Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stanely Crouch: Poems by a Hanging Judge

No New Music

In Mississippi
balloons of hunger
blow themselves up
in the bellies of
children on porches
in slat-thin houses
held up by stilts,
the teeth of mad
men turned to wood
to wood and tarpaper
and holes in the roof
“Holy vessel of truth
sail through the night now and save these children
these children whose legs bend bowed under the
bone-wilting fire of rickets”

Black Queen
empty as a raped peanut shell,
lie down beneath your quilt
of roaches and pray for your children
pray to the stars who
spy at night on your poverty
on your husband with his arm
across his eyes
his hands smooth with no money no work nowhere
his eyes tattooed with the
red neck and face
of the devil himself,
his eardrums playing
back the tunes of abuse
the beasts blow through
their corncob pipes …
No new music

Albert Ayler: Eulogy for a Decomposed
Saxophone Player

(The saxophone turned into a dolphin
or a flying shark with transparent teeth of fire
behind which the shadows of ghosts could be seen dancing
or a seal spinning sound under the ice
you wore a leather suit
and the metal pipe covered with stemmed buttons
plucked the notes off the music and left the sound.
Don felt fresh wind in his face
Don Cherry did at first hearing you
when we wind back to scandinavia
and the legends begin)

1.         GHOSTS (the national anthem)

Sometimes a saxophone
is a home
twisting dead women
through the air
(You feel the hymn
the old lonely hymn
the hymn we all never would’ve sung)


And we can step high
And we can step high
and we can step high
and walk away
And we can step high and we can step high and we can high step
and walk away
Don’t you know that the old black men
now walk across the fields
walking slowly up their deaths
But don’t you know that the old black men’s
souls shout high across the fields


But we could never rejoice in the river
only decompose in the dark
the flesh-ringing dumpling in the water of november.
Did the east river bite your heart,
Did it bite, Albert,
while exhibitionists,
flipping themselves out,
waved from bridges?
Did the water, that wet cold fist with slobbering ripples for
line of a palm,
did the water make your body look as much like a
sea horse as your saxophone looked like one—
but you though in the scales and stretches of decomposition
Mr. Albert Ayler
the old men’s marcher
twisting the voices of dead women through the air
and it is the river
puzzleboard pieces of ice
and no more gray flames of drummer’s howls
in the blue background

4.         BELLS

We walk
We hum
we summon streets
we shout down the streets
we moan down the streets
we kick spit curse and sing
It is never warm now
No days

5.         LAST STAND (as the flesh rises & waves away)

And the sharp nails of our notes
become hurry picks with which we climb mountains.
Up that mountain of horizontal rungs of air
the chest has to be big to sing any song way up that high—up there:
the atmosphere thin with ghosts
weaving through saxophones
and we’ll remember, Albert,
as we walk, as we hum,
that you sang up there, playing
the bells—summoning—in a ferocious, a growling,
a honking big-heartedness
before the air was greased
up under the bottom of your feet
and you fell, were pushed, accepting “the river’s invitation”
and the water plucked your beard
with its filth and its cans, its garbage,
plucked your beard,
and your flesh
now a slimy brown harpsichord slapped ashore
November 25, 1970.

1970/December 24 to January 24, 1971

The Poetry of Black America. Copyright © 1973 by Arnold Adoff. Introduction copyright © 1973 by Gwendolyn Brooks Blakely • Harper & Row • New York, N.Y. 10022

Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989 by Stanley Crouch


Savannah, Georgia: Largest Slave Auction

The Weeping Time

On March 2-3, 1859, "The Weeping Time" occurred in African history. This was the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States.

This episode took place at a racetrack in Savannah, Georgia. During the two-day auction, rain fell continuously almost as though the heavens were crying. So, too, tears fell from several of the 436 men, women, and children who were auctioned off. The sale would thereafter be known as "the weeping time." The Slave-owner, Pierce Butler and his brother John, had inherited the family's Georgia plantations some twenty years earlier.

But Pierce had squandered away his portion of the inheritance, losing a rumored $700,000; and was deeply in debt. Management of Pierce Butler's estate was transferred to trustees. The trustees sold off Butler's Philadelphia mansion for $30,000 and other Butler properties. But it was not enough to satisfy creditors or ensure that Butler would continue to live in luxury. So the Georgia plantations and their "moveable" property their slaves were next.

At the time, the overall Butler family holding included 900 slaves, divided into two groups of 450. Half would go to the estate of John, who had since died and would remain on the plantations. The fate of the other 450 Pierce's half was more precarious with about 20 of them continuing to live on the Butler property. The remainder were boarded onto railway cars and steamboats and brought to the Broeck racetrack, where each would be sold to the highest bidder.

There were differing viewpoints regarding the auction, Pierce Butler, and the large fortune he would gain after paying his debts. Philadelphia socialite Sidney George Fisher wrote in his diary, "It is highly honorable to [Butler] that he did all he could to prevent the sale, offering to make any personal sacrifice to avoid it."


