Living words

By Nicholas Laughlin

Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems, by Lorna Goodison
Carcanet Press, ISBN 1-85754-848-5, 124 pp

Lorna Goodison’s latest volume of poetry combines selections from her previous two collections, Travelling Mercies (2001) and Controlling the Silver (2005; reviewed by Edward Baugh in the February 2006 CRB), with twenty new poems. The poems in Goldengrove are full of flowers, dreams, names, songs, and relics of a Jamaica that only recently passed into memory. These poems are also, in a sense, full of poems.

Where I come from,
old women bind living words
across their flat chests,
inscribe them on their foreheads,
and in the palms of their hands.

The binding of “living words” recurs in these pages. Readers who “have the eye” will see that, like the old women of “Where I Come From”, Goodison weaves powerful charms, sometimes for safe passage through life (or death), or to hold and keep, or to soothe.

Goodison’s poems often celebrate the act of creation, in many forms and guises. Essie the dressmaker in “I Come From a Land” can “sew to fit all sizes.” The chemist in “Balm” blends his magic oils for the aid of the lovestruck. Even migration, in “Windrush Sankey”, is defiantly creative. And in the sequence “On Leaving Goldengrove”, inspired by a nineteenth-century narrative, the unnamed narrator describes his apprenticeship to a “master of five trades” named Cassamere, who, in a kind of artistic alchemy, uses his practical skills —

. . . this one man is a restorer and scene
painter, fireworks maker, liquor blender,
a baker and confectioner, besides being
Kingston city’s tip top dancing master

— to astonish, inspire, and illuminate the people around him. The climax of his achievements is a fireworks show that pours light down upon the citizenry:

That night Kingstonians went home to tenements,
lay down to sleep, and the ancestors dreamed them,
blessed and assured them, that what they had seen
was but a glimpse of the paradise waiting for them.

Derek Walcott asks, “What is the rare quality that has gone out of poetry that these marvellous poems restore? Joy.” Goodison’s poems offer also what is even more rare: grace.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2006

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.