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 …
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”....
(The entire section is 3390 words.)