Upsetting an Already Unquiet Bed: Contextualizing Dorothy Livesay’s "Zambia."
by Antje M. Rauwerda
The "Zambia" cycle in The Unquiet Bed (1967) can be read as a fairly liberal account of Dorothy Livesay’s experiences in Zambia from 1960 to 1963. Yet the poems are also open to less generous readings because of the scope that their obliqueness leaves a reader who is concerned with issues of race. Livesay could easily be charged with inflecting her work with negative racial images within this cycle, and in The Unquiet Bed as a whole. On the one hand, the context of The Unquiet Bed reflects a racially derogatory sexualizing of blackness that results primarily from the juxtaposition of blackness and sexual lasciviousness.1 On the other hand, there are factors that mitigate, and even invalidate, any simple charge of racism that may be leveled at Livesay’s Zambian Poetry.
If one allows that "poems published within the same volume inevitably interact" and that "[w]henever discrete poetic ‘texts’…are organized by their author into a collection they form a ‘contexture’" (my emphasis), one can assert that Livesay’s organization of The Unquiet Bed is significant to a reading of the text as a whole, and of the individual poems themselves (Fraistat 4). There are thus at least three contexts in which the "Zambia" cycle can be read. First, it can be read as a self-contained work that raises questions about a white Canadian’s apprehension of Zambia and Zambians; secondly, it can be read in the context of the erotic poems in The Unquiet Bed, which in turn raises questions about the intersections of race, sexuality and gendered subjectivity; and finally, it can be interpreted in the context of Livesay’s œuvre, considering the earlier version of the cycle, The Colour of God’s Face (1964), in particular. Consulting other of Livesay’s works elucidates her use of nature/culture, man/woman, sun/moon, light/dark and black/ white oppositions in The Unquiet Bed as a whole, and especially in "Zambia." These binaries evoke racial and gender stereotypes, but, by considering Livesay’s use of them as part of the development of her ideas about binaries themselves rather than about colonial or gender politics, one can assert that they are not as reductive as they may first appear. Looking to other sources also leads one to consider Livesay’s "The Second Language," another cycle of poems about Africa which was written contemporaneously with "Zambia," but was not published until 1972.2
The version of the "Zambia" cycle in The Unquiet Bed presents six poems in the following order: "Initiation," "Village," "Wedding," "Funeral," "The Leader" and "The Prophetess" (57-65). The "Zambia" cycle is a "post-war documentar[y]"; it is ostensibly an impersonal view of a "country wresting itself from a tribal way of life into the modern world" (Livesay Self Completing Tree 155; "Song and Dance" 46). Fiona Sparrow sees these poems as "written almost entirely in the documentary voice," revealing "little of the poet’s personal responses" (22). Both Sparrow and Livesay assume that a "documentary voice" is devoid of bias; what Livesay’s "Zambia" effectively proves, however, is that her "documentary" is always influenced by the biases, preconceptions and interests of the eye, or "I," seeing and describing. The opening and closing stanzas of "Initiation" are, contrary to both Sparrow and Livesay’s ruminations on this cycle of poems, explicitly personal, both using the personal pronoun "I" which is notably absent in the long, more descriptive middle passage. Livesay articulates the paradox of her arrival: "I entered the dark continent—/ it was blazing with light." This play of dark against light is the basis of the imagery in this introductory poem. Livesay plays the moon off against the sun (and its associated images of fire and gold), dark against light, and black against white. The sun is pre-eminent throughout this initial description in such images as "flaming flamboyants" and "violet / (inviolate jacarandas)."3 Lee Briscoe Thompson points out that Livesay’s use of sun/moon imagery is not solely derivative of her Zambian experiences, but results from her acceptance of
the mythic conventions of Western civilization, including those of the sun and moon. To the Greeks, the sun was the god Apollo (a.k.a Phoebus), whose hot and phallic rays penetrate the female earth, making her pregnant with all life. In this cosmology the moon is the goddess Artemis (Greek) or Diana (Roman), the pale and inconstant satellite who merely reflects her brother’s solar magnificence…[Livesay’s] upbringing on the sun-drenched prairies combined with a year in the sunny Midi of France and three years in the blazing light of Africa to make permanent the linkage of sun with energy, ectasy and even specifically sexual possession. Livesay has been intrigued since the 1940s by Sir Thomas Browne’s idea of the invisible sun within us all, which makes that power the heritage of both sexes. (108-109)
If one reads "Initiation" in the context of Thompson’s observations, one can argue that the sun/moon and dark/light binaries that Livesay establishes in this poem do not reflect a preoccupation with race, but rather are indicative of the nature of the masculine and feminine. To go beyond Thompson’s argument, one could even suggest that Livesay’s use of these images entails her exploration of the operation of personal power or enlightenment.
