by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
“I suspect that I might always write about Jamaica. Jamaicans are very comical people, and laughter is a way of coping with life’s displeasures . . . Sometimes, the world can throw things at you that are so cruel and so devastating that you are in no position to have any kind of real response but to make a gesture. And I think that sometimes laughter is a gesture saying that you have not completely annihilated me; you have not robbed me of my ability to respond as a human being.” – from an interview in Mosaic
Lorna Goodison (1947 – ) is the first woman
to be Poet Laureate of Jamaica. She was born
in Kingston on the first day of August, which is
Emancipation Day in Jamaica.
On August 1, 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 went into effect throughout the British Empire. In practical terms, only slaves below the age of six were freed in the colonies. Former slaves over the age of six were redesignated as “apprentices”, and their servitude was abolished in two stages: the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on August 1, 1838, while the final apprenticeships would cease on August 1, 1840. The British Government paid the staggering sum of 20 million pounds in compensation to British slave holders, which was about 5% of the total British GNP at the time, and required taking out a 15-million-pound loan from the Rothschilds, which was not fully paid off until 2015.
To commemorate her country’s 2017 Emancipation celebrations, Goodison wrote this poem in three imagined voices from the last group on the island to be set free.
Testimony of First of August Negroes:
the Last to Be Set Free.
I tell my friend Quasheba, stop up you ears with this beeswax,
so that the bantering song of all who get fi leave scotch free
don’t mad we who still bind to cane piece. We who get left back
because spiteful Massa say: ‘Emancipation is like an aged white
rum—so strong not every Negro can imbibe at one time, lest they
grow drunken and stagger”. So him water down freedom, share
it out little little and what left in a barrel bottom is fi me and you.
I say, Dont bawl Q, we wait long already, we can wait more still.
She say: “Since them carry me come from Guinea me want go home.”
Me too. But if is one thing me learn from what Saint Paul preach
is: They that wait. No, is not him say that, must be the prophet
Isaiah or one other man who help write Massa bible with the lock
and key. My friend say she don’t want hear no comfortable words
today. My heart string stretch out too. Me disappoint. Me tired pray.
Bend down! Full-free hurrycomeup dem a come down the road
like a Syrian wolf upon the fold. I no rightly sure what that mean,
but me like how it sound. Turn you back and bend down lower,
inspect grass hard like a cruel overseer. Bend down, chop furious
and cuss like wicked slave driver. Tell grass how it good-fi-nothing,
lazy, and no make fi flourish. Say it bad like sin that Ham commit.
Them gone? We can stand up now. Our day of Jubilee a come.
Address to the weed in the cane piece:
Pretty little grass weed, to me you are a sweet rose,
even though some don’t think so. According to them,
it matters not that you bud and blossom, you do not
count as flowers, therefore you not good enough
to cut and put in a water vase and set pon table
in a big house. So them order me, a human weed,
to dig you down, and root you up, and fling you
to one side, although your roots bind the ground
together. You’re as good as any other growing thing,
you are just planted where you’re less counted.
To me little weed you are sweet as any roses.
Yes, is true. Some who get freedom first,
walk past and mock the first of august Nayga
the last to get emancipation. Yes sir.
We had was to bear all the commotion
and bangarang of old pan as them galang
past we out a the estate.
Some believe all the foolishness hard heart people say
bout freedom not for any and every one.
How some need to be
led with bridle and bit like mule and horse.
Not because some get let go first,
always remember this:
It matters not when you did leave.
Every single one of a we
come out a the cane piece.
She was the eighth of Marcus and Doris Goodison’s nine children. Though raised in Kingston, Lorna spent the magic summer of her seventh year with her aunt’s family in the village of Harvey River in the countryside of Hanover Parish. The Harvey River is named after her English great-grandfather, William Harvey. That summer became part of the inspiration for her book, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People.
One of the trials Goodison had to overcome was being compared to her older sister, even being told by some of her high school teachers that she didn’t write as well as her sister. So she went to the Jamaica School of Art after graduation, then moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League. But she kept writing.
Rainstorm is weeping
The weeping Rainstorm from our reading book
bore strong resemblance to my sister Carmen,
her full head of hair whipping up great shocks
of black rain clouds; her tall, full body wedged
between heaven and earths birth passage
and rainfall her long eye-water on storm days.
She was own-way, headstrong Rainstorm; it said
in the reading book she looked with hard gaze
at careless clouds lollygagging above and made
it up into the heavens to beat them into shape,
that’s how she got stuck between sky and earth
and that’s why she weeps and why floodrains fall
Octobers and Mays. When she rails and complains
of her powerless state, it is the time of hurricanes.
Goodison published her first collection of poetry, Tamarind Season, in 1980. ‘Tamarind Season’ is a time when people must struggle, just before the harvest, when food is scarce.
For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)
My mother loved my father.
I write this as an absolute
in this my thirtieth year
the year to discard absolutes.
He appeared, her fate disguised
as a Sunday player in a cricket match,
he had ridden from a country
one hundred miles south of hers.
She tells me he dressed the part,
visiting dandy, maroon blazer,
cream serge pants, seam like a razor,
and the beret and the two-tone shoes.
My father stopped to speak to her sister,
till he looked and saw her by the oleander,
sure in the kingdom of my blue-eyed grandmother.
