Edward Baugh (essay date 1986)

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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...

(The entire section contains 16184 words.)

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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”.

Goodison has been evoking such a lineage of strong female figures, some historically heroic, others drawn from domestic obscurity. Before “Nanny”, there was her own mother, in the well-known “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)”.5 Since Nanny, there has been “For Rosa Parks” (unpubd), about the quiet woman who started the Alabama bus boycott which brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to prominence, and “Guinea Woman”, the poet's maternal great-grandmother, matriarch of the ‘tribe’, and “Bedspread”, which imagines the courage and faith of Winnie Mandela, wife of the living martyr Nelson Mandela, in the travail of her people. Through her imaginative record of such figures, Goodison corrects the imbalance of history, giving due recognition to the important role which women have played in the cultural and political struggle and progress of oppressed people, more particularly of black people.

Nanny (the Caribbean), Rosa Parks (the USA) and Winnie Mandela (Africa) represent the three points of a triangle of Black experience and struggle, as they constitute a sisterhood of strength and activism. Both Nanny and Rosa Parks are imagined as continuing things begun in Africa, as great-grandmother transmits to succeeding generations of children of the diaspora virtues derived from Africa:

… great grandmother
I see your features blood dark
in the children of each new
the high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
It's great grandmother's turn.

(p. 40)

And in “Bedspread” the child of the diaspora pays her dues to Africa by sharing in the dream, the certain hope of a free Azania. Speaking of the South African police who had “arrested” the bedspread which the women of the African National Congress had made for Mandela, she says:

They and their friends are working
to arrest the dreams in our heads
[but] the women, accustomed to closing
the eyes of the dead
are weaving cloths still brighter
to drape us in glory in a Free

(p. 43)

Goodison's sense of taking her place in this lineage of black female example, and of continuing a sisterhood, is definitively expressed in the title poem “I Am Becoming My Mother”. The use of the continuous-present form conveys the idea of process and continuity. This poem, which acknowledges the legacy of the forebears by succinctly imaging woman's special attributes in the context of woman's hardships, takes its place beside the other woman-poems already mentioned, as part of the wide-ranging projection of female experience which dominates much of Goodison's more recent work.

As she says: “I am a woman and I'm a writer and I'm going to write about what I know most about”.6 And again: “I think I write about women more than anything else, the condition of women. …”7 This statement is much more applicable to the new collection than it is to Tamarind Season, and indicates a refining of the way in which the poet has been able to “talk about things for people”. So we have woman as daughter, as sister, as mother, as matriarch, as leader, as fighter, as sustainer, as lover, as sufferer, as victim of male abuse:

We are the ones
who are always waiting
mouth corner white
by sepulchres and
bone yards
for bodies of our men,
waiting under massa
waiting under massa table
for the trickle down of crumbs.

(p. 12)

That is from a poem entitled “We Are The Women”, in which Goodison demonstrates her ability, by a felicitous choice of language and imagery, to render abstractions emotively concrete, and to interfuse the local/contemporary and the global/historical. The passage just quoted shows the ability to achieve multiple, resonant nuances of signification in an absolute simple, straightforward and lucid statement.

There are many other poems which may be mentioned in relation to Goodison's treatment of the condition of women, but space does not permit. I shall just call attention to a short sequence of four lyrics entitled “Garden of the Women Once Fallen”. The title itself is fertile with connotations. In each of the four sections a different specimen of local flora is used—“Shame Mi Lady”, “Broom Weed”, “Poui” and sunflower (“Sunflower Possessed”)—to image a different aspect of woman's life. In “Broom Weed”, for example, we see woman as drudge:

You exhaust yourself so
O weed powerless
your life devoted to sweeping, cleansing
even in your fullest blooming.

(p. 14)

The symbolic use of the broom-weed is particularly apt. Not only is it rooted in Jamaican folk and peasant tradition; its use suggests at one and the same time material deprivation—those who can't afford store-bought brooms have to use the broom-weed for sweeping—and the value and significance of the despised and apparently insignificant—the lowly broom-weed is called upon to perform an important function.

In contrast to “Broom Weed”, “Poui” evokes the capacity of the woman to give herself unreservedly in love, her ‘clean’ trusting, self-forgetting abandonment to the mastery of sexual passion. After her “celestial mating” with her lover, the sun, “in his high august heat” (the use of the lower-case initial for ‘august’ pointing the pun), “for weeks” the poui's “rose-gold dress / lies tangled round her feet / and she don't even notice”, (p. 15) so ‘high’ is she on love.

