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Indexicality and Graphetics as Linguistic Tools for Meaning Creation and Negotiation in the Poems of Atlantic Yoruba Poets


By Emmanuel Adeniyi

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 79 (Winter 2017/18), pp. 55-83]

Nexus among Linguistic Anthropology, Indexicality and Poetry

The relevance of Linguistic Anthropology to the study of poetry is emphasised in the belief of Banti and Giannattasio (2004) that poetry is a subset of poetically organised discourse (POD)[1]. Conceiving poetry as a subset of POD also implies that the literary genre is a form of communication that uses linguistic and literary resources to ‘express deep feeling or noble thought in beautiful language … with the desire to communicate experience’.[2] Since Linguistic Anthropology is a field of scholarship that studies language in relation to identity or ‘linguistic production of culture’ (Bucholtz and Hall 2004, 369), or the ‘uses to which languages are put by their speakers, both consciously and unconsciously’ (Mithun 2004, 137); it is imperative to discuss the relevance of the discipline to the deployment of linguistic resources by poets in an attempt to convey their thoughts, feelings and construct cultural identity. To further shed light on the purpose of the discipline, Duranti (2004) notes that it synthesises anthropology and linguistics by examining ‘language through the lenses of anthropological concerns … [and] these concerns include the transmission and reproduction of culture, the relationship between cultural systems and different forms of social organization, and the role of the material conditions of existence in a people’s understanding of the world’ (4).

One of the theoretical and analytical presuppositions of Linguistic Anthropology is indexicality. As a matter of fact, it is ‘a central focus of linguistic anthropology’ (Wilce 2004, 416). The model is defined as ‘the semiotic operation of juxtaposition, whereby one entity or event points to another’ (Bucholtz and Hall 2004, 378), and it narrates the use of indexes in linguistic communication, just as indexes are signs that have existential relation with what they refer to (Duranti 1997, 13). While referring to J. R. Firth’s popular description of indexes as a member of restricted languages, Crystal (1984) submits that the linguistic tool is used to ‘identify those varieties of a language where the possibilities of novelty and creative variation are minimal or non-existent, and where all the usage possibilities can be expressed using a very small set of rules’ (3). To Silverstein (2009), indexicality is ‘the principle of contextualization of linguistic and other signs-in-use, seen as a component of the meaning of the occurring sign-forms … revealed in the way that, by degrees, linguistic and other signs point the users of these signs to the specific enveloping conditions in which they use them’ (756). Blommaert (2005) also posits that indexicality is a useful linguistic tool that helps to reveal hidden meanings in texts that are not manifest to readers or audience. According to him, ‘Through indexicality, every utterance tells something about the person who utters it – man, woman, young, old, educated, from a particular region, or belonging to a particular group … and about the kind of person we encounter – we make character judgements all the time, and labels such as ‘arrogant’, ‘serious’, ‘funny’, ‘self-conscious’, or ‘businesslike’ are based almost exclusively on how people communicate with us’ (11). He adds that:

'Every utterance also tells us something about the utterance itself. Is it serious or banter? Is this an anecdote, a joke, an order, a request? Is the speaker sure/sincere/confident of what s/he says? What kind of relationship between the speaker and the hearer is articulated in this utterance – is this a friendly or a hostile utterance? And every utterance tells us something about the social context in which it is being produced: is this a formal or an informal occasion? Are things such as social class, gender, ethnicity, or professional status played out in the utterance? Are social roles reinforced or put up for negotiation? Are social rules being followed or broken? And so on. Indexical meaning is what anchors language usage firmly into social and cultural patterns.' (11-12)

The existential relations that a word or object has with its referent differentiates indexes from symbols and icons, even though they are all regarded as grammatical forms that aid meanings in linguistic expression. Symbols, according to Duranti (2004), are different from indexes, because symbols ‘are arbitrary representations of meanings’ (204), while icons are signs that resemble their referents (Duranti 1997). Duranti believes that the linguistic concept, which aids meaning by contextualising the existential relation between a word or an object and its referent, implies ‘a sign that identifies an object not because of any similarity or analogy with it, but because of some relationship of contiguity with that object’ (1997: 207). Duranti further submits that the relationship is best understood by ‘first considering some of the nonlinguistic examples provided by Peirce, namely, a barometer or a weathercock. The weathercock is an index of the direction of the wind for two reasons: because it assumes the same direction as the wind and because when we see the weathercock pointing in a certain direction, our attention is drawn to that direction’ (207).

The Use of Indexicals by the Poets

The poets, whose works were analysed in this article, use indexes copiously either consciously or otherwise to capture the socio-cultural or religious identities of their personas and/or predominant leitmotifs in their poesies. In Yoruba from Cuba that features various poems, including ‘Ballad of Two Grandfathers’; Guillén’s locutions: ‘Africa of the humid jungles,/pounding and drumming gongs…/Swarthy alligator waters’ (27) create a spatial indexicality. The locutions signify a referent within and beyond the body of the poesy, and the referent maintains a contiguous relation with the indexes. In the excerpt cited, ‘Africa’ is the referent, but as a territory its meaning is not fully contextualised until the deixes: ‘Swarthy alligator waters’ and ‘pounding and drumming’ are indexically related to it. As a locution – ‘Swarthy alligator waters’ indirectly refers to the inglorious transatlantic slave trade. The phrase serves as a reminder or a temporal indexical in the poem. It possibly indexes the time when African slaves had to pass through several water bodies en route (to) the New World. The foregoing argument is foregrounded by Guillén’s persona (the black grandfather) who travels ‘bare feet’ (27) fording through waters swarming with alligators, and succeeds in arriving the New World on ‘green coconut mornings’ (27) tired. The deixis, green coconut, also maintains indexicality with the New World, suggesting a chain of islands surrounded by coconut trees. Guillén’s referent, ‘alligators’, similarly provides additional information on the specific spatial setting the poet has in mind. Alligators are large American crocodilians of alligatoridae family believed not to be indigenous to Africa but America and China, unlike crocodiles which are denizens of most of the African salty lakes and rivers. This further proves that the poet is referring to the Americas, with a particular signification of the tortuous journey made by African slaves to that part of the world. Consequently, Guillén’s locutions: ‘Africa of the humid jungles’, ‘Swarthy alligator waters’, ‘I tire!’, and ‘green coconut mornings’ are metaphors of peregrination emphasising the temporal transition and actual passage of a people from one location to another. The same is noted in his use of lexemes: ‘ship’, ‘sleeping apes’, and many others which indexically refer to Africa. In other words, the full meaning of ‘Africa’ in the poem is context-related. Guillén may have done this subliminally, or as an indication of the unconscious release of those repressed information, feelings, thoughts or views bottled-up in his psyche which eventually find release in his creative explorations. The contextual meaning inferable from Guillén’s special usage of the indexes may be to justify the information he has about Africa as a jungle of apes where its inhabitants in their pristine or primeval state of innocence go about ‘pounding and drumming’.

