In Castaway Yvette Christiansë presents an epic yet fragmented poetic story set off the coast of Africa on the island of St. Helena: Napoleon Bonaparte’s final place of exile, a port of call for the slave trade, and birthplace of the poet’s grandmother. Amid echoes of racialized identity and issues of displacement, the poems in Castaway speak with a multiplicity of voices—from Ferñao Lopez (the island’s first exile) and Napoleon to that of a contemporary black woman. Castaway is simultaneously a song of ...

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In Castaway Yvette Christiansë presents an epic yet fragmented poetic story set off the coast of Africa on the island of St. Helena: Napoleon Bonaparte’s final place of exile, a port of call for the slave trade, and birthplace of the poet’s grandmother. Amid echoes of racialized identity and issues of displacement, the poems in Castaway speak with a multiplicity of voices—from Ferñao Lopez (the island’s first exile) and Napoleon to that of a contemporary black woman. Castaway is simultaneously a song of discovery, an anthem of conquest, and a tortured lamentation of exiles and slaves.
Instead of offering a linear narrative, Christiansë renders the poems as if they were emerging from the pages of imaginary books, documents now disrupted and scattered. An emperor’s point of view is juxtaposed with the perspectives of various explorers, sailors, and unknown slaves until finally they all open upon the book’s “castaway,” the authorial female voice that negotiates a way to write about love and desire after centuries of oppression and exploitation.
Daring and sophisticated, Castaway challenges and captivates the reader with not only its lyrical richness and conceptual depth but also its implicit and haunting reflections on diaspora and postcolonialism. It will be highly regarded by readers and writers of poetry and will appeal to those engaged with issues of race, gender, exile, multiculturalism, colonialism, and history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A remarkable book. It’s a delight to discover a poet who makes use of all the techniques that have been too readily ceded to fiction: character development, a complex use of place and time, an interweaving of historical fact and writerly imagination, while deploying the compression and verbal legerdemain that are the particular province of the poet.”—Marilyn Hacker

“Yvette Christiansë’s Castaway has a personal and historical trajectory that embraces the emotional velocity of this fine, urgent collection of poems. It conjures silence and great distance, emotionally and physically, but the poems are excursions through language and subject matter aimed at connecting the reader to the unimaginable by a finely-tuned and far-reaching imagination.”—Yusef Komunyakaa

Library Journal
Christians 's debut volume is a personal/political/historical narrative that revolves around the poet's grandmother's birth on the island of St. Helena, near Africa (she's thought to be the child of a freed slave). First chronicled in 1502, St. Helena is best know as Napoleon's place of exile and death. Subsequently the site of a Portuguese insurrection against colonization, it became a British territory in which slavery was outlawed. Ironically, Chirstians 's family relocated to South Africa, where apartheid became law and Yvette was born. The family's final destination is Australia. The poems are presented as fragments from found diaries, fanciful compendiums of travelers' tales and dramatic monologs by family members and historical figures such as Napoleon. This long, theatrical work sometimes sacrifices texture in its attempt to get through the material. But in the end, it remains an ambitious and often moving study of those held against their will. Recommended.--Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822323860
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/2/1999
  • Pages: 120

Meet the Author

Yvette Christianse was born and raised in South Africa. In her late teens her family moved to Australia to escape aparteid. She now lives in New York where she is an Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University.

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Read an Excerpt


By Yvette Christiansë

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-2386-0


    The Name of the Island

    in memoriam
    Marguerite Delpbine Ritch Blandford
    b. 1898? St. Helena–d. 1974 Sydney

    My grandmother's island is
    wrapped in its own ocean and a fog
    that whispers and sings to itself
    since lighthouses and watermarked maps
    put reefs out of business and
    exiles no longer smoulder into their diaries
    in the gloom of rock and rain.

    Napoleon, when he was grinding his teeth
    in the bleak mists of his last stand —
    growing fat and miserable, cut off
    from his old standard-bearers and the
    static of muskets crackling through the hills
    of Badajoz where the stench made horses
    rear and foot soldiers sag at the knees —
    Napoleon named it the worst place.

    * * *

    All night the ocean squabbled
    along the foreshore. The long house
    creaked and went tighter, tighter
    like a corset around a sick man's liver.

