Biography of Kwame Dawes
Kwame Senu Neville Dawes (born 28 July 1962, Ghana) is a poet, actor, editor, critic, musician, and former Louis Frye Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of South Carolina. He is now Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor-in-chief at the Prairie Schooner. New York-based Poets & Writers has named Dawes as a recipient of the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, which recognises writers who have given generously to other writers or to the broader literary community.
Kwame Dawes at a reading in 2010.
He grew up in Jamaica where he attended Jamaica College and the University of the West Indies at Mona. He studied and taught in New Brunswick, Canada on a Commonwealth Scholarship. As a PhD student at the University of New Brunswick, he was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Brunswickan.
From 1992–2012 he taught at the University of South Carolina as a Professor in English, Distinguished Poet in Residence, Director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, and Director of the USC Arts Institute. He was also the faculty advisor for the publication Yemassee. He won the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize, Best First Collection for Progeny of Air. He is currently a Chancellor's Professor of English and Editor-in-Chief of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a faculty member of Cave Canem, and a teacher in the Pacific MFA program in Oregon.
Dawes collaborated with San Francisco-based writer and composer Kevin Simmonds on Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country which debuted at Royal Festival Hall in 2006, and featured sopranos Valetta Brinson and Valerie Johnson.
In 2009, Dawes won an Emmy Award in the category of New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming: Arts, Lifestyle & Culture. His project documented HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, interspersed with poetry, photography by Andre Lambertson, and music by Kevin Simmonds. The website "Livehopelove.com" is the culmination of his project. He is director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, a yearly event in Jamaica.
Duppy Conqueror, Dawes' most recent book of poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), joins new works of poetry with selections from fifteen previous books.
Kwame Dawes Poems
For August Wilson No one quarrels here, no one has learned the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter we learn to grow silent, build a stone
Something like forty runs to pile up in fifteen overs with the sun round like power over the compound. I prayed like hell out there on the boundary far from the scorers talking Test cricket as if this game was another day in the sun. I prayed like hell. I had made something like twenty - out to a stupid short ball which should have been dispatched to mid-wicket with ease. But too greedy, I got a top edge, and was caught looking naked as a fool in the blazing midmorning. Now, like a mockery, the bowling was soup but the boys still struggling to put one single before a next. So I prayed like hell out there on the boundary, trying to will a flaming red four my way. Still, I should have known, after all, God's dilemma: We playing a Catholic team that always prayed before each game. And where their chapel was a shrine, ours, well sometimes goats get away inside there; and once we did a play right there using the altar as a stage. So I tried making deals with the Almighty, taking out a next mortgage on my soul; asking him to strengthen the loins of Washy who looking alone in the wilderness out there in the blaze, bedlamized by the googly turning on the rough patch outside off-stump. Washy went playing at air, and the wickets kept falling until it was Alado, flamboyant with his windmill stretch action, his fancy afro and smile, strutting out to the wicket still dizzy with the success of his bowling that morning. And Alado take his guard loud, loud to the umpire: "Middle and leg, please." Lean back till his spine crack. Alado, slow like sugar, put on the tips, prolonging the agony. Now, Alado surveyin' the field, from boundary to boundary as if somebody was about to move a stone, and the boys start to wonder if this was some secret weapon, some special plan to win the match in a trickifying way. I fantasised a miracle in that moment, but I blame the sun for that. And then the boy take his stance. Classic poise, bat tapping, looking like a test class stroke-player, toes shuffling, waiting for the pace bowler sprinting stallion along the worn dry grass. Up to the wicket, he bowls, good length ball, dead on mid and off. Alado shift the front foot forward, sheer poise and style, head down according to the Boycott book, elbow up, and unleash a full cover drive, bat like flying fish catching the sun. And even when we heard the clunk of the stumps, and see the bails take off, we all still searching the extra cover boundary to see the ball slap the boards. Alado Test stay posed off like that for Lord knows how long. Big smile in his eyes staring at the ball he must have hit in his dreams. The umpire signal end of play with the gathering of the bails and the pulling of the stumps. My soul was saved that day, the year we never made the finals.
Last night you look at me hard then soft like you see something old and sad in me.
I sing requiem for the dead, caught in that mercantilistic madness. We have not built lasting monuments of severe stone facing the sea, the watery tomb, so I call these songs shrines of remembrance where faithful descendants may stand and watch the smoke curl into the sky in memory of those devoured by the cold Atlantic. In every blues I hear riding the dank swamp I see the bones picked clean in the belly of the implacable sea. Do not tell me it is not right to lament, do not tell me it is tired. If we don't, who will recall in requiem the scattering of my tribe? In every reggae chant stepping proud against Babylon I hear a blue note of lament, sweet requiem for the countless dead, skanking feet among shell, coral, rainbow adze, webbed feet, making as if to lift, soar, fly into new days.
