“Catastrophic Time and the Buzz of Multivocality in Sterling Brown’s ‘Ma Rainey’”
Taking as its starting point Kamau Brathwaite’s assertion that “The hurricane does not roar in pentameters,” this paper inquires into the relationships among natural disaster, diaspora, and poetic form. Insofar as it replicates the concurrent geographic displacement and immobility imposed by the slave trade, natural disaster in the Global South can precipitate a crisis in space that is characteristic of diaspora. Through a reading of Sterling Brown’s “Ma Rainey,” one of several poems in which he responds to the 1927 Mississippi flood, I ask what it might mean to rethink catastrophe as a temporal experience which reorganizes the relationships among history, memory and the present. Sterling Brown’s lyric time, I argue, gives voice simultaneously to the diasporic experience of rupture from space, and to the ongoing forces of history shaping that experience.
My analysis of the poem’s temporality depends on an understanding of how song and musical performance (specifically, Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” and Ma Rainey’s rendition of it) enable Brown’s poetic performance. Brown neither claims virtuosic authority for his poetic speaker, nor ascribes it to a single/singular performer. Rather, I argue, “Ma Rainey” is polyphonous, sounding the collective experience of catastrophe in the caesura of lyric time.
This paper emerges from a dissertation chapter in which I read Brown’s poems alongside Bessie Smith’s songs, Kamau Brathwaite’s essay “The History of the Voice,” and the hurricane sequence of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, tracing a tradition of literary response to natural disaster that transcends national identity formation.
Sonya Posmentier is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English. Her research interests include twentieth-century poetry and poetics, postcolonial theory, and African American and Caribbean literatures. Her dissertation, “’Cultivation and Catastrophe: Forms of Nature in Twentieth Century Poetry of the Black Diaspora,” inquires into the relationships among poetic form, organic form, and cultural identity from Claude McKay to Spike Lee.