    None of the doctors would listen.
    He told them, he could feel it growing,
    as if he had a child there, and him
    a man amongst men. Giving birth now
    to his own sick liver

    while the ocean threw salt
    up onto the rocks and the wind
    and sand and whipped the house
    like a father whipping a child
    that howled and howled
    under the anchor of his hand.

    * * *

    Standing at the window
    when the wind scours the rockface
    for the smallest remnant of brightness,
    Bonaparte-now-Buonoparte is as good as
    married to the losses that twitter and nibble
    all around him, that come up the drive
    clogging the spokes of carriage wheels,
    flake from his thinning hair when he
    drags his fingers through it.

    The tragedy of existence: that a man can never
    see the top of his own head or the back of his own
    head, or the side of his face. Not really. Ever. While
    others can see things. If he has a speck of dust on his
    cheek, a flake of ash on his hair, a small bare spot
    bare enough for a gob of well-aimed spit.

    * * *

    Good neighbours, like good mirrors and good family.
    And good family like a house, square and firm
    facing the right sun, the right wind.

    Napoleon Bonaparte-not-Buonoparte if you please,
    wishes for a good house facing the right sun.
    And his mother. And says his name over and
    over as if it is a limb he must massage or
    lose to the butcher's field knife.

    * * *

    Suddenly, the rock grates, screeches
    like a gull dashing down
    from a full dark sky
    and the man sits up, up
    out of its sharp reach
    up, up out of the dream
    of something falling horribly
    into the field surgeon's pail.

    Now the wind brings them.
    Green as sickness, they gather
    on the other side of his window,
    gather and stretch far back, right
    down to the dock, and out onto the water,
    like ants that have found a honey trail.

    They gather like silence for a man
    woken horribly without another
    to turn to. And the wind is whistling
    an old marching tune through the mane
    of a stiff dead horse.

    No more the ride like a god
    through the troops, no more
    the grand gilt pose on the rampant
    white stallion. Only the wind and the rock
    and the army of faces, faces,
    green faces like sickness.

    * * *

    One day it strikes him, how the wind blows
    through the rock and the house, and the rock
    and the house are like thinning, graying hair
    on a sick man's head. Another day, the wind
    is a bushel of rats, bristling in his hat. He
    rummages in his hat now before raising it to the light.

    Still another day, the wind pierces the
    walls of the house, the walls of his body,
    like a finger pushing into his intestines.
    He can point exactly where the intrusion
    took place. He wants it marked, where, one night
    he woke from a dream of an Englishman
    thrusting a finger into his diaphragm
    and separating his organs.

    Most days, the wind
    is just the wind and the island
    does not even support nightmares.

    The Island Sings Its Name

    My grandmother's voice is
    wrapped in distance and tissue papers
    rustling like the leaves
    of a favourite tree
    in the first cool signs of Autumn,
    a proof that things will turn
    and even the most loved

    will be taken away, leaf by leaf
    until mornings have other voices
    given you by new people and new places
    that can take so much and
    only so much of things
    they have never seen
    and cannot even spell.

    * * *

    Writing your name, having never
    written it before—never? in over thirty years,
    years that take in a first day at school,
    love, anger, your last day?—
    I stumble over an "e" or "r"
    and don't know how your mother
    would have written you, or if it was
    your father—the man who married again—who
    wrote your name. The first time.

    * * *

    And now my mother tells me
    1898. "We think." And the date
    sheers the edge off things,
    cuts through rock and digs itself
    into the ground and I'm diving
    in, after it to catch it, hold it
    by its high-tempered tail
    in the hope of hitting pay dirt —
    the glint beyond cinnabar or fool's gold,
    like dreams of running down streets
    or calling up at windows or
    into the mist that brews
    like pre-dawn tea held
    in a working man's hands. I want
    the real thing. The
    way you smiled. And I want
    you to smile at me, as if
    you are ... always.

    * * *

    Like a tree they'd circle
    with a ring of stones,
    with a bronze plaque to say
    you've outlived monarchs
    and their proclamations, the
    rise of borders and the fall
    of roly-poly men and their roly-poly chests,
    the rustle around the world
    as young men nuzzle their cheeks
    into the blue-black hips
    of their slender barrels of steel,
    the litany of elegies flickering briefly
    in living-rooms between one bracket
    of Ads and another, one mouthfull
    and another.

