I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra

T.J. Boynton: On "I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra"

Taken at face value, the third-to-last line of Ishmael Reed's "I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra" can be radically misleading with regard to the role of Christianity both in the poem and in Reed's larger fictional project of the early 1970s. This line refers to the Egyptian God traditionally associated with chaos, Set, as the "imposter RAdio of Moses' bush," thereby invoking the story of the burning bush from Exodus and seemingly establishing an equation between the Jewish diaspora out of Egypt and the poem's more immediate concern, the diaspora of African peoples in slavery to North America. If read straightforwardly, Moses' bush appears to be a biblical precedent and model for the liberation of African-American peoples in the United States from slavery, segregation and discrimination. Throughout the poem, however, as well as in the volume of poems from which it comes, Conjure (1972), and in his novel of the same year, Mumbo Jumbo, Reed opposes in stark and insistent terms his project for African-American liberation and the historical and teleological project of Christianity, which he in fact envisions as an impediment to that liberation.

In "I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra" and elsewhere, Reed identifies Set not as the god of chaos-"Egyptologists," Reed warns us, are "untrustworth[y]" and "do not know their trips" (4-5)-but as the god of the rage for order, control and repression, the god who, in other words, along with his Christian descendents, the pontiffs of the Roman Catholic church, and their cohorts in the superpowerful government of the United States and its capitalist counterpart, institute slavery and other forms of domination in order to contain the dangerous, volatile and vital energies of non-white peoples, especially African-Americans. For Reed, African- Americans, Africans, Asians and American Indians embody life, while Anglo- or Euro-Americans embody death. Accordingly, Set is an "imposter RAdio," that is, a source of what seems to be liberation but is in fact the origin of puritanical shackles on human freedom. Set is the "party pooper" and "hater of dance," the "vampire outlaw" (55-6) who seeks to drain the lifeblood of non-whites like "Sonny Rollins," who with his "ritual beard" and a "hawk" behind his head, generates Jazz as a subversive rite of performative fecundity (10-12). Reed's work in the early seventies maintains an Egyptian myth of origins that symbolizes history as an agonistic exchange between whites and non-whites, death and life. Set himself broaches this fictional history by reviving the worship of Ra and by killing his brother Osiris, who like Persephone in Greek mythology is god both of death and of life, the god, that is, on whom the changing seasons depend and who is associated therefore with the earth, with agriculture and the sustenance of human life. Sonny Rollins's "longhorn," which while he plays is "winding/ its bells thru the Field of Reeds" (10-12), connects American Jazz and dance with Osiris's "fecundation generation," to use Reed's term from Mumbo Jumbo, here alluded to by the image of the overflowing, fertilizing waters of the Nile River.

To be "a cowboy in the boat of Ra" is to be like Osiris and Sonny Rollins and to work subversively against both Set and Ra-who is sometimes referred to as "Aton," as in Mumbo Jumbo-who channel their nihilistic power through the scorching, searing, bleaching rays of the sun-symbolized by the circle of line three-and, in more recent times, through Euro-America's manufactured equivalent of the sun, the atomic bomb. These solar agents dominate non-white peoples both through physical possession and through the appropriation of non-white art, like the "slick Germans" who "chipped on the run" the "Nefertiti" statue which Reed calls a "fake" (8-10). The statue is a fake not because it is a copy of the real statue but rather because Nefertiti was consort to Akhenaton, the pharaoh who revived the worship of Ra, and who like Moses fell victim to Set's trickery and imposture and was duped into heeding that "usurper of the Royal couch" belonging rightly to Osiris (53). Both this statue and the burning bush record Set's subversions and subornations, and both mark moments in a historical development which for Reed extends from "Atonism"-the worship of Ra, the sun, and death-through Roman Catholicism to the United States of the present day. One must read Mumbo Jumbo, where Reed lays out this vision of world history in full, in order to understand the role that Set and Reed's other references play within the poem.

