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Essay

"Gabble Like a Thing Most Brutish"

How Caliban, The Tempest, and a poet’s exile became the perfect storm for a first book.
The Slave Ship (1840), by William Turner. Image Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’ve spent a good part of the last 14 years thinking about Caliban. The first time I read The Tempest, his anguish and corrugated selfhood spoke to me so acutely, I felt him to be real. His fevered dreaming as a slave in a stolen kingdom has also been my dreaming, his twangling instruments my own strange music.

Like him, I’ve always been an outsider. Home for me has always been a place of unbelonging. This is the strange yet all-too-familiar exile of living in the Caribbean, of being a part of the African diaspora: belonging in two places and no place at all. Home was not my island, which never belonged to us Jamaicans, though it’s all we’ve known, and home was not my family’s house, which we’ve always rented, all of us acutely aware of the fact that we were living in borrowed space, that we could never truly be ourselves there. Home was not the body. Never the body—grown too tall and gangly too quickly, grown toward womanhood too late. Like a city built for myself, home was a place I carved out in my head, where the words were always the right words, where I could speak in English or patois, could formulate a song or a self. Home for me has always been poetry.

It was the Old Poet, a Trinidadian writer and mentor, who first got me thinking about Caliban. At 15, I had just graduated from high school and for the first time faced the grim reality of a hopeless future that most Jamaicans understand to be the bleak circumstance of their birth. No one dared dream too far outside the confines of what history ungifted us, the poverty of this “developing country.” Neither of my parents had gone to college—going to a university was something hazy on the blurred horizon, far away and intangible—no one in my family knew how to apply to colleges or how they would ever afford them. I had been the top student at a private high school founded by rich white Jamaicans and American expats, who had also endowed a full scholarship for poor and talented students like me. Though I had flourished there, I realized much too late that this school had also prepared me for a future at an American university that my family did not have the means or the immigration papers to supply me with. While everyone in my class left for new lives and schools abroad, I stayed home, optionless.

Days grew into weeks, weeks into a year. I turned inward, turned to poetry as the only way to make sense of the world I had been given. In Montego Bay, we had scant access to books. I read everything I could find. I studied the Oxford English Dictionary. At 16, I submitted my first poem to be published in the Jamaica Observer, a riff off Plath’s “Daddy.” I still remember when the phone rang, and the Old Poet said with much authority: “This is serious. You have to come to Kingston and work with me.” For the first time, I felt seen. My parents (who didn’t have a car) hired a taximan who would drive me and my mother three and a half hours each way from Montego Bay to Kingston to visit the Old Poet every week. He gave me access to his impressive bookshelves and demanded I read the classics. Life felt full of possibilities as I dared to peer into the impoverished face of my own hope once again. For five years, I studied poetry, wrote, and workshopped with the Old Poet, a vital education that nourished my mind and kept me hungry until I finally received a full scholarship to go to college, six years after high school. I read and recited Yeats, Chaucer, Stevens, Walcott, Shakespeare. I performed my lessons as one bewitched.  

Back then, the Old Poet was a god until, like all men, he wasn’t. “The Tempest is Shakespeare’s best,” he said with finality. “In each line, we can hear the rhythms of the sea as a poet who is nearing the end of his life.” In a lost letter that I remember well, he wrote, “Gollum is very much like a Caliban-figure, both gnarled and tortured,” and with those words, he pried open my own affinity for anguish—at this age I was very much drawn to anything suffering. So the damage was done—gone was my flirtation with the comedies, promises of star-crossed meetings that so appealed to youth—there in its place, blooming darkly, was my obsession with the ocean of magic and finality of The Tempest, still unaware that this ocean of magic and finality was the story of Jamaica itself. The play tells of Prospero, exiled from Milan and shipwrecked on an island, where he banishes the witch Sycorax (Caliban’s mother) and somehow learns enough magic to subjugate the island and its inhabitants in the flesh (Caliban) and spirit (Ariel). Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, too, is under his control.

As the first child of four, the fact of my girlhood was already disappointing. Very briefly, I danced with Miranda’s wild-eyed wonder under her father’s strict patriarchy as something similar to my own; I lived in a no-nonsense, disciplinary, Rastafarian household. We were a family of three girls and one boy, and every year that my sisters and I grew older so too did the separation between my father and my brother and the women in the house. Rastas openly accepted that a woman’s rightful place was in childrearing and household duties, to be confined to the kitchen except when she was menstruating. Many of my father’s Rasta friends refused to eat food cooked by a woman on her period and even made their menstruating wives sleep in a separate bedroom. Finally, the body fulfilled its dark promise and turned against me. Dear Miranda, Who taught you how to bleed? Did you anticipate and dread its arrival for many moons, like me? This was my first reading—that being a young woman exempted me from the same freedoms my brother had, that being a woman was the original site of exile. Like most Jamaicans, I arched toward another world, hoping to make a new place for myself. In America, wouldn’t I be my own Miranda, as reflected through a dark mirror—“O brave new world / That hath such people in’t!” Dear Jamaica, Is it true what Kamau Brathwaite said? That “the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility, whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor.”? He has suggested that a Caribbean person becomes a Caribbean person only when they actually leave the Caribbean. Perhaps this is true.

