Lasana Sekou – “Placing St. Martin clearly in the centre of Caribbean poetics”

by Margaret Shrimpton Masson, Ph.D.

Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Mexico

Pelican Heart/Corazón de Pelícano, bilingual book of poems of Lasana M. Sekou, edited by Emilio Jorge Rodríguez

Pelican Heart is a noteworthy volume, for several reasons: first, it is an important anthology of one of the most significant voices of the Caribbean today. Second, Emilio Jorge Rodríguez has produced a bilingual edition (Spanish/English) of the poetry from 1978-2010, thus enabling this poetic voice to reach across the Caribbean region, and particularly to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Furthermore, Emilio Jorge Rodríguez’ critical edition is an excellent contribution to Caribbean literary studies, placing Sekou and St. Martin clearly in the centre of Caribbean poetics; and finally, because this anthology also opens a window to Lasana Sekou’s (and House of Nehesi’s) remarkable editorial project. Here we can find important lessons for developing multilingual and intercultural education and cultural agendas in the Caribbean.

If we approach the Caribbean from a comparative perspective the many intertwining links and bridge-like elements reveal themselves as overlapping sea-waves, or as intricate coral slabs: the “repeating island” (Benítez-Rojo), the islands of calypso (Brathwaite), the bridges of rhythm extending from Yucatán to Guyana (Wilson Harris), the submarine unity (Brathwaite, again), and Glissant’s rhizome, visualized in the complexity of our mangroves and seascapes. St. Martin, with a population drawn from almost every corner of the region becomes a telling paradigm of “the one-and-many-Caribbean” a laboratory of Caribbean multiplicity, where we find that we live our identities and our everyday experiences as overlapping layers, in constant motion and flux.

The introductory study, notes and glossary written for this edition by Emilio Jorge Rodriguez (independent scholar, Cuba) have represented a journey in itself, a journey of dialogues across the region, one that Rodríguez points to in the introduction: “Dialogue with Caribbean literature, culture and history, past or present, is inherent to the production of this author” (p. 223); and he continues, pointing to the “intertextual conversation” that dialogues, verse to verse with Sekou’s poetry, and with a wide range of Caribbean writers and intellectuals. If we glance only at the glossary that Rodríguez includes in the edition, the reader can participate in a network of densely woven conversations. Sekou’s poetry takes us to a reliving of the histories of the leaders of slave rebellions across the region; we hear the voices and actions of those who struggle for freedom and human rights; we hear the tales of the trauma of the Middle Passage, repeating the names of the slave ships, names whose echo deafens us now, as they are juxtaposed with the names of tourist cruise ships, the new Caribbean plantation (see “boats” in Mothernation). And it is also an intertextual conversation weaving a literary dialogue across the region, and placing Sekou within an important Caribbean canon: Césaire, Guillén, Louise Bennett, Lamming, Brathwaite, Marion Bethel; with artists, and above all with musicians, adding a further dimension to these conversations, Mighty Sparrow, Chalkdust, Bratish Emperor, Kassav. In search of a single word, a term to explain this poetic voice, Rodríguez turns to music, and borrows “fusion.”

It is important to dwell here on “fusion,” as it is this concept that leads us to the three principal themes running through the anthology: histories (plural); oral traditions; and identity/home. Storytelling, the recovering of memory, through the beating of the repeating drum in this poetic anthology, that sounds and echoes with voice, orality, noise, music, song: this anthology is performative, dramatic and sonorous. Furthermore, it is here that history and orality come together to construct the idea of belonging, of identity and of home. In Lasana Sekou’s poetry, orality is both form and content: sound, sonority, voice, calypso, rhythm, are vital poetic strategies: but they are also the profound message of cultural identity that he strives to transmit, as we observe in Quimbé: poetics of sound, in many sections of Born Here, and in Nativity.

Dr. Margaret Shrimpton Masson, Mexico

Although the intertextual and interspacial references in Sekou’s poetry take us journeying through the area, there is always a point of return, a focal point and this is St. Martin, the island-space. The titles of each collection place us here: Born Here, Nativity, Mothernation, The Salt Reaper (referring to the salt beds of St. Martin). In the style of Cortazar’s Rayuela, Lasana builds up his centre – his island, his mothernation, his nativity – from the stories of the other islands and other struggles. He jumps from shore to centre, rebuilding history, for the simple reason that the history of St. Martin is ignored in official texts; the history of the plantation, the exploitation of salt, the history of the ancestors, tales of migration within and without the island are just not there. Sekou’s histories, therefore, come together as a collage, as a jigsaw puzzle of narrations, histories, tales and conversations. Lasana draws attention to what Lamming denominates “the terror of the mind,” the colonization of mentality, that leads to the erosion of memory, to negation.

