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Jacko Jacobus

Written by Peter Nazareth for World Literature Today on no date provided

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962, his mother being Ghanaian, and moved to Jamaica in 1971. His father was a famous writer and a hard act to follow, but Kwame has done so, now publishing his fifth volume of poetry. He is heir to a double tradition, but it is really one, because Anansi, the Trickster spider of Jamaica, came from Ghana with the kidnapped Africans. The Trickster plays an important part in the story of Jacko Jacobus, from his departure for the U.S. to his return, and in adventure along the way.

The adventure is simultaneously one of language. In the second poem the poet says, ‘Before these poems, there was not much, / just scraps of thought and deep envy / of the giants of colonial verse / forming their twilight words so sweetly. / But the occasion asks for a celebration song, / while the curry and rice still flows, / and soberness hangs by a thread, / as the bass pumps out in the dancehall.’ His solution is to invent a two-line verse form, one that is very flexible, for not only does he make references to reggae and Rastafarians in the work but one can also hear the music in the lines.

What Dawes does at first sight seems esthetically reactionary, given Walcott’s successful ‘rewriting’ of the Greeks: he returns to the Bible as his frame of reference. But the Bible has roots in Jamaica and lends itself to reconstruction, as one learns from Rastafarians. Dawes takes the story of Jacob and Esau and reworks it as Jacko Jacobus and Eric. Instead of the father figure, there is the mother. Jacko goes to the U.S. to join his maternal uncle and seek his fortune by selling drugs. He has sexual experiences, intending to marry one of his cousins, Rachel, but impregnating (and therefore having to marry) the other, Leah. He later marries Rachel, who dies in childbirth. His daughter Dinah is raped by an upper-class (Syrian) boy in Jamaica, but the family, Trickster-like, takes its revenge.

So what is happening in this ‘biographical-political-erotical epic’ - to use the designation of Kamau Brathwaite - in which it seems that the protagonist never rises? Dawes is stirring ‘the darkness / of these defeated descendants of slaves,’ giving voice to and celebrating what otherwise might be seen as mindless defeat, celebrating survival in the face of historical odds and preparation for the next round: ‘It is for no other reason but this one / overreaching truth, that all things must be said / at least once - spoken and then tugged / dancing in the wind, before cutting the string, / letting the thought go to the bluest of skies, then gone forever - the spoken unspoken’.

Kwame Dawes has drawn from the Bible in his own way. His ‘hero’ moves from being a pusher in the U.S. to a seller of condoms and Hustler magazine back in Jamaica. Still, he survives, and so does the young poet, for ‘Every creator is a trickster.’ There is a moral point of view in the poem/novel, but it is not a conventional one.

This is a review of Jacko Jacobus

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