Country of want
By Jane King
This Strange Land, by Shara McCallum
(Alice James Books, ISBN 978-1-882295-86-9, 80 pp)
Shara McCallum. Photograph courtesy the author
Shara McCallum’s third book of poems packs a lot of story into a remarkably small number of words. A quick scan suggests a Jamaican who has migrated to the United States, and the question with which I started reading was: which land is the strange one? Somewhere, a poem (the first poem, actually, in its last stanza) tells me that it is America which is the strange land — in a slightly predictable reference to singing the Lord’s song in it — but the impression that I have as I read is that the really strange place is Jamaica: a place of childhood fairytales and violence, and personal horror and grief.
A book with a lot of white space in it. Economical poems that don’t deal much in fancy music or metaphor, but which offer small hard-biting bits of fact, or ask puzzling questions, and make sad speculations. Sparse little poems, an economy of language almost prosaic, yet such a rich story told in these little snippets. Jamaica in the 1970s. The middle-class exodus in the era before the “gunmen . . . have been replaced by dons” (“Psalm for Kingston”). They do range through Jamaica’s political misery — “153 dead — and fi what? Fi win election?” (“Miss Sally on the Grandmother Fires”) — and the possible reasons for that misery:
Mummy and Daddy said slavery
was the root; Granny said it was the youth,
killing each other, running wild in the streets.
But the main focus of This Strange Land is the story of a family, four generations of women, from the persona’s grandmother to her own children. All daughters:
From my grandmother’s line
eleven girls have descended, no boys
(“From the Book of Mothers”)
And the poem “History is a Room” takes an old-fashioned look at the role of women:
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.
Jamaica in this collection is a place of memory rather than a present reality. Jamaica is the shapes and smells and colours of the poet’s childhood, a childhood full indeed of strangeness, fear, and loss the poet fears to transmit to her own children. A note at the end of the book explains that the poet was born in 1972, and left Jamaica in 1981:
I emigrated from Jamaica to the US on the day of Marley’s funeral. My parents, both Rastafarians, were attending Marley’s funeral as my younger sisters and I left the island with our maternal grandmother.
Not ten years old, and the poet leaves the “city of [her] birth”:
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! —
where they paid weekly dues, saving for our passages back to Africa,
while in their beds my grandparents slept fitfully, dreaming of America.
Small wonder, then, that the tone of the collection is abandonment, and the recollections of Jamaica those of a child. The Anancy stories. The market, which, oddly, contains a market-person who seems to have strayed in from a French Creole-speaking country, and calls, “come, dou-dou . . .” The school uniforms. And the worries of the grandparents and the grandchildren, the power cuts, the hunger, the gunmen.
The child leaves, but is really the one who is abandoned. As in the stark apparent factualness of “Palisadoes”, in which the poet tells the story of a girl who, with her grandmother and her younger sisters, left Jamaica the year “Marley’s cancer dismantled his body,” of that girl’s father’s schizophrenia and imminent suicide, his body “days later . . . found in a field, overdosed on pills.” That morning, the girl’s “mother crept out of the house before dawn,” and the poet wonders:
Did her grandmother’s hands,
packing and searching for passports,
erase her mother’s kisses,
placed on sleeping eyelids?
Poor grandmother: is she the one who wrenched reluctant children from their loving parents, dragged young Jamaicans to the strange land of the United States, or were there really no maternal kisses placed on those innocent sleeping eyelids? The mother joins the children in the States one year later, we learn in the same poem, but the tone of a life is set.
The sea appears in poem after poem, depicted as a fearful entity that swallows up everything one tries to hold on to — mostly, the mother. She is frequently a mermaid, a “mermammy,” one who ignores the pleas of her children and escapes into the water, leaving them bereft on the shore. The story is a wonderfully told small nightmare:
…………………………………………………………………………………. . . In
Port Antonio, the children walk behind their mother, peep-peep, cluck-cluck. . .
. . . but the mother is getting further ahead . . .
. . . No Mummy. Please don’t go . . .
