An Analysis of Sly Cheney-Coker’s ‘The Breasts of the Sea’

Sly Cheney-Cocker is a Sierra Leonean poet, novelist, journalist and an intellectual born in 1945 and educated in the United States. The poem ‘The Breasts of the Sea’ was published in 2008 in a collection entitled Stone Child and Other Poems. The poem is a re/presentation and an exploration of Sierra Leonean history and how that history intersects with related events in other parts of the world leading up to the end of the 20th century.  Through this motif of history, the poem equally alludes to other themes that are germane to the cultural discourses in our time, including environmental concerns, violence against women and children, war and its traumatic aftermaths.

In order to appreciate Cheney-Coker’s ‘The Breasts of the Sea’, one needs to be familiar with the history of Sierra Leone, especially the fact that Sierra Leonean history is replete with conflicts arising from political instability and culminating in the bloody civil war in the last decade of the 20th century, from 1991 to 2002. The motif of the sea noticed in the poem underscores the importance of the ocean in Sierra Leonean history, as the former slaves resettled in Sierra Leone came through the sea. Again, the slave trade itself which is mentioned in the poem and which serves as a background to understanding the history of Sierra Leone was conducted through the instrumentality of the sea.

Cheney-Coker’s ‘The Breasts of the Sea’ is organised in three stanzas of varying number of lines that total 20 lines. The poem is a free verse and makes use of run-on lines or enjambment. The title of the poem is at once a metaphor and personification and is suggestive of the nurturing role of the sea but whose perception within the context of the poem is dystopian as the sea cannot fulfil its nurturing role due to the fact that its body of water has been polluted. The first stanza has 4 lines and reads: ‘After our bloody century, the sea will groan/under its weight, somewhere between breasts and anus./Filled with toxins, her belly will not yield new islands/even though the children of East Timor wish it so’.

The stanza suggests that ‘The Breasts of the Sea’ is a poetic meditation on the 20th century as it approaches an end. This implies that the poem was written at the turn of the 20th century. The vision that the poet has about the 20th century is that it is ‘bloody’, implying that it is full of violence, bloodshed and death. The word ‘bloody’ is an instance of visual imagery and it is an apt lexis for describing a century characterised by war and conflict both at home and abroad. The two world wars were fought in the 20th century, the nationalist agitations for independence in Africa and India occurred in the 20th century, the post-independence conflicts and civil wars witnessed among African nations including Sierra Leone, all took place in the 20th century.

There is a caesura in the first line of the poem in the form of a comma followed by the expression ‘the sea will groan/under its weight’ which is an instance of personification and/or pathetic fallacy. The lines imply that the bloody nature of the times described is so burdensome on the sea, a mother in nature, that she suffocates under the weight of the heinous history. Indeed, the sea has borne witness to so many atrocities orchestrated by human beings against other human beings, as well as the ones done against the sea itself. The word ‘groan’ constitutes auditory imagery in the poem and serves to voice the suffering of the sea owing to heartless and unconscionable human actions. These atrocious human actions are seen as pollutants that have destroyed the health of the sea. The expression ‘somewhere between breasts and anus’ is an instance of postmodern vulgarity which at the same time signifies not only the personhood of the sea but also the desirable and undesirable aspects of human nature. In psychoanalytic terms, the ‘breasts’ and ‘anus’ describe the phase of pleasure principle but within the context of the poem, the former is an acceptable form of action while the latter is despicable and stands for those human actions that are disgusting when reflected upon.

As already hinted, because the sea is polluted, ‘filled with toxins’, she cannot fulfil her reproductive and nurturing roles, ‘her belly will not yield new islands’. The pollutants alluded to in the poem are literal and figurative in the sense that the human beings have polluted the sea through industrial wastes, crude oil leakages and the dumping of plastic waste, as well as through violent actions against other human beings carried out in the sea. For instance, the sea has witnessed slavery and its atrocities like the act of throwing sick and dead slaves overboard by the slavers, wars and pillaging of innocent ships by pirates. The sea, for instance, witnessed the honour suicide of Igbo slaves who chose to drown by jumping into the sea rather than being taken to the New World as slaves. Another way of viewing the expression ‘her belly will not yield new islands’ is that it evokes images of stagnation and lack of growth generally witnessed in warring and divided societies, where there is no justice and respect for human rights and dignity. The pronoun ‘her’ used in describing the sea justifies the assertion that the sea is personified in the poem and refers to Mother Nature as well as the creative force in nature.

