Poetry is not a luxury: Woman a Wail by Afua Cooper

By Lidia Abraha, p
Posted on July 8, 2020

We asked Asheda Dwyer, a Toronto-based artist, to select a piece for the second instalment of our series “Poetry is not a luxury.”

She shares her interpretation of “Woman a Wail” by Afua Cooper, a renowned Black Canadian historian and poet. This timely piece calls to her as the world experiences anguish and a reckoning of anti-Black racism in all parts of life.

Woman a wail (lead vocals)
di eart is in labour (back-up vocals)
woman a wail (lead vocals)
creation in danger (back-up)

and what shall she bring forth from her travail?
Her mountains shall roar and spit fire
her bowels shall move and cause the eart to split
from one end to another
our minds too shall be rent asunder
this woman shall avenge herself

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning,
fair as the moon, clear as the sun,
but terrible as an army with banners*
She wail an bawl
as she destroy but
she create again and again
she wail an shriek
as she bring forth
a new way of thinking
a new way of living
a new understanding
and a new new new creation

From the mouth of the Ganges
from the throat of the Yangtze
from the heart of the Niger
from the belly of the Amazon
she dance
she dance down lightning and thunder
she dance down brimstone and fire
she is a mighty earthquake
she is a non-stop hurricane
she dance
and    dance and dance

she dance down lightning and thunder
she dance down brimstone and fire, fire
she is a mighty whirlwin
she is a non-stop volcano, ooh

She dance her dance of terror
she dance her dance of fear
look she dancing on the four winds
dancing the world’s end, ooh

ah seh

woman a wail (lead vocal)
the eart is in labour (back-up)
woman a wail (lead)
creation in danger (back-up)
woman a wa-eh-eh-eh-eh -ail (lead)
the eart is in labour (back-up)

and what shall she bring forth from her travail
what shall she bring forth from her travail?
A new way of tinking
a new way of living
a new understanding
a new way fi si tings
a new way fi do tings
A new Creation
A new Creation
A new Creation

– Afua Cooper (1999)

By Asheda Dwyer

The viral catastrophes halting our earthly commons have origins in colonialism and slavery.

It is what Nourbese Philip calls “covidian catastrophes” – and what Arundhati Roy calls a “portal” – when interrogating how these shifts are capitulating new momentum, overlapping old ones.

Those of us whose work is instructed by the circadian cycles of the natural environment intuit this sentiment, too.

Inside of these inventions of catastrophes are disruptions to living: simultaneously correlating and exacerbating the pervasive brutalism, we, a majority of the Black poor, experience, amid other sufferers and sufferings, in the wider social and economic worlds.

The portal is catalyzing a whirl-wind of death: thousands upon thousands of us are piling up outside of cinematic frames and digital stamping. And in the midst of this, another daylight lynching crept onto film and into our micro (chip) memory, instigating implosions and perpetuities of (unfinished) rebellion…

The sum of these events and their unknown future is marking the pandemic with greater anxiety, confusion, grief, but also, new ways of loving, new ways at life, if at least, temporarily?

At this time—a concept also being called into question—I think it is critical that we find ways to feel in all of our listening (of trauma) or rather, to feel like a form of listening, and vice versa. By this, I mean, using our bodies as a guide to know – what may or may not be good, healthy, or normal: enacting a kind of black intra-personal somatic-therapy.

This is what poetry is to me: mind-bodied.
The rhythm in “Woman a Wail” by Afua Cooper is raging deliberately in its own feelings, ululating, a deep brew of fermented medicine – dancing its way through and across the body, the kind, where, we, often, constrict at the fiery viscosity of the ageing spirit.

I think Cooper’s decision to make movement where it is least suspected supports the kind of difficult, slow, internal, movement, to mindfully approach the (un) masked uncertainties:

she dance her dance of terror

she dance her dance of fearlook she dancing on the four winds dancing the world’s end, ooh

The wailing Black woman likens the planet earth to the struggles of her womanhood, and like the many who are enduring loss and pain, she too is generating while anguishing.

Our great grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, wives, etcetera, who, often are the people shouldering and remaking traditions of anguish, grief, and pain, in our times of need remain unemployed, overworked, or dying alone.  

These women call our attention to all of those, among us, who are easily forgotten, often, at the very expense of themselves. Their conditions continue representing the failed ecological and earthly conscience reckoning the world.

Then Cooper, drawing similarities between woman and earth, is a call; a call, for us, her children, to lift the privilege of our breath against the limitations of our social conditions and join the chorus:

Woman a wail (lead vocals)

di eart is in labour (back-up vocals)

woman a wail (lead vocals)

creation in danger (back-up)

The ambient sounds in Cooper rise a belated urgency, as labouring pains of crises are bemoaning the whole world. But this time is not the dawn of the new millennium, as were the days when this poem was first published; this time is “a new creation, a new creation, a new creation” and it is asking us seriously, what will we bring?

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