“like your body got a mind of it own”
— Machel Montano
“Teach our philosophy the strength to reach/Above the navel; black bodies, wet with light.”
— Derek Walcott, Tales Of The Islands
“It is around this very navel that the battle rages. The alternative tradition is belly-centred: in the beat, in the drum, the apparently bawdy”; it is “belly-drum centred.”
— Kamau Brathwaite (in response to Walcott)
And also, bottom-centred. Bamsee-rooted.
So much that I can say to you here will come from my head. Oftentimes, fully formed. And quite likely, you will take it into your head, and may or may not find it — based on the aesthetics of the intellect into which you receive it — beautiful. For the intellect’s is an aesthetics of completion, of the resolution of ambiguity into neat conclusion, clean theory. But what is done with all that beautiful head-knowledge? Well, as Brathwaite tells us, it must eventually contend with the navel. Being that point at which the lateral waistline meets the centre of that vertical line going from head to groin, the navel is physically a central point of intersection. But it is also a point of a former interdependence; that point through which we were fed by our mothers, where now a hole or a stub remains and now tells the lie of a broken connection. Depending on how we see it, the navel can tell us the lie of interdependence no longer being a matter of life and death for us as it was for the foetus. We believe now in the mouth, through which we now feed ourselves, and through which we express that exalted human capability we call language, language that allows us the luxury of talking about what we know nothing about. The mouth, through which we utter high ideals that our bodies and those of others — that sweat, become dirty, pass waste, dwell in the heat and dust of the world — spend lifetimes striving to reach.
Yet so much about this conflict between the head and the pelvis, meeting at the navel, seems one dimensional — all of it focused at the front of the body. It doesn’t speak of the bottom, the butt, the bambam, the bamsee, the badonkadonk, the booty. The bottom, which is the head’s true opposite— both beneath and behind it. With the same fervency with which the head is praised, the bottom is degraded. But there is a secrecy about the bottom, a secrecy which has something to do with humility, wisdom. My suspicion is that if the head is the emblem of the intellect and the navel is the site where this intellect must tussle with the force of desire and emotion that may go contrary to what the mind has theorized, then the bottom is the emblem of wisdom, a place where the knowledge gained from that tussle between that pelvic region of desire, and that high plane of the intellect, is settled.
If it could listen, the ass would know itself to be, in common discourse, an insult. Oftentimes, it goes completely unnoticed. It is not the face with which we meet other faces, rather it is something to be covered. To show someone your ass — or theirs for that matter — is to curse them. (At least, most of the time.) To call someone an ass, is to suggest a “donkey-like” stupidity demonstrated by them unduly bearing the burdens of others or making something burdensome that ought not to be; but also, conversely, due to the heft of their perceived stupidity, by their being seen as fit only to bear load. The ass — our asses, do that. They bear the load of us; being sat upon, playing a key role in standing up or falling down. At times, a kind of simultaneous aftermath for all that we tire ourselves out doing. Our asses are where our troubles, our stupidity, or even our best efforts inevitably land us. Hardly do we think of it as anything having to do with thought or wisdom. Or at least I hadn’t. And so the bottom attains a kind of anonymity, but is a site of tremendous power and mystery, related both to desire and to true knowledge. And to speak of it as a site of true knowledge, is really to say that it is the beginning of knowledge and the end of desire.
In the Caribbean, at a certain point in the year, the bottom is brought out into the open, and becomes the face of the culture. That is, it is similar to what some people understand to be “mooning,” a metaphor which isn’t at all inaccurate. For the moon’s is a quiet light, and in some sense considered illegitimate. It is of the dark, and in a way taboo. And yes, it too is also linked to the beginning of knowledge, and the end of desire. But in the Caribbean, while at night throughout the year it grinds in the dark, still in a quiet, moon-like way in dancehalls and nightclubs, during carnival the bottom is given, no, claims the prominence of the sun. And it is the women — who know very well, the moon — who give it that prominence. The bottom protrudes, is pushed out and is made to rotate, gyrate, grind. It is pushed onto men. Men seek it out and are humbled by it. And it is animated by something that involves both the head and the pelvis in a somewhat harmonious relationship with each other: music. The music of those unfinished spheres. And in the dark too, the bottom lives, as a point of desire for men who desire men, for men who desire women or for women who desire women — there too there may be secrets that can be told about the bottom. My concern here though, is with the bottom in its unredeemed state, in its everyday function — the wisdom sitting visibly in its cleft, yet whole face.
