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Barbados Poet Laureate Esther Phillips
Photo Credit: Peepal Tree Press (UK)


My Poetry Corner August 2022 features the poem “He Called for Momma” from the poetry collection Witness in Stone by Esther Phillips published by Peepal Tree Press (UK, 2021). Born in 1950 in the Caribbean island-nation of Barbados, she won a James Michener fellowship of the University of Miami where, in 1999, she earned an MFA degree in Creative Writing. Her poetry collection/thesis won the Alfred Boas Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets and went on to win the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award in 2001. In 2018, she was appointed as the country’s first Poet Laureate.

The poems in Witness in Stone [Footnote 1], Phillips’ fourth full-length poetry collection, are quiet and personal, often nostalgic in tone when honoring people who had played important roles during her childhood years growing up in the countryside. Her generosity of spirit shines through even in the poems that speak of the harsh reality of the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and postcolonialism that still looms large in the lives of Caribbean peoples.

In “Grandmother’s Crosses” In memory of my dear grandmother, Louise Hackett, we see a tireless and strong woman who does not flinch in her task of raising her seven grandchildren. To provide for their needs, she sells her homegrown produce in the local market.

My grandmother’s hands were full
of crosses: her seven grandchildren,
to be exact (our mother had migrated).
Gran never flinched, just waited
for the morning cloud to break,
then she was planting eddoes,
potatoes, yams, cassava,
so seven mouths would not know hunger.

Her grandmother lived to share in their triumphs as young adults: “Dey all do good with de help o’ de Lord. / I too proud of all muh pickney!” On the day of her burial, the poet thought of those / she had carried in her hands and concludes in the final verse: They say I have my grandmother’s hands. / I shape my crosses / in words.

In “Wreaths,” Phillips pays tribute to Miss Lewis, a long buried neighbor who made a wreath for every dear departed from the village using flowers she had gathered from the gardens in the village.

She weaved with patience these unspoken mementos
into her wreaths; she who had witnessed a good many births,
watched over the goings-on in the village, intervened,
as wisdom allowed, or pressed into action by another’s need.
Drax Hall Plantation Yard – Barbados 1971-1972
Photo Credit: Slavery Images / Frederick Lange

In “Drax Hall” For Mark McWatt, the poet mentions nothing of its ugly past [Footnote 2]. Instead, she shares an early memory: I must have learnt (aged eight / or nine) to love the dawn, / walking, skillet in hand, to fetch / the milk from Drax Hall Yard / where our grandfather kept his cows. The final verse speaks of the gift of those early morning walks among the stillness and quietness of Nature. How could I have known my Muse / walked with me all the way / to Drax Hall Yard / on those early mornings, / when the dawn was, itself, / my first poem? 

Phillips dedicates her poem “Stonemaster” in memory of Adam Straw Waterman (1803-1887), an African slave freed before emancipation and apprenticed to a master mason. A skilled builder, he assisted in the construction of the landmark St. John’s Parish Church. His remains are buried in the church’s graveyard.

Adam Straw Waterman Memorial – St. George’s Church – Barbados
Photo Credit: Monumental Archive Project Blog
What spirit, crossing seas and oceans,
counselled you, trained your fingers 
in the alchemy that breathes in stone? 

[…]

Speak, stones, bear witness!
Tell how the buffetings of wind
and hurricane could not destroy 
the walls still standing here 
after nearly two hundred years – 
a testament to skill, 
the craftsmanship 
of this true son of Africa!
George Floyd (1973-2020)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As a mother of two adult males, the featured poem, “He Called for Momma” In memory of George Floyd, killed in Minnesota, USA, by a white police office…, May, 2020, gripped my heart and brought me to tears. This tribute to an American man, descendant of African slaves, brings into focus the legacy of slavery in our present technologically advanced modern world. As the poet observes in “Ashford Plantation,” History’s wound still bleeding / to its last drop!

He called for Momma, and every momma of every race:
black, white, asian, hispanic, native-american,
rose up to answer the call. But one outran them all:
she and her kind were used to running
from the rabid slave hunter
vicious dogs
through the underground railway
from every street where jim crow
deemed them nothing but worthless vagabonds.

The mother remembers that she had taught her son from an early age to “Run, run. / If they catch you they’ll kill you…”

Today she hears him calling “Momma!” and she’s confused:
Where is his man’s voice? What terror could so grip him
that he is a child again?
And she’s running, running…

Until she reaches the narrow but eternal bridge she cannot cross,
and there he lies, all six foot, six of him, “I… can’t… breathe”

The national and global response to her son’s killing fills the mother with hope. One day soon, one day soon and we’re done with running.

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Barbados Poet Laureate Esther Phillips, go to my Poetry Corner August 2022.


FOOTNOTES

  1. Excerpts of cited poems from Esther Phillips’ poetry collection, Witness in Stone, published by Peepal Tree Press, U.K., 2021.
  2. Drax Hall was one of the first estates to cultivate sugar cane in Barbados in the 1650s. Built in the Jacobean style, Drax Hall plantation house is believed to be the oldest on the island. The current owner, Richard Drax, is the British MP and one of the biggest landowners in England, land bought with the profits of West Indian slavery. Sir Hillary Beckles [a Barbadian historian and current vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies] has calculated that close to 30,000 enslaved people died on the Drax plantations over nearly 200 years. (From Notes in Witness in Stone)