    * * *

    I want
    to be small enough
    to slip into the bough of your arm
    to hear your spine creak
    in the moonlight, when the house
    slumps heavy on its foundations
    and all is as well as a circle
    of elders who replenish themselves
    like waves in a slate-green ocean
    that can take the worst news.

    I want
    to be sure there is more
    than watching you shrink
    suddenly, then slowly. Then

    And you who gave me first words—the
    language for clocks and names for lorries
    and rain and manners like
    how to say please and thank you—
    you took all words away,
    lying there so straight and small and calm.

    * * *

    And being a girl from an island
    long ago in her blood
    and far away from being
    cast off from all sides
    as she was, those last days,
    she wished for the sea.

    Like the wind caught indoors
    and held underfoot
    on hot days, she longed
    for the sea. Not any sea,
    but that green sea
    she knew hurled down
    past the mud-plastered fiats
    of Lorenço Marques where the paraffin woman
    charged a family this many escudoes
    for one night under a rain-filled canvas;
    the white beaches
    of the wedding-cake hotel.

    Longing, as persistently
    as the wind at a door, a loose key hole,
    the old leaden kind, and door latch
    made for the ball of a thumb.
    Whispered in the night
    about Lorenço Marques
    and drove her sweltering granddaughters
    mad. And the sweltering granddaughters
    balling their fists against their ears
    in their high and dry landlocked youth
    blew far off course on this, not knowing
    why it was the sea
    that set foot on the salt-gray jetties
    of old Lorenço Marques
    that she longed for, the sea she
    could set her foot on like a lady
    stepping into a longboat
    on the side of a barnacled old hull
    she is glad to see the stern of.

    * * *

    Marguerite Delphine, but never called,
    except with "Finnie." Fin. For the
    fin of a sleek dark fish
    that finds a current and slips
    clean into its long sweep
    all the way around the world
    without moving a muscle. A
    flurry of colour shooting out
    at the slicing edge of the bow.
    The wings of birds that fly
    in that other, heavy sky
    that also holds a moon and
    smashes a sun into trillions.

    Finnie. For Delphine. Something
    her mother liked.
    Head-and-shoulders above the rest,
    to bear her down the road, set on
    school books. If school books came.
    But. No school books.

    They named her
    second side of the road,
    back door black,
    hands in the washtub. They
    named her pointed at
    and slinking shadow. When
    all she was was
    her mother's girl.

    And All Things Come to Pass

    One night, close to the equator:
    seeing ten stars fall. And the crew
    shuddering in their sleep. The hull
    trembling like an animal left out
    in the cold. And these stars — I carry
    them in my head still—have nothing
    to do with me. One fell close—its fierce
    whispering quarrel with the water
    as it cast its name like knives in every
    direction. The ash and steam of its name.
    The water that fought it, pulled and opened
    an irresistible mouth. That burning entry
    of the once light of all things.

    On Being Restless

    Tonight, I feel them stir
    rise and swerve, these flocks —
    taken up flight in the
    blind hours, out here where
    the steady wash cleanses
    our cutting hull—

    not desires for hands or those
    prayers for pleasure,
    more pleasure, but the
    other tugging—when a scent
    rises from the air and defies
    the anchorage of a name, an

    explanation. The depth of a
    sky as it reaches above flat-
    bottomed clouds that boat
    out of the longitudes
    where islands recite their
    green rosaries. The long

    cry of a wintering bird,
    pulling the air to itself,
    like a shawl or hospital blanket,
    or, simply another voice.
    Yes, these things,
    I feel them stir

    and rise and swerve
    as if I am walking through
    their nesting ground. I watch the
    dark, not seeing a thing except my
    own moon's shadow, but I hear
    their wings make light of night.

