Freshly remembered

By Daniel Whittall

Selected Poems, by Una Marson, ed. Alison Donnell
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-184-5231-682, 184 pp)

Una Marson

Una Marson. Photograph courtesy Erika Waters

When remembered at all today, Una Marson is most often recalled as a leading figure in the development of the BBC’s Calling the West Indies radio programme, which went on to publicise the work of many prominent post-war Caribbean writers under the name of Caribbean Voices. To the extent that Marson figures at all in the historical imagination, then, it is as a “female facilitator” for more famous male figures, as Alison Donnell writes in her introduction to this new volume of Marson’s selected poems. Yet Marson, as Donnell’s edition showcases, was herself a writer and poet of not inconsiderable talent and diversity. Combined with her role in various campaigns for women’s rights and against racism, Marson’s writings mark her out as an essential voice in Caribbean history, a figure whose neglect can no longer be justified. Peepal Tree Press has provided a much-needed service by republishing a selection of Marson’s poetry, including some previously unpublished pieces. I hope this collection will enable a critical return to Marson’s poetry and wider biography, for the themes she represents remain remarkably relevant today.

Born in 1905, the daughter of a Baptist parson in Jamaica, Marson first rose to prominence in Kingston in the 1920s as a journalist, poet, and playwright. In 1928, she became the first female editor of a Jamaican periodical when she launched The Cosmopolitan. That Marson had by this time already developed a keen sense of the importance of encouraging female achievement and accomplishment as part of her emerging feminist politics is captured in the opening editorial of the new magazine, which argued: “This is the age of woman: what man has done, women may do.” The title of the magazine itself, according to an editorial of May 1930, was intended to foster a “Cosmopolitan spirit,” understood as “a wider vision, a more charitable and tolerant attitude among all sections of our small society.”

In 1930, Marson’s first collection of poems, Tropic Reveries, was published, quickly followed in 1931 by a second volume, Heights and Depths. These years also saw the staging of her play At What a Price? in Kingston’s Ward Theatre. In 1932, Marson moved to Britain, where she stayed until late 1936, when she returned to Jamaica in a state of severe depression. She remained in her home island for two years, during which time she published a third collection of poems, The Moth and the Star (1937). In 1938, Marson travelled to London on behalf of the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, and also to engage with the Moyne Commission, then inquiring into the causes and consequences of the widespread unrest that swept the Caribbean in the 1930s. Her fourth book of poems, Towards the Stars, was published in 1945, and in 1946 — again suffering severe ill health, as a result of anxiety and depression — she returned once more to Jamaica, where she would live, with the exception of travels to the United States and Israel, until her death in 1965.

Marson’s place in the Caribbean literary tradition has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with a number of scholars turning to her in search of an archive of critical Caribbean feminist writing. Donnell herself has done much to encourage this resurgence, and deserves congratulations for securing this excellent collection of Marson’s poems. With all of Marson’s older books long out of print, these Selected Poems will be valued by anybody with an interest in the history of Caribbean poetry. However, Marson’s remarkable involvement in the global politics of the twentieth century also make her writings significant beyond the narrow confines of literary criticism.

Reading across the Selected Poems enables us to draw out Marson’s proximity to major events of the twentieth century, and the ways they impinged upon her. In the poem “He Called Us Brethren”, Marson reveals the importance of the League of Coloured Peoples to her London years. This organisation, founded by the Jamaican Dr Harold Moody in 1931, played an important role in campaigning against racism in 1930s and 40s Britain. While in London, Marson was secretary of the league, and also edited their quarterly periodical, The Keys. The poems “Winifred Holtby” and “To the I.A.W.S.E.C.” (i.e., the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship) reveal Marson’s proximity to prominent women and feminist activists, while “To Joe and Ben”, subtitled “Brutally murdered in April 1937 at Addis Ababa by the Italians”, highlights the importance to Marson of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, which prompted her to travel to Geneva to work for the Abyssinian legation at the League of Nations. “Kinky Hair Blues” and “Black Burden” explore the relationship between race and gender, with the latter poem powerfully declaring “Black girl — what a burden — / But your courage is strong.” Poems such as “They Also Serve”, “In the Darkness”, and “Frozen” all, in different ways, explore the immediate impacts of the Second World War.

The poems in The Moth and the Star — described by the American writer James Weldon Johnson in a letter to Marson as a “beautiful book” — included “Little Brown Girl”, narrated by a white Londoner reflecting on an encounter with a West Indian woman. The poem begins:

Little brown girl
Why do you wander alone
About the streets
Of the great city
Of London?

Why do you start and wince
When white folk stare at you?
Don’t you think they wonder
Why a little brown girl
Should roam about their city?
Their white, white city?

