Books by Drisana Deborah Jack
The Rainy Season /
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Poems by Drisana Deborah Jack
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.
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
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
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
(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
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)
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
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.
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
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
we saw & see in re/play
sound/bytes and pixels
not enough resolution
understanding for this
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
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).
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
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 • www.houseofnehesipublish.com
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.
skin © 2006 by Drisana Deborah Jack •House
of Nehesi Publishers • Philipsburg, St. Martin
Caribbean • www.houseofnehesipublish.com
3 March 2004
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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
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,
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
By Melissa V.
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.
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
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
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
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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
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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29 February 2012