This essay, an extract from a longer two-hundred-page manuscript, traces the author’s literary friendship with Kamau Brathwaite from their first meeting in 1968 to Brathwaite’s passing in 2020. It relies on correspondence over fifty years, memories of meetings, and critical responses to Brathwaite’s work to trace their mutual admiration and scuffles amid a comradeship that is stronger than time.

It was really nice to meet you.

—Letter #1, Edward Kamau Brathwaite to Gordon Rohlehr, 10 January 1967

The first letter I received from Kamau Brathwaite, sent from 47 Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1, dates our first meeting as having taken place at the second gathering of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) at Orlando Patterson’s apartment in London. CAM had recently been formed by Kamau, John La Rose, and Andrew Salkey, as a gathering of poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, intellectuals, other people interested in Caribbean letters, and musicians, most of whom were either permanently resident in England or were like Kamau, Patterson, and me, doing postgraduate work at universities there. Sympathetic and active members of CAM would include Louis James, a British professor who had briefly taught at University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and Anne Walmsley, who had taught English in the Caribbean and now worked as a publisher’s agent specializing in textbooks for Caribbean schools.

The topic discussed at that second meeting of CAM was whether there was “a Caribbean aesthetic” and, if so, how to identify it. Kamau, George Lamming, Aubrey Williams (the Guyanese painter), Patterson, and other great names and brains all had their say. I listened until challenged to offer my input. I told them that I thought they were adopting the wrong approach. My assumption was that any group of people anywhere would have their own modes of creative expression as well as their own notions on how to assess what they had created. The Caribbean, made up of many islands and constituting a multiethnic, multireligious region founded on differences of race, color, and class, probably had not one but several ideas about an “aesthetic.” The way to proceed was (1) to acknowledge the divisions and (2) to select representative samples of cultural artistic expression in individual islands and by reading these samples together try to determine what they taught us about the inhabitants of those islands. Jamaica, for example, had produced Louise Bennett and mento, poetry, “labrish,” Roger Mais, Rastafari, Don Drummond, and the Skatalites. Why not consider these different expressions as emanations from a single society and determine what collectively they taught us about Jamaicans’ residence on Earth?

Trinidad would provide us with a different spread of cultural expressions. Why not “read” the calypso alongside the novels and stories of Sam Selvon and V. S. Naipaul? Or the music of the evolving steelband? We should end up with a different amalgam from what we would in the case of Jamaica.

When we had done a number of these readings, we could compare results identifying common elements and differences. What we ended up with would tell us something about the Caribbean aesthetic we were trying to define.

The assembly, eager to improvise an agenda that would keep the conversation alive, decided that I would prepare a paper on an as yet unnamed topic, and deliver it on 7 April 1967 at the West Indian Students’ Union. Kamau first suggested the title “Selvon, the Calypso, and the Creolisation of Experience.” After acquiring through Maureen Warner a copy of Sparrow’s recently published 120 Calypsoes to Remember, I recognized that calypso was a complex universe larger than either Selvon or Naipaul, and my address evolved toward what was eventually titled (by Kamau again) “Sparrow and the Language of Calypso.”1

In his first letter, Kamau described how he differed from Patterson: “[He seems] to see our area as a desert from which nothing can be expected; a society of hostile, marginal, atomised individuals.”2 Kamau, however, saw “salvation” as lying “in a kind of creole négritude, a concept dismissed out of hand by Patto [Patterson]” and avoided by me in favor of “the individual talent.” Already he had identified what were to become the central elements of a polemic that he was to maintain throughout his five or six decades as a historian, man of letters, and poet. Kamau contested notions of the Caribbean (1) as a desert (Naipaul’s, Patterson’s wilderness) from which nothing has been or can ever be created or (2) as a society of hostile, marginal, and atomized individuals.

Kamau instead placed not just “hope” but “salvation” in “a kind of creole négritude.” He would try to quarrel down anyone who did not fully or enthusiastically share his dream of salvation in creole Negritude. But, paradoxically, he would promote an image of African diasporan history as a perpetual journey across a metaphorical Sahara, toward what he would come to call Dis, the Virgilian/Dantesque Hell. Creole Negritude or not, the wandering half-crippled Nummo of Islands would in the middle of his journey declare, “But my island is a pebble. //. . . // . . . It will slay / giants // but never bear children.”3

“Everything,” 1970

After Brathwaite heard from “Boots”—historian James Carnegie—about a diary I had kept during the Black Power “revolution” of 1970, he wrote again:

Boots tell me ’bout de Diary. Think it great great great. I int see it yet, you got to settle down now, ole man, and give we a book. No fuckin’ collection of articles. You got to write a Book. A long book, wid everything horganize an put in perspective. If necessary GET LEAVE TO DO DIS.

There is so much I feel we have to do and say an try, I feel an’ wish I cd jes EXPLODE, BLOW UP. Like the whole SOUL scene man. The things that Aretha Franklin doing. You hear—I mean HEAR “Think” and the new album, Spirit in the Dark. Coltrane INT DEAD. An now Roberta Flack makin’ music to make me cry. An we reggae boys got rhythmic complexities (I only realize this when I listen to the music in de States) that pushing everything still further forward.4

All of this was packed into a single paragraph that I have divided into two; the first highlighting Kamau’s insistence that I write a book “wid everything horganize an put in perspective”; the second drawing excited attention to the exploding dimensions of Black sound and song, reggae in the Caribbean, and African American soul in the United States, whose new high priestesses/muses/lwa, Aretha and Roberta had taken command of the stage. The third and senior voice, Nina Simone, still alive and driven by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the “King of Love,” was growing deeper, darker, and more embittered—and preparing to emigrate to France, as Sidney Bechet had done two generations earlier.

While Kamau pushed me toward a big text that would organize and put into perspective everything (politics, kaiso, the young poetry of the “revo”), he was trying to do the same thing and exploding because of the narrowness of both space and time that the prison of academia—fixed and still “colonial” syllabi, teaching norms, the enormous stone of essay reading and examinations, and so on—imposed on us both, two Sisyphuses grinding up our respective slopes.

There was really no way to place in perspective the vast “everything” of the perpetually expanding and traveling diasporan vision, voice, sensibility. This vision could not be contained or adequately defined in phrases like “Creole négritude” as Kamau knew, or was about to find out. There was no measuring of our faring forward from, and caught in the relentless cycle of “Zamani,” toward long gone undead ancestors—the John Coltrane whose energy still lived on—our never-returning but still potentially alive ancestors.5

Kamau thought that we, he and I, were both trending toward illumination of the “everything” of our heritage, and he tried to maintain a steady dialogue through which we would exchange experiences and visions. He thought that 1970 was “as important as Morant Bay” even though he confessed that he had never been to and did not know Trinidad at all. I was his gateway into a Trinidad that I myself was in the process of discovering.

So we were involved in a typical Caribbean experience, with Kamau, a Barbadian, married to a Guyanese (part Amerindian-ancestored), resident in Jamaica and learning that whole “huge” island daily; and I, a strangely named Guyanese, resident in Trinidad and entering into its labyrinthine cultures via kaiso, the emerging voices of its youthful poets and its Afro-Saxon intellectuals from J. J. Thomas to Eric Williams. Brathwaite and I were traveling souls faring forth bravely and intuitively at two ends of the same wilderness.

