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

1 November 2017

At the same time as material pours into the space made by these punctures, new space in the non-form of possibilities for new pouring is created, above and below the brackets. This is to say that the creation of new space that happens upon the insertion of parentheses triggers a proliferation of space and spaces, as well as the acknowledgement of previously existent spaces. Space is brought to occupy itself, and the echo chamber of nothing that occurs as a result of this vacuous residency is a pure potential for sound. In a first sense, this non-occupation (of space of space) can be taken as the intervention of verticality into the horizontal linearity of the page space. The reading line’s back-and-forth, left-to-right movement, which imposes not only a linear eye movement upon the reader, but imposes linearity upon how the poetry is taken to mean, transcends downwards or upwards, moving into the lines above or below, taking up an alternative presence and acting upon the text around it in an alternative fashion. Or, and in addition what is to be read can operate on a third plane, depth, away from or towards our face.

In a second sense, this non-occupation signals the possibility of submerged matter resurfacing. A long history of poets have submerged themselves in the space beyond the line. Dis Pater, the Roman Creator of the Underworld, is the prototype. He is also called Pluto, a name which carries the word-root, ‘plu’ (for plural), to the surface, along with a translitive link between plu and Dis. Plurality, disjunction, and submergence make sense to each other and operate together in assuring each other’s necessity. We need the movement of dis to create the reality of plu. It is disruption, for example, that creates the possibility of splaying the colonial, and the act of reading can draw attention to pluralities and make them opaque. In conVERSations, Brathwaite draws attention to pluralities by asking fundamental questions about national-geographical identity, and makes them opaque by naming:

What is Caribbean/the Caribbean? What is this – this archipelago, these beautiful islands[…] What is the origin of this… this paradoxical and pluradial situation? ’ (29, emphasis Brathwaite’s)

Brathwaite’s renaming of this situation (as ‘pluradial’) forms a kind of answer. A result of this answer is that naming persists; namings and opacities are republished and rephrased. When I read, ‘the animal howls back & dis. obeys,’ I understand that, where Dis is the underworld Creator, it is not the animal that ‘disobeys’ but Dis who obeys the command of the animal howl. The animal is allowed speech and agency; the spirit world is given animation; this insight is accessed through the sentence’s disruption by grammar: by the period that breaks up the word, ‘disobey.’

A sense of depth is only the start. Once the disobeying sentence begins and continues, it finishes with surfaces. In a similar sense, Mackey, responding to Duncan’s ‘The Golden Stool,’ expresses skepticism towards the trope of vertical mobility: ‘identification with nation is a mode of self-transcendence, verticalisation, which, again, entails sacrifice’ (Discrepant 158). But vertical mobility, Mackey argues, consists of a paradoxical submersion in the Christian ‘mythic sea’ (see Discrepant 84 in relation to Duncan’s ‘The Continent’). What he and Brathwaite call for is a kind of terranisation: a re-embodiment and a ‘come on’ to the surface of submerged meaning. If the punctum shoots out at us as it punctures the page, it also shoots back into the depths of the text, where the text as a plurality is semiotic code, a representation of myth, and a subversive utterance.

So, the parenthesis is a symbol for the possibility of a disruption of the one-directional notion of colonial transcendence. Its openings are both above and below. The suggestion that we might be over-signifying grammatical innovation (by seeing it as innervation and enervation) here is an unconvincing and arbitrarily limiting hypothetical contestation. Brathwaite’s art is typographical, and grammatically misusive, and there is a world of radicalities for which we must read and resolutely usher past the censors.

And, of course, conVERSations is a rendering of an actual, spoken conversation between Kamau Brathwaite and Nathaniel Mackey. It must be emphasised that this fact makes conVERSations a rendering in text of voices. On page 23 of the publication, Mackey reflects that ‘over these twenty years’ of their correspondence ‘we’ve been engaged in a number of different level(s) in a number of different ways.’ The enjambment of this line directly after the bracketed ‘s’ exaggerates the parenthesis’s effect, allowing its reader to engage with the plurality of levels to which Mackey refers, or not. If not, then the correspondence to which Mackey refers remains discrete, hiding its world of internal valences, and the sentence does not make conventional syntactic sense. But, it is fitting for us to lose the syntactical sense if we have chosen not to engage with the plurality of levels with which Mackey gives us the option of engaging. The provision of an option disrupts sense at the level of syntax and grammar. If we choose not to accept the bracketed option of plurality, Mackey’s sentence is structured syntactically in such a way to force this plurality upon us.

When this plurality comes upon us, the possibilities of what Mackey calls the ‘diasporic music, the diasporic resonances of the work,’ open up. Throughout his work, Brathwaite draws attention to this diasporic movement and its potential; to the ‘drift’ that occurs as a consequence of actual, environmental tidalectic movement. After this potential has been released, and before it can be said that ‘music’ exists and that a work has ‘resonance,’ an interstitial step in this poetico-phenomenological process must be introduced. Whatever object, real or conceptual, or whatever force, that is produced by the energy of this pluralising must be registered as a real thing. Quoting Édouard Glissant, Mackey argues elsewhere that ‘we must develop widely a theory of particular opacities’ (Discrepant 260). Part of such a development involves calling attention to alternate forms of communication that are prone to drifting from this state of opacity, or have been actively stripped of opacity because of its power as a pluralising force: like the oral. Part of the process of making a plural force like orality opaque involves rendering it in literature. The grammatical, graphic, and concrete are ways for Brathwaite to mediatise the spirit of what Mackey calls, in reference to Brathwaite’s Arrivants poem, ‘Vèvè,’ the ‘Nummo’ of the work. Another of example of how this type of dialectical insertion is generated is in Brathwaite’s extensive footnoting, referencing, and editing work on his own texts. These are, in a sense, conversations he has with himself (see, for example, conVERSations 302). It is a process on which he reflects at the start of conVERSations and which is evident in his persistent re-publishing of individual poems, despite their housing within longer series’ of poetic works.

In inviting plurality to the linear sentence, the parenthesis brings upon itself a plurality of other functions, such as the (partial) emancipation of a letter or a word from the sentence. It must be called a partial emancipation because the letter or word is left there, holding the place where it used to exist without parentheses. In his use of parentheses, Brathwaite leaves the parenthesis-as-body there in the sentence as a marker, but he removes its previous signification-as-body. In this sense, words with parenthesised letters in Brathwaite are an occupant on a medial plane between colonial English and nation language:

English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English. (History 13)

A nation language word is textually recorded, more or less, as it would be voiced, which is perhaps the case for pre-colonial English, too, or at least pre-textual English. If nation language is the place at which we want to arrive, and if Brathwaite’s rendering of nation language is a medial point on the way towards nation language, then his texts are a journal of translation, which is to say that they are a log of the transition from English to nation language, showing where parts of English are cut away. A good example of how this translation process is recorded on the page exists in conVERSations, in a section where Brathwaite thinks through the significance of a Barbadian woman sweeping the ground outside her home:

What’s this labour involve with? Why’s 
she laboring in this way? all this way?
all this time? Because I get the understandin
(g) that she somehow believes that if she don’t
do this, the household – that ‘poverty-stricken’
household of which she’s a part – probably head
of – would have somehow collapse

(conVERSations 30)
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