Nevertheless, the starkly defined binary of dark/light implies that Livesay had certain preconceptions on arrival in Lusaka, as borne out by the fact that she does not describe the multitudinous nuances of colour that she must have seen there. She polarizes black/white and dark/light where such polarizations could have been avoided to produce a more journalistic rendering of her experience. The "inviolate jacarandas" in this poem, for instance, could have been described in terms of their vivid blueness rather than by the fire-like "blazing" which implies sunlight. These polarizations imply that Livesay had a preconception of Zambia as a place of simple contrasts, ultimately reducible to one overwhelming racial contrast between blacks and whites. Livesay links black Africans with the sun in this first poem: "black men sauntering the streets/ clothed in white/ lifted faces, polished, to the sun." The imagery in these lines appears to be symptomatic of a colonialist ethos that fixates on the paradox of Africa as both light and dark continent. Christopher Miller writes of the development of a conception of Africa as "burnt by the sun," "light," but excessively so, and consequently "dark" (8).4 He establishes a history of this line of thought, noting how Ethiopia (the first European name for Africa as a whole) derives from the Greek verb "to burn," and considering how, since early Greek explorations "Ethiopian man [has been considered] the locus where the light of the sun becomes darkness…darkness and its cause, light, are posited together" (8). Applying Miller’s historical analysis to Livesay’s text suggests that Livesay took at least some of these preconceptions of the exotic paradox of light and dark Africa with her to Zambia—that at some level her personal apprehension of Lusaka, as depicted in "Initiation" (and as emphasized by her use of a personal pronoun in the first and last stanzas of this poem), relies on this colonialist and racist perception of the black man/dark continent as overexposed, burnt and "savaged" by the sun. Livesay’s concern with light and dark in "Initiation" indicates a possible preoccupation with personal whiteness and "othered" darkness as well as a romanticization of "the African."5
In "Village," the narrative shifts from the personal to the omniscient and concomitantly the descriptions become less specific. Livesay gives details of "clay huts" and "the shorn grass roof / brown to the ground" around which are a woman, a boy and a girl who "smell of the grass, of leaves /of the pitiless dust." But the village is peculiarly "nameless"; it is a nowhere and everywhere of Africa.6 Livesay constructs it as representative of Zambian village life in general. Although such details as the "huddled woman" offer specificity, Livesay subsumes them in her generic conception and celebration of a natural African people who "feel no difference" between "the land and themselves." Most important to Livesay is this link with the natural and the fact that the people in the poem "do not love this place, or name it / they are too much of it." They love "the earth no more than a man loves his own hand: / Use it and live /or cut it off and die." In celebrating quintessential African hardship Livesay underlines that she, as outsider, can value what her "Village" residents, perhaps painfully, uncomfortably, and often without celebration, endure. But while Livesay reduces Zambian village life to a basic unity with the land, the harshness of "Village" is not simply indicative of Livesay’s perception of the "savagery" of African nature; it is an indication of her embracing of harshness in nature as integral to life.
Given her view that culture and nature are integral to one another, and that "culture’s blind determination to eradicate nature is suicidal," it is clear that Livesay believes that, while nature may be harsh, as the details in "Village" affirm, this harshness is always part of the inevitable and beneficial aspect of nature’s influence on human life (Relke 30). In making this point, Diana Relke notes that in Livesay’s poetry nature’s processes are "welcomed as signs of sustained vitality" (30). While this benevolent attitude to nature’s harshness privileges what is obviously a personal value for Livesay, she inscribes it as a way of life for Zambians in "Village." This maneuver indicates her lack of perspicacity (and what could be perceived as unintentional racism) as a foreign visitor who never has to contend with unavoidable physical hardship or suffer the disempowerment of being associated only with nature under the colonialist presumption that culture is too sophisticated a concept to be grasped. Livesay’s nature/culture opposition is also often explicitly paralleled with the masculine/feminine. In The Self-Completing Tree, for instance, Livesay observes what she sees as "the polarities that exist between a man’s nature and a woman’s" and suggests the link between nature and woman, and man and culture (115).7
In "Wedding," Livesay reintroduces images of gendered light and darkness, ultimately suggesting the synthesis of these extremes. The process of marriage is itself a "meeting half way," a compromise expressed by the sun (light) which is met "halfway" by the darkness that "hauls it over the rim." Livesay’s images of the blackness of bodies and the sunlight sexualize both, producing what can be read as derogatory images of the sexual, savage African who is black under the scorching sun. Livesay’s "Wedding" also presents the marriage of carnal African "rhythms" with human sexuality. She describes marriage in terms of the sexual power of music:
The hand that does the drumming
This wedding of sexuality and music results in what Livesay implies is not only sexual, but also political power: it, as Livesay writes, "moves the world." Images of race, sex and political power filter through the poems following "Wedding" in the cycle, and recur particularly prominently in "The Leader." The problem with Livesay’s conjoining of the three is that it implies that sexualization and musicality are integral to African politics. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon parodies, summarizes and attacks the typical colonial European stereotype of the black African:8 "I am black: I am the incarnation of a complete fusion with the world, an intuitive understanding of the earth, and abandonment of my ego in the heart of the cosmos, and no white man, no matter how intelligent he may be, can ever understand Louis Armstrong and the music of the Congo" (45). Fanon writes that the black man9 is reductively and wrongly perceived by the white man as earth bound, body bound, prey to his natural appetites (including, as he goes on to add, sexual appetites) and incapable of tempering them (157). Livesay, in presenting what she frames as a musically and sexually permeated society in "Wedding," perpetuates this stereotype.10
The "Zambia" cycle makes extensive use of what Fiona Sparrow refers to as "incantatory repetitions" and "African rhythms" (25). Livesay herself makes an explicit link between Africa and music when she notes that her time there "had set [her] dancing again" ("Song and Dance" 46). "Zambia" may be documentary to a certain extent, but it also reflects the physicality and the participatory nature of Livesay’s response to the literal and metaphoric "music" of Zambia itself. She notes that in Zambia her feet could "catch the beat" and that, as a result, she "had never been happier" ("Song and Dance" 46). This interest in music is evidently a personal one for Livesay. Nevertheless, her conflation of music, sexuality, and a documentary response to Zambia certainly does make it seem as though her poetry is complicit with a colonialist stereotyping of the African as primitively musical and sexual. Biographical information, however, suggests that Livesay was aware of racial politics and endeavoured not to play the role of condescending colonialist during her stay in Zambia. Thompson notes that, in her teaching at least, Livesay’s attitude towards black Zambians was an unusual one; "she immediately achieved a rapport with her black, adult students that contrasted strikingly with the condescension of her British colleagues towards their classes" (7). Thompson’s reading of the sexuality and musicality in Livesay’s "Zambia" also serves to contradict a Fanonian analysis. She writes, persuasively, that in Africa Livesay had a "transcendent realization, under the influence of a society close to its natural and biological cycles, of the inextricability of rhythm and life. The blood pumping of our hearts, the lunar and solar cycles, the pleasure of patterned movement, the throb and thrust of sex: all were conjured up by the drums" (94). While this association of Africa with elemental nature is troubling because it is so reductive, Thompson’s observation goes some way towards explaining why Livesay would associate drumming and sex in "Wedding." It also suggests why "Wedding" would be followed by "Funeral" in "Zambia." If one concurs with Thompson, the cyclical, rhythmic nature of life itself is essential for Livesay, and the sexualization and musicality of her poetry are a valorization of it, rather than a denigration of Africa and Africans. To agree with Thompson is thus also to see "Wedding" as key to "Zambia"; it is its generative drumming that both catalyses and anchors the cycle.
This generative cycle includes death as well as life, and "Funeral," the next poem in the series, deals with the antithesis of "Wedding’s" fertility theme. Livesay’s omniscient narrator focuses on a drowned boy, the women who watch his burial, the men who carry the coffin and the boy’s grief-stricken brother. Although this poem is arguably the most musical in "Zambia" because of its emphasis on song and lament, it is also the least evocative of drum rhythms and thus the least sexual. Livesay uses "waiting" and "wailing" throughout as refrains that unify the piece. The funereal is suggested by repeated negatives: "Not the women wailing," "Not the men," "not sultry dust." All that is is "the box," the coffin, the chorus of women’s voices "chained to air," and, ultimately the two boys: "the brother alone at the drowning / the brother killed with his cry." This concluding image presents unintentional violence within the loving, "mothering" family. It suggests that the young siblings, perhaps metaphors for the developing independence and religious movements in Zambia, have the potential to first harm, and then grieve over one another. Read metaphorically, this violence leads into the contentions represented in the last two poems in the cycle, poems that are also anticipated by the slithering assonance of "pressing pressing against the grasses" which prefigures the image of snake-like night at the beginning of the next poem in the cycle, "The Leader."
