[Caribbean Literature]

Polyrhythm and the Caribbean: Literature

Part One: Introduction

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Inevitably, the authors of the West Indies have picked up upon the cross-rhythmic nature of their culture. Indeed, they have amplified it in so many different ways in their writing that one could include this quality as a defining characteristic (if such an essentializing process is still possible) of modern West Indian writing. They have used this polyrhythmic writing both consciously and unconsciously, in pursuit of different political and artistic agendas. Authors have used this structure to play one voice off another, to allow different perspectives to coexist, to juxtapose characters with different status or different history. In short, the notion of polyrhythm has allowed Caribbean authors to synthesize any number of conflicting factors or forces into one loose union.

Some, like Wilson Harris, have made obvious reference to past roots (Arawaks, etc) in and dragged them into the present to display their influence. In Palace of the Peacock, Harris foregoes traditional notions of narrative in order to display how the multiple historical currents in which the Caribbean is rooted come together to form a new, highly syncretic and diverse West Indian rhythm.

Others, such as Derek Walcott, take the differing rhythms of colonizer and colonized and play them off of one another, equalizing their current status while acknowledging the past historical imbalances in power. Walcott's audience (as in Pantomime, for instance) then watches as the clashing of these two now equal currents reveals elements of oppression and suffering that each have in common.

Authors have also used the polyrhythmic structure with less politically weighted intentions. One could find many instances of cross-rhythms in George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin. He does present figures of both colonizer and colonized status, in order to set them at odds with each other and depict the process by which growth in the Caribbean has been retarded. But he also creates a kind of Bakhtinian multivocality by literally representing (through dialogue) the voices of several different characters of different ages. By attuning the reader to the voices of elders such as Ma and Pa, and of youth such as G or the boys in the schoolyard, Lamming attempts to recreate the polyrhythmic voice of a Caribbean community, of a small village in rural Barbados.

Earl Lovelace also presents different currents of rhythm for multiple purposes in his work The Wine of Astonishment. Like many authors, one sees the figures of the imperial (in the police force assigned to rub out the Spiritual Baptist church) clashing with that of the colony (villagers such as Bee or Bolo). But far from allowing his readers to assume the colony's rhythms to be united, he presents the struggles and tensions between Bee and Bolo, the pacifist and the warrior, in order to show how what seems a unified tide of the village (or the church) upon closer examination gives way to differing rhythms clashing, indeed nearly attacking, each other.

The permutations of a basic polyrhythmic structure go on and on. Indeed, the utility of this framework seems undeniable. Authors use it as a tool for reversing the destructive binary oppositions imposed by empire. They use it to more accurately portray the different cultures and traditions in which they grew up. Finally, authors employ polyrhythmic structures to represent the movements of their own minds, which surely see not from one side only, not black and white only, but possess the keen ability to perceive the conflicts and shades of meaning, and assemble these spectral variations into something of a meaningful, cohesive whole.

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