Making life

By Edward Baugh

Controlling the Silver, by Lorna Goodison
University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-07212-X, 99 pp

Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison. Photograph courtesy Bernd Böhner

In the poem “Making Life”, Lorna Goodison, who teaches at the University of Michigan, is asked by one of her American students, who meets her on a snowbound street, “Lorna, how can you live in exile?” The student is still flushed with the “afterglow of Negril” at “spring break.” He can’t understand how anyone born into such a paradise could leave it. The answer begins with what sounds a bit like rationalisation of her personal motive for leaving. But then the poem widens, as the poet considers herself part of the historical journeying and migration of her people, and the main point of the reply is that “we never call ourselves exiles,” even if we never return. We regard our time abroad as merely a sojourn, and “We see our sojournings as ‘making life’.” No doubt there are exceptions; no doubt there are those who knowingly “shake the dust,” but the generalisation remains intact.

This Jamaican expression, “making life,” constitutes and affirms a variation on a standard global phenomenon. By acting out the transformation of “exile” into “making life,” the poem represents the creative capacity of a people, their capacity for “making” something of circumstance, necessity, and lack, as in another Jamaican saying, “turn you hand make fashion.” A poem like this one directs us to the fact that one of Goodison’s achievements is that her poetry inscribes the Jamaican sensibility and culture on the text of the world, and this is no small achievement. Up to now, I considered her 1995 collection To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (and the very title-statement illustrates my point), I considered that collection above all others her “book of Jamaica,” to borrow Russell Banks’s title. But now Controlling the Silver stakes a strong claim. Despite the physical separation, she never really left; heart and imagination were always home.

This centring force in Goodison’s poetry is announced in the poem that opens the collection, “Island Aubade”. The aubade is a traditional European kind of poem, a dawn poem or morning song. The word “island” in Goodison’s title signals her Caribbean appropriation of the aubade, an appropriation confirmed in the very first line, with its Jamaican expressions for dawn or the time just preceding it: “Before day morning, at cockcrow and firstlight.” She evokes daybreak not by way of landscape description, but in terms of the stirrings, the labour, and the sleep of people, Goodison people: the “fisherman who toiled all night and caught trash,” the “faithful night watchman,” “the farmer [who] turns in the sleep that is sweet, / a labouring man’s sleep,” his “woman / [who] will give suckle to [her] drowsing infant,” and also the lonely, another of the subjects of Goodison’s special attention — “the choir mistress / who sleeps alone,” but who now “raises a revival hymn over the yard” as she opens her jalousies. Note, this is a tenement yard. It is characteristic of Goodison that her dawn poem is a people poem, a ritual of community and responsibility.

The choir mistress’s hymn invokes “our Lady of Second Chance, / the Mother of Morning who invites all visitors.” In its second half, the poem is deepened by an autobiographical dimension. Mother Morning “has become [the poet’s own] mother, bringer of curing / bush tea.” But this personal dimension works in reciprocal relationship with the communal, for the poet’s mother, “grandmother to Miles [her son], mountain-born,” “is now mother to the whole island.” Morning, like the poet’s mother, brings nurture and strength, a second chance to the hungry, the weary, the faltering. The poet draws on her own past, when she was a young mother awaking to new mornings with her son. This return to the past is an aspect of reconnection with roots. The poem ends with the resolve: “Going to bathe in the family river cousin, / we need to go back to where our people come from.” That last line may no doubt be read in more ways than one. With “Island Aubade”, Goodison claims, reclaims her island, and appropriately opens the book of her island.

Family river, mother, cousin — “Island Aubade” also announces the book’s extension, in some of the poems, of Goodison’s recurrent celebration of the idea of family and ancestry as an important aspect of identity and self-location. “Excavating”, with its Old Testament recital of lineage, is definitive:


the long line of David and Margaret,
disinterring evidence of the stillborn
who did not draw breath at begetting time.

Which begins with Nana Frances Duhaney of Guinea
and William Henry Harvey of England, who wed
and begat Tom, Fanny, Mary and David

Harvey, he who wed Margaret, progeny
of Leanna Sinclair also of Guinea and George O’Brian
Wilson of Ireland. This is how we come to come from

the long-lived line of David and Margaret,
who begat Cleodine, Howard, Edmund,
Alberta, Flavius, Edmund, Rose, Doris

and Ann. And I am from Doris, and Joan
she was from Ann, but it was like we were
daughters of one woman. Come in cousin,
from the cold . . .

We have met some of these people before, in earlier Goodison books — Leanna, Alberta, and Rose, not to mention Doris; but one new lode of ore is this cousin, who features in some of the poems. She seems to have emigrated early and lived in Calgary. She has died. “Dear Cousin” is an elegy for her. It ends, interestingly enough, with another image of excavation, recollecting the time when, “at age seven,”

………..………………..Under the damp, dirt cellar
Of the Harvey house [the two girls] exhumed porcelain
bowl shards, buttons of bone, blank-stare dolls
with decayed bodies, and nacred spoons [they] used
as earth-moving tools for finding Harvey roots.

Incidentally, we notice the cumulative alliteration on the “b” sound: “bowl shards, buttons of bone, blank-stare dolls / with decayed bodies” — suggesting the children’s excitement at the burgeoning of treasure they dig up. This is just one small, obvious example of the many details of craft that await us in the poet’s well-managed blending of a natural speaking voice with a formal discipline.