Anticipating Frantz Fanon’s later explication, in Black Skin, White Masks, of the experience of encountering the phrase “Look, a Negro,” Marson uses her poetry to explore the everyday experiences of being black in the imperial metropolis, but does so through the eyes of a metropolitan inhabitant. She offers a more complex interpretation than Fanon’s of the disjuncture brought about by the presence of colonial migrants on the streets of an imperial capital. Marson’s white Londoner is troubled by the identity of this “little brown girl,” literally struggling to place her:

And from whence are you
Little brown girl?
I guess Africa or India
Ah no, from some island
In the West Indies,
But isn’t that India
All the same?

United with other colonial peoples by the indiscriminating gaze of this bemused narrator, Marson’s “little brown girl” thus comes to represent the experiences of a broad range of colonial people marked out as racially different on entering the metropolis. The poem closes with a reflection on the gap that separates metropolitan inhabitant from colonial migrant:

Little brown girl
You are exotic
And you make me wonder
All sorts of things
When you stroll about London
Seeking, seeking, seeking.
What are you seeking
To discover in this dismal
City of ours?
From the look in your eyes
Little brown girl
I know it is something
That does not really exist.

The poem reflects on the complex process through which metropolitan identities came to be troubled by their relationship to a city which was increasingly populated by non-white people from the colonies, and further expands on these themes by relating them to the perception of colonial women as “exotic” in 1930s London. For those Londoners willing to see it, “their white, white city” — always, of course, a fictional entity — was itself being colonised, as people from afar began to “stroll about London,” searching for that “something / that does not really exist.” But Marson also gestures at the difficulties faced by black West Indian migrants themselves, coming to terms with life in a city in which they were often viewed as alien. When Marson has her narrator speak of “their . . . city” and, in the final stanza, “this . . . / City of ours,” she deploys a language of ownership which highlights the exclusion experienced by non-white people in a place marked by the operation of what became known as the “colour bar.” These themes are explored in a different register in “Quashie Comes to London”, also from The Moth and the Star, and in many ways a companion poem to “Little Brown Girl”. The narrator, a male Caribbean migrant writing to family or friends back home, explains: “I is a fool fe come / To dis lan’ of starve an’ sneeze.”

These poems are finely attuned to some very contemporary sensibilities. Their exploration of the troubled nature of gendered and racialised identities under colonialism is undoubtedly one of the reasons Marson has come to interest recent scholars of Caribbean literary history, having been marginalised for many years.

The Selected Poems gives full reign to the complexity of Marson’s poetic voice. One of the reasons for her uncertain place in Caribbean literary history must undoubtedly be the difficulty she represents for those who are prone to boxing their poets into particular aesthetic styles. Given the variety of forms in which Marson wrote, any close reading ranging across her stylistic and formal sensibilities will necessarily be insufficient. Her most interesting poems are often those in which she experiments with form. Her blues poetry, for example, is interesting both for the ways it gestures towards the relationship between black cultures in the Caribbean and the US, and for its exploration of racialised and gendered identities. In “Kinky Hair Blues”, for example, Marson uses the repetitive structure of blues poetry to draw out the inner emotional strain felt by black women in their efforts to aspire to conventional understandings of beauty:

I hate dat ironed hair
And dat bleaching skin.
Hate dat ironed hair
And dat bleaching skin.
But I’ll be all alone
If I don’t fall in.

Elsewhere, Marson also writes in an Anglo-Creole vernacular that signifies her poetic contestation of the norms of colonial society. In “Quashie Comes to London”, for example, the narrator has travelled to London “Fe see wid me own eye,” concluding that “Dere’s plenty dat is really nice / But I sick fe see white face,” while in “The Stone Breakers” Marson dissects the difficulties of a labouring life in colonial Jamaica, where “De groun’ is dat dry, / Not a ting will grow — / Massy Lard, dis life is hard.”

Such poems show Marson at her most creative and, often, her most subversive. Yet her poetry was not always so open in its exploration of race, gender, and empire, and it ranged from these experimentations in Anglo-Creole vernacular and African-American–inspired blues poetry to more formal meditations on questions of love and nature that force us to directly consider the relationship between Romanticism and African diasporic literary forms. To Marson, nature and natural beauty were of considerable importance. Such a focus can be seen to represent the cultural life of a colonial society (and a colonial education system in particular) in which European Romanticism played a central part. Yet, in the best tradition of radical Romantics like as Shelley — from whom Marson borrowed the title of her collection The Moth and the Star, and whose influence can also be read in “A Dream”, a poem from Heights and Depths not included in Donnell’s selection — Marson employed her poems on the natural world to explore questions of social injustice, as when “To the Hibiscus” expounds on the power of natural beauty to alleviate, however temporarily, the difficulties of poverty, or when she discusses the “dreary life for the beggars” and the “large slums” in the course of an exposition of the beauty of the Jamaican landscape, in the poem “In Jamaica”.