The “Letter of Indictment,” 1986

Kamau sent me X/Self, which he said like Rights of Passage (1967) and Black + Blues (1976) had been written in drought, his now mythologized season of the harmattan. He also told me of “Doris’s continuing illness” and warned that “the prognosis looks bad.” Doris died on 7 September 1986, her sixtieth birthday. Kamau first sought to cope with her death by traveling:

Dear Gordon,

Now know I the salt, the wasteland.

Tomorrow morning I go to Ohio for some lecture/readings of History of the Voice, and then to London for Caribbean Focus (literature). Wish me strength, wish me luck.

Later in November I go to B’dos (Independence?) to a Writers’ Group there, to Dominica— Writers’ Group there invited the I; and since I wish to go see D’s people in New Amsterdam & take some of her ashes to her mother’s grave, have I suggested to AJS that I would like to read in G/town . . . [,] a kind of thank you to Guyana for having produced and loaned me for a too short while ts special woman.6

After a strenuous schedule of traveling and reading in the United States, the Caribbean, and London, Kamau made his first public appearance in Jamaica, at a reading on Friday, 21 November 1986. The event, which took place at the University of the West Indies, Mona, before an audience comprised mostly of his academic colleagues, was a book launch of two of Kamau’s publications.7

After the launch, Kamau returned to his home in Irish Town and on 22 November 1986 penned a letter addressed to the Mona community, a howl and a scream that magnified of “the poet” (i.e., himself) as an individual whose life must be read as a metaphor for the catastrophe and anomie in which the wider society terrifyingly abides.

Kamau’s letter began by indicting his colleagues for having inflicted on him “brutal and frightening neglect.” He seemed to blame them for “the violent and emotional internal hemorrhage which has been going on [and] is now black clotted & massive.” He referred to a statement he had made at the book launch: “I have been becoming my own poem to Mikey Smith.”8

To what extent had Kamau hidden his “centre-self” in the various “I” narrators of his poems throughout the two trilogies and the intermediate Black + Blues / Third World Poems? Winnifred Risden had complained of being unable to locate a genuine personal voice behind the ever-shifting congregation of narrators from Uncle Tom to Ogun.9 Was Kamau all of these voices, or none of them?

Here, in what I am calling his “Letter of Indictment,” Kamau was claiming a closeness, almost a sameness, with such sacrificed and murdered scapegoats as Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney, and even Christ.10 Could one trust such self-identification with archetypal victims, or should one see it as another kind of exploitation, a sort of spirit-theft in which the slain hero-victim is reduced to the narrating Voice of a narcissistic poet? Ultimately, was the reader being asked to forget Rodney or Smith or Christ and contemplate instead Kamau in his dungeon of raw suffering (suffering he would later half-acknowledge having brought on himself)?

Beneath this “Letter of Indictment” and The Zea Mexican Diary that soon followed lay a confession of guilt in a Lammingesque ceremony of souls that varied from the original Haitian ritual in that there was no community, no oungan, no dancers, no drums, only the individual poetic Voice beating its drum and dancing itself and wailing in its own self-created hounfor.

Kamau understood the reluctance of his real and imagined colleagues to come closer and offer whatever comfort they could to him, who had been, even in his vision of creating a community of sensibility, an isolated creature. While he had always claimed that the picture of him as an isolato, that is, as one who sought isolation and often put distance between himself and visitors to his College Common and Irish Town sanctuaries, was untrue, witnesses one had no reason to doubt gave credence to it.

In his “Letter of Indictment,” indeed, Kamau quotes (?) a friend he meets in a supermarket who explains the neglect that Kamau now suffered: “When something like this happen, evvadody is brought face to face wid dem own mortality & we don’t want to get inna dat.” The bereaved man becomes a sort of threat, a specter of what will happen to everybody else; not quite a scapegoat but an untouchable from whom one needs to maintain spiritual distance, lest one somehow bring onto oneself the same fate. So leave him alone. Dead people and those marked by death, seek the consolation of company.

Another response Kamau quotes is less sympathetic and more judgmental: “All yu friends think you spoil & you must face the lonely all alone & learn to stann up on you own two feets.” Kamau would “process” this second response in “4th Traveller,” one of the Dreamstories in which he narrates his inward journey from “the dark village of memory w/its dead” to the state of i/sol/ence where, like a turtle, he protects his “i” by retreating into the lonely sunshine of his shell.11

The third response comes from a judgmental witness without empathy: “No No my fwend, now you is being punish far being a recluse/far shutting yourself away from us & writing poems poems poems (when you shudda been one a de boys in de Coffee Room or SCR Bar or at parties parties patties.”12 Kamau’s mockery of the philistine SCR Voice here suggests that he saw himself as an outsider in this still foreign nation where he had lived for two and a half decades. He remained a Stranger, despite his mission:

[I am] helping to organize a situation where there might still not be the death but birth/continuation of our poetry. For what really is to us a poem/poetry? How much it mutter, eh? Where comes it from and how? from what dark engine years of salt & wilderness created it.

Subtly shifting the line of his narrative, he portrays himself as a sacrificial offering:

Ah yes, I offer up i/self in writing this to pity, your superior, your susu, patronage, your self-esteem, complacency, indifference, even perhaps concern. But (yes) gwine say it write it set um down here so as to try to make you/help you understand our culture has lost certain crucial eyes in this its Middle Passage.

Returning to his poem “Stone,” from Middle Passages, he presents it as having grown out of the failure of the Jamaican nation, and says that his launching of and reading from Jah Music “was perhaps a desperate act, a cry for help”:

A warning to a community . . . that kills a thousand of our/selves each year. & I have seen the dead man bleeding face down in the gutter blunted blunted dented in by the hobnailed police officer’s boot kicking it over & in as if that once man’s head was a dead discarded water coconut rolled over in the dutty water.

So, having almost shifted the focus from his personal grief and ordeal of isolation to more startling images of social brutality, Kamau emerges as shaman and preacher to a community he describes thus:

A community that harbours books gives lectures on our poetry writes crit creates models talks of paradigms has & has had several of our poet/people with us & among us/artists and writers/ those who create the crits But do we ever stop to think of where those metaphors come from/ how they come from/what source & sauce of energy How plants the seeds How waters the stem How cares the blossom from the dragons teeth?

Kamau’s “Letter of Indictment” ends with a dreadful premonition of catastrophe: the erasure of his and maybe the region’s cultural archives, those objects of our societies’ indifference and neglect and targets of either Man’s or Nature’s malice:

Preparing for the launch up here in Irish Town, I looked around a thousand years of manuscripts of efforts to help say how we stay how we say what we say when we stay so & I asked iself what now Here all alone so suddenly all alone without thought perhaps for the morrow What happens if hurricane blow all these embryonic fish tales of ideas away if fire catches & teks away the voice of Dobru of Mrs. Herskovits & Sterling Brown & Walcott & Miss Queenie & Eric Williams, & Shake Keane & Paule Marshall & Alice & Toni & Sparrow & Atilla the Hun.

