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This article is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.The Art of Tongues, The Craft of Prophecy
If I do it well, you might hear this essay. It is true - the poems, the novels, the essays we allow in are usually the ones that our ears, with their particular and biased sensitivities, were able to hear. Sometimes, those ears need training, as mine did recently listening to an audio-recording of Moby-Dick. The long sentences that had bored me to sleep on previous occasions, suddenly came to life. I could hear now the rhythm, the humour that welled up between the words. For the first time, and with help, my ear allowed Melville in. And to the English woman who once complained about Erna Brodber's Myal - that wonderful Jamaican novel, the complicated gibberish that it was for her - I am able to forgive her now, her ear untuned to that frequency on which Myal's music plays. Writing is an orchestration of sounds which the reader will hopefully hear (but sometimes doesn't). The writer is consciously playing it, however, drawing upon a universe of language: words, texts, sermons, snippets of conversations that linger, echoing and influencing the new text he is presently creating.
When asked about influence however, the writer only acknowledges this or that book or this or that poem, as if forgetting that almost every word began as a sound and even as he hauls them into service, gathering them from one page and strapping them to his own, he is trying to give the illusion that they aren't strapped - that they are lively and free and shouting. But perhaps this acknowledgement of only writerly influences is an impulse both academic and lazy - citing the easy sources. After all, texts can be referred to again and again; they can be found in libraries, bought on Amazon, photocopied and shared. It isn't so easy with snippets of conversation or sermons.
This then is the beginning of a corrective, knowing that what has influenced the words I write is often the words I have heard, how I heard them, and where. And that 'where' was so often church. I always list Emily Dickinson as an influence - and she is (though some might not believe it, there being little slant rhyme in my verse and even less alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter; still there is a multitude of dashes throughout - connecting sentences and clauses like trains - a habit that has simultaneously surprised and annoyed my editors), but I haven't always listed this Jamaican preacher-man. I do not know his name; in a way, he doesn't have one. He is the preacher from every church I have walked past only to hear his sermon booming over the only piece of technology in that building - a loud speaker. He is the old man that has stepped onto many a crowded bus from Half Way Tree to Papine, greeting us the passengers with 'Good eveling bredren and sistren, de Lord says...' and passing around his hat for a small collection before he gets off at his stop. On good days, though I have somewhere going, I stop outside of that church briefly to listen. On good days, though I initially wanted only to read the newspaper, I put it down in my lap and listen to the bus-preacher.
I have never given due credence to Sister Gilzene or Sister Sybil who deserve an equal place in my pantheon right beside Lorna Goodison whose 'Mother the Great Stones Got To Move' or 'This is a Hymn' taught me that a good poem could be prayed or hummed. Sister Gilzene, less known amongst literary circles, was a thin elderly woman from the starch-stiff church I went to as a teenager, and whose eruptions of tongues into the sobriety of that service were always smoothed away by a deacon, as if the old woman's glossolalia existed in the creases of her purple frock, as if it was coming from her bunched shoulders and not her mouth. Sister Sybil was old as well, but not thin. Hers was a great expanse of breasts and body and sound. She was from the church I escaped to - a church that made space for eruptions. How beautiful it was to hear Sister Sybil's uninterupted tongues that always had in it the resonance of thunder and the music of rain.
I have often counted David Malouf's Great World and Remembering Babylon as influences - there is a haunting quality about these novels that I have wanted to mimic - the way the writer is able to move, in a few sentences, from the outside of a character to far, far inside, as if he had split them open with a laser beam. But what is most haunting is that in stripping the characters, in laying them bare before us, in revealing the most deeply hidden motives and traits to the reader, it feels as if Malouf has also revealed ourselves to ourselves - what a magician! But there is another quality I have tried to mimic in my work - a quality that I didn't learn from any novel, but from church. I have tried for my poems to come as if from that space after the singing of songs, when the voices begin to subside but the last strains of music are still playing, creating a container for the overwhelm of what we were feeling, and into this quiet steps the prophet who pronounces such a horrible and wonderful truth, it can reduce you to tears immediately. That has been my own project. I am trying, as a writer, to understand something I once thought was a heresy - the artful way to speak in tongues, the way to craft a prophecy.
