One of the pleasures of reading a poem is discovering new levels of meaning and complexity in its lines almost every time you read it. This continuous discovery ultimately makes reading poetry so much more involving (for me) and (often) more exciting than reading most prose. Of course you can list many works of prose which require, demand even, a reader's involvement, and can excite, you say. I agree. Nothing to argue about there.
Jamaican writer / poet Shara McCallum's third collection of poems--This Strange Land (I confess: I have not read her two previous collections)--longlisted for the 2012 Bocas Lit Prize, isn't any more pleasurable a read than the two previous collections I blogged on, but since it's the last one from the Bocas Lit Prize lists that I'm blogging about, I've had more time to reflect on the levels of her craft(ing) more so than the others. Her poems are full of breadth--voluminous and particular, mapping gender, geographical, and personal (familial) concerns. The speakers in them give definition to place (Jamaica and diaspora), in conventional and unconventional ways, and in female voices or via female portraits that are current and real, and evocative of literary canonical images of women (past). This Strange Land opens with a "Psalm for Jamaica," and the remaining 40 poems are arranged in three categories titled "Dear History," "Fury," and "Dear Hours." The following is my brief, appreciative representation of the opening poem and each of the collection's three categories of poems.
From the beginning, we get the voice of a speaker who is in part sentimental and nostalgic, and in part a cold-eyed realist. It is a speaker who claims belongingness to Jamaica and pays tribute to that Jamaica, past and present:
From "Psalm for Jamaica"
City of Jack Mandora--mi nuh choose none--of Ananacy
prevailing over Mongoose, Breda Rat, Puss, and Dog, Anancy
saved by his wits in the midst of chaos and against all odds;
of bawdy Big Boy stories told by peacock-strutting boys, hush-hush
but loud enough to be heard by anyone passing by the yard.
City of market women at Half-Way-Tree with baskets
atop their heads or planted in front of their laps, squatting or standing
City of school children in uniforms playing dandy dandy
City of old men with rheumy eyes, crouched in doorways,
City where power cuts left everyone in sudden dark,
City where Marley sang, Jah would never give the power to a baldhead
while the baldheads reigned, where my parents chanted
down Babylon--Fire! Burn! Jah! Rastafari! Selassie I!--
City that lives under a long-memoried sun,
where the gunmen of my childhood have been replaced
by dons that rule neighbourhoods as fiefdoms, where violence
and beauty still lie down together. City of my birth--
if I forget thee, who will I be, singing the Lord's song in this strange land?
The poems in the "Dear History" section inspire themes on history which include a very thought-provoking "history as memory" theme. The poems I found most inspirational on the theme (three below) give a set of conditions that are endearing, sentimental--full of song in easy couplets, full of vibrant color, and images. They also give us conditions that are trauma-filled and sensational, and conditions that have left the speakers with unanswered questions at times. And they are ultimately conditions of memory and history that have taught (teach) important life lessons.
Believe me when I tell you
I did not know her name
but remember the colour of her dress:
red, like my own school uniform.
I did not know death could come to a girl
walking home, stick in hand,
tracing circles in the dirt,
singing as she went along.
I did not know death
would find someone
for wearing the wrong colour smock
in the wrong part of town.
My parents spoke in hushed tones,
but I heard the story of her body
dragged from street to gully,
left sullied in semen and blood.
I heard the song she sang,
the one I wish I could sing now.
Truth is, I was that girl.
Truth is, I was never there.
The year the nation fell to violence,
Marley's cancer dismantled his body
and her father's schizophrenia
shook the last coins from his pockets.
The day she and her sisters left Jamaica,
their mother crept out of the house before dawn,
walking with her Twelve Tribes sistren
through the streets of Kingston to reach Bob's funeral.
In the years since, she has sifted details,
treated memory like bones to be assembled.
Did her grandmother's hands,
packing and searching for passports,
erase her mother's kisses,
placed on sleeping eyelids?
"Miss Sally on Love"
In my time, I was a girl who like to spree.
The whole world would open fi mi
if I shift mi hips to strain
the fabric of mi skirt, just so.
Still, I did learn mi lesson
where love concern: if snake bite yu,
when yu see even lizard, crawling
with him belly on ground, yu run.
Now the gal come to mi, say she fall in love
with man who have a plan fi change.
But she nuh notice him also carry gun?
And, lawd, how she nuh see
who running the show and who
keeping house same way?
The second section of poems in Strange Land is titled "Fury." It in are some of my favorite poems in the collection. From them I have chosen three, beginning with a prose piece, which possibly evokes Bronte's and Rhys's madwoman who "wanders the hall of mirrors" (doubling / mirror images) and which gives us the madwoman an "everywoman." Following that is "My Mother as Penelope." The name Penelope appears to be an evocation of Odysseus's wife who waited faithfully for him to return, but the speaker in the poem does not give us that Penelope; we get a woman who questions the expectation that she must remain in a "drought" so long. The third poem I've chosen gives us a woman, surrounded by domesticity, who is "dreaming herself young" and remembering the touch of her husband's hand.
The madwoman wanders the hall of mirrors. The parrot perched on her shoulder squawks. Again. Again, its mantra heeded by no one. The madwoman counts minutes, sees patience as a ticking out of life's losses. In her fingers, she briefly holds each memory before letting her hands fall back at her sides. Now she is no longer a girl running in a garden saturated with lemon trees. She thinks this morning she might be the parrot mimicking language. Or perhaps she has become the single word delivered from its maw.
In the country where she lives, which is no country, the madwoman maps desire's coordinates onto her body. Each hand pressing into her back meets the others that have lingered in that spot; each lover tastes the breath of those gone before, ghosting in her kisses--the madwoman now being all women. The hysteric who cordons off danger so others can believe in safety. The anorectic who starves her flesh so others may eat. The whore whose sex blooms thorns. The mystic whose dust covered feet discredit her visions. The mother whose placid gaze masks the storm gathering fury into its centre.
"My Mother as Penelope"
Lemon rinds in the dried brook bed,
fireflies failing to light--
all, like me--
suffer the occasional drought.
Outside my window,
no islands of foliage
block my view to the shore
No river noises trickle in.
Listen, after years of waiting,
I tire of the myth I've become.
If I am not an ocean,
I am nothing.
If I am not a world unto itself,
I need to know it.
The woman at the sink will always wait
for someone to enter this room.
In both hands she holds a cup, warming
her fingertips, and shifts from foot to foot.
She stares out the window and studies
the world beyond: the tree in the yard
preening itself for fall, offering a last hurrah
before winter rattles brittle limbs.
The children asleep in their cribs,
the husband busying himself with tasks--
and she, awash in late afternoon light,
dreaming herself young, remembering
his fingers on the back of her neck.
Could any touch have ever been that pure?
And finally, from the last section of poems titled, "Dear Hours," I've chosen lines from two poems which privilege personal, domestic sphere concerns over more public / worldly concerns. And in the privileging, this strange land--a real or imagined place, they seem to insist, can be made less strange.
From "Dear Hours"
We are the body moving toward demise;
we are the soul, remnant of another life.
And always, rain tapping on a zinc roof
is the sound of finger strumming flesh.
Always, I return
to the things of this world, tethered.
You, who have come to me
from something, somewhere, I cannot name;
you who have a voice that does not speak
any language I know yet unfurls bright wings,
alighting in each corner of this house;
you who are mine and not mine,
tell me the answers
while there is time.
From the garden, my three-year-old
plucks a zinnia,
the ring of petals off its stem.
At her age, in a different place,
I picked ixoras,
gathering the small blossoms,
one by one, to build a crown of flames.
If I could read my life
backward, or hers forward,
it might begin
the moment the future is written
in a child's need to possess
such a red,
or in her offering
of a flower that will not last
the hour I stand it in a vase,
propping its neck.
From "History is a Room"
I cannot enter.
To enter that room, I would need to be a man who makes history, not a girl to
whom History happened.
Mother to two daughters, I guard their lives with hope, a pinch of salt I throw
over my shoulder.
To enter that room, I would need to wield a gun.
Here, I brandish weapons that serve an art my mother and grandmother knew:
how to make of plantain and eggs a meal.
To enter that room, I would need to live in the past, to understand how power
is amassed, eclipsing the sun.
Beneath my children's beds, I scatter grains of rice to keep duppy at bay.
To enter that room, I would need to live in the present: This election. This war.
Beneath my children's pillows, I place worry dolls to ensure their peaceful sleep.
To enter that room, I would need to bridge the distance between my door and
what lies beyond.
Standing in my foyer at dusk, I ask the sea to fill the crevices of this house with
History is recounted by the dead, returned from their graves to walk in shriveled skins.
In our yard, I watch my daughters run with arms papering the wind.
History is recounted by children in nursery rhymes, beauty masking its own violence.
If you would like to read more of Shara McCallum's This Strange Land, be the first to say so in the comments below, or by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com, and I'll send you a free copy. McCallum and the two other poets--Loretta Collins Klobah and Fawzia Kane--long and short listed for the lit prize, will be reading at the festival, which begins tomorrow, April 26, 2012. [See the complete Bocas lit fest schedule here].