How the World Was Made—a Super Crown12 min read
[Note from poetry editor Bianca Spriggs] Because of its uniqueness, this month’s poetry selection, “How the World Was Made—A Super Crown” by Roger Bonair-Agard, requires some context in terms of content and form. I have a soft spot for a handful of devices in literature, and this work harnesses three of my favorites: tricksters, creation myths, and the sonnet. This work revolves around Anansi, a character best known in West African and Caribbean folklore. True to quintessential trickster characteristics, Anansi is most recognized as a spider but can shape-shift, adopting the appearance and behavior of a man. In Bonair-Agard’s telling, Anansi (the man) is his own creator—he literally creates a world for himself through sight and song and laughter and dance, coming slowly to recognize himself and his place through improvisation, through experimentation, through risk. Thematically, the piece is already a triumph, but made even more memorable by being corralled into a staggering “super crown” of sonnets. The standard sonnet crown uses the fourteen-line sonnet form (in this case, Bonair-Agard does away with rhyme-scheme) to create a story-cycle through a combination of twelve sonnets that each begin with the final line of the preceding sonnet. A super crown consists of twenty-four sonnets which follow the same pattern. “How the World was Made” is a vibrant narrative that boasts lush imagery, a fresh, resonant voice, and is an overall astonishing take on a classic piece of Afrospeculative folklore. It is an absolute treat to present this work to you as July’s selection.
Anansi see a whole ceiling of spiders
come down. The medicine man laugh
his no-teeth laugh again and tell him Write!
And that’s how Anansi know he was safe.
He feel the creeping and crawling all
over him, the thousand legs, the eyes,
the fine fur like they was weaving
a coat for him, and is so Anansi come
to realize he was turning. Is when Anansi feel
the tick tick ticking of webbing down his back,
up around him like a collar, that he understand
what was inside him was now outside him.
What was prophesied was now making manifest.
So he hear what the doctor say, and he write.
The doctor say write and day 3 Anansi feel
something catchin his throat and he move
his new hand to make it stop, and know
is the throat self had to move. So he move
throat. He move it the way a man might
open a envelope and push it from the bottom
out and over to empty the guts of it. So the throat
move, and so Anansi start to sing. First,
it was just a noise but he follow that first
noise with a next one, and then a next one,
and all the coat makers stop, and Anansi self
learn a new word—Music—so he write that down
and the medicine man laugh his no-teeth
laugh, and Anansi laugh back.
And Anansi laugh back and that was the second
sound Anansi make. Soon Anansi moving
the throat like all the time. Is like the envelope
making origami, how he learn to fold
and unfold the throat for different sounds
to come. He learn he could close the envelope
and still make a constant hum. He was writing
everything he know from the world before
this one, humming as he go and the medicine
man laugh and laugh at Anansi humming, and turn
round in a circle, arms open, spinning.
He nod at Anansi, so Anansi get up and spin too;
all the coat-makers getting up with him;
and their movement, as he move was like a low drum.
Move like a low drum Anansi!
and Anansi spin in time to the low
drum, and his own hum, and soon
Anansi dance. Man, if you see how
Anansi dance. What is? The medicine
man ask. What isn’t? Anansi ask
in response What is? The medicine man
ask again; and Anansi stop dancing
to see if he could see what else was dancing.
He was sure now he was not the coat
makers. He was not the medicine
man either. For that matter he was not anything
he could tell. He had obeyed the medicine man
and found himself writing the is of the world before this one
He write the is of the world before this one
and so he know he had hand. He sing,
and so he know he had mouth. He dance
and so he know he had foot. Is now he know
the coat-makers had make a suit of gold for him,
that shimmer round and round. So he start up
by saying what isn’t, because he didn’t know
how else to describe the suit. And the medicine
man shake his head and say No, what is?
But Anansi was already learning how to lie.
Anansi write so many things about the world
before this one, and the pictures he write
was handsome pictures. He had a way
with light and knowing how to make dark talk.
He make the dark talk and so his pictures lie
down when he make the shape of them.
Is so he come to know the difference
between the world before this one, and this one.
The medicine man wanted him to be sure
to know, the difference; where one part
of the circle end and the next, begin. Anansi
wanted to start write about this one too.
But the medicine man point at his feet
and say Walk. So he walk, and the coat-makers
walk with him. Anansi keep time with that.
He time to the footfall of the coat-makers,
And so Anansi start a groove, a crawl so smooth—
they come with their slow drum walk.
So smooth the groove in the slow drum walk
Anansi start to see all that is, in the world
that was not before this one. So he call it, This One.
