By Samantha Stephens, PhD
“Consider, for a moment,
the silence —
this terrible white
all the things
we never say,
— Kei Miller, Things I Have Withheld
“I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”
A thin book wrapped thickly in black ink, Kei Miller’s In Nearby Bushes utilizes and subverts our expectations of color and legibility. The confrontation and experimentation with the legibility of Blackness is made overt in the cover design of his most recent collection, though it is present throughout his oeuvre. In a visual poem that opens his award-winning essay collection, Things I Have Withheld, Miller connects the abstract operations of silence and silencing with its material formations of blank, specifically “white // space” (xi). In doing so, he addresses the politics of Black legibility and physical place/lessness. Covered in columns of newspaper clippings, In Nearby Bushes subverts the sharp white background of the page, as the poet imagines and images the terrible white space of the newspaper reporting the deaths of innumerable people “in nearby bushes.” If you were to tune into the evening news in Jamaica any day of the week, you would certainly hear reports of any number of criminal activities in nearby bushes. Unsettling a trite, commonplace phrase in Jamaican popular culture, Miller’s meditation on the concept of the bush highlights the unseen, silenced, marginalized bodies located in this placeless place.
The book’s cover introduces the subversive poetics of inverted views, where each iteration of “in nearby bushes” is literally highlighted in yellow, highly contrasting the black background. Furthermore, most of the cover displays white text, causing a phenomenon known as halation—a visual fuzzing effect. This choice literally requires the eyes to open wider to absorb more light to see the text in this fashion. Defying, subverting, and resisting the optimal legibility of the traditional black text against a white background, the cover displays the inverse —transforming Zora Neale Hurston’s imagery of Black life in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” referenced in the epigraph. Miller’s engagement with Black death in Jamaica resembles the negatives in photography, a color reversal. What happens when we look through this lens? Miller offers alternative, otherwise, and imaginative ways of seeing the shape of a place by rupturing how we move through language, landscapes, people, (hi)stories and silences.
Mirroring the inverted expectations of the page on the book cover, the poetic form on the white pages within replicates the play with legibility through the typographic treatment of the newspaper entries. First captured in full, and in black ink, a February 2018 newspaper clipping report of the discovery of the “decomposed body” of a young woman “in [Hanover’s] nearby bushes” begins the “In Nearby Bushes” poetic sequence. On the four pages that follow, the report is reproduced with varied typographic presentations. The poet selects a few letters, words, and phrases from the 17-line newspaper report to present in traditional black ink and casts the rest in a light grey that almost blends into the white background of the page. These greyscale pieces gesture to the work of redaction as Miller plays with visibility and silence, creating poems out of the brief and troubled histories documented in the Jamaica Star. This move is in conversation with the concepts of Black annotation and Black redaction discussed in Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Positioning herself in the wake of slavery, Sharpe offers anti-colonial methods of ethical viewing practices, or as she writes: “toward seeing and reading otherwise, toward reading and seeing something in excess of what is in the frame” (117). This “otherwise” is a kind of refusal, a practice which tackles the assaults on Black life and counters the legacy of antiblackness. While we may be accustomed to the practice of redaction concerning government documents, Black redaction exploits and celebrates visibility with silence, making alternative viewpoints public instead of obscuring them.
I argue that Miller’s typographic choices work at the interstices of silence, or redaction, and visibility, or annotation, to rupture our view. With each repetition of the story in the titular sequence, fewer and fewer selections are highlighted, progressively obscuring the original text. The final poem reads, “Here where Blossoms the night”—beginning by borrowing the “H” and “er” in “Hanover” and ending using the “ght” from the “fighting dogs.” A new narrative is created from identical source material with each selection transforming history and journalism into visual poetry. A riff on the visual poem opening his essay collection, these newspaper-poems are markedly thinking about space. However, instead of experimenting with textual size and space, their focus is color and its absence. With Miller’s meditationon silences and white space, publications such as Jamaica Star, Jamaica Supreme Court Criminal Appeal, McKoy’s News, Loop Jamaica, and Radio Jamaica News and their iterations, become visual poetry. And these newspaper-poems take up the silences subsumed by the nearby bushes and retell these stories. Adding emphasis and blurring select details, I see the work as poetic instead of purely historical, providing a referent and so making “some— / thing torn // and new” (Brathwaite 270). This kind of writing aligns with Kamau Brathwaite’s poetics, not only in its play with textual space but also in its interest in Caribbean placemaking in the wake of slavery. While Brathwaite notably composes this image to metaphorize the process of creolization, blending and weaving old roots with new traditions, what happens when this simultaneous tearing/destruction and production/generation is manifested materially?
