On Ishmael Reed

’s "I Am A Cowboy In The Boat Of Ra" Essay, Research Paper

Robert H. Abel

Ishmael Reed’s poem "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" turns on a series of

elaborate puns and allusions that all reinforce the central idea that the old (black) god

Ra is about to reclaim his throne and his power over men. In addition, Reed’s marriage of

"popular culture" imagery with figures from Egyptian mythology produces an

offspring with some startling independent features.

Ra, the sun god and creator of men, was variously portrayed as a baby who grew older

each day and was reborn the next, and later as a rider in a boat who traveled across the

sky. In this poem, Ra appears momentarily as a cowboy riding in the traditional boat, but

his true identity remains unrecognized. The first five stanzas explain Ra’s rise and fall,

the sixth and seventh stanzas suggest his present "underground" activities and

his growing strength, and the last stanzas give us Ra preparing to do battle with Set

(Ra’s brother who was so evil that he ripped himself from his mother’s womb) who has

usurped him for so long. The organization of the poem itself suggests the

birth-death-rebirth cycle of the Isis-Osiris myth in which Ra was ritualistically torn to

shreds (Sparagmos) and sown in the barren, winter ground so that the soil

would become fertilized and nature (and Ra himself) renewed. The irony that the god of

rebirth is also the god of death is stressed by Reed in stanza 6, lines 6-8, where he

suggests that virgin "sacrifice" is a necessary ingredient in Ra’s regeneration.

In stanza 1, sidewinders means "evil men" in the jargon of the old

movie Westerns, but it also conjures images of Cleopatra’s asp and what was a rather

classic Egyptian death ritual. The saloon of fools suggests a sodden variation of

the classic "ship of fools" theme and at the same time reveals that Ra’s view of

the affairs of men is rather cynical and removed: we are not only crazy and at the mercy

of a remote god, but blind drunk as well. That our Egyptologists, our supposed experts,

"do not know their trips" in one sense means they do not know where they are

going, but in another "popular" sense means they do not know the effects their

drugs and medicines will have upon them. This is in contrast to Ra himself who (in stanza

8) "hold[s] the souls of men in [his] pot," where pot suggests both the

ritual vessel which held the ashes of the deceased and marijuana which may imbue the

present god with marvelous powers of imagining. In their ignorance, the Egyptologists

drive the true god from town, and to the question "Who was that / dog-faced

man?" I suspect we should answer "The Lone Ranger." (Compare "Radio"

in stanza 10).

Stanza 2 reveals that the true divinity and its various manifestations are invisible to

modern man. "School marms with halitosis"—perhaps

tourists—"cannot see" either the artifacts of the past for what they are

(fakes mutilated by Germans in their African campaign), or the divine symbols of the

present. Sonny Rollins, a forceful jazz tenor saxophone player, appears as one of Ra’s

royalty, and the Field of Reeds has possible triple reference to the field on the banks of

the Nile (where Moses was found and where a longhorn now replaces the water buffalo), to

the "creeds" of the saxophone, and to the "Reed" who authors the poem,

all of which stand as evidence of Ra’s continuing life and strength for those who have

eyes to see and ears to hear.

That Ra is a black god becomes increasingly evident in the next two stanzas. Isis is

"Lady of the Bugaloo"—the bugaloo being what amounts to the ritual dance of

black Americans—and Ra thinks of himself as the black middleweight boxing champion of

the 1950’s, Ezzard Charles, one of the few fighters to make a successful comeback in the

ring. The command to Isis to "start grabbing the / blue" means both to

"reach for the sky" and "grab the blue cloth" which symbolized

Egyptian royalty. Thus she is not only a victim of Ra’s lust, but is also blessed because

of it. That Ra is "Alchemist in ringmanship but a / sucker for the right cross"

means not only that his boxing has a weakness but also that his talismanic rings were no

match for the symbols of Christianity. In the fifth stanza, Ra makes it plain that he has

been ousted from his temple and that "outlaw alias copped my stance"—the

forces of evil have robbed him of his throne and place.

The next three stanzas include a number of allusions which emphasize that Ra’s return

to power will be the return of a black god and the black people. The "motown long

plays" written for "the comeback of Osiris" are long-playing records from a

popular Detroit "soul" record producer; but "long plays" also hints at

prolonged seduction "play" in street parlance, quite appropriate to the god of

fertility and potency. In stanza 7, "the Loup Garou Kid" (Lone Wolf Kid) alludes

to the black outlaw of Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke Down who is the perpetual

thorn in the Establishment’s side. The most definite assertions of Ra’s blackness come in

stanza 8 in which he dresses for war with Set in "black powder" (suggestive of

"black power" and "gunpowder") and "black feathers" and asks

for the bones of the Ju-Ju snake (Ju-Ju being a principal African tribal religion in which

the bones of the Ju-Ju snake are cast to make prophecies and worn to ward off evil

spirits). One of the allusions which does not imply racial identification directly

("Pope Joan of the / Ptah Ra") nevertheless suggests both the exclusion of

blacks from power (Pope Joan was a card game in which one of the cards was removed) and

that Ra this time will appear as Ptah, protector of artists and artisans, a manifestation

that obviously gives poets like Reed a great deal to benefit from. When Ra says that he

"makes the bulls / keep still" he refers in one way to himself as a cowhand

watching the herd, but in another sense he means that he keeps the police

("bulls") at bay. There is a final non-racial allusion in Ra’s claim to be

"Half-breed son of Pisces / And Aquarius" which is an extravagant way (assuming

that this is the age of Aquarius) of saying he feels like a fish out of water. Pisces is

the eleventh astrological sign and Aquarius is the twelfth or last sign, which strongly

intimates that a new beginning is close at hand.

The last stanza throws the cowboy and Indian chase, the battle between good and evil,

into the heavens, where we may expect events to transpire with the speed of

constellations, that is, with maddening slowness after all.

from The Explicator 30:9, Item #81, May 1972.

Shamoon Zaamir

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


[. . . .]

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


[. . . .]

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


to unseat Set to Set down Set

usurper of the Royal couch

imposter RAdio of Moses’ bush

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