Accents, Steupsing and She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks
1. I didn’t know the new name for it. That sound born of tongue and teeth, of sass and attitude’s sweet fire. That, if you weren’t cautious, could land a hot palm flat across your face. Steups. As a child living in Trinidad, that was the name I knew. A name devoted to the sound. And I was Queen Steups herself, flinging it from my mouth while cussing the lady stealing peppers through the fence of my grandfather’s yard, rolling it along my lips when I struck out during a game of cricket, hurling it beyond my small frame like a winged stone.
When my family immigrated to Queens, New York, there was no way I could leave my favorite weapon behind. I kept it close both at home and at school, invoking my inner rude gyal whenever the moment called. But it soon dawned on me that Americans did not call it how I called it. I couldn’t figure out the name and at such a young age, the fear of ridicule prevented me from even asking a question. Without the name, the sound slowly disappeared from my vocabulary.
Maybe it wasn’t the absence of the name that did it, maybe it was the slits carved by the blade of winter’s cold, or maybe it was the cruel expanse of concrete and asphalt, paved over indigenous burial grounds. Whatever it was, it chased me far into the hollows of myself, somewhere within the marrow. The new land quieted me. Robbed me of my spark, my slickmouth and audacity. The new land roped my tongue, stuffed sullied rags into my cheeks.
2. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. I was reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection of poems in the whitest, most affluent space I had ever lived. I was at Georgetown University, enthralled by the intellectual rigor of my courses but also thirsting for a lick of my histories and philosophies among the unapologetically, predominantly Eurocentic canon. I was seeking some respite, a quick glimpse of my reflection when I walked into the Caribbean Poetry class.
I barely knew the function of a line break. I didn’t know about experimental, or conceptual. Or about the wars between poetic communities. I knew that I hated most poetry, that most poetry felt like a white noise squatting in the cave of my ear. Felt like rules and regulations, like it was holding up a great, unfeeling structure that had built itself both inside and around me. I also knew that when I eventually found a poem that I loved, I was transformed and willing to risk anything to protect the winds from where that poem came.
When reading the collection, the first feeling that rose up in me was not exactly love, but intrigue. It was a swirl of voices rushing in from all directions. Words taking up residence on all parts of the page, snaking down the margins, unfolding into a brilliant display. Poems like Discourse on the Logic of Languageand The Question of Language is the Answer to Power flooded into me, murky yet familiar, like water I’d tasted before.
She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. The name of the collection is also the name of the poem that dug into me the most. It is a testimony of the disorientation and trauma that accompanies dislocation. Philip writes about the violence that occurred within and trailed out from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and European colonization, with an emphasis on the brutality of having one’s language hacked away. The poem draws inspiration from various sources, including dictionaries and gardening guides, a technique that pays homage the appropriation and compilation that made survival possible for Africans enslaved in the Americas. These practices safeguarded the future while retaining fragments of the past.
“Hold we to the center of remembrance/that forgets the never that severs/word from source/and never forgets the witness of broken utterances that passed before”
No, I did not have a good working knowledge of the mechanics of the poem. I couldn’t yet describe its moving parts but I knew that poem was in dialogue with my experiences, offering a witness and a companion. I knew what it was to be uprooted. I knew what it was to reach down and fist a soil that did not feel like it was mine. I knew how to ache for chenet and pomerac, to make do with the juice of another fruit. I knew the women in my family, how they held to the center of remembrance while working long hours and baking cassava pone and helping with the homework and telling stories of our blood’s great greats, thwarting time and its atrocities, pushing forward centuries of customs, surviving and surviving and surviving.
3. “It is important, when transplanting plants, that their roots not be exposed to the air longer than necessary. Failure to observe this caution will result in the plant dying eventually, if not immediately. When transplanting, you may notice a gently ripping sound as the roots are torn away from the soil. This is to be expected: for the plant, transplanting is always a painful process.”
The ripping doesn’t always sound like ripping. For me, it sounded like locking the door of my room while reading textbooks and magazines aloud with the sole purpose of perfecting my American accent. And after I perfected it, the ripping became not knowing the sound of my true voice. I sounded American at school and Trinidadian at home. This difference was a source of shame, as if I was somehow not being my genuine self in either place. I eventually accepted the fluidity of my tongue to the point where I can sound completely Trinidadian, American or a mix of both, without being aware of when the change occurs. I learned that this fluidity is one of the most beautiful parts of myself.
I also learned that Americans call steups,“sucking your teeth.” To me the phrase is not as satisfying. It doesn’t contain the same memories of small, pleasurable rebellions as steups. Still, there is a magic in the act of discovering a name. To know a name is to change how you experience the ground on which the name is called, much like making a map of the tongue.
Desiree Bailey is a writer whose poetry and short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry, Callaloo, Transition, Muzzle and other publications. She has an MFA from Brown University and has received fellowships from Princeton in Africa, the Norman Mailer Center and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She is also a recipient of the Poets and Writer's Amy Award. Desiree was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up in Queens, NY. She currently lives in Harlem where she is an educator and the fiction editor of Kinfolks Quarterly. Her work can be found at desireecbailey.com.
Vital Signs: The Life of Poetry
A blog series in which poets have been asked to write about poems that have mattered to them in some way—whether that way be through personal revelation, aesthetic inspiration, catharsis, or something else entirely.