My Poetry Corner January 2020 features the poem “My Mother’s Blues” from the poetry collection, Pepper Seed, by British-Caribbean poet Malika Booker. Born in 1970 in London, UK, to a Guyanese father and Grenadian mother, she grew up in Guyana. At eleven years, she returned to the UK with her parents where she still lives. In June 2019, she received the Cholmondeley Award for her outstanding contribution to poetry.
Booker began writing and performing poetry while studying anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she also earned her Master of Arts degree. In 2001, she founded Malika’s Poetry Kitchen to create a nourishing and encouraging community of writers dedicated to developing their writing craft.
Finding publishers for black poetic voices took time. Her chapbook, Breadfruit, came out in 2007. It took another six years for the publication of her poetry collection, Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree Press, 2013). Well received by British literary circles, it was shortlisted for the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre prize for best first full collection published in the UK and Ireland, as well as the OCM Bocas poetry prize.
As a survivor of a verbally abusive paternal grandmother and her own broken family, Booker opens a window to the raw, hot pepper seed of Caribbean rum culture—legacy of the British colonial sugar plantation economy. Faced with sexual promiscuity, sexual abuse, and domestic violence, the three generations of women in Pepper Seed are hardened to survive the blows. This is evident in Booker’s six-part long poem “Red Ants Bite.” Booker expresses only love for her grandmother, even though she put this hard thing deep inside me.
I tried to make her love me,
but her mouth was brutal,
like hard-wire brush, it scraped me,
took skin off my bones, made me bleed
where no one could see,
so I’d shrink, a tiny rocking foetus.
Hardened by sugar plantation life, Booker’s grandmother was equally brutal to her daughters and only daughter-in-law.
My father was her everything,
my brother her world.
her daughters reaped zigar.
In part six, the poet gives voice to her deceased grandmother in response to her question: Granny, what I do to you, eh?
I lived till me turn one hundred and one,
live through back-break in backra sun.
I was a slave baby mixed with plantation white.
This creamy skin draw buckman, blackman,
coolieman, like prize. And if you did hear sweet talk,
if you did see how much fine fuck I get.
Is hard life, hard, hard life and only one son I bear.
My mother tell me to kill di girl child dem –
I was the lone woman every man want to advantage,
I had was to sharpen meh mouth like razor blade,
turn red in seconds till bad word spill blood.
Scunt-hole child, you want sorry?
I toughen you soffi-ness, mek man can’t fuck you
easy so. So fuck off, leave the dead some peace.
The way the Caribbean woman is shaped, moulded and made hard to deal with she man full of rum and carnival, unfolds in Booker’s three-part poem “Warning”:
Some great grandmother told her daughter,
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.
Booker didn’t realize how much her grandmother’s warning had toughened her until the night she invited a male friend, too drunk to drive, to sleep over.
I felt something in his look, he and I
alone in that room, and my blood raised up.
My pores swelled, I went to the kitchen,
took down that knife, marched upstairs,
told him, I cutting it off if you lose your mind.
Don’t think it and if you do, don’t sleep.
In “Waiting for Father,” the poet describes her father as a flamboyant cockerel parading in sunshine with his floozies. His shameless infidelity made my mother stony, a martyr for her kids, brittle and bitter, till my stepdad unbricked her wall…
In her 2018 conversation with British writer Hannah Silva, Booker relates how she struggled to write “My Mother’s Blues,” the final poem in the collection, in which she taps into her mother’s pain. It took her twenty-six drafts to figure it out. In presenting the poem to an audience, she came to realize its importance as a mother’s collective experience.
My mother knows pain
a sorrowful gospel type of pain –
a slowly losing her eyesight,
eye-drops every night pain,
a headache worrying for her children overseas,
praying for their safety pain,
a stare through each night, eyes blackening,
hope they are alright pain.
Yes, my mother knows pain.
Booker’s litany of pain goes on; pain that resonates deeply within me. It’s a pain without end, even when death beckons: it’s a don’t worry I go soon be dead and gone / and then you go miss me pain, the poet writes.
To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Malika Booker, go to my Poetry Corner January 2020.