The expression ‘even though the orphans of East Timor wish it so’ provides a fitting ending for the first stanza of the poem. To understand this line, it is important to note that East Timor is a Southeast Asian Island country covered by coral reefs reputed to be the most bio-diverse in the world. Like Sierra Leone, East Timor is rich in natural resources including crude oil, but its growth has also been marred by conflicts and civil war. The coral reefs are also said to be under threats from human actions that are inimical to the environment, including oil exploration and harmful fishing practices. The mention of orphans in this line is to remind us that violent situations like war usually birth children without parents. East Timor then is one instance of historical allusion in the poem.

On the whole, first stanza of the poem describes the 20th century as a temporality characterised by war, conflicts, political instability, harm to the environment and destruction of lives. This message is sent out through the deployment of tropes such as visual imagery seen in words like ‘bloody’, ‘sea’, ‘breasts’, ‘anus’, ‘toxins’, ‘belly’, ‘islands’, ‘orphans’ and ‘East Timor’. Caesura is used in the first, second and third lines of the poem and they are all commas. The major poetic device in the first stanza is personification where the sea is personified while the other devices are metaphors and historical allusion.

The second stanza of Cheney-Coker’s ‘The Breasts of the Sea’ has eight lines and reads: ‘The sea is only capable of so much history:/Noah’s monologue, the Middle Passage’s cargoes,/Darwin’s examination of the turtle’s shit,/the remains of the Titanic, and a diver’s story/about how the coelacanth was recaptured’. This stanza upholds the poem’s preoccupation with history and historical allusion as the major poetic device in the stanza. This is seen in how the poem documents some of the important moments in human history beginning from earliest times. ‘Noah’s monologue’ is a biblical allusion that reminds us of the destruction of the world through flood as recorded in the Bible. The expression ‘the Middle Passage’s cargoes’ is a metaphor for slaves and alludes to the trans-Atlantic slave trade that spanned the 16th and the 19th centuries. The Portuguese were the well-known slavers in the area now known as Sierra Leone, including all of West Africa. All these events, it should be noted, have the sea or water as a common element in them.

The expression ‘Darwin’s examination of the turtle’s shit’ reminds us of the explosion in scientific knowledge in the Victorian period, especially Darwin’s theory of natural selection which promotes the idea of the survival of the fittest. It is like saying be strong or die. It is sad that this idea has been replicated in historical events as a truism, whether it is in Nazism, capitalism, war, slavery, colonialism or everyday human relations; the weak are usually the hardest hit. The world then is divided between the weak and the strong, masters and servants, rich and poor, men and women, adults and children. And in each category, we can easily and quickly recognise the powerful and the powerless.  

The ‘remains of the Titanic’ mentioned in the fourth line of the second stanza is a piece of history that reminds us of the failure of science, as the Titanic sank in 1912 during its first voyage despite being reputed to be unsinkable. The Titanic wreck has since then become a tourist attraction for divers and marine explorers, including a recent tragic incident involving a submersible built by a company called OceanGate. This line equally constitutes historical allusion in the poem. The word ‘coelacanth’ refers to an ancient sea creature known only by its remains or fossils until 1936 when it was finally found. The mention of this fish in the poem speaks to the lost and found nature of human memory and history, science and its quest for knowledge as well as the inquisitive nature of the human mind.

The remaining part of the poem speaks of the uncertain or unknown aspects of human history, some which are perceived in fragments – ‘a fractured chela’ where chela refers to each of a pair of hinged pincer-like claws terminating the anterior limbs of a crab. The metaphor here is apt because a fractured chela demonstrates the uselessness of the crab’s grabbing mechanism, its inability to feed itself and the immanent starvation and death as a result. The sea is depicted as an agent of memory depending on what it is able to hold in its belly as memory tokens. However, with time, the sea has the ability to cleanse itself of these fragments and tokens of history, meaning that nothing might remain to remind us of the 20th century except if it has been recorded in an art work or a poem like ‘The Breasts of the Sea’. Poetry or literature generally then helps us to preserve human history and memory. Literature and the arts then become a veritable site of human memory. The expression ‘the sea’s belly’ is an implied metaphor sustaining the personification of the sea in the poem. The word ‘blight’ refers to a plant disease and is deployed in the poem to depict the 20th century as a sick temporality; nothing more, nothing less.

