Breaking Down the Word: Decolonizing Orature in Gregory Scofield’s “Ôchim/His Kiss”

The following is  an excerpt from a conference paper I presented at The Biennial Conference of the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC):

The contention between literary forms is one of the main sources of energy in Scofield’s poem “Ôchim/His Kiss,” and dares the reader to examine new perspectives on Cree narrative/poetic process and the relationships between human, animal, and land. The poem starts with the initiation of the sexual act “his mouth brushing mine/ is a flat stone/ skipping the lake’s surface” (Scofield 1-3). The poem begins in medias res, the non-capitalization of the first word “his” (1), indicates that the poem is a continuation of an unwritten and exterior utterance. The continuation from an utterance that has already begun implies that there is a larger narrative outside of the poem; to be thrust in medias res there must be a middle of a narrative in which to be thrust. Poetic techniques contrast against these narrative markers. In the opening lines there is a chiasmic splitting of a metaphor in the above passage that tears the reader away from a simple identification of the poem as a narrative. The subject, “his mouth” turns into “a flat stone,” and the action proceeding from the mouth “brushing mine” turns into the action proceeding from the stone, “skipping on the lake’s surface” (1,2,3). This split separates the subjects from the actions upon their objects, and since narrative is contingent upon a clear subject-object relation, the poem creates a distance between the two that challenges that principle.

The blurring of the distinction between subject-object also advocates for a different relationship between human, animal and land. The separation between these entities in “Ôchim/His Kiss” are nearly non-existent. Such thin, transparent lines of separation highlight a shared embodied experience with animals and land—wâhkôtowin (‘kinship’). Kinship between humans, animals and land, defies the simplistic subject-object power relationship colonialism relies on in order to reproduce itself. Narratives in the Western tradition rely on a clear distinction between subject and object, but Scofield’s metaphors (or transformations, more accurately) defy such clear distinctions. Scofield only signals the transformations twice in the entirety of “Ôchim/His Kiss” with the verb “is” (2, 7). Most of the transformations occur freely without any signalling, continuing to challenge narrative structures that usually requires a clearer pretext—a relation between cause and effect—for such transformations. At the same time, the transformations seem to follow the narrative arc of a sexual act.  They proceed from initiation (the kissing of lines one through three), to foreplay (the, licking, touching, and yielding of lines four through thirteen), to sexual climax (the ascendance of lines fourteen through seventeen), to a final release and denouement (the slowing reverberations of line eighteen to twenty-one). The overall result of this structure is the alternating pull between the formal elements of poetry and those of narrative.

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OUR WORDS ARE BRICK AND MORTAR (excerpt)

This is an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis that I completed at McMaster University, the full-length version can be found at MacSphere:

            This chapter examines the loss of home as it pertains to the individual West Indian migrant in George Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. I will be working with the hypothesis that migration often results in the traumatic loss of home and that a loss of self and identity follows. The loss of home effects West Indian men, in particular, because of the upheaval of their patriarchal positions and ideologies in the West Indian household, family and society during the nationalist era. Therefore, what was a “fixed reference point for the structuring of reality” (Porteous 386) becomes disrupted. Given that Lamming wrote In the Castle of My Skin within five years of his immigration to England I gather that this disruption is still fresh. In this first novel after Lamming’s migration from Barbados, it becomes clear that the (re)writing/ (re)constructing of home is a process born out of that loss. As Lamming explains: “[the Caribbean], in spite of its long history of deprivation, represented the womb from which [the Caribbean writer] himself had sprung, and [it is] the richest collective reservoir of experience on which the creative imagination could draw” (Castle xxxvii). In the Castle of my Skin then represents both a personal and psychological loss for Lamming and a concerted effort at (re)constructing home in an imaginary space.

The disruption of Lamming’s point of reference, caused by his loss of home, reinforces Rosemary George’s contention that “The subject status of the immigrant, especially that of the non-white immigrant to the west, forces another literary reinscription of the self and home” (George 8). I believe this project of reinscription that reveals “fictionality [as] an intrinsic attribute of home” (11) encapsulates the migrant’s response to that loss and ultimately cultivates a relationship with home that can assist the migrant in responding to the disruption that migration entails. Given the closeness of the home to the identity of the individual which it houses, I believe that by looking at George Lamming’s fiction we can learn to anticipate and respond to the loss of home. This response, returning to the idea of fictionality, should be a reconfiguring of the divisions and the points of reference of which the psychic aspect of home is constructed.

