Metaphors of the Spirit: Shara McCallum on two Poet Laureates of Jamaica

Mervyn Morris
Peelin Orange: Collected Poems
Carcanet £14.99

Lorna Goodison
Collected Poems
Carcanet £14.99

I first encountered poems by Mervyn Morris and Lorna Goodison over twenty years ago, at a time when I was living in a rural town in upstate New York and was a young writer seeking to find my way in poetry. Particularly as a Jamaican poet I have felt a debt to both since. My understanding of a poem and the world it can transmit was made immeasurably wider and more habitable because of their words. The common ground both occupy is in crafting poems that are invested in being at once personal and public, local and far-reaching, poems whose turns of phrase render the colloquial poetic and the poetic colloquial and whose images and stories are plain-spun yet awash in mystery.

Peelin Orange is the title of Morris’s collected works, as too one of its opening poems – a poem easily read as an ars poetica. When Morris explains that the effort to peel the orange results in failure – ‘de dyanm rind / break’ – this leads not to defeat but to the honing of an aesthetic position. Time and again the poet favours the effort to create and make sense of things over any particular achievement or arrival at easy conclusions. By the poem’s close, he invites us to join him on his journey:

An if yu have de time
you can come see mi
in mi ole clothes
peelin

The inclusion of the detail regarding his apparel is crucial, providing a sense of the persona of this poem and others. The voice we hear throughout Morris’ poetry is notable for its sincerity and humility, with no pretense or affectation to be found. Other defining features of Morris’s poems are laid bare in this titular poem: sparseness and lack of ostentation, lightness of touch, and surface-level clarity with language that reveals depths of emotion and insight.

As ‘Peelin Orange’ also registers, Morris’s diction and syntax encompass standard English on the one hand and Jamaican Patwa on the other and range freely between these languages. The rhythms of his poems at times derive from another play of poetic language, between formal, metrical verse and the loosened beats of free verse. In ‘Mariners’, for example, the poem’s music is buoyed by the placement of stresses in proximate lines, the use of the line to parse phrases into discrete measures of sound (and meaning), and the deft use of rhyme. A poem that starts with a question responds with haunting refrain, and Morris employs single- syllable rhyme to further drive home the answer:

we are the sea-searchers
scaling the night
keen in the darkness
fish-eyed in light

Here, the familiar, antonymic pairing of ‘night’ and ‘light’ is rejuvenated by the poet through the surreal quality of the images in the correspondent lines.

Morris’s work is not often described as foraying into surrealism but the magical and dream-like cropped up enough across the collected poems for me to take note. This sense of rediscovering a poet’s work I thought I knew well was one of the most satisfying aspects of reading Morris’s (and Goodison’s) poems as all-of-a-piece. One of my favourite poems that honours the dream-like in its images is the strange and unnerving ‘Museum Piece,’ which opens with these lines:

The thing had wings
that flapped
flapped in the dark of the skull

The ‘dark’ that inhabits the mind here is echoed in another poem, ‘The Forest’. While not as firmly in the realm of dream, ‘The Forest’ yet relies heavily on symbol: ‘Where no bird sings. Come / flee the sunlit safety of the shore’. The figurative lexicon of both of these poems, as with ‘Mariners’, comes out of the physical world of the Caribbean – the sea, the birds, the shore. But in Morris’s poems, these images do not reflect back a sunny, idyllic version of life. Rather, they underscore the ‘dark’ that is as present as ‘light’.

As a reader and poet, I am particularly drawn to the lyric aspects of Morris’s work. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge his significant achievement in other modes, for example the sequence of dramatic monologues titled ‘On Holy Week’. Of those I was especially taken by the poem in the voice of Judas, which delivers a complex image of this maligned figure, ascribing to Judas a backstory and explanation for his betrayal of Christ. Peelin Orange also includes Morris’s searing political narratives. Poems like ‘Jamaica, 1979’, ‘Reprise’, ‘Roaches’ (through the use of allegory), ‘I am the Man’, ‘To An Expatriate Friend’ and others directly engage the political landscape of Jamaican history while affirming Morris’s reverence for the private and personal.

The subjects of Morris’s poems are reflected in the arrangement of the poems in the collection. The standard ordering of a ‘collected poems’ is chronological, but Morris arrays his as a stand-alone book of poems; groupings highlight recurrent themes. For example, one section of the book is devoted to poems on love and, in equal measures, Morris revels in the playfulness of sexual innuendo and in the more staid sort of long-term love, the kind that abides. The final section of the book confronts loss and death, offering a sequence of powerful elegies to close the entire collection. ‘The Day My Father Died’ is an especially moving poem, which ends with this insight: ‘the pain of death is living / the dead are free’. Paradox and irony resonate as well in the final words of the last poem in the book: ‘We never leave, / we always have to go’.

Family stories, public histories, evocation of place (those lived in and travelled through), and women’s lives and subjectivities have grounded Lorna Goodison’s poems over the course of her career as a poet. Reading through her collected poems provided me with a remarkable view into the way she has distilled core subjects, over forty years and across eight books. Several figures appear and then reappear in later poems/books. Some are personal to the poet – family members whose lives become encapsulated in poems and are rendered as literary characters and elevated to the level of symbol. Others are historical, mythical, or archetypal – Nanny, the mermaid, the mulatta, the ‘wild woman’, for example – whose stories are revived, made personal, and into which Goodison breathes new life.