Goodison’s engagement with the idea of family is deepened in this collection by her facing up to the pain and trials of family, and to the “gravaliciousness” and envy that sometimes split families. “The Burden Bearer” is for Carmen, whose “hair uncombed / sprouts like fronds of a palm tree,” and who “curses our mother / for the fall from a vehicle while carrying her. / For the deep cut to her brain which festers / and erupts, testing our house’s foundations.” “O Pirates Yes They Rob I” (from Bob Marley’s “Old pirates yes they rob I” — “Redemption Song”) records the hurt of how one’s own “capturer cousins” “in a great land grab / have claimed the ancestral Harvey house / and levelled it.”

Those of us who have followed Goodison’s career, book by book, will be able to pat ourselves on the back as we spot continuities and progressions. So, for instance, to the cast of Kingston street characters in To Us, All Flowers Are Roses is now added Mamud (“Whatever Became of Mamud?”), “the Michelin tyre woman / wearing a Makonde mask face . . .”:

whose stomach housed
whole schools of mullets swimming
upstream to gastric tides of coconut oil.

Even as we laugh at her as a figure of fun, beyond the pale of normality, the poem makes her command a kind of respect, a recognition of her personhood in her extravagance.

The authority of Jamaican food in Jamaican folkways is also recognised in “Hard Food”, which recalls “Nayga Bikkle”, another poem in To Us, All Flowers Are Roses. “Hard Food” is about the Jamaican tradition of women generously and happily carrying copious amounts of Jamaican food, cooked and uncooked, for relatives and friends when they travel overseas, and about how the recipients take it for granted that the food will come, and even request or demand it. The poet’s mother was one such bountiful carrier, and the poem ends with the poet finding herself (to her surprise?) continuing the tradition: “On my way to Calgary / with a bag of hard food, mother I’ve become you.” We flash back to her famous poem “I Am Becoming My Mother”.

There are poems about the jazz masters John Coltrane and Charles Mingus that continue a Goodison signature line which reaches back a quarter of a century to Tamarind Season. The Mingus poem, like a few other poems in the book, comes out of her long-ago sojourn in New York as an art student. That time was evoked in a handful of poems in Tamarind Season, notably “New York Is a Subway Stop — 1969”, an impressionistic mood piece, which captured a youthful, heady response to the glitz of the big city. The New York poems in Controlling the Silver go deeper, more searchingly into her experience of the city at that time, as if it took all these years for these dimensions to articulate themselves. “Arriving at the Airport Once Called Idlewild” sums up how things and ways of seeing change, irrevocably. In a deft manoeuvre, the horror of 9/11, introduced almost as an aside in the middle of the poem, becomes the axis of it, as the poet, remembering her youthful days in Manhattan, reflects “How the great city showed me man-made beauty, / skyscrapers solid as blue and green mountains, / towers now replaced by beams of blue light.”

In another characteristic Goodison mode, there are a few poems that both rewrite and write back to a seemingly innocent colonising text, the Royal Primer she used at school as a child. “Cute,” exotic child figures from that book — “Bombo, who lived in the Congo” (“Lessons Learned from the Royal Primer”), “Hirfa of Egypt”, and “Tuktoo the Little Eskimo” (“What of Tuktoo the Little Eskimo?”) — are liberated, with typical Goodison wit, from the trap of the “othering” gaze.

Goodison is practised at the “talk-back” poem. In “Black Like This?” she takes on “the girl in the great house who cried / as her nurse bathed her / ‘if you touch me I might turn black’.” “Remittance Man” puts down a white, expatriate theatre critic who made Jamaica his home, but who could praise Jamaican actors only by seeing them as approximations of English models. True to herself and to history, Goodison excavates the buried stories of the women, their names lost, who nurtured a people and were crucial in the making of a heritage. She raises a praise-song for “our foremothers obscure” in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Women”, a riposte to the biblical-patriarchal “Let us now praise famous men . . .” The title poem praises the legendary “market women [and] higglers, / who maintain our solid, hidden economy / in soft money banks between full breasts.” “So Who Was the Mother of Jamaican Art?” celebrates “the first nameless woman who created / images of her children sold away from her,” who “learned her art by breaking / hard rockstones,” and who “did not sign her work.”

Then, as always, there is Goodison’s linguistic resourcefulness and expertise, sliding between Standard English and Jamaica talk, while speaking in her own voice. In “Where the Flora of Our Village Came From”, which brings back to mind “To Us, All Flowers Are Roses” (from the collection of the same title), she suggests the distinctive cultural flavour of Jamaica in the linguistic variety and varied geographical and ethnic origins of Jamaican plants. The last stanza of “Where the Flora of Our Village Came From” reads:

Coffee, kola, ackee, yams, okra, plantain, guinea grass,
tamarind seeds and herbs of language to flavour English;
those germinated under our tongues and were cultured
within our intestines during the time of forced crossings.

In Goodison’s work, English is flavoured and extended by fresh “herbs of language,” whether from the Jamaican lexicon or from her own strikingly inventive coinages. So the trees in which cattle egrets roost are their “kotch-hotels,” and we inhale the “doctor-vapour” of a curative bush tea, and recite a “struggle-up mantra.” Christopher Columbus and his men become “Don C and the Goldman Posse”. Renaming in this way immediately demystifies them and symbolically demolishes the historical power structure. What is more, Goodison does not “less-count” (undervalue) her herb-words by enclosing them in inverted commas, and it even seems worthy of remark, and an achievement, that there is no concession of a glossary.

The poems speak for themselves. There are some seventy-five in this book. It’s a feast. What is more, there’s the “brawta,” or “lanyap,” as usual, of a Goodison painting on the cover.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2006

Edward Baugh is emeritus professor of English at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and his second collection, It Was the Singing, was published in 2000. His book-length study of Derek Walcott in the Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature series will be published in 2006.