This is a story about a benevolent custom on repeat. About the burnt sugar smell of rum on your breath, and the wolves from hell inflaming your heart with greed. Greed for cubes of sugar winking like stars. Greed for the irresistible sickness of sweet cane syrup.
Greed, Sheree Mack, 2014In my capacity as writer in residence at the Lit and Phil, I was tasked with linking up with the local museum which had a special South African exhibition on over the summer of 2012. I was hoping to have Gérard Rudolf there but he had returned home to South Africa a few years before. Before he left for home, he collaborated with Alastair Cook on a number of filmpoems. As the next best thing, Gérard suggested I get in touch with Alastair to get a screening organised for the night in question. Alastair has a very commanding manner. I was hoping to just get a DVD though the post but he insisted on coming down and screening them himself. All 4 of them. This was in June. By the August, I was visiting Alastair in Dunbar, while he was artist in residence at the MacArthur Store. This was when the famous collodion image of me was created, on an overcast Saturday with my screaming daughter on my lap. Alastair went on to commission me to create a poem for the then Absent Voices filmpoem project which saw six poets re-inhabits the abandoned Greenock Sugar Sheds with six films. We created Every Memory with musical support from Luca Nasciuti. Now we reach 2014, and once again Alastair commissioned me to create three new poems in relation in to the sheds, but more so exploring the hidden dark histories, the connections of sugar to the Caribbean and West African through the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. In all honesty, this was probably my hardest commission to date. The weight of responsibility upon my shoulders in voicing this history as well as wanting to truly honour and respect this devastating past was at times crippling. There are so many different narratives and angles to this long history of slavery making it difficult to know where to start and where the end. Which issues or stories should receive that light of attention? Which issues could translate to a contemporary audience? For me it always has to be about the body. A body once free then captured. Within captivity, this body experienced very little agency or comfort. This body bore the brunt of enslavement through physical, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse. What everything boiled down to was how much value could be forced out of this one body. Just a body. The next step was thinking about the relationships, those connections between the body and other bodies. Those power relations that were a given, that could not be challenged or changed. The only power the enslaved body had was through its removal by any means necessary. With the first slaves, taken onto the big ship destined for the New World, the story goes that when the shackles were taken off they just floated up and flew back home. Through experience, the ship’s crew learned their lesson. From then on, they kept the cargo chained within the belly of the ship. After their first meal of salted fish, the crew saw that the slaves could not fly. I like to think that this story is true. I give hope to the idea that the enslaved body could somehow be free by rejecting the state of life that it was forced into. I like to hope that they, the individuals who were kidnapped, stolen and breed in slavery were keeping some part of themselves free from all shackles through thinking about sky or dreaming of walking home across the ocean floor.
You can touch me now. I have made myself stone. […] You can touch me. The wild current running under my heart you cannot touch.
Touched, Sheree Mack, 2014