Kamau Brathwaite in Liviticus – like the Psalmist in Babylon; like the weeping prophet, a book review by John Robert Lee
Liviticus, published in 2017 by House of Nehesi Publishers, is a new collection that is at once a moving confessional poem, in which Kamau Brathwaite writes honestly, frankly, disturbingly on what he calls his “cultural lynching.”
He holds nothing back as he cries, like the prophet Jeremiah, about his suffering:
“The caul of fat around my liver and the shining budget of my kidneys / are laid out upon the altar of the Lord / surrounded by the howling congregations of the vigilante villagers of Fairy Valley / who love the scent of burning meat and pick and eat my sour morsel flesh.”
This Barbadian poet of our African Diaspora, of world renown, does not separate his personal anguish from the historical memory of the enslavements and Holocaust of the suffering of his people:
“There were five of them on horses / and the rest a loud rabble on foot coming over the river / There was no ever escape from this holocaust / They slit my wife’s throat and cut off the breasts of her ovals / and hauled me away to the coast of the Tree /.”
From his Rights of Passage (1967), through all the poetry and critical writing that has followed, Kamau Brathwaite has spoken with the communal voice of the African peoples exiled to these Caribbean islands and the other places of the Americas.
His personal sufferings are part and parcel of the sufferings of all the Black and native peoples who fell under the cruel, lynching hands of the conquistador and colonizer. Liviticus, called a “masterpiece” by the Barbados Today newspaper, could be the poet’s testament to “inconsolable loss” and what lies “beyond the issure of justice”:
“i give thanks that my eyes can’t see anymore through these shimmering locks of indifference / all this smell of the dead of our culture is inconsolable loss / We have become poorer and poorer like when we was poured out of Africa / The power of the Basilisk outreaching itself beyond the issure of justice and the ocean and its loas.”
In the Judeo-Christian Bible, Leviticus is the Third Book of Moses. The book addresses the responsibilities of the Levites, and the priests (who came from the Levites) were instructed in how they were to assist the people in worship and the people were informed about how to live a holy life.
In Rasta talk, “Livity” describes life in all its fullness.
In Kamau Brathwaite’s Liviticus, we are hearing the voice of the griot, the priest, the prophet, from an exile of suffering, personal and communal, for whom life is not experienced in its joyful fullness and holiness and lawfulness.
But rather, like the Psalmist in Babylon or the weeping prophet, his experience is bitter, full of sorrow, where prejudice, discrimination, hatred, lawlessness, various slaveries and the ultimate of humiliation – lynching, is the order of his daily survival:
“send me a lucky strike / of distant thunder and a flicker of white fork-lightning over the hills / let me know there is someone out there / with a helmet of rain. so that it will not wet / the tortured mask of my upturned face here in this straggellin garden / and cool this strange distance of pain”
The language is everywhere seminal, elemental, coming from the deep roots of this man’s, this griot’s, ache and loneliness and suffering.
Kamau Brathwaite continues also, even against indifference and possible mocking dismissal, to test the boundaries of poetic form on the printed page. Liviticus, like his recent publications, including Strange Fruit (2016), employs the author’s Sycorax Video Style (SVS). Various font stylings, photographs and designs are used to create a word and image impression on the reader’s mind and eye.
Liviticus is the continuing of bold explorations indeed, from our master poet.
Editor’s Note: John Robert Lee is an author, Fulbright/Laspau scholar librarian, and one of the coordinators of St. Lucia’s annual Nobel Laureate Week. A version of Lee’s review of Liviticus was presented at the book’s launch at St. Martin Book Fair, 2017. Liviticus is available at Van Dorp; SPDbooks.org; Amazon; UWI Bookshop, Barbados; Adifferentbooklist.com.