Colliding with and confronting The Tempest and postcolonial identity, the poems in Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal explore Jamaican childhood and history, race relations in America, womanhood, otherness, and exile. She evokes a home no longer accessible and a body at times uninhabitable, often mirrored by a hybrid Eve/Caliban figure. Blooming with intense lyricism and fertile imagery, these full-blooded poems are elegant, mythic, and intricately woven. Here the female body is a dark landscape; the female body is cannibal. Sinclair shocks and delights her readers with her willingness to disorient and provoke, creating a multitextured collage of beautiful and explosive poems.
About the Author
Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, the Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, the Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Sinclair received her MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia and is a Dornsife Doctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California.
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By Safiya Sinclair
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices.
CALIBAN, The Tempest
The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.
KAMAU BRATHWAITE, History of the Voice
Have I forgotten it —
wild conch-shell dialect,
black apostrophe curled
tight on my tongue?
Or how the Spanish built walls
of broken glass to keep me out
but the Doctor Bird kept chasing
and raking me in: This place
is your place, wreathed in red
Sargassum, ancient driftwood
nursed on the pensive sea.
The ramshackle altar I visited
often, packed full with fish-skull,
bright with lignum vitae plumes:
Father, I have asked so many miracles
of it. To be patient and forgiving,
to be remade for you in some
small wonder. And what a joy
to still believe in anything.
My diction now as straight
as my hair; that stranger we've
long stopped searching for.
But if somehow our half-sunken
hearts could answer, I would cup
my mouth in warm bowls
over the earth, and kiss the wet dirt
of home, taste Bogue-mud
and one long orange peel for skin.
I'd open my ear for sugar cane
and long stalks of gungo peas
to climb in. I'd swim the sea
still lapsing in a soldered frame,
the sea that again and again
calls out my name.
Father unbending father unbroken father
with the lowhanging belly, father I was cleaved from,
pressed into, cast and remolded, father I was forged
in the fire of your self. Ripped my veined skin, one eyelid,
father my black tangle of hair and teeth. Born yellowed
and wrinkled, father your jackfruit, foster my overripe flesh.
Father your first daughter now severed at the ankles, father
your black machete. I remember your slick smell, your sea-dark,
your rum-froth, wailed and smeared my wet jelly across
your cheek. Father forgive my impossible demands. I conjure you
in woven tam, Lion of Judah, Father your red, gold,
and green. Father a flag I am waving / father a flag I am burning.
Father skittering in on a boat of whale skeleton,
his body wrapped in white like an Orthodox
and his nest of acolyte women, his beard-comber, his Primrose,
his Dahlia, his Nagasaki blossom. Mother and I were none of them.
Father washing me in eucalyptus, in garlic, in goldenseal.
Fathering my exorcism. Father the harsh brine of my sea.
Making sounds only the heart can feel. Father a burrowing
insect, his small incision. No bleat but a warm gurgle —
Daughter entering this world a host. Father your beached animal,
your lamentations in the sand. Mother her red bones come knocking.
Mother her red bones come knocking at the floorboards,
my mother knock-knocking at his skull when he dreams.
Scratching at your door, my dry rattle of Morse code:
Father Let me in. With the mash-mouth spirits who enter us,
father the split fibula where the marrow must rust —
Father the soft drum in my ear. Daughter unweeding
her familiar mischief. Mother jangling the ribcage: I am here.
IN CHILDHOOD, CERTAIN SKIES
REFINED MY SEEING
Sunset. That blood-orange hymn
combusting the year, nautilus chamber
of youth's obscurities, your empty room
for psalms, lost rituals. There find the bittersweetness
of one's unknown body, heliotropic:
Welcome, stranger of myself.
Consider the Jumbie bird clanging its deathshriek
like a gong, shooting through our mapless season,
unnaming the home you're always leaving,
scattering the names we have lost again.
The heart and its bombshell
bespeak the hurricane —
what has drowned, has drowned.
