POEM "ISLANDS" BY BARBADIAN POET EDWARD KAMAU BRATHWAITE





My poetry has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean. This involves not only discovering what I would call “new poetic forms” — a breakaway from the English pentameter — but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of who our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.

KAMAU BRATHWAITE IN CONVERSATION WITH KALAMU YA SALAAM, NEO-GRIOT, OCTOBER 12, 2014.





EDWARD KAMAU BRATHWAITE (1930-2020), a Caribbean poet and historian, was born in Barbados, an eastern Caribbean island, into a middle-class family. Christened “Edward” by his parents, he later adopted the African name “Kamau”—which means Quiet Warrior—while he was on a fellowship at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in the 1970s. After completing his high school education, he won a British scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1953 and a diploma in education the following year.
In 1955, he took up a job offer as an Education Officer in Ghana, then the British West African colony known as The Gold Coast. The eight years he spent in Ghana, as the colony moved toward independence in 1957, was a spiritual homecoming. The experience broadened his thinking about history, culture, and ways of perceiving the world.
On returning to Barbados in 1962, Brathwaite held teaching posts at the University of the West Indies (UWI), first in St. Lucia, and then in Jamaica, where he began writing his first poetry collection, Rights of Passage.
Brathwaite returned to England in 1965 where he earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Sussex in 1968. During this period, his first three books of poetry were published: Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969). In 1973, these three collections were compiled into a single volume, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Numerous books of poetry followed over the years.
From 1982 to 1991, Brathwaite was professor of social and cultural history at the University of the West Indies. Made professor of comparative literature at New York University in 1992, he divided his time between New York and Barbados. A member of the board of directors of Unesco’s History of Mankind project for more than thirty years, he also served as cultural advisor to the government of Barbados.
His numerous awards include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1994), Griffin International Poetry Prize for his collection Born to Slow Horses (2006), Casa de las Américas Prize (2011), PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry (2018) in recognition of his lifelong contribution to American and Caribbean literature, and Bocas Henry Swanzy Award (2020) for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters.

POEM "ISLANDS" BY EDWARD KAMAU BRATHWAITE

So looking through a map / of the islands, you see / rocks, history's hot / lies, rot- / ting hulls, cannon / wheels, the sun's / slums: if you hate / us. Jewels, / if there is delight / in your eyes. / The light / shimmers on water, / the cunning / coral keeps it / blue.

Looking through a map / of the Antilles, you see how time / has trapped / its humble servants here. De- / scendants of the slave do not / lie in the lap / of the more fortunate / gods. The rat / in the warehouse is as much king / as the sugar he plunders. / But if your eyes / are kinder, you will observe / butterflies / how they fly higher / and higher before their hope dries / with endeavour / and they fall among flies.


Looking through a map / of the islands, you see / that history teaches / that when hope / splinters, when the pieces / of broken glass lie / in the sunlight, / when only lust rules / the night, when the dust / is not swept out / of the houses, / when men make noises / louder than the sea's / voices then the rope / will never unravel / its knots, the branding / iron's travelling flame that teaches / us pain, will never be / extinguished. The islands' jewels: / Saba, Barbuda, dry flat- / tened Antigua, will remain rocks, / dots, in the sky-blue frame / of the map.


Source: The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, Poetry Collection by Edward Brathwaite, Oxford University Press, UK, 1973 Edition.


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