I don't go to church anymore but when I was seventeen I was asked to be the speaker for three days at a Christian summer camp. No one told me then how to write a sermon. The feeling was that you didn't really write one - you simply prayed, waited on the Lord to speak directly in your ear, and then from the pulpit repeated the secret things that were whispered to you. There was no space, or really, no necessity for your own creativity, your own invention or composition. The good sermon - the authentic sermon - it was felt, came from a man who had assumed the disposition of God's marionette, sitting on his lap, waiting for the voice of the Almighty to come out of his wooden mouth.
If I trace it all back, if I begin to narrate where it started, when I took my first step away from church, it probably was then at seventeen, when I composed those three sermons which left me feeling guilty and wretched and inauthentic because I had constructed them carefully, with much thought to craft. I thought of my potential listeners as an audience and not as a congregation - in church circles there is supposedly a world of difference between the two, though I've almost forgotten what that is. In any case, I was getting ready to perform. I knew exactly what I wanted the sermons to do. On the first day I wanted to distract my audience with stories that would make them smile and sigh, but at the end I would create a dramatic turn which would recast all the stories and give them a depth and poignancy no one had recognised before - and this trick would steal everyone's breaths and give them goose-pimples. And that is what I did. On the second day I wanted to set a sombre tone and then in the middle deliver a blow and break hearts, and I wanted them to cry. And that is what I did. On the third day when they returned raw and emotional, I wanted to offer a balm, a comfort, something like hope. And that is what I did.
After each sermon and during the few days, people came up to me and said, you're anointed! Or God was speaking through you! Or boy, I know you got that message straight from Heaven - I felt it in my spirit. I didn't know if being talented was the same thing as being anointed. I didn't know if connecting people to a truth was the same thing as connecting them to God. I did not fast and pray to write those sermons. I drank coffee and stayed up. I had not come down from the mountain to deliver them - I had come from in front of a full length mirror where I had also listened to myself saying them to myself, modulating the cadences of my voice - and I felt that this process was cunning and crafty and wrong. I felt maybe - maybe - I had been manipulative.
But of course I had been! In the way the man who tells a joke is manipulative - is trying to extract from us a laugh that wasn't there before. In the way a violin might pull us into sadness, and drums into dancing. In the way every good story reaches inside us and plays the broad piano of our emotions, sliding up and down the scale, creating melodies, harmonies, long sustained notes, riffs and echoes. In short, in the way of art.
Now I stay home on Sundays writing poems or stories. I stay at home, partly because I thought such strivings for beauty and perfection had no real place in church where we were to reflect and accept our imperfection and wait to be possessed by the beauty of God. It was God who did the good work - not ourselves. That's what I had been taught. And yet it is obvious to me now - it was in church that I began to understand my craft.
It was observing Sister Sybil. Wonderful, cantankerous Sister Sybil. She has made numerous cameo appearances in my work. Sometimes by name:
Whenever Sister Sybil raise the red banner
the air change, the tempo change, the mood
change, and inside that place, God
begins to happen.
And sometimes by image alone:
Because of her mountain breasts
she has learnt a peculiar walk, a duck-stride
to balance herself. It is hard to see anything
but the stern shifting of those mountains
when in flat, battleship shoes
she marches across the aisle.
