a line. The line got bent. We bend the bow. The bending of a line is what the tide does. When there is a tide, there is drag, a slow build-up of oceanic inertia that reaches the top of its arch, partially absorbs into the sand, and descends back down the beach. The movement is a reach that decreases in force as it extends, and then recedes. When Brathwaite invokes the tidalectic for its resonance of the slave trade, he is not telling the whole story. The tide, for him, has this whiplash built into its movement. As it descends from the highest point of its reach, it lingers. The tide is the earth breathing. It is the work and mark of the Middle Passage.

Introducing the parenthesis in this way addresses what Mackey calls, in reference to Robert Duncan, the ‘crisis of inspiration.’ Mackey’s work asks where the spiritual force of the poem comes from if it is not appropriated through objective domination? Mackey argues that Duncan takes this crisis – which is ‘a condition of life’ (Paracritical 135) – ‘as a reality to be dealt with in the poem’ (105). For Duncan, such dealing involves opening the poem to duende, which he takes, after Gabriel Garcia Lorca, as ‘a mode of poetic disassociation’ and ‘disturbed meanings’ (186-7). For Brathwaite, a way of dealing with inspiration with duende is by invoking duende using the parenthesis as a reparative bow. The bow is Caesar’s Gate, Gassiré’s Lute (Paracritical 11), and the fulcrum of creation. Because of the fact of the human condition, of which inspiration is a constitutive part, even source, the bow does not exist a priori. It must be configured to situation. For the Duncan of the Preface of Bending the Bow, too, grammatical punctures disrupt voidal silence, calling its non-life to life:

A sign appears – ‘.’ – a beat syncopating the time at rest; as if there were a stress in silence. [The projective artist; the artist after Dante’s poetics; the artist ‘of abundancies’] strives not for a disintegration of syntax but for a complication within syntax, overlapping structures, so that words are freed, having bounds out of bound.’ (ix)

As Duncan intimates here, there is a perfect plethora of material beyond the poem to let pour in. It is ruptures at the level of the sentence that let the pour of the plethora happen.

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