Other poems by Goodison present various faces of woman in love. Not surprisingly, she is able to get to the heart of the Jean Rhys heroine, who herself represents eloquent by certain aspects of the condition of women, in a brief elegy for the novelist, “Lullaby for Jean Rhys”. In “Lepidopterist” she catches, through the symbol of the woman/ lover as butterfly-collector, the anguished consciousness, the bitterness of preserving or living with the corpses of flown, dead loves, and conversely, the equally painful consciousness of how much life can subsist in otherwise dead loves, or ones which were best killed. “Lord, even in death the wings beat so”. (p. 29)

Poems like “Lepidopterist” and the “Garden” sequence demonstrate Goodison's increasing ability to find fresh central symbols (central to the individual poem, that is), symbolic personae to distance and shape the raw personal feeling, to contain it, and at the same time to release it, to make it that much more richly accessible to the imagination of potential readers. The process is one in which, once the matrix-symbol has been found, the emotion which is the subject of the poem is transferred to the exploration and elaboration of the symbol. Through his engagement with the symbol, public and open property, the reader engages with the original emotion, but that emotion mediated, modified, enriched by whatever of relevance the symbol has stimulated the reader's imagination to bring to it. The process is well demonstrated in “Tightrope Walker”, where the symbol of a female tightrope walker is used to embody the heady joy and challenge of a ‘high’, rare love, the risk and danger of it in circumstances that are peculiarly ‘tight’, yet offering a rare sense of freedom. The exploration of the central image, and the imagery of the whole circus-world around it, generates its own momentum to ‘liberate’ the original experience of the woman in love.

The poet has also been experimenting with the strategy of the assumed persona that recurs through several poems, thereby enhancing the impression of a large over-riding architecture in her work, the pursuit of a myth-making impetus. In several poems she speaks in the person of a figure identified simply, anonymously yet exotically as it were, as “the Mulatta”. So there are poems with titles like “Mulatta Song”, “The Mulatta as Penelope”, “The Mulatta and the Monotaur”. And there are a few of the love poems in which the Mulatta as such does not appear, but which may be called Mulatta poems in that their setting and personae are Egyptian/North African—poems like “Letters to the Egyptian”, “Homecoming” and “Caravanserai”. Besides, the first projected title for I Am Becoming My Mother was Mulatta.

In explaining this title the poet has said that her choice of it was “facetious”, thereby underscoring the distancing, objectifying effect of it. She says:

I went somewhere in Latin America once and there were these people who kept referring to me as a mulatta, which I found very funny, because I'd never thought of anything like that. … They told me I was a mulatta and I said all right, I kind of like the sound of that. …8

The persona, then, is just a device, a clever suggestion, and is neither substantially delineated nor used with any intention of talking about what may be called the mulatto condition, whether cultural or psychological.

There are other aspects of form and expression in Goodison's poetic development which require detailed comment, but which can only be noted in passing here. Sooner or later, as the work of a poet assumes volume and personality, a few key images are likely to emerge, which serve as distinguishing marks, signatures of a sensibility. So we notice, for example, in Goodison's work, developing from Tamarind Season, a fascination with imagery of water and wetness—rain, river, sea. This water imagery signifies variously fertility, creativity, the erotic, succour, freedom, blessing, redemption, divine grace, cleansing, purification and metamorphis. In “On Becoming a Mermaid”, for example, the woman imagines herself undergoing, through the agency of the buoyant element, “a sea change into something rich and strange” (p. 30) and self-possessed, liberated from the tyranny and ache of sexuality. “Jah Music” bubble[s] up through a cistern; (p. 36) Keith Jarrett, the pianist, is a “rainmaker”, slaking the soul-drought of the poet far from home; and she cries, after the example of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “In this noon of my orchard / send me deep rain”. (p. 32)

Then there is the continuous extending of linguistic possibility, which has been one of Goodison's most distinctive features. She has been steadily refining her skills at sliding seamlessly between English and Creole, at interweaving erudite literary allusion with the earthiness of traditional Jamaican speech, images from modern technology with the idiom of local pop culture. This process is the perfecting of a voice at once personal and anonymous, private and public. It may reach a kind of maturity in Heartese and will be an important factor in the increasing ‘largeness’ of her work, as that work fuses private and communal pain and resolution.

One small, very slight example of her linguistic dexterity and tact will suffice. Here is “Poui” in its entirety:

She don't put out for just anyone.
She waits for HIM
and in his high august heat
he takes her
and their celestial mating
is so intense
that for weeks her rose-gold dress
lies tangled round her feet
and she don't even notice.

(p. 15)

Notice how the one non-Standard English usage “don't” colours the whole poem and how easily the poem curves out of that, through the semi-colloquial “put out”, into the formality and gravity of “high august heat” and “celestial mating”, and curves back again to the contrastive, emphasising, humorous effect of the repeated “she don't”.