Like true wisdom, it is quiet, humble, patient and capable of suffering; of being squeezed, pushed up against, fallen down upon, flogged, ignored, debased and bearing so much of this in absorbent silence. The bottom’s knowledge is knowledge gained through experience, the knowledge that comes from “suffering” — which we all must do. Suffering in the way that its etymology suggests: “sub-ferre” bearing from below. Appearing dumb, large and fleshy, without bone to give it a firm, sturdy structure, sometimes excessive, it deals in the passage of waste, it embarrasses us with the noises it makes. In its ability to suffer, both the inflicting of pain and indifference (and the cruel combination of the two) it understands something of experience that the head often eludes: that to truly know, is to feel. A posteriori knowledge.
Unlike the head, the bottom knows that life is not so much a matter of deserving the best as it is about experiencing a little bit of everything: both the best and the worst of what life has to give. In this, it also knows what eludes desire’s impatience to have what it wants. Its silence is due to having made peace with its situation — behind and beneath — from the very beginning. Its two-facedness is not a metaphor for deceit. None of its “faces” are hidden; they appear side by side. They know that though separated, they are two sides of one thing. So the bottom, is a manifestation of the full knowledge of the two-sidedness of “reality.” Over and above all of this, it is a manifestation of the ongoing ideal of ongoing life: balance.
So in a strange way, what we are constantly striving for, is not so much to reach some high ideal, but to reach the ideal exemplified by the bottom, by the debased ass. The ass, even as it comes to refer to the donkey — homographical cousin to the bamsee — which is balanced enough, though dumb-seeming, to bear our load. So many of its names, in their very rhythm and their rhyme, the see-saw like quality of their sound, or even how the words look, bear witness to The Great Twoness, to the constant need for balance: bumbum, bambam, bamsee, botsee, booty, batty, budonkadonk, boomboom, butt, ass, bambalam. The bambam, the quality of twoness in life which is somehow the key to our rebirth in wisdom.
Portrait of the Poet as an Ass
One of my first encounters with shame, I remember, was in primary school, when I was six years old. My mother — who taught at the same school I attended — happened to be my teacher. To have one’s mother teaching in the same school one attended was fine if one was an exemplary student. And I was. In such an arrangement, it was also hoped that the parent-teacher would never end up teaching the child-student, to avoid any accusations of bias. Teachers would usually be moved around to different classes to avoid this. But this was a small, countryside school of a small faculty, and a small student population. In a way, the school was already somewhat incestuous in its associations as the students all came from the surrounding area, with some of their houses being directly outside the school gate, and most of the teachers — my mother included — were from the surrounding village. The school was part of the village, the village part of the school.
The concern for bias was justified, in that I was the best performer academically, in my year group, and in such a small school, it was easy to be known, throughout the school for one’s aptitude or one’s notoriety. But the concern was also unnecessary because of the kind of mother I had. Whether at home or in school, to my five- or six-year old mind, it seemed quite often the opposite of bias with my mother. She managed the arrangement well — I was never to call her “mommy” in school and I was expected to be disciplined and focused in class just as all other students were.
I was smart yes, but I was also a talker at the time, and one day Mommy — Mrs. Lucien — caught me talking in class and told me to stand up on the bench where I was seated, and if I remember correctly, to put my finger on my mouth. It was a strange place for me to be. Prior to this, I don’t think I had ever been punished in any significant way in school. And whereas I may have been placed at some height, whether in others’ esteem or on the stage at assembly, as an example for other students to follow, I’d never associated such heights with shame. But it was what I felt, and doubly so, because it was my own mother who had placed me there. I felt betrayed. I couldn’t help it — soon after I was made to stand in this way, with my classmates snickering around and beneath me, I started to cry. I remember crying bitterly. This was the last period of the day and it was soon time to go home — the time when Mrs. Lucien usually became Mommy again. I couldn’t hold back my anger; I confronted her about it. I don’t remember my mother’s response, but I imagine it simply being part of who my mother always was: steadfast in her disciplining of me.
I couldn’t say so then, and probably didn’t even know the word yet — but I felt like an ass. The one whom everyone was laughing at for once, the target of punishment. In this school, in a very poor community, shame was an abiding part of the reality. There was one boy in my class whose teeth were so bad that there was discernibly more rot than teeth in his mouth, and he was dubbed, with unsparing literalness — dan wiyé (rotten teeth). There was another boy who, early one morning, came pelting into the school in his underwear, his mother chasing him with a belt or some other object to beat him with. Another student lost her mother to an accident that resulted in her being electrocuted. Tragedy and shame abounded around me in that school, and yet it was never a place where the students held a tragic view of themselves. My mother no longer lived in this community. I never had. We lived in a different suburb with people who may never have known such people as came to this school nor their parents, except as the ones who came to cut their grass or to clean their houses. But my grandmother was from this community and was of it. She would have cleaned people’s houses at some point in time. Yet there was a phrase she would say, that she passed on to my mother, a phrase whose wordplay is best construed in its own language: menm si ou mal, ou pa ni pou malpwop. ( Even though you’re poor, doesn’t mean you should be nasty).