The last two poems in the "Zambia" cycle are the most overtly political and counterpoint each other in significant ways. Kenneth Kaunda is the focus in "The Leader," and Alice Lenchina (sometimes also spelt "Lenshina") is the focus in "The Prophetess." Kaunda was released from prison in Zambia in 1960, the year of Livesay’s arrival. He had been imprisoned for his involvement in the fledgling Zambian African National Congress, a party struggling for Zambian independence. On his release, Kaunda was treated as "a popular hero"’ and took over the leadership of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) (Roberts 220). Lenchina was the founder of the Lumpa Church, an organization competing with the UNIP for popular support, particularly in the Copperbelt area in the early 1960s (Kaunda, Zambia: Independence and Beyond 105). Livesay left Zambia in the summer of 1963 (Journey with My Selves 217). Early in 1964, Kaunda was made Prime-Minister of "an all UNIP government with full control of internal affairs" (Roberts 221). UNIP persecution of the Lumpa sect began in earnest in the spring of the same year (Short 267). By mid-1964 "Lumpa defiance of government authority had [resulted in]…a war in which over 700 people were killed. As a result the Lumpa church was banned and its surviving leaders, including Alice Lenchina, were detained indefinitely" (Roberts 221).11 What is not known is how much of the tension between Kaunda and Lenchina was apparent to Livesay while she was in Zambia, how much she became aware of it after her departure, and how much of it is reflected in "Zambia."
Livesay may have been picking her heroes from both sides, a tactic which betrays either (and I think this is unlikely) ignorance of Zambian politics or (more likely) ignorance of its shifting ground or (most likely given Livesay’s decision to write about Kaunda and Lenchina) an egalitarian attitude towards all efforts at black insurgence, whatever tensions may have existed between them. In "Zambia," Kaunda is "The Leader," a prominent figure, but not a visionary one like his opponent, Alice Lenchina, "The Prophetess." Sparrow, reluctant to credit Livesay with political interests that are not primarily personal, suggests that "the poem on Kaunda, and the one that follows it on Alice Lenshina, should not be overweighted with political significance. They are more important as the poet’s immediate response to the power of two voices that, in their different ways, were speaking to the awakening nation at the time she was there. The bitter truth had not then [1960-1963] become clear; these two voices could not sound together in harmony" (24). Nevertheless, it is puzzling that in The Colour of God’s Face (the 1964 version of "Zambia") "The Leader" and "The Prophetess" are reversed. Sparrow posits that by 1967 Livesay "must have known that this Zambian woman [Lenchina] was in prison. Perhaps that was why the poet felt the prophetess, not the leader, was entitled to the last word" (25). According to Sparrow, what may have started as personal ruminations on the political in the 1964 version of these two poems was likely infused with a greater awareness of political volatility in the 1967 edition. I believe that while this is almost certainly true, it is also likely that Livesay had some knowledge of the tension between the contending political groups even in 1963.
If one considers the contemporaneous "Politics" in the "Second Language" suite, one can suggest that Livesay was aware of the violence of the confrontation between the Lumpa sect and the UNIP. In this poem she writes of a powerful woman speaker (probably Lenchina) rallying a meeting and saying that "men are cowards / they fear authority…If the men will not act / the women will!" She also includes her friend Ralph’s cautionary and ominous: "It is easy to kill" (Collected Poems 257). Given what would thus appear to be Livesay’s knowledge of the volatility of the political situation, knowledge that Sparrow is reluctant to grant her, it is likely that Livesay’s juxtaposition of the two poems in The Colour of God’s Face, and her later reversal of them in "Zambia," suggests greater insight, even greater ideological generosity, than may be immediately obvious.
In the first stanza of "The Leader," Livesay suggests stifling constraint at the behest of the "Copperbelt night" (implicitly colonial control). The night is "a snake / strangling the drums" until resistance brews and is represented by Livesay’s image of a boiling cauldron. Presumably Kaunda himself is the savior in the second stanza. His voice, "a strike of thunder," cries out "Kwatcha!" (dawn) in its African, rather than English tongue and "Children shout freedom / waving green branches." That Kaunda represents the dawn after the colonial night results in a reversal of the light/ dark binaries in this poem; here the European is the darkness, the African, the light. The reversal in the lines "they cluster with uplifted faces / black on white" suggests an ambiguous patterning: black (colonial control) is "on" top of, or suppressing white (the dawn of Zambian freedom) or more literally, black faces are superimposed on the apparently white ground, even the whitened ground of colonially controlled Zambia.12 In the third and fourth stanzas Livesay again uses a first person pronoun that allows for divergent interpretations. The "I" in question could be Livesay speaking as Kaunda, as Sparrow would suggest, however, it could also be Livesay inserting herself as poet, observer, and as the interpreter and herald of "The Leader" (24). Most likely, and most intriguingly, it is both. The sounding bell is Kaunda’s political voice, reiterating his "thunder" in the earlier stanzas (the bell here is also a surprisingly unmusical allusion to African musicality/ rhythm given that it sounds like thunder, not music or even drumming). It is also on "the clapper" of this bell that Livesay hangs, as though she were hanging on Kaunda’s words. The black/white, sun/moon binaries return in this poem, echoing similar patterns in "Initiation," and again suggesting Livesay’s racialised presence. Livesay’s "whiteness" is also that onto which Kaunda’s "blackness" is superimposed in the highly ambiguous: "uplifted faces / black on white." My primary reason for reading Livesay back into this poem is the image with which the poem concludes: "I shall ring on / till flowers are black mouths / and the stones bleed my song." Sparrow rightly reads these lines as suggestive of the violence and sacrifice by which political freedom under Kaunda is won (24). But their final sacrifice is also a feminine and menstrual one—a cyclical image that leads into the fecund imagery of "The Prophetess." The sun and moon move in their cycles, the flowers live and die, and all the while Livesay continues interpreting and her poem "rings on," until even the stones bleed with her and the land itself is finally as sexual and fertile as Livesay’s own body.