The "boat of Ra" is indeed a slaveboat, but it is also Christian and Euro-American teleology, an imposition on history of a fixed and ordered form of development which attempts to repress and kill the vitality and fecundity of non-white peoples, of which the women who "arrive/ on the backs of goats and throw themselves on/ [the cowboy's] Bowie" are yet another agency (32-4). Reed's cowboy is "boning-up in/ the ol West" and "bid[ing his] time" after having weathered the successive phases of this teleology, from the murder of Osiris to the machinations of American slavery, and he waits for the day when he is strong enough to reemerge and "Set down Set," to "sunset Set" and restore Osiris to his rightful place of worship (50-52). "Lord of the lash" and branded as a slave by "sidewinder fools" who "bit [his] forehead like O," the cowboy has taken refuge in the desert of the western U.S. in order to nurse himself back to full strength. As things stand when the poem begins, his efforts are incomplete and he is not yet ready to stage his coup: his "mouth's shooting iron g[ets] the chamber jammed" when he tries to exert his power, poetry, and although he is "an alchemist in ringmanship" he remains a "sucker for the right cross," that is, susceptible to the maneuvers of Christian and Euro-American domination (20-26).

More recovery time will be necessary before the cowboy can mount revenge and revolution. His own African- American powers are in fact insufficient in themselves to this task, so he borrows Native American rites to augment them, commanding "Pope Joan" to bring him his "Buffalo horn of black powder," his "headdress of black feathers," his "bones of Ju-Ju snake" and "eyelids of red paints" (40- 47). In the "shadow" and out from under the sun, the cowboy at poem's end sets off to set down Set with his newly- syncretic powers, powers which combine the rites and practices of African-Americans with those of other peoples oppressed by white "Atonist" teleology throughout history. It is this multicultural combination, along with Reed's insistence on shapeshifting fictional and symbolic practices that do homage to Osiris, which has led critics to label him a "postmodernist." One can only understand the "postmodernism" of "i am a cowboy in the boat of Ra," Conjure and Mumbo Jumbo, when one has carefully reconstructed from all of these texts Reed's historicist mythology. Reed attempts in the early 1970s to contribute to what he sees as a subversive tradition of non-white art, a counter-tradition which, in resisting restrictions of form, genre and ideology, disrupts and disturbs the historical mastery and control of "Atonist" figures from Set all the way to John Calhoun, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, all of whose actions reveal a grand design for the material manifestation of death, a manifestation whose human costs are evident anywhen or anywhere non-whites have been enslaved, colonized, or merely bombed into oblivion.


Copyright © 2004 by T.J. Boynton

Shamoon Zaamir: On "I Am A Cowboy in the Boat of Ra"

Reed's poem is structured as an inverted epic. The three stanzas that follow the second one consider the failure of synthesis. Isis, like Leda, gives birth to war, and the ringmanship of Ezzard Charles is defeated. The fifth stanza then acknowledges the exile of art. This pattern is in fact closer to Blake's satiric meditation on the impossibility of art and the failure of Los in a fallen world in The Book of Urizen (1794). In reversing the transcendent sequence of Milton, Reed dramatizes the pressures of history and the social upon the ideal of the synthetic imagination.

[. . . .]

The "I" of "I am a cowboy" is a descendent of the expansive and incorporative selves of Whitman and Emerson. Reed's cowboy hero, confronted with the double-consciousness of a divided self, adopts a strategy of inflation, an "unrealistic aggrandizement" of the ego. This process is part of the "shifts from communal modes of self-validation to a psychic self-reliance [that] have always been part of magic and religion, and perhaps of action itself," and have characterized classic texts of American literature. The transition from the Blakean notions of artist and community to the model of the gunslinger reverses the transition from sacrifice to performance in the second stanza and reincarnates the artist as sacrificial priest. This section examines this shift as the site of the imperial self's fullest manifestation and Reed's use of the possibilities of immanence in magic as the vehicle of this appearance.

[. . . .]

Reed's poem retells an ancient Egyptian myth of divine conflict as a wild west showdown. The outlaw gunman, once "vamoosed from / the temple" and now fighting for "the come back of / Osiris" is the exiled Horus who returns to avenge the murder of Osiris, his father, at the hands of Set, the brother of Osiris. Osiris, the black fertility god and culture hero who, according to Plutarch, civilized Egypt through the power of his songs, introducing agriculture, the observation of laws and the honouring of gods, is sacrificed in a Manichean drama to the forces of chaos. Horus's aim is to restore cultural and political order. Although never named as such in the poem, the cowboy is clearly identifiable as Horus. According to the myth, even while Horus was under the protection of Isis, Set managed to have him "bitten by savage beasts and stung by scorpions." Reed alludes to this in the poem's first strophe ("sidewinders in the saloons of fools / bit my forehead"). Having obtained magical powers of transformation from Thoth, Horus fought the battle against Set from the boat of Ra.