At times she has even morphed into my grandmother. Sister Sybil - listen to the sound of her name - like sibilant, or syllables. She had a talking parrot for a pet - a vicious bird who would demand peanuts then snap at your fingers. But the bird's clearly articulated demands were more fascinating than its mean thank-yous - and it was this strange way that Sister Sybil seemed to gift everything around her with language. And yet, she was not a lovely or a lovable woman. She believed only in her God and in the wretchedness of all mankind. I avoided her, because even back then I never looked like what they expected a good Christian sheep to look like - my wool was unkempt - and whenever Sister Sybil spotted me she tried to lay heavy hands on my dread-locks and pray, and this would last forever and who had the time for that? It was Sister Sybil - apocalyptic drama queen that she was - who said to one of my friends when she was barely an eleven-year-old girl, 'Child! Me and de devil was fighting for yu soul last night!' Only that, and she walked off, withholding from the girl the answer to the question that would haunt her for years - 'Who won?'
We avoided her, and yet we looked forward to those Sundays when she would speak in tongues. On one such Sunday a young woman, Jeanette, was sitting beside me. I knew Jeanette well because we were going to University together - the University I would eventually drop out of but which she would graduate from - a degree in modern languages. Jeanette was good at languages - she gobbled up new ones and new accents all the time. On the Sunday I am remembering, Jeanette had declared in awe, 'Sister Sybil have the prettiest tongues I ever hear!'
I did not agree with her. She was right but I could not agree. What Jeanette had said felt like a heresy. She had introduced into what was, for me, a purely spiritual realm, a human aesthetic. She had acknowledged that Sister Sybil spoke a version of tongues that was more pleasing - more musical to the ear. Jeanette was acknowledging artifice and performance - that there was an art Sister Sybil had somehow mastered.
But art is a human pursuit. When God looked down on his creation and declared, It is very good, we never really believe this is the pronouncement of an artist. It is an almost conceited pronouncement of a perfect God's own inner goodness that can't help but to create something wonderful. Given a mind of its own, that creation of course would turn itself into something terrible - but originally, as created by God, it is always very, very good - it cannot help but be. When the human artist, on the other hand, declares that his work is good or lovely or beautiful, it is a different thing altogether; he or she had no inherent inner beauty to draw upon. The human artist's 'It is good' acknowledges that there had been the real potential, more than likely already realised in thrown away versions or practice runs, for it all to turn out awful. The human artist's 'It is good' is an acknowledgement of perspiration, and fumbling, and redrafting - in other words, craft.
Back then I did not want to believe that powerful sermons, or beautiful tongues or moving prophecy had been crafted by humans. I didn't want to believe that Sister Sybil had taken hold of her tongues, manipulated it and made something better out of its raw material. I didn't want to believe that Sister Sybil was like me - cunning, crafty, a fraud. Every writer looks up occasionally from the loneliness of his keyboard, out onto his universe of writers and preachers and sounds, then he looks down again on his own clumsy fingers tapping away and tries to understand his craft. Perhaps no one can say it better than the bard has already: we are trying to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name; we are trying to make the abstract concrete; we are trying to make the familiar unfamiliar enough so that the reader can experience it again. This essay is not trying to make an original point - but I grew up in Jamaica, amongst sermons not sonnets. I am trying to understand these things in the language of that Pentecostal world where women sang zealously and off-key, that world of hand clapping and tambourines and shouting - a world my fiction and poems keep going back to, and which I believe has something to say about the way my own clumsy fingers move across this keyboard.
Like a buzzard or like a johncrow, this essay has been circling around the Day of Pentecost - that day when the gifts of tongues and prophecy legend said took root in the church. The story goes like this: Jesus died, then on the third day the heart which had flat-lined started suddenly to crest and fall again; he recuperated miraculously. For almost two months he lived, once again, amongst his disciples and friends, but eventually he had to leave. He rose into heaven, a dramatic and tearful goodbye, but gave them this promise - I will send the Comforter.