To justify the foregoing view, the transatlantic slave trade narrative and postcolonial discourse have helped to expose the mind-set of Europeans who invaded Africa and carted away its able-bodied workforce to sugar and tobacco plantations in the Americas. Their mind-set operates Manichean duality and constructs master-servant, White-Black, subject-object, superior-inferior bifurcations. Various theories and treatises of race/racist theorists, such as Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and many others who preceded them have often projected negative stereotypes of Africa and Africans. Obah-Akpowoghaha (2013)[3], for instance, believes that the relationship between European explorers and Africans was mired by the stereotypical view of the latter by the former. According to him, ‘Africans were seen as sub-humans and monkeys in the jungle been (sic) captured, killed and used as domestic animals for human labour during slavery’ (46). Ifejirika (2014) also posits that Western literature perceive(d) and depicte(d) Africa as ‘a dark continent, a cursed geographical region infested by deadly animals’ (47), and its people ‘as mature devils, half-wits, adult-children and sub-human beings who are bound to violence; and as people who lack comprehensible language, authentic history, workable economic and political system and whose religion is a compendium of paganism, atheism, polytheism, animism and necromancy; people who are often found quarrelling, laughing, crying or fighting’ (47)[4]. To enslave a human person is an unimaginable atrocity against humanity, though the mind-set of an enslaver doesn’t appreciate this truth; it rather objectifies the enslaved and spurns any equality between him and them. As a mestizo, Guillén may have internalised the overtly jaundiced stereotypical view of Africa and its inhabitants, hence his portrayal of the cultural space to evince the warped perception of European slave raiders, traders, and colonialists in his poems. ‘Pounding and drumming’ is onomatopoeic. They are sound signs or what linguists call phonosemantics, indicating a condition where sounds convey meanings within or outside themselves. The meaning of ‘pounding and drumming’ in the poem indicates merriment, festivities and mirth, but it has a covert hermeneutics of a people in their primitive state who are given to indulgence.

The lexeme – ‘ship’, in the poem, can be described as a referential indexicality or temporal/spatial indexicality. Temporal indexicality shows time connection between an indexer and its referent, while spatial indexicality indicates place or locale of action. To describe an index as being ‘referential’ means that the indexer combines both the aspects of temporality and spatiality. Besides, it also implies that the referent points to objects both within and outside the text. ‘Ship’, in the poem, indexes a time period in history of mankind when some people goaded by their bloated ego and inordinate ambition for materialism rudely invaded the territory of other people and took them captive before selling them into slavery. The lexeme-indexer, similarly, points to the geo-cultural spaces and people involved in the inglorious buying and selling of humans like beasts of burden. Since ‘ships’ and ‘galleons’ are water transportation facilities, the use of the lexemes calls to mind the capture of slaves in Africa and their passage to the New World via the Atlantic Ocean. This meaning is contextually inferable as Guillén notes:

So many ships, so many ships!

So many Blacks, so many Blacks!

Such a splendour of sugarcane!

Such vigour in the slave-driver’s whip!

Stone of tears and blood … 

Guillén’s poems that are surfeit with cultural indexicality are ‘Son Number 6’, ‘Ballad of the Guije’ and ‘Sensemaya’. Guillén, through the poems, indexes a number of Yoruba cultural images that perform referential functions. In ‘Son Number 6’, his repetition of ‘Yoruba and Cuba’ as well as ‘Carabali or Madingo’ to typify African diaspora groups in the Americas is cognate with discourse on racial or ethnic groupings. Conversely, lexemes like ‘Cuba’, ‘Yoruba’, ‘Congo’, ‘Carabali’, ‘Madingo’ convey both indexical and referential meanings considering their contexts of use and the meanings they generate even when used independently. To string the lexemes together will present a scenario where Cuba – a northern Caribbean country and a metonymy of the Americas in the poem – is surrounded by African diaspora groups. First, the scenario suggests the cultural polyvalency of the Americas. Second, the order of mention of the African diaspora groups: ‘When not Yoruba/I am Congo, Mandiga or Carabali’ (67) also suggests the primality or possibly the preponderance of one African diaspora group over others in the Americas. The third factor is the psychological ‘warfare’ or internal conflict experienced by the poem’s persona. The warfare borders on his individuation or his attempt to discover himself, his identity and ancestral roots.

