In the spirit of protest and concern, we share here a new poem by Kwame Dawes that speaks to our moment.
For Kamau Brathwaite
Poet Robert Lee through his fisheye lens, his face a talking head,
a mouth deep whispering and rounding out the vowels, reading X-Self,
possessed by Kamau, possessing Kamau, dreaming ancestors;
all that history, all that poultry, the nightmare of Herman Cortez,
the metaphors of underdevelopment, all those letters from Rome,
and in the background, a chicken crows time after time, and this is how
the world communes with itself, for forty nights of lamentation and celebration,
dreaming manuscripts for Kamau B, the poet, the griot, the ancestral dove.
That when Kamau, who told me to call him “Kamau” when I called him
in reverence, “Professor Brathwaite”, and then, “Prof B”,
which is where we settled, me being well-trained in the rituals of eldership,
for what do we call our teachers, those who teach us? And when he went to Rome,
he did not think of glory, but of Babylon burning, and blackening
and Amsterdam rotting, and the economies of electricity and coins, the myth
of heaven, the money of heaven, see the pennies dropping, of ships,
ships blessed at the docks, sent out with papal blessing,
to slaughter, to destroy, to commune, to enslave, to rape, to pillage,
to collect, collect, collect, and when he came to Rome,
he did not write lyrical paeans to a civilization, or speak
of being broken, being torn between the classics and the present existence
of black people, African people, and this seeped in me like a quiet
disease that has inoculated me from the pathologies of twilight.
I see no sin in bringing up the ugly thing, the bones in the corner,
the lies they tell, and though they call me unfortunate,
this has long seeped into my belly, my bones, my skin, my blood;
oh Mont Blanc, meaning white mountain, and that pun is meant
for what it is, that pun is meant for what it is, buzzards gathering
over the world. Uncle Kamau, I come to your back gate
in tattered khaki, like a garden boy, and I offer to clear the bramble,
and you warn me to be watchful of the dark green leaves,
and the purple flowering vine, and to stay far from the floor
covering of dainty lime green leaves, how precious they are.
So, I labor and Kingston sweat, and when you return
as the sun stands tall over the day, you carry a sweating glass
of ice-water, and offer it with a nod, and I drink the long draught
of the laborer, and out of respect and honor, I leave a mouthful
at the glass bottom, roll it around, and throw it out over the yard,
with that quick wrist gesture, ancient as the act of all laborers.
I return the glass, and we talk of the color of yoyi leaves,
how in Northern Ghana the spirits dance through your malarial
forest, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis—have mercy, have mercy, mercy—
bringing sweat and the breaking of fever and a new music
that will grow in density and light—mercy, mercy, me.
And I told you of the tart sweetness of Lomé fermented porridge
with groundnuts at dawn, as we stare at the mountains over Irish Town
in the silence that settles over us. Then you pause and say to me,
your sleep-lidded eyes bright with wisdom: “Since solstice,
I’ve been wanting to say this. Babylon, you inheritors of the ruins
of ancient philosophies and cities, you who have consecrated
the mythology of the color of your skins, I don’t want
to hear you say you can’t begin to imagine what black people
are going through. Because you are lying. You not only can imagine it
but you expect us to imagine how it is possible for you not to imagine
something as simple as this. Say you are ignorant. Say you’ve been selfish.
Say you have fattened yourself on the compromises of your humanity,
and have weighed us in the balance and let us be the price, Babylon.
Say you have protected your self-interest by willfully ignoring.
Say you are daft. Say you have no imagination for anything or anyone
other than your people. But don’t lie. And don’t ask me to feel
that pain of yours. Imagining is not hard. It’s human to imagine,
to empathize. It is inhuman to say you can’t begin to imagine.
It is so because it is a lie.” I am still clearing the ground
you started to cultivate in the way a poem grows, abandoned
with love, and stared at with awe—the raising of the jungle,
from dawn to dusk, and when the light starts to fade, I walk
through the land, and we talk as ghosts talk to the living.
June 3, 2020