Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison, born in Jamaica in 1947, is another recent discovery for me in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry. Much of her work focuses on the role of women in Caribbean society, both in the past and the present; she often draws upon the history of her own family, as she does in this poem about her great grandmother, who was enslaved and whose "Mulatta" daughter was taken from her, but whose dynamic nature continues to assert itself in each successive generation:

"Guinea Woman"

Great grandmother
was a guinea woman
wide eyes turning
the corners of her face
could see behind her
her cheeks dusted with
a fine rash of jet-bead wars
that itched when the rain set up.

Great grandmother's waistline
the span of a headman's hand
slender and tall like a cane stalk
with a guinea woman's antelope-quick walk
and when she paused
her gaze would look to sea
her profile fine like some obverse impression
on a guinea coin from royal memory.

It seems her fate was anchored
in the unfathomable sea
for her great grandmother caught the eye of a sailor
whose ship sailed without him from Lucea harbour.
Great grandmother's royal scent of
cinnamon and escallions
drew the sailor up the straits of Africa,
the evidence my blue-eyed grandmother
the first Mulatta
taken into backra's household
and covered with his name.
They forbade great grandmother's
guinea woman presence
they washed away her scent of
cinnamon and escallions
controlled the child's antelope walk
and called her uprisings rebellions.

But, great grandmother
I see your features blood dark
in the children of each new
the high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
it's great grandmother's turn.

Exploring the West Indian past, Goodison recounts the stories of the daily lives of slave women through dramatic monologues which recreate intimate details of their experiences, as here in a poem that plays with multiple meanings of the title phrase "inna calabash":

"Inna Calabash"

Inna calabash
Inna calabash
tell them that the baby
that count in them census already
Inna calabash

One slave child
that count already
while it inside my belly
tell them that the baby
Inna calabash.

She show me
Quasheba show me one day
when I faint in the field of cane

When I cry and say
Why I can't be like missus
siddown and plait sand
and throw stone after breeze.

Quasheba show me
how the calabash contained
for a slave gal like me
a little soft life and ease.

Pick a big calabash
bore both ends she say
shake out the gray pulp belly.
run a string through both ends
and tie it across your belly.

Drop the little shift frock
make outta Massa
coarse oznaburg cloth
over your calabash belly

Nothing Massa like
like more slave pickney
to grow into big slave
to serve slavery.

You will get rest
when you have belly.
When you rest enough
just take it off.

Say you fall
say you lose baby.
Quasheba show me
all I need to know.
Inna calabash.

Goodison also explores the lives of contemporary women as well, as in this three-part poem on the lives of "fallen women":

From the Garden of the Women Once Fallen


Woman alone, living
in a tenement of enmity.
One room of back-biting
standpipe flowing strife.

Recall one dry Sunday
of no rice and peas no meat
how you boiled a handful
of fresh green thyme

to carry the smell of Sunday
as usual.
Thyme, herb of contraction
rising as steaming incense
of save-face.

When you dwell among enemies
you never make them salt your pot.
You never make them know
your want.

"Of Bitterness Herbs"

You knotted the spite blooms into a bouquest-garni
to falvor stock from sour soups and confusion stews.
Now no one will dine with you.

A diet of bitterness is self consuming. Such herbs
are best destroyed, rooted out from the garden
of the necessary even preordained past.

Bitter herbs grow luxusiant where the grudgeful crow
dropped its shadow, starting a compost heap of need in you
to spray malicious toxins over all flowers in our rose gardens.

Bitterness herbs bake bad-minded bread, are good for little
except pickling green-eyed gall stones, then eaten alone
from wooden spoons of must-suck-salt.

"In the Time of Late-Blooming Pumpkins"

In this garden, water walks
and water walking enters
belly of pumpkin.

This means you are growing
big from within, all ripeness,
though somebody (Jeremiah?)

shouts from outside the garden wall
"You are all conceived in sin"
but that is just some false prophet

negative and bad mouthing.
For in this new garden
of fresh start over

with its mysteries of walking water,
give thanks for late summer's
rose afternoons shading
into amethyst, then deepening
into red water grass evenings,
time of late-blooming pumpkins.

Not all of her work deals with the lives of women; there are joyous evocations of Jamaican life and of childhood, such as the delightful "Songs of the Fruits and Sweets of Childhood" which is too long to post in its entirety, but a few stanzas will demonstrate its visual, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory appeal :

. . .

Jade green lantern
light astringent
is the tart taste
of the jimbelin.

. . .

But of all fruit
the most perfect is
the dark ochre
taste like rosewater
color like logwood honey
that is a naseberry.

. . .

And in singing
the lungs will fill
with the sweet dust
of corn,
pounded, parched
blended with
cane sugar
to tickle the
channels of breathing.
Inhale, sneeze
sing so
"Asham O."

. . .

The rise
of the palette's roof
is a nice height
under which
to tuck the pink backed
paradise plum.
Its smooth
white underbelly
melting level
with the tongue.

. . .

And the ring game
or join up
of pink top
candy bump
going round and round
in a ring
of the fruits and sweets
of childhood

Hedgie, I finally landed on your blog. I like what you are doing here, bringing to us poets from different countries, new poetic discoveries.

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