Of the auction, Fisher wrote:

"It is a dreadful affair, however, selling these hereditary Negroes. Families will not be separated, that is to say, husbands and wives, parents and young children. But brothers and sisters of mature age, parents and children of mature age, all other relations and the ties of home and long association will be violently severed. It will be a hard thing for Butler to witness and it is a monstrous thing to do. Yet it is done every day in the South.

"It is one among the many frightful consequences of slavery and contradicts our civilization, our Christianity, or Republicanism. Can such a system endure; is it consistent with humanity, with moral progress? These are difficult questions, and still more difficult is it to say, what can be done? The Negroes of the South must be slaves or the South will be Africanized. Slavery is better for them and for us than such a result."

Mortimer Thomson, a popular newsman of the day wrote a lengthy, uncomplimentary article about the auction for the New York Tribune entitled "What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation." He reported how the slaves, eager to impress potential masters who they perceived as kind, would sometimes cheerfully respond to buyers "pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound."

Thomson also sympathized with the slaves after the sale, writing, "On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned to the hard stroke of Fortune that had torn them from their homes, and were sadly trying to make the best of it; some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled."

The two-day sale netted $303,850, in 1859. The highest price paid for one family a mother and her five grown children was $6,180. The highest price for one individual was $1,750. The lowest price for any one slave was $250. Soon after the last slave was sold, the rain stopped. Champagne bottles popped in celebration. And Pierce Butler, once again wealthy, made a trip to southern Europe before returning home to Philadelphia.

Source: Library of Congress

Confessions of a Wayward Economist

Caribbean Integration: Can Cultural Production Succeed
where politics and economics have failed?

By Norman Girvan1

One of the beautiful things about events like this Festival del Caribe is the continual discovery that the things that unite us, as Caribbean people, are far more powerful than those that divide us. The barriers of language and political status virtually evaporate in the heat of music, dance and shared rituals.

At yesterday’s desfile,for instance, a Jamaicanwould have recognised JonCannu and Rastafari among the Cuban groups; a Trinidadian would have recognised familiar Carnival characters like Moko Jumbies and Dame Lorraines. At last year’s Festival I had several such Epiphany moments. Allow me to share so me of these with you by quoting from a commentary I made at the time:

“As scholars pondered Pan-Africanism in Cuba and Jamaica and the development of Black consciousness in Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago; Vudú and Yoruba religious ceremonies were being performed in communities adjacent to Santiago. Attending several of the cultural events, I came away with a strong sense of the power of music, dance and spiritualism as the common language of Caribbean people. Santiago’s Steelband del Cobre and Trinidad’s Valley Harps steel orchestra had half their audiences at Teatro Heredia jumping on the stage at the end of their respective performances.

The cultural procession held in the city centre before the culture ministers of Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago and a crowd of several thousand ended with a street jump-up which to all intents and purposes was a j’ouvert—except that it was Santiagueran Conga. The homage to the Cimmaron(Maroon) held on a hilltop in the community of Cobre was a ceremony with powerful spiritual impact—complete with possession—which reminded me of Jamaican Kumina and, I am told, shared many elements with Trinidadian Shango. And of course the great Bob (Marley) was everywhere.”2

The sense of the Caribbean as a ‘community of culture’ that one experiences on these occasions, stands in curious contrast with the difficulties that have been encountered in configuring the Caribbean as an economic and political community. Seen through a political - economic optic, the image of the Caribbean is one of extreme political fragmentation, linguistic diversity and disconnected economies. The last time I counted, there were some 38 different political jurisdictions in the Caribbean region; consisting of 16 independent states and 22 non-independent territories.

We speak Spanish, French, English and Dutch and several creole languages. We trade far more with the metropolitan countries—the present and former colonial powers—than with one another. The ‘view from the top’ seems be out of synch with the ‘view from below’, so to speak.

Another example of this is the way in which Caribbean people from one place to another, according to where the opportunities are, to work, to trade, to make a living. When they move, the matter of language, of passport, of visa, of work permits and so on are simply obstacles to be circumvented by one means or another. They have shown, and show, incredible ingenuity in doing this.

In the island of St Martin, which is half Dutch and French, a journalist once told me that his mother, which was a commercial trader, spoke at least four languages. She spoke English, because her parents were from St Kitts; Spanish, because she was born in the Dominican Republic; French, because she lived in French St Martin; and Papiamentu because she marketed her merchandise in Dutch St Marten. This lady, who had a primary school education, spoke more languages than most PhDs.

A great Caribbean thinker named George Beckford used to say, “Caribbean people are already integrated. The only people who don’t know it are the governments.” The Trinidadian calypsonian, The Black Stalin, has a calypso called “Caribbean Man” ; in which he declaresthat the people of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have discovered the secrets of integration, while the governments continue to make a mess of it. The governments should learn from the ordinary people, he says, especially from the Rastafarians, for there are Rastas in every island.