The thick weed of the Sargasso, like the Middle Passage, is the largest gathering of all that is lost, clinging to the ghosts of things that never were. And the lost things, men and women of the African diaspora, scattered to sea on imperial ash, are now washed ashore in a postcolonial world. But what fractures the identity of the marginalized is the recognition of new, strange selves in that dark mirror, a tortured contemplation of duality—English language grown thick inside an African mouth. How do West Indian poets make sense of it, when the very language we speak betrays the history of our selves? Coming to America forced me to consider my blackness in a new light. Here, the world held me at arm’s length and highlighted all my differences as a strangeness: remarkable and invisible all at once. Being one of only four or five black students in the nearly all-white Bennington College cast a sharp spotlight on the actual site of my lingering exile—my blackness.

This was my second reading. It was a vital lesson: Here I was on a scholarship, six years after leaving high school, at another late start, estranged in another place. Fixed in time. I had left so much behind, but I had kept The Tempest. I carried the words and verses with me; the familiarity of its violence broke and reset daily in my bones. It was not Miranda, but Caliban who represented the fragmented psyche of West Indian poets like me. This, I realized, was the storm I carried around inside, the hurricane I was born under. Over the course of four years in the bright white bubble of Vermont, I encountered Caliban at the most important moments of my education. I was nearly always the only black student in class. Once, a teacher decided to make a hypothetical lesson of my being quiet in class: “For example,” she said, “if our black students never comment in class, then could we infer that all black students are lazy?” Once, a white student wanted to enact a minstrel show, blackface and all, as his final senior project. And so on. In a class on Shakespeare’s poetry, we were tasked to memorize and recite a verse from any of his plays. It didn’t seem like a choice, as I’d been feeling all along that my exile had always belonged to Caliban, who speaks entirely in lyric. I devoured the verse like fire and spoke each word as if I’d always known them. Because I had. Like Caliban, I was token, othered. Monstrous even. Like him, I felt home hardening like a wayward seed in my gut. I had lived and known each line to be true. His home was my home. His dis-ease:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
                Caliban, (Act 3, Scene 2, 135-143)

Dear Caliban, You know the rest of this story as if you had lived it yourself. In a Bennington workshop, a white woman first crossed her pen marks across the Jamaican patois in my story and wrote over and over: “Can you say this in English?” “Can you say this in English?” When I felt the too-familiar rage rise up in my throat and the slow choke of hurt that these words filled me with, I finally understood exactly why I was writing. In the face of prejudice, something indestructible had flourished. What had been only a hardening seed finally devoured all the air in my lungs and all by itself grew roots, became cannibal. The next week, I returned to workshop with a message I titled simply “Literary Manifesto.” It was here that I would first declare myself as Caliban:

Always at my heart is the quote of Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite: “The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.” This quote has been plaguing me recently, and defines what I’m most afraid of with this project—that presenting this [work] piecemeal to a coven of foreigners has somewhat corrupted the integrity of the work. Many people in this workshop have sought to subdue the work with the colonial marks of their pens—questioning the flora, fauna, and dialect of my native land, questions that have offended and plagued me as I contemplated who I was writing for. … Like Caliban, I have to question my identity as an Other, as defined by the colonist, while I am expected to express myself in the language of the colonist. But I want to define my identity and writing on my own terms, if me haffi bruk it dung inna patois, or iron it out in the Queen’s English—while always keeping the “u” in colour.

Many members of the class—all white—took great offence to this manifesto. Yes, I’d had a flair for rhetoric. I’d called them a “coven of foreigners” and “corn-fed strangers,” their pen marks “colonial.” But it stays with me to this day that they were offended. One student even threw my pages back across the table at me in disgust. Here in this workshop, this wasn’t a dialogue, and I finally understood the truth of America, as Caliban came to understand Prospero as a malevolent visitor—here freedom was only an invented jingle and not only would I never know the notes, I would always be exiled by its language.

This is my third reading. Historically and psychologically, the greatest cruelty of Prospero is not only the enforcement of his worldview but also the imperialism of his language. Caliban is enslaved by Prospero’s rules and laws and is taught Prospero’s language—in what Miranda declares a great kindness: the benevolent cultivation of the savage—but this really benefits only Prospero and Miranda. They arrive at Caliban’s island as cultural hegemonists who expect their language and customs to be understood but make no room for, or even consider, a cultural exchange with Caliban. If Prospero is to be believed, Caliban was born a cultureless animal, with no language, no identity: “thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like /A thing most brutish.” Prospero’s enslavement does not foster Caliban’s “cultivation” but instead hastens the eradication of his being; the autochthony of his personhood, written asunder.

