Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Limbo
This poem tells the story of slavery in a rhyming, rhythmic dance. It is ambitious and complex. There are two narratives running in parallel:
- the actions of the dance, and
- the history of a people which is being enacted.
Going down and under the limbo stick is likened to the slaves' going down into the hold of the ship, which carries them into slavery. In Roman Catholic tradition, limbo is a place to which the souls of people go, if they are not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell, between which limbo lies; it has come to mean any unpleasant place, or a state (of mind or body) from which it is difficult to escape. The story of slavery told in the poem is very easy to follow, yet full of vivid detail and lively action.
The poem has a very strong beat, suggesting the dance it describes: where the word limbo appears as a complete line, it should be spoken slowly, the first syllable extended and both syllables stressed: Lím-bó. While the italics give the refrain (or chorus) which reminds us of the dance, the rest of the poem tells the story enacted in the dance: these lines are beautifully rhythmic, and almost every syllable is stressed, until the very last line, where the rhythm is broken, suggesting the completion of the dance, and the end of the narrative.
This poem is suited to dramatic performance - there is the dancing under the limbo pole (difficult for most Europeans) and the acting out of the voyage into slavery. The poem can be chanted or sung, with a rhythmic accompaniment to bring out the drama in it (percussion, generally, is appropriate but drums, specifically, are ideal: in fact, the text refers to the “drummer” and the “music”).
What do you find interesting in
- the way the poem appears on the page
- sound effects in the poem
- repetition in the poem
- the way the limbo dance tells the story of slavery
Is this a serious or comic poem? Is it optimistic or pessimistic?
Tatamkhulu Afrika: Nothing's Changed
This poem depicts a society where rich and poor are divided. In the apartheid era of racial segregation in South Africa, where the poem is set, laws, enforced by the police, kept apart black and white people. The poet looks at attempts to change this system, and shows how they are ineffective, making no real difference. Jackie Fielding writes:
“I had always assumed that the poem was written post-apartheid and reflected the bitterness that knowing “one's place” in society is so deeply ingrained that the I-persona can't bring himself to accept his new-found freedom under Mandela. I also find it interesting that the poet is not South African and not black.”
“District Six” is the name of a poor area of Cape Town (one of South Africa's two capital cities; the other is Pretoria). This area was bulldozed as a slum in 1966, but never properly…