In an interview with Nadi Edwards, done in November 1984, Goodison says:

I have had, and particularly of late […] some poems I've written which have been very, very painful to write … painful in the sense that they are so intense that they almost demand that I go through the experience I'm writing about, while I'm writing it. Sometimes I worry about that because I'd like to, I'd really like to live an easier life. I'd like to think I'd go into my old age with fewer problems. My life has not been particularly easy […] I suspect, though, that for the poems to get larger, the work will have to get harder.9

The deepening of the pain, and a corresponding discovery of new resources of resilience and a redemptive joy of life, are features of Goodison's development as a poet. Combined with the widening and subtilising of her resources of form and expression, they have ensured that her work has indeed been getting ‘larger’, and that her voice, personal and unmistakable as it is, is increasingly, and whether she knows it or not, the voice of a people.


  1. Interview with Edward Baugh, 19 Dec. 1984 (unpubd).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Tamarind Season, p. 61. This poem also appears in I Am Becoming My Mother, the only one of the Tamarind Season poems to be included in both collections.

  6. Interview with Edward Baugh.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Pathways, vol. 2, no. 4 (Dec. 1984), p. 10.

Edward Baugh (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4658

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

Lorna Goodison has said that the title-poem of her second volume, I Am Becoming My Mother, has two levels of meaning. At both these levels the poem bears out or throws light on certain considerations of feminist literary criticism. I propose, by examining the poem, and Goodison's poetry in general, in relation to these considerations, to indicate aspects of the poem(s) which might otherwise be overlooked, and at the same time, to bring into relief some of the problems attaching to feminist criticism—problems of which feminist critics have themselves shown awareness at one time or another.

Feminist criticism proves to be a fertile context in which to appreciate Goodison's work. As it were intuitively, she articulates some of the concerns, impulses and tropes which have been identified by feminist critics as characteristic of women's writing. At the same time, the variousness and nuance of her sensibility and vision prevent her work from fitting easily into some of the generalizations of feminist criticism. In this regard, the disjunction may in some instances be germane to the issue of the need for a black feminist criticism and even, perhaps, to the putative question of what may be distinctive about Caribbean women's writing.

At its more obvious level of meaning, “I Am Becoming My Mother” is about woman's sense of identity through identification or bonding with the mother, with the female line of ancestry, and with whatever suffering and strength distinguish it. This awareness is described as a process of becoming; through this process the persona comes fully into being, becomes herself. She grows towards her birth, a psychic birth which complements her physical birth. The dynamism of the process is enhanced by the fact that it is two-way: “my mother is now me”—the mother is growing into the daughter just as the daughter is growing into the mother.

Goodison explains all this in simple terms of personal observation and popular belief:

Barbara [her sister] will say something and I say, “But that is Mama!” I mean that's exactly what Mama would say. Or I look at my hands and they look like my mother's hands. … My helper, who has worked with my family for many many years, a lot of times she will say, “You know, Miss Lorna, you really take after your mother.” And a lot of women say that, because they realize, the older they get, how much they take from their mothers. It's natural; it's very good.1

Even in the deployment and relationship of characters in this domestic narrative—female speaker, her sister, her female helper, her mother-present-in-spirit—we feel the idea of a self-energizing women's world, the idea of a special womanness which women most naturally perceive, and which has to be explained to men: “So they always tell men that if you want to know what your wife will look like, you must look at her mother.”2

“It's very natural; it's very good.” The mood of fulfillment and affirmation with which the poet becomes her mother (“becomes” also in the sense of “being becoming to”) is remarkable in that “alienation from and rejection of the mother” have been identified as features of women's writing, at least before the 1970s, features which were cultivated in women by the institution of patriarchy. Elaine Showalter tells us that “[m]uch women's literature in the past has dealt with ‘matrophobia’ or the fear of becoming one's mother.” However, “Female literature of the 1970s goes beyond matrophobia to a courageously sustained quest for the mother in such books as Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, and Lisa Alther's Kinflicks.3

So Goodison is presumably a true child of the post-1970 period. However, since she hardly has to undertake any “quest for the mother,” let alone a “courageous” one, perhaps her case provides an example to support the idea that definitive generalizations in matters like these are always in need of qualification. It might also prove useful to inquire whether or not there may be a racial-cultural explanation for any differences between Goodison's work and Showalter's generalization. Such an inquiry would have some bearing on the case for a black feminist criticism. All the women writers to whom Showalter refers on the point of matrophobia are white.

But can we generalize at all about black women writers on this issue? Alice Walker's “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens” is a joyful recognition of the models of creativity which mothers may represent for daughters, but the very title of the piece is consonant with its suggestion that daughters have had to cut through a tradition of imposed obfuscation in order to recognize this bequest. And if Paule Marshall's heroine in Brown Girl, Brownstones eventually achieves a similar recognition, what the novel details is the painful process which this achievement involves, the misunderstanding and even hatred which have to be displaced. Jamaica Kinkaid's Annie John depicts another problematic, ambivalent relationship between daughter and mother.