What woman in Caliban’s position wouldn’t rage? Who wouldn’t feel a biological imperative to rebel, to people the “isle with Calibans”? In rebellion, Caliban seethes and plots, cursing Prospero’s linguistic imperialism; he wants to kill Prospero as much he wants to kill the part of Prospero that is within himself—“You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” Shakespeare’s measured representation of Caliban’s fractured psyche is still the same broken reflection with which modern Caribbean people must contend. We are all Caliban. As Cuban essayist and critic Roberto Fernández Retamar explores in his essay “Caliban,” a postcolonial examination of Latin American and Caribbean identity, Caliban is our dark mirror and a direct metaphor of the chaotic Caribbean soul:

Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood. What else can Caliban do but use that same language—today he has no other—to curse him, to wish that the “red plague” would fall on him? I know no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, of our reality. …what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?

Over the years, as I continued to navigate a life in the mostly white and cobwebbed corners of American academia, I realized that my poetry was not only informed by The Tempest itself, but that the voice in many of my poems was the voice of Caliban, as I had claimed him. Like Césaire and Brathwaite before me, how could I not identify with Caliban, the “savage” Prospero uses to catch fish and gather wood, whom Prospero uses to teach him the secrets of the island, and who speaks almost entirely from the root of his body? Caliban’s world is ruined when Prospero and Miranda arrive, and he is forcefully voided of his autonomy. He faces exile not only in his own land but also in his own skin (his thoughts are no longer in his own words), a psychic dilemma that overturns his world entirely, leaving Prospero as the grand arbiter of the change on the island. Both linguistically and metaphorically, the character of Caliban is a direct representation of what is seen as barbaric in me—the savage subaltern in the imperial narrativization of history.

Ever in the shadows of the play, even Caliban’s features are never quite precisely described—Shakespeare’s list of characters describe him simply as a “savage and deformed native of the island, Prospero’s slave,” and he is continuously referred to as a “monster” by the other characters inhabiting The Tempest, ambiguously described as being an animal or half-animal. Trinculo and Stefano degradingly address Caliban as “this puppy-headed monster. / A most scurvy monster!” “half a fish, and half a monster,” and “debauched fish.” From Shakespeare’s own evidence, we can assert that Caliban is not an animal—he is a sentient man, with his own thoughts and feelings, his own wants and claims to the island, who naturally dreams of peopling the “isle with Calibans.” The very name Caliban is a Shakespearean anagram of the word cannibal, the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, which originated from caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus thought ate human flesh. It is there that the word Caribbean originated. By simply being born Caribbean, all “West Indian” people are already, etymologically, born savage. Whole worlds codified around my discovery of this simple fact of language, the linguistic fact of my birth, and I knew that from this one barbarous root, my debut poetry collection, Cannibal, was born.

Here I was, in a hurricane. I could not escape the work. Over the course of two and a half years, I worked on the manuscript of Cannibal (which the University of Nebraska Press published this month). In each new poem I wrote, I noticed the word cannibal popping up, if not in a line, then in the ghost meter of its sea. As I began organizing the book into sections, I realized that each section spoke to all these scattered points of exile—exile at home, exile of being in America, exile of the female body, and the exile of the English language. Quotes from Caliban, Prospero, and Miranda all reflected these different aspects of what had been lost, then found again in The Tempest, through a dark mirror. Soon I realized that Cannibal was in direct collision with The Tempest, interrogating these disruptive histories and the power of the language I live with.

It has always been my hope that beyond the margins of The Tempest, Caliban might find beauty and power in his own nature, flawed or not. The last poem I wrote for Cannibal, “Crania Americana,” tackles white supremacy and pseudo-scientific texts, sung through the defiant throat of Caliban, who seeks control of his assumed “savagery” on his own terms. In this poem, he boldly wears his “brutish” gabble “like a diadem, / this flecked crown of dictions, / this bioluminescence.” Circling the ocean-magic and a poet’s finality at the end of his life, I combed through The Tempest for every word and slur Caliban was called and alchemized there the rage of my family, my country, my identity. Mother, your cannibal lives there. What was once seen as monstrous, I sought to make beautiful. This was my final reading. Caliban’s anger is my father’s anger is my anger. What my native dialect of patois represents, and what my poetry represents, is not only a linguistic rebellion against colonization but also a willful remaking of the world to reflect all aspects of the Caribbean self. I am Caliban. I am cannibal. Dear Father, may I unjungle it?

 

Related

  • Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Her first full-length collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award. Sinclair's poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, the Kenyon Review, The Nation, New England Review, Boston Review,...

Essay

"Gabble Like a Thing Most Brutish"

How Caliban, The Tempest, and a poet’s exile became the perfect storm for a first book.

Related

  • Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Her first full-length collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award. Sinclair's poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, the Kenyon Review, The Nation, New England Review, Boston Review,...

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