In fact, our history shows us that integration from above in the Caribbean has had a very mixed record. There have been some successes, but also many failures. In colonial times, territories were often grouped together because it was cheaper for the colonial power to administer several colonies as a single unit. I n the British territories at one time or another there were federations of the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands. The Dutch organised a federation of the Netherlands Antilles.For the most part, none of these colonial federations lasted.

The most notable example was the West Indies Federation, of 1958 to 1962. This was a hybrid—a colonial federation on a path to decolonisation. It broke up because of disagreements among the West Indian leaders over issues like how much seats each island should have in the Federal Parliament, how much power the central government should haveover the island units, especially in taxation; and haw far people should be free to move from one island to another (freedom of movement).

More recently, in 2010, there was the break-up of the five-island federation of the Netherlands Antilles. Yet it is significant that since the break-up of the West Indies Federation, the very same territories have been engaged in schemes of economic integration and cooperation. So we have had the Caribbean Free Trade As sociation (CARIFTA), 1965-1973; the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM),formed in 1973; and the project to establish a CARICOM Single Market and Economy5 (CSME), initiated in 1989.

There have also been Pan-Caribbean initiatives: the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC) of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean; and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), which was formed in 1994. The political elites of the English-speaking Caribbean countries which have secured ‘independence’ have come to . the realisation understand that, in today’s world, small countries like ours simply have no choice but to integrate, or at least cooperate.

But these initiatives at regional integration have a very uneven record of success. Let us take the case of the Caribbean Community—CARICOM—which is generally recognised as the most advanced scheme of regional integration in the Caribbean. I quote from a recent report prepared by a high-level team of consultants: “’CARICOM is in crisis. This is so for three reasons:

1. Long-standing frustrations with the slow progress have continued to mount.
2. A serious weakening in its structure and operations over the years.
3. Continuing economic retrenchment since the financial crisis of 2008 and
the risk of further deterioration.

The crisis is sufficiently serious as to put the very existence of CARICOM in question.”3

The fact is that CARICOM has a long history of shortfalls in the implementation of decisions on economic integration that have been taken by the political leaders in the formal organs of the Community. The problem of lack of implementation is known as ‘the implementation deficit’. The root of the problem is that governments are not willing to surrender any of their sovereign authority to the organs of the Community, where their sovereignty may be exercised collectively.

As a result, CARICOM’S economic integration project is virtually at a standstill. And without going into detail, I can say that the existence of Caricom has not made a significant difference to the economic development of its members. Trade within the Caricom is just about 15 per cent of the total foreign trade of its members. The amount of investment that takes place from one country to another is small, and mostly comes from the most industrially advanced member state, Trinidad and Tobago. On the other hand, CARICOM has registered many successes in functional cooperation.

This covers 12 areas, including education, health, the environment and climate change, Caribbean Sea, disaster preparedness, labour, culture, youth, sport, gender, drugs, and ICTs, tourism, and fisheries. CARICOM also plays a useful role as an interlocutor with extra-regional powers. But the re is an important lesson, it seems to me, in the fact that top-down integration initiatives have a mixed record, while our people are busy ‘doing their own thing’.

I firmly believe that true integration can never be purely or even primarily a matter of economics; one that is driven by the calculus of costs and benefits. (That is why the subtitle of this presentation is “Confessions of a wayward economist”. ) Economics must play its part , of course. But the bedrock of integration must be a sense, not so much of common identity—because we do not have identical identities—but what could be called a ‘community of identities’; identities fashioned in response to a very special historical experience; an experience that we all share in one way or another.

The establishment of a community of identities, it seems to me, is the result of a process of mutual self-discovery of ourselves as a Caribbean people; the discovery of our historical commonalities; discovering, and learning to appreciate, the diversity of creative responses. The late, great Rex Nettleford invented a word that he called “smaddification”4.

This is derived from the Jamaican word for “somebody” (Jamaican: “smaddy”). So “smaddification” might be loosely translated as “to become somebody”; if you like, the affirmation of personhood. Aimé Césaire also invented a word: ‘thingification’; which for him defines ‘colonization’5.

Thus, colonized peoples became ‘things’—chattels to be bought and sold, natives to be exploited or eliminated . It occurs to me that Nettleford’s ‘smaddification’ is the dialectical opposite of Césaire’s ‘thingification’. In the one, personhood is denied; in the other, it is realized; the object becomes the subject, the agent of its own liberation.

If thingification is thesis, smaddification is antithesis. Further, smaddification is not only about resistance, it is about creation. And it is not only individual, but collective—movements of the people. Caribbean peoples have created languages, have created music, have created great works of art, of literature, of poetry, of drama; have accomplished great feats in the world of sport ; they have made great revolutions; each one responding to the specificities of local experience; each enriching the collective Caribbean experience.

But our people, by and large, are deprived of this knowledge, of this consciousness, of his sense of who we are, of where we are coming from, of what we have accomplished; separately and collectively. A nd so they are being deprived of that most precious resource of all —the self-knowledge that instills self-respect, respect for one other, a sense of certainty, of the necessity and the capacity to chart our own future. It is a resource that the ordinary American, or European, or Chinese or Indian—simply takes for granted. It is something that he or she begins to acquire from infancy; becoming part of their deeply embedded consciousness of self.