The hurricanes did blow, the fires did burn, consuming the Tapia Archives, the San Fernando Library, the Folk Research Centre in St. Lucia that I helped open in 1993, Lakshmi Kallicharan incinerated in her flat in Georgetown, Andaiye’s Archive in Guyana, and so onward and upward, including Queen’s College Guyana in 1997.

So Kamau’s “Letter of Indictment” of 22 November 1986 moves from self-indulgence toward his real topic: the collapsing neocolonial Caribbean community; the absence or failure of a cultural policy driven by the necessity for collection, archiving, preservation, education, and building on identifiable traditions. It is this recognition of a failure of cultural policy in the postindependence Caribbean that leads to Kamau’s intuition or dreams of future destruction by fire, flood, and hurricane.13

The letter ends as it began:

I am only one symptom of what is happening to our society: we are so bombed out, burnt out, raped out, knifed out, shot up, robbed out that I wonder if we are a society at all/whether if called on to defend ideas, ideals, structure, family or dreams/nation? we’d be able to do it Or have we not found ourselves, without perhaps knowing it, into another Babylonian Captivity (lock stock & prison); but one now without the whips & the physical bars/scars; a psychological wasteland; victims of the 21st century as we have been victims of the 18th 19th & 20th. And victims because we have been too passive and too passive because we haven’t had/or lost the heart to love each other/caritas.

The main reaction to the “Letter of Indictment” was J. Michael Dash’s April 1987 review of Jah Music and The Visibility Trigger in the Journal of West Indian Literature. Dash sent Kamau a copy of the review with a cover note that seemed to anticipate the sort of response he could receive from the keyed-up Kamau:

Dear Eddy,

Here is a review done for JWIL. I am not sure that I want to hear your response. But perhaps I do.

As always


In the review, Dash recognizes that “in a way both collections are about death or rather martyrdom.” He continues: “In celebrating the dead poet or musician, Brathwaite enters into his own debate with oblivion. For two short collections, he desperately clings to the word in order not to surrender to silence.”15

Dash was correct. Brathwaite, dedicating his poems “to assassinated revolutionaries martyred musicians and dead poets” was celebrating “the fallen members of a spiritual avant-garde. Secular litanies contrast poetic authority with authoritarian politics.” Dash believed, however, that “elegiac verse is a difficult genre to handle,” and that too often “great Caribbean poets have produced dismaying verse in service of worthy causes.”16 Aimé Césaire, Nicolás Guillén, and René Depestre had all failed at writing poetry in this genre. So had Brathwaite with The Visibility Trigger.

Responding, I think, to the part in Kamau’s “Letter of Indictment” in which he accused the campus community of neglecting him in his moment of catastrophic grief, Dash concludes (correctly, I think, but cruelly):

Brathwaite is more interested in re-enacting the tragedy than in transcending it. These poems reveal his own sense of vulnerability in the face of an uncaring hypocritical world. There is insecurity here, a fear of slipping, unnoticed, into the void of becoming “dry pool: dead eye . . . ,” of suffering.17

This certainly was not the consolation or soothing that Kamau was seeking at that time. I understood Dash’s “lash-back” attitude. He had taken it upon himself to be the Voice of the offended, even insulted, Mona campus community; the responder to the sheer narcissistic rage of Kamau’s indictment of colleagues and the whole foundering postindependence Caribbean, which had not yet shown any signs of having created a new, conscious, and compassionate community.

I thought, however, that Dash’s reading of the poems was flawed in places, and on Wednesday, 1 July 1987, I wrote notes that would eventually become “Brathwaite with a Dash of Brown: Crit, the Writer, and the Written Life,” a paper presented at the Eighth Conference of English Departments, UWI, Mona, in May and June, 1988.18

I wrote in my notebook: “Amen, Amen. For Doris: and for Eddie, hollowed out, utterly devastated still by her fading into these hills; by the sense of hurt he carries, the notion of being simply abandoned by his friends. The problem is complex and involves, first of all, the issue of being an outsider in a place with a very fierce sense of itself, especially in these early decades of young nationhood.

“I mean the revived Focus edited by Mervyn Morris and Eddie Baugh didn’t even acknowledge Brathwaite’s presence in their country for twenty years. His post-1970 portrayals of the devastated Kingston ‘manscape’ were some of the earliest attempts in contemporary poetry from Jamaica to wrestle with the meaning of ‘this island now.’ But Focus, a partially nostalgic effort to resurrect the spirit of the founding years of Norman and Edna Manley, had no place for realities such as those that were being explored in Brathwaite’s Kingston poems.

“One can function as a foreigner anywhere if one has a base or centre. Lacking such, one needs a cocoon of insulation, a kumbla—to borrow Lixie’s [Erna Brodber] image—to which one returns when bruised by the rough edges of encounter, or within which one lives. (Kamau would in ‘4th Traveller,’ adopt the image of the turtle that withdraws into its hard shell of ‘i-solence.’ But in the months following Doris’s death (7th Sept., 1986) he hadn’t yet been able to grow the hard protective shell or live within his own lonely sunshine (i/sol/ence) that his vulnerable situation of outsider made necessary).

“While Doris was alive Doris served as centre and protective kumbla. It is she that brought order to his extraordinarily disordered life, putting up with his tantrums, the rages that implode within the creative spirit, but which can make the poet a very difficult person to tolerate.

“How did, how does one create in an incestuous place such as the Mona (or indeed, the St. Augustine) campus? One has to retreat from such a vacuum in order to create. Too many lives there press too closely on each other. Too many unfulfilled superor semi-intelligent egos grazing on and rubbing against each other; too little space altogether. Even when Eddie lived on College Common he tended to withdraw from time-wasters, ole talkers, friends—the well-meaning and mostly affable barflies of the Senior Common Room.

“For all the critical acclaim or rejection he’d received as a public poet, he was, in fact, the most private of persons. I put this privacy down to an impenetrable Bajunness. It is a feeling I get about Barbados and Barbadians which, perhaps, Mother Poem is an attempt to clarify. This secretive Bajunness also finds expression in Lamming’s extraordinarily complex people with their layered psyches, tangled motives and their private selves in retreat even from themselves. Lamming’s Natives of My Person or Water with Berries, for example, work from the periphery, the external, towards the shattered centre of the psyche—witness Teeton or the Commandant.

“The journey to that centre takes the entire book. In Natives, what each man discovers is a fear, a guilt, an incapacity, the vision of which paralyses until in a conscious act of self-deception, each man creates a new mask, an image of self which is false but more favourable: a reconstruction of face. No one really succeeds at such healing self-deception in Natives, where each man must live/or die eventually, with his psyche fissured, with truths too startling to accept but too powerful to negate or ignore.

“[Wilson] Harris often begins with this fissuring of the Psyche, the eye, the self, which is then moved through harrowing processes towards nakedness and regeneration.

