[Caribbean Literature]

An Introduction Roi Kwabena's Whether Or Not

Dr. Lauri Ramey, Department of English, California State University, Los Angeles

take back these identities
you gave my wind swept
volcanic rocks


Prominent among the previously present and evolving themes of Roi Kwabena's new and long-anticipated poetry collection is the reclamation of experience through language. Sweeping aside current debates regarding "the poem on the page" versus "performance poetry," Kwabena's work resides in the origins of the lyric genre, which never proposed such dichotomies. By focusing on theme and form, it becomes evident that his poetry is allied with various traditions and impulses. At the same time, what emerges in this new volume is a distinct voice whose "literariness" is now manifest in full articulation.

Language is the medium which allies these two worlds, the spoken and engraved. In the tradition of Caribbean poetry — but the tradition of all lyric poetry — Kwabena engages in the act of intense scrutiny of language in operation. Throughout the six sections of Whether Or Not, we see the continuing motif of how language is used aesthetically and politically —for purposes of appropriation, disenfranchisement, construction (and deprivation) of identity, the agony of erasure and marginalisation, the insistent shout for recognition, and the exuberant joys of sensuosity.

While acknowledging the usual categories in which a poetry of conscience is often slotted, describing Kwabena's poetry as solely "political" or "performative" does not do it full justice. Raised in a home where literature was present and stressed, including the works of a broad range of Caribbean and African American writers, Kwabena also experienced the early influences of classroom memorisation at the tail end of the colonial educational system.The combination of oppression and release proposed by poetry — reciting Byron and Skeete at school, while reading Selvon and Du Bois at home — must have been instilled at a young age via such exposure. It was an early lesson that language could be a source of productive tension to illuminate forces (repressive as well as enabling) that otherwise would remain hidden.

For example, in 'westindia', cultural identity is reclaimed through the careful repetitive construction of the negative case. The poem is framed with the opening and closing couplet: "here is not west india/here is not west india." Names, our most primal linguistic emblem of identity, are shown to be symptomatic of the problems of the colonial legacy. The list of place names is solemnly intoned

st croix
st kitts
st eustatius
st vincent
st thomas

as the poem echoes the litany of saint names for locales where the namers "never, ever trod." The word "look" is repeated, a plea and demand in one, as the poet begs and insists that the irony of the situation be recognised and acknowledged. This drumming of an intoned and highly significant word becomes in this collection what is what is commonly known as leitworter (Martin Buber) — a frequent device in biblical narrative as well as the earliest African American poetry, notably spirituals (which so strongly influenced much of later Black American verse) — where single words or phrases accrue the weight of a central theme, beyond what an individual word can ordinarily bear.

The "what we are not" is impeccably balanced with "what we are." These poems amply trace the historical and political path of the Gallabi as an indigenous population through a wealth of documentation. There is a thrust in this collection as a whole to recapture the unique legacy of Caribbean peoples, who share Diasporic links but also remain distinct. Here is where we experience Kwabena as poet-teacher: the "Obeahman" he aspires to be in his anthemic poem is, ironically, the figure he has become in Whether Or Not. Traditionally, in "new age bois," the speaker in the poem calls on the spirits of the ancestors to empower him to bring their energy — and burdens — into the present for resolution, tirelessly. There is an implicit charge to the reader to enter into the process of education by means of enculturation.

This stress on words as vessels of enormous cultural weight is a hallmark of Kwabena's poetry. Many of the poems in this collection intersperse conventional and colloquial diction. Typically, rather than writing poems wholly in vernacular, Kwabena's poems combine the two worlds, obviously an ideological gesture, which also reflects the breadth of audience address towards which he aims. As with his previous collection, A Job For the Hangman (Birmingham: RAKA Publications, 1997), Whether Or Not contains an extensive glossary of terms. This is not poetry written for insiders or an elite. Although Kwabena speaks always from his own particular experience, this is also the voice of a writer committed to a Pan Afrikan vision that acknowledges multiculturalism (reflective of Kwabena's own heritage) and tolerance. His method is to bring in rather than exclude.

Just as he stresses and preserves place names, which build in resonance as one progresses through this collection, Kwabena often uses foods to evoke a sense of specific cultural identity and texture. Food, a universal ingredient of social ritual, is luxuriated over in numerous poems. In "cascadura," names of regional specialties become a metaphor for the bonds, rituals, traditions and beauty of community life:

pepper sauce on the highway
hot doubles in san juan
traffic in the croissee
mincing fresh chive in sant d'eau

** shark n bake down chagville
a rude male breeze in
the middle of town, blowing up
sandra's pretty dress

In addition, food is inextricably linked to the sounds of the language, whose authenticity is meticulously preserved. This motif reaches a culmination in such pieces as "never say gone," which fittingly closes the collection. This poem also exemplifies Kwabena's characteristic invitation to readers to enter a world that they will either recognise as familiar or need to know about. He writes, "so come/come take a stroll with me/along salibya . . . matura/manzanilla to mayaro shores", as we are invited to follow the poet's lead. We travel in this epic lyric through the past, present and envisioned future of Trinidad and Tobago, as a sense-of-place is methodically constructed through references to all of the exponents of culture — naming foods such as sapodilla, gundee, chip chip, arepa, pastelle, payme; the writers Eric Roach, Syl Lowhar and Victor Questel; and closing with a crescendo recreating the sights and sounds of Carnival and its players and music, in a thirty line coda beginning with kaico and ending with robber talk. We don't need much more evidence to place Kwabena in the griot tradition, or to understand that that is how he sees his role.

There are other notes sounded in this collection as well that show the level of lyric sophistication and stylistic range that Kwabena achieves in his new writing. "Apparitions" is a delicate poem of lament, whose final stanza of stark solemnity would befit the Japanese tradition. "Hang Man" and "no hearts" demonstrate his sensitivity to the double meaning of words and concepts as he plays on the ironies inherent in language itself, as well as humanity's ability to use words to deceive and even self-deceive.

Roi Kwabena's poetry is an extension of his work (I use the word "work" as a deeply resonant term here) in other genres, from politics to community activism to concerns with health, spirituality and education. But it is essential not to allow his towering public presence to overshadow the fact that — like Senghor, like James — he is indeed a poet. Whether Or Not is no veiled polemic, nor a rhapsodic medium to convey a didactic message. As he wrote to me in an interview (June 2000), "I choose the medium of poetry conscious of the power that the spoken word commands, recognizing the damage done via our miseducation . . . conscious of the lost and subsequent refertilization of our language(s)."

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Last modified 12 June 2005