In its insistent rhythms and vivid parsing of postcolonial histories, Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry is among the most significant to emerge from the West Indies in the last century. Born in Barbados in 1930, Brathwaite won a scholarship to study at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where his reading of History doubtless laid the foundations for his later writing. On return to the Caribbean, he began a career as a teacher, later becoming a lecturer; he published on the social and cultural history of the region, including a volume titled The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica (1971). At the same time, this keen academic awareness of the history of his homeland met in his poetry with personal experiences and the present day, to produce a series of book-length sequences that take in the captivating landscapes, troubled past, and characters and identities of the West Indian nations. Rights of Passage appeared in 1967, earning much critical praise and the accolade of a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and was followed by Masks (1968) and Islands (1969).
Though Kamau Brathwaite published dozens of volumes, the extracts featured in this Poetry Archive recording draw on the first section of the lauded Masks, titled ‘Libation’ – which is to say a ritual pouring of a liquid, in this case metaphorical, as an offering to a god or spirit. Though the listener will find that these poems deliver a uniquely specific take on a mythological creation story, and centre on Brathwaite’s adopted home of Ghana, West Africa, they are nevertheless representative of much of the qualities of his writing in general, particularly in their insistence on the poem as language springing from a sung rhythm, in the spirit of the oral tradition. A distinctive stylistic hallmark of Brathwaite’s poetry is the way in which refrains, and even individual words, are often repeated to transformative, incantatory effect, as part III, ‘Atumpan’, testifies. Here, the drumming god Odomankoma is summoned in verse that mimics the eponymous twin drum set, a piece of sacred kit that is used both to provide the bass to traditional dance, and to send messages between villages. In Brathwaite’s poem, it becomes a powerful emblem of poetry itself – a means of making music, but also of communicating across physical and cultural boundaries. Yet Brathwaite’s is not merely an affirmative verse, as part II, ‘The Making of the Drum’, illustrates. In fact, the very goat that is killed for its hide in order to manufacture the drum is, in the poem’s reckoning, “horned with our sin”. “Stretch your skin, stretch // it tight on our hope”, implores the speaker, “we have killed / you to make a thin / voice that will reach”.
Throughout the poems included here, Brathwaite’s commanding yet richly warm delivery brings the words to life, much like dancers compelled by a drum’s beat. Listening to him read is something of an hypnotic experience, and confirms Publishers Weekly’s assessment of his work as “sinuously syncopated and consistently exciting”.