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Throughout Jack’s written and visual work . . . one finds this notion of hurricanes

as ancestral presences raining on our heads. Jack calls hurricanes a “seasonal remembrance,”

a way for  those ancestors who did not survive the Middle Passage



Books by Drisana Deborah Jack

The Rainy Season / Skin

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Poems by Drisana Deborah Jack 

Introduction: Oceanic mothering


Drisana Deborah Jack’s second book, skin, is a wonderfully sensual, fluid, and powerful collection of poetry, born out of what Antonio Benitez-Rojo identifies as the Caribbean’s “unpredictable flux” and flows. Brimming over with images of oceanic wombs spiraling like the Milky Way, her poems resound the pounding rhythm and rhyme of the ocean. She foregrounds salty fluidity and diasporic mothering in a complex body of poems, which insist on the Caribbean as a space of gendered “change, transit, return,” inextricable from the larger, restless African diaspora as it continually reborn.

As one of St. Martin’s leading poets, Drisana Deborah Jack carefully situates her work within the unique history of her island nation and its location within the Caribbean. The collection begins with the moving gesture of claiming her homeland (which is still a French and Dutch colony) via its opening words of “my country” (“waterpoem 1”).

These first words of the first poem alert us to the importance of place in the consolidation of self. But before we have time to imagine such a belonging to be simple and nostalgic for the Black diasporic subject, “waterpoem 1” shows belonging not to be a birthright but rather a practice of reclamation. For the poet, to belong means a continual negotiation and re-negotiation of arrivals and departures.

Jack’s suggestion of “reluctant arrival” and “resolute departure,” immediately maps out a diasporic world where enslaved captives were brought against their will. This “first” arrival is overlaid with other subsequent deracinations, as the Caribbean has become host to wave after wave of immigration, fueled by (past) colonial exploitation and underdevelopment.

Indeed, Jack teaches and works in both the USA and St. Martin, occupying the perilous “space in-between” as she travels from home to home, a theme further developed in “subway musings.”

“waterpoem 1,” instead of mourning these relocations as the poet does in the Haiku-inspired “alovepoemaboutyouforme,” quietly acknowledges the reclamatory practice of making home. Jack makes new dwellings in the “need for solace” and “interruption.” She then asserts that these in-between spaces that encompass a history of arrivals and departures are her home and the places from which she writes “of the drowning of weeds / the nourishing of seeds” (“a poet’s farewell”). The quiet voice of the first poem gives way to the fierce roar of the next poem entitled “en memento mori.”

One of the best poems of the collection, “en memento mori” rips apart any complacency about arrival and departure, revealing the horror and brutality around forcible deracination and migration. The poem is located at the crossroads between African and European forms—a Yoruba prayer/chant and the classic European memento mori poem. As such, Jack highlights the syncretic cultural heritage of diasporic Africans, showing that out of the violent clash of cultures, a new people were born.

Memento mori translates from the Latin to mean “Remember you must die” or “Remember that you are mortal.” The term was used in classical antiquity as a way to encourage people to live to the fullest. It was appropriated in the Christian context to suggest the fleeting and illusory nature of earthy pleasures and the necessity for morality. If the pleasures of this earth were empty, one needs to focus only on the afterlife, on the fate awaiting one’s soul. Traditional memento mori examples include still-life paintings (which originally included symbols of mortality such as a skull of time piece) and funeral art such as cadaver tombs, which depicted the decayed corpse of the decreased.

Jack might have first encountered the term memento mori at the center of a major T-crossing — midway between her mother’s village of Cole Bay, her high school in Cul-de-Sac, and Philipsburg, capital of the southern part of her island. The words are welded on the relatively small iron gate of one of the island’s largest burial grounds. Hardly visible to the speeding traffic or even to those walking by, but to the then “sullen / not unhappy / just … deep blue” the term was sighted as a mystery, a language and meaning to unearth.

There are four conventions of the memento mori poem that Jack subverts in significant ways: 1. the prevalence of the fear of death, 2. the use of images/metaphors of death to remind a sinner that his body would decay, 3. the repudiation of sin alongside a reaffirmation of faith, 4. a succession of awful images “dwelling with insistent horror upon the corruption of the body, the terror of the grave, and the punishment of that greater pit to which an unprepared soul might fall” (Morris, 1035).