“Brathwaite differs from Harris, Lamming or Walcott, by offering autobiography as distancing metaphor; as a means of not dealing directly with the shattered howl of Ego, the centre-self. Even in Mother Poem and Sun Poem autobiography is set at a distance as the Ego abandons the centre of the work, which is offered as a symbol of the broader experience of a Caribbean Everyman. Brathwaite in ‘Timehri’ called this process of distancing himself from his experience—or rather of withdrawing the Self from the experience—‘egolessness, the Self without I, without Ego.’ “But beneath all this lay that other side which made occasional appearance in the earlier poems, but spoke only through the various splintered masks of the other poems. Since most of us have been trained to look for that personal I at the centre of the poem, many of us left Brathwaite with a sense of still being stranger to the man behind the multiplicity of masks.

“If the poetry denied the reader-access to centre-self, and the poet himself, for all his affability, tended to retreat from certain types of encounter. How did this affect how others saw and reacted to Brathwaite and how he in turn reacted to them? I think that a mutual mistrust developed whose source was multiple.

“(a) The quite natural problem of Brathwaite’s reconciling his life and sensibility as a poet with the everyday tedium of his job as historian and history teacher. This proved quite a strain, given the fact that the inter-disciplinarian tends to be misunderstood in academic fora. The codes and metaphors that Kamau imposed on the interpretation of history, were viewed as obfuscation by some historians; while his statements on literature were mistrusted by the literati. Baugh, writing on Brathwaite’s criticism stated that one had to bear in mind that Brathwaite was a poet whose poetic vision would perforce influence—(for better or worse?) his literary criticism.”19

Thus, while at one level Brathwaite was much acclaimed (the readings, the admiring applause, the fascinated women at home and abroad, the proliferation and maybe profligacy of the muses and of Brathwaite himself),20 at another level he was regarded as an oddball crackpot poet, a jack of all spades, too Black in an age when Negritude had gone out of style and magical realism had become the current fad. Kamau was also too polemical, too simple, too complicated, insufficiently lyrical, too rhetorical but lacking Césaire’s violent energy, too prosaic, too African or too fakedly so (Jean D’Costa), too talkative (Dash).21

Kamau’s reactions were extreme, at times a trifle paranoid; certainly mistrustful of the praise that he in fact cherished and needed, for it was on such praise that his carefully guarded Ego depended for its nurture. Here lies the crux of the problem: the Ego is dependent on the Eye of the Other for appreciation; for an acclaim that needed to be continuous and uncritical. Such an Ego is obviously vulnerable in a land that, as I said earlier, is strenuously involved in its own collective and exclusive self-affirmation and is unconcerned with the special needs of the Stranger. Such an Ego is doubly vulnerable among similarly self-obsessed egos, all insecure, but most with their base of comfort, their center of complacency fairly stable.

My notebook prelude of July 1987 eventually became the conference paper in Middlemay 1988: “How will Eddie survive here without Doris? He’s living in a remote place—more remote conceptually than in reality. Irish Town is about 40 minutes’ drive from Campus. He’ll need to make himself or his base more accessible. Doris used to function as a sociable alter-ego who brought out the warm communicable ‘other side’ of today’s morose (Dash terms his Kingston Poems ‘morbid’) Kamau.

“Grieving at the devastation I see in his face, the uncertainty for the first time of his eyes, the fragility of his hands, I think he should quit this scene altogether, since he clearly is unable to cope with it. To cope will require toughness, not a dependence on acclaim; a better or resigned grasp of one’s own life as one slides down the nether curve of the sun’s arc into darkness, no hope that any other person will, as Doris used to do, bring order to one’s chaos of documents and one’s creative rage.”22

Hurricane Gilbert, 1988

In May 1988, Kamau wrote to thank me for a 1987 conference paper, “Brathwaite with a Dash of Brown: Crit, the Writer, and the Written Life”:23

It kinda unlocked locks, etc. since I never thought anyone wd.NOTICE what Dash had done, far less comment on it! And of course, you went far beyond “comment” into another example to us all on how to treat our literature with generosity, respect, and a widening sense of whole/ soul. This also there in yr, Guyana awards address a tremendous journey between three worlds. And I thank you for it.24

He had for some time been proposing a Savacou print of my essays, though he had heard that Karia Press was on the verge of publishing an anthology of these. Karia never delivered, nor did Hansib, a Guyanese-owned publishing house in the United Kingdom that had, through David Dabydeen, received a batch. Longman/Lexicon Caribbean would eventually publish two collections four years later: My Strangled City, and Other Essays and The Shape of That Hurt, and Other Essays.

If Kamau eventually thanked me for what I wrote in “Brathwaite with a Dash of Brown,” he could not agree with my advice that he leave Jamaica or learn to live in isolation from an academic community that he deeply mistrusted and from which he was in fact disconnected. In a July 1987 letter he had confessed that his trip to London of late October 1986 had left him fearful of being on the verge of a stroke or heart attack. “[I need] someone who will take me through the whole thing. . . . [But] there is nobody, nobody, no body.”25

He expressed doubts about my recommendation that he rely on no one and try to grow a shell against his vulnerability.

I am a great one for “community” Is not just a writer’s concept with me. Is what gave birth to the sort of CAM we had/and what has prevented me from attempting a Caribbean CAM. It helped me wonderfully to sustain this ideal, even though it was intimately different in Ja/with the kind of “abrasions” you described. But without this sense, this hope, I will have nothing, I can’t really go into myself, The “easy people” which now seems like everybody think that I am already “into myself alone” by going up to Irish Town [IT]. But IT is only a retreat & base for the writing/or it was with D [Doris].

He could not “create a new base” as I had suggested, or believe that this would be an improvement.

In a letter a few days later, he had gone beyond stating his reluctance to leave Irish Town and provided positive reasons why he intended to remain there:

Woke up ts morning to look full down into the sun in the green bowl of the valley and realize now I remember now why you spoke about the taciturn, hostile, alien landscape. I do not see it, feel it ts way. I love it here. Perhaps in the silence, it is the nearest I seem(?) here to Mile & Quarter of Boy & the Sea.

I would prefer to wait here and hope to continue here and if I can survive towards(?) that hope. What I need is help, practical help, moral support, and some love. What frightens me and stuns me is the lack of those things, Pain(?) the total neglect.

If I withdraw as you advise, all the honey of creation will withdraw with me. No—not that, my friend. Not that.26

I could not remember telling him that the landscape was “taciturn, hostile, alien.” It was he who had written about the hostility of villagers who saw him as an intruder living in a “Grudgeful Great House.”27 But forgetting that, Kamau seemed to be relating nostalgically to the landscape, which reminded him of his boyhood in Barbados and his grandfather’s farm.

Nature, however, showed her other side when Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica almost exactly two years after Doris’s death. Kamau, despite his mistrust of US Fulbright students in the Caribbean, whom he suspected of being CIA agents, had willingly accepted his second one-year Fulbright award between 1987 and 1988, but he was back in Jamaica and domiciled at his Irish Town home when Gilbert hit. The experience is harrowingly explored in his poem “Shar.”28

In “Shar,” Kamau’s hurricane attacks first the rootedness of things: fixed established ceiba/ cumacka/silk-cotton trees, homes of ancestors, and some of the last remaining links to Africa. The hurricane sounds like an immense buzz saw, chopping limbs, snapping trunks. It chews up galvanized Alu-Zinc, the most modern of roofing, as easily as it devours the ancestral. It attacks the very idea of home as it invades the innermost recesses of great house or shanty: bedroom, study, archives. It attacks dreams as the poet lies prone on his sodden bed staring at the spaces where once the roof was and seeing only rotten rafters. It negates millennia of trans-Saharan journeys. It releases the worst and the best—bandits daring the landslides to loot the helpless ruin, and the stoical voices of the poor that through song still can, if not hope, insistently affirm. In one version of “Shar,” the voice of the singing Muse is that of his niece, who dies young.