This sense of Caribbean self is a work in progress; in constant struggle with the legacy of our respective colonial inheritances and with the seductive distractions of so-called globalization. Our writers, artists, musicians—those who labour in the world of cultural production—have been the torchbearers in this wonderful endeavour. And my own personal debt to them, in my self-discovery as a Caribbean person, is beyond measure. And that, for me, is the real value of events such as the Festival de Caribe; and of the many other cultural events and processes that are taking place across the Caribbean space.

I get the feeling that something is stirring in the Caribbean. Cultural festivals of diverse expressions seem to be bursting out all over the place—literary, film, music, dance, art, food. And what seems to me significant is that, even when they are initiated as ‘national’ festivals, they end up acquiring a Caribbean dimension. It is almost as if organisers come to the realisation that the national melds seamlessly into the Caribbean. The one complements, and extends, the other.

Last month I was at the St Martin Book Fair. This book fair is the work of two organisations, the Conscious Lyrics Foundation and the House of Nehesi Publishers. The Founder of Nehesi, whose name is Lasana Sekou, is a rather extraordinary individual: he is a poet, a writer of fiction, a historian, a newspaper editor, an essayist, a cultural activist, a former political activist, an entrepreneur.

Actually, this is not necessarily extraordinary in the Caribbean; the small size of our societies and the absence of a critical mass of individuals representing a wide range of interests and capabilities, often require people like Sekou to play multiple roles. In other ways he is also very Caribbean. Sekou was born in Aruba of St Martin parentage, and, after studying in the United States, made St Martin his home. As Editor of House of Nehesi Publishers, he has eschewed an insular nationalistic policy.

Nehesi publishes texts from the Pan-Caribbean; it has indeed dared to publish bilingual editions of creative writing and literary criticism; like the recently released Haiti and the Trans-Caribbean Literary Identity/Haití y la transcaribeñidad literaria by Emilio Jorge Rodriguez6, the Cuban literary critic. A review of this extraordinary little book, by Dr Myriam Chancy, who is herself a writer and of Haitian descent, shows us that:

“...Rodriguez traces with detailed attention the movements between Haiti and specifically the Latin Caribbean, especially since the 1940s, underscoring the importance of visits to Haiti by Nicolás Guillén and Alejo Carpentier and exchanges in person between Guillén and Jacques Stephen Alexis, between Alejo Carpentier and the Kreyol poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy. In this context, Jorge Rodriguez's bilingual collection of essays is of strategic importance because it uncovers key exchanges, some textual, some actual between Haitian and Cuban writers primarily and shows how the writers came to know, interpret, and, in ways, translate their works through linguistic and cultural divides, to find common ground.”7

The reciprocal influences between the Cuban and the Haitian writers so revealingly brought to light by Emilio Jorge Rodriguez and Myriam Chancy appear to me be a kind of trans-Caribbean work in progress; or if you prefer, of organic Caribbean integration at a cultural level, and one that has no equivalent so far in the formal structures of economics and politics. Once I began to think about it in this way, I began to see expressions of ‘’trans-Caribbeanity’ almost everywhere. For example, in the introduction to Corazon de Pelicano/Pelican Heart, a book of Lasana Sekou’s own poetry; I read here Emilio Jorge Rodriguez says:

“In Poems like Nativity [...] we find an aesthetic, ethic and ideological construction, which transmits the desire to encompass the dissimilar roots that integrate and merge with Caribbean culture. More than a national chat, as some may be tempted to catalogue it, the poem becomes a deep reflection that transcends the ambit of the islands and becomes an extensive text with regional roots, drawing together historical and cultural experiences that have had an impact on the formation and development of Caribbean peoples and their intelligentsia, thirsty for definitions of identity. Therefore, it is also a proposal which salvages the honour of Caribbean beings in their ancestral diversity, as well as the various elements that converge in their culture and history.”8

So that in spite of (or because of?) political fragmentation, economic crisis and social problems of various kinds; we see many signs of cultural intercourse and cultural creativity, in several expressions, and across the barriers of language and polity, in the regional space. Is there a way to bring this process into the mainstream of official intercourse, into the world and the work of governments ; where the discourse on integration seem s to be dominated by matters of trade and investment and administrative structures?

I question why is Jamaica not here at the Festival del Caribe? Why is Guyana not here? We have over 100 cultural representatives from Argentina; we have probably less than one-tenth of that number from the whole of the English speaking Caribbean. And this is not the fault of the Casa del Caribe; not for want of invitation. Is it just because our governments don’t have the money to send cultural delegations? Or does it speak to a failure of imagination; of appreciation, of what culture is, of what it can be as a force for integration?

