How to Swim in the Black Atlantic

By Stephen NarainJune 23, 2016

How to Swim in the Black Atlantic

Providential by Colin Channer

“IF YOU PUT up a statue in Jamaica,” the Trinidadian author Wayne Brown once lamented, “the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious.”

Kei Miller, arguably Jamaica’s finest young poet, references Brown’s opinion in an editorial on Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, an opus that “tends neither towards the sacred nor satire,” Miller argues, “and yet harnesses the best qualities of both.” In truth, this unique breed of Jamaican piety (false or not) has provided a rich source of satire for the island’s novelists. In The Duppy, for instance, Anthony Winkler imagines Baps, a shopkeeper, incensed at discovering after his sudden death that heaven resembles the same stifling version of Jamaica — all red tape and colonial mores — from which he so keenly hoped the Good Lord would deliver him. In White Teeth, Zadie Smith paints a portrait of the London-based “P.K.’s Afro Hair: Design and Management,” squeezed between “Fairweather Funeral Parlor and Raakshan Dentists, the convenient proximity meaning it was not at all uncommon for a cadaver of African origin to pass through all three establishments on his or her final journey to an open casket.” Smith concludes: “Strange as it sounds, there are plenty of people who refuse to meet the Lord with an Afro.” And, yes, in James’s Seven Killings — that magisterial epic of post–independence Jamaica that has cast such a broad shadow over 21st-century Caribbean letters — James subverts expectations of “Jamaican macho archetypes” by giving voice to Weeper, a gay gangster trying to survive in the midst of one of the hemisphere’s most homophobic cultures.

Countries with a history like Jamaica’s, a history built out of the stories of many people whose ancestors never quite asked to be there in the first place, feel wired for the kind of satire we encounter in Winkler, Smith, and James. Miller, in his most recent book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, participates in this project, as does Colin Channer in his debut poetry collection, Providential, which was longlisted for this year’s OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. In Providential, Channer confronts some of the same issues Miller does. How can Jamaican poetry continue to collapse the boundary between the sacred and the profane? How can the reggae aesthetic that challenged colonial orthodoxy be extended? How can the formal — and political — efforts of Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Mutabaruka be sustained?

Providential is relatively muted in answering these questions, but Channer’s satirical ambitions are clear. Police officers abound in the collection and the poems are deeply suspicious of men and women with authority. Sohrab Habibion’s smart jacket design gestures toward this: two police officers, ambling in step, their arms amputated, their trouser stripes hollow. Channer’s policemen are often uncertain about how to police, and they compensate for their insecurity by proclaiming avuncular declarations of the sort that might be funny after the first drink, but are definitely irritating after the third. In “Corporal Teego Brown Tells Us What Every Bartender in Jamaica Knows,” Channer isolates the language of one officer’s false swagger:

You need three barmaid,
a thick African,
a slim browning,
but most of all an Indian,
any Indian,
but she have to
work night shift.

The poet’s restraint here — his decision to allow Corporal Brown’s drunken commandment to stand on its own — admirably dismantles the codes governing one form of Jamaican machismo, revealing how that machismo is bound up with forces like class, color, and fetish.

Indeed, Providential, like Seven Killings, can be read as a character study of various Jamaican macho archetypes. We glimpse the figure of the poet’s grandfather, a colonial civil servant, “obedient, simple-minded / burly, color struck.” We sit with the poet’s drunk father, forced to salvage a dinner of bully beef and bread when his “outside woman” didn’t feed him. One of the collection’s most memorable images emerges from the poet’s resentment about this kind of maleness. The poet recalls one evening when his little sister, Claudette, “twelve and already plumping / from eating two dinners,” climbs on her father’s lap after he returns home from his philandering. The poet addresses his father directly: “Your knee is unsteady when she sits,” he writes. “You know you can’t ask her to ease up.”

This image — which appears in “Knowing We’ll Mostly Be Wrong,” the collection’s strongest poem, alongside “Providential” and “Fugue in Ten Movements” — weaves the poet’s memory of his father into a meditation on his son, “slender in the way of his mother and her ilk, / but not petty and vindictive.” We glean that the poet has separated from his wife. He is wrestling with how to raise a child on his own. After living in Brooklyn and Wellesley, he relocates to Providence, a city whose street names — Prospect, Benefit, Benevolent — feel eerily West Indian. In “Providential,” the collection’s final poem, we see the poet lying in bed after he and his son take a winding drive along the craggy New England coast. The poet’s mind is transported to an old Jamaican slave port, “still fixed on the bosun / the drover, the prison, the ship.”