Such . . . was the poem. There was, however, no such simple coming to terms with disaster in other accounts of Hurricane Gilbert. In a November 1988 letter to the vice chancellor of UWI, Kamau described his partially successful fundraising in the United States for stricken Jamaicans. He stressed that he did not want any of the money he had raised to be spent toward the rehabilitation of his Irish Town “Archives,” suggesting instead “that the Irish Town situation shd be tackled as part of the UWI Rehab Redev Project.” Kamau wanted the vice chancellor to connect him with “Michael Paty of the UNDP attached to UWI” (Paty agreed to visit the Irish Town site on Monday, 21 November 1988).29

Kamau asked the university to undertake “the entire Irish Tn operation”:

It is too much of an awesome act of the God of Nature for me to undertake financially, managerially and as a lecturer having to continue the life of a full teaching & research load (14 contact hours per week, not to mention prep of lectures for 2 courses and the correction/discussion of papers for some 200 students).

He then itemized what needed to be done: “elaborate damage from rainwater and landslide, roof blown off by Gilbert; need to clear access road (track) to main road.” The archives were, in Kamau’s opinion, crucial to the culture: “There can be no culture without that care & accumulation, the collection and classification of some of the things that were said, thought and expressed in the time frame each one of us was fortunate to be in.”

Hurricane Gilbert was Kamau’s second catastrophe, one that injected reality into his romantic/idyllic vision of the Irish Town landscape with its endearing prospect of green valleys: “No culture can be built on these kinds of landslip, landslide. But I am prepared to make one more effort.” He then listed what was stored in the Irish Town “Archives”; an amazing and attractive list of items whose steady diminishment would become the subject or theme of his repeated lamentations over the next three decades. Kamau regarded as priority a complete descriptive inventory of these IT resources, packed into the single remaining roofed room of his home; a damp leaking place whose wall was built into and against the mountainside: “[The roof of this room,] growing weary of the struggle against the elements, is beginning to groan & gape its way upwards towards the sky like its ripped brothers have already done.”

Kamau then wrote of offers he had received: “[They are] from various centres abroad, for the sale & therefore transfer of some of my material, & since Gilbert, you will appreciate that there has been renewed interest if not pressure.” He was disturbed that there had been no offers from either UWI or the Jamaican Institute. “In any case, Zea & I had visioned this place here at Irish Town as developing into a Caribbean Research Archive Centre & after she died I continued working towards this in her memory—when like the hurricane lick me down but not out—let me tell you.”

One significant feature of Kamau’s letter to the vice chancellor was its revelation of the variety of “agencies” with which Kamau had been in dialogue: “Ford, Harvard, Yale, the Caribbean Artists Movement, the U of Phil, the Am Antique Soc, Kent, Warwick, Liège among others.” It seems that Kamau’s extensive and continuous travels had given him a kind of global reach. His poetry, his ideas, and cultural paradigms seemed to have made greater impact internationally than at home, where, like his bardic voice in “Kingston in the Kingdom of This World,” he continued to await the recognition and respect of his imagined community.30 His letter, then, was a challenge directed at the leadership of the UWI empire.

“Meantime, I need somewhere to live,” he declared. This problem was temporarily solved, but not by the university: “The Consortium/Ford Foundation, in order to enable me to teach this first term with them, have provided me with three months accommo in Kingston: Nov [1988] to January ’89.” This is how he came to reside in Marley Manors, the site of his third catastrophe in 1990. In a March 1990 letter, he informed me that A. J. Seymour had died and that Aubrey Williams, Guyana’s great painter and an early member of CAM, was “gravely ill.” He also thanked me “for that phone call to Barbados on [his] father’s funeral.”31

Kamau at Carifesta, 1972/1992

One next meets Kamau at the Caribbean Festival of Arts (Carifesta) V in Trinidad and Tobago, August 1992. The symposia proceedings contain a useful tracing of the development of Carifesta since its beginning in Guyana in 1972.32 Carifesta I had remained in Kamau’s memory as the yardstick by which he measured the development of the idea of a congregation or community of Caribbean artists, a major aspect of the CAM dream with which he had begun.

What did Carifesta mean after two decades? To Derek Walcott, who had stayed in New York during Carifesta I, the gathering had never meant much:

CARIFESTA is a cynical exploitation of West Indian artists by West Indian Governments, since they don’t have a cultural policy matching the amount of money wasted in the celebrations. . . . (The Festival represents two weeks of activity for artists, who are subjected to 50 weeks of inertia and indifference for the balance of the year).33

Since Bogotá 1978, the issue of a regional cultural policy, or even several national cultural policies (the imperative of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]), had replaced or simply overtaken the quest for a Caribbean aesthetic that had preoccupied Kamau’s CAM since 1966. Designing a cultural policy suggested not just definitions or theorizing but also enacting, building, and putting into operation structures; it required putting ideas to work.

Walcott had not seen any such cultural policy emerging, and by 1991 Trinidad and Tobago had become mired in a huge attempt—the third or fourth since independence in 1962—to design a cultural policy statement for critical discussion in parliamentary committees and forums for the wider public. (I know this well, because I was part of the effort to produce this new design.) Carifesta V in 1992 became a confused attempt to pull together the ideas of disparate parties, including artists and practitioners (LeRoy Clarke, Earl Lovelace, and scores of others); another group working directly with the minister of culture; Margaret Walcott, Derek’s former wife and the festival’s general manager, whose job was to read and sort out correspondence from the public as to how they thought Carifesta should be shaped; and a group of business people and financiers who surfaced late but appeared nonetheless to be the driving force behind the hoped-for festival.

In July 1990, all these groups met with Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Arthur Napoleon Robinson. It was the first time all the Carifesta organizers had come together or, in some cases, had even heard of each other’s existence. Much confusion and some anger ensued.

A few days later, on 27 July, such efforts were overwhelmed as the Islamist group Jamaat al Muslimeen attempted to overthrow the Trinidad and Tobago government. The coup collapsed as its leaders were arrested on 1 August, but Carifesta was substantially scaled back. Trinidadian playwright Efebo Wilkinson was recalled from his Caribbean Community (CARICOM) post, and librarian Pearl Eintou Springer was assigned to pull things together. Margaret Walcott’s work languished in some shadowy realm, as if to illustrate the correctness of Derek Walcott’s acerbic comment from 1981. The festival originally planned for 1991 had to be pushed back a year, and Carifesta ’92 was nothing like Carifesta ’72.

Kamau was lodged at the Hilton, but without the sort of VIP access to travel that he (and even I) had enjoyed in 1972. Carifesta ’92 was for him a disappointment, though his “The New Aesthetics and the Nature of Culture in the Caribbean: The Dreams Coming In with the Rain” received much praise as one of the keynote addresses.