I believe that a documentary film is being made of this experience. I expect that people from different part of the region will be interviewed to talk about its personal impact on them. It is the kind of film that should be shown, not only to ministers of culture; but even more importantly to prime ministers, presidents, ministers of trade and investment, educators, students. Would this not help to motivate them, to give new life and dynamism to the formal processes of integration? Can cultural production succeed in driving integration, where economics and politics have failed? Let me leave with you a reflection by George Lamming:

“I do not think there has been anything in human history quite like the meeting of Africa, Asia, and Europe in this American archipelago we call the Caribbean. But it is so recent since we assumed responsibility for our own destiny, that the antagonistic weight of the past is felt as an inhibiting menace. And that is the most urgent task and the greatest intellectual challenge: How to control the burden of this history and incorporate it into our collective sense of the future...”9


1. Presentation at The Colloquium, “The Caribbean That Unites Us”, Festival del Caribe, Santiago de Cuba, 5 July 2012. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the St Martin Book Fair on 31 May 2012

2. “Santiago’s Festival of Fire: Cubans hug up their Caribbean culture”,

3. Landell Mills Report,

4. For an appreciation, see Honor Ford-Smith, “A Tribute to Rex Nettleford”,

Accessed 14 July 2012.

5. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review. 1972. P. 42

6. Trans. Maria Teresa Ortega. Published by House of Nehesi, 2011.

7. Myriam J.A. Chancy, Meditation for a Forgotten Past: Translating and Remembering Haiti’s Intellectual Legacy.
rodriguez-intro.pdf . pp. 2-3

8. Emilio Jorge Rodriguez, “Introduction and Notes”, in Corazon de Pelicano/Pelican Heart: An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou. Trans. Maria Teresa Ortega.St Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 2010; p. 222


Dr. Norman P. Girvan (1941 – 9 April 2014) has joined the noble ancestors. 



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders

The Door of Return
By Yusef Komunyakaa

I began to reread Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs. A poet who’d left footprints on numerous cities, countries, and continents, whose work had guided me, Neruda had spoken to my heart through his imagination and feeling for the larger human world.

Distant places. I had seen a photograph of a Portuguese cannon aimed out of Elmina Castle toward the Atlantic. I could already see Ghana—a wooded savanna in my mind’s eye—a zone of forests swollen with daily rainfall. I knew something about African lore, the kings of Songhai, Mali, and Ghana who drained swamps and cut canals for farms, who bartered gold for the lifeblood of salt. I knew sleeping sickness was spread by the
tsetse fly. Hundreds of images populated my head.

I had gone to Africa many times in daydreams and poems long before I set foot in the land. So in early 2004, when Arthur Whitman, my former poetry student at Princeton University and one of the founding members of the Ghana Education Project, invited me, I said yes without hesitation. As a member of the board, I was already familiar with the organization’s mission: to establish small libraries, to promote literacy, and to combat HIV/AIDS through education. I understood I wasn’t embarking on a tourist safari but rather leading a group of writers to confront a very real pandemic. And in this moment, I realized that poetry was a tool, or an instrument, for preparing my psyche for the journey.

I always say poetry is confrontation and celebration. I suppose I had to attempt to confront some unspoken part within me that did not exactly want to encounter the severity of that world. My acute imagination had already jump-started, and I knew I had to align my mind with my heart. A deep dreaming had begun to claim my body.

One reason for the trip was to attempt to establish a dialogue confronting the devastating reality of AIDS. I knew we would meet with schoolchildren and with the fishermen of the village of Komenda. It was in anticipation of meeting the fishermen that I began writing the poem “Dead Reckoning,” and in the lines “Now, lost in the old clothes of unreason, / & wanderlust, their nets sag with the last / of its kind, with bountiful fish stories…” I was perhaps attempting to bring the abstract into focus, to live in that world for a moment, where a story becomes a bridge between people, countries, and cultures. In this way, poetry can be a first step toward initiation. It is a place where one can transform borders and reconstruct time.

Traveling can also force one to become extremely practical. Aside from preparing mentally, I, of course, had to plan quite literally for the trip, asking, “Is this the right shirt and trousers? Do I need to take a jacket? Wouldn’t sandals be more comfortable? Where’s my shot record?” The University Health Center provided a consultation, inoculations for tetanus and yellow fever, and malaria pills, which I started a few days before leaving; I was lucky not to experience any side effects. I carried dysentery pills with me, as well as mosquito repellent. The trip required a visa, which was expedited because of the organization’s positive reputation.

As I was preparing myself for the trip, we were still trying to raise additional
funds for the program. Arthur and Ram Devineni, a filmmaker and the publisher of Rattapallax Press, managed the financial plans for the trip as well as the itinerary. We all agreed to give two readings: one on a Sunday afternoon at the White Dog Café in Philly, the other at The New School with Sonia Sanchez and Danny Glover.

It was mid-March, and I arrived at JFK International Airport, where I met Ram, Thomas Glave, and Willie Perdomo, among others. I was glad to be traveling with writers I knew, friends. The flight had a long layover in Amsterdam, so our group ventured out to the city in the early morning before our flight to Ghana later in the afternoon. I hardly remember the flight. I can’t recall what I was reading, whom I was seated next to, or how I passed the time. Growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, I never thought I’d fly anywhere. On that flight, I felt I was living a life for more than just myself.

