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Our Slaves: Caring for Masters, Deforming Mastery (Part 2 of 2)

Cape Coast Slave Castle Cape Coast Slave Castle

“Cape Coast Castle,” a poem in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Chameleon Couch (his most recent book), begins with a haunting. The speaker of poem declares in the first line: “I made love to you, & it loomed there.” The “it” returns again and again throughout the poem. “It” is there while walking down the beach, while watching girls dance for boys and moneychangers. “It” goes away briefly when the ghost of the mother’s speaker comes to him while “sitting beneath a palm.” However, in the space of the poem, his invocation of the “it” means that while it might go away for the speaker it never disappears for the reader. This “it” follows the speaker (and concomitantly us, the reader) even after the speaker has left “its” shadow; it is in Amsterdam; it is in the public toilets. By now, you are probably wondering what or who this “it” is. Who or what haunts this poem without ever being named? But Komunyakaa has told us what the “it” is from the very outset. The “it” is in the title. What Komunyakaa’s speaker is haunted by is Cape Coast Castle, the blood-stained gate that many Africans walked out of, to never return to Africa. The “it” is a slave castle. These slave castles were stone forts that Africans were marched to from varied locations from the interior of Africa after capture. These ports pointed toward the Caribbean, the Southern U.S., and South America. As Komunyakaa’s speaker notes these castles edifices of and to oppression were “built / to endure time,…” In this manner, these castles were stone reminders of the imposition of European will on the continent of Africa.

In fact, the haunting, the imposition of the slave castle is so great for Komunyakaa’s speaker that he can’t help but understand everything as a metaphor for the complex violence of slavery, the Middle Passage, the fungibility of black bodies. For instance, Komunyakaa’s speaker observes young men and women in the shadow of “it”:

For days, it followed us along polluted beaches
where the boys herded cows
& the girls danced for the boys,
to the money changer,
& then to the marketplace.

Though this description might seem like an observation of boys and girls on an African beach, when it’s read through the frame of insinuation, through the frame of metaphor, then what is glimpsed is a coffle, an internal Middle Passage. The girls dancing for the boys and then dancing to the money changer and then to market subversively and surreally re-iterates the coffle, the internal Middle Passage that Africans in Africa and Africans in America were forced into. Though the poem takes place in the present, in the temporal space where the speaker can sip a glass of red wine, the action of the boys and dancing girls rubs this reader as anachronistic. The girls dancing harkens back to the staging of the coffle by those that auctioned off slaves. The coffle was the ritual parading of black flesh to the auction block. Slaves were often made to sing, dance, and even smile. Because (as I have said before in another post), no one wants to buy sad property. No one wants a depressed shovel or cow. We want to believe our property enjoys being property much in the way that we might enjoy the using of that property. Slave auctioneers were keenly aware of the disposition of their buyers. Thus, they required enslaved Africans to dance their way to the market. There are so many poems there, so many papers to be written on how subjectivity is both affect and market-driven. But I digress. Back to the “it.”

The shadow of the castle, the castle itself frames everything as a recapitulation, a re-iteration of slavery and its attendant technologies of oppression. Everything is moving toward marketplace and commodity whether it wants to or not. Even the speaker’s love-making gets appropriated and transmogrified by the castle. For instance, the poem begins with the speaker making love and not being able to shake the shadow of the castle from his consciousness. The poem ends with the speaker imagining an African woman being raped by a European governor of the castle. Komunyakaa writes:

…. The governor stood on his balcony,
holding a sword, pointing to a woman
in the courtyard, saying, That one.
Bring me that tall, ample wench.
Enslaved hands dragged her to the center,
then they threw buckets of water on her,
but she tried to fight. They pinned her to the ground.
She was crying. They prodded her up the stairs. One step,
& then another. Oh, yeah, she still had some fight in her,
but the governor’s power was absolute. He said,
There’s a tyranny of language in my fluted bones…
There’s a whole tribe in this one, but I’ll break them
before they’re in the womb, before they’re conceived,..
before they’re even thought of. Come, up here,
don’t be afraid…
You’re not like the others. Yes,
I’ll break you with fists & cat-o’-nine.
I’ll thoroughly break you, head to feet,
but, sister, I’ll break you mist dearly
with sweet words.

I hope to do justice to this terribly complicated poem’s end. Again, please forgive me for not giving the poem an overly thorough close-reading. Once again, a poem with too many gifts for discussion.What immediately grasps this reader is not only the violence and potential violence but also the attention to language as an agent in the making and unmaking of subjectivity. After the “enslaved hands dragged” the woman of the governor’s desire toward him, the Komunyakaa’s governor waxes rhapsodically poetic about the power of language. Komunyakaa’s governor is the Saussurian and Foucaultian variety. He believes in the power of language. In fact, Komunyakaa’s governor would argue that we are linguistically constructed first. And that language is not only a technology but a discipline, a technology for surveillance and the biopolitical. “[T]he tyranny of language” can break tribes before they are “in the womb, before they are conceived.” Komunyakaa speaker’s imagined soliloquy concerning the correlation between language, power, and subjectivity echoes Saussure’s notion that he who masters all of the signs masters the other.

However, what makes Komunyakaa’s governor even more interesting is that Komunyakaa never partitions the governor’s words from the speaker’s words with quotation markers. In other words, it’s as if the speaker of the poem and the governor share not only a similar vocabulary and understanding of language, but they share the same body, the same agency. Why might Komunyakaa perform this type of amalgamation, this grotesquery? I posit that Komunyakaa implicates not only the tyrannical governor in the proliferation of genocides, but he’s also implicating himself and poetry. For Komunyakaa, poetry performs similar speech-acts, similar seductions to that of the State and repressive state apparatuses. Komunyakaa does not see the poet as excused or absolved from the politics of the word. The word is always political. The word, even when used in an aubade, carries with it a slew of history that is very difficult to break from its long citational history. Komunyakaa’s speaker does not merely implicate the citational history of words. He also concomitantly implicates love-making. It, too, is rooted in notions of domination, mastery, and seduction that are always in the shadow, always in conversation with, always haunted by the legacy of words and speech-acts meant to break a "sister from head to feet" and yet do it sweetly. This contradiction is the exact contradiction of entering into and mucking about in the American literary canon.

Originally Published: May 2nd, 2013

Roger Reeves's poems have appeared in journals such as PoetryPloughshares, American Poetry ReviewBoston Review, and Tin House, among others. Kim Addonizio selected “Kletic of Walt Whitman” for the Best New Poets 2009 anthology. He was awarded a 2013 NEA Fellowship, Ruth Lilly Fellowship by the Poetry Foundation in 2008, two Bread Loaf Scholarships, an Alberta H....