Lorna Goodison Essay - Critical Essays

Goodison, Lorna


Lorna Goodison 1947-

(Born Lorna Gaye Goodison) Jamaican poet, short-story writer, and illustrator.

Many critics consider Goodison one of the finest contemporary anglophone Caribbean writers. Her poems often focus on such women's issues as sexuality, equality, love, and motherhood. In her poems she also writes about racial issues and the plight of the downtrodden. Goodison blends different dialects, or codes (Standard Jamaican English, Jamaican Creole, and Dread Talk), from her native Jamaica, using them interchangeably, sometimes all three in one line of poetry. Scholars have noted that this use of dialects gives her poetry depth and many layers of meaning.

Biographical Information

Goodison was born in 1947 in Kingston, Jamaica, on August 1—the Jamaican Emancipation Day, on which the abolition of slavery is celebrated. The eighth of nine children in a lower-middle-class family, Goodison grew up on a noisy street in a home with a concrete yard. This environment stimulated Goodison's love for the Jamaican rural countryside. She graduated from St. Hugh's High School and, after a year of working in the countryside in the Jamaican Library Services bookmobile, she attended the Jamaica School of Art, where she showed promise in writing and in painting. She then traveled to New York City to attend the Art Students' League. She returned to Jamaica a year later and held various jobs, such as promotional consultant, creative writing teacher, artist, art teacher, and cultural administrator. She married Jamaican radio personality Don Topping in 1972, but divorced in 1978. In 1980, she gave birth to her son, Miles Goodison Fearon, named after Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter. In this same year, she also published her first collection of poems, Tamarind Season. In 1991, she began to accept visiting teaching appointments at universities and colleges in the United States and in Canada, including University of Michigan, Radcliffe College, and University of Toronto. Her poetry collection I Am Becoming My Mother (1986) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas Region, from England's Commonwealth Institute in 1986. Goodison was awarded a Commonwealth Universities fellowship in Canada from 1990-91 and the Musgrave Medal and Centenary Medal from the Institute of Jamaica.

Major Works

Goodison's poetry resists categorization, but many of her poems focus on women. She writes about the different roles a woman can play: mother, daughter, lover, warrior, object of desire, object of abuse, and object of worship. Goodison shows admiration for her mother in one of her most famous poems, “For My Mother May I Inherit Half Her Strength,” included in Tamarind Season, and she celebrates her own motherhood in “Songs for My Son” and “Dream—August 1979,” both in Selected Poems (1992). She embraces women's sexuality in “On Becoming a Mermaid” in Tamarind Season and in “The Mulatta and the Minotaur” in I Am Becoming My Mother. She writes in awe of the beauty and power a woman can have in “Star Suite,” in Heartease (1988).

Many of Goodison’s poems are about the Jamaican experience. “Ocho Rios II,” in Tamarind Season, views life in Jamaica through the eyes of a Rasta man and his dealings with a tourist. Tamarind Season also includes “Bridge Views,” a poem about the violence and poverty with which Jamaicans are confronted. In “In City Gardens Grow No Roses as We Know Them,” the central poem in To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995), Goodison writes about the small, dilapidated gardens that Jamaican city dwellers grow and enjoy as a haven from the city streets.

Goodison also pays tribute to various heroes through her poems. Among those she pays homage to are novelist Jean Rhys in “Lullaby for Jean Rhys,” from Tamarind Season, Vincent Van Gogh in “Letter to Vincent Van Gogh,” from Turn Thanks (1999), and—from I Am Becoming My Mother—Winnie Mandela in “Bedspread,” and Rosa Parks in “For Rosa Parks.”

A empathetic vein runs throughout all of Goodison's poems. When she writes of women, she writes with an understanding of their situation, whatever that situation might be. She notes the struggles of the poor Jamaican in a world that has many luxuries. Goodison praises such people as Winnie Mandela and Rosa Parks not just for being strong, but for overcoming hardship in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Her verse captures the daily battle for dignity of the downtrodden in society.

Critical Reception

Goodison's poetry is highly regarded by critics as well as by her peers. Andrew Salkey, Cyril Dabydeen, and Edward Baugh, all acclaimed poets in their own right, praise her poems both for their lyricism and content, and offer strong testaments to Goodison's abilities as a poet. Reviewers agree that her blending of the three Jamaican dialects gives her poetry dimensions and depth of meaning, and lend a song-like quality. She is praised for being able to write true feminist poetry without separating men from women. Although at times she exposes the injustices that women experience at the hands of men, Goodison also writes highly acclaimed love poems. Her work is considered versatile, and is written to be enjoyed by men and women, Jamaicans and tourists, the rich and the poor alike.

Principal Works

Tamarind Season 1980

I Am Becoming My Mother 1986

Heartease 1988

Lorna Goodison: Chapbook of Poems 1989

Selected Poems 1992

To Us, All Flowers Are Roses 1995

Turn Thanks 1999

Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems 2000

Baby Mother and the King of Swords (short stories) 1990


Edward Baugh (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Goodison on the Road to Heartease,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, October, 1986, pp. 13-22.

