How the World was Made—a Super Crown

by on Jul 7, 2015 in Poetry | 0 comments

[Note from poetry editor Bianca Spriggs] Because of its uniqueness, this month’s poetry selection, “How the World Was Made—A Super Crown” by Roger Bonair-Agard, requires some context in terms of content and form. I have a soft spot for a handful of devices in literature, and this work harnesses three of my favorites: tricksters, creation myths, and the sonnet. This work revolves around Anansi, a character best known in West African and Caribbean folklore. True to quintessential trickster characteristics, Anansi is most recognized as a spider but can shape-shift, adopting the appearance and behavior of a man. In Bonair-Agard’s telling, Anansi (the man) is his own creator—he literally creates a world for himself through sight and song and laughter and dance, coming slowly to recognize himself and his place through improvisation, through experimentation, through risk. Thematically, the piece is already a triumph, but made even more memorable by being corralled into a staggering “super crown” of sonnets. The standard sonnet crown uses the fourteen-line sonnet form (in this case, Bonair-Agard does away with rhyme-scheme) to create a story-cycle through a combination of twelve sonnets that each begin with the final line of the preceding sonnet. A super crown consists of twenty-four sonnets which follow the same pattern. “How the World was Made” is a vibrant narrative that boasts lush imagery, a fresh, resonant voice, and is an overall astonishing take on a classic piece of Afrospeculative folklore. It is an absolute treat to present this work to you as July’s selection.

1.

Anansi see a whole ceiling of spiders

come down. The medicine man laugh

his no-teeth laugh again and tell him Write!

And that’s how Anansi know he was safe.

He feel the creeping and crawling all

over him, the thousand legs, the eyes,

the fine fur like they was weaving

a coat for him, and is so Anansi come

to realize he was turning. Is when Anansi feel

the tick tick ticking of webbing down his back,

up around him like a collar, that he understand

what was inside him was now outside him.

What was prophesied was now making manifest.

So he hear what the doctor say, and he write.

2.

The doctor say write and day 3 Anansi feel

something catchin his throat and he move

his new hand to make it stop, and know

is the throat self had to move. So he move

throat. He move it the way a man might

open a envelope and push it from the bottom

out and over to empty the guts of it. So the throat

move, and so Anansi start to sing. First,

it was just a noise but he follow that first

noise with a next one, and then a next one,

and all the coat makers stop, and Anansi self

learn a new word—Music—so he write that down

and the medicine man laugh his no-teeth

laugh, and Anansi laugh back.

3.

And Anansi laugh back and that was the second

sound Anansi make. Soon Anansi moving

the throat like all the time. Is like the envelope

making origami, how he learn to fold

and unfold the throat for different sounds

to come. He learn he could close the envelope

and still make a constant hum. He was writing

everything he know from the world before

this one, humming as he go and the medicine

man laugh and laugh at Anansi humming, and turn

round in a circle, arms open, spinning.

He nod at Anansi, so Anansi get up and spin too;

all the coat-makers getting up with him;

and their movement, as he move was like a low drum.

4.

Move like a low drum Anansi!

and Anansi spin in time to the low

drum, and his own hum, and soon

Anansi dance. Man, if you see how

Anansi dance. What is? The medicine

man ask. What isn’t? Anansi ask

in response What is? The medicine man

ask again; and Anansi stop dancing

to see if he could see what else was dancing.

He was sure now he was not the coat

makers. He was not the medicine

man either. For that matter he was not anything

he could tell. He had obeyed the medicine man

and found himself writing the is of the world before this one

5.

He write the is of the world before this one

and so he know he had hand. He sing,

and so he know he had mouth. He dance

and so he know he had foot. Is now he know

the coat-makers had make a suit of gold for him,

that shimmer round and round. So he start up

by saying what isn’t, because he didn’t know

how else to describe the suit. And the medicine

man shake his head and say No, what is?

But Anansi was already learning how to lie.

Anansi write so many things about the world

before this one, and the pictures he write

was handsome pictures. He had a way

with light and knowing how to make dark talk.

6.

He make the dark talk and so his pictures lie

down when he make the shape of them.

Is so he come to know the difference

between the world before this one, and this one.

The medicine man wanted him to be sure

to know, the difference; where one part

of the circle end and the next, begin. Anansi

wanted to start write about this one too.

But the medicine man point at his feet

and say Walk. So he walk, and the coat-makers

walk with him. Anansi keep time with that.

He time to the footfall of the coat-makers,

And so Anansi start a groove, a crawl so smooth—

they come with their slow drum walk.

7.

So smooth the groove in the slow drum walk

Anansi start to see all that is, in the world

that was not before this one. So he call it, This One.

Soon as he call it out he know he had

to call out everything. Before this he know

the medicine man and the spiders, but now

is This One to worry about. The medicine

man ask him again What is? And Anansi

reply I hungry, and the medicine man say

Yes, but what else, and Anansi say I thirsty

and the medicine man begin again

with the laughing and spinning and say

Yes, but what else and Anansi say

I… am… in time to the groove slide; then stop.

