Cape Coast Castle
by Yusef Komunyakaa
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Frost declared, and though I find myself still ashamed to cry, something about this adage sings to me, familiar, as from my mother’s rough alto. Is it possible I forgot, but still anticipated, the second half of that instructive? “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” Frost continued. Something turns. Whether emotional, epiphanic, imagistic, or what have you, Frost is pushing me toward acknowledging the critical importance of surprise in all its forms—of the discovery of a not-before-now-known knowledge realized in process of the poem.
I love the way Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Cape Coast Castle” begins here, startling with shock and surprise. I love how Komunyakaa’s poem—which, from then on, refuses to curb such pleasure—starts in pleasure: “I made love to you, & it loomed there.”
Though Komunyakaa has made a career of marrying what one might call the loose, informal syntax of common English vernacular with his own wildly idiosyncratic, even gothic, logic, what could prepare me for that first line? Like you, I’ve read theory, have considered the arguments detailing the violent underside of love and, more accurately, sex—and yet how to fully swallow such a suggestion? That even at what’s perhaps the most intimate and vulnerable act two or more persons can share is “it”—the “it” of the Castle of the poem’s title, of history, of centuries of panic, bloodshed, war, capitalism and empire? I doubt I need to remind you that Cape Coast Castle is that fortification found in what’s now Ghana, historically used for the selling of goods, most infamously human slaves. Komunyakaa’s poem begins as a demonstration, then, of how such history can come to haunt any given subjectivity, however erudite, well-traveled, or in love. “It” will not be evaded, but instead will stalk the lovers—“along polluted beaches…to the marketplace . . . [and] in the van with [the lovers] on a road trip”—briefly disappearing only to reappear again and again.
The insistence of “it”—how, for example, virtually each sentence conforms to this spectral visitor—produces the poem’s haunted quality. But in another way this same insistence begins to build a clearly identifiable structure for the poem. As you did, I began to imagine this structure as a kind of internal formula, anticipating that the remainder of the poem would work in a similar manner: a series of interesting and precise details (“where the boys herded cows / & the girls danced for the boys, / to the moneychanger”) that are, and will be, continuously interrupted by the persistence of “it.” I imagined that, for as long as these details remain descriptive, and most importantly, surprising, the poem would emerge successfully from this structure.
Yet what delivers this poem from the merely successful and makes it, as I would say, truly great is not its insistence on this established structure, but on surprise itself. As if bored with and ready to invigorate itself, the poem shifts and turns. When I say “surprise,” then, it may be useful to think of it in these more tangible terms: as a kind of volta, a shift in angle and direction that, at least with this example, is a shift not outward, as if to a new topic altogether, but inward, deeper into the various sub-layers, histories and personae already at play. Komunyakaa shows us (and am I trite to suggest he also surprises and shows himself?) how “it” (the castle/history) can not only haunt that aforementioned subjectivity or speaker of the poem, but can disturb the very poem itself: for, just when “it” seems as if it will finally disappear, “it” is totally remade, seen anew via a collapse of time and appearing as the powerfully oppressive figure of the governor himself.
Whereas, earlier, “it” haunted the speaker of the poem within his own present moment, now that speaker has been forced back (or has he willingly gone over?) to the time of “it”—a century when the Governor of a slave ship can be witnessed so clearly that his exact speech can be rendered and experienced. “It” has exploded. Divorced now from its initial syntactical strategy, the poem continues in this new, almost cinematic, mode, painting a scene in which the “tall, ample wench” is dragged by other “[e]nslaved hands” to him.
Though it’s true this entire episode is given to us by way of a narrator (having time-traveled, as the victim of an overpowered imagination, or otherwise having been in the delusion of dreams), I nevertheless want to argue that the narrator’s consciousness is continuously overwhelmed by the pressure of history so that the poem’s structure is, itself, again and again interrupted. Towards its end, the poem comes to be possessed entirely by the governor. After the reader is given some last information by the narrator—namely that, though the wench “still had some fight in her,” nevertheless “the governor’s power was absolute”—the governor speaks, taking up the poem’s final sixteen lines, for himself.
Where has the “we” of the first line gone? Even the “I” himself—is he still present? None of these figures are, exactly, operating in the concluding lines of the poem. It is only the governor’s time to talk. The poem has turned yet again: back into itself, into its description of the governor and, from there, has surprised into only the governor’s heart-rending speech. Neither that “tall, ample wench,” the other “[e]nslaved hands,” nor even the initial speaker of the poem can quite overcome the pitch of the governor’s “sweet words,” sharp enough, we’re told, to break, and precise enough, I’ll add, that they become the only consistent strategy of this poem.
Like Komunyakaa himself, “Cape Coast Castle” will not so easily rest in any given structure, register, mode, time, or space (even if wholly exciting in that moment), but continually agitates via the push of these short, sweet words. As if to argue that history—even a gruesome history—like love-making, travel, or fond memories of home, can’t be ignored. As if to argue that any successful poem is but a revelation of its several turns, its urges to surprise.
Rickey Laurentiis was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. The recipient of a 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, he has also been honored with fellowships or scholarships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as a Chancellor’s Fellowship from Washington University in St Louis where he is completing his MFA. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including Callaloo, Feminist Studies, Indiana Review, jubilat, Knockout Literary Magazine and Poetry.