The version of this address that appears in the symposia proceedings reads like the transcript of a tape. Brathwaite began by describing his task as one of compressing a three- or four-hour paper into a half-hour presentation. What he achieved was an overview of impediments that had barred progress in the articulation of a Caribbean aesthetic. He provided his own working definition of a Caribbean aesthetic: “A critical communal sense of the essence of one’s culture which would involve our awareness of style and how that style became style.”34 Kamau identified all sorts of reasons why, despite four Carifestas since 1972 and multiple conferences on culture, no true aesthetic had emerged:

  1. A “remarkably fragmented” history, beginning with the genocide of Indigenous Amerindian peoples within three decades of Columbus’s arrival.

  2. The catastrophic genesis of the landscape itself over 500,000 years.

  3. Slavery, predation, and erasure as historic continuation of catastrophe, leading to uncertainty about identities and relayed violence in social evolution.

  4. Abundant evidence of creativity, yet failure to understand or assess the quality of what the fragmented islands and their Indigenous and indigenized folk have created.

  5. Miseducation, resulting in ignorance of the landscape and the meaning of our residence on earth, as well as indifference to and disrespect of the environment.

  6. Easy exploitability by metropoles.

  7. Insularity and the absence of viable systems of communication, both within and between island communities.

Kamau’s paper dwelt on these failures (that is, the things that had sent him into this new phase of exile) rather than on the growth of agencies of healing, redress, and regional reparation since Carifesta ’72 and the foundational CAM of the mid-1960s. What redeemed this gloomy retrospective address was Kamau’s superb performance of “Angel/Engine” from his Mother Poem. The symposia proceedings derived their subtitle from the last line of “Angel/Engine,” a poem about ritual reconnection with submerged ancestral energies that Kamau believed survived the Middle Passage. Recognition of these buried presences, Kamau had against all odds believed, was the beginning of cultural reclamation and building.

This was a fitting conclusion to Kamau’s central text of the thirty years since his return journey across the Middle Passage from Ghana to the Antilles. Yet it did not quite address the cultural exigencies of the contemporary Caribbean, where the tide (tidalectics?) of discourse had changed from the original concern with defining an aesthetic to the post-Bogotá 1977 UNESCO concern with designing a regional cultural policy for the Caribbean and Latin America. Kamau’s old and never-to-be-abandoned preoccupation with the location of Africa in both diasporan and world history had been “replaced” by the more immediate need for all the fragmented ethnic communities to rewrite histories and relocate identities in the newly independent and emerging “postcolonial” nations. Indeed, the very word nation had become a space for the confrontation of antagonistic ethnic groups and class and color formations, each with its own sense of “aesthetic,” its own notion of the shape of things to come, and its own thrust toward power, authority, and domination, in a context where the market-driven cultures of the globalized world were blindly pursuing new versions of old cultural dominance and identity erasure.

(Dis)Connections, 2008

In January 2008, I received a letter from Kamau in which he wanted help in contacting Merle Hodge. He also wanted to know my response to his gift pack of ARK (the recorded performance) and his document “of the STOLENS” and his “attendant ruminations on RACE at the end.” He complained about not hearing from me:

The breakdown of our correspondence has really hurt me. so much has been happening since we lass meet here at NYC for the K70 ting (and indeed long before that) and even then we didn’t have the kind of TIME together we ought to be having. is something wrong? have i offended or disappointed in some way? if so, i pray that 2008 will find bridges—and pl help me also reach Merle. <Kamau>35

He had indeed sent two CDs of ARK, about which he had inquired on 4 December 2007, four weeks after he failed to attend my retirement celebrations. I had replied on 5 December that I had not listened to them as yet, and that I was “surprised” that three years had passed between the originally written “Hawk” and the performed ARK of 2007. In February I replied to Kamau’s January letter:

Here in the Carry Beyond, as the Rastas used to term this place, we are caught up in an incredible rush of changing events, governments and scenarios. At present it is the Guyana massacres, which echo some of those that have been happening all the time in Trinidad and Jamaica with their horrendous murder rates that run into nearly 400 per annum in Trini and over 2000 p. a in Jamdung. I said years ago that we were caught up in a culture of terminality, and nothing has happened since 1993 when I first said it, or indeed, since 1987 with “Trophy and Catastrophe” when the keyword I used was “atrocity,” to make me change this perception of terminality. You yourself articulated the concept of “Dis” on which I have commented in my as yet unpublished Ms on Ancestors that I will name Ancestories.

You seem to think that our time of communication/friendship has been dis/connected; but that is only illusion brought about by your extreme situation(s) in Jamaica, Barbados and now New York. If after Doris’s death I had suggested that you get out of Jamaica, I’d now suggest that you clear out of New York where the plunder(ing) of your archives is calculated to propel you to the edge of terrible darkness. What you have described is as unimaginable as what has been happening in the wider theatre/arena/cockpit of the Caribbean. But I don’t know how one fights that sort of thing, and I personally would have left that terrible place. In your case, though, Barbados too has become another ex/tension of DIS, one that is so small and cramped and stifling that I doubt your return there would solve much. It would, however, be better than the New York you describe.

I said that I don’t think we have ever severed connection because I remain connected to your work. Having done the only full-length responses so far to The Arrivants and Black + Blues, I have for some years been working on the autobiographical Mother Poem and Sun Poem and have completed typing the Ms of Mother Poem and [have in hand] a still-to-be typed handwritten Ms of [my reading of] Sun Poem. I also published in my last collection of essays, (Transgression, Transition, Transformation: Essays on Caribbean Culture) a revised version of “Dream Journeys,” a response to all of the Dream Stories; probably, again, the only full and coherent response to a significant Brathwaite text.

Since we haven’t been meeting in the same places over the last six or seven years, our “connection” has to be with each other’s work and ideas, and I think that I have not only done my part in this respect, but invested considerable cash in getting my work published. There hasn’t been much (any) help, and there are no prizes or awards to be won for what I do. But say what? I know that I am in a terminal place and don’t really expect the grace of help or encouragement. I have worked out of a state of what in “4th Traveller” you call i/sol/ence. That’s the way it is, has been, and will continue to be. . . .

Having not attended my retirement celebrations, you haven’t yet received your copy of Transgression, Transition, Transformation. I am afraid to send it to New York for your archive plunderer to plunder.36

Notes, 2018

“So, two days ago, I saw and spoke to, had considerable audience with, George and Kamau, Grand Old Men of Barbados. Lamming just turned 91 and Kamau 88 on 11th Mayhem. Not sure exactly how I felt about both encounters. Both men are lucid; both are physically unsound. George, who had fallen and broken hip or leg or thigh, is in an old people’s home on or off Rendezvous Hill, a clean and apparently well-run place. His white mane or crown of hair is still impressive. He remembers all sorts of things. He feels that he has “done his work”: meaning that he cyan do much more

“His son Gordon three decades ago did law, wrote a novel, had deep dark contemplative eyes and had inherited gestures and mannerisms of his father with whom he had not lived. He had been married, divorced, and had remarried. He had children. George’s former wife, Nina Squires, a painter, was still alive. His daughter Natasha had retired from her profession as a doctor. She too had, I recalled, written a novel that had never been published. Her three children—she lived in the US—all had PhDs. I can’t remember what jobs they were doing, save for the son, who is an educational administrator. George mulled over his early days in Trinidad. He is still capable of delight. Laughing as he slowly departs.