The final poem in the "Zambia" cycle is the most insistent on fertility. Livesay predicates the power of the Lenchina movement on "the resurrection of a woman / an African mother." Key to Livesay’s understanding of the Lumpas are regeneration, fertility, and the fact that Lenchina’s church is "specifically African, with an African prophetess who lived in a village" (Short 224). Once again, Livesay’s conflation of Africanness and sexuality or fertility can seem reductive. In terms of gender, Livesay’s synechdochal representation of woman as "belly swollen" womb emphasizes Lenchina’s corporeally inspired convictions and almost denies the prophet a more intellectual, philosophical or mystical revelation. Yet to acknowledge Livesay’s bias in favour of nature and the cycles of the body is to recognize that, far from denigrating the physicality of Lenchina’s fertility, Livesay is privileging it over the less physical, more philosophical Christian tradition that produced a violently infertile iconography centred on "a white man hammered with nails." The poem concludes with another natural, cyclical and fertile image that emphasizes both rootedness and new growth: Lenchina is as "rooted as a tree / a tree singing the new hosannah!". In the chorus that follows "lumpa," an indigenous Zambian word, replaces "hosannah" in the Christian phrase "hosannah in the highest." The word "lumpa" is onomatopoeic, suggesting the sound of the drum (itself a fertile and sexual image, as in "Wedding") as well as being the name of the church that it celebrates. Of final importance in this poem is the rootedness of the tree, which suggests an ideal of permanence and stability out of which new growth can come. The metaphor emphasizes the rootedness of indigenous politics such as those which Lenchina and Kaunda represent, but it is also a return to the organic images used throughout the "Zambia" cycle.
The reversal of "The Leader" and "The Prophetess" in The Colour of God’s Face, Livesay’s 1964 version of "Zambia," renders a reading of the cycle quite different. The exuberance and celebration in the "lumpa, lumpa, lumpa" drum beat at the end of "The Prophetess" is met by the Copperbelt night that "strangl[es] the drums" at the beginning of "The Leader." This ordering makes it seem that the "strangling" may be at the hand of Kaunda’s UNIP as easily as at the hands of colonial oppression—Kaunda is alternately the night that strangles the potential of organizations such as the Lumpa church and the dawn that has the power to bring liberation to the Zambian people. Placing the image "till flowers are black mouths / and the stones bleed my song" at the very end of the cycle leaves the culminating effect as either violent (if one agrees with Sparrow’s reading) or cyclical, organic, menstrual and inclusive of regenerative processes. The ambiguity of these concluding lines is, perhaps, part of the reason that Livesay chose to use "The Prophetess" as a concluding poem in The Unquiet Bed, finally preferring the celebratory ending of that poem with its rhythmical and hence fertile/sexual "lumpa, lumpa, lumpa."
The other significant difference between The Colour of God’s Face and The Unquiet Bed is that Livesay substitutes "Initiation" for "The Land" in the later version.13 While "Initiation" is a personal poem, Sparrow suggests that Livesay might have used it to replace "The Land" because the earlier poem was even more of a "personal realization…and maybe it was in acknowledgment of its personal references that [Livesay] decided to leave it out of the revised version of the Zambian suite" (26). The primary difference between the two is that "The Land" contains sexual imagery that has a more personal focus than does the sexual imagery in "Initiation." "Initiation," however, introduces an "I," a personal filter on events and descriptions, where "The Land" claims omniscience and no personal interpretation of what is seen. The presence of the "I" in "Initiation" makes it impossible to forget the presence of the speaker in the other poems in The Unquiet Bed.
The combining and juxtaposing of personal responses and documentary claims, while a troubling issue within the "Zambia" sequence itself, is significantly more troubling in terms of the contexture of The Unquiet Bed. The overt sexuality in the poems that Livesay publishes in the fifteen pages preceding "Zambia" is surprisingly influential in a reading of the African poems. The erotic poems suggest both the "Africanisation" of the lover, and a blatant, potentially pejorative sexualization of Africans. While one can argue that the love poems and "Zambia" are not part of a single African poem cycle, various factors suggest that the erotic poems are linked with the African poems and that each should be considered in light of the other. Of the techniques that suggest the continuity between Livesay’s erotic poetry and the "Zambia" cycle, the most pervasive is the use of musical and rhythmic imagery. As in "Initiation," "Funeral," or "The Prophetess," the poem "The Unquiet Bed" uses an "I am" refrain at the end of the first line in three stanzas (39). Similarly, in "The Taming" the phrase "be woman" is repeated chorically, and musicality is implied by the repeated assertion that the speaker does not know the "measure of the words" (45; my emphasis). One can also see musicality in the "measure" of offset lines in "Four Songs":
But thirst remains
The choric offset lines, with the specific reference to music in the title of this poem and in lines like "taste/song in my mouth," show Livesay’s reliance on musical rhythms and images which seem to be a carry over from her African poetry (or vice versa) (40).
Another indication that Livesay wanted these poems to be associated with one another lies in the inversion of their published order. Never one to enforce chronology in editions of her works,14 Livesay’s decision to print the erotic poems before the Zambia poems is not in itself surprising, even though the erotic poems were supposedly written on her return from Africa and concern an affair that, as Thompson speculates, may have lasted for five years after her return (94). The inverted order suggests to the reader that the love affair took place before, or even during her stay in Zambia— that her responses to Africa were as overtly personal and sexual as they were documentary. A researcher attempting to work through the various possibilities implied is further misled by information from other sources. In The Self-Completing Tree, for instance, Livesay writes of the number of erotic poems reprinted from The Unquiet Bed: "[w]ritten on my return from Africa, these poems were fired by an intense love affair with a younger man" (115). Elsewhere both Livesay and Thompson imply that the African poems were also written on Livesay’s return to Canada (Journey With My Selves 217; Thompson 94). Thus, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, Livesay herself makes it sound as if "the younger man" in question could be part of her African experience; she writes about him in Canada, but does not reveal where the love affair took place.
"The Touching" and "The Taming" are erotic poems resulting from this affair and they illustrate how the erotic and Zambian poems seem to be influenced by one another (46; 45). Lines such as the following from "The Touching" are explicit (and may have seemed more uncomfortably so in 1967):
…the penis completing
In this openly sexual poem the emphasis is on sexuality paired with rhythm as suggested by "throbs" and "beating" and as per the "Zambia" poems. If one reads The Unquiet Bed sequentially "Wedding," with its emphasis on drums that bring "man home / to womb and woman," comes a mere ten pages after the overtly personal sexuality of "The Touching." The proximity of the two makes it difficult, if one is reading The Unquiet Bed in its published order, not to carry one’s impressions of the intimately sexual into a reading of the African poems. The proximity of the two poems also acts retroactively in this contexture, making it seem as though the sexual experience is as integral to the African as the African is to the sexual. Once again, the lover is Africanised and Africa is sexualized. Reading the cycle after Livesay’s personal love poems also makes her presence as the "I" in "Zambia" even more obtrusive; one assumes the continuity of the extremely personal voice foregrounded in the love poems. "The Touching" also uses a play on light and dark in its description of the sexual relationship in such images as "like light your kisses hover / touching my nipples," "a white frost…on a dark ground," and "deep in the dark / earth." These images recall (or antecede, depending on whether one reads The Unquiet Bed chronologically or not) Livesay’s use of light and dark imagery throughout the "Zambia" cycle. In "Zambia" these images imply racial difference between the European/Canadian, or white, and the Zambian, or black. The same sorts of images in "The Touching" and notably "The Taming" suggest a similarly racialised sexual relationship.
