canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Drums of My Flesh
by Cyril Dabydeen
TSAR Publications, 2005

Reviewed by Anne-Marie Lee-Loy

The thing about drumbeats is this: You can’t really hear one beat without also hearing the echo of the beat before it. Each beat merges into that of its neighbour as the overriding rhythm takes shape. This sense of convergence between that which was before and that which is now is particularly poignant when one considers the history of the drum for those brought to the Caribbean as slaves and indentured labourers. The drums they and their descendants fashioned and the rhythms they created were as much a link to their countries of origins as they were reflections of their new environment. As such, the drum provides a fitting symbol for the exploration of the convergence of past and present in the construction of the self in the aptly titled Drums of My Flesh, Cyril Dabydeen’s long anticipated first full-length novel. In the novel, an unnamed narrator contemplates his identity as he considers how he might give his young daughter a sense of roots in Canada. As the novel shifts between the narrator’s observations of his daughter and his memories of growing up in colonial Guyana, it becomes clear that for Dabydeen, cultural and historical memories are inscribed within the very blood and bones of his characters, becoming integral components of their unfolding identities.

Dabydeen is perhaps still best known as a poet and Drums of My Flesh reveals the remarkable lushness of language, precise and powerful imagery, and keen observations that make his poetry so memorable. Depictions of Guyana are particularly evocative: one can almost smell the burning sugar cane that saturates village life in the shadow of Rose Hall or taste the salt in the sea air of the untamed Corentyne coast. When Dabydeen turns his poetic gaze to the Canadian landscape, it is transformed such that an ordinary Ottawa park changes from the everyday mundane to an environment as rich in haunting beauty and mystery as the Guyanese hinterland.

In many ways, the novel feels like an extended poem. Indeed, many of the themes and concerns that appear in Dabydeen’s poetry, notably an interest in origins and identity on personal and national levels, are evident throughout the novel, albeit, presented in a more thorough and cohesive fashion. This connection with his poetry may, however, be somewhat problematic from a stylistic point of view. Since Dabydeen’s poetry is primarily designed for public performance, the sprung rhythm and brief phrasing characteristic of his writing is effective when employed to that end. These stylistic devices, also present in the novel, may have been intended to capture how internal dialogue is unfettered by grammatical rules. Nevertheless, some readers might find this style tiring after 230-some odd pages.

Drums of My Flesh is also highly structured using Jungian psychology and numerous allusions to Western and South American mythologies as organizing principles. Again, some readers may find such allusions onerous and difficult, but Dabydeen does provide more than enough textual clues to allow readers to engage with and enjoy the text even if they do not have a large amount of expertise in these areas. More unfortunate, however, is that the use of Jungian psychology as a structural device hinders the full development of the novel’s characters. For the most part, the characters are to be understood as archetypes that the narrator encounters on his journey to self-discovery; or as the narrator himself puts it : [the other characters were] a part of me . . . [their] spirits were essentially one” (p.222). Thus, the reader is presented with a tantalizing community of characters whom he never gets to fully know.

Despite such vagaries, Drums of My Flesh is a beautifully rendered, intellectually challenging, and deeply satisfying addition to Dabydeen’s oeuvre. Although it is in many ways a debut novel, it reveals the masterful craftsmanship of Dabydeen’s long years of writing and the confidence of an author hitting his stride in the genre of fiction. In the end, long-time and new fans of Dabydeen will undoubtedly enjoy this exploration into the beautiful chaos that underlies the construction of all identities and celebrate with Dabydeen the basic rhythm that beats within all such creations: “I AM, I AM” (p. 211).

Anne-Marie Lee-Loy is an Assistant Professor of English at Ryerson University.






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