The second, less obvious meaning which Goodison attributes to “I Am Becoming My Mother” is that, in some essential sense, one has to become one's own mother, that is, one has to create or produce oneself:

This is what I would say to any young person. Don't let the world tell you who you are to be. You don't have to do what everybody also is doing. … But in order to do this you're going to have to give birth to yourself—because the world not going to help you. … Therefore you have to become your own mother.4

Although this statement may be read as yet another version of the idea that everyone—“any young person”—must strive to be himself or herself, the idea has never been expressed in quite these terms, or with such radical urgency in the patriarchal tradition. In the male-oriented tradition of the Bildungsroman, the hero seeks to assert himself, to resist wrong values in the quest for his best self, but there is never any doubt that he has a separate self, a privileged niche of selfhood. Woman cannot repose in any such sustaining idea. She finds herself in a world where her identity is determined for her by an androcentric consciousness. She is merely the created, not herself a creator. She is, in another feminist formulation, the text written by the male creative mind. She therefore has virtually to invent herself anew or, to use the more organic and therefore more desirable image, to give birth to herself, in order also to find her own creative spring. And since to give birth is the biologically female activity, it is fitting that woman's finding of herself and her creativity should be expressed in the metaphor of giving birth.

Incidentally, in “Survivor,” Goodison takes a sardonic swipe at the notion of woman as the creature of male consciousness, by way of reference to the biblical story that God created Eve from Adam's rib: “and you know how creative / God is with ribs.”

This train of ideas finds remarkable concurrence in recent feminist discourse. In a comment on Rachel DuPlessis' poem-sequence “Eurydice,” Alicia Ostriker observes that

The heroine not only resents … the loss of herself to a husband whose powerful sex and art define her “like a great linked chain” but is herself the snake “whose deepest desire was to pierce herself.” Withdrawing from her husband, far back into the moist stony “fissure” and “cave” of herself, she becomes a self-generating plant and finally, amid an efflorescence of organic images, her own mother, giving birth to the girlchild who is herself—or, since the sequence can be read as an allegory of female creativity—her poem. The idea of giving birth, unaided, to the self is also the conclusion of Adrienne Rich's “The Mirror In Which Two Are Seen As One.”6

Ostriker's comments indicate that, in the poems she is discussing, sexuality is a crucial factor in the idea of giving birth to oneself. The rejection of the male is accompanied by a joyful auto-sexuality. This idea of the rejection of male sexual dominance can also lead us into the question of lesbianism, an important topic of feminist debate. In any event, Ostriker sees, in the work of some recent women poets, the notion of embracing one's (woman's) sexuality as an integral factor in becoming and accepting oneself, in achieving the wholeness and joy of self-realization and creativity:

A muse imagined in one's own likeness [as in Denise Levertov's “Song For Ishtar”] with whom one can fornicate with violence and laughter, implies the extraordinary possibility of a poetry of wholeness and joy [as against the poetry of the “age of anxiety” in which Levertov was writing]. That a sacred joy can be found within the self; that it requires an embracing of one's sexuality; that access to it must be described as movement downward or inward, in gender-charged metaphors of water, earth, cave, sea, moon: such is the burden of these and many poems by women.7

This “embracing of one's sexuality” as a necessary part of woman's experience of a full, free self is symbolically enacted by Goodison in “On Becoming a Mermaid.” Here again we notice the focus on the idea of becoming, the metamorphosis of self, re-birth. And again it is a kind of self-engendering. The persona imagines herself changing into a mermaid and thus, in effect, being released from (heterosexual) entanglements, demands and frustrations. She undergoes a sea-change into something rich, strange, self-delighting and still essentially, utterly female.

We may read the poem at one level as an impossible dream prompted by a bitter awareness of actuality, but there is too much delight and vitality in the imagery to allow us to rest at this level. The achievement is more properly described as that of woman's laying claim to her sexuality, treasuring it in an access of that “wholeness and joy” of which Ostriker speaks. It is remarkable too, in view of Ostriker's observations, that the metamorphosis involves a descent into watery depths. And the sexual, generative and recreative connotations of the water imagery are a significant characteristic of Goodison's poetic vision. So, in the drama and tensions of the poem's imagery, out of death (drowning) comes life, in descent is buoyancy, and a locking-away or self-denial becomes a new freedom and self-fulfillment:

Your sex locked under
mother-of-pearl scales
you're a nixie now, a mermaid
a green tinged fish/fleshed woman/thing …
breasts full and floating buoyed up by the salt
and the space between your arms now always filled.(8)

Some of the force of the poem's drama derives from the fact that it proceeds from a heterosexual sensibility. In other words, the condition from which the mermaid escapes is, for the persona, despite its painful vulnerability, a condition that has its own powerful attraction for her. For Goodison, “embracing one's sexuality” is also a matter of simply being free to acknowledge and explore with candour her heterosexuality, to articulate those drives and desires which woman, according to conventional wisdom, was not supposed to feel—to “accept the erotic woman within herself.”9

