Few poets capture the mood of a generation. In Shook Foil, Kwame Dawes, ‘drawing on inspiration as diverse as Derek Walcott, T. S. Eliot and Lorna Goodison,’ attempts to define reggae and the major personality behind the success of the music, Bob Marley. That Dawes chose Marley as the primary subject to explore the dimensions of reggae is no coincidence, for it was Marley who taught my generation how to be Jamaican and Pan-African (as if the two terms were mutually exclusive), how to honor ourselves and others, and finally how to love.

Shook Foil opens with epigrams from G. M. Hopkins’ ‘God’s Grandeur’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Trench Town Rock,’ a signal that Dawes has set himself the task of reconciling the world of St. Augustine (best exemplified by Hopkins) who dubbed the genitals pudenda from the Latin pudere ‘to be ashamed’ and Marley: ‘I’ll push the wood / I’ll blaze your fire / Said I’ll satisfy your heart’s desire.’ (‘Stir It Up’) for he recognizes the conflict in Jamaican culture which was similar to the dilemma of many church-going Christians in New Orleans at the turn of the century - how to be a good Christian and enjoy the honest-to-goodness funk of jazz bubbling up from Bourbon Street.

This conflict between spirituality and sexuality is fully dramatized in ‘Blessed are They Whose Ways are Blameless,’ ‘Some Tentative Definitions VII’, and especially in ‘How Can a Young Man Keep His Way Pure?’ where the speaker laments: ‘I am too young now for middle ground / though I know I will die forever / if brought down when my mind is swamped / with the precepts of my libido. / I seek out purer paths.’ Excluded from Marley’s vision of oneness in Rastafarianism, many of the personae in the poems fear the power of the music: ‘Everything get like water now / the way steady hands / curve round a sweat-smooth waistline, / guiding the rub, the dub, so ready’ (‘Some Tentative Definitions I’). Yet this was at the heart of Marley’s subversive music, for he sought to unify mind and body - a bass line to move the body and lyrics to feed the mind - to make what he called ‘a godly thing’ in his CD ‘Talking Blues’. The speakers ache from the psychic war that plagues Caribbean culture - a result of the twin legacies from religions of the book that fear the body and its passions and religions of the mindful body that fear the atrophy of human passion.

Dawes finds a reconciliation (and rightly so) in ‘Rita.’ In this poem, Rita Marley emerges as an archetypal third world woman: higgler, rude girl, slave mother, and black sister. As a matriarch and seductress, ‘Naughty as hell, talking about feeling damned high,’ he praises her fortitude and strength:

You have
walked the walk well. The pattern is an old one.
I know it now. It’s your time now, daughter.
Ride on, natty dread, ride on my sister, ride on.

By the end of the poem, he has created a portrait of a complete woman who is able to combine worldly and spiritual wisdom while still ‘rolling [her] backside like a teenager.’ ‘Rita’ also contains hints of violence that existed on the fringes of reggae and which moved to the center of the dance hall craze. Behind the sentiments of ‘One love, one heart, / Let’s get together an feel all right’ (‘One Love / People Get Ready’) there lurked a sinister side to reggae: ‘I can tell / those eyes have nodded to home spun executions’ (‘Meeting’). In ‘Some Tentative Definitions XIII’ the ‘knife blade’s edge’ and the concomitant violence of the dance hall are subsumed into ‘the familiar sound of the guitar / chekeh, chekeh, chekeh.’

In the midst of these meditations on death, disease, and dub, there are gems such as ‘Prayer for my Son’: ‘My last prayer spoken / I wait for the bright miracle to flame / in the twilight of peace’ which is simply the prayer of every father who has watched over the bed of a sick child.

Throughout the collection, Dawes captures the many dimensions of reggae from the psalmic to the prophetic that are yet to be explored by other writers and musicians. Reggae remains unparalleled in its ability to absorb other influences and remain true to itself and to capture beauty, pain, and pleasure in a one-drop riddim. Its syncopation suggests a break, a gap - somewhere to fall with the faith that you will be caught - and this is what gives reggae its redemptive value. To really enjoy the music, you must believe. The same could be said of Shook Foil.

Geoffrey Philp
The Caribbean Writer