By F.S.J. Ledgister
Picasso, I Want My Face Back, by Grace Nichols
Bloodaxe, ISBN 978-1-85224-850-5, 64 pp
Grace Nichols. Photo by John Agard, courtesy Bloodaxe Books
Anglophone Caribbean literature is traditionally a literature of emigrants, of writers who leave their homelands to journey to London, New York, Toronto, or more exotic places to find their voices and write about their homes. Grace Nichols is certainly an emigrant. Since 1977 she has lived in Britain, and she published her first collection of poems, I Is a Long Memoried Woman (1983), there. The blurb on the back of this volume quotes a review which calls her “a strong presence in the linguistic interweave between the Caribbean and the UK.”
All very well, but what this collection is, and is very well, is the poetry of an arrivant. It is Caribbean poetry in Europe, and more about Europe and the world outside the Caribbean than it is poetry that reflects and grows from Caribbean experience. Still, it is poetry that could not have been written had it not been for the Caribbean experience, and it could not have been written without that experience. Stuart Hall tells us that the Caribbean “is the first, the original, and the purest diaspora,” and Nichols’s poetry is very much of that diaspora.
Picasso, I Want My Face Back begins with the long poem that makes up the title segment — written from the perspective of Dora Maar, née Henriette Theodora Markovitch, Picasso’s lover, muse, and subject — in which themes of colonialism, feminism, love, art, sexuality, and raw humour are interwoven with subtlety and calypsonian earthiness:
I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius, but he’s also a prick —
Medusa, Cleopatra help me find my inner bitch,
wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?
In the end, though, the artist has captured something in his art that remains although the actual woman has gone. But he has not captured the woman herself. Nor, indeed, could he:
When there is no more eye-water
When the heart has curled up
tighter than a flower or a stone —
you’ll turn to find in her
a deep and constant source.
A source of strength, clearly, and not only of tears. Nichols sees that Picasso, in portraying Dora Maar, has managed to convey the sisterhood of woman across time (the painting was made in 1937) and across the barriers of culture and race. That’s something that comes across again and again in this collection: what it is to be a woman in the world, particularly one who has been displaced.
Three poems take us to Nichols’s homeland, Guyana. The first, “Guyana Dreaming”, is dedicated to the artist Aubrey Williams, who met Picasso and whose encounter with the great man was less than prepossessing. Another, “Into the Interior”, quotes the folk song “Itanami” and its delightfully anticlimactic warning that diarrhoea could be a fate worse than death. The third, “Test Match High Mass”, places Christ himself on the pitch at Bourda as an active participant in the sacred ritual of the game:
……..he — the wicket-keeper
bearing open-palmed witness
behind the trinity of stumps.
After a brief excursion to the land of her birth, Nichols takes us on a tour of the land of her residence. The poem “Framing the Landscape” plunges us straight into winter with metaphors that combine religion and fairy-tale in a way that accentuates the cold and makes the reader visualise the snow the poet sees as she passes through the landscape in her railway carriage, and feel the same wish for tropical relief that she does. Trains feature in other poems as well. Her connection to Britain seems to be by the rhythm of the railway line. It is on a train that she reads the poetry of the Welshman R.S. Thomas, and that clergyman’s meditations fill her eyes with tears and her mind with a sense of what it is to be human. A train takes her away from Hull —
the forceful ghost
— on a journey that seems to connect us not just to the estuary “of the Hull and the Humber” but to the West Indies, where Wilberforce’s ghost is as full of force as it is in his native city.
Humanity is a central concern. She sees it in the mourning of the curator of the Baghdad Museum sitting among the ruins. She sees it in Edvard Munch’s celebrated painting of a screaming man. She sees it in Ophelia’s decision to kill herself. She finds it, in both sublime and absurd aspects, visiting the Taj Mahal.
There is a poem, “Advice on crossing a street in Delhi”, that is just that: advice on crossing a street in Delhi. It throws the reader into the humour and terror of the experience:
If stranded in the middle of the road
become a sacred cow with gilded horns
adopting the inner stillness of the lotus posture.
Let honking cars, rickshaws, lorries,
swarm or fly around you.
The closing section of the book, “Laughing Woman”, blends religion, myth, sensuality, and humour in interesting ways. It includes a poem containing one of the best creation myths I’ve ever encountered: the universe began not with a big bang but with a “Big Giggle”, until, in a nicely layered play on words, “the whole shebang exploded into fits.”
This is, as I said above, the poetry of an arrivant. We see this in language that manages to make traditional concerns present but not central. We see this in diction moving from purely West Indian (“Dis is high mass. Dis is Bourda.” Not to mention the quoted lines from the folk-song “Itanami”) to English of the English (“But I can see his bum, Mummy” and “a box of chocs on Valentine’s night”) without any sense of discomfort, or any feeling that the poet ought to be doing one or the other but not both. Nichols feels no discomfort, either, in addressing classical Western mythology in the poem “Let us not forget Baubo” in the “Laughing Woman” section. We do not lose the sense that she is a Caribbean writer, but she has no problem whatsoever in appropriating the heritage of Europe and seeing it as belonging to her.
I approach Nichols with a certain diffidence, because she is a writer of my own generation, and, like myself, a person in between worlds. In such a place it is far too easy to stake a defensive position, or to be caught in the trap of nostalgia. Nichols has done neither. These are poems that are about being a woman, and confronting the world with wisdom, sense, and humour. An Afro-Guyanese woman daring to speak in the voice of a European woman because both are outsiders, both are othered — and comfortable, indeed successful, in doing so. Nichols bridges the Atlantic, with humane laughter that tells us love must be stronger than fear.
F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.