. . . The children, howling, clench eyes shut; only the trees witness
what happens next. Only they see the mother’s perfect dive into the
the sliver of water opening to take her back.
The father is the one whose death certificate bears the word “suicide, a word fading over time,” but it is the mother’s abandonment that shapes the life of the girl who will always be twisting and swivelling “to catch a last glimpse of home,” who
From this point forward . . . will want
a dark flecked by stars and wind;
dirt roads where mermammy wanders
In “Couple at the Shore”, the woman tries to shut out the sea, but no matter what she does, she is “submerged.” “The sea / will not let her forget.”
It is, of course, men (perhaps especially schizophrenic, suicidal fathers) who make mothers forget their children. Though storms move “across the island / like a woman feverishly dusting,” the persona’s mother tries desperately to offer
the simplest gesture: a gift for my father,
for this home she is trying to make.
And grief, such a dominant note in this collection, is portrayed as something that has to be forgiven, in a harrowing poem which asks someone — us? — to
Forgive the child, dead in her arms,
for running into the path of a bullet . . .
Forgive the mother, sending him to the shop . . .
Forgive the ground for absorbing his blood . . .
Forgive the mother’s mouth, the wail
lodged in her throat, the groveling eyes . . .
(“Mother and Child”)
Mothers. Motherhood. Three of the poems are titled “My Mother as Narcissus”, “My Mother as Penelope”, “My Mother as Persephone” — why all these attempts to understand a mother already portrayed as seriously flawed? Because, in the end, we understand that our mother is the person from whom we learned mothering. And, finally, attempting mothering ourselves, we see her flaws when we look in the mirror. “From the Book of Mothers” tries to understand this. On page fifty-six:
Mother, I am the dark in your eye.
On page sixty:
Daughter, I am the dark in your eye.
Her own mother appears to her dangerous and devouring:
Dark Mother, you appear to me
as mad. Mistress of blood, death . . .
But Motherhood is understood as “the country of want, of want, of want.” “From the Book of Mothers” perhaps epitomises this collection, exploring the misery of motherhood and the misery of childhood — particularly daughterhood. The dai is instructed that when delivering a girl child, she should
For eighty cents more
take the newborn child
hold her by the waist
turn her upside down
give a sharp jerk
to snap the spinal cord
Grim, grim stuff. Because “each woman / is within herself mother and daughter, bound / by the same spell.” And though the little girl children are loved and adorned with “tiny bangles” and little gold earrings, there is still a sense that the girl child’s lot is misery and abandonment, which she is condemned in her turn to repeat. At least the persona can finally make peace with her own mother:
I barely knew you when you called.
Now, when it is too late
I want to tell you I am a mother
And think I understand something
more of grief’s depths. I am a mother
like but also not like you. My friend
(may I call you this in death?)
my child’s throat I
lean toward to kiss.
So there is some possibility of redemption. The mater dolorosa in a “storey / that wants to go on without end.” Why is a story always a “storey” in this book? For the edifice made up of four and more generations of women who may be condemned to estrangement and misunderstanding, and the repeating of each other’s mistakes?
In “History is a Room”, the persona tries to love and protect her children, scattering rice grains under their beds “to keep duppy at bay,” putting “worry dolls” under their pillows “to ensure their peaceful sleep.” But there is a sense that these female arts — in any case, worryingly, arts learned from the same female forebears who failed this generation of mothers — will never be able to prevail against the masculine weapons which are making the History outside the rooms the mother tries to protect. In each “storey,” the women are doubly helpless, powerless to prevent themselves from passing on with their toxic kisses the maternal neglect that tortures each succeeding generation, powerless also to affect “History,” the masculine power structures that go on outside the houses where the women run things. Masculine History also seeps in and corrupts the children:
History is recounted by children in nursery rhymes, beauty masking its own violence.
Perhaps there is no redemption after all.
Jane King is a St Lucian poet, author of two collections: Into the Centre (1993) and Fellow Traveller (1994). Her poetry has also appeared in several anthologies in the United Kingdom, and literary magazines in the United States. She is dean of the division of arts, science, and general studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in St Lucia.