Goatwater is a column which explores the mystifying, joyous and liberating concept of Carnival through the New York born and raised, Caribbean-American perspective of poet and artist Tiffany Osedra Miller.
Welcome to the ecstatic state of Goatwater, where Carnival always begins again the moment that Carnival ends!
This is my Caribbean-American Calypso
Watch me move my hips, so –
Look how I shake them from side to side
Ready for the carnival ride?
Whether you feelin’ massive joy or blasted pain
Hop on the carnival train.
Here, I invoke a Carnival train of images: from the floats on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn on Labor Day, down to the colorful, rum soaked, roads of St. John’s, Antigua and Kingston, Jamaica. Witness floats carrying ribald revelers grinding their backsides against frontsides, altars hosting true and false idols. All of them, all of us, cracked figurines on this sacred and profane altar called life, death and everything in between.
I am draped in the Jamaican, Antiguan and American flags. Some nights, in honor of my most sensual ancestors, I dress in artificial palm leaves and soak in the sweetness of mangoes and sugar apples imported from Martinique, Monserrat, Montego Bay and Miami. I am the patron saint of savory mixed blood pudding and Johnny cakes. I have broken plenty of breadfruit and eaten codfish with my family in the Bronx before traveling on the carnival train downtown towards the loose, lascivious belt of the equator to unveil the mysteries of my parent’s native islands – out of many, one people, my Jamaican father described his birthplace. Antigua me come from was my mother’s reply. And me, lounging on the white sands of the tropics as well as the dirty, high yellow sands of New York’s Orchard Beach. A girl born on Manhattan Island raised in the little Jamaica of the Northeast Bronx, drinking Goat Water, a stew of spices and goat meat.
You’ve disembarked the Carnival train
at your destination –
an abandoned sugar plantation.
Bang your steel pan drum
until restless spirits come
masked mourners and revelers, too
What they are celebrating is YOU.
Where do characters come from? Are they fantasies or entities? After my mother died, my consciousness opened up to the presence of characters who, I suspect, have always existed on the fringes of my consciousness, waiting to emerge from the bacchanal of my dreams. It was my despair that finally called them forth where they formed themselves into drawings accompanied by stories, poems and incantations. These characters played the masquerade of mourners and revelers who inhabited an island in a constant state of carnival. I declared this ecstatic state of consciousness, this patois in pictures – fraught with post-colonial joys and sorrows, Goatwater.
Inside of grief there is always cause for crude, subversive acts of celebration, as we bear witness to the beginning of an ancestor’s new afterlife shrouded in myth, mystery and magic. What did my mother mean when in her pain she cried out to God and sang Shubert’s version of Ave Maria, calling for her Holy Mother to accompany her home? Where is Home? Or when deep in his spiritual struggle, my father, who was called red bone and high yellow his whole life, suddenly sang, Yellow Bird, high up in a Banana Tree! Where did my parents truly come from? They are as much dead as they are alive. We all are. My mother, a Calypsonian blues woman. My father, a yellow bird of paradise.
My aunt used to make blood pudding in our kitchen in New York. I watched her squeeze the blood out of cow intestines into a white bucket. I watched her dance to calypso holding a large boombox she called Buddha. I watched her celebrate life and family. I watched her suffer. Jesus Wept, she would say, then get up and shake her ailing backside, singing, Hold me! Hold me!
You can be dead or still somewhat alive
there’s no reason not to get up and shake ya backside.
Put on your costume and mask
Ring de bell,
Bang the chime,
it’s always Carnival time!
Before her funeral, I rode in the backseat of a jeep convertible toward Half Moon Bay, one of Antigua’s 365 beaches, one for every day of the year, between two women – friends of the family I had just met. One of my new friends pulled a bag of ganja out of her bikini bottom. Hallelujah! After we smoked, we posed like Jet Magazine models in mourning – primping and preening in our bikinis. I was the aggrieved, light-skinned Carnival Queen in the music video we were starring in inside my head. Yet, I became convinced that the girls despised me, my grief and my vulgar displays of vanity. In our rivalry and revelry, as we waited at the crossroads for a carnival train to pass by, we witnessed two rastamen, grab, hold steady and with a cutlass behead a goat as if the most natural thing for them to do. Oh, the look in the goat’s eyes! The horror. The horror.
Goats fall apart.
Their centers cannot hold.
Unbelievably high, I felt so unfathomably low.
My mother, at the time, unbeknownst to me, was dying. We held each other and wept, inconsolably, as two rastamen – were these the goat killers – covered over her sister’s casket with dirt to a chorus of hymns. Inside the casket, my Antiguan Auntie, lady of complicated carnivals, rested in sweet, dead comfort, draped in the American flag.
Then came the funeral march of a new cast of characters emerging from the Goatwaters of life – after swimming through the meat and spice, to walk on Goatwater. To drown in it. Then surface again – an officer and a missionary-Octoroon, a mysterious Missus, a runaway slave, pallbearers and the advent of the Moko Jumbies, stilt walkers, so solemn, friendly and frightening in their royal black suits.
That funeral night, and many nights thereafter, I would place cracked figurines of my ancestors on an altar and offer them goat water, rum, and bittersweet songs of myself, then proceed to shake up my backside and dance for them and a playful, merciful God, ‘til daylight.