Goodison is a brilliant storyteller as well as painterly poet, invested in image and metaphor as often as narrative conventions. This is perhaps unsurprising; she is also an accomplished painter (one of her paintings graces the cover of the book). Consider these lines from the poem, ‘Everyday Revelations’: ‘A blackbird full-stops the end of a branch / weights it into a straight line’. In Goodison’s hands, syntax and diction are precisely honed (‘full-stops’, for instance, is used in this sentence as a verb rather than noun), and take on the roles colour and texture would in a painting. Wielding language rich with sonic and linguistic surprise at almost every turn, her poems layer details from the material world and transform these into metaphors of the spirit and allegories of human experience. In this regard, Goodison is a religious poet. This is true of the many poems that are overtly devotional in nature or are in the mode of praise songs, but is also everywhere present, permeating Goodison’s field of vision as a poet.

One of her most well-known poems and the first in the book, ‘For My Mother May I Inherit Half Her Strength’, offers a portrait of the mother as a woman possessed of both strength and vulnerability. The poem is characteristic of Goodison’s general handling of portraiture – her depictions of individuals, whether ones known to her or famous men and women (painters, musicians, political leaders abound), resolve toward generosity without compromising complexity. Time and again, Goodison’s portraits expose the heart of contradictions and the contradictions of the heart.

In another of her frequently anthologised works, ‘Guinea Woman’, she renders a picture of her great-grandmother, embedding the personal narrative within the larger history of Jamaica. Specifically focused on slavery, and the racism and sexism it proliferated, the poem presents a vantage point still too-often absent from the historical record – the voice and viewpoint of black women. The closing lines of ‘Guinea Woman’ are also of note, as their prophetic diction, tone, and incantatory rhythm hearken to Goodison’s role here and in many of her other poems as griot: ‘Listen, children / it’s great- grandmother’s turn’. This notion of claiming a ‘turn’, asserting the right to tell one’s own story, underscores the power and urgency of her entire body of work. In ‘Heartease New England 1987’ for example – one of the several poems in which Goodison consciously invokes the act of writing – two lines leapt out to me as encapsulating Goodison’s artistic enterprise: ‘And I have stories too, until I tell them / I will not find release, that is my mission’.

Part of her ‘mission’ involves Goodison’s retelling of myths. ‘On Becoming a Mermaid’ is a poem in league with those by Goodison’s contemporaries, like the American poet Lucille Clifton and Irish poet Eavan Boland, which recast cultural narratives so as to question and critique their perhaps unintentionally insidious implications. In many versions of the mermaid’s tale, the mermaid is forced from her home and held captive by a mortal man or, in ‘fairy tale’ iterations, longs to be human so she may win the love of a man. In Goodison’s poem we encounter an unusual inversion: a woman, instead, is being morphed into a fish.

Through Goodison’s revision, the poem focuses our attention on the grotesque nature of the mermaid’s existence. ‘Becoming a Mermaid’ is not a beautiful but a violent transformation: her ‘sex’ is ‘locked’; she is remade as a ‘green tinged flesh/fished woman/thing’. The slashes between the modifiers ‘flesh’ and ‘fished’ and the nouns ‘woman’ and ‘thing’ signify the brutalisation of her body – a consequence of metamorphosis. The slashes also reflect her bifurcated, monstrous self. Now, she is no longer a woman unto herself but a ‘woman/thing,’ a non-subject who ‘swims with thrashing movements’ and is ‘upended,’ whose ‘sex [is] sealed forever.’ Goodison’s masterful handling of form, narrative, image, and irony in this poem exposes the disfiguring aspects of the mermaid’s tale, as with various other cultural narratives surrounding women.

In later poems Goodison’s lens often focuses on living and travelling in foreign lands. While she resists the notion of exile, preferring the term ‘sojourning’ or the phrase ‘making a life’, the backward-glancing gaze of her later work is palpable and, for this reader, especially moving. The setting of the poem ‘Guernica’ is Manhattan, but the line I’ve plucked from the poem could reference any number of other locales: ‘I confess. I looked behind as I left’, she says, the spectre of Lot’s wife hovering over this admission. Defiance, determination, even joy are still audible in the poem, but the tone of this and other newer poems is one increasingly tinged with reflection, modulated by longing.

Re-reading all of a writer’s body of work, written across the span of his or her lifetime and gathered into one volume, is a bit of a daunting task but also a thrilling one; and, with both of these books, it felt like a privilege. What was clarified in looking at Morris and Goodison’s poetry on a larger canvas is the sheer magnitude of their contributions to the canon of global poetry in English. The appearance of even one of their collected works in any given year would be a gift but to have both appear in the same year, and the year in which Morris has just finished his term as the first Poet Laureate of Jamaica and Goodison assumes that post, feels especially fortuitous, a kind of benediction and good omen – Give thanks.

Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Madwoman (Peepal Tree, 2017). Her work is widely published in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, has been translated into several languages, and has received such recognition as a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress and an NEA Poetry Fellowship. Originally from Jamaica, she lives in Pennsylvania and teaches Creative Writing & Literature at Penn State University.