[In the following essay, Baugh praises Goodison's poetry and discusses ways in which she has matured as a poet.]

Lorna Goodison has spoken recently about a sequence of poems on which she has been working, a sequence which may in effect constitute one long poem under the title Heartease. It appears that a recurring and unifying metaphor in the sequence will be that of a journey towards a place called Heartease. As she explains, and as we should expect, Heartease signifies “an internal and a spiritual freedom:”

Heartease sort of tries to speak to a place inside you, because that is very true too, that there is this place inside you that if you're lucky to find it then exterior hardships become much easier.1

The choice of Heartease as geographical metaphor brings a communal and folk dimension to this idea of private, inner peace. To a Jamaican reader, Heartease would easily seem like the name of an actual place, even if such a place did not exist, on the analogy of places on the island with names such as Tranquility and Content. It turns out that there are at least three places in Jamaica called Heartease, all being fairly remote rural hamlets, situated in relatively hilly country. One of them, in the May Day Mountains, is at the heart of the island so to speak. In this geographical context, the name connotes rural folkways, the simple strength of peasant values, the rigours and deprivations as well as the blessings and the peacefulness of hill-country life. It connotes, too, the idea of walking, of repeated journeys on foot over steep, rugged terrain, and of rest and solace at the end of the climb uphill. For the poet's purposes (and she has not visited any of these places named Heartease) it does not matter whether or not actual experience of these places brings such connotations to mind. Nor does it matter for the purposes of this paper.

The idea of the journey on foot as fact and symbol of life is a deep, archetypal reality in Jamaican folk consciousness. It is significant, therefore, that Goodison traces, in hindsight, the beginning of her interest in the Heartease sequence to a poem called “The Road of the Dread”, which had appeared in her first collection, Tamarind Season (1980), and which is composed around the mataphor of endless walking—to find work, to seek help, to find peace:

I think I may have started writing “Heartease” poems from as far back as “The Road of the Dread”, which appeared in Tamarind Season, now that I look at it. It's again, wanting to talk about things for people. …2

But before completing Heartease, Goodison has published a second collection of poems (all but one written since the completion of Tamarind Season) entitled I am Becoming My Mother (London: New Beacon, 1986). The aim of this paper, as its title should suggest, is to trace, however sketchily, Goodison's poetic development between Tamarind Season and Heartease (and the juxtaposition of the two titles is itself suggestive of a kind of progression) by reference to the volume in-between. The poet herself has said:

One of the things I'm very […] concerned about is that the work should develop. It should develop as I develop as a person, as I develop emotionally and spiritually and in every way …3

The “wanting to talk about things for people” marks one important area of Goodison's development. Of course, any poet worthy of the name talks about things for people. Even the most personal of poets will achieve this to the extent that the reader is able to see his own experience and feelings reflected in those of the poet. In such instances the poet speaks for people in proportion as he speaks arrestingly of and for himself. Goodison has not been lacking in this kind of achievement. Alternatively, the poet may speak about things for people, for society, by observing them detachedly, yet sympathetically, and analysing their condition or his reaction to it. Another way is that of identification, where the poet is able to speak from inside the condition of the people, whether because he happens to be truly one of them, or because his capacity for imaginative empathy enables him to merge his personal voice with the communal voice, as happened in “The Road of the Dread”. An increasing number of Goodison's recent poems, ones which are likely to rank as major pieces, speak with this voice, in which the poet's personal experience and emotion are assimilated and transfigured by the communal condition while, at the same time, that communal condition is made all the more immediate by the charge of personal experience with which it is infused.

Through this voice, Goodison's work becomes political in a broad basic sense. Here a comment by her on the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whom she admires greatly, is instructive:

I think she spoke about human feelings, because she lived in Russia [at] the time of Stalin, and she was badly treated by them, by him in particular—he really had a thing about her—and she suffered untold, terrible things—she had an awful life … but [there was] this courage to win through in her life, and the fact that she saw herself as a person who could speak for everybody, for people, for ordinary people, for people suffering …4

That sense of the “courage to win through”, realised in poetry in which the communal and the personal are always shading into one another, is illustrated by a comparison of the already famous “Nanny” with the somewhat later “My Last Poem”. The interaction of personal and communal levels is only partially realised if each poem is considered in isolation. The realisation is complete only if we hear the individual poem in the context of the other poems.

In “Nanny” the poet speaks in the person of a public figure, the Maroon warrior-heroine. She is imagined as having suppressed personal desires and ambitions in order to be dedicated to the liberation of her people, and the poem is a recounting of her ritual preparation for her role. But at the end, when Nanny suddenly uses the second-person pronoun and addresses her people, one cannot help feeling that one is also hearing the poet addressing her audience and her people, an impression that is reinforced when one hears Goodison read the poem: “When your sorrow obscures the skies/other women like me will rise” (p. 45).

