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Journal, Day Four

By Kwame Dawes

LABRISH

A confession: I am a gossip. Gossiping, I have read somewhere, is a sin. But I don’t think what I do is sinful. A rather archaic definition of gossip is a sponsor or a godfather or godmother. I am not that kind of gossip. There is also the definition of the gossip as a friend, a close chum. This is closer. The sinful definition is a sexist one, really. More often than not, it is referring to women who engage in idle talk—tatter-tales, if you will. The challenge is to define idle. What I enjoy has something to do with talk, but I would never describe what I enjoy in gossip as idle. After all, I am not drawn to gossip because I have nothing else or better to do. The gossip is the main event. Still, a part of me does feel that what I do enjoy is slightly decadent, transgressive, and hints of sin. It is really about getting the dirt on people and on things. I like the insides of a story. I like hearing the unfolding of the tale—and the tale must be worth something; it must, somehow unmask a secret or offer something that is not easily available. And it has to be scandalous. In Jamaica, we use the word, “Labrish”. I like that word.

“Labrish” is such a broad-sounding word—it hints at labial, labyrinth, lashing—all words that evoke what I like about that kind of talk. Labrish involves some scandal, it is story, the ritual of telling a story, but not just any story—it is the story that will titillate, excite, make you laugh, and make you feel happy that it is about someone else. So I like stories. That would be a palatable way to say it, but it would be something of a lie to suggest that I am simply confessing a penchant for stories. Stories can be invented. Labrish cannot be invented in the same way. Labrish is rooted in truth. At least the listener or reader has to believe that it is somehow connected to truth. The only invention is how the story is told, but the story has to be about something that happened, something that the listener feels might be true. However, I should add that gossip, or what I am now calling labrish has an inherent quality that can be translated to even invented stories. Labrish is about people, about what happens to people, and at the end of a piece of labrish, one must be entertained and one must feel as if something has been revealed or exposed in the telling. Surely, some of us look for this in a good story, invented or not.

There are challenges that come with this vice of mine. I tend to be rather undiscriminating about stories, especially fiction. Oh, I think I am a splendid critic and I do have the capacity to say that a piece of fiction is quite badly written or quite well written, but what I can’t do is walk away from a story. I want to know what happened. And I am more seduced by the story when the question of what happened has some salacious possibilities, some quality that smacks of pure labrish. So when I am asked, “Well, did you enjoy my novel?” I often say, “Yes.” What I don’t mean is that it was a good novel or even a good story; what I do mean is that I found the gossip in it irresistible.

I wish I could say that I don’t bring this hunger for scandal to my reading and enjoyment of poetry—that pure form that does not justify itself by story, but by image and idea. Alas, if I am to be quite honest, I have to say that the poets I enjoy reading are, at some level, engaged in the business of labrish. This is not simply an issue of confessional poetry or narrative poetry, although those are elements that lend themselves to labrish. It has to do with an assumption that I have, which is that no matter how hard a poet may try, whatever she writes is going to reveal something about who she is to me. So when I receive a manuscript from someone who has heard that I have a habit of looking at the manuscripts of strangers and of offering notes and comments on that work, my great anticipation is to find what labrish I can about the poet in the poems. I am trolling for gossip. That is a crass way of putting it. A more appealing way to put it is to say that I am searching to find the person—to meet the person—in the poems.

I am uncomfortable about this confession, however. The reason is that I have sought to convince those people who are close to me that much of my poetry is not about me, that if they want to know who I am, they will be led astray by trying to find me in the poems that I have written. I explain, with sincerity, that writing is often about invention, about play, about speculation, about shifting personas, about the imagination. Sometimes I get away with this half-truth, but people know better instinctively. They know that while it may be true that reading a poet’s work may not lead to any reliable biographical understanding of the details of that poet’s life, there is an exposure of some deeper part of the poet that invariably happens no matter how hard the poet seeks to employ Eliotesque acts of disassociation. Yes, my poems are a clear reflection of what I think about, what occupies me, and how my mind works in a peculiar kind of way.

Such revelations about the way a person’s mind works, however, do not always rise to the delicious heights of genuine labrish. You see, labrish, as I have said, should have a whiff of scandal. And I am now admitting that it is this whiff of scandal that I enjoy. I immediately took to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” because I was being allowed in class to read a poem about a man who is going to go to all ends to have sex with a woman. The pleasure was greater because of the discomfort I could tell my teacher was feeling about how to explain this somewhat crude idea without seeming to be talking about sex. Now there is the stuff of great art. Not so much the sex, but the tension of values, or pretense, of social order being disrupted by art. That was one kind of labrish.