That evening, when we landed at Kotoka Airport, diplomatic workers processed us swiftly, so we didn’t have to go through customs. In less than thirty minutes, we were zooming along the highway. The images, fragments of memory, continue to bleed together for me. I wanted merely to experience the place, to let the landscape wash over me. I must admit, I was surprised by how the lights swarmed over the skyline. I don’t know why I expected darkness. Great anticipation grounded me, and I wanted to see everything in full daylight. We dined that evening in Accra, but in no time jet lag overtook us.

Traffic. Ghanaians in a floating throng of colors. Stone colonial houses. Forts. Apartments. Palm, bougainvillea, cassia, and mango. The lighthouse. And then the desolation of Jamestown beside the sea. Now we were speeding out of the city in a brownish sedan, the young driver with pleasant determination on his black face. The Atlantic waves seemed dark and sluggish.

The people seemed to change with the country landscape. Women and children along the roadside sold vegetables and handicrafts. Someone pointed and asked, “What’s that?” From the car window, we saw a boy holding a big, flattened, roasted rat in a wirelike grill, as if it had been cooked in a trap. I believe it was Arthur who said, “No, that’s a nutria.”

It was sunny when we arrived at the sewing club in Komenda. The girls—mainly teenagers—were dressed in green-and-black-checkered skirts and tan blouses, and some hid laughter behind their hands when they saw our faces. We had come across the Atlantic to talk about AIDS. We were straightforward, but we weren’t there to cast stones. A few of the girls were also direct, raising the question about how AIDS had come to their small fishing village. Perhaps they were momentarily freer because we were strangers, and this allowed them to discuss things they would never have discussed openly in their homes, schools, and churches. We were listeners, and at that moment, this was what they needed: strangers as confidants.

We needed to talk with the fishermen, but we had heard that they wouldn’t meet with us. This was heartbreaking; they were the main reason we were there in Komenda. Maybe they’d feel like walking targets when our eyes met theirs.

Finally, the day before we were to depart Komenda, the fishermen agreed to meet us at sunset. An array of colorful boats had been pulled onto the sandy shore, and men sat in the shifting light, waiting for us. Young and old, they all seemed seasoned by the salty winds of the sea.

We stood there, facing them, but no one said anything. What was the protocol? We were visitors. We had requested the meeting. I felt as though everyone was looking at me. Who spoke first? Was it Arthur, Ram, Willie, Bob, Thomas? Or maybe I said, “Hello. This is my first time here, but it seems that I’ve come home.” (If I said that, it was because nearly everyone I had met over the past few days had said to me, “You’re Ghanaian.”

Before my trip there, I’d always thought I was Ibo.) Or maybe I said to the fishermen, “Look, we’re here to talk about the dangers of venturing over to the Ivory Coast and then returning to Komenda.” I was the eldest of our group, and I must have been the one to speak first. At least, that’s the way it is in my dreams. But the fishermen were silent. They were stone still until one young man said, “I know what you are talking about.” It was as if someone had struck a brass bell.

For a moment, everyone seemed to talk at once. Then an older fisherman spoke in a harking voice about how the fishermen from Komenda had to venture farther and farther out because the waters close to shore were depleted of fish, and they had to go a greater distance—all the way to the Ivory Coast—and some of the fishermen slept with the women there, and they returned to Komenda,but didn’t know they had contracted HIV.

Something terrifying shifted underneath the image. It was still a beautiful picture. The men were talking and gesturing with their hands, caught in some ancient dance. The sun was sinking into the sea. Our caravan of two or three sedans headed back to Accra. The drivers were young men who didn’t waste any time; the rented sedans slid into blind curves, and sometimes the foot traffic scattered. I wanted to warn them.

We spent hours at Elmina Castle, a slave compound that housed a small library the Ghana Education Project had built. The monolithic structure was erected in the late fifteenth century by the Portuguese, who were following the rumors of gold. The building’s architecture defined domination; I could see the brute force of the slave trade, which in the seventeenth century infiltrated the structure, in its thick walls, in its height, in its presence, in the scale of the project, and I knew indeed why it bore the infamous name the Door of No Return.

It wasn’t the skull and bones crafted into the concrete or the chains mounted on the walls but the small chapel at the heart of the fortress that evoked unspoken fear. Perhaps more than anyone else, the poet recognizes the power of symbols because symbols continue to speak across the abyss of time. The dead keep on speaking. One can imagine—especially a poet—that in this space, these men who exacted brutality also bowed to a god.

I stood beside the Cave Canem sign that read Beware of Dogs. A high fence surrounded the house of W.E.B. Du Bois, the man who had once edited Crisis magazine, who wrote "The Negro," "The Souls of Black Folk," "Dark Princess," "Dusk of Dawn," among others, and who in 1963 became a citizen of Ghana, having moved there in 1961.