Soon as he call it out he know he had
to call out everything. Before this he know
the medicine man and the spiders, but now
is This One to worry about. The medicine
man ask him again What is? And Anansi
reply I hungry, and the medicine man say
Yes, but what else, and Anansi say I thirsty
and the medicine man begin again
with the laughing and spinning and say
Yes, but what else and Anansi say
I… am… in time to the groove slide; then stop.
Groove slide with the coat makers who move
in a oneness, whose speech is a weaving and weaving,
who drum-walk and call themselves father to rhythm,
who Medicine Man and Anansi dance behind
who whispers is the whispers of new clothes,
who teach both the hunger and how This One got born,
who shun wings in order to glory work
who keep both the elements that make rain
and the back talk that make lies, who was the ceiling
of spiders on Anansi head, when he was growing
finger and foot and the prick he hadn’t looked
at yet, who riddle-a-riddle-a-ree and don’t
offer no answers but the whisper
of the self returning to the self.
When Anansi self return to himself
Anansi say What, coat-makers, What am I,
and all the coat makers move as one body;
all the weaving legs hitting at the same time,
jumping like a whole Maasai village so you
could hear them breathe as they land,
hear them land like one drum,
and it was then Anansi notice that he had a navel
string to the whole world and everything inside it.
Is then he notice the prick he hadn’t seen before
and he feel like sounds he make when he sing,
was law, though he couldn’t yet figure out to whom.
But he feel like everything he write is what is,
is—so he ask Am I a man?
Anansi ask Am I a man? and the coat-makers
stop jumping, not even a vibration. They remain
very still. And Anansi feel like the dirt
itself get quiet. Nothing Anansi say until then make
even ants stop moving; not dark, not medicine man
most magic song, but this—this utterance from Anansi
mouth make everything stop. If he had sense to know
what that was, Anansi would say he frighten.
But he don’t know to say even that. He know
though, that he could make a bad joke and talk
and next thing you know, everybody in a new
world, every garden stop bloom. Anansi heed
that. He turn to the coat-makers he say Fuck that.
From now on, we dance together before we put prayers to any dream
We dance before we put prayers to a dream
And things start to happen fast, fast. Anansi,
judicious with the talk but still willing
to dance with the coat-makers, sing songs
with the medicine man. And is so one day,
the medicine man sing for him a song
that was so true it expose to him secrets
of the world from before This One. It was a song
in memory of galaxies and beginnings. It was a song
in explanation of color. And when the song
became meta-song and told him the nature
of itself and air, Anansi, mid laugh, fall
into a deep sleep. And when he wake,
Medicine Man was dancing.
When Anansi wake, Medicine man was dancing
with the spiders and a being that look like him
and not like him. And the new creature make
a song in the air that was the movement inside
a butterfly house, and the thousand flutterings
Anansi know, was from inside him. The thing
singing, to the medicine man and the coat-makers,
had fished from out of the air around the Medicine
Man’s lungs, a new mystery of how the throat
can trill and walk blood back from the heart,
to the place in Anansi where he began once
to be born. Anansi say nothing. He just enjoy
what he know to be new happening inside him.
New creature dance and sing
New creature dance and sing and Medicine Man
dance, sing and the coat-makers drum-walk
for the two of them, and build new creature a suit
of the finest sunshine. And it sing something
with Anansi name in it, and when the sunshine
suit was finish, come and sit right next to where
Anansi had get up. And new creature talk, and the spiders
stay quiet and Medicine Man just watching, and Anansi,
distrustful of talk was too glad to hear someone
else sound like building blood around him,
and the new thing laugh with him and Medicine
Man laugh, and new creature say Aso. And Anansi
Say Aso? And the being say Aso,
and this is what Aso tell Anansi.
Aso tell Anansi: Begin again with the center
of yourself where one part of you join the next,
where you become a planet, where song
make a spine out of water’s belly where
you start sometimes to believe your form
know something your spirit don’t learn
yet where you start to suspect everything
in you belong to something else; where
heart begins at the lake bottom and makes
itself a question in the universe of blood
where you hold that universe in the well
of the throat and sing every world before
This One into some place new,
into some place, the heart means.
Begin again with what heart means;
with not the anteroom but the hurricane
not with terrifying fist, but with
its corridors of want and want again
its washerwoman’s labor of river and river
throughout the whole form, the heart
a weather informing the etymology of the body’s
grace. Begin again with not the heart as a
violence, but a thorough labor. Begin all
your dances turning within the heart’s
own gyre and every word becomes
your own and no weapon formed
by your throat against your planet can prosper.