    Letter to General
    D'Albuquerque—On the
    Pleasures of Taste

    J'avais, j'avais ce goût de vivre loin des hommes, et voici que les
(St.-John Perse, Pluies)

    Last night when the rains came like tongues
    on the lances of a devil god—the one I saw
    that night your mast pricked the horizon,
    made a hole big enough for you to enter
    with your pincers and tongs, your burning
    coals and mission of The Book—I sat up
    like a lost man, the lost man I have become—
    for the man who loses his tongue and at least
    one hand, not to mention a nose and ears is,
    you would agree, lost even in the eyes of
    those who may have known him. Last night

    when the rains came like tongues on the
    lances of a devil god, I reached for water.
    Such thirst. And do you know, General,
    how hard it is to quench a thirst when you
    have no tongue? A tongue, I have discovered—
    0 great conqueror and true believer—is
    necessary for many things. Ask the man who
    savours an evening meal as he rides the last
    miles home, or the woman who trembles as she
    holds her lover's tongue in her mouth, or the
    child who holds its ground with one rude gesture.

    I would taste the salt on the air as it blows
    from that graveyard, the ocean I once loved. I
    would taste the rain and learn to tell where
    it has risen from and what year, like a
    connoisseur of wines, and I would be drunk
    too soon for refusing to spit an atom away.

    I would learn every story and song from every
    leaf, even those that blow in like tired birds
    on their migrations around the world. I would
    break open lemon after lemon in my lemon groves
    and douse my missing sense, oh what is my stolen

    sense, and dance to the agony of that delight,
    General. I would be able to tell you chapter
    and verse of every book in The Book you held up
    to my face in your anger. Do you know, great
    hero and measure of the world, I have learnt
    that words must be like fruit—each a taste,
    each an ingredient for a palate in need of
    refreshment: "ocean," an orange from Tangier
    as its peel breaks away from the pale soft
    pap it wears—and I have always loved the
    pith of citrus, for its temperament; "mouth,"

    an apple from any orchard, but one that's lain
    long in a storeroom and gathered its sweetness
    like a bride and groom in the weeks before
    they are allowed to touch—ah, their smiles
    at the banquet. I could offer you more, like
    morsels for a guest at my table, this table of
    rock and a mountain that grows other mountains
    like a strange tree dropping strange fruit. I
    would find a way to tell their vintage, their
    good years and poor and always wash my mouth
    clean with the simple taste of water, dear General.


Excerpted from Castaway by Yvette Christiansë. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


The Name of the Island,
The Island Sings Its Name,
And All Things Come to Pass,
On Being Restless,
Letter to General D'Albuquerque—On the Pleasures of Taste,
Letter to General D'Albuquerque—On the Pleasures of Touch,
Letter to General D'Albuquerque—On Desire,
Letter to General D'Albuquerque—On Solitude,
Letter to General D'Albuquerque—On Forgiveness,
For the Devout Mouth,
For the Record,
Sleigh Ride,
The Enemies of Progress,
Necessary Things,
The Emperor Considers the Fate of His Book,
Last Battles,
A Very Sick Man,
One More Mile, One More Town,
Face to Face,
And What of Africa?,
Another Strange Night,
For the Arrival of a Serious Enemy,
Sunday School,
The Sleeper,
Blow the Wind Southerly,
And Bring Him to Me,
Fire on Board,
Man in a Room,
What the Girl Who was a Cabin Boy Heard or Said—Which is Not Clear,
Geography Lesson,
On Hearing of the Exiled Prophet,
In the Hull,
Under the Feet of Angels,
When All Else Fails,
The Enlightenment Sees Its Face in a Different Light,
Even When They Smile They Smoulder,
Sometimes the Surface of Water, Sometimes a Mirror—The Horror,
A Dictionary of Survival,
Middle Passage,
She Feels the Vanishing Sickness Move Behind Her Navel,
The Face of the Deep,
In the Maw,
In the Wake,
An Easter Confession, of Sorts,
For Strength in the Face of a Powerful Enemy,
For a Lover Who Keeps to Another Hemisphere,
Sweeter and Dearer,
Is it Not Sweet?,
Southerly, Southerly,
Now that She is a Woman Herself,
With the Art of Birds,
She Observes the Blue Bird,
A Riddle to Save Face,
The Cabin Girl Sees on All Sides Evidence of the Dream,
She Looks Up and Points,
The Beautiful Flood,
What is Out There?,
Some of the Women,
Behind My Back,
She Confesses,
Land Ahead,
The Cabin Girl Sings, of Love, Reluctantly and into an Empty Sky,
And When I Write the Muscles in My Chest Move as if in Flight,
The Voyage Out,
St. Helena—Time Line,

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