Donnell rightly opts to make the tensions within Marson’s work central to her own introduction, a well-informed overview of Marson’s life (barring her slip in calling the founder of the League of Coloured Peoples Ronald instead of Harold Moody, on page 23), with detailed critical commentary on Marson’s poetic writings. Donnell is surely right when she argues that “Marson remains a tricky figure to recover” in part because “her work is very diverse, even seemingly contradictory,” and that she continues to be sidelined because, to some critics, her work is read as “unyielding and unrewarding, even un-Caribbean.”

What Donnell calls Marson’s “poetic unevenness” often manifests itself in some of her early poems on the theme of love. These love poems, and especially a series of ten sonnets from Tropic Reveries, provide what Donnell terms “the neglected archive of an already marginalised poet.” On the few occasions when Marson has become an object of literary-critical enquiry, her love poems have often failed to fit the interpretive lenses of postcolonial and feminist critics, and have thus been put to one side. Donnell returns them to the heart of Marson’s creative oeuvre. Both in style and in content, these poems are on the face of it among the most “formal,” and thus for some critics uninteresting, of Marson’s writing. Their themes are primarily unrequited love, devotion, and female dependence. They jar awkwardly with interpretations of Marson as feminist, as when she writes the following in “Incomplete”:

For though the great wide world lay at my feet,
Without your smile my life is incomplete.

How to interpret such words, published in 1930, alongside Marson’s suggestion in The Cosmopolitan that hers is “the age of woman”? On first reading, Marson’s love poems, infused as they are with the sense of women being dependent upon men for their happiness, seem to undermine any role she might claim within the feminist tradition. But when read more closely these poems can offer other perspectives. For one, they are overtly framed from a female perspective, and thus directly confront the emotional and physical challenges that the act of loving places upon women themselves. As such, the poems begin and end with female experience, holding women at the centre and never completely giving over to the tendency towards male dominance and dependence.

For Donnell, Marson’s continuing positioning of women at the centre of her love poetry is suggestive of “the creative space that Marson crafts for woman in her structuring of romance, devotion, and emotional excess,” and gestures towards her attempt to explore the diverse forms of female fulfilment that life can bring. This does not make the poems any less challenging to confront, but rather highlights the ambiguity of Marson’s relationship to feminism and suggests that Donnell is correct in her insistence that “different social contexts and historical moments impacted profoundly upon her cultural and political sensibilities.”

Along similar lines, Marson’s poetry has been criticised for the way it mimics standard European poetic forms and content. However, her interjection of colonial tropes into her own poems suggests how Marson in fact subverts and reinterprets such forms. For example, in her love poems Marson occasionally writes of the relationship between man and woman as one of potential enslavement, most clearly in the poems “Renunciation” and “In Vain”. Again, lines such as “But not for me what I most crave / To call thee mine, — to be thy slave,” jar against any simple understanding of Marson as feminist. But in the context of poems explicitly written in European formalist terms, the injection of the relationship of enslavement into the depiction of the male-female relationship both serves to disrupt these poetic forms, to return them to a grounding in the long and violent history of the Atlantic world, and to present a complex commentary on the attitude of the modern woman towards love and dependence. Likewise, when Marson explicitly parodies canonical poetic figures, such as Shakespeare in “To Love or Not to Love” and “Education”, or Kipling in “If”, what she offers is not some simplistic mimicking of her supposed betters, but instead a reinterpretation of their writings, fitted to colonial contexts, that places these poems in the same frame as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the way they revise and reinterpret the work of leading figures in British letters.

This collection shows Marson’s poetry to be distinctly uneven — but how many poets would not suffer a similar fate when selections from their life’s work were brought together? More interestingly, these Selected Poems finely showcase the multiple poetic voices deployed by Marson to attend to her various chosen themes. In her introduction, Donnell notes her hope that the collection illustrates “the impressive range of political causes that Marson was engaged in,” while also presenting Marson as a poet whose “poetic voice [was] being pulled in many directions.” That the book does so is a testament to Donnell’s powers of selection, but also and more importantly to Una Marson’s own enduring place as a poet and a figure of historical importance.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2011

Daniel Whittall is completing a PhD dissertation titled “Creolising London: Black West Indian Activists in Britain, c. 1931–1948” in the department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He also teaches geography at Charters School, Sunningdale, England.