But the poem's persona is multiple in its identities. As one who "bedded / down with Isis," the cowboy is also Osiris; as the "dog-faced man" he is Anubis; later he appears as "Loup Garou," a Vodoun loa of the fierce Petro cult of Haiti; he is also an African priest and necromancer demanding his "bones of ju-ju snake"; and a gangster calling his "moll" ("C/ mere a minute willya doll?"

[. . . .]

The attraction to collective improvisation as a utopian model was indeed strong among Afro-American writers in the 1960s. For one who both listens to jazz and reads Blake, there are obvious crossovers between the two. For in Blake (and other Romantics) there is a complex balance of individuation and unity; community arises not through common denomination but through the aggregate of difference: "The poet as man aims at a society of independent thinkers, a democratic 'republic,' but on the smaller and more intensive scale of community. The poet as prophet seeks to create a community of prophets, a New Jerusalem." Blake seeks not the regaining of Eden in the present but the full potential of creative imagination in the fallen world. The poet-prophets form an apostolic succession, and through them history is turned back to its sources in myth, divided humanity is transformed into community. This is the third cultural blind-spot of Reed's school marms.

The "ritual beard" of Sonny Rollins' "axe" holds Reed's ambivalent transitions between sacrifice and performance in the poem; in the terms of the Blakean scheme, poetry and art, and not the priests, are the sources of culture. But Reed does not clearly sustain that distinction (just as he does not explicitly distinguish between priest and prophet). The musician and his instrument and the priest and his ritual tool are intertwined. "Ritual beard" again refers not only to Rollins' physiognomy but also to the pictorial analogy between the curved shape of beards in Egyptian (Assyrian?) iconography and the form of the saxophone ("axe" is jazz slang for the saxophone). In the second stanza of the poem the cut of the axe initiates the reader into the community of tradition and the "longhorn winding / its bells thru the Field of Reeds" completes the synthesis. The dance of the Sidhe, the ancient gods of Ireland, in the wind, and the poetic refiguration of the "philosophic gyres" as the "winding stair" of the tower of Thoor Ballylee in Yeats now resurface as a different motion of history and myth. For one, the meandering movement of the cattle looks ahead to the mythic west of the Chisholm trail in the fourth stanza. Rollins' saxophone (the "long horn" with the open "bell" of its mouth) threads its own voice with the music of other players of the reed instrument configured as a vibrant synchronic "field": "Tradition, in a word, is the sense of the total past as now." The sounding of the bell may well reach to the boxing ring in which the Afro-American boxer Ezzard Charles is defeated later in the poem, but the competition in this stanza is something altogether different; the "cutting sessions" among the improvising soloists in jazz clubs perform a finer marriage between the group and self. The "Field of Reeds" is also the Egyptian Elysium and the Nile bank where the Horus child, like Moses, was hidden from Set, and Rollins is finally identified with Osiris, the god crowned with horns who weighs the hearts of the dead in Fields of Satisfaction that are the after-world. These dizzying metamorphoses are gathered up as the domain of the artist's active imagination in the pun on the author's name.

[. . . .]

When he synthesizes the multiple personas of his poem prior to the final showdown into the figure of the poet-priest, or the artist as necromancer, the poet-priest's call for his ritual paraphernalia refers the reader to Blake's Milton:

bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder

bring me my headdress of black feathers

bring me my bones of Ju-ju snake

go get my eyelids of red paint.

Hand me my shadow.

Here are the corresponding lines from Blake's preface to Milton:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

Reed's invocation of Blake at a climactic point in the poem--when the cowboy Horus announces his return from exile--establishes Romantic literary structures as necessary interpretive frames for Reed's poem: Milton is a paradigmatic text of Romanticism's exploration of the imagination's struggle against duality and its quest for resolution through the higher synthesis of culture--in Blake's case through the restoration of prophetic vision. This process of consciousness is commonly dramatized by the Romantics in terms of the Homeric journeys away from and back to home, the Iliad and the Odyssey serving as the respective halves of the dialectic. Reed simply substitutes the Nile voyage for the Mediterranean one. But while Reed organizes his poem by referring to the Romantic plot, the sequence of his poem is as a partial inversion of this plot, concluding in a New World configuration that is not easily assimilable into Romantic synthesis.