To start from the last inference, the poem’s persona is a victim of double consciousness, unhomeliness and uncanniness. Double consciousness[5] or double vision describes the ‘awareness of belonging to two conflicting cultures: the African culture, which grew from African roots and was transformed by its own unique history on American soil, and the European culture imposed by white America’ (Tyson 2006, 362). W.E.B. Du Bois defines the concept as ‘a consciousness or a way of perceiving the world that is divided between two antagonistic cultures: that of the colonizer and that of the indigenous community’ (Tyson 2006, 421). The effect of the phenomenon on its victims is that it creates ‘an unstable sense of self, which was heightened by the forced migration [or] colonialism’ (Tyson 2006, 421). Since transatlantic slavery necessitated forced migration of Africans to the New World, African slaves and their descendants consequently found/find themselves in a psychological limbo (Tyson 2006). The postcolonial model of unhomeliness[6] also reifies Freud’s theory of uncanny as regards what he (Freud) contextualises with German lexemes: heimlich and unheimlich, meaning ‘homely, familiar’ and ‘unhomely, unfamiliar’ respectively.[7] Unhomeliness is, therefore, an emotional condition of being torn between two different cultures leading to cultural disorientation of a people or a situation whereby the ‘unhomed don’t feel at home even in [their] own homes because [they] don’t feel at home in any culture and, therefore, don’t feel at home in [themselves]’ (Tyson 2006, 421). Freud’s uncanny, on the other hand, is ‘the terrifying [experiences] which lead[s] back to something long known to us, once very familiar [or what] ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light’ (1919:  225).

Synergy of Models and Analysis

The synergisation of the above-stated conceptual models in Guillén’s persona indicates that his mind is buffeted by conflicting thoughts as to whether he is genetically Yoruba or possibly his ancestral lineage is not Yoruba, but another African ethnic group. The thoughts of his cultural disorientation and doubt about his Yorubaness are repressed in his subconscious but are later forced to the realm of conscious awareness involuntarily by ‘powerful feelings of uncanniness’ (Royle 2003, 133), sense of instability or insecurity, double vision, and unhomeliness. The persona is anxious about the veracity of his cultural identity. This is perhaps the dilemma of descendants of African slaves in the Americas, as the thoughts of who they are and the ignominious enslavement of their forbears creates a burden on their psyche. This submission is validated in Masschelein (2002), submitting that ‘Freud introduces the uncanny as a special shade of anxiety, which can be experienced in real life or in literature, caused by the return of the oppressed or by the apparent confirmation of surmounted, primitive beliefs’ (63). In other words, the primal belief in Guillén’s persona is the anxiety or agitation surrounding his identity and its perennial effect of psychological confusion on him. The poet captures the persona’s confused state of mind succinctly:

                                    I’m Yoruba,

I keep singing

and crying.

When not Yoruba

I am Congo, Mandiga or Carabali. (67)

The ordering of the African diaspora groups may have been informed by the poet-persona’s conviction that his ancestry is most likely Yoruba. However, his mention of the indexer-lexemes, ‘Congo’, ‘Carabali’, and ‘Madingo’ in the text, possibly indicates that he lacks adequate proof to validate his Yoruba ancestry. His mind must have been agitated as to what is Yoruba in him, or better still what genetic, cultural proofs he has to demonstrate his Yorubaness. He probably must have entertained the same thought about the provability of the genuineness of his ancestral claim of other African ethnic groups. Through the use of indexicality, it can be inferred that the mind of the persona in the poem is in a flux of doubts and confusion over his real ancestry. The confusion generated from the doubt may impair his vision and perception of his world, hence his double consciousness. Besides, he is ‘unhomely’ – he is neither fully an African nor fully a Caribbean. The simultaneous ‘singing’ and ‘crying’ about being Yoruba or not further proves the poet-persona’s troubled mind as well as his psycho-mental disturbance occasioned by the ignorance of who he is. The acts of ‘singing’ and ‘crying’, as used in the poesy, index the psycho-mental state of a person whose identity is called to question by the increased awareness of his miscegenation or mulattoness. Something cries for recognition in him – it is the thought of his Yorubaness which he celebrates or sings about. However, this feeling is challenged by his constant reflections on his metisse status. To put it differently, ‘singing’ is a referent to joy, happiness, while ‘crying’ signifies sadness, unhappiness. The lexemes, considering their simultaneous use, indicate that Guillén’s persona self-pities and experiences emotional upheaval whenever his mind touches on his mixed identity.

In ‘Sensemaya’, Guillén uses referential indexicality to connect snake – a totemic, sacred reptile   – to a genre of ritual dance among the Congo or Bantu-speaking African diaspora in the New World. The act of killing the snake is also symbolic. It brings up a meaning that is not in the text but outside it. The symbolic usage of ‘snake’ or any word with an extended meaning beyond its ordinary sense is also called ‘nonce symbol’ (Noer 2014, 39)[8]. Apart from killing the reptile, considering its archetypal image as a man’s (mortal) enemy, another interpretation the act suggests is that killing it is a symbolic ritual rite necessary for the continued existence of a people, or a religious sect who possibly performs rituals using snakes for life renewal (Zambrano 2014). While the stanza, ‘¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!/¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!/¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!/ /¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!’ (37), is onomatopoeic or musical and indicates the use of sound symbol, the poem’s phonosemantic features are conveyed by the foregoing stanza and the indexers: ‘iya’ and ‘bata’ – some of the drums used in Mayombe. ‘Iya’ and ‘bata’ drums also index the Yoruba, the Yoruba praise/incantatory poetry and the Yoruba goddess of the ocean (Yemoja) who is worshipped by her devotees dancing to scintillating tunes wafted from the ‘mouths’ of the two drums. The drums equally index sacredness and spirituality connected to the worship of Yoruba deities. Besides, the drums convey indexical meaning on the syncretic nature of Palo Mayombe which, though Bantu or Bakongo in origin, features conspicuously elements of Yoruba cultural images. The lexeme, ‘Mayombe’, too, is referential to a forest region in Central Africa (Murrel 2010).