These considerations have a bearing on the issue of the relationship between lesbianism and feminism, since a poem such as “On Becoming A Mermaid,” with its seeming impulse towards self-contained female sexuality, could be easily accommodated by the lesbian vision. For some feminist critics “lesbian” becomes a paradigm for “feminist,” and woman's writing is by implication seen as somehow “better” than men's writing insofar as it exhibits certain virtues which are defined as characteristically lesbian.10 This tendency no doubt provides one example of that “monolithic vision of shared female sexuality” which Ann Rosalind Jones questions:

A monolithic vision of shared female sexuality, rather than defeating phallocentrism as doctrine and practice is more likely to blind us to our varied and immediate needs and to the specific struggles we must coordinate in order to meet them. What is the meaning of [the] “two lips” [of the vulva, as theorized by Luce Irigaray] to heterosexual women who want men to recognize their clitoral pleasure—or to African or Middle Eastern women who, as a result of pharaonic clitoridectomies, have neither lips nor clitoris with which to jouir?11

While Goodison, as I have tried to suggest, may be seen as freely “embracing her sexuality” and enacting the notions of sisterhood, female bonding and self-delighting, it would seem unnecessary and non-sensical to stretch the meaning of “lesbian” so far as to characterize her work, however metaphorically, as “lesbian”—in the same way that it seems unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful for Barbara Smith to define Toni Morrison's Sula as a lesbian novel.

Goodison's mermaid is also a reworking of the traditional mermaid of legend. The latter, also beautiful and mysterious, is usually envisioned as threatening and destructive, luring men to their deaths. As such, she is a creation of the male imagination. Goodison's mermaid is wholly involved with the joy of her self-creation and self-discovery, and not at all with any desire to do men in. To this extent she exemplifies the female re-visioning of myth which is the subject of Ostriker's essay, as illustrated in the passage on the muse quoted earlier.

That passage seems, for instance, to depict a re-(en)gendering of the myth of Narcissus, with more positive, dynamic and creative values attaching to the female version. Narcissus' hopeless love for his own reflection in the pool was a punishment inflicted by the gods for his having spurned the advances of all would-be lovers—both male and female. The lack of response from his reflection drove him to suicide. No frustration, and therefore no likelihood of suicide, is contemplated in the situation of female poet and a “muse imagined in [her] own likeness” as described by Ostriker.

That female poets have to redefine the muse is a corollary of the traditional male-centred concept of the muse. Female poets must undertake this re-vision in order to liberate their creativity. The idea of “a muse imagined in one's own likeness” lends itself to be imaged both in terms of the auto-sexual and self-regenerative as well as in lesbian terms. In an article entitled “Re-vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas,” Mary J. Carruthers observes:

The muse traditionally is female and the poet male. He addresses her in terms of sexual rapture, desiring to be possessed in order to possess, to be ravished in order to be fruitful. The language of violent sexual encounter, of submission and dominance, describes a relationship both of possession and enslavement. … In the myth of the Lesbian poets, the muse remains female. This completely changes the relationship of the poet to her poetry. Because the muse is female, she is not Other but Familiar, maternal and sororal, a well-known face in the poet's community. Their relationship is not one of possession but of communal bonding.12

Ironically, while Carruthers notes an absence of “the language of violent sexual encounter” in the poetry of the women she discusses, Ostriker identifies with approval, in the work of other women poets, “a muse imagined in one's own likeness, with whom one can fornicate with violence and laughter.” Carruthers' formulation of the lesbian relationship with the muse seems comparatively idealistic, defused of some of the very sexuality that is its basis. Still, her point about a radical shift of vision is well taken.

Be that as it may, it should be possible and allowable for some women poets to re-vision the muse as male, although this option might be resisted by the kind of feminist rhetoric which advocates a radical break with anything having patriarchal or phallocentric associations. The option of a male muse envisioned by a female poet may therefore be the most problematic and complex of the options. One of Goodison's more enigmatic poems in I Am Becoming My Mother, “The Mulatta and the Minotaur,” would seem, at one level of interpretation, to be an exploration and affirmation of female creativity and sexuality, with the minotaur as the female persona's muse. In any event, in this revision of the myth, woman is no longer seen simply as a passive, sacrificial victim of male sexual power and the male imagination.

But if we can read Goodison's minotaur as a male muse, we should set beside him, or as an alternative to him, the female idea or essence which the poet names “Asi itra” in “Star Suite.” Here the ideas of sisterhood and a female ideal inspiring woman is given a metaphysical, indeed almost mystical presence:

Asi itra woman star
beams in pleased with being …
… this lady
who is in charge
of all women
told her
“go to her (me)
remind her I'm who
gave her the flower.” …
star skirted
moon stone belted
silver striped tresses,
Miss Beauty Queen of all stars
Sista, Asi itra.(13)

This delight in the beauty of a “sister” is part of the womanist “embracing of one's sexuality” which we noted earlier. Asi itra is Goodison's conception of a “woman spirit” who is the guardian of women and, as such, a key figure in an incipient feminine myth. Still, God, as hymned in the incantatory “A Rosary of Your Names” and “A Rosary of Your Names II,” both from Heartease, is male, the traditional symbol of power and authority, the ultimate creator:

The one in charge
Superior Almighty
All knowing
There is no God but God
He lit the first flame
Orchestrator of Dawns and Sunsets
chant a rosary of His names(14)

Do we conclude, then, that Goodison's feminism, such as it is, is self-contradictory or flawed, since it still invests in patriarchal notions? Or do we say that the many-sidedness of her imaging of gender relationships reflects the complex actuality of her world, rather than a doctrinaire or separatist feminism, and that this complexity may be fulfilling rather than limiting? Presumably a “free” woman should be free to worship a God imagined as male. The God of “A Rosary of Your Names” bears no resemblance to the soul-destroying masculinity of, say, “Ceremony for the Banishment of the King of Swords,” in Heartease.

Like “The Mulatta and the Minotaur,” “The Mulatta as Penelope” is an instance of that “revisionist mythmaking” which Ostriker finds to be an important feature of recent poetry by women. Hurt by the departure of her lover/husband, the persona (the mulatta) refuses to take on the role of Homer's Penelope, ever faithful, ever forbearing, waiting chastely and patiently for her man to have his adventures and then return “with tin souvenirs and a claim to [her].”15 By this language the persona rejects the male “claim” and the cheapness with which it is bought.

Moreover, this Penelope is rejecting the claim not just of the particular man. Unlike the classical Penelope, she will not make herself accessible to the predictable procession of suitors, whether to demonstrate (like the classical Penelope) how faithful she is by resisting them (thereby allowing herself to be made into the subject/victim of a male test), or to prove her freedom by “having a fling.” No, she will opt out of the male-“fixed” game altogether: “I will not sit and spin and spin and spin / the door open to let the madness in.”16 The madness is the androcentric sex game and woman's subservient acceptance of her part in it.

The classical Penelope, true to the conventional idea of “woman's place,” wove as she waited. But “spin” is precisely the metaphor which Goodison needs. It connotes woman as plaything, being given “the go round,”17 and the psychic confusion which may attend this condition.

It may be argued that the final image of Goodison's Penelope is one which subsumes a conventional, male-centred view of woman. She will find solace in the love of her child, the child presumably fathered by the man who has left her. And she “will sit in the sun and dry [her] hair” while the child sleeps. We may seem to have here an example of the West Indian version of Penelope, another example of the “Brown Skin Gal,” as depicted in the folk-song of that title, who will “stay home and mind baby.” True, the mulatta is not about to throw out her maternal instincts and pleasures along with the baby, nor will she deny that she grieves over the departure of the man. But she does so on her own terms. She lays claim to herself. The final image of her drying her hair in the sun is one of self-delighting wholeness.

As Maggie Humm explains, feminists have come to acknowledge that motherhood is not incompatible with feminism.18 Adrienne Rich, for example, rationalizes this awareness by way of her distinction between motherhood as “experience” and motherhood as “institution.” Goodison has no anxieties on this score. She has been reported as saying that pregnancy and childbirth proved to be “one of the most spiritual and profound experiences” for her—“I have never felt so close to my woman spirit before.”19 Besides, there are the Goodison poems which celebrate pregnancy, childbirth and mothering, poems like “Dream—August 1979” and “Songs For My Son.”

Maggie Humm observes that “Feminist critics take Graeco-Roman myths to be masculine constructs whose changing narratives only reflect changes … within the male psyche.”20 Not surprisingly, therefore, the revisionist mythmaking of some female writers and critics is a matter of turning away from the Graeco-Roman to “more specifically female” mythologies: “Virginia Woolf's preference for the pre-Greek myths of Egypt and Isis iconography is an early example of a feminist rejecting the patriarchal obsession with Greek myths and their male heroes.”21 In this context, Goodison's fondness for an Egyptian iconography and setting may represent an intuitive groping towards an alternative mythology. And her “King of Swords,” appropriated from the Tarot cards, is rich with mythopoeic possibilities.

“Ceremony for the Banishment of the King of Swords” is woman's definitive and ritual “song of release”—release from the false and male-centred myths that have oppressed her. It is important to notice that the King of Swords is not a force purely external to her; he is also that pardonable error and weakness in her which make her conspire in her own undoing. So to banish the King of Swords is to have achieved knowledge, self-knowledge, the knowledge of one's true value, the knowledge that is power and protection. The “Ceremony” is a female crucifixion-and-resurrection ritual:

You can get up now
leave the tomb empty
leave the broken sword there
here is the chant of light
the new source of singing
this is the ending
this is the beginning.(22)

The process of becoming one's own mother, the process of self-invention, of finding one's “woman spirit,” issues in the incantatory glow of light and vision which illuminates Heartease. It is a world-embracing condition in which the poet is free and empowered to speak for all, of whatever gender, whose being and becoming are threatened or denied—whether the “bag women / pushing rubbish babies / in ridiculous prams” (“This Is A Hymn”), or the man on the Kingston minibus “with the name ‘Levi’ written across the front of him creppe.” And the poet surmises that that “must be / his rightful name.”

