M. Rivera – Poetics of Survival

« Poetics of Survival »

by Mayra Rivera

In her essay, “Create Dangerously,” Edwidge Danticat recounts the public execution of two young men — Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin — for their participation in a guerrilla war to topple the Douvalier dictatorship. “All artists, writers among them, have several stories — one might call them creation myths — that haunt and obsess them.”[1] The execution is such a story for Danticat. Yet her telling of that story is surrounded by other, more quotidian stories of creativity. At the time of the execution, young people dressed in white sheets to secretly stage Camus’ play, Caligula. Others risked reading and writing potentially subversive books. Their actions may seem superfluous or reckless against the backdrop of political repression and violence. But it was precisely that context that made such acts vital. “They needed art,” Danticat explains, “that could convince them that they would not die…They needed to be convinced that words could still be spoken, that stories could still be told and passed on.”[2] This link between art and survival shapes the works of many of the Caribbean writers who have influenced my own understanding of the term “poetics.” 

In Poetics of the Flesh I described my approach to reading and writing as a “poetics” to allude to analytic sensibilities that might be lost under the term “philosophy,” as it is used in current scholarly writing.Poetics describes a way of engaging texts that is attentive to the specificity of their metaphors and their imaginative dimensions, as well as a form of analysis that acknowledges the affective dimensions of all knowledge. I was particularly interested in creative practices that seek to counter harmful social imaginaries of bodies by imagining andputting into words alternative sensibilities and different possibilities for our bodies—trusting that affirmative words might also become flesh. I focused on poetics as one such practice of giving voice to injuries suffered, challenging received certainties, and conjuring new possibilities.This is “poetics” broadly construed; it refers not only to styles of writing, but also to modes of knowing, being, and acting in the world. 

In this short piece, I will identify key contributions of two Caribbean thinkers—Derek Walcott andÉdouard Glissant—to conceptualize poetics as a crucial element of both religious and political work. They write about the devastating effects of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean, about the detrimental consequences of imaginaries informed by Christianity. But they also seek to articulate possibilities to move beyond those imaginaries. The creative dimensions of “poetics”—as “poiesis,” creative making—pertain not just to works of art, but also of new ways of being. 

In Spite of History

The fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History
(Derek Walcott, “The Antilles”).

The catastrophe of the middle passage and the devastations of colonialism are ever-present in the works of Caribbean writers; the sea is their recurrent image. And to the sea they return, over and over again, as one returns to burial grounds or a sacred site. 

Derek Walcott’s “The Sea Is History,” a poetic retelling of the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, is also a questioning of narratives of History. The spatial movement across the sea is represented as a temporal movement through moments of the Christian story: creation, then exodus, the Babylonian bondage, and so on. But the poem as a whole can also be read as a litany of lament, where the events are hardly contained in the past. The allusions to the Christian narrativedo not sacralize the middle passage. To the contrary, the comparison makes evident the chasm between the salvation story and the history of the Caribbean. The poem opens with a common themein claimsof cultural superiority:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory?

To which the poet gives an unusual response: 

in that great vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

“The sea is History,” is hardly as simple as it seems. Forcan pointing to monuments locked in the sea be a satisfying answer for those challenging a group to produce evidence of their legitimacy? Indeed, as the poem progresses, as the poet searches event after event, he keeps failing to find History. 

The journey begins with creation — evoking both the initial chaos and light that appears at the very beginning of the Bible. But this particular creation is a preamble to destruction.

First was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of the tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
The story continues to unfold in this way, piling misery upon misery.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning;
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.

The biblical language evokes the expectation of liberation; the sea tells a story of desolation.Even as the ocean keeps looking for History, it finds realities that can only deny it. “Bones ground by windmills/ into marl and cornmeal…that was just Lamentations/it was not History.” Emancipation: jubilation “vanishing swiftly … was not History, that was only faith.” 

History may begin—an ambiguous outcome barely hinted at—at the end of the poem. After “each rock broke into its own nation,” “there was the sound/like a rumor without echo/of History, really beginning.” It is not an echo of Europe transplanted to the Caribbean, it is not done and closed off, but rather something about to be created.

Walcott’s masterful poem deserves a slower, more detailed engagement than I can offer here. I can simply raise it as an example of the role of the sea as a site of reckoning with the past. In this case, the poet’s return to the sea is also a challenge to the assumed genres for representing the past. Questioning History allows other forms of narrating the past to become visible: Lamentations, faith. And this in turn illuminates the interpretation of Christian tropes. Reading the Biblical stories poetically accentuates their affective dimensions and brings them to bear on the particularity of a people’s past, the specificities of the region’s geography, the changing contours of their memory.

In another context, Walcott criticizes “servitude to the muse of history,” for it produces a literature of despair or remorse.But despair would be a betrayal of the past; it would amount to constituting oneself as superior to those ancestors whose collective existence depended on creating themselves anew. “Antillean art,” Walcott argues,is the“restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary.” “The Sea Is History” gathers fragments of history and shards of Christian vocabulary for artistic creation. Its return to the sea is a lament—and it is also faith in the possibilities of something new emerging at the edge of the sea. The poem itself is a beginning.