In "The Taming" the lover in question is explicitly "a black man":
Be woman. You did say me, be
The man supervises the preparing of chicken, obliging the woman in the poem to assume the stereotypical role of subservient woman who cooks. Later in the poem Livesay writes: "you denied me darkness, / even the right / to turn in my own light." These lines suggest that Livesay, "white" or "light," is denied the right to relinquish, or "turn in" that light; it is irrevocable. The "darkness" she wants to enter herself is denied her by the very assertiveness of the black man. Once again contexture works to influence a reading of this poem. "The Taming," flanked by the explicitly sexual "The Touching," is evidently part of the series of love poems. Thus, in describing a black lover, "The Taming" also influences a reading of the other erotic poems to imply that the lover in them is a black man. In "The Taming," Livesay’s use of stereotypically African-sounding syntax in such lines as "you did say me" reinforces racial sterotypes by making it sound as if the man’s grammar is faulty, or uncouth. At the same time, however, Livesay distorts those racial stereotypes by introducing a gendered power differential in her depiction of a white woman with no apparent power and a black man with control. To conclude "The Taming" Livesay writes "Do as I say, I heard you faintly / over me fainting: / be woman." This image of feminine submission and masculine assertion reinforces gender stereotypes irrecoverably, even while it could be read as subverting racial ones.15 The concluding image echoes the violence and apparent domination at the end of "Zambia’s" "The Leader." In "The Taming" the politics of the "Zambia" cycle are also writ personal. The gender and race dynamics of the Lenchina/Kaunda (and implicitly also colonial) struggle play themselves out here in a personal microcosm of those political acts. "The Taming’s" "black man" (and, by inference, the black men in "Zambia," notably Kaunda) also has a domineering, almost savage, or even bestial power. Far from simply resurrecting a "black" position that is not emasculated by the privileging of white races, Livesay establishes, especially through her sexual innuendo, a racial, sexual paradigm seemingly consistent with those critiqued by Frantz Fanon. Fanon criticizes the colonially constructed model of sexual power relations which presupposes a basely lascivious black man’s imposition on and destruction of a white woman (a pattern which is clearly played out in "The Taming"). He mocks a colonial, European assessment of African sexuality by summarizing this stereotype as follows: "As for the Negroes, they have tremendous sexual powers. What do you expect, with all the freedom they have in their jungles! They copulate at all times in all places. They are really genital" (157). The Unquiet Bed poems seem to exemplify this stereotype. Livesay portrays both copulation and Africa, making the two analogous. However, this portrayal can be construed less as a fulfillment of the pattern Fanon critiques, and more as a representation of Livesay. Arguably, it is not so much her (possibly black) lover who is "really genital," but rather Livesay herself.
Livesay’s sexualization of both love and Zambia does not represent a colonizing/othering process of displacing unacceptable sexuality onto a pariah figure. Sexuality is, rather, a model of inclusiveness, and an indication of Livesay’s efforts to break down black/white, man/woman binaries. One could make the case that, rather than positing irresolvable, antagonistic relations, she posits the potential of binaries, the opportunities for their transgression, their subversion, and perhaps even their collapse. In this sense, Livesay’s erotic poems are in keeping with what Georges Bataille suggests when he writes that "The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives" (17). Thus in "The Touching":
The erotic here manifests the destruction of a sexual binary; two people seem to become one. Livesay reworks ideas of subjectivity, calling for the destruction and reconstruction of the identities of both lovers as part of a generative process. This implies that, at some level, both lovers should be shattered in order to accommodate each other. However, this poem ends with the lines:
These lines suggest the key problem with Livesay’s attempts to renegotiate race and gender binaries in The Unquiet Bed. Ultimately these negotiations happen within Livesay; Livesay "alone," is "the one wrestling / the element reborn." The reformulation of sexual and racial paradigms is profoundly introspective; it neither changes the rest of the world, nor protects Livesay from charges of complicity with these racial and sexual binaries when her internal re-configurations are not immediately clear to her readers.
Livesay’s concern with mutable subjectivities and the role of eroticism is inevitably implicated in her documentation of her responses to Africa. In addition, interrogating whether or not Livesay had an African lover is not a moot point given the bearing this may have had on the racial and sexual imagery in her Zambian poems. Any investigation of the issue, however, entails consulting materials from outside The Unquiet Bed. Of particular interest is Livesay’s other suite of African poems, "The Second Language" (Collected Poems 255-260). In three out of these four poems Livesay refers to her Zambian friend, Raphael, and the final titular poem is dedicated to him. In her autobiography, Journey With My Selves, Livesay writes of the importance of her friendship with this student: "I was into a deep psychic relationship with Raphael, whom we all called Ralph. He was a young married man whose wife and child lived in a village far away, as was custom among most students. Ralph, very black, but with a somewhat European visage and carriage…was determined to write the O level Cambridge examinations. Naturally, I gave him extra coaching" (208). The racial aesthetic that Livesay privileges here is startlingly colonialist; for Livesay, Ralph’s European characteristics are worthy of positive mention, in spite of his blackness. But, Livesay’s perception is inaccurate given the photograph of Livesay and Ralph included on the following page; this man’s "somewhat European visage and carriage" is not obvious, or even particularly evident (209-211). Livesay’s perception of Ralph’s European features mitigates his racial otherness and is either the basis of her interest/involvement with him or a partial justification of it. Livesay paradoxically frames this young man as like enough to herself to be valuable as a friend, and yet also distinctly Zambian. Her description also suggests that the friendship between the two was extraordinary, and would perhaps be classified by some as more than just friendship.
