My Poetry Corner August 2021 features the poem “W for Workers” from the 2021 poetry collection, Pandemic Poems: First Wave, by Jamaica’s third Poet Laureate Olive Senior (2021-2024). Since 1993, the award-winning poet, novelist, short story and non-fiction writer has made Toronto, Canada, her home. She returns frequently to the Caribbean which remains central to her work.
The seventh of ten children, the Poet Laureate was born in 1941 in the wild mountainous landscape in the interior of Jamaica. The child of peasant farmers, the young Olive enjoyed a better, though solitary, life as the only child in the home of a wealthy and cosmopolitan great uncle and great aunt who encouraged her love for reading and writing.
After winning a scholarship to attend the prestigious Montego Bay High School for Girls, Olive embarked on a career in journalism. At nineteen, she joined the staff of The Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s major newspaper located in Kingston. She soon won a scholarship to study journalism at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff, Wales. Later, while attending the Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, she began writing fiction and poetry. She returned to Jamaica where, in 1982, she joined the Institute of Jamaica as editor of the Jamaica Journal, a magazine that promotes the history and culture of the Caribbean Island nation.
In the summer of 2020, between May and September, when the Covid-19 pandemic transformed our lives, Senior began writing pandemic poems and posting them on her Twitter and Facebook pages “as a way of keeping [her]self engaged and not falling into depression.” Each of the 71 poems in her collection Pandemic Poems: First Wave is “a riff on a word or phrase trending at the period.” This pandemic lexicon has since become a part of our new normal.
My Poetry Corner February 2021 features the poem “Islands” from the poetry collection, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, by the Caribbean poet and historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020). Born in Bridgetown, Barbados, into a middle-class family, he won a British scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1953 and gained a diploma in education the following year.
Brathwaite’s illusions of regarding himself as a British citizen were shattered on arrival in the Mother Country. He felt “rootless” and, like other British colonial West Indians of the time, he was ready to become an “Afro-Saxon.” This changed when he took a job as an Education Officer in Ghana, then the West African colony of the Gold Coast. For him, it was a spiritual homecoming. The eight years (1955 to 1962) that he spent travelling to villages across the country also expanded his thinking about history, culture, and ways of perceiving the world.
On returning to the Caribbean, he held teaching posts at the University of the West Indies, first in St. Lucia, and then in Kingston, Jamaica. While working in Jamaica, he began writing Rights of Passage, his first poetry collection, later published in 1967. Set in the Caribbean, the collection traces the movement of the black people’s dispossession of their African homeland, the sufferings of the Middle Passage and slavery, and struggle to find their footing in the new world and beyond. The people lament in “New World A-Comin’”:
It will be a long time before we see
this land again, these trees
again, drifting inland with the sound
of surf, smoke risingIt will be a long time before we see
these farms again, soft wet slow green
again: Aburi, Akwamu,
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 heartwhich shall not be put out.[…]By the illumination of that candleexit death and fear and doubthere love and possibilitywithin 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 createdimages of her children sold away from her.She suspended those wood babies from a roperound her neck, before she ate she fed them,touched bits of pounded yam and plantainsto sealed lips; always urged them to sip water.She carved them of heartwood, teeth and nailswere her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.Her spit cleaned face and limbs, the pitch oilof her skin burnished. When the woodwormsbored into their bellies, she warmed castor oil;they purged. She learned her art by breakinghard 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 historyand sealed with blood wax.In this hole is our side of the story, exact figures,headcounts, burial artifacts, documents, lists, mapsshowing our way up through the stars; lockets of brasscontaining 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 firstbut toward the harvest it grew lean,and many mouth corners gathered whiteand another kind of poison, powdered whitewas brought in to replace what was green,And death sells it with one handand with the other death palms a gunthen death gets death’s picturein 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 nowfrom various points in the universe.From the time of our birth as points of lightin the eternal coiled workings of the cosmos.Roll away stone of poisoned powders cometo blot out the hope of our young.Move stones of the sacrificial lives we breedto feed to suicide god of tribalism.From across the pathway to mount morningsite of the rose quartz fountainbrimming anise and star waterbright fragrant for our children’s futureMother 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.
Front Cover: Providential: Poems by Colin Channer
Photo Credit: Akashic Books
My Poetry Corner October 2018 features the poem “Clan” from the poetry collection, Providential, by Colin Channer, a novelist and poet born in Kingston, Jamaica. At eighteen, upon completion of high school, he migrated to New York to pursue a career in journalism. He earned a B.A. in Media Communications from Hunter College of the City University of New York. Father of two, he currently lives in New England.
When Channer was six years old, his father, a policeman, left the family, forcing his mother to work two jobs. After her daytime job as a pharmacist at a local hospital, she worked nights in a drugstore. Channer’s collection explores the violence of policing that ruined his father, their fractured relationship, and the challenges of being a better father to his own teenage son.
Channer’s teenage years contrasts with that of his American-born son. In his poem “Mimic,” he observes his son, born with the ears of a mimic:
Makonnen, Brooklyn teenager with Antillean roots replanted in Rhode Island, a state petiter than the country where my navel string was cut.
After guiding his son through the roots of the civil war in Liberia – founded on the coast of Guinea / by ex-chattel – Channer reflects on his kinsmen in Jamaica.
How theydiscuss a slaughter with ease, by rote, never as something spectacular, absurd. And I belong to them, on two sides, for generations, by blood.