Prophetic Visions of the Past

For those whose history has been reduced to darkness and despair,
the recovery of the near or distant past is imperative.
To renew acquaintances with one’s history, obscured or obliterated by others,
is to relish fully the present… This is a poetic endeavor
(Édouard Glissant, Monsieur Toussaint).

Édouard Glissant returns to the sea often. His celebrated Poetics of Relation begins with “The Open Boat,” a poetic reflection on the slaveship as both abyss and womb of Caribbean peoples. The book, like the story it tells, begins with devastation. Like Walcott, Glissant imagines the terrifying voyage from Africa to the Caribbean. Glissant describes the voyage as a series of abysses: the boat, the sea, the unknown land. “The Open Boat” tells the story of “a debasement more eternal than apocalypse”that is also the beginning.

The loss is immense enough when considered from the perspective of death: “This boat: pregnant with as many dead as living under the sentence of death.”[3] That would be enough to regard it as an abyss.[4] But Glissant imagines also its more mundane dimensions—what it would feel like to arrive at an unknown island, “feeling a language vanish, the word of the gods vanish, and the sealed image of even the most everyday object, of even the most familiar animal, vanish. The evanescent taste of what you ate.”[5]They lost their world, which now lives only in memory and imagination. The memories of the dreadful voyage are preserved in the depths of the sea—written with the balls and chains that weighted down those thrown overboard. In the shore, the sea gives way to the beginning, “but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.”[6] The birth of the Caribbean is tied to the abyss of the middle passage, as the life of its people is bound to the sea.

The work of this poetics starts with a recognition of the immensity of loss, withthe unspeakable, with that cry. In a book of poetry dedicated “to the sea,” Glissant reflects on the task of the storyteller. “He does not offer his voice to those it pleases, those who are elated by them; but to bodies burned by time.”[7] His words are an offering. And the offering transforms him, he “is completed by his song, it recommences him.” Once again, the description of the poetic task troubles any linear sense of History, for storytelling, the word, recommences the one who carefully speaks it. He is reborn. “He sees the initial sea foam… History, waiting.”[8]

The image of words as offering appears also in Poetic Intention, where Glissant asks, “What then is language? This cry that I elected? Not only the cry, but absence beating in the cry.”[9] The allusions to an “absence beating in the cry” suggest an internal link between the past and present, between those who write and those whose lives were silenced. Glissant continues,

And it is to this absence this silence and this involution that I bind
in my throat my language, which thus begins with a lack:
And my language, rigid and dark or alive or strained is that lack
first, then the will to slough the cry into speech before the sea.[10]

The relation to the past is one of both necessity and responsibility. I see it as a religious duty, inspired by the etymological root of religion in Latin, “religare,” to bind.And indeed, this commitment to poetics takes the aura of religious dedication throughout the writings of both Walcott and Glissant—even when they are most critical of received Christian teaching.[11]

There is no possibility of recuperating what was lost, but the stories of the past illuminate the present and provide resources for the creation of new forms of life. They can be, Glissant states, “prophetic visions of the past.”

Narrating the past does not mean tracing a genealogy in order to legitimize territorial claims based on lineage. The wreckage of the Middle Passage stands as a reminder of the impossibility of such a project. More importantly, a Caribbean notion of belonging cannot be based on the same ideals that led to this destruction: lineage as “entitlement to the possession of the land, which thus becomes a territory.” Religious epics, like nationalist Histories, assume and disseminate views of belonging based on a common origin or filiation. Those religious epics need to be replaced with different forms of “sacred” writing, which Glissant says will be a “poetics of relation.” 

This is not simply a matter of the content of such narratives; it also pertainsto genres of writing. Academic modes of History, including of History of religions or of theology, can replicate in their style the traits of such totalizing stories, with their singular point origin, boundary-setting depictions, clear lines of progression from past to future, their absence of shadows. In contrast, poetic modes of writing keep visible the silences, absences, undecidability, and gaps of history; they attend to the specificity of word and place.


Survival is the triumph of stubbornness, and spiritual stubbornness, a sublime stupidity, is what makes the occupation of poetry endure
(Derek Walcott, “The Antilles”).

Caribbean poetics wrestles with the horrors that have marked its history — as a form of rebellion against injustice and a practice of self-transformation.The critical dimension of this poetics is perhaps the best-known aspect of these works, consonant with postcolonial discourses. Their insistence on the possibilities for new being — including the ethical and even sacred dimensions of that endeavor are not commonly noted. It is this element that I want to emphasize here, because I find their refusal of despair socially and religiously vital.The practice of poetics is kind of stubborn faith: a refusal of despair, a commitment to love the world — in spite of history.

[1] Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, 5.

[2] Danticat, Create Dangerously, 8.

[3] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of RelationTranslated by Betsy Wing.  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997, 6.

[4] For an analysis of the theological significance of Glissant’s abyss metaphor see An Yountae, The Decolonial Abyss: Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

[5] Glissant, Poetics of Relation 7.

[6] Glissant, Poetics of Relation 6.

[7] Glissant, “Black Salt,” in The Collected Poems of Édouard Glissant, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005,103.

[8] Glissant, “Black Salt,” 103.

[9] Glissant, Poetic Intention, translated by Nathalie Stephens, Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 37.

[10] Glissant, Poetic Intention, 38, Italics mine.

[11] Walcott describes his poetry as prayer. Walcott, “The Art of Poetry,” Paris Review No. 37.

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