Bloodlines - an extract

Fred D'Aguiar


Bloodlines - an extract

Fred D'Aguiar


Poem introduction

Overall, Bloodlines is a verse novel. It's set in the 1860s in the American south, and it's really about that time in America just before the Civil War when issues about abolition and about nationhood were being talked about. The narrator - his big thing is he refuses to die until a friendship breaks out between the races and of course it doesn't really happen so he lives way into the 20th Century or at least a spiritual version survives.

Bloodlines - an extract

Bloodlines - an extract

Africa in America. Catch a goat.
Take a sharp blade, rub it against stone.
Brace the goat and yourself and cut its throat.
Drain the blood into calabash, ignore the moan
of ropy liquid against the gourd; throw
sand on the spot to prevent dogs homing
in on that coagulating blood. Skin the carcass.
Stretch the skin over wood for one purpose.

It stinks and dries in an indirect sun.
The meat is ready for a pot, dying to be cured,
parcelled out to family and friends, the horns
ground into powder then mixed into a puree
with herbs, the feet for a broth (the scrotum
is a delicacy), the tongue peppered
for stew, the tail continues to whisk flies,
the hooves walk mountainous clouds in the sky.

Skin over wood. Hollow wood.
Stretched skin. Hands talk to heart.
Boneless hands. Thinking heart. A flood
of understanding comes to that part
of the wood beneath that skin about the good
imbued by hands coming down smart
on it, fluid fingers flowing above the skin,
flattering it with touch-talk, and it sings.

A continent in sound. Sound brings
a continent across the sky and sea.
A continent shaped by hands on skin
sacrificed by a goat who must have seen
his soul fluting, not on a heady mountain
ledge, but airborne, dragging this parachute free
of its moorings, relocating an archipelago
in sounds of souls no longer cargo.

Until goat talked it down to the ground,
coaxed it up through the soles of our feet
into our chest and our head and our tongue.
It is a lost, forgotten place, missing teeth
worried by our tongue, something we long
for, dream of, but won't know if we meet.
The Africa we never got to know
sprung in the America we reap and sow.

Our heads spin with this posited place.
Our skulls resonate with our captured past.
It weighs our hearts, brimming all the spaces
between with all the things we feel we've lost.
Our flesh aches and only pains less when faced
with drum talk; drum bringing down the ghost
of Africa from dreams, down through history,
and up up up through flesh and blood stories.

When Tom first hears about Africa
he thinks slaves have circumvented their hurt
with their version of a heaven freer
than paradise because right here on earth,
until he listens to the drum concertina,
a continent into two hands, two hands worth
a continent; and if those hands are driven
by a body and soul then their art is heaven.

But the sea, the unassailable see,
where Time drowned and Africa floated,
both lost to slaves, both in water's company,
leaves Tom feeling there's a fishbone in his throat,
that Africa had never been, would never be
more than something stirred by the goat-
skin drum, a waking dream that lasts
only as long as the song of the drum blasts.

He fancies every flock heading for a trap,
their chevrons marking a winding road in air
erased by the sea, a road not on any map,
except that each heartbeat sends a chevron flair
radiating through his body, sketching this gap:
his head that is Africa tapers into a cadaver
that's the sea; the rise and fall of his body,
a current in his veins; his neck is an estuary.

If he listens to the drum with flesh and bone,
and his African head, he finds his way back
to Africa through movement and tone.
The time he lost is measured out on the track
of his spine that buckles, curves, snaps, hones
itself to time and Africa and the ship's deck
of the sea, now over him, shuffling its boards,
now under him, like a spine without a cord.

The sea holds still long enough for him to draw
a map. Air stirs without disturbing the markers
arranged by a migratory flock. Clouds crawl
across the tinged canvas stretched over-
head, a cartographer's dream, all raw
in unbounded love of gradients and contours.
Night lights up the compass points that Tom
navigates by; the drum is his metronome.

His body twitches in recognition of the rhythm
of ship on sea and wind in sails; no land
in sight; not a hint of vegetation in the hymn
of that wind, nor in the reflection of sky and
sea in each other's mirror held up for him
in a choreography Tom understands
fully but every time deliberately forgets
just to experience more deeply the next.

Stella lifts her dress above her knees
to free her legs for little kicks, stamps
and flicks of heel, instep and balls of feet.
She shakes bits of Africa from the damp
American soil that when dry frees
so much dust an African edifice jams
against the sky and Stella climbs its ladder
back through time to her ancestors.

[...]

Tom takes his cup with honey. Stella drinks
hers straight. It's the tea of penury.
The tea of repentance. The tea of thanks
for surviving the nightmares to see
dawn, well, yes, dawn. For a time that stinks,
a time to forget, regret, this is the tea.
Drink it and maybe all your troubles
brewed and stewed in one cup can be gobbled.

She wakes with a dry mouth and sleepy
from her fitful slumber. That cup at that time -
for all its historical baggage - is the remedy.
The heat, the wet, the caffeine, the taste, combine
(no, stronger) conspire, each day to ready
her to face a life she's more inclined
to skip, if she had the choice: suicide
is no option, life is for living, she decides.


from Bloodlines (Chatto and Windus, 2000), copyright © Fred D'Aguiar 2000, used by permission of the author and Random House.

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