The third and final stanza of the poem is has eight lines and reads: ‘Throbbing, the sea’s breasts will console some exiles,/even those shut out of Australia, drifters on a tired moon,/but Sierra Leone won’t be worth a raped woman’s cry,/despite her broken back, this shredded garment,/her hands swimming like horrors of red corals./But do you, O sea, long-suffering mistress,/have the balm to heal the wounds of her children,/hand to foot the axe, alluvial river flowing into you?’

The poet’s persona touches on the theme of exile in this stanza. Exile is perceived as a form of consolation to the mind that cannot find peace at home. Even the poet Cheney-Coker himself has had a taste of exile at some point in his life.

 In the stanza, the sea continues with her nurturing and mothering roles despite being so choked by vile human history. One reason for this is that the sea has the ability to wash itself clean of whatever dirt is thrown at it though this might take some time. There is a historical allusion in the mentioning of the exiles who are denied a place in Australia. This refers to the Australian Aborigines who were massacred by the English colonialists in order to take over the land. These Aborigines who are black are now a marginalised minority in their own land just like the situation of the Native Indians in America, and the Caribs and the Arawaks in the Caribbean. In the Sierra Leonean situation, the resettled former slaves, the Creole (Krio), dominated the politics and the civil service machinery of the country in colonial times even as a minority until after independence. Again, it is seen that history tends to favour only the strong. These Australian Aborigines are ‘drifters’ because they are not given their right of place in the Australian society. ‘Tired moon’ is a metaphor for the space in Australia occupied by the black Aborigines. They are allocated unproductive lands or pushed to exhausted spaces like slums and ghettos that cannot make good economic yields, hence ‘tired moon’.

In the poem, Sierra Leone is depicted as a conflicted space; one that has been exposed to so many years of war and bloodshed that even if it cries like a raped woman, it will not account for what it has gone through right from the inception of its history up to the last decade of the 20th century. Of course, rape was a major war crime in the Sierra Leonean civil war, including the phenomenon of child soldiers. The ‘broken back’ mentioned in the poem refers to the soul or spirit of Sierra Leone broken by many decades of conflicts. Another metaphor used to describe Sierra Leone in the poem is ‘shredded garment’ which gives us a sense of the country as a war-torn space. The expression ‘her hands swimming like horrors of red corals’ conveys a sense of a nation struggling for survival. ‘Her hands’ is an example of alliteration while ‘like horrors of red corals’ exemplifies simile which compares the war situation in Sierra Leone to the war waged against marine life through unconscionable human actions around the world. The expression ‘red corals’ is visual imagery.

From the sixth line of the last stanza to the end of the poem is a rhetorical question. It also constitutes an apostrophe seen in the expression ‘But do you, O sea, long-suffering mistress’. The sea is being addressed as if it is present and can respond. The expression ‘long-suffering mistress’ is a metaphor for Sierra Leoneans known as among the most resilient people in the world. The wounds referred to in the penultimate line of the final stanza is not only physical wounds inflicted on Sierra Leoneans by war and countless deaths, it also refers to psychological wounds that could only be healed through truth and reconciliation commission which was in operation in Sierra Leone from 2002 to 2004. The children referred to in the poem are the citizens of Sierra Leone.

The final line of the poem also wonders if the people are ready for the future glories as well as the challenges that the country will encounter as she journeys on in time. The future challenges and glories are represented in the metaphor of a river described as ‘axe’ and ‘alluvial’, respectively. The word ‘alluvial’ is the adjective form of alluvium which refers to a deposit of clay, silt and sand loft by a flowing floodwater in a river valley or delta which produces a fertile land. This implies that the poet expects a bright future for Sierra Leone as the 20th century comes to an end and the 21st century begins, but at the same time the country should brace for any challenges.

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