She will not return. The headless sky
unseals and aches for us, mother and sister
caught upon the steel hook of its memory.
Wet mouth of my future body, we've come to understand
each word, and how sometimes the words
themselves will do. Obeah-man, augured island,
I am called to remember the burning palm
and the broad refuge of the Poinciana tree.
Dear Family, how willingly I pushed my feet
into the hot coals of your lamentation.
Jamaica, if I wear your lunacy like a dark skin,
or lock this day away in the voodoo-garden
of our parting, know that I still mimic your wails,
knee-deep in beach, know I am gouging the stars
for any trace of ghost. For the algorithm
of uncertain history. The simple language
of our cannibal sea. If Grandfather,
your wandering fishermen still recast
their lives down on the disappearing shore,
know I too am scorching there.
Igniting and devouring
each abducted day.
In this wet season my gone mother
climbs back again
and everything here smells gutted —
bloodtide, sea grapes in thick bloom,
our smashed plates and teacups. Dismantling
this grey shoreline for some kind of home, scared
orphans out bleating with the mongrels,
all of us starved
for something reclaimable. What chases them,
her barefoot rain, stains my unopened petunia, shined
church shoes, our black words, our hands.
I'll catch the day creep in, her dirt marking my father's
neck, oil-dreck steeped dark to every collar,
her tar this same fish odor I am washing.
I know I am one of them. The emptied:
How night comes raw, open-wounded,
her gills wafting in the iron's heat, sea's marrow
unrelenting, my heart one coiled mass
and sweating. I scald a ritual cleansing.
White poui tree of my youth
stripped bare, her burned hair,
what starched pleats of uniform.
My skin a red linen pressed through with salt.
The house. Even the body burns.
Carbolic disappearing; scrubbed pink into fingernail,
a prayer, bone of coral
into breasts and thighs.
Frankincense and swallow a bar of soap.
But no washing will avail me
of this ghost.
I smell her at school and sulk my head
into the sand, watch my body carve
this resurrection —
its dull gleam of scales, a new ache:
For salt, for sea grapes, her brown flesh
sucked down like a thumb. Sun and snapper-eye
sucked out, her spine like a straw.
I cannot help myself.
Her keen and shadowing.
My hair still tied in her old handkerchief.
Pray, pray she is not here today.
Teacher, unbeliever. Chasing me home
to wash myself. Last week's daughter,
twelve years old, heart still for sale.
Out here the surf rewrites our silences.
This smell of ocean may never leave me;
our humble life or the sea a dark page
I am trying to turn: Today my mother's words
sound final. And perhaps this is her first true thing.
Her hands have not been her hands
since she was twelve,
motherless and shucking whatever the sea
could offer, each day orphaned in the tide
of her own necessity — where the men-o-war
ballooned, wearing her face, her anchor of
reaching, mooring for any blasted thing:
sea roach and black-haired kelp, jeweled perch
or a drop of pearl made with her smallest self,
her night-prayers a hushed word of thanks.
But out here the salt depths refuse tragedy.
This hand-me-down life burns sufficiently tragic —
here what was cannibal masters the colonial
curse, carved our own language of the macabre,
sucking on the thumb of our own disparity. Holding
her spliff in the wind, she probes and squalls,
trying to remember the face of her own mother,
our island, or some strange word she once found
amongst the filth of sailors whose beds she made,
whose shoes she shined, whose guns
she cleaned, while the white bullet of America
ricocheted in her brain. Still that face she can't recall
made her chew her fingernails, scratch the day down
to its blood, the rusty sunset of this wonder,
this smashed archipelago. Our wild sea grape kingdom
overrun, gold and belonging in all its glory
to no one. How being twelve-fingered she took her father's
fishing line to the deviation, and starved
of blood what grew savage and unwanted. Pulled
until they shriveled away, two hungry mouths
askance and blooming, reminding her
that she was still woman
as life's little nubs and dreams came bucking up
in her disjointed. How on the god-teeth
she cut this life, offered her hands and vessel
to be made wide, made purposeful,
her body opalescent with all our clamoring,
our bloodline of what once lived
and will live and live again.