The Day of Pentecost is the day of the Comforter's coming. One hundred and twenty men and women were crowded together in a room and probably looking towards the door and waiting for a knock, or peeping out the window and waiting for a tall figure to approach from down the road. Wherever they were looking, it is unlikely anyone was looking up, past the cobwebs, to the ceiling. And then, as if there indeed was no roof, no steeple blocking them from the sky, something fell from heaven and onto them. It is the Comforter - the Holy Spirit. If the crowd had time to prepare, it was not much - only enough to be conscious of the sudden racing of their individual hearts. If they had heard it coming, it was only moments before - a sound of violent wind. If they had seen the sign hovering over their heads, there wasn't even enough time to faint - the sight of disembodied tongues set on fire above each of them. One by one they erupt into glossolalia - languages they had never heard before, had never spoken before, had never had feelings or dreams in before, suddenly spill from their lips. Without any lessons in conjugation, without listening to a vocabulary CD each night, without an immersion trip, they speak a variety of new languages - and the further miracle is this: they all understand each other.
I have spoken in tongues. I have been under a crusade tent where the preacher has turned his palms up towards heaven, and then, as if having received something, thrown it out to the worshippers before him who have fallen back. I have felt the sensation before, something being drawn out of the well of my belly. I have heard myself speaking words that I did not know. And though I think every scripture agrees with what I am about to tell you, my explanation of the phenomenon has usually proven too secular for the devoted, those who want only to hold on to the inexplicable miracle of the event.
Here is the sense I have made of things: I was inventing a language. I had found myself standing before this thing I understood to be God - a thing I still believe in, something larger and truer than any one individual. I found that the language I knew best - English - was insufficient for anything. This is similar to the frustrated man who throws his hands in the air and grunts - a sound that is a curse against the inadequacy of words, and so in a strange way, becomes a word itself. Standing in that tent, overwhelmed, I could not put the largeness of what I was feeling into the confines of the limited vocabulary I knew. We all know only a few words. Every language is a small language. Or, to put it more accurately, every language is smaller than the world it comes out of. It tries to embrace that world but its arms can never span the circumference. Sister Sybil knew this. She was aware of the impossibility of using her secular langue to account for her spiritual experience. So every Sunday she opened her mouth and she invented. She understood the scripture - for he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; but in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. She was not miraculously uprooting some dialect that was once spoken by a forgotten tribe or nation of men. It was, instead, her own language. And every bit of it was language by any definition you choose. A word is a sound that is understood between two people. On my own day of Pentecost, between me and my God, this is exactly what I was doing. I spoke in tongues. I invented a language.
And this is how I now choose to understand my art: I speak in tongues every day - but mostly on Sundays when I stay at home to write poems or stories. At least I try to. I want to invent new languages to account for things or experiences that have not been properly accounted for, or that have been accounted for so many times they have become only a shell. I am trying to make groanings that have not been uttered.
Forgive me a moment of self-indulgence. I am going to do the slightly awkward thing of pretending to be a literary critic of my own work. The title story in my fiction collection, The Fear of Stones, tries to tell the story of a man growing up in Jamaica and the terror when he realises he is not attracted to women. The story wobbles off-track though, making several digressions on the nature of language. I'm generous enough to believe the whole thing doesn't really wobble - in fact, it hinges upon one of these digressions that is invoked early and then reinvoked near the end. The reinvocation happens when the main character, Gavin, has just had a confrontation with one of the rougher men in his community. It is a confrontation that becomes physical. In the moment when the two men hold on to each other aggressively, ready to fight, it suddenly becomes tensed with the erotic. It is then that the digression begins again:
Here is a bit of flawed logic: for everything that exists there is a word. If there is not a word for something, then it stands to reason, the thing does not exist. But what has Gavin always been afraid of? What is the fear of stones - no - the fear of being stoned? What is it called, this expectancy some men carry in their backs that there are people out there, so righteous and exact in their hatred that they will pick up a stone and fling it after us - an accusation, a punishment, a curse for not fitting in, for not belonging to some tribe they have decided all men must belong to. Is there a name for the premonition lurking in our blood that one day friends will turn their backs and families will disown us? Language is limited. There is no single word for such a thing, but such a thing does exist.