In this anthology Lasana initiates the recovery of memory, turning to the oral histories to rebuild the past and understand the present: “It was pain/in this labor among saline blades/cutting into our blood/to reap pyramids of salt” (Sekou, 2010: 363). In Salt Reaper Lasana portrays the abandonment of the salt beds, today turned into rubbish dumps. Government officials ignore the past and look at the salt beds and just shout: “Blah, blah, blaaaah” (Sekou, 2010: 387). In Salt Reaper the production of salt is the double edged trauma of the plantation and the source of cultural resistance and creativity: the salt of the land, the salt that cures wounds, the crib of the nation: “There will be no love poems tonight/only sweaty words/pond salt rhymes/calloused complaints from people’s voices/oral, alive, a salve, conscious, lyrics/to rub on each other’s bruised, whipped backs/to vent out the vex self/to combat it) to splice it)/to gut the truth from the intestines of misrule (“No love poems,” Sekou, 2010: 378).  Characteristically, here protest joins with memory for the painful recovery of a history. Sekou comments in an interview that “salt reaping” I and II (Salt Reaper, 2004:56-57) are inspired by conversations held with a woman from the village who still recalls the days of salt production, and so thus, in “The great salt pond speaks,” the first verse reads: “I come from creation. Teeming with life […] In me, you came to speak to each other of pain/of love, of freedom, of union” (“Great salt pond speaks,” Sekou, 2010: 385).

This anthology, so carefully selected by Emilio Jorge Rodríguez and with excellent translation to Spanish by María Teresa Ortega, enables us to place Lasana Sekou within a Caribbean literary tradition that sets the standards for a corpus that is constantly evolving. At the heart of this anthology, both as a central theme in the social history of St. Martin and also as literary trope, is the journey: as historical and every day experience and as rhetorical figure to construct a Caribbean aesthetics. The journey is interiorized as the poetic pathway to understanding the transmission of cultural and identity as Sekou’s personal quest – his personal ethics, as Rodríguez comments. This road is clear in Nativity, as the subsections of the volume start with a work ethos “culture is work,” then, “culture is born here,” and continue becoming more dynamic “Culture is marronage,” “culture is borning change,”  “culture is journey,” “culture winds. Winds us culturewise”; to reach the point of identification:  “Culture is Self,” “culture is solidarity” and to finally conclude with: “Journey journey/This is my journey/What are we?/Journey journey” (Sekou, 341).

In Sovereignty of the Imagination, Lamming asks: “Where is Home; and where does it begin?” (Lamming, 2009: 69). In this marvelous anthology compiled by Emilio Jorge Rodríguez, Lasana M. Sekou, provides us with an answer, from the heart of the Caribbean, offering us a poetics in motion, that overflows into all the corners of the region, and at the same time penetrates its roots deep within. Each story is unique; each tale is solidarity; each one is “Beloved nation family” (Sekou, 2010: 271); each is struggle, each is freedom.

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Dr. Margarita Espinosa Blas (Univ. Querétaro) launched Pelican Heart /Corazón de Pelícano, the bilingual edition of poems of Lasana M. Sekou at the meeting of the Mexican Association of Caribbean Studies (AMEC), Mexico City, Mexico, 11 Nov 2010. The presentation, entitled “‘So we be moving’ – The Caribbean: poetics in motion,” was written by Dr. Margaret Shrimpton (Univ. Autónoma de Yucatán) who was unable to attend the meeting. The above summary of Dr. Shrimpton’s text was read during the AMEC meeting at the 10th annual Conference of the Caribbean Book / X Jornadas del Libro Caribeño, AMEC, 11-12 Nov 2010, DEH/INAH, Tlalpan, Mexico, DF. Pelican Heart / Corazón de pelícano is available at Van Dorp and Arnia’s bookstores, www.amazon.com, and www.spdbooks.org.
Photo caption1: Dr. Margaret Shrimpton Masson, Mexico

Photo caption2: Pelican Heart/Corazón de Pelícano, bilingual book of poems of Lasana M. Sekou, edited by Emilio Jorge Rodríguez

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