Standing there, trying to remember a poem of his, “The Song of Smoke,” I could recall only the refrain: “I am the Smoke King, / I am black!” At that moment, so were most of the faces around me. The heavy iron gate opened, and we stepped into the big yard. There were no dogs. No one to greet us Americans. Soon a caretaker, or someone posing as caretaker, appeared and unlocked the door of the house to show us the final pages of this great man’s life. We wandered through, asking hardly any questions, among the dust-covered books and papers that hadn’t been catalogued or protected. I wondered how many items had disappeared through the years and were now on eBay.

There, entombed in a mausoleum of stone and garniture, I was reminded that true elegance usually resides in simplicity. While standing in the house among the last shadows the man cast, I stood awestruck by this citizen of the world. Isn’t that what a poet is, a citizen of the world? Du Bois was an internationalist before he was a Marxist. I stood there thinking of what Vijay Prashad writes in "The Karma of Brown Folk," how he picked up a copy of "The Souls of Black Folk" in Kolkata and his whole life changed.

I wondered if anyone at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American
Research at Harvard University was aware of the man’s notes and books covered with dust in this distant land, how hard nature works to bring everything down to the ground equally.

I attempted to prepare myself mentally for our visit to the hospital to see the smallest patients—babies who were one, two, and three years old. I tried to call up a moment of my religious tutelage back in Bogalusa, to glimpse my forays into Buddhist meditations through the decades, to go back to those few years I had worked as a peer counselor at the University of Colorado, but soon I realized that little or nothing could have prepared me for what we witnessed.

The children were frail and tiny; their vulnerability was so transparent that there was no way for anyone not to perceive the depth of their pain and suffering. It’s hard to say how many children were there in the hospital. Maybe fifty. Maybe one hundred. It was more terrifying than the dislocated images on television. The few nurses there seemed completely overwhelmed. But the courage and heroic presence of the grandmothers who rocked their grandchildren in their arms was astonishing; some were silent and others whispered almost breathless words that seemed to have come from a great distance. The strength in their faces contrasted so starkly with the children, and perhaps this is what magnified the pain and desperation in that place.

At first, feeling that we were intruding on some sacred rite of passage, that our eyes would wound them more deeply, I wanted to retreat. Of course, wasn’t this also the fundamental question for the poet: isn’t it the duty of artists to witness, to hold ourselves accountable? Indeed, this bore the familiar distress of a battle zone, where the most vulnerable are singled out and attacked with brutal certainty. But I stood there completely overwhelmed, uncertain about what we could do, almost defeated by what I saw that day in Ghana. I also knew that we were seeing only a fraction of the suffering on the African continent.

We were going to meet a king. Would he embrace our effort to establish a dialogue about AIDS, or would he simply shrug his shoulders and begin a litany about esoteric rituals locked in the recent past? Weren’t our clothes too typical, too ordinary? A king, huh? I visualized him in his kingly garb, sitting on a golden throne and holding a golden staff. Should we bow? The protocol was beyond me.

There were three “kings.” The two older kings seemed so alike, especially in their austerity. They seemed so upright in posture and demeanor. The third king was younger; he seemed not fully initiated. Yet there was something about him that also seemed more cosmopolitan, more modern. They all seemed to possess at least symbolic power—absolutely ceremonial. Their fat gold rings caught the eye. Their colorful robes and cowrie adornments spoke silently of authority, and the carved canes the two older kings clutched were pragmatic. It seemed more like poets meeting poets, and in this sense one understands Shelley’s statement:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration;
the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity
casts upon the present; the words which express what they
understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel
not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not,
but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of
the world.

We weren’t there to pose questions through metaphors. The kings were probably experts with metaphors, but we hoped that they also understood the gut-level reality of AIDS in Ghana. Our ritual was discussion. Maybe kings never show alarm or their deep, heartfelt thoughts, especially when facing strangers. Their emotions seemed stately. Contained. Goaded by the younger king, the two elders slowly agreed to assist in the efforts of the Ghana Education Project. Sitting there, facing these three men of traditional and symbolic power, it was difficult for me not to think of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president and first prime minister of Ghana, a Pan-Africanist who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and was, in many ways, an everyday man. The ghost of him possessed more power than the folkloric platitudes of these three kings. I sat there trying not to think of Dudley Randall’s poem “Ancestors”:

Was the Old Country a democracy
where every man was a king?
Or did the slave-catchers
steal only the aristocrats
and leave the fieldhands

My own ancestor
(research reveals)
was a swineherd
who tended the pigs
in the Royal Pigstye
and slept in the mud
among the hogs.

We strolled into the room of the hospice to see Kiki Djan. He was a sack of bones, but there was still something in him that said, Look, I’m a damn genius. And we were dumbfounded by what drugs and AIDS can do to a man. He sat on the bed hugging a portable recorder, rocking back and forth while he played his last recording over and over, a pop song full of energy and crafted passion. He was still good, still burning with genius and belief in himself, and one felt that perhaps this could keep him alive.