“Kamau: a different story. He’s lost all sight in his left eye and can’t drive. He has issues, a load of them; all the issues that have preoccupied his writing over the last decade. Cowpastor is near the flight path of aeroplanes as they prepare to land. Authorities tell him that he may have to move. He defies this. I was able to see the rocky coralline terrain deprived of what little scrubby vegetation it once had. This has been his chief complaint in these last days: this violation of the Muse, the Mother, by bulldozers.

“Kamau has become the poet of the bruised, lacerated body, and is preoccupied with death and transition rituals.37He’s been immersed in reinterpreting rituals of the Crossroads; the Bolom is a frequent presence. His trailways are not at all easy to follow. No one has truly traversed such shadowy terrain.

“He is still locked into the experience of “Cultural Lynching” [CL in his abbreviation]. Nobody, he says, believes him. He is alone in his isolation/insulation that I think he has chosen, though he denies this. He’s still writing, stubbornly, doggedly; though there seems to be less and less in the fixed denuded landscape for his sensibility to gaze on. Landscape bleak: mindscape bleaker.

“I tried to persuade him to let me see the so far unpublished Ms of the Love Axe/l which he now refers to as L/X or LX. [Perhaps LX is his written answer to CL.] He blames Jeremy Poynting for the non-appearance of L/X. Poynting, he says, he says, had altered the text and interfered with his fonts. L/X is crucial to my intended reading of the last 25 years of KB (that is if I survive my own steady slide into obsolescence). But Kamau seems to need to cling to the Axel in its still incomplete and ever-expanding state [Shades of the earlier Bibliography of Caribbean Poets].

“Beverley: Brave, resourceful and bright woman. She has kept Kamau alive, doing the essential, the necessary. It’s a rocky drive-in to Cowpastor, perilously so. But she negotiates it as she has been negotiating Kamau for the better part of two decades.

“I gave copies of Musings Mazes Muses Margins (which Kamau calls the M’s) to both Kamau and George. George 91, Kamau 88; Will I hear from either of them? I doubt it and I doubt I’ll see Kamau again.”38

I write these last things for myself, it seems; these half-remembered, half-invented dreams.

“Travelling Souls,” 2020

Aaron Kamugisha, who on Thursday, 27 September 2019, had hosted me for breakfast at the Hilton (Trinidad and Tobago) and invited me to conduct a seminar on Kamau’s work with his Caribbean studies class in February 2020, rang to inform me that Kamau had died on Tuesday, 4 February. My written reaction to such sad news: “Another part of my life and portal of my time has closed.”39 I suggested to Aaron that the seminar should be canceled. He disagreed, and I traveled to Barbados, did the seminar as planned, and returned to Trinidad. On Thursday, 6 February, I received a phone call from Beverley Brathwaite, who asked me to deliver the eulogy on 21 February, the prospective date for the “Official Funeral” of Edward Kamau Brathwaite. They had restored the “Edward” to its rightful place. Kamau was in no position to object.

I agreed to deliver the eulogy and, searching for what I knew I wanted to say amid the rubble of all that I had already written on Kamau’s work, I awaited news about the structure of the “Official Funeral.” This news came on Thursday, 13 February. The funeral was carded for Friday, 21 February, at James St. Methodist Church, Bridgetown. My eulogy, the last of nine tributes, was to be seven minutes.

I wrote nothing for a week, until 2:00 a.m. of the morning of 20 February, my seventy-eighth birthday, when I received a gift of words from nowhere—a breath, a riff, a trombone melody, a kind of singing. As Deke, my son, drove me to the airport, songs soared up in my head: Roberta Flack’s “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”; the opening bars of a Brahms violin sonata, bright blue minor key cadenza; then a phrase from the slow movement of one of his string quartets. All these floated through my singing head and I was sort of happy, elated, relieved perhaps, that the eulogy was all but written and was different from nearly all the others that sympathetic friends, knowing of my long friendship with Kamau, had sent me in consolation and fellowship.

My eulogy was going to be dry, like the harmattan of dust from which it was to be made, and sufficiently lyrical, like the gentle wet of drizzling rainfall that, defying the drought, had tickled the smoking earth of these dog days.

I completed a version of the eulogy by 1:00 p.m., 20 February. It made me want to cry toward the end, but I told myself not to—“No tears in the end.” After a day of sleeping and waking, I thrice performed surgery on my too-long eulogy and prepared for the drama of the funeral. I, together with Beverley, her daughter, a granddaughter, and two Jamaican friends, a male and a female, traveled in a stretch limousine. The atmosphere in our cabin was nightclubbish—purple fluorescent lights, a bar with glasses, ice, water, juice, rum-punch. A real cool scene. I took a rum-punch to clear my throat, soothe my brain, and pacify the worms in my belly. There had been no time for breakfast.

Our driver maneuvered his hearselike chariot through a maze of narrow streets and a succession of traffic-jammed roundabouts. Our outriders in this Official Funeral stopped traffic and cleared roads as our chauffeur negotiated his oversized hearse through whatever cracks opened up in the traffic. There were formally liveried policemen at each intersection. The coffin of the Hon. Edward Kamau Brathwaite (CHB, DPhil) preceded us on this final perilous Odyssey to the Grey Street Methodist Church, where we arrived at about 7:45 a.m.

The funeral was scheduled for 10:00 a.m., a two-hour wait—a weight of time. So we waited: his sister Joan and her grandchildren; his sister Thelma’s sons, born in London; Michael Kwesi, Kamau’s tall son, married and father of a girl. I hadn’t seen Michael in years. He was born in Ghana, grew up in Jamaica, and now lived in the United States.

Beverley and Joan, with their respective clusters of family and close friends, greeted early arrivants: Michael La Rose from London, representing the spirit of his father, John La Rose, and the still-breathing ghost of the Caribbean Artists Movement; Kendel Hippolyte and Robert Lee from St. Lucia, Kamau’s first landfall on his journey back from Ghana to the Antilles; Lasana Sekou, poet and militant publisher from St. Maarten, who had published Kamau’s Words Need Love Too and Amiri Baraka’s poem about 9/11, Somebody Blew Up America. There were Andy Taitt and Kamala Kempadoo; Aaron Kamugisha, Cave Hill academic, publisher of Caribbean Cultural Thought and, together with Yanique Hume, editor of Caribbean Popular Culture: Power, Politics, and Performance, one of the great books of our era, though this is not yet recognized.