Though graphological features dominate most of the poems in Brathwaite’s Elegguas, some of the ‘elegguas’ (elegies)[9], similarly, contain indexicality used as a linguistic tool for negotiating meanings within and outside the text. Brathwaite’s ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (1)’ contains copious examples of indexers that demonstrate the temporality (time), spatial (place or location) and performativity (information on who performs actions in the poem). The use of personal pronoun ‘I’ in ‘From the very first I see you I know . I certain  ./ I sure. And I have alway/(s) been secure w/you Standing near/ to you at Mother’s funeral when I mi/ght have tumble into the grave – at/least that’s how I feel …’ (3) is an example of how indexers, referents and context cohere to shape meanings in a text. The first personal pronoun is, therefore, an example of indexical referential – it has a dual meaning, one within the text, the other inferable outside the text. There are two ‘I’s’ speaking, that is, the personas in the poem: the one lamenting the loss of a relation, and the deceased ‘I’. To infer meanings from their use of language, the deceased ‘I’ appears to be a kind-hearted person. S/he is portrayed as a personality who can go to any length to meet the needs of his/her people. From the lamentation of the bereaved ‘I’, the personality trait of the deceased ‘I’ is revealed:

… & again yu

Tell me I cd do it. You always say tht-

at& I know you cd

be trusted even too. What a wonder-

ful thing I realize now. I always kno

that nothing cd come between us …

& you I’m even surer wd have

die for me as you almost once did as

it is  . like when one day at Round <<

House the prop-up duncks tree by th

(e) backdoor steps start to fall on me

an before i cd blink or say Jackie Ro

binson my Mother was holding up

tha tree w/she body w/she feet wide

planting apart pun th hot red steps

of th house and i kno that that cudd-

(a) beyu an it make a whole world a

difference let me tell yu. . . (4)

The bereaved ‘I’, too, is a persona who is dependent on the deceased, and his/her death is a rude shock to him. It is inferable in the poem that the deceased persona is a significant other of the bereaved persona, as both of them have spent 26 years together, while their lives appear intertwined and the death of one implies the vacuity of another. Though an elegiac verse, the bereaved persona uses soothing words to describe the depth of his love for the deceased, just as he expresses his deep sense of sadness, loss and immutability.

… tho

of course I continue to be like dumb

like dark/shut down & cannot be

console(d). How cd I ever be!

Each day I come to love you more

& more appreciate you more & more

So that Sarah cd write that even tho

she don’t see much of you

in London in recent years … (5)

The other ‘I’ that serves as an indexer to a referent outside the text is an archetype of a bereaved person who has lost someone very dear to him/her. The ‘I’ can also be interpreted to be anyone having emotional crisis whose pent-up feelings or vituperations find expression in his crying, wailing, lamentation or any other psychological means of letting out the repressed contents of the subconscious. Similarly, temporal indexers in ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (1)’ include lexical items, such as ‘Tomorrow afternoon’, ‘last time’, ‘for the lass time’, ‘Our 26 years’ as well as the use of tense to indicate whether the actions performed by the persona(s) are in the past, present or future. Spatial indexers indicating the location of actions performed by the persona(s) include specific names of places and locations, such as interior of a house or a city. Examples are ‘Bottisham nr Cambridge’, ‘Massachusetts’, ‘GK >> Hall’, ‘Delhi’, ‘London’, ‘bathroom’, ‘IT-Penlyne-Bdos’, ‘Velma’, and many others. In ‘Xango’, Brathwaite indexes Yoruba god of thunder and Oya – Yoruba goddess of ocean referentially. In the text, the two personas are exemplars of love and the power of love to conquer inhibiting circumstances to reaching the acme of fulfilment and satisfaction.

Audre Lorde’s ‘From the House of Yemanjá’ uses first personal pronoun (anaphora) to index the poet-persona. This probably reinforces her belief and acceptance of Yemanjá as an influence or a force needed to solve her identity problem:

Mother I need

mother I need

mother I need your blackness now

as the august earth needs rain.

The significance of the above excerpt is that it shows the desperation of the poet-persona in her quest to receive the overwhelming touch of the sea-goddess. The goddess, too, is an index of gender domination or matriarchy. The image of an archetypal Mother that the poet creates for her is referential to the feminist perception of how a society should be constructed. A society that essentialises patriarchy and uses (male) gender as a factor for determining access to opportunities cannot be said to be just. Lorde, being a staunch believer in gender rights, never subscribes to patriarchal hegemony, hence her construction of a matriarchal figure whose influence on womenfolk in the Americas looms large. Considering the ‘I’ indexer and the use of the water goddess as a referential index to women’s rights, ‘From the House of Yemanjá’ reads like a protest piece from a feminist/lesbian who rejects patriarchy, seeks the destruction of patriarchal structures, but desires a creation of a utopian matriarchal setting. The poesy also reads much like an invocative appeal to the healing powers of the sea-goddess.

