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Bebop, Broadcast, Podcast, Audioglyph: Scanning Kamau Brathwaite’s Mediated Sounds

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 369-401 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0022

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Immediately after reading a passage from his poem “Hawk” during a February 2004 episode of Leonard Schwartz’s radio show, Cross Cultural Poetics, poet Kamau Brathwaite remarks upon the context of their conversation:

Here am I speaking to you down the tunnel of this telephone this evening, my eyes closed, trying to see you there in that cave of a studio . . . , no doubt, the lights down low, and you’re twiddling these needles and these handles and this equipment, but at the same time, I’m trying to go beyond that, to see a set of people sitting and listening to what we are saying. But not simply listening, but nodding their heads, shaking their heads, agreeing, disagreeing, and wanting to take part, you know, to RING-RING, “Who is that guy Brathwaite?” You know? “Who is that fellow Kamau?” I mean, you know? “What is happening there?” Or better still, “I have had a similar experience,” you know. “I have linked with you. Thank you.” You know, that kind of thing. But it is wonderful that we do have the radio, because at least there’s a chance that we are sharing this with others.

(“Nation Language” n. pag.)

In imagining Schwartz in the studio, or “a set of people sitting and listening” as he reads, all of them separated by distances, Brathwaite imagines an explicitly technologically mediated poem, reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s description of poetry, and lyric in particular, as the sung utterance of an isolated but overheard speaker (Mill 350). Modernists such as Ezra Pound and H.D. were similarly interested in the radio. Despite their self-proclaimed status as “antennae” or “receiving stations,” however, Adalaide Morris has shown that modernist uses of sound media were predominantly oriented toward distribution or were metaphoric in nature, and the feedback the poets received remained largely a private matter (Morris 42, 35–47). In contrast, Brathwaite clearly finds in the radio and other media technologies the opportunity for multiple and perhaps competing lines of transmission. A lyric of this sort, then, might be thought of as an open channel of bundled communications moving in several directions at once.

The technological pluridirectionality that Brathwaite evokes in the scene of reception he imagines for his poem “Hawk” is also one of the key interests of the poem itself, apparent at its visual, thematic, and methodological levels. The poem details, among other things, Brathwaite’s firsthand witnessing of both the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, and one of the last performances of the great jazz saxophonist Coleman “Hawk” Hawkins—coincidentally also on a September 11, some four decades prior. On the level of the visual, the poem is set in the distinctive orthography of Brathwaite’s middle and late works—what he calls his “Sycorax video style.” Developing in the early 1990s, the Sycorax style is a highly graphic practice of the page that makes use of multiple margins, justifications, and variations in typeface and point-size and frequently includes glyphs (for example, boats, spiders, suns, moons, and human figures). Texts and glyphs alike are often heavily pixilated, suggesting something like an early computer display. Thematically, “Hawk” is filled with cell phones, live and recorded jazz performances, TV transcripts, and nursery rhymes. The “voices of falling wires” that the poem records on September 11, 2001, are at once the abruptly disconnected conversations carried by telecommunications and the sounds of that falling information infrastructure itself (Brathwaite, Born to Slow Horses 92). Brathwaite’s comments regarding the telephone and the radio, and especially the scenes he imagines for their use in “Hawk”’s reception, are thus an echo or even extension of those in the poem he’s just read over the telephone for a radio broadcast. Finally, the poem’s methodology complements and complicates these media referents. As he recalls to Schwartz, at the time of the attacks, Brathwaite was working on a poem remembering Hawkins, but this poem was interrupted or infected by the images and sounds of the later events (“Nation Language” n. pag.). The result is a series of strabismic images, in which either scene of witness shades the other, on either end of a nearly...


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