In the sea's one voice she hears her answer.
Beneath her gravid belly
my gliding hull
a conger eel.
PORTRAIT OF EVE AS THE ANACONDA
I too am gathering the vulgarity
of botany, the eye and its nuclei for mischief.
Of Man, redacted I came, am coming,
fasting, starving carved
myself a selfish idol, its shell unsuitable. I, twice
discarded, arrived thornside, and soon outgrew
his reptilian sheen. A fine specimen. Let me have it.
Something inviolate; splayed in birdlime,
legs an exposed anemone, against jailbait August,
its X-ray sky. This light a Gorgon-slick, polygamous
doom. And God again calling much too late, who
aches to stick an ache in my unmentionable.
His Primal Plant remains elusive —
Wildfire and pathogen, blood-knot of human
fleshed there in His beard. How I am hot for it.
Call me murderess, a glowing engine
timed to blow. Watch it go with unjealousy, shadow.
Let me have it. This maidenhead-primeval
schemes what ovule of cruel invention;
the Venus-trap, the menses.
And how many ways to announce this guilt: whore's nest
of ague, supernova, wild stigmata.
Womb. I boast a vogue sacrosanctum. Engorging
shored pornographies, the cells' unruly
strain, rogue empire multiplying for a thousand virile
thousand years; my wings pinned wide
in parthenogenesis, such miraculous display.
Caribbean thyme is ten times stronger than the English variety — just ask Miss Queenie and her royal navy, who couldn't yank a Jamaican weed from her rosegarden that didn't grow back thick, tenfold, and blackened with the furor of a violated man. The tepid American I sank with my old shoes over the jaws of the Atlantic could never understand the hard clamor of my laugh, why I furrowed rough at the brow, why I knew the hollow points of every bone. But dig where the soil is wet and plant the proud seed of your shame-tree; don't let them say it never grew. Roll the saltfish barrel down the hill, sending that battered thunder clanging at the seaside moon, jangled by her long earrings at our sea, ten times bluer than the bluest eye. That mint tea whistling in the Dutch pot is stronger than liquor, and takes six spoons of sugar, please — what can I say, my great-grandfather's blood was clotted thick with sugar cane and overproof rum; when he bled it trickled heavy like molasses, clotted black like phlegm in the throat. Every red ant from Negril to Frenchman's Cove came to burrow and suckle at his vein, where his leg was honeyed with a diabetic rot, and when he caught my grandmother in his wide fishing net, he served her up cold to his wild-eyed son: "Mermaid on the deck."
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments I. Home Pocomania In Childhood, Certain Skies Refined My Seeing Fisherman’s Daughter Hands Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda Mermaid Catacombs Dreaming in Foreign Family Portrait I Shall Account Myself a Happy Creaturess Autobiography Osteology After the Last Astronauts Had Left Us, I
II. Notes on the State of Virginia, I America the Beautiful Another White Christmas in Virginia One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro, with Complete Proof, I One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro, with Complete Proof, II One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro, with Complete Proof, III Notes on the State of Virginia, II White Apocrypha Notes on the State of Virginia, III Notes on the State of Virginia, IV Elocution Lessons with Ms. Silverstone Notes on the State of Virginia, V Litany for Charlottesville Notes on the State of Virginia, VI
III. Prayer Book for Vanishing Confessor Omen Good Hair Woman, Wound Woman, 26, Remains Optimistic as Body Turns to Stone How to Be an Interesting Woman: A Polite Guide for the Poetess Birthmark, or Purifying at the Sink Little Red Plum Center of the World
IV. After the Last Astronauts Had Left Us, II (Laika) Spectre Chimera How to Excise a Tumor Incorrigible August Ghost A Separation In the Event of the Last Unhappiness, Return to the Sea August in the Country of Another Kingdom-come The Art of Unselfing Doubt
V. Crania Americana