Daffodils and an Empire

In “Interview with an Empire,” M. NourbeSe Philip, seemingly by means of digression, devotes significant space to unpacking the image of daffodil as made famous by the english romantic lyric poet William Wordsworth (see “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”).  She writes:

“If there is one central image that sums up english literature studies in the Caribbean for me it would be the daffodil. Every school child had to engage with Wordsworth’s daffodils at some time, although we had never seen them, and most of us would probably never see them. And yet our very futures depended on being able to write about these bloody flowers” (198).

While for Wordsworth daffodils make “jocund company,” for Philip these “bloody flowers” are an emblem of colonialism—and, more specifically, the colonization of the imagination. In response, Philip then “play[s] around—riff[s] on” this image of daffodils:

            Is not a daffodil

            is

            and not

            is—                              (199)

Her brilliant eight-word improvisation is worth sustained analysis because it demonstrates how postmodernism and its language play can be used in service of a decolonizing project. Despite its brevity, Philip’s poem is rich with experiments in improvisation, (approximate) palindrome, syncopated rhythm, negation, interruption, enjambment, and syntactic order, which readers might recognize as a postmodern aesthetic. However, to view Philip’s formal toolbox merely through the lens of postmodernism is to fail to encounter what Philips calls “the terror of language and the horror of silence” (198). For Philip, wordplay is not frivolous; it is a potential site for interruption of the colonizer’s language. This is not to say that postmodern poetry is necessarily apolitical, but rather that its radical political potential can be glossed over in the avant-garde. As an example, deconstruction and other postmodern modes of reading might emphasize the text as the sole grounds for interpretation (e.g., “the death of the author”), which may have the effect of erasing the body and race of the poet, as well as the poem’s politics. Moreover, crediting Philip’s formal arsenal exclusively to postmodernism cloaks other aesthetic origins such as traditional Caribbean musical forms which white experimental poets have stolen without credit and claimed as “new” methods.

Incorporating race into our analysis complicates our engagement of postmodernism vis a vis colonialism. A reparative reading turns to the body and political context of the author as potential access points to the text. This is not to suggest that there is a one-to-one correspondence to biography which unlocks “the meaning” of Philips’s poem; far from it. Philips’ detailed personal anecdote about her toxic relationship to daffodils in school does not foreclose the interpretative process but in fact provokes further inspections of the mechanisms of violence and silencing which operate in the poem.

For instance, we might read the poem’s syntactic mutilation (“not / is”) as an imitation of the violence of Philip being forced to read a curriculum in the Carribean that did not reflect or value her own identity but instead promulgated the voices of european colonizers who enacted physical violence on her people and home. We might read into how the last line breaks off–and presence (“is”) is interrupted and silenced, just as the voices of Caribbean writers were and continue to be excluded from poetry canons. We might read the negations against Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” as a falling apart of language and denial of identity, especially in relation to Philip’s stated “profound distrust of language” which speaks of her “non-being” (196). All of these readings, which foreground race, power, and erasure, are relevant. Writing on and against a symbol which taunted her in school, Philip uses contradictions and illogic displace the daffodil’s aura in the lyric imagination—and, by extension, the violence of language itself—by pointing out its invisible thorns.

 

 

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