Slowly, over the two hours, the church filled with great people: Dame Sandra Mason, governor general of Barbados; Mia Amor Mottley, the honorable prime minister; dignified oldsters and a sprinkle of youth; drummers, dancers, and singers in white. There were four tributes before the service and four more during the service. Good, great, eloquent addresses; moving moments, like Michael Kwesi’s tearful reminiscences about his love for his father; then a powerful, well-delivered (and long) tribute from Mia Mottley that covered nearly twenty minutes, before my spare-ribbed thrice-edited seven-minute mumble that was titled “Kamau: A Travelling Soul.”40

Postlude: Ave atque Vale

After tributes, eulogy, sermon, organ-chant, drumbeat, there was the gathering in the church-yard, the drive to the cemetery in open windy country, more drumming, singing, eulogizing. I thought of looking for my sister Gloria’s gravestone but desisted. My movement, rusty and painful as any Legba’s, has not been too good these days.

Thus exited Kamau amid hymns, Orisha and Baptist chants aimed, I guessed, at “our never-returning ancestors of old.”41 I do not know if any of the ancestors came at the drums’ summons. There was to be a repast at Joan’s place, but I was not of Joan’s party. My repast was another rum-punch—an unruly fellow—who kept overspilling as we drove along in our stretched-out nightclub hearse to Beverley’s homestead. I lunched at the hotel at 2:45 p.m. when, for $38 B’dos, plus gratuity, I feasted on my last supper before the next morning’s early departure:

  • 2 slabs/slaps of sweet potato pie c. 2/5ths of an inch deep, four inches long, 2½ inches woide.

  • 2 sloices of fish, advertised on the menu as floine, but seeming otherwise to my blurred eyes;

  • a scattering of forlorn broccoli;

  • 2 glasses of water.42

I survived. Just after dawn next morning, along the highway to the airport, I saw purple and red bougainvillea and pink oleanders glowing, haloed in soft sunlight. My driver smiled and nodded at my interest. “Landscapers,” he said. “Developers.”

“Farewell, Sister Gloria. Walk good,” I prayed. “Farewell, Brother Kamau. Vale, adios Barbados.”


Gordon Rohlehr, “Sparrow and the Language of Calypso,” Savacou, no. 2 (January 1970): 87–99.


Letter #1, Edward Kamau Brathwaite (hereafter KB) to Gordon Rohlehr (hereafter GR), 10 January 1967. All numbered letters are in the author’s possession.


Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, “Pebbles” (from Islands), in The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 196.


Letter #20, KB to GR, 2 October 1970. On “rhythmic complexities,” see Brathwaite, “Adowa” (from Masks), in The Arrivants, 118.


See Brathwaite, “Wake” (from Islands), in The Arrivants, 208–13.


Letter #103, KB to GR, Irish Town, 14 October 1986.


Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Visibility Trigger (Louvain, Belgium: Cahiers de Louvain, 1986), and Jah Music (Kingston: Savacou, 1986).


“Letter of Indictment,” KB to the Mona community, 22 November 1986; in the author’s possession. Michael “Mikey” Smith (1954–83) was a Jamaican dub poet and government critic who died after an altercation with three men, during which he was hit by a rock. Kamau and many others in Jamaica believed this to have been a politically motivated murder.


Winnifred Risden, review of Masks, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Caribbean Quarterly 14, nos. 1–2 (1968): 145.


See Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “[Good Friday, 1975.] Kingston in the Kingdom of This World,” in Third World Poems (London: Longman, 1983), 53–55; and Kamau Brathwaite, “Stone,” in Middle Passages (New York: New Directions, 1993), 57–65.


Kamau Brathwaite, “4th Traveller,” in DS (2): dreamstories (New York: New Directions, 2007), 149; originally published in Dreamstories (London: Longman, 1994). See See Gordon Rohlehr, “Dream Journeys,” in Transgression, Transition, Transformation: Essays in Caribbean Culture (Port of Spain: Lexicon Trinidad, 2007), esp. 432–38.


The Senior Common Room (SCR) Club is a bar on the campus of the University of the West Indies, Mona.


See, for example, Kamau Brathwaite, “Dream Chad,” in Dreamstories.


J. Michael Dash to KB, letter, 5 May 1987; in the author’s possession.


J. Michael Dash, review of The Visibility Trigger and Jah Music, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Journal of West Indian Literature 1, no. 2 (1987): 87, 87–88.


Ibid., 88.




The conference paper was published under the same title in my The Shape of That Hurt, and Other Essays (Port of Spain: Longman Trinidad, 1992), 209–46.


Gordon Rohlehr, Notebook #8, 1 July 1987. All notebooks are in the author’s possession.


See Kamau Brathwaite, The Zea Mexican Diary, 7 September 1926–7 September 1986 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).


See Jean D’Costa, “The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite,” Jamaica Journal 2, no. 3 (1968): 24–28; Dash, review, Journal of West Indian Literature. D’Costa writes of Kamau’s (mis)use of African words, phrases, and concepts in “Masks,” a fake poem about a fake return.


Rohlehr, Notebook #8, 1 July 1987.


The conference paper was published under the same title in my The Shape of That Hurt, 209–46.


Letter #102, KB to GR, 22 May 1988. Kamau references my feature address presented at the awards ceremony for the Guyana Prize for Literature, 8 December 1987. See “Trophy and Catastrophe,” Kyk-Over-Al, no. 38 (June 1988): 13–22; Caribbean Quarterly 37, no. 4 (1991): 1–8; and my The Shape of That Hurt, 293–304.


Letter #105, KB to GR, Mona Department of History, 5 July 1987.


Letter #106, KB to GR, 8 July 1987.


Brathwaite, The Zea Mexican Diary, 176.


Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “Shar (Hurricane Poem),” Anales del Caribe, no. 10 (1990): 247–53.


Letter #197, KB to Vice Chancellor, University of the West Indies, 18 November 1988.


Brathwaite, “Kingston in the Kingdom of This World,” in Third World Poems.


Letter #109, KB to GR, 4 March 1990.


Pearl Eintou Springer, ed., The New Aesthetic and the Meaning of Culture in the Caribbean: “The Dream Coming In with the Rain,” proceedings of the Carifesta V symposia, Port of Spain, Trinidad, August 1992 (Port of Spain, Trinidad: National Carnival Commission, Carifesta VI Secretariat, 1995).


Derek Walcott, Sunday Sun, 26 July 1981; originally published in the Trinidad Express. See D. Elliot Paris, “Carifesta: A Non-traditional Festival of the Caribbean,” in Springer, The New Aesthetic, 17.


See Kamau Brathwaite, “The New Aesthetics and the Nature of Culture in the Caribbean: ‘The Dreams Coming In with the Rain,’” in Springer, The New Aesthetic, 144–54.


Letter #132, to GR, Thursday, 3 January 2008.


Letter #133, GR to KB, Thursday, 21 February 2008, 10:53 p.m.


See Kamau Brathwaite, The Lazarus Poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017).


Rohlehr, Notebook #20, Friday, 15 June 2018, 5:25 p.m., 112.


Rohlehr, Notebook #21, Tuesday, 4 February 2020, 11:07 a.m.


See Gordon Rohlehr, “Kamau: A Travelling Soul,” Interviewing the Caribbean 6, no. 1 (2020): 28–31.


Brathwaite, “Wake” (from Islands), in The Arrivants, 209.


Rohlehr, Notebook #21, Friday, 21 February 2020, 2:45 p.m.