The poet begins her “en memento mori” with one of the ultimate symbols of death for children of the diaspora—the slave ship with slaves “coming coming in the belly of vessels of greed / packed on the shelves forced intimacies.” However, at the beginning of the poem, this image of death is not used to remind us of our mortality. Rather, it recalls the living presence of “those who came before,” our enslaved ancestors who survive death by our acts of remembrance.

Jack reworks Christian nations of mortality and the afterlife by showing the ancestors to be living forces that crisscross the boundaries between the living and the dead. In keeping with traditional Yoruba and other African beliefs, the ancestors are alive as long as we pay homage to them, as long as we recognize their continued presence in our daily lives.

The third stanza insists on their return, this time not in the belly of slave ships, but rather in the form of hurricanes. “en memento mori” asserts that hurricanes are ancestral presences that “come like a righteous anger embracing Yemanja / raising her up and reigning her on our heads.” The period of their arrival across the Atlantic coincides with the hurricane season as they reign (with its obvious pun on the salty rain that accompanies hurricanes) on our heads.

Instead of the melancholic tone that pervades the tradition memento mori poem, the anger, resistance, joy and raw power of ancestral freedom songs permeate throughout. We get images of various African peoples and the cultural forms forged in the Caribbean such as the Ouatouba, Bamboulay, and Ponum, resisting the “massa” through their song, the burning down of plantations, the grinding of their hips.

We see this resistance being passed down from mother to mother, worked into braids like hair grease, transmitted generationally in the acts of emancipation and independence that honor the fight of those with wings.

In “en memento mori,” the homage to our African ancestral legacy is achieved via images of survival, resistance, and emancipation and by way of various stylistic devices. The images in each verse are followed by the Yoruba phrase axé (pronounced ashé), giving the reader a sense of the poem as incantation, meant to be spoken out loud. According to Joseph Murphy in his book Santeria, “The sacred world … is motivated by ashe [axé]. Ashe is growth, the force toward completeness and divinity … . Ashe is the absolute ground of reality.

But we must remember that it is a ground that moves and, so, no ground at all” (Murphy, 130). Axé is also said after a statement to mean “so be it.” Jack thus continually evokes a divine moving energy, a prayer that punctuates each verse like an amen. One can think of each axé as a response to the call of the verse, an answer that resounds across life and death.

The poem contains references to Yoruba gods or Orishas such as Yemanja and Oshun. The Yoruba and their diasporic children believe that Olodumare is the Supreme Being aided in ruling by the Orishas, a pantheon of deities. These deities are associated with different elements and parts of the universe, such as the wind, the ocean, and the river. Yemanja is the ultimate personification of motherhood, represented by the maternal pull and flow of the ocean.

She has, for obvious reason, acquired greater import to those who survived the Atlantic crossing than those in Africa and is often thought of as the womb of the diaspora. She is associated with dyeing blue cloth, an image that reappears in Jack’s “motherliness or breastfeeding the diaspora,” “blue water / blue movement/blue tears / blue screams / dreams of tidal blue … indigo child / a deeper shade of blue / a deeper shade of blues.” Oshun, the Orisha of love and beauty, is often represented by the river.

In the poem, men whisper “the words of Oshun to their women / making rivers run, caressing fingers,” for love and birthing in the context of violence, the poet seems to argue, is part and parcel of our struggle for liberation. The nations of love, birthing, and mothering that appear in the poem resound throughout the collection, convincing us of the political importance of acts that are often relegated to the realm of the private and personal.

In “foremothers,” Jack continues to show the personal as imminently political, insisting that freedom arises from saliva, amniotic fluids, locked knees and “the silent resistance / of a dinner uncooked.”

The last two verses of “en memento mori” sound a warning, less we became to comfortable in our victory over death and injustice. The poem assumes the ominous tone of a traditional memento mori poem by reminding us about the nearness of death. This is not an earthly death of the body but rather a death of freedom caused by apathy. Jack warns those who have survived the slave ship and plantation of the danger of taking freedom for granted.

She insists that such apathy that allows sacred sites to become home to weeds will result in us passing away, our nations unclaimed. Freedom, she tells us, “has never been a gift.”

Jack’s introduction of Yemanja acquires even greater significance in light of the theme of mothering in skin. The notion of mothering has many faces throughout the collection—biological mothering, motherland, Mother Africa, mothernation St. Martin, mother tongue, foremother, ocean as mother, and poet as mother.

Given the history of slavery in the Caribbean, in the Americas, where Black women’s children were often sold away from them, and where they were forced to take care of the masters’ children, the relations of Black women to mothering are haunted by loss and non-biological acts of caretaking.