8.

Groove slide with the coat makers who move

in a oneness, whose speech is a weaving and weaving,

who drum-walk and call themselves father to rhythm,

who Medicine Man and Anansi dance behind

who whispers is the whispers of new clothes,

who teach both the hunger and how This One got born,

who shun wings in order to glory work

who keep both the elements that make rain

and the back talk that make lies, who was the ceiling

of spiders on Anansi head, when he was growing

finger and foot and the prick he hadn’t looked

at yet, who riddle-a-riddle-a-ree and don’t

offer no answers but the whisper

of the self returning to the self.

9.

When Anansi self return to himself

Anansi say What, coat-makers, What am I,

and all the coat makers move as one body;

all the weaving legs hitting at the same time,

jumping like a whole Maasai village so you

could hear them breathe as they land,

hear them land like one drum,

and it was then Anansi notice that he had a navel

string to the whole world and everything inside it.

Is then he notice the prick he hadn’t seen before

and he feel like sounds he make when he sing,

was law, though he couldn’t yet figure out to whom.

But he feel like everything he write is what is,

is—so he ask Am I a man?

10.

Anansi ask Am I a man? and the coat-makers

stop jumping, not even a vibration. They remain

very still. And Anansi feel like the dirt

itself get quiet. Nothing Anansi say until then make

even ants stop moving; not dark, not medicine man

most magic song, but this—this utterance from Anansi

mouth make everything stop. If he had sense to know

what that was, Anansi would say he frighten.

But he don’t know to say even that. He know

though, that he could make a bad joke and talk

and next thing you know, everybody in a new

world, every garden stop bloom. Anansi heed

that. He turn to the coat-makers he say Fuck that.

From now on, we dance together before we put prayers to any dream

11.

We dance before we put prayers to a dream

And things start to happen fast, fast. Anansi,

judicious with the talk but still willing

to dance with the coat-makers, sing songs

with the medicine man. And is so one day,

the medicine man sing for him a song

that was so true it expose to him secrets

of the world from before This One. It was a song

in memory of galaxies and beginnings. It was a song

in explanation of color. And when the song

became meta-song and told him the nature

of itself and air, Anansi, mid laugh, fall

into a deep sleep. And when he wake,

Medicine Man was dancing.

12.

When Anansi wake, Medicine man was dancing

with the spiders and a being that look like him

and not like him. And the new creature make

a song in the air that was the movement inside

a butterfly house, and the thousand flutterings

Anansi know, was from inside him. The thing

singing, to the medicine man and the coat-makers,

had fished from out of the air around the Medicine

Man’s lungs, a new mystery of how the throat

can trill and walk blood back from the heart,

to the place in Anansi where he began once

to be born. Anansi say nothing. He just enjoy

what he know to be new happening inside him.

New creature dance and sing

13.

New creature dance and sing and Medicine Man

dance, sing and the coat-makers drum-walk

for the two of them, and build new creature a suit

of the finest sunshine. And it sing something

with Anansi name in it, and when the sunshine

suit was finish, come and sit right next to where

Anansi had get up. And new creature talk, and the spiders

stay quiet and Medicine Man just watching, and Anansi,

distrustful of talk was too glad to hear someone

else sound like building blood around him,

and the new thing laugh with him and Medicine

Man laugh, and new creature say Aso. And Anansi

Say Aso? And the being say Aso,

and this is what Aso tell Anansi.

14.

Aso tell Anansi: Begin again with the center

of yourself where one part of you join the next,

where you become a planet, where song

make a spine out of water’s belly where

you start sometimes to believe your form

know something your spirit don’t learn

yet where you start to suspect everything

in you belong to something else; where

heart begins at the lake bottom and makes

itself a question in the universe of blood

where you hold that universe in the well

of the throat and sing every world before

This One into some place new,

into some place, the heart means.

15.

Begin again with what heart means;

with not the anteroom but the hurricane

not with terrifying fist, but with

its corridors of want and want again

its washerwoman’s labor of river and river

throughout the whole form, the heart

a weather informing the etymology of the body’s

grace. Begin again with not the heart as a

violence, but a thorough labor. Begin all

your dances turning within the heart’s

own gyre and every word becomes

your own and no weapon formed

by your throat against your planet can prosper.

16.

No weapon formed by throat can prosper

and so Anansi call the spiders to him

to hear this new way to pronounce

make. The spiders drum walk a chorus

up to the spot where Aso and Anansi sit,

knees touching. Anansi take a courage

straight from Aso mouth and sing

it up to the sun, because Anansi start to know

that it wasn’t talk make the world stop;

it was the medicine of unintention. Anansi

know now he could make This One

out of different prayers from the world

before This One. He start to believe

heart was make for sleeve

17.

Heart climb up on sleeve

Who know how hard Heart work

to show foot how to walk road till it river.

Heart invent 21-gun salute. Heart start

teach medicine to Medicine Man. Heart

invent the breath that blow wood into didjeridoo.

