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Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020)
Photo Credit: Pan American World Magazine (Photo by Hugh Wright)

My Poetry Corner November 2020 features the poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” from the 1995 poetry collection, To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, by Jamaica’s second Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020) and the first female to receive this honor. The eight of nine children, six boys and three girls, she was born in 1947 in Kingston, capital of the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica. She grew up in a lower-middle-class family on a noisy street with concrete yards. No roses grew in the neighborhood gardens of potted plants, so the people gave the name roses to all their flowers.

The hymns the young Lorna sang during Sunday Mass at the Anglican Church laid the foundation for her poetry. In her interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama for the Image Journal, Goodison recalled that her mother sung hymns as she did her household chores. “In the Jamaica I grew up in,” she told him, “it seemed to me that women sang hymns all the time—washing, doing chores, working—so it was all around me, that language.”

That language of the great composers of Anglican hymns shines through in the opening poem of her third book of poetry, Heartease (1988), in which the persona declares:

 I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart
 which shall not be put out.
 By the illumination of that candle
 exit death and fear and doubt
 here love and possibility
 within a lit heart, shining out. 

Goodison’s trips in her youth to the lush rural landscapes, to visit her extended family, shaped her imagination for the rest of her life. Though she began writing poems from seven or eight years old, she kept them a secret. Growing up in the shadow of her oldest sister who excelled in writing, she questioned her poetic gift and opted instead to focus on painting, her other passion. Then, at fifteen years old, tragedy struck. Her father, who had brought humor and laughter into their lives, passed away.

“It was terrible watching him die of stomach cancer, and maybe brought on a loss of faith, but that was when I really turned to painting and reading and writing poetry,” Goodison told Tuama. “So I guess the arts became my religion, and I’d consider that good religion because I felt connected, I felt cleansed and healed by poetry and painting and music.”

On completing high school, she worked for a year as a bookmobile trainee librarian with the Jamaica Library Service. She traveled deep into rural areas, where small humble places like Heartease, became mythic and real, strengthening her connection with place that runs through her poetry. Deciding to pursue a career in art, she studied painting at the Jamaica School of Art (1967-1968), and then moved to New York City to attend the Art Students’ League (1968-1969).

Her poem “Who Was the Mother of Jamaican Art?” from her 2005 poetry collection, Controlling the Silver, was inspired by an article about enslaved women making carvings of human figures representing their children sold to other plantation slave owners.

 She was the first nameless woman who created
 images of her children sold away from her.
 She suspended those wood babies from a rope
 round her neck, before she ate she fed them,
 touched bits of pounded yam and plantains
 to sealed lips; always urged them to sip water.
 She carved them of heartwood, teeth and nails
 were her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.
 Her spit cleaned face and limbs, the pitch oil
 of her skin burnished. When the woodworms
 bored into their bellies, she warmed castor oil;
 they purged. She learned her art by breaking
 hard rockstones. She did not sign her work. 

While Goodison considered herself as an artist, she never stopped writing poetry. But poetry chose her. “It’s a dominating, intrusive tyrant,” she said in an interview for the Guardian newspaper, as quoted in The Walrus Magazine. “It’s something I have to do—a wicked force.”

Many of Goodison’s poems speak of ordinary women, their struggles and the many roles they play. Her country’s traumatic past of colonialism and slavery permeates the people and the landscape. The featured poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” addresses Jamaica’s violence and poverty, legacy of empire. In the first of her six-stanza poem, the poet invokes the untold stories of slavery, kept hidden by empire, that need to be told.

 Mother, one stone is wedged across the hole in our history
 and sealed with blood wax.
 In this hole is our side of the story, exact figures,
 headcounts, burial artifacts, documents, lists, maps
 showing our way up through the stars; lockets of brass
 containing all textures of hair clippings.
 It is the half that has never been told,
 and some of us must tell it. 

These untold stories, she writes in the second stanza, live on through generations, like the stone on the hearts of some women and men, preventing the small / dreamers of this earth from healing. But there is yet another obstacle destroying their future, raised in the third stanza, that mothers want removed as we think of our children and the stones upon their future. In the following fourth stanza, the poet describes the poisonous stone, born of hunger, that drives the violence in their communities and kill their children.

 For the year going out came in fat at first
 but toward the harvest it grew lean,
 and many mouth corners gathered white
 and another kind of poison, powdered white
 was brought in to replace what was green,
 And death sells it with one hand
 and with the other death palms a gun
 then death gets death’s picture
 in the paper’s asking
 “where does all this death come from?” 

Driven by the drug trade, death comes to a people already broken by the legacy of slavery and colonialism. As the poet notes in the fifth stanza, narcotics become the soup and meat for its users, leaving the homeless to sleep on concrete sheets. In her call to action in the final stanza, the poet links the great stones of the past with the present and the future.

 Mother, the great stones over mankind got to move,
 It’s been ten thousand years we’ve been watching them now
 from various points in the universe.
 From the time of our birth as points of light
 in the eternal coiled workings of the cosmos.
 Roll away stone of poisoned powders come
 to blot out the hope of our young.
 Move stones of the sacrificial lives we breed
 to feed to suicide god of tribalism.
 From across the pathway to mount morning
 site of the rose quartz fountain
 brimming anise and star water
 bright fragrant for our children’s future
 Mother these great stones got to move. 

Poverty, drug addiction, gang violence, and homelessness are not just the scourges of the Jamaican people. They afflict all humans worldwide. For the sake of our children’s future, mothers must remain vigilant and work tirelessly to remove these scourges from our communities.  

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Lorna Goodison, go to my Poetry Corner November 2020.