Reed's poem offers variations on the theme of culture clash organized within an overarching plot of exile, return, and renewed war. Two other frames overlap with this larger structure. The return of the exiled hero is also the resurfacing of the repressed and the suppressed. The urge towards the psychologizing of history borders on the Spenglerian and remains true to the politics of the 1960s counterculture in the context of which the poem takes shape. And the drama of departure and journey home narrativizes the dialectic of dualism, of unity lost and regained, that is the central plot of Romanticism and undergirds its obsession with immanent teleology and a metaphysics of integration, laying the foundations for the modern divided self--a fragmentation described most notably in the Afro-American context by W.E.B. DuBois.

[. . . .]

As in Blake's preface to Milton, the poet-priest of "I am a cowboy," after calling for his "Buffalo horn of black powder," his "bones of Ju-ju snake" and other ritual instruments, launches his mental war against the cultural domination of Set, an archetype for all forms of religious, ideological and cultural monisms in Reed's mythology:

I'm going into town after Set

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra

look out Set        here i come Set

to get Set            to sunset Set

to unseat Set       to Set down Set

usurper of the Royal couch

imposter RAdio of Moses' bush

part pooper O hater of dance

vampire outlaw of the milky way

The return of the outlaw cowboy is in fact the return of art to the arena of effective cultural struggle since earlier in the poem the exile of the outlaw hero is defined as the exile of art:

                    Vamoosed from

the temple i bide my time. The price on the wanted

poster was a-going down, outlaw alias copped my stance

and moody greenhorns were making me dance;

    while my mouth's

shooting iron got its chambers jammed.

It is the poet's voice, the "mouth's / shooting iron," that is silenced.

[. . . ]

The unjamming of the "mouth's / shooting iron" narrativizes the release of the creative and playful potential of language and simultaneously stages this release as a moment of self-genesis for the poetic persona.

[. . . .]

The action of "I am a cowboy" begins to turn in the seventh stanza. Though still in exile, the poet no longer has his mouth's shooting iron jammed. He is now writing "the mowtown long plays for the comeback of / Osiris."

[. . .]

The return of the exiled hero is no longer imagined as Horus’s revenge. Instead of the more familiar and culturally more distant mythology of Egypt, Reed now turns to a New World transformation of African folklore and works his own syncretic changes upon it. In the eighth stanza the sexual union of Osiris and Isis is re-formulated in more traditional occult and astrological terms as the coniunctio of Pisces and Aries. But the product is "the Loup Garou Kid," "Lord of the Lash," not Horus, a "half breed son," a reincarnation of the Afro-American divided self, not an incarnation of national unity. . . . [W]ith Loup Garou he makes the representative hero of the age a figure of aggression and outward confrontation.

Loup Garou, derived from the French, is the name given to werewolves and vampires in Haiti. Though the werewolves can be male, loups garous are more commonly known to be female vampires who suck the blood of children, as they are generally in West African societies. . . . Reed's hero is also "Lord-of the Lash" but Reed, with his characteristic penchant for the humour of the incongruous, reincarnates a now-forgotten hero from B-movie westerns in the grim shadow of the Petro cult. According to The Film Encyclopedia, Al La Rue, a.k.a. "Lash" La Rue, was

Born on June 15, 1917, in Michigan. Cowboy hero of miniscule-budget Hollywood Westerns of the late 40s, known as "Lash" for his principle weapon, a 15-foot bullwhip, which he used on his enemies with great skill. His film career was brief and unmemorable. He later performed in carnivals and toured the South as a Bible-thumping evangelist, preaching the gospel and contemplating astrology and reincarnation. He had several brushes with the law, answering charges of vagrancy, public drunkenness, and possession of marijuana. He claims to have been married and divorced 10 times.

[. . . .]

Following Yeats's occult model for a poetics of history, Reed's poem figures history as the incessant alternation of conflict and coniunctio. This pattern is already present in the larger narrative of the poem where war is a prelude to the restoration of order. But each stanza repeats the drama as an almost independent unit. While the Horus-Cowboy narrative of exile and return shapes the poem, an over-emphasis on the overarching structure of the poem can undermine the experience of local transitions and image by image progression. The links between (and within) stanzas follow no principle of logical or historical connection. The violent juxtaposition of diverse materials which disrupts the linear flow of narrative is held together by formal principles derived from Yeats's poetics.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I bedded

down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo, dove

down deep into her horny, stuck up her Wells-Far-ago

in daring midday getaway. 'Start grabbing the

blue', I said from top of my double crown.

