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

1 November 2017

In a voiced reading of this excerpt aiming to represent nation language, the ‘g’ would be silent, or, at least, the voice would tend towards silence in the region of the ‘g’. A consequence of such a complete or near-complete silence for the orator would be that the back of their throat would remain open, instead of closing as it usually would to pronounce an English ‘g’. The movement of the sentence would be propelled, instead, by the tip of the tongue rebounding from just behind the teeth into the next morpheme, the ‘th’ of ‘that.’ As a result, each consonant in this passage registers at the front of the mouth. Symbolically, the only consonant that was to orally occur at the back of the throat is drawn to the opening of the mouth-throat space. Not only is it drawn to the surface in this way, but the ‘g’ is particularised and made opaque by Brathwaite’s insertion of parenthetical marks around it. The ‘g’ here may not be voiced, but it still registers.

In this way, at its physiognomical level, nation language leaves space at the back of the mouth, in the throat. Where space is commensurate with silence, this is significant. Contact, impact, and articulation are brought to the surface, where the surface is the front of the mouth. Nation language travels into the space and silence of the back of the mouth, the throat, and draws up its submerged elements. The ‘g’ in the passage above is re-emergent in this way. Such a reading may seem far-fetched, or over-signified, but it shows how we might venture beyond a merely instrumental take on unconventional grammatical markings. Moreover, it proposes to elucidate the subtle ways in which Brathwaite, as a formative player in the creation of a tidal poetics, obtains to a ‘widening sense of history’ via the perhaps at first seemingly paradoxical specificity of typographical and sentence-level markings (Hambone 44).

The sense of purpose driving the protagonist of this much-referenced excerpt above sets the stage for one of Brathwaite’s critical interventions in postcolonial discourse. The woman won’t stop sweeping, believing that if she did, the ‘household of which she’s a part … would somehow collapse.’ As Brathwaite makes clear, early Caribbean writers used such Sisyphean figures to describe the indentured nature of black poverty. In his early work, this idea occupied Brathwaite too, while he was ‘tirelessly tryin’ to understand it, until he envisioned this woman as a different kind of figure, one put into a subtly different relationship with the Caribbean environment:

I see her 
body silhouetting against the 
sparkling light that hits the 
Caribbean at that early dawn
and it seems as if her feet,
which all along I thought were
walking on the sand … were
really … walking on the wa-
ter … and she was tra
velling across that middlepass
age, constantly coming from wh
ere she has come from – in her
case Africa – to this spot in
North Coast Jamaica where she
now lives …


The figure is noticeably silent. The metaphor is visual. More accurately, it is bodily and environmental. Her body remains, miraculously, on the surface of that which would submerge her. A trick of perspective, of course, but the symbolic code here indicates how to begin what Mackey and Brathwaite call, in their conversation, the ‘new pathway’: an occupation of the surface of the Middle Passage (conVERSations 24). The deep vowel sounds of ‘mu’ and ‘blue’ in Mackey’s songs of the Andoumboulous in Splay Anthem, as another example, are generated from within the belly and then brought to the glistening surface of the body, via the throat. The songs splay in their references and meaning, their meter guides them to be read with a swing, and their lines are arranged on the page in arches that recall Brathwaite’s broom sweeps (Splay Anthem, ‘Lag Anthem,’ for example (17-19)). The dual presence in both of these examples of embodied labor (the sweeping woman in Brathwaite, and the performing body in Mackey) and the aesthetic productivity of those bodies (the image of the woman in Brathwaite, and the qualified sound in Mackey) maps onto this distinction between a poetics of hidden depths and curated surfaces, and the poetics of Brathwaite and Mackey where all is seen on the surface, the labor, the elisions, the breathing, the interruptions, the history, etc.

So, Brathwaite narrates this movement away from the colonial sense of ‘tidal’ – ‘coming from one continent/continuum, touching another, and then receding (‘reading’) from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future …’ (conVERSations 34) – towards its pluri-directional, surface-oriented version. One of the key differences between colonial tidal movement and Brathwaite’s is that in the latter there is the possibility of emancipation for the subject. This possibility is held in the chaos of the ocean. Parts are thrown onshore. If the colonial up-and-back is to be interrupted, the interruption will be in noticing and naming the parts thrown up, and in identifying drift as another kind of tidal movement. Look at any beach with a birds-eye view and you’ll see that the waves do not simply wash up and back, but swipe sideways after they break, perhaps only a little. The shape they make in that swiping action, of course, when viewed from above, is an arch. Attunement to this sideways drift is the same attunement we can apply to reading the breaks of nation language and the interruptions of coloniality they enact. Colonial language does not simply sound or not sound. When it’s broken, a new vibration emerges, one which contains the possibility of new, laterally-generated identities.

In a different conversation with Mackey, Brathwaite describes his trilogical poetic movement as, in part, attempting to pay this kind of attention to drift (Hambone). ‘X/Self,’ he says there, emerges as a representation of this new reality from precedent combination of ‘Mother Poem’ and ‘Sun Poem.’ He notes that the new entity is not strictly the product of a Hegelian, dialogic movement of history. It is, rather, intrinsically bound to the environment. Instead of the product of ‘Mother’ and ‘Sun’ being a synthesis of their traits, this new kind of subject, what we could call a post-colonic one, does not proceed from its suppose heirs. Instead, it can be said to simply exist in a pre-given wholeness, and in closer relationship with its environment than its progenitors. The status of this post-colonial subject as preeminently adaptive explains Brathwaite’s ironic label for the embodied, surfeit-producing process that produces it: ‘Calibanization.’

Mackey: ‘[…] Those linguistic turns and detours and fragmentations and neologisms and so forth that you call Calibanisms would be in the tradition of … folk / slave rebellion?

Brathwaite: Right. Yes. It is also, I think, a surrealization of x / perience. (44)

In this snippet of conversation, as in the name, ‘X / Self’, the ‘x’ is shorn of an ‘e’ in order to show that the self, or the experience, does not necessarily fully emerge out of one that has gone before, but that it exists as its own entity at the site of ‘x’.

Perhaps the most striking element of this embodied poetics – where silence, tide, and parenthesis come together in a relationship of intensity – is in Brathwaite’s movement away from English iambic pentameter to the Caribbean kaiso (calypso) rhythm. He compares Shakespeare’s line, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ to his own brilliantly illustrative lines from Rights of Passage:

The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands
Cuba San Domingo
Jamaica Puerto Rico

(conVERSations 40)
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