For sometimes it would suit a one
to write him name upon himself
In case Babylon stop you
and fraid claim your tongue
in which case you could just
look down and remind you eye
and say “Yes oppressor
I name is Levi.”(23)

Goodison's work is typical of the emergent mainstream of (Anglophone) Caribbean feminist discourse in that it does not exhibit any of the separatist/isolationist tendencies which some metropolitan feminist critics have found it necessary to regret in their sisters. And here we should observe that Goodison also gladly acknowledges paternal influence in her making and self-discovery:

look see me rising, lighter
in the name of my father, dreamer
who said I should be
Of all worlds and a healer
source of mystery
and a morning star
—hear all, I will be.(24)

Showalter argues that woman's writing does not accord with “current theories of literary influence,” such as that of Harold Bloom, which posit that the text is “fathered.” She quotes Virginia Woolf's dictum that “a woman writing thinks back through her mothers,” then says, “But a woman writing unavoidably thinks back through her fathers as well; only male writers can forget or mute half of their parentage.”25

The position which Showalter attributes to women writers is no doubt the more wholesome, the more admirable. But I doubt that men, whatever their explicit rhetoric, are really as oblivious of half their parentage as Showalter thinks. At the same time, it is probably only natural for men to emphasize the male line of literary influence and women the female. In any event, the more urgent and revolutionary achievement of contemporary women writers is the declaration of the female line of creativity, the discovery—to use Alice Walker's luxuriant metaphor—of their “mothers' gardens.” Thus, they come into their inheritance as makers. And so, for example, the women in Goodison's “Bedspread,” who weave the bedspread “in the colours of our free Azania,”26 are not only freedom fighters in their own way, and providers of solace and support for their men, but also artists in their own right, practising imagination and craftsmanship; and they become symbols of woman's artistic capacity and tradition. And so woman artist (the poet) salutes woman artist (the needleworker and quiltmaker), and woman as artist takes her rightful place in the effort of the tribe. Through her also the tribe becomes articulate.

Which brings us back to “I Am Becoming My Mother.” It is also a poem about woman's recognition and celebration of her inheritance and power as artist. In a general way, giving birth may be read as a metaphor for artistic creativity. But, more specifically, the idea of giving birth is imaged in the active terms of “birth waters,” which suggest not only fertility/creativity (water) but also continuity (flowing), And these birth waters are a joyous, beautiful, vitalizing utterance—“her birth waters sang like rivers” (my emphasis). Besides, the mother is also imaged as artist in that she “raises rare blooms.” Goodison, like Walker, has also “found” her mother's garden—and is identified with beautiful works of art, albeit domestic, her “linen dress / the colour of the sky” and her “lace and damask / tablecloths.” And since the poet has become her own mother, it is she who now “raises rare blooms” (her poems); it is her work which sings like rivers.


  1. Lorna Goodison, interview with Pearl Wallace, recorded 1988 (unpublished).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Elaine Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism (London: Virago Press, 1986), p.135.

  4. Lorna Goodison, interview with Pearl Wallace.

  5. Heartease (London: New Beacon, 1988), p.16.

  6. Alicia Ostriker, “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking,” in Elaine Showalter (ed.), The New Feminist Criticism, pp. 319-320.

  7. Ibid., pp. 320-321.

  8. I Am Becoming My Mother (London: New Beacon, 1986), p.30.

  9. Ostriker, p. 323.

  10. See, for example, Barbara Smith's “Towards A Black Feminist Criticism,” in Showalter, op.cit., and Mary J. Carruthers, “Revision of the Muse,” in Hudson Review 36 (Summer 1983).

  11. Ann Rosalind Jones, “Writing the Body: L'Ecriture feminine,” in Showalter (ed.), The New Feminist Criticism, p. 371.

  12. Hudson Review 36 (Summer 1983), pp. 295-296.

  13. Heartease, p. 13.

  14. Ibid., p. 60.

  15. I Am Becoming My Mother, p. 25.

  16. Ibid., p. 25.

  17. Ibid., p. 15.

  18. Maggie Humm, Feminist Criticism (Brighton: Harvester, 1986), p. 98.

  19. Sandy McIntosh, “Lorna Goodison: It's Not Enough to Just Write What You Feel,” Sunday Sun, 31 August 1980, p. 24.

  20. Maggie Humm, op. cit., p. 93.

  21. Ibid., p. 94.

  22. Heartease, pp. 54-55.

  23. Ibid., p. 27.

  24. Ibid., p. 9.

  25. Elaine Showalter, op. cit., p. 265.

  26. I Am Becoming My Mother, p. 43.

Velma Pollard (essay date 1991)

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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.