No weapon formed by throat can prosper
and so Anansi call the spiders to him
to hear this new way to pronounce
make. The spiders drum walk a chorus
up to the spot where Aso and Anansi sit,
knees touching. Anansi take a courage
straight from Aso mouth and sing
it up to the sun, because Anansi start to know
that it wasn’t talk make the world stop;
it was the medicine of unintention. Anansi
know now he could make This One
out of different prayers from the world
before This One. He start to believe
heart was make for sleeve
Heart climb up on sleeve
Who know how hard Heart work
to show foot how to walk road till it river.
Heart invent 21-gun salute. Heart start
teach medicine to Medicine Man. Heart
invent the breath that blow wood into didjeridoo.
Heart turn self into bad weather. Heart hoard
water. Heart invent physics of bridge-building.
Heart lease the sound of song to hand, fist,
foot and belly. Heart remake itself in mouth
and the prayers that become lies. Heart claim
the whole body. Heart turn itself whole
and meanwhile Heart
Claim—Break. Claim Anansi now
I can sing entire new lives to a new
flame—the kind that throttles wood,
back into timber, the kind that walk
water back to sea. I claim in Heart’s
name that brain belongs to blood and not
blood to Brain. Brain is made entirely
of lightning and Heart, and Brain
sharecrop everything to the tornado
at the center of me, which is the storm
at the center of all storms, at the beginning
of all bloodings. At the midnight of all
which wants to prosper and love.
All things want to prosper and love.
All things want to prosper and love
All things divine a rod to speculate
a coming into self. All things know
void, before they know front and back
and void is the teacher of the beginning
of spine, and spine is the teacher
of direction to Heart. And Heart make
guitar strings of gut and legislate
at the synapses’ marrow. Heart
begin at the zygote’s gateway,
to choir song all the way from foot
sole to throat, and that’s how self
know to time the biggest drum to the Heart’s
first word—to begin it from the squat, in the dirt
In the dirt, Anansi cover his head
and let the bees come. He had wandered
off from Aso and the spiders and the Medicine
man, and the bees come quick. They cover
Anansi in a hum, more bees keep coming
and Anansi could feel them swarm in sheets
around him. Anansi let them take his sweet.
Anansi listen for song in the bees’ hum.
Anansi wait for instruction from This One.
Anansi make his heart a hive and in it hear
a hushing. Anansi come to know then
he was turning again; that not only the spiders’ drum
was enough for him—a man—to become
he need this counterpoint, this balance, this new hum.
This counterpoint, this balance, this hum,
have Anansi searching now for something
greater than himself to lay claim to, and name.
He come back ready to talk about the bees,
but so overcome with news of their meaning
point instead at the Medicine Man and say
Are you… and stop, remembering the lesson
of unintention. He remember how once he made
everything stop move this way, and step forward
one foot first into the circle of all their names.
He ask permission of the world before This One.
He ask the spiders to begin with the low drum.
He call Aso by name and Medicine Man by dance.
He invite the bees and their counter-hum.
He invite the bees come, the spiders drum Aso
to preach, Medicine Man to dance, and he start to hum.
He remember this is how to put prayers to a dream
before he start making simple questions into law.
He let Heart rule the harmony, and felt it river
inside him. He let Aso master the ceremony.
The spiders get down in a deep syncopation.
Together with the bees, he layer a wicked hum.
In the inside of the music, its hurricane center
he hear how the wind beg a return to itself.
Anansi could have rhythm the heavens
with the gurgle at the middle of an egg.
He start to see how the meta-questions answer
themselves manifest—bees, spiders, Aso, himself.
Bees, Spiders, Aso, Anansi. Bees, Spiders, Aso,
Anansi. Bees, Spiders, Aso, Anansi. And Bam
just so Anansi start with a naming that make
the Medicine Man laugh. So you want to call
the world? He ask Anansi, and Anansi say Yes.
It fall to me to call the world, to make new things
and name them names, to find the truth and sing
them new, to listen to beginnings and decipher
befores. I know this to be a question of arrival
and not discovery, a doe-see-doe in the double-
rope turn, and not a scrawling of my name across
walls and wombs and the first breaths of other
prayers. I know to learn to listen to the tide
inside an egg; ask it permission, to begin myself again.
To begin myself again is to know the egg
knows everything, and even permission asked
is a supplication to a world before This One,
is a begging on the egg’s antenna, is a wading
in a mighty water without picking a shore.
And with that the Medicine Man start to fade.
Anansi realize the Medicine Man was less form
than before. Anansi start to panic but Medicine
Man say No, with only his head, and Anansi say
But how will I know? And the Medicine Man stretch
his arms out again and spin, getting lesser and lesser
form. He laugh his no-teeth laugh and say again, Write!
And so Anansi know he was safe, so he know the tide
would decide for him a shore. And just like that, Medicine Man gone.
With that Anansi