BORN TO SLOW HORSES by KAMAU BRATHWAITEJULIANA SPAHR reviews
Born to Slow Horses by Kamau Brathwaite
(Wesleyan University Press, 2005)
[Review first appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter, April/May 2006. Editor Brendan Lorber]
At the end of Born to Slow Horses, in a note that somewhat resembles a biographical note, Kamau Brathwaite calls this book part of his “postSalt poetry” phase. The “Time of Salt,” as he puts it, were the years 1986-1990, years in which his wife died, his home and archives were destroyed in a hurricane, and he was attacked in Kingston, Jamaica. The “Time of Salt” produced recent books such as The Zea Mexican Diary and Trench Town Rock. PostSalt are Born to Slow Horses and other recent collections such as Words Need Love Too. And as he writes in the third person, these postSalt books survey or make “natural reference to the entire tidalectics, but at the same time marking, even with the most remarkable of his ‘Caribbean’ poems here, a significant transboundary development.”
It is this attention to the “transboundary” that I find so distinctive about Brathwaite’s work. Brathwaite’s work is distinctive for how it charts the connections between the global and the local. His stunning Middle Passages zig zags back and forth across the Atlantic in a series of poems about political resistance and political art. Even his highly personal works, such as Trench Town Rock which is about his attack in Jamaica, often manage to get in a colonial history lesson. I always want to resort to some oxymoronic term or jargon, perhaps a term like transboundaric localism, to describe his work because the words currently in circulation around poetry never feel adequate. His work is always rooted in the Caribbean yet it is never naively isolated, never nostalgic, always interestingly attentive to the difficulties of its colonial histories and migrations. Part of the intense pleasure of reading his work is how it swoops back and forth between detail and big picture.
Because so much of Brathwaite’s book is about the difficulties of colonial histories and migrations, he is the master of the lament. He uses the form frequently and he uses it persuasively. And it is just one more example of how Brathwaite is always challenging genre expectations that he turns so often to a form that is usually gendered female and is also often about an inability to speak for so much of his historical, political poetry.
Born to Slow Horses, Brathwaite’s most recent book and among his strongest, has at least two laments in it although it could probably be argued that most of the book is lament. One of the obvious laments, “Kumina,” is about Brathwaite’s wife’s son who is hit by a car while riding a bike. The poem opens with the telling of the death and then in a mother’s voice tells the story of mourning day by day. This poem has all the marks of the classic Brathwaite lament. It begins by telling about the death of someone, then turns to an intimate chronicling of the pain of someone close to the dead who is still alive using classical tropes (the breaking of bread, the tears, the disorientation and inarticulateness), and then there is a moment when the poem turns individual grief into the larger collective pain of a culture dealing with an impossible history.
The other obvious lament is called “9/11 Hawk” and it has some of the classic Brathwaite lament moments but moves out of them, perhaps even more into this “transboundary” space. “9/11 Hawk” opens with the narrator listening to music and begins with a memory of hearing Coleman Hawkins play “Body and Soul” and a discussion of how music matters. It moves then to an uncle who died in the Twin Towers when they collapsed and a telling of this event. The voice of lament in this poem is not so much the narrator and his uncle but Beth Petrone, the pregnant wife of a firefighter who died in the buildings who is quoted throughout the end of the poem. The images in this poem are productively less sure, more complicated than in “Kumina.” There is “the broken quaver of the water leaking in our one canoe” and “death in the fission of indebtedness” and “the unknown animal that is now yr sibyl sister at the door.”
While Brathwaite has been living in New York City for some time, it has never held the attention of his work the way the Caribbean has. For this reason, it is interesting to see him writing about 9/11. So much of his work laments those dead because of the world’s powers colonial histories it is fascinating to see him writing from within the center of the empire and to have him mourning with it. The poem ends with the narrator wanting to reconnect with his/her beloved. “O let me love you love you love love you” is one among many lines where it is left ambiguous if the beloved is a human or New York City, whether this love is something that is difficult or easy.
The last poem in Born to Slow Horses uses short, mainly three line stanzas, Robert Creeley-style. It is not really lament but could easily be read as comment on lament. Here Brathwaite abandons his classic trope of expansive listing and swooping historical views and turns to tell a story of a dead robin strangled by a string around its neck and is caught on a power line. Most of the poem describes another bird that comes to mourn the dead bird. The poem ends with the a boy cutting the dead robin down and burying it. The still living bird in this poem is clearly lamenting (this bird is gendered male): “the mourn-/ing male bird circle/& sing//at the hope-/less/song-//less/tighten-/ing string.” But it seems telling that the boy comes from outside this relationship between the dead and the mourning and respectfully ends the song through his actions. This ending suggests that there might yet be another, new phase of Brathwaite’s work after this postSalt one.
Juliana Spahr is the author of This Connection of Everyone with Lungs and some other books.