I The whole earth is filled with the love of God. In the backwoods, the green light is startled by blossoming white petals, soft pathways for the praying bird dipping into the nectar, darting in starts among the tangle of bush and trees. My giddy walk through this speckled grotto is drunk with the slow mugginess of a reggae bassline, finding its melody in the mellow of the soft earth's breath. I find the narrow stream like a dog sniffing, and dip my sweaty feet in the cool. While sitting in this womb of space the salad romantic in me constructs a poem. This is all I can muster before the clatter of schoolchildren searching for the crooks of guava branches startles all with their expletives and howls; the trailing snot-faced child wailing perpetual— with ritual pauses for breath and pity. In their wake I find the silver innards of discarded cigarette boxes, the anemic pale of tossed condoms, the smashed brown sparkle of Red Stripe bottles, a mélange of bones and rotting fruit, there in the sudden white light of noon. II How quickly the grandeur fades into a poem, how easily everything of reverie starts to crumble. I walk from the stream. Within seconds sweat soaks my neck and back; stones clog my shoes, flies prick my flaming face and ears, bramble draws thin lines of blood on my arms. There is a surfeit of love hidden here; at least this is the way faith asserts itself. I emerge from the valley of contradictions, my heart beating with the effort, and stand looking over the banking, far into Kingston Harbor and the blue into gray of the Caribbean Sea. I dream up a conceit for this journey and with remarkable snugness it fits; this reggae sound: the bluesy mellow of a stroll on soft, fecund earth, battling the crack of the cross-stick; the scratch of guitar, the electronic manipulation of digital sound, and the plaintive wail of the grating voice. With my eyes closed, I am drunk with the mellow, swimming, swimming among the green of better days; and I rise from the pool of sound, slippery with the warm cling of music on my skin, and enter the drier staleness of the road that leads to the waiting city of fluorescent lights.
This bassline is sticky like asphalt and wet like molasses heated nice and hot, and the bass drum booms my heart, jumping me, jump-starting me to find the path of this sluggish sound; I follow the tap like a fly catching light in its rainbow gossamer wings on top of a big-ear elephant; I follow the pluck of a mute lead-guitar string, tacking, tacking out a tattoo to the bassline; I let the syrup surround my legs and my waist is moving without a cue, without a clue of where we are going, walking on the spot like this. Coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back, and I can conjure hope in anything; dreams in my cubbyhole of a room where the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko. This music finds me giddy and centered, but when morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.
The news comes like a stone: cancer devoured his upful locks and a sister collected the clumps of carefully nurtured holiness in a plastic bag to be matted into a wig like a crown for the bald Natty Dread in his casket. He fell so low and the chemo seemed like treachery. It all turned worthless, this fighting, this scramble for a cure, a way out; this confession of mortality: O Jah, O Jah, why has thou forsaken thy son? O Jah, the veil is black like this night, black like the treacherous road; when it wet it slippery, see me sliding, tumbling down; see how this sickness make my soul black as jet, caution, caution, and my brothers, all they can say is walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, like the bubbling syncopations of the synthesizer's left-hand jumps. But who will walk with me, who will carry the lamp on this path, whose breathing will reassure me of a company waiting on the other side? My brethren will forsake me, I walk into so many dark places while I wait for the coming of light. Reggae rides the airwaves and this island sound dark for the passing of a song.
A Way of Seeing
It all comes from this dark dirt, memory as casual as a laborer. Remembrances of ancestors kept in trinkets, tiny remains that would madden anthropologists with their namelessness. No records, just smells of stories passing through most tenuous links, trusting in the birthing of seed from seed; this calabash bowl of Great-grand Martha, born a slave's child; this bundle of socks, unused thick woolen things for the snow— he died, Uncle Felix, before the ship pushed off the Kingston wharf, nosing for winter, for London. He never used the socks, just had them buried with him. So, sometimes forgetting the panorama these poems focus like a tunnel, to a way of seeing time past, a way of seeing the dead.
The Glory Has Left the Temple
for Gabriel García Márquez To tell it, I must call it a dream. A dream on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where a beautiful black man serves thick omelets messy with onions and mushrooms to an assortment of mavericks—dock workers, professors, maids, three police officers, five whores, and a clutch of lawyers—at midnight, sopping up the curdling rum in their bellies with thick chunks of white doughy bread. Antonio, the black chef in flowing linen, has a hand jutting from his belly to hold hot coals, and above his head the interlocking, whirling wheels with shifting eyes blinking back tears but following our every movement. The earth has grown weary with too much blood. Everyone is counting the casualties like the score of soccer matches. I could call it a dream, a kind of Márquezian apocalypse, the memoir of a novelist being handed the reams of paper on which he will prophesy to the wind. Instead, I will admit the truth: I have been sitting in a hot room that smells rich with incense and the sweat of priests who have lost the language to comfort the bereaved— priests whose idols have crumbled to dust. I am listening to the wind, to the voice in the wind telling me to write it all down. So I do.
