cover image Ancestors


Kamau Brathwaite. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $22.95 (473pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1448-3

A number of august poet and scholar Brathwaite's recent books of poetry contain substantial revisions of earlier works; this 20th collection is the latest and most compelling of them, collecting in one volume a trilogy--Mother Poem, Sun Poem and X/Self--first published by Oxford University Press between 1977 and 1987. Mother Poem depicts familial and social life in Barbados, while Sun Poem focuses on a father and the growth of a young son, and X/Self posits its mature subject within a larger history that reaches at least as far back to the time when ""Rome burns/ & our slavery begins."" Ancestors recasts all three books by stressing as strongly as possible the spoken aspects of the text (thereby allowing regional and local dialects to threaten the homogenizing tendencies of ""proper"" English), cladding them in jagged breaks, computerized glyphs, ""Sycorax video style"" type, extended puns and unorthodox spellings: ""cause no bright/ man cyaaan be// faddah to faddah to faddah/ to sun// if e nevvah get chance/ to the son// light."" Extensive passages describe boys fighting, men fishing, women cleaning and adolescents flirting, but at the same time Brathwaite sketches a vast, economically determined history encompassing the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and the Middle East--as if the shadows of Prospero, Caliban and Miranda extended from the plantation (a frequent setting) across the globe, fiercely throwing exploitation, misery, loneliness, joy, celebration, dignity and humanity into bold, intensely detailed relief. (Feb. 27) Forecast: Derek Walcott and Jamaica Kincaid may get all the press, but Brathwaite is one of the most significant Caribbean-born writers of the 20th century and is recognized as such by academia if not by trade readers. This book will find its way onto varied syllabi and into countless university libraries; smaller poetry collections may want to make the shorter Middle Passages their one Brathwaite.