Sunday, August 29, 2004

Light the Lights: Charles Cantalupo's Decolonized Knowledge

So there I was, flipping through the most recent copy of the ADE Bulletin (the MLA's publication for Department Chairs -- I'm not the chair of my department, thank god, but the chair has signed me up for the Bulletin anyway, which I take as an ominous advance rumble of an administrative chickenshit monsoon blowing in my direction). By and large, the ADE Bulletin articles are exactly as interesting and inspiring as you'd think they'd be. They're the kind of thing that makes you want a third cup of coffee. But this time there was an article by Mary Louise Pratt called "Living Change: Thoughts for Humanists in Troubled Times." This was interesting, and got me thinking about Charles Cantalupo's new book of poems, "Light the Lights," which, in a just world, would be well known and prominantly reviewed.

Pratt writes about the long slow processes by which changes in knowledge are lived out, and takes particular notice of what she calls the decolonizing of Western knowledge of the world beyond Europe. She begins by noting how Western knowledge of the rest of the world was often colonial in its assumptions. She gives different examples, but I think of a guy like the Marquis de Condorecet, a left-winger and general good guy of the Enlightenment, who nevertheless thought that all the unfortunate Africans needed was to "follow the expositions and proofs that appear in our speeches and writings" to rise from what he saw as their savagery. Talk about your Eurocentrism: African forms of knowledge had nothing to offer, in this view, and the leadership role naturally fell to the West. You can almost hear the quills being sharpened for the writing of the manifestos of the colonial "mission civilisatrice."

Understanding of the discontents of this kind of colonial discourse came slowly, Pratt says, through the lived expereinces of generations. Shakespeare gave a kind of glimpse of the problem early on, with Caliban from "The Tempest," but the understanding of Caliban as a figure of decolonization took centuries. Pratt points to Northrop Frye's introduction to the 1959 Penguin edition of the play, where the great critic's prodigious intelligence glimmers, for a moment, with insight. "It is a little puzzling," writes Frye, "why New World imagery should be so prominent in 'The Tempest,' which really hs nothing to do with the New World, beyond ... a general, if vague, resemblenace between the relation of Caliban to the other characters and that of the American Indians to the colonizers and drunken sailors who came to exterminate or enslave them." Yow! I mean, there it it: a recognition of the decolonizing element of the play, but just there, at the exact moment of vision, the lights go out, and Frye becomes blind to his own insight. If that insight now seems obvious, it is only because decades of political decolonization and post-colonial study have made it so.

I'm not at all sure we're through with the process of decolonizing knowledge, either. I remember attending a conference at Grinnell College, where I, along with other liberal arts profs who taught postcolonial literature, had assembled to pat ourselves on the back for our pedagogical and political coolness. At one of the Q&A sessions an African man (Joseph Mbele of St. Olaf College, I think) rose up and interrupted a speaker who'd been talking about race, gender and class in postcolonial studies. "my question is this," he said "when will my village matter?" This stopped us all in our tracks. What he meant, he continued, was that the terms we were so pleased to use in discussing identity (race gender and class) were western terms, and totally alien to the terms actually used in the African village where he grew up. There, he went on, everything was a matter of extended kinship relations. If we didn't incorporate those terms into our discourse, how "post" was our supposed postcolonialism. (We all applauded -- but I wonder how many of the assembled profs have gone on to learn anything about those kinship systems he mentioned?)

All of this brings me, at last, around to Charles Cantalupo. Cantalupo has -lived- decolonization more than most of us. He's spent a lot of time in Africa, and worked closely with the Eritran poet Reesom Haile (whom he has translated). He seems to have had connections to the Eritrean revolutionaries in their war of liberation against the Ethipoian government, and he organized the Asmara conference on African languages and literature (whose declaration, first published in Samizdat, has been so influential in studies of African literature). What I mean by all of this is that, unlike so many of the people I hung out with when I was involved with postcolonial studies, Cantalupo had an understanding of issues that didn't just come from the library (though he had that kind of understanding too). And Cantalupo's new book of poems, "Light the Lights," is one of the most fully realized works of decolonized knowledge that I have seen.

