Lesson
Touring the Penn Center, St. Helena’s, SC

I am wading through the dark morass of history,
Beaufort at dusk fills with humid air from the swamps
and the mangrove of stagnant sea water’s calm
rice ponds, and the muttering old spirits,
the sharp lament of crickets and the trees close in
on us. The ground gives, stretches of white
sand, fresh earth that will not hold bodies.
Everything shifts here and the apocalypse of bodies
given up on holy nights is a common ritual.
I am teaching them about the bloody rituals
of human chattel, shattering all myths, all excuses—
the doctrine that it was ignorance, sheer prehistoric
stupidity that allowed such brute disregard
for the black soul. I am aware of how callous
these students grow to ward off the piss fear
of having no recourse but to weep or shed blood—
truth is the smashing of old comforts. I am telling
Carlos, Jerry, Uniqua to look into the past
of these South lands to find the squalid
histories of their blood; and why must I
offer them such heavy truths, these black
boys and girls who seem desperate for a language
of survival? Oh, that it was not anger, this lesson
of memory I now teach, but how can we touch
such gummy memory without ire? We must all learn
why we tear to hear a blue lament, a flat-toned
spiritual or see the stiff dangling image of a man,
a backdrop for a picnic? This room with its bland
track lighting—this modern orderly space—
grows dense with earth and trees, the stench
of death. In the photo gallery, the faces stare back
at us: country, African, crude images of ourselves—
the students point and laugh as if afraid to admit
the truth staring back shyly in black and white.
Before anger comes the shame or something mocking
like inexplicable laughter. I offer them love—
what I think is the narrative of survival,
then we listen to Mos Def as we drive through
the swamp, the blackening Atlantic at our backs.

 

Source: BOMB Magazine — Four Poems by Kwame Dawes

#7: If the poem came from God don’t ask me to edit God.

#28: At their best our poems have taught us things we never knew we knew. We just have to let them.

#29: Here is a tricky one: the poem is not so much in the image itself but in the moment that demands the image. Consider it.

#30: Call it subconscious, call it art, but a poem wants to go where it wants to go. If you let it, aahh, bright wings!

#36: You can write about anything you want, but some subjects come with greater responsibility than you may want to take on.

#47: At the very least find out why they say the “greats” are great before you dismiss them for being dead and not like you.

 

Source: MEMO TO POETS – kwamedawes.com

Some time in the last two years, I decided to undertake a reading of epics (The Odyssey), verse novels (Omeros and Prophets, by Derek Walcott and Kwame Dawes, respectively). I called myself doing research for my own verse novel. Well. I got about more than half way through The Odyssey before I gave up the ghost. I barely made it past the first chapter of Omeros, although, truth be told, that was due to me being so enraptured by the language of that first chapter, that I just stopped in awe. And that is where I am at with that book. Transfixed. Earlier this month, I picked up Prophets and started reading it again. I admit to being fascinated…by the story, by the language AND by the three-line format.

Here is the back blurb:

From the winner of the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize for the best first collection comes this major new narrative poem.

Drawing on inspirations as diverse as Derek Walcott, the Bible and Peter Tosh, Dawes brings a live a world where 24-hour satellite television, belching out the swaggering voices of American hellfire preachers, competes with dance hall, ‘slackness’ and ganja for the Jamaican mind. Against this background, Clarice and Talbot preach their own conflicting visions.

Clarice has used her gifts of prophecy to raise herself from the ghetto. Thalbot has fallen from relative security onto the streets. Whilst Clarice has her blue-eyed Jesus, Thalbot brandishes his blackness in the face of every passer-by. Clarice’s visions give her power. Thalbot is at the mercy of possession by every wandering spirit. But when, under the cover of darkness, Clarice ‘sins’ with one of her followers, Thalbot alone knows of her fall. From the heart of the Jamaican countryside he sets  out to denounce the prophetess and, like Jonah, to warn the Ninevite city of its coming doom. An epic struggle begins.

Now. Narrative poem. That may be a better, more poetic term than verse novel. Verse novel sounds so plain and well, teenage-ish; at least to my ears. So the next conceptual step on my journey to completing my own narrative poem is to call it that. As I tell my son, words have power/words matter.

The three-line format of both Omeros and Prophets is fascinating. It is a definite plus in reading poems which possess an extended narrative nature. Why that is the case, I haven’t yet figured out.  I started out trying to mimic that format for my own work. However, the characters rebelled. They didn’t want line cohesion. They just wanted to tell their stories in their own ragged and mismatched lines (aka free verse). Even though I am the author, I got out of their way.  After all, I want the narrative written,  not blocked because of an allegiance to a format that, however fascinating, doesn’t work for this particular narrative.

Voices from Haiti: Storm (English Version) by Kwame Dawes

English version of the visual poem Storm with poetry by Kwame Dawes, images by Andre Lambertson.

For Malia Jean

From here the mountains around
Port-au-Prince are green; too
far to see the denuded hillside,
too far to see the brown wounds,
too far to see the layered
city of sand bags, wooden
reinforcements, heavy plastic
tents, the gravel, the dust,
the narrow lanes, the gutters,
the stolen power lines,
the makeshift clubs, the cinema,
the internet café, the phalanx
of shower booths, the admonitions
to keep the place clean, as if
someone hopes to restore
this stripped down hillside
to its glory as a golf course
for expatriates, the moneyed,
the diplomats, too far
to see the constant cloud
from wood fires and coal
factories tucked into
this city of improvisation; too far
though from here you can smell
the rain gathering at dusk.
Tonight the deluge will heal
all sores, clear the air of dust
from the crushed stones;
tonight the alabaster ruins
will gleam through the tender
mist of rain; and this body
that has grown weary with living,
will hope for a flame of prophesy;
for even the smallest ember
must keep the heat from slipping
away. This is my world,
these days; this and the ritual
of pills, the cycle of nausea,
the relief at three in the afternoon,
that hour when I feel as normal
as I was before all of this.
The blackness at the edge
of my eyes returns by five o’clock;
and here is where my prayers
are stripped of all ostentation,
here faith is tasteless
as unleavened bread; here
hope is a whisper from a dried
mouth, and I know what
the presence of God is. The cool
silence of a cemetery at twilight
is my comfort; the resignation,
the calm presence of mountains,
like these dumb tombstones.
I long to make deals with God.
The transaction the weary
and heavy laden make: Take
this body, it is used up now,
let it rest, dear God, let it
rest. Take this body, it is
yours now, let it rest, Lord,
let it rest. The storm covers
the earth. I stand in the rain.
It comes like the sound of grace,
soaking me to the bone—first
the taste of salt, then the clean
flow of healing slipping in my mouth.

Reading may differ slightly from text

This video is part of a multi-media series "Voices from Haiti" (http://bit.ly/rdk0fp) exploring life after the quake, focusing on the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Reggae for me is very much associated with the ’70’s, with a time of a lot of self-questioning, nationally, individually. And not just self-questioning, because also I think it was very much a time when people were open to ideas about what I will just loosely call the spiritual world, you know, the inner world. And there was a sense that both things were important – that is, making things right in the world of the here and now, the social world, kind of building a New Jerusalem impulse; and also the other important thing was attending to what was going on inside of you and becoming right, becoming what the rastaman referred to as the higher man, or the Iya-man. So yes, I think reggae was important in terms of keeping the significance of those two strands of living very alive and real and accepted and normal for a lot of us.

Excerpted from Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, editor: Kwame Dawes