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

1 November 2017

But, as he notes, to voice a phrase such as this requires a ‘difference in shape of intonation.’ In the kaiso, ‘The voice dips and deepens’ to meet the lines’ ‘intervallic pattern’ (History 18). This is a requirement of the parenthesis, too. As Richard Mulcaster stipulates in 1582, the parenthesis serves as a warning that the words therein should ‘be pronounced with a lower & quikker voice.’ In musical notation, this ‘intervallic’ gap in tone would be marked with either a gap (a silence) or a curved line, indicating a slide. The sound of the voice would either break or dip in order to readjust to its new coordinate. This intervallic tonal relation represents nation language’s dialogic human relations, between caller and respondent. As Brathwaite elaborates, nation language ‘demands’ for ‘the noise and sounds that the maker makes [to be] responded to by the audience and… returned to him.’ This ambition for such a voiced feedback loop coheres to nation language’s Caribbean social and historical conditions: again, it ‘come about because people … had to rely on their very breath … had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves’ (History 19). For Mackey, this aspiration is the mark of humanity’s andoumboulouousness, their connection to a universal source within each body that emerges, primarily, via sound (Splay xi).

In Brathwaite, the act of rendering becomes one kind of link in what Mackey describes as the ‘word-weave of fabrication’ (Discrepant 264). Take ‘The Gong-Gong,’ for example:

The drum
is dumb
until the gong-gong leads

it. Man made,
the gong-gong’s
iron eyes

of music
walks us through the humble 
dead to meet

the dumb
blind drum
where Odomankoma speaks:

(Masks 10)

In this poem, Odomankoma, the Great-Sky-Creator, is not brought into earthly presence until the drum is beaten. The drum is not beaten until the gong-gong (a ceremonial percussion instrument similar to a pair of cowbells) is beaten. The gong-gong goes first because it is high-pitched. It excites movement through not just stillness, but deadness. Once spirit is conscious of the moment and moving, Odomankoma speaks at and through the drum, a rhythm beaten by those curved sticks – our human operated, instrumentalised parentheses – whose wood is ‘heat-hard as stone’ and ‘toneless as bone’ (7). Rendering is a circular process accessed through the broken circle. It consists of crafting the sticks, also beating the drum, also summoning sound and the Creator. In Jah Music, Brathwaite’s poetic voice conflates its tongue with this invocative gong-gong: ‘I tuff gong tongue’ (24). However, in this poem about the murder by stoning of his friend, the poet Mikey Smith, the tongue slides into silence. It ‘now unannounce.’ The impetus to sound sinks ‘like a heavy heavy riddim low down in i belly . bleedin dub . & / […] in in i chest & pump. ing.’ It vibrates there. Brathwaite translates the vibration as:


Here, Brathwaite strikingly invokes the shadowy depth and death at the heart of colonial poetics, but instead of assigning that poetic register its conventionally neat silence, he makes it make uncontained noise.

The parenthesis is a thesis of parenting, and a thesis of parentage. It is these two things, and implies two things, the presence of the doing (parenting) and the abstract theory of the state in which one or many exist while they are doing that doing. The parenthesis suggests a parentage that is all the things that the parenthesis is: creative of a bow (which, we could add, is what is used to shoot an arrow, whose aim it is to make a puncture in its target); (merely) suggestive of an apex; balanced, scale-like; reconstitutive of the brain’s hemispheres; representative of freed shackles, cupped hands, an open container, and earthed connection to the plural vodun / European mythic divine: above and below.

The parenthesis is a re-inscription of colonialism’s faux unity – represented by the circle – that shows where it has had part of its wall demolished. These are balanced wounds: they remain ecological and sensible. Their contents can be spoken and turned towards new sense, and we can invite ourselves to make new sense of them. As Anna Renkin observes, Brathwaite’s typeface in conVERSations, which is called Sycorax, after Caliban’s Mother, ‘allows…space and longitude – groundation and inspiration’ (189). This is what the parenthesis does, too. In conVERSations, grammar and typography create the conditions for the silence that precedes readership. In Hambone, Brathwaite notes that the only way Caliban can break out of Prospero’s prison is by returning to his Mother tongue:

and that is what these poems are trying to do. Instead of Caliban revolting even against the language of Prospero he is really trying to hack his way back to the language of the forgotten, submerged mother. (45)

In Brathwaite and Mackey, straight lines bend to form this womb to which the ex-colonial subject can return. They bend to form stories, becoming the material of the sur-realism of x / perience. Straight lines bend and double, with each part’s empty silent space facing each other, making, perhaps, a bowl for another bow to scoop from.

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