Okay, I'll explain. Or better yet, I'll give you some of Cantalupo's words by way of explanation. Here are some lines from "Power Figure," the incantatory poem with which he starts the book:

Mothered by a slit gong,
Fathered by a stranger,
This power is not the word
of silver gelatin
To develop a photo,
But pigment and lumen,
Mask, tools and body...

Here, the "power" of which Cantalupo writes is the power of representation, but it is not a Western power (the power of photographic mimesis). Rather, it is the mask and slit gong power of African modes of mimesis. There is a kind of reclaiming of other modes of reason and representation. So far so good. But things get more complicated later in the poem continues:

This power wears your face
And mine: a bell of double
Deals and rivet lines,
One eye an unfired bullet,
The other an old teat,
Six ridges in one brain
With green bolts, and lips barred
By the same claws that scarred
Those cheeks into fossil rocks
Obscured by feathers and fur

Okay, then. So the "power" seems to be a kind of ancestor spirit, a mask, but it is hybridized, like contemporary Africa itself. The basic mask-form is African, just as the basic knowledge patterns of most Africans remains non-Western. But the bullets and rivets that comprise parts of the mask are western, and give us too-clear of a picture of what kinds of western knowlege-goods and material-goods have become parts of the African experience. Nicely done. But wait! There's more! Check out the ending of he poem:

To trade for more tools:
Beans of no birth, small horns,
Unloosed pens and arrows
Wrapped in wet skin,
Petrified birds, stones like hips,
A mandolin, dust that bleeds,
Finger bones, gourds,
Dateless wax holding pins,
Hair twine, porcelain chips,
A grandfather's hammer,
Drop cloth and extension cord.

Here we get a jumbling together of African ancestor-totems and Western ancestor-totems (the sort of stuff you might find in the attic of your grandfather when clearing out the house after the funeral -- the drop-cloth and extension cord). The sense of a division between African forms of knowledge and Western forms of knowledge dissolves in this set of images. In a poem like this we can see the end of the idea of a Western civilization, on the one hand, and an African savagery on the other (Condorcet's idea). And we can also see an end to the well-meaning but totally Eurocentric knowledge system of the college postcolonialists (whose Western race-gender-class system totally excluded the African knowledge systems mentioned by Mbele). Here, "this power" becomes the fusion of the Western and the African.

You get a lot of this stuff in Cantalupo's book. And he's fond of dramatizing the destruction of divisions between Western and non-Western knowledges. My favorites of this kind include "Colonial/Neocolonial" and "Columba/Columbus" and "Look Again," which includes the stunning "Love Song of David Livingstone" (the Livingstone of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame).

You'd think that a book like this would get a lot of play. It is formally interesting in the way that the now-powerful Langpo crowd would like, and it deals with all the important postcolonial issues. Sadly, though, I don't think either crowd will get hip to the book. The Langpo people don't seem to read much beyond the work published by their favorite expereimental presses, and "Light the Lights" is published by The Red Sea Press, a New Jersey-and-Eritrea based outfit whose books don't seem to get much notice at, say, The Electronic Poetry Center. And postcolonial studies (in which poetry has never played a leading role) is too deeply immersed in identity politics to pick up "Light the Lights" as a major text. I mean, Cantalupo is an American white guy, and I don't think he's going to get onto the syllabi of many PoCo seminars, even if what he has to show is more important than, say, a third class session on Derek Walcott (let me go on record: Walcott is overrated -- not inconsequential, but overrated. And "Omeros" is kind of a let-down).

I still have a kind of naive faith that a really good book can matter if the word gets out, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against it. We just may have to live out the decolonization of knowledge a bit more before it happens.