“Providential” owes much to The Prodigal, Derek Walcott’s half-paean, half-lamentation on his own self-imposed exile. Like Walcott, Channer attempts to build a bridge between New England and the Antilles of “sugar, molasses, and rum.” Walcott’s tone in The Prodigal is reliably sacred, though, facilitating the grafting of his personal journey to broader, epic strokes. In Providential, Channer’s sensibility is significantly more casual, his confessions more intimate, his equivocations less baroque. The collection’s least successful poems — “Clan,” “Porter’s Prayer,” and “General Echo” — feel disconnected from those focused on the various male figures in Channer’s life. In “Clan,” a poem he dedicates to Kwame Dawes, Channer tries too earnestly to paint a portrait of a Jamaica struggling to police itself, leading to an uncharacteristic litany of platitudes: “Every clan has its children,” the poet writes, “its widows / its fathers, its prayers, its vengeance pledge.” Such lines, at best, sound like a poet warming up and, at worse, like one performing unnecessary gravity. But as I say this, I wonder: Is this right? The gap separating Channer’s Walcottian turns in “Providential” from his blind rage in “Porter’s Prayer” feels too severe. Is the poet’s “warming up” strategic?

To answer these questions, it is useful to turn to Zadie Smith’s 2008 essay “Two Directions for the Novel,” a seminal meditation on contemporary Anglo-American fiction. In her essay, Smith expresses suspicion with a “breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” In a novel like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a Dutch stockbroker’s reflection on the aftermath of September 11, “everything must be made literary,” Smith writes, even as she intimates that O’Neill is anxious about the assumptions guiding his Aristotelian unities. Smith sets up Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as an antipode to Netherland. If O’Neill’s stockbroker is gifted with graceful penmanship, McCarthy’s unnamed narrator writes with the clunky hand of Ezra Pound. After surviving a traumatic accident, Remainder’s narrator becomes preoccupied with reconstructing — literally reenacting — events prior to his memory loss. If Netherland’s reality is built on a quest for meaning and metaphor, Remainder’s reality is built on a hyper-awareness of the human inability to truly attain either end.

For McCarthy, representations of experience must take into account the “brute materiality of the external world,” and this “materiality” has everything to do with things as messy and dusty and concrete as matter. McCarthy and the philosopher Simon Critchley, founders of the International Necronautical Society, encourage us to:

take the side of things and try to evoke their nocturnal, mineral quality […] of trying, and failing, to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing. Of saying “Jug. Bridge. Cigarette. Oyster. Fruitbat. Windowsill. Sponge.”

This taxonomy reminds me of the lines I first disliked in Channer’s “Clan,” lines I described to myself as “atonal”:

We belongers sieve the fragments.

from the midden, make molds.
Shells. Shit. Skin. Seeds. Bone.

I imagine that Channer and the Necronauts — “lovers of debris” — might engage in lively, if peculiar, dinner conversation. They might riff on the shortcomings of Hegel. They, Smith by their side, might extol the virtues of Szymborska and Beckett and Kafka and Joyce. And together, their work — along with James’s Seven Killings, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, and Yaa Gyasi’s generation-defining Homegoing — might channel the stories of “disappeared remainders” to reorder (or at least interrupt) the grand historical narratives of Jamaica, Ghana, and the United States.

True, this dinner party sounds unusually grand, but the “International Necronautical Society” also sounds grand, and Channer’s — and James’s and Mathis’s and Gyasi’s — reimaginations of the Black Atlantic are, in this current age of hashtags and 140-character limits, redemptively grand. Channer is the only poet at the table, and he might be the one sitting most closely to the Necronauts. By shifting Providential’s tonal influences from Walcott to Kamau Brathwaite, from Bob Marley to M. NourbeSe Philip, from Ishion Hutchinson to Safiya Sinclair, Channer takes full advantage of the form of the poetry book to display just how the siren song of the lyrical realists works to obscure brute realities — say, litter beyond Atlantis’s gates.

In “Revolutionary to Rass,” the collection’s opening poem, Channer channels the voice of Perry Henzell, the director of the classic 1972 Kingston crime film The Harder They Come. The poet writes:

So check it. This whole facking island
is a damn estate, a checkerboard
of traps and schemes. Power game.
What can you expect?

For Channer — as with Henzell — you can expect a Jamaica distinguished by a glorious, at times, rhapsodic atonality. Indeed, for the contemporary Caribbean artist concerned with creating true representations of his local realities — in the face of tourism boards and postcolonial theories that might err too far in favor of the “lyrical” — atonality becomes more than just a stylistic posture; it becomes a tool for cultural assertion. Maybe this is why Wayne Brown was chagrined at witnessing so many Jamaicans pass their newly erected statues “in silence.” Maybe what angered him was not their affected “seriousness,” but rather the monotone thumps of their footsteps so at odds with the mad pulsing of their heartbeats and the kinetic energy of their intellects.


Stephen Narain is a Caribbean writer now living in Florida.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Narain was raised in the Bahamas by Guyanese parents and moved to Miami at 17. A graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of a John Thouron Prize for Study at Cambridge University, a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, the Small Axe Fiction Prize, the Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing, and the Bristol Short Story Prize. In 2012, Stephen was selected for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s New Talent Showcase spotlighting the best emerging Caribbean writers. He lives in Orlando, Florida, where he is a Visiting Professor of English at the Poinciana Campus of Valencia College.


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