If I am lucky, if one reader finds the story successful, it is because the whole thing became the missing word. It would have invented a language; it would have spoken in tongues.
This is how I also choose to understand my art of tongues, just like under the tents where I have worshipped, is the strange art of 'falling back', of speaking in different tones, accents, registers, genders. It is an art of humility and of opening up: the humility to inhabit and understand a situation that might not be our own - an opening up to that most frighteningly spiritual act - letting go - possession. I want to be possessed by my stories and speak their language. I want to be possessed by characters, give in to the things they demand to do and say which too often are not the actions or words I had planned for them.
There are many stages to crafting a work - and those stages include erasing, rethinking, reshaping. But I believe equally in the stage of loosening my grip, submitting, following willingly, relaxing my jaw and letting strange sounds come out of it.
Those who experienced Pentecost would soon forget the second half of the miracle - how each man understood each man, whatever language he was speaking. Eventually they would only want to experience the ecstasy of strange words in their mouths - an intensely private communication between themselves and their God. A lot of poetry is like this. I am told a lot of it is good. But I do not care for that art of seeming non-communication.
But sometimes I understand the seduction. It is a similar thing with most national literatures. Who cares if those on the outside do not understand? Even for those of us who speak particular Englishes - we rest sometimes on that safe inside, enjoying the confidence and freedom to speak a language that is understood and which we do not have to defend. We speak; we are understood; simply that. The Philippino writer wants, at times, to use the word 'tricycle' knowing that his fellow countrymen will visualise a motor-bike with a side car and not a three wheeled toy for children. The South African writer wants to say he stopped at the 'robot' knowing that his countrymen will envision a stop-light and not an android. The Jamaican in me, at times, wants to emphatically declare that something is wutliss! without having to explain the etymology of that creolese from the English word 'worthless'.
Some writers speak only in tongues, and this is their right, and often times their nobility. But eventually I realised I wanted more. I desired a 'higher gift' as the apostle Paul once wrote to the church, ranking prophecy over tongues... he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesies speaketh unto men for edification, exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifies himself; but he that prophesies edifies the church. I would that ye all spake with tongues, but I would rather that ye prophesied.
Eventually I was no longer interested in the mere fact of a language, but in crafting it. Specifically, in crafting it so that it could be understood. I had stopped writing in dialect, hopefully with no one realising I had stopped. As Derek Walcott might insist about his own work - what I had begun to use was an approximation of dialect. Enough dialect so that you know what is being signalled, but rendered in a way that it was understood by a wider world. I was speaking in tongues and interpreting those tongues at the same time. In short, I was trying to prophesy.
At times I feel guilty at the preciousness of this ambition, but I was hardly ever interested in merely being a good writer - though I know such a thing is incredibly hard enough, and a life-long pursuit. I wanted instead to be a powerful writer. 'Good' meant that you had simply mastered the art - the mechanics. 'Powerful' meant you also had something important to say, something of consequence, and that you had said it. I wanted to prophesy in the way that those in the bible had prophesied - not necessarily a prediction of the future, but rather they spoke on behalf of a power and a truth greater than themselves - connecting their audience, their congregation to that truth.
I believe there is a truth out there. Perhaps it is just one of the things I hold on to though I no longer go to church. There are other things I hold on to, like this scripture which is written on my wall, and is the screensaver that scrolls across my computer like a reminder when I have been waiting too long for a sentence that doesn't want to come - it is an instruction to the prophet which I've appropriated as an instruction for the writer. From the book of Habakkuk, it says, 'Write down the vision, make it plain, that he who readeth may run.' Imagine such an effect, that someone might read my work, and run. That they should be so literally moved. It is, perhaps, too much to hope for. In truth I would be content to move a reader emotionally. I would be content to move someone to see the world differently, move them to consider things new - move them towards the truths I hope my writing is walking towards. For that I will continue to speak in tongues. For that, I will prophesy.
This article is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.