Miller’s work does not seek to physically shred newspapers, but it is an invitation to ponder white spaces, textually and otherwise. Considering Miller’s meditation on “the silence— // this terrible white // space” in Things I Have Withheld, a fascinating detail is that these newspaper-poem redactions cannot be found in the table of contents. These silences function as an enactment of placeless-ness—that is, an indeterminable space or location, an almost there or ‘round the corner, and otherwise, etc. These poems and histories are—especially in the case of the first five pages of the “In Nearby Bushes” sequence—in a silence, in a white space, echoing things that have been withheld.
The management of identity and visibility is an overt way Miller engages Black death. A nod to Black redaction is made on the very first page of the poem series, insofar as the name of the victim is literally redacted with the use of six successive lowercase x’s: “xxxxxx” (Miller 43). Yet a deeper look reveals that “x” both marks and conceals. This usage works to show respect and offer dignity to the woman discarded in the real and symbolic bushes: “What is it called — the nameless space between, as if nothing / important happened here. As if no one important happened here” (Miller 36). In this way, her legacy is shifted from the placeless place of the nearby bushes to an otherwise, richly unsilenced space in the x’s. This richness lends itself to Miller’s textual reimagining and re-imaging of the newspaper’s report. His newspaper-poems refuse the detached journalistic voice with the text itself—using color gradations to produce various versions of the story and a different lens with which to view Black life and death.
We might consider the typographical play with the newspapers as redaction and the work of (re)defining as annotation. A striking and relevant intervention Miller offers in this stead is his meditation on the word “autoclaps,” which appears in his 2016 novel, Augustown. Miller’s novel weaves a tragically triumphant story of the community of August Town, centered around the acclaimed and enigmatic spiritual leader, Alexander Bedward, and following the reverberations of his radical sociopolitical ruptures from 1920 to the 1980s. Augustown opens with the promise of “the terrible thing,” a thing that becomes synonymous with the term “autoclaps” (Miller 5). The narrator supplies the reader with definitions and reflections on this Jamaican word: “A strange word, autoclaps … It’s not the kind of word you will find the Oxford dictionary. But maybe if you were lucky enough to find a dictionary that has in it blackpeople’s words, then the entry for autoclaps would read something like this …” (Miller 103). With a disputed etymology, “autoclaps” is layered with many meanings, versions, and intentions. From calamity to heartache with inflections of Greek, German, and Jamaican language, the multiplicity of the word is reflected even in the form it is defined. The imagined dictionary definitions of this slippery term appearin Miller’s novel as:
“AUTOCLAPS: (Noun). Jamaican dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble
AFTERCLAP: Noun. An unexpected, often unpleasant sequel to a matter that has been considered closed. In German, ‘achterklap’
AUTOCLAPS: the collapse of the heart; a small apocalypse; the afterclap.” (157-9)
The repeated revision of the term, shifting with each definition, plays on and with the very act of defining by annotating the “original” with new versions and variations. This technique of defining and redefining is markedly creative; it invokes dialogue, simile, rhetorical questions, and repetition. These annotations cause ’ruption as they fracture the impact of “sharp white backgrounds” (Hurston 153).
The imagined dictionary which defines words like “autoclaps” ruptures and collapses the knowledge systems and logics of the Oxford dictionaries, archives, and newspapers. All of Miller’s dictionary entries are like an autoclaps; in fact, “autoclaps” is annotation and redaction working together. This iteration of autoclaps is not from an apocalyptic destruction or even the collapse of one’s heart, but we might understand it more generously by reading it alongside Black annotation and redaction. “Autoclaps” is mobilized in a productive way, towards a destruction of ideas and ideals that harm Black life and living and foreground the silence. For Miller, this practice is intimately linked to place and landscape and is not limited to this novel but is also found quite prominently in Miller’s poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014).
