Offerings to Eternity, Longing of Remembrance

February 2018

Kamau Brathwaite, Liviticus (Phillipsburg, St. Martin: House of Nehesi, 2017); 28 pages; ISBN 978-09962243239 (paperback)

Baba Fururu erereo oba kañene eleyibo
Elerifa obate bas awo eyibore batibawo
Enu aye yawaro eyawararo elese okan.
Baba Fururu chant to Obatalá

Kamau Brathwaite, one of the canonical voices of Caribbean literature, takes us, in his poetics of lynching, to a past full of present. Liviticus, a small compilation of nineteen poems, portrays the persistence of violence against the black body from a modern perspective. Social media enters to encourage a rumination of existing forms of dehumanization. However, Brathwaite, as he has done throughout his work, always resists invisibility—an act that functions as a wake-up call and as an infinite poetic bet to oppose oblivion.

The collection inspires a bittersweet hope from the very first poem: “is like a groundshogsday . a death by fiery way / comb-harps play round me here and lamentation tears thresh syllables of sparks / the Saul man saws my spine . let me speak spikes of salutation to the stars” (2). The ancestral reverence toward the stars witnessing execution make of this and the rest of the poems an ebo in times of modernity. An ebo has various ways of presenting itself: it is a type of sacrificial offering that comes from divination. The body in these poems is a living oblation that resists invisibility while spilling blood from wounds and groans of pain—always feeding a past constantly repeating itself.

In this case, it seems that Obatalá, the orisha who creates the human body and the world, is receiving the offering. The direct connection with this deity follows the ancestral dialogue Brathwaite made possible through his previous poetry collection Elegguas (2010), work in which he experimented with the intermedial/intermediate state between life and death.[1] In the third segment of Liviticus, “obatalá,” we find a vivid transmutation, another redemption song:

To tears yr face off flat like that when it is ready

to scream obscenities out into the chaos
to find yrself at last hurled into the waste of the Word
ijs white cloth becoming the world (9)

In addition, the immolation of the body whose hope lies in the clarity that only Obatalá gives reveals itself through playing with what has been known as Brathwaite’s “nation language,” an innovative linguistic and typographic system that opposes the term dialect, the latter being a limiting concept.[2] This is evident not only in the phraseology of “yr” or “yrself” but also in “Facebook,” the eighth part of this collection and perhaps the most thought-provoking of this work. The cry into the world shows us a voice that claims a space on social media to record its own stories:

if there is anyone out there in the universe
or comfort or doctor or kindness
let me know
let me into the curl of yr verse
and click
and click
know (20)

The poetic voice goes deeper into the request:

or if there is someone nearer or farther
away who might hear this on their radio or the cellophones of their eyes
or be told even by accident
and can say or sing or spare me some coursel of comfort or command
who can share to me or my Mother their charred calabaskets of vision and flame
let me
know (21)

The “strange distance of pain” encounters a solution, even if illusory, through making the cyber world a portal of apparent emancipation. The web in this specific poem is an alternative path to marronage, thus making evident an unapologetic legitimization of an unlocked memory. In the poet’s imploration, cynical at times, the power to transcend the limits of tangibility is performed in the dawn of modernity, making endless places of enunciation possible. By doing this, it is clear that the lynching is still lived, and embodied, in several ways.

The title of this review references the poem that closes the collection; it is an allusion to the burnt offerings made in the bronze altars of the Book of Leviticus. Accompanied by an image of a tree, the stanzas carry the weight of narrating the dead. The act of voicing their shattered existence in the world consummates the spiritual sense of the collection: “After they had lunch. they launch the lynch / into my soul. burn all my books. all that i thought i was. my black flesh back to fiery >> hellth” (23).

According to Regla de Ocha (Santería), once you die, your soul is bound to become an ebo. The ancestral forces and your religious community will break any ties with your physical self and will carry you into the realm of the spirit in order to make you transcend into a new dimension; your evolved body will feed eternity and will come back to earthly life through your descendants after you, and your enlightened soul embraces the clarity given to you by Obatalá, who also had created the flesh you lived in. Consequent with the narration of the stories of the dead, the poetic voice aspires to achieve a level of permanence, transforming every word into an effort of not dying in vain: “th(e) dark voice of my distant sperm among the tall soft feathery brown-head harmony of pond-grass and piaba / . waiting to be born” (28).

Liviticus, a very short reading that shows only a small part of all that is entailed in remembering the constant forms of lynching that are still experienced, does not distance itself from the author’s recent work; it is a classic Brathwaitian approach to topics thoroughly explored by Brathwaite throughout his creative life. This compilation, however, is a new way of reimagining a present framed within a past that has remained alive.          

In this book, Brathwaite continues his ancestral conversation with himself and his canonical peers. From Derek Walcott and his “lynching tree” to Claude McKay’s “ghastly body swaying in the sun,”[3] the verses are the ebo of silenced bodies that will remain forever present—until the longing for existence is fulfilled, the cry into the world has been heard, and Obatalá has carried the hands of his very own into the belly of eternity.


Wilfredo J. Burgos Matos is a writer, performance artist, and doctoral student in the Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures Department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Wilfredo has training in a diverse set of disciplines, including literature, music, ethnography, media, and cultural studies. He is currently focused on analyzing the queerness of bachata and how it reshapes notions of Dominican masculinity. He has won national grants and has presented his academic and artistic work in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Spain, and the United States.


[1] Eleggua is the deity of roads. He is considered the a central one because of his power to open or close any endeavors.

[2] Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: Development of Anglophone Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon, 1984).

[3] Derek Walcott, “Forty Acres: A Poem for Barack Obama,” Times (London), 5 November 2008; Claude Mckay, “The Lynching,” in Harlem Shadows (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922).


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