Kamau Brathwaite’s “Caliban”

Conducting the research for my piece on the Herald this week I came across this phenomenal audio of Kamau Brathwaite reading and glossing his poem “Caliban”

There’s a lot more Brathwaite where that came from, the wonderful library of the Uni of Pennsylvania.

And in this course guide I also found a transcription of a version of the poem, which doesn’t correspond exactly with Kamau’s reading but comes real close:

Caliban  

Ninety-five per cent of my people poor
ninety-five per cent of my people black
ninety-five per cent of my people dead
you have heard it all before O Leviticus O Jeremiah O Jean-Paul Sartre

and now I see that these modern palaces have grown
out of the soil, out of the bad habits of their crippled owners
the Chrysler stirs but does not produce cotton
the Jupiter purrs but does not produce bread

out of the living stone, out of the living bone
of coral, these dead
towers; out of the coney
islands of our mind-

less architects, this death
of sons, of songs, of sunshine;
out of this dearth of coo ru coos, home-
less pigeons, this perturbation that does not signal health.

In Havana that morning, as every morning,
the police toured the gambling houses
wearing their dark glasses
and collected tribute;

salute blackjack, salute backgammon, salute the one-armed bandit
Vieux Fort and Andros Island, the Isle of Pines;
the morals squadron fleeced the whores
Mary and Mary Magdalene;

newspapers spoke of Wall Street and the social set
who was with who, what medals did the Consulate’s
Assistant wear. The sky was cloudy, a strong breeze;
maximum temperature eighty-two degrees.

It was December second, nineteen fifty-six.
It was the first of August eighteen thirty-eight.
It was the twelfth October fourteen ninety-two.

How many bangs how many revolutions?

And
Ban
Ban
Cali-
ban
like to play
pan
at the Car-
nival;
pran-
cing up to the lim-
bo silence
down
down
down
so the god won’t drown
him
down
down
down
to the is-
land town
down
down
down
and the dark-
ness fall-
ing; eyes
shut tight
and the whip light
crawl-
ing round the ship
where his free-
dom drown
down
down
down
to the is-
land town.

Ban
Ban
Cal-
iban
like to play
pan
at the Car-
nival;
dip-
ping down
and the black
gods call-
ing, back
he falls
through the water’s
cries
down
down
down
where the music hides
him
down
down
down
where the si-
lence lies.

And limbo stick is the silence in front of me
limbo
limbo
limbo like me
limbo
limbo like me

long dark night is the silence in front of me
limbo
limbo like me
stick hit sound
and the ship like it ready
stick hit sound
and the dark still steady
limbo
limbo like me
long dark deck and the water surrounding me
long dark deck and the silence is over me
limbo
limbo like me
stick is the whip and the dark deck is slavery
stick is the whip and the dark deck is slavery
limbo
limbo like me
drum stick knock and the darkness is over me
knees spread wide and the water is hiding me
limbo
limbo like me
knees spread wide and the dark ground is under me
down
down
down
and the drummer is calling me
limbo
limbo like me
sun coming up and the drummers are praising me
out of the dark and the dumb gods are raising me
up
up
up
and the music is saving me
hot
slow
step
on the burning ground.

(from The Arrivants, 1973)

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3 thoughts on “Kamau Brathwaite’s “Caliban”

  1. I’m seeing this in November of 2019. It’s so nice to see people discovering Brathwaite’s poetry. I love his work, the man and his work are unique. But he is overlooked. Last year I found the UPenn Library Audiophiles. What a treasure! If you can find his two “MR” books (MRI and MR II, Savacou Press?) you’ll be in for a real treat. They present his Tidalectic worldview in the form of an enormous poetical essay, with his breakdown of the different world cultures. The West is a Missile type of culture. Africa is Circle type of culture (and more). This means he uses those technological or architectural forms as symbols of the relevant societal worldviews. On another note, there is his wonderful poetry anthology, “Barabajan Poems” (1994).
    P.S. In his live recitations, he may quite likely deviate from the text. Caribbean Jazz, you know!

    Liked by 2 people

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