Graphetics and its Use in the Poems

Apart from the examination of indexicalities in meaning creation or recreation, Brathwaite’s poems are subjected to graphetic analysis so as to unearth meanings hidden in his poems through an exegesis of the structures and stylistic deviations etic in them. Graphetics or graphology is a branch of stylistics that studies ‘writing system, or orthography, as seen in the various kinds of handwriting and typography’ (Crystal and Davy 1969, 18), as well as ‘distinctive uses of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, the organization of utterances into symbolic shapes’ (Raj 2015, 41). Crystal (1987) also describes it as ‘a subject analogous to phonetics … which studied the properties of human mark-making: the range of marks it is possible to make on a range of surfaces using a range of implements, and the way in which these marks are visually perceived’ (16). Raj (2015), however, posits that graphological features are ‘much more frequent in advertising language than in any other register [because] graphological deviation involves the unlimited use of spelling change with pronunciation remaining unchanged in the brand name and in the text of the advertisement’ (41). The linguistic model, similarly, contains ‘devices [such as] paragraphing, spacing, and capitalization, alongside the normal range of other punctuation marks’ (Crystal and Davy 1969, 156), and it is one of the five levels of stylistics: phonetic / graphetic, phonological / graphological, grammatical, lexical, and semantic (Crystal and Davy 1969, 15). In fact, Leech (1969, 39) describes it as ‘the whole writing system: punctuation and paragraphing as well as spacing’, just as Alabi (2007) and Adegoju (2008) believe that the stylistic tool studies spelling, capitalisation, hyphenation, a text’s layout, lists, font choices, underlining, italicization, lower case letters, paragraphing, colour, quotation marks, ellipses, gothic and bold prints, spacing; while Alowonle (2016) notes that ‘Graphological patterns play a significant role in the interpretation of poetry’ (41). Also, in their stylistic analysis of Anna Swell’s Black Beauty, Khan and Khan (2015) describe graphological features in a text as those features that comprise or employ the use of ‘Multiple punctuation marks in a sentence, capitalization, hyphenation, dashes, use of brackets, unusual spellings and quotation marks’ (610). They submit that the ‘use of such features has particular semantic and stylistic effects on texts’ (610), and that it fosters better textual interpretation and understanding of crosscurrents of linguistic and literary tropes that cohere to engender harmony in a text. Yeibo and Akerele (2014) also render graphetics as ‘a level of linguistic analysis which focuses on the layout of texts, the size or shape of words and any other feature that is graphical or orthographical’ (10). According to them, the stylistic model:

'is a fundamental and crucial way of paying close attention to the visual images and diagrams in a text which help to encode, extend or modify its signification. In other words, it is a paralinguistic approach to the explication of textual meaning, since it focuses essentially on non-verbal aspects of texts, such as form and visual appearance which carry pragmatic force, that is, which yield their meaning by distinctive situational use within a particular social framework.' (10)

Brathwaite’s ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (1)’ is surfeit with such features. Considering the unique physical structures of Brathwaite’s ‘elegguas’ (elegies) and the repetition of certain linguistic resources, it is imperative to examine the reason(s) why the poet chooses to render some of the poems in Elegguas uniquely with regard to their structures and usage of linguistic resources that deviate from the norm. His poems ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (1)’, ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (2)’ and ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (3)’ subvert language use at lexical, grammatical, graphological, syntactic and semantic levels. Since the poems build on one another and contain the same features to be analysed, only ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (1)’ will be subjected to graphological analysis. The first impression that comes to mind concerning the physical structure of Brathwaite’s poem, ‘Letter to Zea Mexican (1)’, is what predisposes him to render the structure of the poem the way it is, and what literary or aesthetic effects he wants to create in his readers. It is interesting to note that the poet has deliberately used some linguistic features which comprise the five levels of stylistics. For the purpose of appreciating the linguistic features employed by Brathwaite, some of the linguistic resources belonging to these five levels of stylistics are identified and explained so as to help unfold meanings that flicker out in his poem.

Vertical Lines: To start with, the poem’s physical feature renders it a deliberate deviation from the cannon of poetry. The entire poem is surrounded by a thin vertical line on the left and double thin vertical lines on the right. This alters the physical structure of the poem, and possibly creates an impression that the poem is walled in, or that the poet’s emotion is enclosed or restricted by forces beyond his control. Considering the fact that the poem is an ‘eleggua’ (elegy), which he writes for his departed ones, the semantic implication of enclosing the poem within unequal vertical lines reify the restrictive or walling effects of mourning, sadness, pathos and lamentation on the mind of the poet-persona. Lines indicate boundaries. Using lines to enclose the elegiac verse also creates an impression that the poet probably draws a boundary between mortality and immortality, life and death, reality and unreality. While the persona can be said to have experienced abreaction – a psychoanalytic and therapeutic process of remembering ‘forgotten memories whose revival was accompanied by considerable emotional reaction … [or the] revival of the memory of psychic traumata with the accompanying emotional reaction’ (Gordon 1923, 322) – the death of the deceased persona in the verse stirs up repressed emotions and bottled-up events in the psyche of the bereaved persona.

Irregular/Indiscriminate Use of Full Stop: Apart from the vertical lines, the poem contains irregular use of punctuation marks, irregular spellings, hyphenation, use of brackets, italics, bolding of lexemes or clauses, ampersand, less-than and greater-than signs, and many other graphological features. The indiscriminate use of punctuation marks, especially full stop, which is placed after some phrases or sentences, is an example of how the poet uses punctuations to create special effects in his composition. The use of full stop in the poem attracts attention, because it is both placed after some sentences and after lexical items or incomplete sentences. Besides, when placed after a word, a space is observed before or after it is applied: ‘.  I certain . I sure.’ (1), ‘it is . like’ (4). In some cases, the punctuation is not even used at all: ‘but he always too busy busy busy But now he’s <<<’ (6). In the foregoing excerpt, the poet overlooks a full stop that should have been inserted after ‘busy busy busy’ which is then followed by another sentence as indicated with the capitalisation of the grapheme ‘B’ in ‘But’. The same trend is noticed in ‘we are together In fact feels like no’, where a full stop is omitted after ‘together’, whereas the next grapheme is capped. This is a clear case of (literary) deviation by the poet to achieve aesthetics or brevity.