The idea behind my grandmother’s phrase is that one must know oneself from one’s circumstances, and in this, dignity is found. The lack of a tragic vision at that school was not due to any incapacity to understand their condition, but rather an astute understanding of that very thing — that it was a condition, it was conditional and therefore was not who they were. What is more, is that it is not only something that they knew themselves from, but also that they knew it was something against which they could make themselves into something more even in the midst of these conditions. To be that something “more” was entirely based on their conduct, entirely based on their ability to recognize their dignity as having nothing to do with the condition of their experience but their performance within any condition. Menm si ou mal, ou pa ni pou mal pwop.
My moment of shame was typical of the kind of lesson my mother was forever trying to teach me. Which is that I too had to know myself from my circumstances, even though mine were ostensibly “fortunate” circumstances. It seems to me now that the very vision of me standing on the bench — for shame and not reward this time — was an inversion of what usually obtained among my classmates and I in school, and beyond that, what the fundamental difference was between them and me. Without fetishizing them, there was a lesson that I was yet to learn which they had been learning each and every day. A lesson I am still learning and perhaps, in their way, they are too. My standing on the bench, and the acrimony that attended that moment for me had everything to do with that ability to know oneself from one’s circumstances.
Within the Western theatrical tradition, this moment, invested with greater gravitas by being based on the lives of kings, is defined as tragic. So significant is this fall from grace that it usually results in the death of the King. But not in this community: the truth that Monchy, the village of my mother and grandmother, carried, was the abiding anticlimax of life eternally going on. One needed to know oneself, even from this fall from grace. But you could only know this by being submerged, even sometimes torn apart by these circumstances. You had to endure, you had to perform well — for in your performance was your dignity, your acquisition of personal authority. And that required me being able to, for a moment, be the ass. Accept that this too was meant for me; that my life did include such moments. That I did in fact have an ass within me, and on me, even with the emphasis in school and in life as a man, on my head (or heads). My shame had to do with believing that a particular experience was not meant for me, that I would perpetually escape it on account of my brightness or some other quality. And as I think of it now, it is fitting that I was made to stand on the bench, placed above my classmates. It demonstrated the contextual nature of one’s position — any position — in life.
Standing there for reward, you were hardly aware of your body. Being on high in that way and being applauded, having your notions of yourself as special confirmed, was a heady experience. One was on the verge of almost escaping the body, the clinical cleanness of the head into a rarefied air. Standing there for punishment, being set aside in that way, one wanted to escape the body, but had to dwell within it. Utterly. Like an ass, like the ass indeed.
Years later, in fifth grade, in another school in the city, a girl would come to school with five hundred dollars. No one knew where this girl could have gotten that kind of money. She came from a nearby low-income community. Her uniform was often dirty. Some of her teeth were broken and remained that way. Yet this girl came to school, early one morning, with five hundred dollars. She chose and went privately to five boys and gave each of them a hundred dollars — without explanation. And somehow, what this girl wanted was not clear. She was not one of those who were actively teased in class. On the contrary, she was by and large ignored. One would think that meant she was “spared” teasing. But there was something like pleading that attended her giving of the five hundred dollars to those five boys. Not all of the boys were people who teased, but they were boys who were somehow accepted as not quite teasable, and some may have been arbiters of teasing. It seems to me that what she wanted was simply to be left alone, that the indifference would continue and never turn into teasing. By the end of the day, inevitably, this scandal would have been found out. Someone had told the teacher that this girl had been giving out this kind of money. One of her parents was soon in the school, having noticed the money missing. There was shame for the girl that in a way she had brought on herself. This memory comes to me often now, and with it the realization that this girl could not pay her way out of the experience she was hoping to avoid. Nor could any of us. To be the ass, to be the butt of jokes, can and will happen at all levels; to everyone. It occurs to me now too — a bracing revelation for someone who practices as a poet — that this is the double meaning behind the word utter. Utter, related to utterance, an exaltation of the Word, which brought the world into existence, which brought the “light” into existence. But then that word had to come down to earth, had to come down to the bottom of its world, where it became “utter” — a kind of extremity of a supposedly bad thing, a kind of curse word, with which the dark earth was inseminated.