The possibility of reconstructing home overturns the conventional categorization of the nostalgic home as an ideal. The individual may hold onto the illusory belief that home is a lost paradise of familiarity, comfort, security and community rather than accepting its unsettled nature and realizing the necessity “of struggle and of embracing the unfamiliar” (George 27) inherent in the process of homemaking. It is also the space where the resident is witness and subject to the network of divisions (exclusions and inclusions) intrinsic to the home. In other words, home is not solely a space of belonging, but also a space where we witness or become subjects of acts of exclusion, often perpetrated by the head or ruler of the household. By the same token it is the place where a resident may witness the inclusion of others which he/she may feel should be excluded. It is by the negotiation of these “select inclusions and exclusions” (George 2) that home becomes a site of anxiety which actively competes with its comfort-providing qualities. This duality produces a dynamic in which, “the real and the ideal are not pure and distinct concepts or domains [but] are mutually defining concepts and experiences” (Mallett 70).

Homes, then, are spaces that capture the ambivalence of social relations within a given society. Yet, home has largely been overrepresented as a place of unity and ease and underrepresented as a place of division and anxiety. I would like to suggest in this chapter that In the Castle of my Skin is capable of reintroducing this ambivalence into the discussion of home because of how it imagines home in a way reveals that “privacy, safety, security, comfort and refuge are not necessarily associated with the inside or home but may be found beyond its reaches [and that] [s]imilarly, danger, fear, insecurity are not necessarily located in the outside world” (72). Lamming’s inscription retains the quality of the nostalgic ideal home while earnestly observing and interrogating the boundaries of home and non-home. This mixed quality results in a narrative that emphasizes turmoil in a space commonly recognized as a zone of stability and scrutinizes the qualities of home. In that vision, perhaps, I can locate some impetus which motivates the migrant to reconstruct the lost home. Freud would agree that “each single struggle of ambivalence loosen[s] the fixation of the libido to the [lost] object” (“Mourning and Melancholia” 257).

The ambivalence that releases the migrant from a melancholic attachment to the lost home is only the beginning of the reconstruction, since“[e]ach single one of the memories and situations of expectancy which demonstrate the libido’s attachment to the lost object is met by the verdict of reality that the object no longer exists” (255). The migrant must come to accept that the home he or she left has been lost. In the case of the non-white male West Indian who has migrated to England, home may still exist as a physical and geographical position, but the network of ideological reference points and divisions has been overturned by changes in gender dynamics and by the excluding pressures of racism and nationalism in English society. It is during this introduction to the pressures of English society that the migrant confronts the “demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachment to that object” (244). Subsequently, he encounters a challenge which Freud would call the reattachment of the libido to a new love-object. I would like to extend his assertion by suggesting the migrant must actively reconstruct a home in which he may house the libido. By accepting that home has “no fixed or essential past [the migrant can come to recognize that] the identity and meaning of [home] must be constructed and negotiated” (Mallett 70).

What we begin to see in this outline is the psychic involvement in the task of homemaking. As I have outlined in Chapter 1, the classical patriarchal paradigm situates women in the domestic sphere, and relegates them to the task of homemaking. Thus “the issue of ‘home’ and the private sphere is usually embedded in discourses on women” (George 19). That being said, the primarily male characters of The Castle introduces the complexity of a man or boy’s involvement in the task. A large part of The Castle addresses the “issue of ‘homelands’ or ‘home-countries’ […] raised primarily in the discourse on nationalism and the other so-called masculine, public arenas” (19). Yet, I would argue that what is at stake in this chapter is not so much the masculine-gendered national/political sphere, but masculine reworkings of home in the private and personal spheres. This inversion of masculine ideas of home implies a bridge between the binary of masculine and feminine concepts of home on which the migrant can lay the groundwork for a provisional point of reference between the “boundaries of place and/or home [which] are [inherently] permeable and unstable” (Mallett 70).

Lamming’s narrative voice mirrors the provisional point of reference in “the self-discursive G. and the collective third person narrator [which] repeatedly defer to a chorus of village voices that name their own reality” (Paquet xxiii). The narrative moves between the mind of G. (suggesting “George,” Lamming’s semi-autobiographical self), the omniscient perspective (what I will call an exterior perspective), to a third perspective where the narrative speaks through the characters of Lamming’s village. Although the third perspective is evidently interior, that is to say speaking from within the mind of the characters, it represents the voices of villagers who are separate from G.’s experience. Through this movement, Lamming is able to address, alongside questions of home-nation (which will be discussed in the following chapter), private and personal worlds extending outwards from the protagonist. Moreover, this persistent oscillation between the interior/exterior, between the protagonist and his village, thematizes what might be considered a counterintuitive aspect of home. What is commonly imagined as “provid[ing] a sense of place and belonging in an increasingly alienating world” (Mallett 66) is reimagined as “a pattern of select inclusions and exclusions. Home is a way of establishing difference. Homes and home-countries are exclusive” (George 2).