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Prophets

Written by Sudeep Sen for World Literature Today on no date provided

Prophets is Kwame Dawes’ third book of poems in the space of just a couple of years. His first two collections, Progeny of Air and Resisting the Anomie, explored in various ways the issues of race, gender, patriarchy, sexuality, growing up, religion, music, the Caribbean landscape and the act of writing itself. The new book picks up on many of these elements in an ambitious sweep and attempts to push their core even further.

Structurally we had seen in Dawes’ earlier work, his fascination with the multiples of ‘two’ and ‘three’. Here in Prophets, the entire book is written in ‘tercets’, in ‘four’ parts that are composed of ‘twenty-eight’ chapters (that include within its folds further sub-divisions). All this is important to the overall patina, because much of what he conveys is thought through very well, employing the ordered sanctity of the Christian faith and the earthy rhythm of the reggae strains. He uses aspects of prosody - its pauses, blips, trills, depths, breaks - to eventually form a garland that is constructed with a sense of purpose and plan. Not only does he do so intellectually, but more important, equally convincingly at the level of sentimentality and emotion. And it is this combination that provides the basis and solidity that enables Dawes to sustain a narrative through its various loops and twists, characterisation and plot, shifting landscape and ethos. In fact, it is a sort of book that could easily occupy the fiction shelves in the bookstores rather than poetry because of its novel-in-verse construction as well as for its fish-eye panorama. But purely speaking, it should be indexed under poetry, because that is where its soul belongs.

As in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, in Dawes’ Prophets there too is tension between religiosity and passion, a composite yin-yang structure that suggests much more than mere duality, alluding to the important but under-stated area of finely controlled grey scales where most of life eventually enacts itself. However, the two polarities act as crucial nodal points that stretch the acts of faith and belief, song and celebration, victory and defeat. These aspects are most openly evident in the concluding section of the book, where a declamatory tone is employed. See for example, the opening three stanzas of ‘Flight’ in Chapter XXVIII:

And when I die, I will fly. What promises you have for me?
Call it a bargain basement faith, but I have to find
something what can fit my broad hip and match my

complexion. What have you for me? When I die
my pains will be no more; I will touch clouds
damp with next week’s storm, over

cedars and pines, above the smooth green
thighs of the Blue Mountains and, when I dip like a bucket,
the water from the rock will be cool blue.

Dawes fuses charisma and comment, imagination and documentary, invoking elements from the genre of popular culture, sub-culture, Jamaican ethos and song, effectively and lyrically. The aspects of lyricism and song are crucial to the carriage of the book’s narrative. Song works in multiple ways - as praise, as penance, as pursuant of peace, as provider of pleasure. Song is also rhythm, and rhythm is reggae - indigenous, pure, full of bass resonance - which quietly provides not only a chorus leit-motif but also the syllabic markers that anchor the overall scale and story. Clarice and Thalbot who play the role of the protagonists of this arching operatic tale are dextrously cast.

Kwame Dawes’ Prophets may elicit comparisons with ‘novels-in-verse’ or ‘poems-as-narrative novel’, especially with works such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie, or even King James’ version of The Bible. If comparisons have to be made, they ought to be done setting one thing absolutely clear, that here is one writer who writes out of his own tissue, with intelligence, originality, and passion, employing his very own idiom. If there are influences, then the most likely tints of the spectrum would include Walcott, Bob Marley, Christianity, colonialism, but all of these obliquely and indirectly. Prophets is a major book, a feast of spontaneity set in a serious framework. It is a narrative poem of sheer power, contemporaneity, and hope; one that is full of beauty, sadness, wisdom, and true humanism.

This song has lamented like a spoilt child,
yet how can I turn from these miracles
without tears of thanksgiving in my eye?

I write these poems with trepidation,
as if this tantrum might bring down the wrath
of the Almighty. But the prophets no longer groan

through the stinking city. Their feet skip on the mountains.
The cleansed are dancing on the hill’s broken path.
Now there is laughter and belief in the mornings.

The concluding three stanzas from the book, quoted above, reveal not just honest optimism and belief in the future, but I really truly believe that unerringly they contain couched clues, an indication, a prophecy of the vitality and genius of a highly accomplished young poet’s formidable future.

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