There were others. < href="http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=1825">John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” always struck me as deeply pained admissions of his vulnerability as a believer. I was drawn to the constant wrestling with God, the very idea that he contended with his sinfulness and his failings as a believer struck me as intriguing and scandal rich. Then when I read some of his love sonnets and his longer poems, I realized that Donne’s holiness came through fire. Not as rich or unsettling as say watching Jimmy Swaggart implode on television, but equally effective in reminding me of my own capacity for failure, for doubt, and for fear.

I tell people that I started writing poems because of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it is partly true as most statements that seek to explain why one writes are—all partly true. Hopkins was responsible for me writing more than five poems in succession. Prior to that, I probably wrote one poem a year or every two years in some class assignment or out of some need to write some words down. I don’t recall much of those years between 12 and 16. But at 16, I started to write imitations of Hopkins with a group of classmates who, in the most lax and idle year of the school career of people educated in the British colonial education system, namely, the first year of the two years of sixth form—a year without the pressure of a final exam, a year when you are now officially senior and assuming responsibilities at school, a year during which you are still congratulating yourself at having passed the major exams of the year before that got you into sixth form, a year when your body is starting to feel adult—had to invent various forms of distraction from the idleness of that school year. We started an impressive gambling “club” hidden away from the authorities, where poker was placed as a spectator sport. We fought elaborate battles with densely wadded pieces of paper across barricades formed by overturning desks and chairs throughout the classroom. We ritualized the business of teasing and insulting each other, taking great care to find fresher and more demeaning insults for each other. We tested the boundaries of familiarity with teachers now that we were adults, no longer just ordinary schoolboys. Writing imitations of Hopkins’ verse was a sport. We compared the work to see who was better at it. It was an act of intellectual nimbleness, of technical virtuosity, and constant parody. I enjoyed this. I was not good at it, but I enjoyed it. Part of the pleasure had to do with what I was learning about Hopkins himself.

Like Donne, Hopkins liked to talk to God earnestly. By then I knew a good deal about the way sinners talk to God—feeling inadequate, constantly aware of death and fearing it, hiding confessions of terrible sins behind the euphemisms of the faith, and so on. I found it intriguing to slowly unearth the labrish around Hopkins that was buried inside these poems. When I read his letters to his friend Bridges—those curmudgeonly letters of a man who felt he was not getting any respect for his art, of a touchy man who bristled at criticism, of a man who felt that his greatness as a thinker and an artist was being wasted in the clearly frustrating world of what he saw as something of a backwater area of the world where he had been assigned—I began to read the poems with an even greater fascination. There was something labrish-like about the earnestness of his commitment to inventing new forms, to slaving as an artist without much recognition for it. This angst, this sense of struggle, this narrative of the artist intrigued me. It still does, in Hopkins.

With such a start, I have to say that my pleasure in poetry continues to be shaped by the desire for labrish. I can identify the pleasures I get from poems around that basic issue. This may mean that I have a propensity for the narrative in a poem, but here, I am not speaking of narrative in that rigid manner of convention—a story with a beginning, middle and end. But I am drawn to the risk of exposure. Yes, I am. I am drawn to the tightrope walk between sentimentality and emotionally risk. I am seduced by secrets and the way that a poem allows them to be revealed in beauty and with the tension of the desire to be protected.

It is this quality that moved me the most in Derek Walcott’s last book of poems, “The Prodigal.” It is as if with time Walcott came to care a great deal less about flirting with scandal. The book is replete with labrish. Not indulgent labrish, not salaciousness for its own sake, but a willingness to contend with sharply honed formal skills and his trademark wit, the vulnerability of the self. At once he allows himself to be something of a sleazy philanderer—a dirty old man with the ability to gaze at this self and accept it as a human quirk of his. The effect is disarming, even as we imagine what hurts he may have caused with this vice. But that is not so much the point. The point is the unfolding of all of this in verse. Yet, most moving for me, is the stunning stretch of lines near the end of the book, in which the dolphin and the sighting of a dolphin becomes a metaphor for his lamentation for the loss of his twin brother. There is something startling about this movement of “the Prodigal” that reveals Walcott’s power as a poet, but that engages me with the sheer labrish of his story telling. It never seems self-indulgent, because at some level, labrish cannot be self-indulgent. It must first be a story, and it must first be enjoyed as a story. The idea is not so much the confession, but the capacity to see in the experience a story worth telling.

Yes, I do give even the worst written stories a chance to take me on a trip—that is my sin—an overgenerous faith in the miracle of a story emerging no matter how badly constructed. But what I am in search of is the well-told piece of gossip, the labrish that is beautifully executed, that relishes its own power and fascination. Poems that have something to say to me in this way, appeal to me in lasting ways. That must count for something. If this is gossip, if this is sin, I hereby confess now and beg for forgiveness.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 13th, 2006 by Kwame Dawes.