Less-than and Greater-than Symbols: These are mathematical or computing symbols because they don’t show any one-to-one correspondence with their referents. As mathematical/computing symbols, they are used to indicate inequality, such that it is said that 5<7 or 10>8. The use of these symbols in the poem, especially as double or triple less-than/greater-than signs further indicates deviation from the norm and a proof of any extent that a poet can go to create aesthetics in his poem. It also needs be pointed out that these signs appear to be guillemets – a quotation mark that resembles arrow and looks much like less-than or greater-than signs. Brathwaite uses these signs profusely in the poem to create aesthetic effect or as quotation marks enclosing those pieces of information that both he (the poet-persona) and the deceased relation are privy to. Doing this enables the poet to recreate past events and enliven the memory of the departed in his mind:

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll see yr face <

in the village of Bottisham nr Cam-<

in all that snow on the way to GK >>

that nothing cd come between us I <<

kno for instance that if a gunman >>

it is . like when one day at Round <<

Georgel I always askin when he <<

too busy busybusy But now he’s <<<

here, one wishes it cd have been the <

two of you together laughingaffin<

loud& happily & trampling up &<<

(p) more in touch w/them altho a-<<

gain I hear you laugh w/love Aunt <

… (6)

To disambiguate the use of the signs, his lines can be rewritten to show that the signs may have also been used as guillemets or comma to mark off important information from the less important ones. ‘Tomorrow afternoon I’ll see yr face </for the last time – see you for the lass/lass time’ can be rendered as ‘Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll see your face “for the last time’” (3) (Guillemet). The presence of the signs in the following lines, ‘in all that snow on the way to GK >>/that nothing cd come between us I <</kno for instance that if a gunman >>’ (4), may be a proof of their use as commas. The lines can be rendered simply as ‘In all that snow, on the way to GK …, nothing could come between us, I know, for instance that if a gunman …’ (4).

The Use of Hyphenation, Dashes, Brackets: Dashes and vertical brackets are used in the poem as parentheses. Those information inserted in brackets serve as additional information or supplementary comments provided by the poet to either show his intimacy with the deceased, enliven the memory of the deceased in his mind, or help reader know certain information to which only the poet-persona and the deceased are privy. Where round brackets are used, they are used to enclose graphemes (letters), such as, ‘hea/(d)’, ‘alway/(s)’, ‘th/(e)’, ‘cudd/(a)’, ‘kee(p)’. Examples of brackets (vertical) include ‘[it happen later when you gone when i am alone: see TTR]’ (4), ‘[cf the Caribbean Artists Movement]’ (4), ‘[little did I know that this wd not last wd continue]’ (4-5). Dashes help to heighten emotions in the poem and create pathos on the loss suffered by the bereaved. Examples of the use of dashes in the poem are: ‘I’ll see yr face </for the last time – see you for the lass/lass time’ (3), ‘Standing near/to you at Mother’s funeral when I mi/ght have tumble into the grave – at/least that’s how I feel – or when my hea/(d) was spinning in that bathroom’ (3). Many lexemes or graphemes are hyphenated in the poem as well. It is observed that the use of hyphenation in the poem has equally created the linguistic phenomenon of syllabification – the division of words into syllables or smaller units. Examples include: ‘What a wonder-/ful’ (4), ‘Ev/-eryone’ (4), while other hyphenated words include, ‘prop-up’ (4), ‘off-white’ (6), ‘IT-Penlyne-Bdos’ (5).

The Use of Typography: Typography relates to the use of symbols in written text. Examples include ampersand (&), asterisk (*), bullet caret (^), at sign (@), and many others. Brathwaite’s poem is full of ampersand. Ampersand is logogrammatic, that is, it serves as a single written symbol that stands for a word or phrase without indicating its pronunciation. The use of this symbol in the poem is indicative of the poet’s desire to create aesthetic effects and make it or its motifs pictorial or lifelike. Examples are ‘when I/had to you & you I’m even surer wd have/die’ (4), ‘like dark/shut down & cannot be/console(d)’ (5), ‘Each day I come to love you more/& more appreciate you more & more’ (5), ‘And as i tell you several times/during & after Massachusetts/& the Eagle there was’ (5),  ‘-& how greedily i believe them & why not!/- of you & me at IT grown old like/once upon a time & doddery’ (5). Other graphological features in the poem include the bolding of certain clauses for emphasis to create special effects: ‘Dearest Mexican’ (3), “‘contracted to a span’” (4), as well as italics, most of which are rendered in a special font size, type boldface and inserted in vertical brackets with a view to creating emphasis.

Other levels of stylistics that are worthy of mention are grammatical, lexical, phono-graphological, and semantic. However, attention is given to phono-graphological features in the poem, while other features bordering on grammatical, lexical and semantic levels of stylistics are discussed under the phono-graphological level of stylistics. Those features include repetition of sounds, elision of sounds, wrong or unusual spellings (Khan and Khan, 2015), wrong abbreviations, and the use of “un-English” lexical items. Sounds are repeated in words like ‘busy-busy-busy’ (6). The front short vowel sound /ɪ/ in /bɪzɪ/ is repeated. Other examples include, ‘they love so so so much’ /ðeɪ lʌv səʊ səʊ mʌtʃ/, ‘laughin gaffin’ /lɑːfɪŋ gɑːfɪŋ/ (6), ‘more & more’ /mɔː mɔː/ (5). A diphthong /əʊ/ is repeated in the quote ‘so so so’, while open long back vowel /ɑː/ is repeated in ‘laughin gaffin’. Besides, ‘laughin’ and ‘gaffin’ are pararhymes or half-rhymes, because the consonant sounds: /l/ and /g/ beginning the lexemes do not sound alike, unlike the remaining parts of the lexemes. Similarly, middle long back vowel /ɔː/ is repeated in ‘more more’, just as sound repetition in the lexemes is done primarily to create emphasis and heighten emotions.