I cannot speak the languages spoken in that vessel, cannot read the beads promising salvation. I know this only, that when the green of land appeared like light after the horror of this crossing, we straightened our backs and faced the simplicity of new days with flame. I know I have the blood of survivors coursing through my veins; I know the lament of our loss must warm us again and again down in the belly of the whale, here in the belly of the whale where we are still searching for homes. We sing laments so old, so true, then straighten our backs again.
for Soloman Ephraim Woolfe Son, who is dat? Is de African Postman, Daddy —Burning Spear East from Addis Ababa, and then south deep into the Rift Valley, I can hear the horns trumpeting over the flat-roofed acacia trees, see the African women bend low with wood heavy on their backs, and the cows, goats, donkeys, mules, sheep, and horses snapped into obedient herds by sprinting children, move along the roadside. Life happens here. I am traveling to the land I have heard about, Shashamane, the green place, five hundred acres of Jah's benevolence, and I know now that I long to hear the rootsman tell me how, despite rumors of his passing, the natty keeps on riding, keeps on standing in the fields of praise to hold on to the faith of roots people. Brother Solomon, you put the name Ephraim on your head and carry the face of the true Rasta, the face of an Ashanti warrior, eyes deep under heavy lids, and your skin tight as leather, blacker dan black. I have met you before on the streets of Kingston, there where you trod to the hiss and slander of the heathen, you, natty dread, gathering the people's broken minds into your calabash. You carry it all, tell them Return to the roots, the healing shall take place. You are Burning Spear's voice in the fields of teff, you tell me of the prophecy of Marcus, and I listen to you, through the phlegm, through the gruff of your voice, and suddenly when I ask about the passing of the Emperor, you rise up like a staff of correction, your voice reaching back to the mountains, your warrior self, your yardman greatness, and you speak a mystery of those who have ears but won't hear, and those who have eyes and won't see, and I know/ that this dread will one day stand in this soil, and find his feet growing roots, that soon the earth will be darker for the arrival of Solomon. Let the heathen rage, let the doubters scoff, let this Ghanaian youth whose eyes have seen the face of Jesus Christ, let him too sit and marvel at the face of the natty. For this African Postman has forsaken father and mother, and has come to stand before His Imperial Majesty, to call only him Father, so that the Father might call him son, and the world will carry on its weary march, and the ibises will swoop in the Ethiopian dusk and the smoke will rise from wood fires, and the night will come with news that the rootsman, after four hundred years of being told he is homeless, has come home, yes, Jah, has come home. Sons and daughters of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, Earth Rightful Ruler, without any apology say: This is the time when I and I and I should come home, yes, Jah… Nah leggo! Nah leggo! Nah leggo! —Winston Rodney
I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I'll have the third part. —August Wilson We who gave, owned nothing, learned the value of dirt, how a man or a woman can stand among the unruly growth, look far into its limits, a place of stone and entanglements, and suddenly understand the meaning of a name, a deed, a currency of personhood. Here, where we have labored for another man's gain, if it is fine to own dirt and stone, it is fine to have a plot where a body may be planted to rot. We who have built only that which others have owned learn the ritual of trees, the rites of fruit picked and eaten, the pleasures of ownership. We who have fled with sword at our backs know the things they have stolen from us, and we will walk naked and filthy into the open field knowing only that this piece of dirt, this expanse of nothing, is the earnest of our faith in the idea of tomorrow. We will sell our bones for a piece of dirt, we will build new tribes and plant new seeds and bury our bones in our dirt.
In every crowd, there is the one with horns, casually moving through the bodies as if this is the living room of a creature with horns, a long cloak and the song of tongues on the lips of the body. To see the horns, one's heart rate must reach one hundred and seventy five beats per minute, at a rate faster than the blink of an eye, for the body with horns lives in the space between the blink and light — slow down the blink and somewhere in the white space between sight and sightlessness is twilight, and in that place, that gap, the stop-time, the horn- headed creatures appear, spinning, dancing, strolling through the crowd; and in the fever of revelation, you will understand why the shaman is filled with the hubris of creation, why the healer forgets herself and feels like angels about to take flight. My head throbs under the mosquito mesh, the drums do not stop through the night, the one with horns feeds me sour porridge and nuts and sways, Welcome, welcome.
It was Christmastime, the balloons needed blowing, and so in the evening we sat together to blow balloons and tell jokes, and the cool air off the hills made me think of coffee, so I said, "Coffee would be nice," and he said, "Yes, coffee would be nice," and smiled as his thin fingers pulled the balloons from the plastic bags; so I went for coffee, and it takes a few minutes to make the coffee and I did not know if he wanted cow's milk or condensed milk, and when I came out to ask him, he was gone, just like that, in the time it took me to think, cow's milk or condensed; the balloons sat lightly on his still lap.
I am a tornado child.
I come like a swirl of black and darken up your day;
I whip it all into my womb, lift you and your things,
carry you to where you've never been, and maybe,
if I feel good, I might bring you back, all warm and scared,
heart humming wild like a bird after early sudden flight.
I am a tornado child.
I tremble at the elements. When thunder rolls my womb