By contrast with “Nanny”, “My Last Poem” is ostensibly private and intimate, a painful baring of the soul (as painful for readers as for poet) in a time of extremity, a time when even the creative gift is taken from the poet. One senses an autobiographical intensity, a deep personal hurt. But, through the poet's technique, the personal takes on a wider significance, and the subject becomes communal victim and guide. In the following passage, the motif of the difficult journey on foot is one of the factors which suggest the communal dimension:

I gave my son
to a kind woman to keep
and walked down through the valley
on my scarred feet,
across the river
and into the guilty town
in search of bread
but they had closed the bakery down …

(p. 7)

The “scarred feet” and “the bread” help to move the literal-autobiographical to a symbolic-mythic level. The town is “guilty” of having brought about the conditions which have caused the speaker's suffering, a suffering which is likely to be the lot of others as well. In closing the bakery, “they” will have added to the distress of the community as a whole. By the end of the poem, the speaker, stubbornly believing in love in spite of all betrayals, is a model for the will to win through. She takes her place beside Nanny as one of the never-ending line of women who “will rise” when the people's “sorrow obscures the skies”....

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Edward Baugh (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Lorna Goodison in the Context of Feminist Criticism,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Baugh discusses feminist interpretations of Goodison's poetry, giving special consideration to her treatment of race and sexuality.]

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his,

—Oscar Wilde

Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

—Toni Morrison, Beloved


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Velma Pollard (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Mothertongue Voices in the Writing of Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison,” in Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, The Women's Press, 1991, pp. 246-53.

[In the following excerpt, Pollard examines how the use of a blend of various dialects, or codes, spoken in Jamaica, affects the flow and meaning of Goodison's poetry.]

Although poetry and good prose share many features, there are several differences, not the least of which is the terseness of the poetic form. An examination of mothertongue in poetry, in this case Lorna Goodison's poetry, is qualitatively different from the exercise just performed on Senior's prose....

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Susan Lasher (review date 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 18, February, 1992, pp. 452-57.

[In the following excerpt, Lasher notes that although the song-like lyricism of Goodison's poetry is lovely, it sometimes detracts from the narrative aspect of her poetry.]

In an Age of Walcott, Lorna Goodison's poetry of the last decade, long unavailable in the United States, shows that the voices of the Caribbean are many: It is likely that “the sum of the names we know now / is not equal to / the smallest glory that is you” (as Goodison describes the variety of names for God).

With a subtle feminist irony, Goodison calls her native...

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Andrew Salkey (review date 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, Autumn, 1993, pp. 876-77.

[In the following review, Salkey notes that—although there are a few lines he did not like—on the whole, Goodison's Selected Poems is an exceptional collection of poetry.]

The evocative power of Lorna Goodison's poetry derives its urgency and appeal from the heart-and-mind concerns she has for language, history, racial identity, and gender (and these are not as separate and consecutive as I have listed them, but rather as alternating and interwoven as they usually occur in the hurly-burly of human existence).

In the exceptionally...

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Adele S. Newson (review date 1996)

SOURCE: A review of To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer, 1996, p. 750.

[In the following review, Newson favorably reviews Goodison's To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, praising her treatment of Jamaican themes and imagery.]

The forty-one poems contained in Lorna Goodison's most recent collection of poetry leap off the page with the vitality of the region she describes. By turns the poems are nostalgic, irreverent, somber, contemplative, and festive. In sum, the work is as inviting as the cover illustration depicting a Jamaican couple and landscape, creating the broad strokes of a people's existence.


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Velma Pollard (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Language and Identity: The Use of Different Codes in Jamaican Poetry,” in Winds of Change: The Transforming of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, Peter Lang Publishing, 1998, pp. 31-36.

[In the following excerpt, Pollard analyses the use of various Jamaican dialects to convey meaning in Goodison's “Ocho Rios II.”]

The struggle to find a voice that is truly representative of the speech communities out of which they write has been a very real one for Caribbean creative writers ever since the primacy of the European languages they inherited came to be debated. Commenting more than a decade ago on writing in the Anglophone Caribbean, Gerald Moore,...

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Cyril Dabydeen (review date 2000)

SOURCE: A review of Turn Thanks, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No.1, Winter, 2000, p. 224.

[In the following review, Dabydeen praises Goodison's lyricism in Turn Thanks.]

Now in her mid-career, Lorna Goodison, born in 1947 in Jamaica, in a key section of her new book Turn Thanks called “The Mango of Poetry,” describes a sensuous attitude to poetry in a poem by the same name: “I would not peel it all back / to reveal its golden entirety, / but I would soften it by rolling / it slowly between my palms.” Further, she considers that this “would be a definition / of what poetry is,” all in her accustomed reflectiveness and meditative quality...

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Further Reading


Brathwaite, E. Kamau, Mervyn Morris, and Lorna Goodison. Three Caribbean Poets on Their Work. Edited by Victor L. Chang. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Caribbean Studies, 1993.

Discussion of the poetry of Goodison and two other Caribbean poets.

Goodison, Lorna and Frank Barbelsingh. “Lorna Goodison: Heartease.” In Frontiers of Caribbean Literatures in English, edited by Frank Barbelsingh, pp. 152-66. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Interview in which Birbalsingh explores with Goodison the meaning of her writings and the influence of her Caribbean heritage on her works.


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