The rapid transitions in this third stanza are representative of the procedures of the whole poem and extend the flamboyant punning of the poem into a collagist aesthetic. A pun reminiscent of the sexual innuendos of blues lyrics allows Reed to leap from Egyptian mythology to nineteenth-century America and from an image of sexual union to a history of political and economic conflict, a parody of the rape of Leda by the Swan, used here to engender North American history. Isis's "Wells-Far-ago" is a distortion of the name of the Wells Fargo company, established in 1852 by Henry Wells, William G. Fargo and associates, founders of the American Express. The company carried mail, silver and gold bullion and provided banking services. "In less than ten years," Alvin F. Harlow explains, the company had "either bought out or eliminated nearly all competitors and become the most powerful company in the Far West." Wells Fargo later extended its operations to Canada, Alaska, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and Hawaii, as well as the Atlantic coast. The economic monopoly of Wells Fargo parallels the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity which not only banished other gods (Osiris and the Voodoo loa) but also suppressed its own heretical traditions. The outlaw cowboy's cry, "start grabbing the / blue," is slang for "put your hands up" but also refers to "blueback," an archaic term for a bank note of Confederate money, so called for the contrast of blue ink on its back with the green ink used on the Northern "greenback." With Horus speaking from the "top of [his] double crown" in the next line, the blueback carried by the Wells Fargo Company can be taken as a symbol of the division between North and South in the "United" States. This is confirmed by the double crown as symbol of a unified Egypt in Egyptian iconography, and one of the manifestations of Horus was "Har-mau," or "Horus the uniter," upholder of the unity of northern and southern Egypt. The aggressive lover of Isis is of course Osiris (the "longhorn" in the previous stanza refers, among other things, to the horned crown of Osiris, and the rather obvious sexual pun on "longhorn" and "horny" completes the link). The product of this intercourse is Horus, whereas in Yeats the rape leads to the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra, Love and War. The outlaw Horus initiates the fall of the Confederacy and the rise of the Union, while Leda hatches the fall of Troy and the ascendancy of Greece. The same pattern is repeated in the next stanza.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Ezzard Charles

of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they

blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a

sucker for the right cross.

Here each sentence is a yoking together that, like the rest of the poem, brazenly defies the facts of history. The conjunction of Ancient Egypt and the American West is, by this point in the poem, familiar. The cowboy then appears as the Afro-American heavyweight boxing champion from the early 1950s riding the famous 19th-century cattle trail that stretched from south Texas to Kansas City. His transformation into a musician, linking back to Sonny Rollins in the second stanza and to the "Lady of the Boogaloo" in the third, is aborted by gun law. The last sentence is a characteristically condensed pun, welding together boxing and alchemy--again, confrontation and synthesis. Not only is the allusive hero's boxing prowess weak, but his "talismanic rings [are] no match for the symbols of Christianity." The alchemist's dream of coniunctio, of the philosopher's stone, is defeated. The ring, occult symbol for such unity and wholeness but also representative here of the boxing ring, encapsulates the balance of conflict and coniunctio throughout the poem. But this very balance is shattered by a blow from the cross, a re-match between the gnostic traditions and Christianity in which the later once again emerges as victor. After being knocked out by "Jersey" Joe Walcott in seven rounds in Pittsburgh in 1951, Charles was never able to make a successful comeback in boxing. He was defeated again by Walcott in 1952 and by Rocky Marciano in 1954. In the next stanza the artist-hero accepts that an "outlaw alias copped my stance" but the exile is only a temporary set-back: "Vamoosed from / the temple," he explains, "i bide my time."

[. . . .]

At the end of "I am a cowboy," the returning hero seeks to chase out Set, the "imposter RAdio of Moses' bush."

[. . . .]

Reed's personae are his masks. Through them he too enacts the drama of dual or multiple selves caught between the constraints of history and the promise of heroic action and self-genesis. The imperial self retrieves its own projected self as its sanction and inspiration. It is through this poetic device that Reed overcomes the experience of history as absolute fate.