“I and I”
My six-foot-one, two-twenty-pound frame
mixes two skin tones and matches my brown eyes.
My knotted black hair and broad nose came
from my mother, and her pouted lips, and, yes,
her stubbornness. But I have my father’s pink gums,
a grip that crushes walnuts, a swipe that catches flies,
and his big hands and all the benefits thereof;
things that a gentleman would not show off,
nudge nudge, wink wink. From my time to theirs
I climb a library ladder and reach for a top shelf,
or I dig deep so that our times become stairs
laced with cobweb that lead down into the self.
I am the very history that lives unawares,
or better still that thrives on blood and flesh,
both in and through me, therefore I look inside
into a well, and there’s the sky trying to hide.
My parents met when my mother was a slave.
My father did not own her, she belonged
to a neighbour. He was the type who craved
something even though he had lots cloned
from it; the fact is Mother had to be brave
once she’d caught his eye, or risk a prolonged
game of hide-and-seek with one or other
of her admirers jumping in to save her;
‘Stay away from those niggers, they’re dirty.’
‘Yes Father, I promise, you have my word.’
‘You undermined Overseer’s authority,’
‘Sorry Father, but you should have heard . . .’
‘Don’t give me any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ Christy.’
‘Yes, I mean no Father. For the third
time, forgive me. I am your flesh and blood.
Not one of your slaves or hired hoods.’
‘My son, the very thing I feared you’d do
you’ve gone and done. You’ve fallen in love
with one when all you were supposed to do
was (take) as many as you liked, not love.’
Father, everything you say is true,
except the dirty part. Negroes love
like us and fuss like us and wash same
as us. That’s why I’m proud to take the blame.’
Picture those two if you can, arm-in-arm,
master and slave, somewhere in the middle South,
a white man and a black woman; alarm
bells sounding everywhere on their route.
Two products of two slave owning farms
miraculously finding their way out
together. Picture them while you can
at their most intimate, most triumphant.
Fred D’Aguiar, from Bloodlines
Fred D’Aguiar’s Bloodlines (London, Chatto and Windus, 2000) is one of his experiments in writing and yet another of his works preoccupied with slavery and post-colonialism. D’Aguiar calls it a novel in verse, telling a story in poetry this time, that he was already telling in prose fiction. Truly, however, Bloodlines is a long poem narrated by its hero, whose parents were the young son of a white planter and an enslaved girl from a neighbouring plantation.
It tells a tale of slavery, with its accompanying racism, cruelty, inhumanity and violence – a tale D’Aguiar tells in a number of different works. Yet, it is a love story, because departing a little bit from the usual plot of rape and conquest, it narrates what turns out to be the courage and sacrifice of two who dare to fall in love against all the odds, confounding the racial and class barriers, and shocking the people of the time.
It is 1861 in the Confederate States of America, where D’Aguiar seems to prefer to go for his ‘novels’ of slavery instead of the Caribbean, the chosen setting of his contemporaries like David Dabydeen and Caryl Phillips. His setting is the land of the worst – the American South, perhaps to go straight into the jaws of the hungriest, the most voracious environment for racist cruelty and inhumanity. D’Aguiar has other works set there.
His first novel was The Longest Memory (1994), which won the Guyana Prize for the Best First Book of Fiction 1994. It also won the Whitbread Prize for a First Novel. Thus, he started his career as a novelist with a tragic love story – of a black boy and a white girl who taught him to read and inspired him with dreams of freedom. He was to escape from slavery and then she would join him in the North of the USA where they could live unmolested. It is clear, then, that D’Aguiar had this multi-racial dilemma on his consciousness from that time and expanded upon it in Bloodlines.
Then there was Feeding The Ghosts (1998) which moved to the African continent to pick up the saga from there to the loading of slave ships bound for America. Much of the action takes place aboard ship as the slaver made its way across the treacherous Middle Passage. Then there are the repercussions of that horrifying experience in what took place afterwards on land in the USA.
When we come to Bloodlines, we than begin to see another side of Fred D’Aguiar’s preoccupation with slavery and mixed race romance. This may be betrayed somewhat by his chosen title for the poem, because there is the suggestion of autobiographical interests or influence. D’Aguiar is mixed race – African and European, and very much like Derek Walcott, makes a major artistic issue of his mixed ancestry.
The first few stanzas of the long poem read very much like autobiography as they could well be describing the poet himself before the work becomes heavily fictionalized and the plot develops in 1861, almost exactly 100 years before D’Aguiar was born (1960). Calling it “bloodlines” may be a way of indicating the historical lineage of the contemporary society, faintly echoing Walcott’s “divided to the vein”. D’Aguiar takes it back to the horrors of slavery and what might have survived those experiences. Bear in mind, the poem is a first-person narrative with a beginning that is not fixed in time. The exact date, place and setting fades in as the narration develops.
D’Aguiar sky-rocketed into the world of literature with an integrated collection or sequence of poems titled Mama Dot. That work was his first published book and it won him the Guyana Prize for Best Book of Poetry 1987, and so virtually launched his career as a poet. Its main voice and sometimes persona was Mama Dot, a village woman in Airy Hall in rural Guyana where D’Aguiar grew up. It satirises Guyana in the Burnham era in a series of poems. He did this again in a later novel Dear Death set in both Airy Hall and London, giving the most pointed pictures of Guyana’s former president with sharp satirical humour.
Another novel, Bethany Bettany, has much the same setting as the novelist revisits his experiences of growing up in British Guiana and uses the setting for his thematic explorations. Other collections of poetry do the same. One of them is Airy Hall, immortalising the village where he once lived, and following on from Mama Dot.
So that, here we have a writer who is much given to satire and humour, also being preoccupied with the tragic, drawn from Caribbean history. What is significant is the way he plays upon the possibility that love, compassion, caring and a willingness to render humane assistance can actually rise out of the ugly setting of slavery and its history.