There’s history in stone.
In searching for an image to accompany this poem, I turned up scores of photos of uncredited ‘African masks’ in New York museums, and monuments, forts, edifices, all laid in, brick by millionth brick, by the hands of black slaves.
What is an ‘African mask’? Is it similar to an ‘African textile’, or an ‘African pot’? What have we learned about making Africa a congealed, amorphous continent of pain, and its accompanying culture? It’s the culture of pain Canisia Lubrin‘s after in “Final Prayer in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception I”, but also the culture of how black bodies have survived it.
Lubrin invokes “the symmetry of shattered-strong / women”, tattooed and transcendent, even as they’re reduced to little more than slideshows of ‘African culture’. The poem is a daring, image-stilettoed refusal to accept broad-brushstroke canvasing of black pain, or else black joy. The poet sifts through any obscurantist bladderwrack, dives into history, slavery, the dislocation and torture of black humanity, and brings us pearls, lustrous and obsidian with weight and impact.
“Peel back the scales of these untranslatable African songs, reveal / them more syllabled than your “Gloria.”” is my favourite pearl of the poem. This is how Lubrin arrives at ‘African’ definitions that are both specific and encompassing, both one thing and many, all holding hands, all lifting lanterns, all shattering slave-labour structures. This is not an unmarked African mask in a museum on the Upper East Side. This is not an artifact needing stolen back. This is its own stealing back, its own fervent and radical witness.
“See queens and knights left over to check- / mate”, the poem promises us. Or, perhaps, the poem prays in us. It is, after all, a prayer, and a final one. It bows our heads.
Read “Final Prayer in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception I” here.
Canisia Lubrin’s first book of poems, Voodoo Hypothesis, was published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2017.
This is the eighth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.