Sunday, April 22, 2007

Brathwaite's "The Zea Mexican Diary"

My first Brathwaite read, The Zea Mexican Diary records the author's responses to the death of his wife from cancer. The diary includes "nine extracts from a diary Kamau Brathwaite started when he learned that his wife was terminally ill, nine extracts from letters he wrote to his sister Mary Morgan in an attempt to open lines of communication across the breach created by Doris's suffering and death, a statement written by the author on the night of her death and read at her Thanksgiving service by Edward Baugh, and a letter written by Ayama, which is interwoven with the author's meditations on the words and the Thanksgiving service that ocassioed them" (Foreword, by Sandra Pouchet Paquet).

Doris Monica seemed to have given her life to supporting Brathwaite's scholarship and poetry. Before she died, she completed a bibliography of B's works, and B was editing that bibliography on the night of her death, and so was absent from the end. In the most moving section of the book, titled Middle Passages, B wrote of his editing work in the days leading up to her death:

-and my working on this Bib became my life - kind of - not only because I had promised her, but because it was her work & therefore her life that I was dealing with esp since it was her life dealing with my life - if you see what I mean - and the routine of doing it & checking it etc etc etc became like a steadying creative effort for me (a loveline lifeline) & I began to tell myself that as long as I was doing this - for her - she wdn't - cdn't - somehow - die - [the first time I was perhaps consciously using the word] - & I had just I suspect dotted the last i of it that night - when she died - w/ the computer room in darkness xcept for the old black anglepoise & no clock in the room up there

At a number of points in the book, B defended himself against the charge of relatives and critics that he accepted too readily this self-immolation on Doris' part. His defense was that Doris chose this way willingly; she believed in the value of his writing, and so, it was implied, the value of her support for him. The book records B's articulate appreciation for Doris' support but gives little sense of what Doris had to sacrifice.

The most poignant moment of Middle Passages comes in Section 7. I have not tried to copy B's use of full alignment and delicate font to give a sense of the unreality of the scene.

[i went in several times – kept going in & going back out again & again –
crushed & reduced like something in a fist – like something in a fist of sp-
ace i walked upon – no hard – no smooth – no earth – no Mary’s wooden floor…

…(on) my naked feet/ i feel the clicks the stones the thorns the plimplar & the weed
(s) cutting me & catching at me as i toil & toil towards her w/out moving as
she moves/ as i move forward as she does not move & so is near & dear & dis

tant as my sister’s candle & its shadows that like softly wash her face w/ ripp
le fingers/ & in my knuckle hands/ gripped in my empty fist this iron bar of
cold & guilt of being absent from this place when she was present in it/ pass
from it needing/ calling out for absent me that never now & ever was her

love her lover…

The "iron bar" metaphor is unexpected, and gives the scene an uneasy menace, not to the dead for the dead is beyond danger, but the menace of grief and guilt to oneself. The objectification (in that iron bar) of the self-centered emotions saves the emotions from being self-centered.


Greg said...
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Greg said...

I appreciate your reading of the "iron bar" metaphor. To me your account of how it works in the passage makes sense & suggests hopeful possibilities of people distancing themselves inwardly from selfish grief--possibilities that unfortunately are often overlooked with the result that people marinate in dead-end grief & half-die.

monkey said...

Jee Leong, thanks for an interesting post.

This is going off on a tangent, but Marjorie Williams, a Washington Post columnist who died of cancer, continued writing while she was sick, and after her death, her husband Timothy Noah (who writes for Slate) edited a collection of her writing, The Woman at the Washington Zoo. I haven't read the book, but I read one of her columns that touched on her experience as a cancer patient, and I think she was a wonderful writer.

Jee Leong Koh said...

the search for the exact expression for inexpressible feelings can be healing. Discovery is not so far away from recovery, impossible though the latter may seem at the point of experience.

thanks for the interesting recommendation. You add to the usefulness of this blog.

Greg said...

Yes Jee Leong, that makes sense to me & you put it so well. It's important to keep in mind how feelings we try to express nonetheless remain inexpressible, while at the same time our tries at apt expression can heal. As I think about it I realize that those 2 sentences of yours relate to so much of what I care about and want to do with my life - wow. The sense of recognition I have reading & considering your words is satisfying; thank you.

Jee Leong Koh said...

just call me Dr. Heart.