The omission of conjunction between the lexemes, which is known as asyndeton, creates a sense of brevity and economy of words often associated with poetry. In all, these sounds create musicality in the poem and help in the free release of air built up in the mouth. Some sounds undergo elision in the poem as well. In sound elision, Khan and Khan (2015) note that a ‘writer often omits a unit of sound or even syllable to create certain literary effect which satisfies aesthetic sense of readers’ (610). Brathwaite confirms Khan and Khan’s (2015) observation, as he omits so many sounds, graphemes, and even syllables in the poem. Examples of such elision include: ‘at least that’s how I feel’ (3), ‘but let’s hope that it’ll lengthen’ (4), ‘she don’t see much’ (5), (emphasis mine). His wrong or unusual spellings stand out the poem as a study in literary deviation: ‘beleeve’ (4). What is described as wrong spellings may be the usage of Caribbean Creole English (CCE), which is the Caribbean variety of the Standard RP English. The wrong spellings may be a reflection of the social or educational status of the interlocutors in the poem, or possibly a poststructuralist technique of subverting language since there is ‘no absolute meaning in language and there are an indeterminable number of possible interpretations of any text’[10]. Brathwaite may latch on to this poststructuralist inclination to justify his spellings, his use of language and the physical structure of his poem which, in turn, help to indicate that their ‘special’ usage may not affect its interpretation. Brathwaite renders lexical items this way: ‘yr’ for ‘your’, ‘yu’ for ‘you’, ‘always’ for ‘always’, ‘kno’ for ‘know’, ‘wd’ for ‘would’, ‘tha’ for ‘that’, ‘th’ for ‘the’, ‘xplains’ for ‘explains’, ‘tho’ for ‘though’, ‘altho’ for ‘although’, ‘cd’ for ‘could’, ‘w/mwe’ for ‘with me’, ‘-gether’ for ‘together’, ‘nvr’ for ‘never’, ‘askin’ for ‘asking’, ‘comin’ for ‘coming’, ‘weepin’ for ‘weeping’, ‘inviting’ for ‘inviting’. Some of the words that appear ‘un-English’ in the poem include, ‘doan’, ‘glovingly’, ‘duncks’, ‘cyaan’, ‘gaffin’.  They, however, could be lexical items commonly used in the Caribbean Creole English, or probably slangy expressions in the language.

Apart from Brathwaite’s poems, Guillén’s and Lorde’s poems: ‘Ballad of the Two Grandfathers’, ‘Ballad of the Guije’, ‘Sensemaya’ and ‘Inheritance’ respectively also contain a modicum of graphological features, especially the copious use of punctuation marks, brackets, dashes and ellipses. These features are used by the poet to heighten emotions, create an impression in readers, or to deliberately withhold information from them. In the first ballad, Guillén creates pathos on the pitiable condition of the black grandfather, and by extension Africa, through the use of apostrophe and quotation marks. Quotation marks help to separate the thoughts of the grandfathers from that of other personas in the poem. Similarly, apostrophe helps to heighten emotions and portray the emotional outburst of the grandfathers. The black grandfather intones: “‘I am dying!”’ (27). His ‘dying’ is a corollary of his pitiable condition and precarious life as a slave with ‘bare feet, hardened body’ (27). He is an animal of burden wrenched from his land and brought to an alien environment to labour for his masters. Guillén also leaves an emotional impression about the white grandfather who says “‘I tire!”’ (27). However, the kind of pathetic feeling that is conjured in mind concerning the black grandfather is not the same with that of the other grandfather. In ‘Ballad of the Guije’, the same trend is noticed as the persona makes emotional appeal to Guije or Neque – an ogre who eats children at will: ‘Neque, go away neque!/Guije, go away guije!’, or to show his fear and wonder he has about the human-eating creature:

Dwarfs with huge navels

people the troubled waters;

their short legs twisted;

his great eyes of pearl!

Run, the bogey-man will get you,

run before he comes! (31, 33)

The use of apostrophe, as an indicator of emotional expression, also surfeits in ‘Sensemaya’. In the refrain of the poem, Guillén uses apostrophe, dashes and inverted exclamation mark (¡) – a typography often used in front of exclamatory statements in Spanish. Guillén writes:

¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!

Sensemayá, the serpent…

¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!

Sensemayá, is not moving …

¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!

Sensemayá, the serpent …

¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!

Sensemayá, he is dead! (37)

Inverted exclamation sign, therefore, becomes a marker of linguistic/cultural syncretism between Spanish and English. Guillén wrote in Spanish, and his poems were later translated to English. Apart from Spanish and English, Yoruba and Bakongo linguistic/cultural elements resonate in the poem, and they are all woven together as an indication of cultural syzygy which metaphorises the Americas. The combination of ellipses, dashes, inverted exclamation marks, commas, apostrophe and full stops feature conspicuously in ‘Sensemaya’, while the combination of ellipses, commas, full stops, apostrophe and quotation marks surfeit in the ‘Ballad of the Two Grandfathers’. ‘Ballad of the Guije’ contains more of ellipses, apostrophe, commas, semi-colons, full stops, hyphenation. The use of ellipses in the three poems is to withhold information or prevent the repetition of what the poet has stated earlier. The refrain in ‘Sensemaya’: ‘Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!.../Mayombe – bombe – mayombé! …/¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!…/¡Mayombe – bombe – mayombé!’ creates musicality in the poem as well.

Lorde uses graphological features sparingly. In ‘Inheritance’, bracket and hyphenation are used to separate the interlocutors’ utterances or create compound words in the poem. In stanzas two and five of the poem, hyphenated words: ‘a push-cart’, ‘first-born’, and ‘long-gone’ are used, while single quotation marks and apostrophe are also used in stanza five of the poem:

An elderly Black judge

known for his way with women

visits this island where I live

shakes my hand, smiling.

‘I knew your father,’ he says

‘quite a man!’ Smiles again.

I flinch at his raised eyebrow.

A long-gone woman’s voice

lashes out at me in parting

‘You will never be satisfied

until you have the whole world

in your bed!’ (16)

The use of quotation marks in the above excerpt is to mark off the words of the ‘Black judge’ from the poet-persona’s. Both engage in a dialogue, the poet uses the graphological feature to create a distinction between the words of the two personas in the stanza. The use of apostrophe is to show exclamation in the poem as well.


