‘Augustown,’’ Jamaica-born poet Kei Miller’s third novel, opens with a bird’s eye view of a landscape. We’re told first to look down below at “the green and blue disc of the earth” and then to zoom in on a specific spot: “17˚ 59’ 0” North, 76˚ 44’ 0” West.”
This is the longitude and latitude of Augustown, “a dismal little valley on [the] dismal little island” that is Jamaica. The fictional Augustown shares much with the actual August Town — the inland village where freed slaves fled after emancipation in 1838 — though Augustown’s fictional status allows Miller to add notes of the supernatural when it suits him. (That bird’s eye view, we eventually learn, is really a ghost’s eye view.) Miller’s town is a “ramshackle valley [that] looks like a pot of cornmeal porridge,” a land of scarred hills and craters of marl.
But this initial mapping, which looks to GPS coordinates and topography as a way to describe place, gives way to what we might call chronomapping — a mapping of space through its temporal dimensions. In “Augustown,’’ characters look at place, and they see time. They look at their scarred hills and see “the dark shadow of history”: colonialism, slavery, structural racism. Yet they also look at their land and see the future, a time when justice will reign and tears will be wiped away.
Miller’s characters — Rastafarians and Christians, maids and preachers — conceive of their current state as Babylon, a time in which, as Miller has written elsewhere, “the brutal / architecture of history” holds sway. But they long to “fly away home to Zion,” to “escape the troubled earth and its depressing gravity.” Miller’s previous book of poetry was called “The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.’’ “Augustown’’ similarly maps the land between Babylon and Zion — which is to say, it maps the world as we live in it.
The structure of “Augustown’’ is pleasingly loose — a regular feature of novels written by poets, who seem to enjoy sauntering about once they’ve escaped the house of poetry. Stylistically, it’s surprisingly unexceptional. Miller’s poetry provides memorable line after line: “every language, even yours, / is a partial map of this world.” In “Augustown,’’ Miller is more interested in a good story than in obvious lyrical brilliance.
“Augustown’’ actually tells several good stories. In the narrative present of 1982, we witness an act of cultural brutality. One day, Mr. Saint-Josephs, a primary-school teacher, cuts off the dreadlocks of a young Rastafarian student named Kaia. Why? Because he wants to regain control over his classroom through a show of strength (or at least a show of viciousness); because he’s a delusional mixed-race man who proudly sees himself as “a man fair of complexion” and the quiet Kaia as “some dirty little African from the bush”; because that’s the kind of malicious thing you do in Babylon.
Mr. Saint-Josephs’s actions lead to a march and to physical violence — a catastrophe that in Jamaican dialect is called an “autoclaps.” The narrator tells us that this phrase possibly comes from “apocalypse,” and there’s the brief hope that the Rasta community’s righteous anger might point the way toward Zion. It doesn’t. The hoped-for future remains in the realm of the not-yet.
Miller shows how Kaia’s story echoes earlier stories from the town’s history. In 1920, the charismatic preacher Alexander Bedward terrified authorities by proclaiming that there “is a white wall and a black wall, but the black wall is growing bigger and will crush the white wall.” Bedward then declared that he and his fellow believers would fly away to Zion on Dec. 31: “If you born low and black and poor, den dat is de day of glory.”
They didn’t fly away. Bedward was arrested and locked away in an insane asylum, his movement understood as “another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs.”
In the telling of Kaia’s Great-aunt Ma Taffy, though, Bedward was in fact able to fly. The authorities just yanked him back down to earth “before Master could reach to a height so high as to escape the trapments of this world.” In her version, this isn’t a story of superstition proved delusional; it’s a story of revolution brutally stamped out.
But, in “Augustown,’’ Bedward continues to speak: in the Rastafarianism that his movement inspired, in memory, in revolutionary song. If anything maps the way to Zion, Miller suggests, it’s this continued witness to untold history, this attention to how the glimmer of the future might be seen in the past.
By Kei Miller
Pantheon, 239 pp., $25.95Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.