Insulation or Arrest?: Glissant’s Poetics

I was immediately struck by Glissant’s rhapsodic prose in the section titled “The Open Boat,” which describes the horrors of slaves jettisoned so that the ships carrying them might evade their assailants. I’d like to examine the concluding lines of his meditation: “We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify. We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone” (9). After depicting the ordeal of the slaves through his own poetic renderings, it seems as though Glissant wants to position poetics as a technology of depiction that falls in stark contract to the realities afforded, for instance, the slaves he writes about. We have the luxury of knowing ourselves as either part or crowd, whereas the slaves did not. They are merely relegated to chains in “the belly of the boat” (6). The cry of poetry we muster, he suggests, is a knowledge accrued from the collective experiences of our forebears. The question I have, then, is why poetry?

Perhaps the most striking moment in the section occurs near the end, in the paragraphs where Glissant shifts from second person to first: “For though that experience made you, original victim floating toward the sea’s abyss, an exception, it became something shared and made us, the descendants, one people among others” (8). Glissant goes on to talk about relation as the unifying force connecting the horrific experience demonstrated in the passage to our own lives; he further elaborates that it’s this very relation that allows us to experience murmurs of the abyss, chaos, or “profound moments of peace in which we may honor our boats” (9). Perhaps this is why we’re left with our poetry; the force of events like the slave trade is so gigantic that our only (even somewhat) convincing representational model to depict it is poetry. My first reaction to this piece was that Glissant’s poetic style served to insulate us from the tragedy of the event he described—his manipulation of the words themselves was so skillful, so beautiful, that it hung in stark contrast to the barbarity and force of the flotsam sinking down to what he deemed the abyss. But awe-as-affect is not solely positive. I suggest that part of the reason this passage is so striking is because it mobilizes our own traditional concepts of beauty and the aesthetic to describe an event that makes our skin crawl. We can be simultaneously repulsed and entranced, and I think that this is what Glissant suggests—we have poetry because that’s the closest form of representation that can depict such horrors with the arresting force it deserves, and the gravity it demands.

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