Drawing of Kamau Brathwaite on the cover of Liviticus, one of his last collections of poetry. Artist: Fay Helfer.
I said thank you, many times, for your letter that became a blurb for my book, Gone Away. I’m saying thanks again, for the way you make poems human, letting people and the ordinary things they make and do become the boat, the rhythm of the oars taking us through.
At the first Carifesta in Trinidad, in 1992, the year of my first publication, I saw them escort Martin Carter to the stage in the Central Bank auditorium, saw Derek Walcott across the aisle rise to his feet in a personal standing ovation. But it was your measured incantation of Limbo, Limbo Like Me, that seared itself into my memory, your slow, deliberate building of stanza upon stanza that turned the bar into a spear and a staff and whatever we could thereafter lean upon. Years later, I would hear your verses about the Haitian Boat People, about the ‘heads resembling coconut in the water’, that would make one feel, like an Edwidge Danticat story, that he was there, in the boat, leaning out, salt stinging the eyes, crusting the lips.
But those poems about folks in their yards: a grandfather mending shoes, a woman keeping a small plot of land and thanking god, the phrases that some now would call politically incorrect, but that made the sweat of armpits come through the garden gate to meet the visitor, those made me feel I knew them personally, folks who might have been my own grandfather John Taylor’s friends back in Bimshire, long before I was born. And they made me believe it was alright to ask you to say something about my book, about the people I was telling stories about, saying how they reach where they reach, and how far we have to go again.
And you responded graciously, and kindly, and came to the launch in Greenwich Village, smiling quietly as you do, like someone who’s been all around the world and come back to let us know, we’s people too, actually more than some others. Thank you, sir. Travel well in that other realm. I hope this poem says the rest—
Yuh does thank God yuh bubbies still big…
— Kamau Brathwaite
You mentioned bubbies, but no woman
could say you insulted them, or made them
shame, unless they were already ashamed,
of themselves, of their mother and father.
No one could say you made them feel
abandoned, that you saw them crying
and passed them straight, or didn’t take
bread from your mouth and give them.
When you sang Limbo, we knew full well
it was both dance and prayer you meant,
the face passing an inch below the fiery
bar, legs trembling as we came back up.
And when you saw those heads bob like
coconuts in the Caribbean Sea, separated
from bodies, we knew not to run, but to
wait, till the tide brought them back to us.
May 25, 2020
Mervyn Taylor divides his time between Trinidad, where he was born, and Brooklyn. He is the author of six poetry collections and his next, Country of Warm Snow, is forthcoming from Shearsman Books.