The importance of cultural identity and the consequential effects of its loss to the Atlantic Yoruba[11], and by extension other African diasporas, in the Americas is brought to the fore in the selected poems through the stylistic models of indexicality and graphetics. Since Atlantic Yoruba is conceived as a hyponym of African diaspora, and African diaspora as a hypernym or as a superordinate conception that accommodates many other African diasporas in the Americas; other recurrent themes, apart from cultural identity affecting the Atlantic Yoruba, have also been given a contrapuntal exegesis in this article. The theoretical models used for analysis offer a unique approach for dissecting those constituent linguistic and literary properties inherent in the selected poesies thereby enhancing their hermeneutics. It is believed that textual interpretations and meaning negotiation or creation are better achieved if reductionist elements immanent in a text are identified and deconstructed since they contribute to the overall meaning of a text. The foregoing view is corroborated by Abrams and Harpham (2012) who believe that a literary critic should ‘approach the parts [of a text] with a prior sense of the whole only by knowing the meanings of the whole; yet [they] can know the meaning of the whole only by knowing the meanings of its constituent parts’ (177). To this end, this article submits that a synergy between linguistics and literature exists, and this synergy should (always) be explored in the interpretation of literary texts considering the ‘precision of analysis made available by stylistic methods’ (Carter and Simpson 1989, 7) so as to avoid a narrowed or myopic hermeneutics of (African diaspora) literature or literary texts as advocated by New Critics who believe in close reading of texts or the explication de texte of French formalists, and other ‘developments in literary theory which challenge assumptions about the role of language in depicting literary realities’ (Carter and Simpson 1989, 7). Apart from Brathwaite who uses graphetics profusely in his poem, indexicality shapes the poetics of all the three poets. The use of indexicals by the poets indicates that meaning is both context-dependent and can also be located outside the text. Put differently, through language use the unconscious of an average writer is laid bare, as he tends to say many things without his conscious awareness. To negotiate meanings and probe deeper into the psyche of a writer or his text, indexicality and graphological features can help unearth those information locked up in the inner recesses of a writer’s psyche while examining  his characters/personas, his diction and other intrinsic literary resources. Consequently, indexicality has proven to be a very useful linguistic tool and a conceptual or analytic trope in meaning negotiation or creation. It is believed that a good appreciation of poetic compositions should look in the direction of the tool to negotiate meaning and make inferences where necessary.

Emmanuel I. Adeniyi is a PhD student in the Department of English, University of Ibadan.  His PhD research work is on the literature of the Yoruba (Africans) in the Americas. He currently teaches African Oral Literature, Creative Writing, Literary Theory and Criticism in Federal University Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria. He is a seasoned journalist and a fellow of the Institute of World Journalism Institute (WJI), USA. His research interest covers diaspora/migration studies, literary theory and criticism, eco-criticism, oral literature, African literature, transcultural studies, stylistics, among others.


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[1] POD is a term which defines a formalised speech pattern that utilises or applies prosodic features to a speech in a way that brings out distinctly the sounds, musicality, metrics, rhythm, and other formal features of poetry in an ordinary speech.

[2] This quote is credited to Hornby John and can be found in Poetry Translation through Reception and Cognition: The Proof of Translation is in the Reading by Andrea Kenesi, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010 (35); or ‘Understanding how to Analyze Poetry and its Implication to Language Teaching’ by Noer Doddy Irmawati in International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IJSELL). 2014, (35-45); and English Literature and Business Communication by Bamikefa, A. A. Ibadan: Yekob Ventures Limited, 1997, (32).

[3] Obah-Akpowoghaha (2013) cites Nunn, N. (2007). ‘The Historical Origins of Africa’s Underdevelopment’, Vox - Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists.

[4] See ‘Abstract’. Ifejirika also believes that ‘Eurocentric expatriate literatures’, such as Joyce Carry’s The African Witch, Mr. Johnson, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,  Graham Green’s Journey Without Maps and many others never construct any positive image of Africa and its people. To these expatriate writers, Africa, especially south of the Sahara, is a mosquito-infested jungle, while Africans are labelled as apes and sub-humans. This warped perception of a people and their cultural space is condemnable. Such perception fuelled the thingification of Africans and their eventual enslavement.

[5] It is a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk.

[6] This term is credited to Homi Bhabha in his seminal work, The Location of Culture.

[7] Freud used the German lexemes interchangeably in his theory of uncanny.

[8] Noer Doddy Irmawati (2014) believes that there are two kinds of symbol: conventional and nonce. Conventional symbols, according to her, ‘are those which have been widely used and whose meanings are immediately understood’, while nonce symbol ‘is one that is invented and used for a particular occasion; its interpretation is determined by the poetic context of which it is a part’ (39).

[9] I conceived each of the elegies in the poem as ‘eleggua’. Eleggua is a referent to the Yoruba ambivalent god, Esu, who can also serve as an alter ego of the Roman god, Janus, in Yoruba religion. Both are liminal deities who watch over the thresholds or crossroads. Eleggua is also believed to be a psychopomp by the adherents of Yoruba-based religions in the New World (Santeria, Umbanda, Candomblé, Trinidadian Shango, Macumba, Batuque, Vodou). A psychopomp is a god/angel believed to always accompany the soul of the newly deceased to the numinous realm.

See Antonakou Elena I. and Triarhou, Lazaros C. 2017.  Soul, Butterfly, Mythological Nymph: Psyche in Philosophy and Neuroscience. Retrieved 19th January, 2018 from

[10] See the definition of ‘Post-structuralism’ in The New Penguin English Dictionary, 2001:1088

[11] The rubric – Atlantic Yoruba or Old Yoruba Diaspora (OYD) – refers to the descendants of African (especially people of Yoruba descent) slaves in the New World. The taxonomy also includes a number of Yoruba orisa worshippers in the Americas who do not have any ancestral or biological link with the Yoruba in Africa, but have accepted Yoruba religion and culture to define and assert their identity.

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