The main narrative interspersed throughout The Cartographer in a 27-poem sequence is an extended dialogue between a cartographer and a Rastaman, who each have different ideological stances to mapping. Yet between these conversations appear another sequence focused on the Jamaican landscape aptly called “Place Names.” The Place Name sequence addresses the peculiar histories of places named and renamed in response to colonial and postcolonial moments. Miller creatively locates “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come” in the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The speaker of the poem draws parallels between the circumstances of the naming of “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come” and its implications with the intrusion of Goldilocks into the “house of bears,” that is: “In plain english: do not enter without invitation” (Miller 26). The format of the “Place Name” sequence is presented as dictionary entries, implying a definitive meaning, but subverting and mocking the format of (Western) epistemology—in effect, redefining and rewriting the Jamaican landscape. The poem ends with a qualifying statement: “just know that this ground, these / bushes, these trees observe you with suspicion many / centuries deep” (my emphasis) (Miller 26). In this poetic imagination, time is collapsed and condensed, and Goldilocks’ presence not only impacts the landscape of “Me-No-Sen”, but the landscape redefines her as “rude pickney” and recasts the ostensibly innocent blonde girl in the position of the colonizer.
Miller’s poetics of inverted views, thus, illustrates how the bushes can produce alternatives as they are personified, observing the trespassers, rather than being relegated to a passive place inscribed with violence. What is unique about this iteration is this place is not quite a place, insofar as it is a space of “refuge that evade[s] the colonial order” (Goffe 10). In her article “Unmapping the Caribbean,” Goffe supplements the toponymic history: “This now-extinct village settlement was established and named by runaways fleeing enslavement on plantations in the parish of Trelawny in 1812.” Now absorbed into the more recognizable Aberdeen area of Trelawny, the archetypal cartographer, Rastaman, and even Goldilocks enter and are made visible in this landscape through the suspicion of the bushes—a practice of autoclaps/afterclap, a rupture of colonial and plantation logic where the Black background is foregrounded.
Miller’s reference to bushes extends the “Place Names” sequence from Cartographer to “Place Name: Oracabessa –”, part of the poetic sequence entitled ‘Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places,’ in the collection In Nearby Bushes. The mock dictionary entry opens with a caveat: “origins disputed but most likely leave-over from the / Spanish” (Miller 34). A much longer form than the autoclaps/afterclap and “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come,” this meditation on Oracabessa thinks multilingually and speculatively about origins. From the whimsical wanderings of Goldilocks to the linguistic and etymological layers of Christopher Columbus’ search for gold in “Oracabessa –”, Miller’s work is interested in annotating and redacting the “completeness of genocide” on several planes (Miller 34). The poet disputes the silences and erasures located in the white (golden) spaces, inverting them to illuminate the Black background for those willing to open their eyes wider. Places like Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come and Oracabessa are multivalent in their localities, retaining histories and memories otherwise rendered invisible. Playing with color, legibility and identity, Miller showcases an alternative layer of the Jamaican landscape.
“In nearby bushes” transforms from a trite, commonplace term too often heard on Jamaican evening news to a richly dense landscape that embeds theoretical and material practices of decolonial praxis. Considering how place and placemaking can be a violence, even apocalyptic, Miller scars the sharp white background of the page and visualizes Black life and Black death through alternative lenses. Negotiating Blackness with the ink on the page, his work illustrates how the textual becomes political. Miller’s body of work showcases a careful, critical engagement with legibility, identity, landscape and (hi)stories in Caribbean poetry and poetics, bringing a nuanced meaning to “something torn and new.”
Brathwaite, Kamau. “Jou’vert,” The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 267-270.
Goffe, Tao Leigh. “Unmapping the Caribbean: Toward a Digital Praxis of Archipelagic Sounding.” archipelagoes 5, December 2020, pp. 1-23.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152–5.
Miller, Kei. Augustown: A Novel. Pantheon Books, 2017.
Miller, Kei. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcanet Press Ltd., 2014.
Miller, Kei. In Nearby Bushes. Carcanet Press Ltd., 2019.
Miller, Kei. Things I Have Withheld: Essays. Canongate Books Ltd., 2021.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
Samantha Stephens is a PhD candidate in English and a Doctoral Fellow in Caribbean Literatures, Arts and Cultures at the University of Virginia. Working in the fields of Caribbean Studies and Digital Humanities, her research focuses on Caribbean poetry and poetics with attention to visual experimentation in the digital age. She has published on the typographic innovations of Kei Miller and Olive Senior’s poetry in the Journal of West Indian Literature. Her interest in Black feminist technologies and Caribbean digital archival methods propel her current project, in which she blends literary and artistic practices to reimagine Black Caribbean pasts and futures.