He never played the cricket match that day.
He wooed her with words and won her.
He had nothing but words to woo her.
On a visit to distant Kingston he wrote,
‘I stood on the corner of King Street and looked,
and not one woman in that town was lovely as you’.
My mother was a child of the petit bourgeoisie
studying to be a teacher, she oiled her hands to hold pens.
My father barely knew his father. His own mother
died young, he was a boy who grew up with his granny.
My mother’s trousseau came by steamer through the snows
of Montreal, where her sisters Albertha of the cheekbones,
and the perennial Rose, combed backstreets with
French-turned names for Doris’ wedding things.
Such a wedding Harvey River, Hanover, had never seen.
Who anywhere had a seen a veil fifteen Chantilly yards long?
and a crepe de chine dress with inlets of silk godettes
and a neck-line clasped with jeweled pins!
And on her wedding day she wept
for it was a brazen bride
in those days who smiled. And her bouquet
looked for the world
like a sheaf of wheat against the unknown of her belly,
a sheaf of wheat backed by maidenhair fern,
representing Harvey River;
her face washed by something other than river water.
My father made one assertive move, he took the imported cherub
down from the height of the cake and
dropped it in the soft territory between her breasts…and she cried.
When I came to know my mother many years later, I knew her
as the figure who sat at the first thing I learned to read: ‘SINGER’
and she breast-fed my brother while she sewed;
and she taught us to read while she sewed, and
she sat in judgement over all our disputes as she sewed.
She could work miracles, she’d make a garment from
a square of cloth in a span that defied time. Or feed twenty
people on a stew made from fallen-from-the head cabbage leaves and a
carrot and a cho-cho and a palmful of meat. And she rose early and
sent us clean into the word and she went to bed in the dark, for
my father came in always last.
There is a place where my mother never took the younger ones
A country where my father with the always smile, my father
whom all women loved, who had the perpetual quality of wonder
given only to a child, hurt his bride.
Even at his death there was this ‘friend’ who stood by her side, but
my mother is adamant that that has no place in the memory of my father.
When he died, she sewed dark dresses for the women amongst us
And she summoned that walk, straight-backed, that she gave to us
And buried him dry-eyed.
Just that morning, weeks after, she stood delivering bananas from their skin
Singing in that flat hill country voice;
She fell down a note to the realisation that
she did not have to be brave, just this once, and she cried.
For her hands grown coarse with raising nine children
for her body for twenty years permanently fat
for the time she pawned her machine for my sister’s
Senior Cambridge fees
and for the pain she bore with the eyes of a queen
and she cried also because she loved him.
Goodison writes frequently about traditions and events from Jamaica’s past. These poems encompass both her family’s past and the broader expanse of her island’s rich heritage.
Praise to the mother of Jamaican art
She was the nameless woman who created
images of her children sold away from her.
She suspended her wood babies from a rope
round her neck, before she ate she fed them.
Touched bits of pounded yam and plantains
to sealed lips, always urged them to sip water.
She carved them of wormwood, teeth and nails
her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.
Her spit cleaned faces and limbs; the pitch oil
of her skin burnished them. When woodworms
bored into their bellies she warmed castor oil
they purged. She learned her art by breaking
hard rockstones. She did not sign her work.
Signals from the Simple Life
A red cloth
and he knows
she is being
by the tides
of the moon.
over her sex
to interfering spirits
she is done
with the ways of the flesh.
A poor man
wears new gloves
on his wedding day,
his new beginning.
This last poem stands outside of time or place, recording only the eternal worry of a mother who has raised her son alone, a son who is now almost, but not quite, a man.
Goodison is a professor of English, Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and divides her time between Ann Arbor, Toronto, and the north coast of Jamaica. For her work on the Jamaican National Commission to UNESCO, Goodison was awarded Jamaica’s Musgrave Gold Medal in 1999. She has also received many awards for both her poetry and prose. Most recently, she was among a distinguished group of writers announced by Yale University as the 2018 recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prizes, one of the world’s richest and prestigious literary prizes.
She is much in demand as a poet and a speaker at international poetry and cultural events. Speaking about the importance of women’s voices being heard, she said in a recent conversation with Jacqueline Bishop: “Now, more than ever, it is important to examine things from the female perspective. The half that has never been told is now loudly demanding to be told. As someone who has been trying to tell my side of that half for over 50 years, I say this is a good thing. The world is experiencing something of a seismic shift when it comes to matters of gender, and if this movement is handled right, then the world just might receive a badly needed measure of nurturing and healing.”
SELECTED POETRY COLLECTIONS
- Tamarind Season (1980)
- I Am Becoming My Mother (1986)
- Heartease (1988)
- Selected Poems (1993)
- To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995)
- Turn Thanks (1999)
- Guinea Woman (2000)
- Travelling Mercies (2001)
- Controlling the Silver (2005)
- Goldengrove (2006)
- Oracabessa (2013)
- Supplying Salt and Light (2013)
- Collected Poems (2017)
- Harvesting sugar cane in Jamaica
- Oya, by Alfonso Guardia Chavarría
- Bridal veil
- The Secret, sculpture by Edna Manley 1955
- Washer Women – detail, by Barrington Watson
- Submachine gun
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud