Born to Slow Horses
I’m one bad coverjudger.
A shiny, shiny shell. Deep aquamarine gleam, beetle-backed, locked between slivers of the spectrum, blue and green. What kind of aquamarine? Color of the hard menthol mints that were the last to disappear from your grandmother’s store of sweets. Tastes like medicine-candy. Tastes wrong like it’s what a grown-up would imagine candy would taste like if that grown-up had never been a kid but it’s candy. So you open it anyway. Open me, open me.
A Note on the Type.
So when I buy my copy of the book at the local indie where I work, the store receiver happens to be standing there. “I opened that book when we got the first shipment in,” he says. “It was like looking into the jaws of hell.”
Why, and how.
Recall, if you can, the house fonts of AppleWorks circa 1988. When Skia and Gill Sands Ultra Bold looked like the future! Now put these fonts in the hands of a graphologically-minded writer who finds great expressive potential in the distinctions to be drawn between pts 8 and 22. Liberate him with the house fonts, but cripple him with a dot-matrix printer. Behold!
Witchy-woman, lady who was here before you were, reference point for Afro-Caribbean literary theory, the modern typography of Kamau Brathwaite. Both crudely retro and modishly elaborate, its distinguishing effect is to make the text goddamned hard to read. I’m not kidding. Bust out the bifocals, then hold the book at arm’s length. The type confuses near and far and big and small more frequently than Grover does.
Giving a good goddamn.
The difficulty in visually discerning the words does have an upside: it slows the reader down, forces the reader to vocalize the words to re-establish the rhythm interrupted by the frayed texture of the printed text. This matters, because lines such as these
from “Kumina” or “The 21 Days”
after yr debt — o pickney — it is as if me cyaaan wake up
Time has been drain from all my clocks. the sky is overcyas & lock
although it isn’t rainin yet
really do require vocalization. The phonetic literalizations and faux-cavalier punctuation create a syntactical analog to the visual effect of the Sycorax style. You cannot encounter the dot-matrix printing without succumbing to an initial impression of crudity, of unsophisticated amateurism, but the vocalizations into which the style shunts you have a vernacular association that raises questions as to how and why you judge the visual element so harshly. The cumulative effect is a tiger pit: classism, racism, nationalist vernacular prejudice, all shifted to the foreground so as to upset your ability to sit back and judge the language of the poem from behind a depoliticizing scrim of “high” aesthetic. Neat trick.
That tingling sensation will let you know it’s working.
I can only read about ten pages of the book before I start to long for the crisp serif comforts of a “normal” book. But when I pick up a vol-ume of po-ems to soothe my itchy eye-holes, its type strikes me as arch, antiseptic, and woo-woo. Unbidden, the taste of exorbitantly expensive English tea floods the very mouth that, moments ago, struggled to subvocalize the word cyaaan without sounding like a Trustafarian.
On the other hand,
this technique—depending as it does on the invocation of poetry as a form of spoken language—operates much more successfully in poems of ventriloquism, monologue or theater. When the poems fall in the mode of meditation or discursion, the graphic elements simply exacerbate my suspicion of poems filled with a poet talking poem-talk. You know what I mean:
And i realize that I have been thinking of them all morning from this high
freeling air. watching the clouds changing shade into the fate
of their future . into landscape & memory
into the bleak beautiful meaning of reality
plummeting towards my own horse of ruins
& dreams. of how they too will be forgotten in time
Don’t get me wrong.
I know perfectly well that when I privilege “Kumina” over “Guanahani” I run the risk of seeming as if what I really want to say is please Mr Brathwaite, make them funny voices again, and don’t bother us with all that thinking! But that interpretation is incorrect, and dangerous besides—not only does it devalue the musicality of the ventriloquism, it tacitly assumes that a quotidian vernacular cannot achieve the highest degrees of thought. I think that discourse poems of explicit “poet-thought” are often boring music and almost always boring thought; the reason I enjoy a poem like “Kumina” is because it demonstrates how the poem as speech-act can function as something other than comedy routine. Given the number of contemporary poets who seem cursed with an inability to summon a language that isn’t pre-poeticized, any poem that depends upon the theatre of speech without becoming Brechtian in its congratulation of both self and consciousness is a treasure. I value mimicry that isn’t mockery.
The poet talking poem-talk (from “Bread”)…
Slowly the white dream wrestle(s) to life
hands shaping the salt and the foreign cornfields
the cold flesh kneaded by fingers
is ready for the charcoal for the black wife
… is fine enough but pales in comparison to
i born into this world w/nothing but my breath & bare back an hornets
in my chess
now i will haffe doubt if god is good & black & honesty
wha good god do fa me?
whe god dat cricket midnight criminal when Mark of god get call like dat & kill
Mark cyaan dead so if good. if god,
A Note on my Type
The poems in the book don’t look like this. Investigate for yourself.
If wishes were horses these beggars would ride.
In the preface to his long poem “Kumina,” Brathwaite quotes the following from a text identified only as Jamaica Journal:
“At bailo dances, the spirits who are called, more often than not make their presence known by ‘mounting’ (i.e. possessing) a dancer; whose given dance style helps in identifying the spirit, but can span all possibilities of movement.”
Well, yeah. Exactly my point. When the poet exclusively occupies the language of one intimate with poetry, he reaches for those elements all poets recognize—which simultaneously ‘exalts’ and limits the language available to the poem. When the poet allows the speech of those who do not automatically ‘speak’ ‘poetry’ to emerge, he gains a much broader range of tonal and linguistic resources, including but not limited to the vernacular, while retaining control of his more poeticized faculties. More language, more poem.
Something for everyone, too much for anyone.
To be fair, I’m excluding whole acres of Born to Slow Horses, which in its almost-150 pages includes historical essays, cultural analyses, footnotes, song lyrics, jokes, snippets of oral history and a long poem about 9.11. While I’ve avoided mentioning these elements for no better reason to draw a neater perimeter around what most compels me, I have to admit that such an embarrassment of riches struck me finally as more embarrassing as rich. And while I know that wide-ranging and polyglot methodologies are the essence of the book, I also know that Brathwaite’s written at least forty books, and could easily have split this one into two or three more.
The moral of the story.
Sometimes you should look into the jaws of hell and then look closer. Put your head right between the teeth. You might find rubies in there.