Heart turn self into bad weather. Heart hoard

water. Heart invent physics of bridge-building.

Heart lease the sound of song to hand, fist,

 foot and belly. Heart remake itself in mouth

and the prayers that become lies. Heart claim

the whole body. Heart turn itself whole

and meanwhile Heart

claim—Break.

18.

Claim—Break. Claim Anansi now

I can sing entire new lives to a new

flame—the kind that throttles wood,

back into timber, the kind that walk

water back to sea. I claim in Heart’s

name that brain belongs to blood and not

blood to Brain. Brain is made entirely

of lightning and Heart, and Brain

sharecrop everything to the tornado

at the center of me, which is the storm

at the center of all storms, at the beginning

of all bloodings. At the midnight of all

which wants to prosper and love.

All things want to prosper and love.

19.

All things want to prosper and love

All things divine a rod to speculate

a coming into self. All things know

void, before they know front and back

and void is the teacher of the beginning

of spine, and spine is the teacher

of direction to Heart. And Heart make

guitar strings of gut and legislate

at the synapses’ marrow. Heart

begin at the zygote’s gateway,

to choir song all the way from foot

sole to throat, and that’s how self

know to time the biggest drum to the Heart’s

first word—to begin it from the squat, in the dirt

20.

In the dirt, Anansi cover his head

and let the bees come. He had wandered

off from Aso and the spiders and the Medicine

man, and the bees come quick. They cover

Anansi in a hum, more bees keep coming

and Anansi could feel them swarm in sheets

around him. Anansi let them take his sweet.

Anansi listen for song in the bees’ hum.

Anansi wait for instruction from This One.

Anansi make his heart a hive and in it hear

a hushing. Anansi come to know then

he was turning again; that not only the spiders’ drum

was enough for him—a man—to become

he need this counterpoint, this balance, this new hum.

21.

This counterpoint, this balance, this hum,

have Anansi searching now for something

greater than himself to lay claim to, and name.

He come back ready to talk about the bees,

but so overcome with news of their meaning

point instead at the Medicine Man and say

Are you… and stop, remembering the lesson

of unintention. He remember how once he made

everything stop move this way, and step forward

one foot first into the circle of all their names.

He ask permission of the world before This One.

He ask the spiders to begin with the low drum.

He call Aso by name and Medicine Man by dance.

He invite the bees and their counter-hum.

22.

He invite the bees come, the spiders drum Aso

to preach, Medicine Man to dance, and he start to hum.

He remember this is how to put prayers to a dream

before he start making simple questions into law.

He let Heart rule the harmony, and felt it river

inside him. He let Aso master the ceremony.

The spiders get down in a deep syncopation.

Together with the bees, he layer a wicked hum.

In the inside of the music, its hurricane center

he hear how the wind beg a return to itself.

Anansi could have rhythm the heavens

with the gurgle at the middle of an egg.

He start to see how the meta-questions answer

themselves manifest—bees, spiders, Aso, himself.

23.

Bees, Spiders, Aso, Anansi. Bees, Spiders, Aso,

Anansi. Bees, Spiders, Aso, Anansi. And Bam

just so Anansi start with a naming that make

the Medicine Man laugh. So you want to call

the world? He ask Anansi, and Anansi say Yes.

It fall to me to call the world, to make new things

and name them names, to find the truth and sing

them new, to listen to beginnings and decipher

befores. I know this to be a question of arrival

and not discovery, a doe-see-doe in the double-

rope turn, and not a scrawling of my name across

walls and wombs and the first breaths of other

prayers. I know to learn to listen to the tide

inside an egg; ask it permission, to begin myself again.

24.

To begin myself again is to know the egg

knows everything, and even permission asked

is a supplication to a world before This One,

is a begging on the egg’s antenna, is a wading

in a mighty water without picking a shore.

And with that the Medicine Man start to fade.

Anansi realize the Medicine Man was less form

than before. Anansi start to panic but Medicine

Man say No, with only his head, and Anansi say

But how will I know? And the Medicine Man stretch

his arms out again and spin, getting lesser and lesser

form. He laugh his no-teeth laugh and say again, Write!

And so Anansi know he was safe, so he know the tide

would decide for him a shore. And just like that, Medicine Man gone.

25.

With that Anansi

Photo by Reginald Eldridge

Photo by Reginald Eldridge

Roger Bonair-Agard is a native of Trinidad & Tobago, a Cave Canem fellow, and author of three full length collections of poetry, tarnish & masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006), GULLY (Cypher Books/Peepal Tree Press, 2010), and Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books, 2013), which was long listed for the National Book Award, and won the Society of Midland Authors Award for Poetry 2013. A two-time National Poetry Slam Champion, Roger is also co-founder of NYC’s LouderARTS Project, and a Creative Writing MFA candidate at University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. He has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and been featured at universities and literary festivals throughout the world. Roger is extensively published in journals and anthologies. He teaches creative writing with Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. He lives and works in Chicago and New York City. He is Nina’s father.

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