In the titular poem of "The Second Language" suite, Livesay establishes an Edenesque forest in her first and second stanzas. This forest is the setting of the "temptation" of the third stanza as the two people in the poem (quite clearly herself and Ralph given the poem’s "for Raphael" subtitle), meet, and she decides to "turn away— / the wanting mouth / closed / the longing arms / clamped" (259). The fourth and fifth stanzas elliptically address the possibilities of a dreamlike consummation of desire. The sixth and most enigmatic stanza leaves open the possibility (perhaps not more concretely addressed in order not to incriminate the married Ralph) that the relationship was, finally, sexual:
Then who shall blame the dagga
Both Sparrow and Thompson underplay the sexuality of this poem. Sparrow avoids discussing Ralph altogether, and Thompson denies the possibility that Livesay and Ralph were actually lovers (22; 93). Whether Livesay had an affair with Ralph which formed the basis of her erotic poetry in The Unquiet Bed or whether these poems are based on a relationship with someone else is of little consequence. The significant element is that Livesay views Ralph sexually and that this perspective affects her documentary accounts, making the "Zambia" cycle remarkably sexual, especially when compounded with the contexture of The Unquiet Bed. Livesay’s association of her erotic experiences and her impressions of Africa (even if this association is unacknowledged) also renders "The Second Language" more sexual than one might expect. For instance, "Before Independence (Zambia)" is not purely political.16 While this poem explores religious miscegenation in the image of the church with icons of two murdered black men instead of a cross, the concluding lines emphasize the development of "understanding" and even sexual tension between two individuals, implicitly Livesay and Ralph: "Moving together, no touching / but moving together / we walked down the hill into the roaring compound."
The link between Livesay’s involvement with Ralph and the political poems in "The Second Language" is also implied in "Zambia" in "The Land" (printed in The Colour of God’s Face but not in The Unquiet Bed). Compare the image of trees in "The Land" with a closely matching one in "The Second Language: for Raphael":
At night they burst out suddenly
Now in our black
The wording of the two is obviously very close and, possibly, "The Land’s" version derives from that in "The Second Language," or vice versa. As I mention above, Sparrow suggests that Livesay removed "The Land" from the "Zambia" cycle "in acknowledgment of its personal references" (26), however, she does not elaborate on what she perceives those "personal references" to be. The original of this passage may easily have been the one. Significantly, "The Land" does not refer specifically to Livesay’s sexual desires unless one recognizes the link with "The Second Language: for Raphael." The link between the two explains why Livesay may have seen (where a reader may not have picked up the reference) "The Land" as too personal to preface the "Zambia" cycle; the poem recalls, too intimately, the personal and erotic focus of "The Second Language: For Raphael." If one recognizes the link between "Initiation" and "The Land" as well as the link between the two Zambian cycles, one can argue that "The Second Language" suite is sexual because of the association with Ralph, and that "Zambia" is sexual because of "The Second Language." One can even speculate that Ralph is the lover in the erotic poems which contextualize the "Zambia" cycle in The Unquiet Bed. Thus one can suggest that the sexual and potentially racist inflection of the "Zambia" cycle results from Livesay’s very personal involvement with the documentary that she creates.
If one chooses not to rely as extensively on biographical conjecture as I have done here, one can still assert that Livesay’s corpus exonerates her from the charge of racism. In her work Livesay attempts to resolve gender binaries, and even to dissolve them by repeatedly using and reformulating such images as white/dark, black/white, culture/nature and man/woman. Her efforts on this score suggest that she was concerned with collapsing racial divisions and binaries in a similar fashion. Nonetheless, the fact that one has to work so hard, and look in so many other places to find alternate explanations, implies that Livesay’s "Zambia" is complicit with colonialist stereotypes, if only by virtue of her inattention to her own potentially pejorative characteristics of Zambia and Zambians. Livesay’s engagement with the issues of Lenchina church and Kaunda’s leadership indicates that she was politically aware enough to have thought about other political issues as well—such as her own position as a white person in an African country struggling for independence. That she does not at least acknowledge the power of her white perspective is a notable omission. However, if one accepts a sexually infused personal experience as the foundation of Livesay’s "documentary" Zambian works, upsetting as this strategy may appear, perhaps the apparently pejorative sexualization of Livesay’s African poems (and the racialisation of her erotic ones) can be mitigated.
|Many thanks to Tracy Ware for his help and encouragement.|