This is what we, the soi disant meek, have inherited. And to turn it too quickly into tragedy is to somehow suggest that such experience of being “utter” is illegitimate, is not of us, is not meant for us. To turn it too quickly into theory is to say that the messiness of experience is not a necessary part of any knowledge gained or earned. But it is. It is where we are given that peculiar chance to understand The Great Twoness: ourselves as made continuously by dwelling with and enduring the conditions of our circumstances, and in so doing, making ourselves into something more — the half that has not been told, but which we, through enduring, are given a chance to tell. To be what Zora Neale Hurston called the B-people: be there when that which antagonizes us is there and be there when it’s gone. And this is learned in a world of matter, and in the world of mater: mother. The mothering presence in the world, that insists on us knowing work, knowing labor, and difficulty. The mother that insists on us knowing what she, being a mother, has already known — the work it took to make us and then to know herself from that feeling of twoness, and that labor that supposedly made the twoness separate. So we stand on the earth, like that bench in my first grade classroom, for shame and for reward, for pleasure and for pain, and perhaps for reward again, and for more shame. All of it, our inheritance.
Thinking Ass Backwards
Louis Armstrong — I was told by a Professor — was well-known apparently for talking about his bowel movements. In his letters, he would not only talk about them and speak praisingly of laxatives, particularly one named “Swiss Kriss” but he would sign off very important letters — including one to the President: “Swiss Krissly Yours, Louis.” That same Professor showed the class an example of a Christmas card Armstrong would send out, picturing him sitting on the toilet —which he called endearingly “the throne” — with the caption “Leave It All Behind Ya.” Ralph Ellison, responding to this bawdy humor, accuses Armstrong of thinking, as we say in the Caribbean, ass backwards, saying to Albert Murray: “Man sometimes ole Louie shows his ass instead of his genius.” Whatever Ellison may have thought, evidently Armstrong had found in the bottom, and in its bodily function, a philosophy that is fundamental to life, to self-renewal which must include a function of ‘leavin’ it all behind ya’, a function that is key not only to birth and rebirth, but also to sustaining life.
True growth, and rebirth, is often inhibited by the inability to put things behind one, usually the very labors that attend one’s maturing — the things that try us. But chief among the things we are unable to put behind us, is ourselves, our condition yesterday or the day before, or our eager and cherished ideas of who we “are”. To grow is not a trajectory of the same self moving through space, but a constant growing and changing — i.e. knowing — of self; a self that is given birth to in the first instance, and throughout its life has the often neglected duty of giving birth — that is rebirth — to itself. Constantly we evade this responsibility by trying to place the labor, the responsibility — through blame — on others. But it is our inexorable responsibility which life will never allow us to slough off permanently. To take it up — this task of self-rebirthing— involves, in more ways than one, putting oneself behind oneself.
Like birth this involves being able to take on a work that seems thankless, being the ignored one, being debased, facing suffering and heaviness, but also coming to know oneself from and through that suffering. In the act of birth, the danger for the child (and father) is that he/she comes to know him/herself without having to endure the labor that birthed his “self”, and this child/father can and often will spend their whole life running from that task. The danger for the mother is the inability to know herself from that labor, from that pain, from that double existence. How to be both two and one? She asks. How to be anything other than one? asks the Father, asks the child. Inevitably — whatever our “gender”— we must at different points in time ask ourselves the version of this question that is most applicable to our particular dilemma. In this, we all become our mothers. And are our own children/fathers. But also, it may be where we come nearest to knowing God:
Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said…And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts…
To know the face of god may be to know something truly unbearable, but we are allowed to see the buttocks. And somehow to know the buttocks of God, is to know something pivotal about ourselves and to know this pivotal thing about ourselves is to know all we can know and feel of God (or whatever we want to call it) in this life. Rather than the pursuit of knowledge as a thing in and of itself to “accumulate”, maybe what we see in the mirror of the buttocks of God is knowledge that cannot be separated from intimacy with ourselves which is bound up with the fundamental condition of our existence. In it, the twoness and oneness of knowing ourselves in things and knowing ourselves from things as each infinitesimal unit of experience demands.
And so it is that the “ass” comes, verily verily, to be a synonym also for the self: we try to save our asses; we bear the world’s punishment with our asses. And if we are willing to see it, we can have some part of the knowledge necessary to truly save our asses. Because what our ass endures most is us, our struggle with our selves. That is its work: attempting to bring balance to something that is always threatening to topple forward ahead of itself too far into the future; or to fall back too heavily on the past; or to fold under the heady circumstances of the present. Perhaps, if we are to look back in time for guidance, it may be useful, also, to look right behind us and maybe, looking forward, we may come to know what on earth it is the Gods are trying to teach by showing mankind not their face, but their bamsee.
Vladimir Lucien is a poet from St. Lucia. He is the author of Sounding Ground which won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and co-editor of Sent Lisi: Poems and Art of St. Lucia.