It has also been shaped by historical depictions of Black women as mammies, matriarchs, and welfare queens in stereotypical distortions of mothering. Black women “encounter these controlling images, not as disembodied symbolic messages but as ideas that should provide meaning in our daily lives” (Collins, 92).

Through her various poems, Drisana Jack wrenches the meaning of motherhood away from dominant perceptions to create new types of mothers who first and foremost given birth to themselves (“this little light of mine”). Jack moves beyond prescriptive biological roles of mothering, as giving birth and nurturing children assumes larger metaphoric significance within the global patterns of (past) colonial motion.

She develops these ideals most fully in “motherliness of breast-feeding the diaspora,” where she poignantly insists that “the presence of love is greater than / the absence of the body.” Here she redefines motherhood to include those women “who have had to / cut their children loose / give them up to the care of / of un-natural mothers.”

Through the story of the poet’s family where daughters are raised by their grandmothers, Jack shows different ways to nurture and raise children that exceed traditional roles of mothering. To be a mother, she poignantly depicts, is about a lineage of Black women who redefine the role of motherhood to allow for new meaning—“I will let you go again / as it has always been / and you must let me go / as it must be.”

Jack’s depiction of the cycle of her family immediately conjures up the idea of Mother Africa whose stolen children are raised in the New World by other mothers. The poems demonstrate the omnipresence of Africa for dispersed peoples. For the Caribbean immigrant living elsewhere, the idea of absent mother (lands) has added meaning.

One need only look at literature by Caribbean writers such as Michelle Cliff, Paule Marshall, Joan Riley, and Jamaica Kincaid to see how the protagonists’ relationships to their mothers are directly parallel to their relationships to the absent motherland from which they have immigrated.

Physical estrangement from one’s home and mother produces the same alienating effects for these characters—they often feel loss, despair, and rage. Annie in Kincaid’s Annie John feels unhappiness so palpable at the separation from her mother and her home of Antigua that she claims to be able to see it when she closes her eyes: “it took the shape of a small black ball all wrapped in cobwebs” (Kincaid, 84).

Jack does not deny the loss and the pain of separation from mother and motherland but her depiction of a world of multiple (fore)mothers, all of whom step up to nurture and nourish their daughters at various times, reflects the resiliency of Caribbean peoples. Thus, in “memory lapse” when she claims that her mother fills “in blanks I’ve left / my daughter’s memory,” she re-affirms the vibrancy of a diaspora dealing with multiple dislocations and separations, for what one mother(land) cannot provide, another can and will.

skin begins and ends with the major trope of the work—water. Almost every poem portrays oceans, tides, amniotic fluid, tears, landlocked rivers, salt ponds. Jack’s five waterpoems speak directly to the St. Martin landscape. In “waterpoem 2,” she compares the lust promise of her youth with the tidal seduction by ocean caresses of Saualiga (an Amerindian name for St. Martin which means Land of Salt).

Jack warns us in the opening lines that this oceanic intimacy is now only a memory, but this does little to prepare us for the abrupt switch from caress to the violent fists of a storm in “waterpoem 3” and its aftermath in “waterpoem 4.”

Tidal romance gives way to “heaving water” and “submerged streets”—we are placed directly in the path of a hurricane that flays, drowns, and destroys. The Caribbean, Jack tells her readers, is not the pastoral paradise depicted in the tourist brochures. Behind idyllic images, lies the bite of history, of those enslaved Africans brought to St. Martin to mine salt in the Great Salt Pond who revisit and wreak the vengeance for continued injustice.

Throughout Jack’s written and visual work (in particular her visual installations “The Blowing Season”), one finds this notion of hurricanes as ancestral presences raining on our heads. Jack calls hurricanes a “seasonal remembrance,” a way for those ancestors who did not survive the Middle Passage to construct a memorial for themselves out of wind, sea, and salt.

In an interview with Jacqueline Bishop, she states that the idea arose when she was studying satellite maps of hurricanes and saw how they “travel […] from Africa and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and … how [they] go[…] to America, just like slaveships …” (Jack in Bishop, 95). The first full verse of “a salting of sorts” alludes to these satellite maps when the poet writes that

… what we saw & see in re/play

and re/wind

couldn’t be contained

in sound/bytes and pixels

in high definition video

there is not enough resolution

no understanding for this

reclaiming …

Just as we cannot fully contain the image of a hurricane using technology, we can never contain the furious re-memory of our ancestors as they revisit the Caribbean and the USA. Jack’s recognition of hurricanes as ancestral forces, as “a flotilla of bodies / beached bloated blurred pixilated / adrift in a history still seeking remembrance” (“waterpoems 5”) has particular resonance when one remembers that New Orleans, recently devastated by Hurricane Katrina, was one of the busiest slave ports in the New World.