Or maybe he believed this so deeply, we also believed it through a mental osmosis. He would beat the monkey on his back; he would even outsmart the specter of AIDS. Kiki had played keyboard with the legendary band Osibisa, which he had joined in 1971, and I remember how that band’s sound was different from anything I’d ever heard. The music had a positive authority that left its listeners thunderstruck. It’s said that after splitting from the group, he did a twenty-four-hour gig in London.

He was friends with Mick Jagger and Elton John and hung out with jet-setters cruising off to the Caribbean. He bragged about making £8,000 in a single weekend, saying that he was the most gifted keyboardist on the London scene. But here he was back home—Kiki Djan from Takoradi in western Ghana—hugging a battered recorder, pleading with the ghosts of ancestors. He seemed surprised that a group of writers and poets from America was standing at the foot of his bed. He’d stare out the window, and I sensed this was his last torture on Earth—glimpses of passing figures in bright clothes caught by the March sun.

Close to our departure, we moved from the small quarters where we had been sleeping to a beach hotel. The hotel was huge and sprawling and stood in complete contrast to the world we had just witnessed. There was a high fence built around the perimeter as if to keep out the common locals, the everyday Ghanaians. Beside the sea, shops sold paintings, handicrafts, gold and diamonds, clothing, and tchotchkes made for tourists. From their garb and overall demeanor, I gathered the African clientele was made up of upper-middle-class professionals. It was impossible for me to feel comfortable in my American jeans and sandals alongside their colorful robes.

That night, Arthur took us to a Portuguese-owned seaside pub. I recall the music playing and the voice of a fado singer whose longing suspended me between Africa and the West. I felt more comfortable in my American clothes, which seemed to blend in with the European feel of the pub. And for a moment, I was glad to recognize the Portuguese language spoken by the staff and a few of the patrons. Then I thought of Elmina Castle, and it occurred to me that even the hotel might have been European owned. And then I understood the complexity of the diasporic spirit; we may feel more at home in the culture we’ve inherited but at a loss for the rituals and customs of our ancestors.

After returning to the United States, I tried for years to write poems that capture the images of those babies, of the slave castle, of Jamestown, and of Kiki. In fact, I’ve traveled to many places, including Vietnam, Australia, Eastern Europe, New Guinea, Mexico, Chile, India, and Brazil, but I’ve written poems about only a few of those places. Neruda once wrote, “I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam,to go singing through the world.” Now I’m realizing that encountering the world leads one both farther from home and closer to it because that world is always in dialogue with the deepest self.

Perhaps for me, it takes a long time for these acquired images and experiences to distill into poetry. Though travel is an action, and poetry at times can be defined as an action, the two together need a space that resides in silence, meditation. The truth is, an act of poetry, the moment a poem comes forth, is often unpredictable because it springs from some place not fully conscious but informed by everything that has made us who we are.

Source: The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders. Edited by Jared Hawkley, Susan Rich, and Brian Turner. 2013

Dead Reckoning
By Yusef Komunyakaa

Fishermen follow a dream of the biggest
catch, out among the tall waves where
fresh water meets a salty calmness.
For hundreds of years they've crossed
this body of water, casting their nets
& singing old songs. They've slept
with the village women & rode waves
back to the other side to loved ones.
Now, lost in the old clothes of unreason
& wanderlust, their nets sag with the last
of its kind, with bountiful fish stories,
& soon the flirtatious mermaids are
beckoning from a swoon of reeds,
calling their names. The first dance
is desire. The second dance is love.
The tall grass quivers as if a siren
has been snagged in a net. Forbidden
laughter of the mermaids fills the night,
& if humans try to sing this laughter
their voices only cry out in the dark.
What did they do to make the gods
angry? Now, as if on a journey
of lost souls, love & desire
dance with death, twirling bright skirts
till flesh & cloth turn into flame & ash.

Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of twelve books of poems, including Talking Dirty to the Gods, Thieves of Paradise, Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Dien Cai Dau, and Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999. A recipient of the of the 2001 Ruth Lilly Prize, Komunyakaa serves as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. He is a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.

The Song of the Smoke
By W.E.B. Du Bois

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am swinging in the sky.
I am ringing worlds on high:
I am the thought of the throbbing mills,
I am the soul of the soul toil kills,
I am the ripple of trading rills,

Up I’m curling from the sod,
I am whirling home to God.
I am the smoke kin,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am wreathing broken hearts,
I am sheathing devils’ darts;
Dark inspiration of iron times,
Wedding the toil of toiling climes
Shedding the blood of bloodless crimes,

Down I lower in the blue,
Up I tower toward the true,
I am the smoke kin,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am darkening with song,
I am hearkening to wrong;
I will be black as blackness can,
The blacker the mantle the mightier the man,
My purpl’ing midnights no day dawn may ban.

I am carving God in night,
I am painting hell in white.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am cursing ruddy morn,
I am nursing hearts, unborn;
Souls unto me are as mists in the night,
I whiten my blackmen, I beckon my white,
What’s the hue of a hide to a man in his might!
Hail, then, grilly, grimy hands,

Sweet Christ, pity toiling lands!
Hail to the smoke king,
Hail to the black!