This idea of ancestors appearing in salt and water extends to the notion of tears throughout skin. Personal grief is always connected to the collective grief of the diaspora still feeling the effects of imperialism—“healing unknown hurts / all this salt needs a place to go / and my cup runneth over” (“bitter water”). skin ends with a moving testimonial to this collective grief by evoking the African-American spiritual, what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the “Sorrow Songs” of Black folk.

Using lines from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water” as heart-rending refrains. Jacks mourns the multiple displacements that have made refugees of children of the diaspora. The poem, like so many others in the collection, bears witness to the familiar tides that have carried slaves and the “strange tides these days [that] wash our dead away” (“bitter water”).

But housed in her grief are the veiled messages in the Sorrow Song. In its blending of African and New World musical forms, the Sorrow Songs gives evidence to the diaspora’s birth of new aesthetic forms that are blessings, prayers, and cleansings of the soul (“this poem”). It also belies the myth of Black peoples happy in their subjugation via veiled articulations about the suffering and desires of an oppressed people. But most importantly for Jack, “[t]hrough all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things” (Du Bois, 213).

For Jack, even as it expresses the collective grief of diasporic children, poetry is about a call for justice. Poetry embodies the difficult spiritual, emotional, and political work that one does to communicate across physical and philosophical distances. It refutes the apathy that can make us, take our current conditions for granted, and it warns others that the past is not yet over and the future has to be made. As it was in the beginning, Jack promises us, whether through hurricane or the caress of sea foam, “God’s gunna trouble the water.”

Hershini Bhana Young, PhD

State University of New York, Buffalo

Hershini Bhana Young, PhD, Assistant Professor, English Department, State University of New York, Buffalo. Author, Haunting Capital: Memory, Text and the Black Diasporic Body (2005).

Works Cited

Benitez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Trans. James E. Maraniss. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Bishop, Jacqueline. “Unearthing Memories: St. Martin Artist Deborah Jack.” Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters. 2.2 (Summer/Fall 2003): 87–98.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John, New York: New American Library, 1983.

Murphy, Joseph M. Santeria. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Morris, Harry. “Hamlet as a Memento Mori Poem.” PMLA. 85.5 (Oct 1970): 1035–1040.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Source: skin © 2006 by Drisana Deborah Jack •House of Nehesi Publishers • Philipsburg, St. Martin Caribbean •


Drisana Deborah Jack was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1970, to Caribbean parents. As a child her parents brought her to St. Martin, her mother’s home island, where she was reared in Cole Bay village. Jack graduated from SUNY at Buffalo with an MFA in 2002 but by then had already co-founded and acted with the Teenage Acting Company while attending the MPC high school, and published her first poetry book, The Rainy Season (1997), in St. Martin.

She went on to exhibit her artwork in the Caribbean, the USA, Europe, and Japan. Jack, A Caribbean artist by “geography and cultural/spiritual location, constructs … a personal/cultural history based on ancestral or re-memory using painting, video, photography, sound art, and poetry.” Her poetry has appeared in The Caribbean Writer and Calabash. Articles citing and reviewing her work have appeared in Today, The St. Maarten Guardian, Beurs- en Nieuwsberichten, Artpapers Journal, Buffalo News, and in Fabian Badejo’s Salted Tones – Modern Literature in St. Martin (2003).

Jack has recited her poetry and lectured on the cultural arts at readings and festivals such as No To The Franco-Dutch Treaty, CARIFESTA VI, VII, at the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Miami Bookfair International, Crossing the Seas, Poetry Africa, and Tradewinds. A leading St. Martin poet and mother of one daughter, Jack is an assistant art professor at New Jersey City University.

Awards and honors include a Caribbean Writers Institute Fellow (UM), Prince Bernhard Culture Fund and New York Foundation for the Arts grants, SUNY Buffalo Dissertation Fellowship, Photography Institute fellow, Lightwork Artist-in-Residence (Syracuse University), CEPA Exhibition Award, and a US National Endowment for the Arts residency at Big Orbit Gallery. skin is Jack’s second book of poems.

Source: skin © 2006 by Drisana Deborah Jack •House of Nehesi Publishers • Philipsburg, St. Martin Caribbean •

posted 3 March 2004

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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