Pamela Mordecai and Edward Baugh have both commented on Goodison's ability to slide from one to the other code of the Jamaican speech community. Mordecai notes the significance of the effective use of code-sliding as part of the ‘mix-up’ that is Jamaican culture.1 Baugh's more detailed description praises her skill at, inter alia, ‘interweaving erudite literary allusion with the earthiness of traditional speech’.2 The idea of interweaving runs close to the present description which uses the term ‘overlapping’ to describe one feature of Goodison's style.

Two related features are here identified: one grammatical, the other lexical. In the one, two or three codes are made to overlap within the same line or poem: in the other the occasional jc [Jamaican Creole] item is woven into a poem whose fabric is undoubtedly sje [Standard Jamaican English]. The fact that all the codes in the Jamaican speech community are English-related facilitates the effectiveness of Goodison's strategies. If one of the codes were French-related, as is the situation in St Lucia, for example, the procedure would not be possible.

Baugh, in his study, looks at the poem ‘Poui’ from the second collection I am Becoming My Mother3 and shows how, by using jc verb forms in the first and last lines (‘She don't put out for just anyone / … and she don't even notice’), the poet gives a jc flavour to a poem written almost entirely in sje. In Goodison's hand the occasional jc item is like yeast in its effect on the mass of the poem. The content is accessible to jc and non-jc speaker alike, the language can be claimed by both.

Another poem from the series in which ‘Poui’ appears, ‘Shame Mi Lady’, furnishes a good example of both grammatical and lexical overlap operating within the same three lines. In order to receive the force of the strategy the reader has to be able not only to recognise but to produce jc because intonation is important. Let us examine the lines. The poet compares herself with the shrub whose name is the title of the poem:

now, if I can find favour (me with my bold face)
you bashful you shy you innocent lady
must/bound to find absolution/grace

(p. 14)

The ‘you’ of the second line is emphatic in English and is opposed to ‘I’ in the line above. But another reading is possible. The ‘you’ can be pronounced with a short ‘u’ in which case it becomes a jc pronoun with the accompanying predicate adjective ‘bashful’. The utterance ‘yu bashful’ thus translates to English ‘you are bashful’. The line then contains three sentences describing the lady and the sense must wait on the next line. That next line admits both jc and sje, giving the reader the choice between the jc ‘must (and) bound’ of emphatic obligation, and the English ‘must’. There are lexical sleights which depend only partly on intonation for their point. ‘Bold face’, for example, can be one Creole term, with the stress on ‘bold’, meaning ‘fearless’ bordering on rude, or two English words with equal stress, the one qualifying the other. In the same line a pun on ‘favour’ is also hinted at. The sje meaning is dominant but lurking behind it is the kind of jc sentence, ‘you face favour …’, for which the listener is expected to supply some animal considered daring in folk parlance, ‘favour’ being in jc a verb meaning ‘resemble’.

The poem ‘My Will’ has 46 lines. Among them there is only one instance of linguistic overlap. But the single word does have the effect of including jc among the vehicles of expression. The poet is leaving in her will a number of positive attributes and behaviours she wishes on her son. Included is the following: ‘May you never know hungry’ (p. 19). The uninitiated may well pass that over as an error and replace ‘hungry’ with the English ‘hunger’. But what it is, is the jc predicate adjective ‘hungry’ in a sentence that might read ‘may you never hungry’ and might translate to sje ‘may you never be hungry’.

Later in the same poem Goodison, wishing for the boy none of the dangerous commodity, gold, translates the Creole ‘bold face’ explained above, to English ‘… its face is too bold’. The initiated will immediately hear ‘it too bold face’. And so here again jc and sje are interwoven or overlap in the same utterance, this time only by inference. At this level the notions depend entirely on the listener's knowledge. The national community may hear two voices, the international community, one.

The rendering of complex behaviours and the sound of complex voices in a single statement by the deft manipulation of lexicon and syntax of the different codes is, I believe, Goodison's major contribution to Caribbean literature.

Perhaps the most daring use of this strategy is in the poem ‘Ocho Rios II’ from the earliest collection Tamarind Season.4 In this poem it is necessary to express emotions felt by all Jamaicans. Speakers of jc, sje and of the code of Rastafari are represented. The scene is set in Ocho Rios, the second largest tourist city of Jamaica. The poem begins with discourse by a Rastafarian who enters the stage soliloquising: ‘Today I again I forward to the sea’. The form ‘again’ recognises both the habit of the Rasta man and the existence of an ealier poem ‘Ocho Rios I’, analysed in detail by Mordecai in the study cited above. The first person pronoun used initially might be either jc or Dread Talk (dt), but its repetition in the sentence with overtones of the first person alternative, ‘I and I’, available only to DT, identifies the speaker as a Rasta man. The choice of verb reinforces this interpretation. For while ‘forward’ adequately describes the act of walking, it is not used in this way in sje or in jc. It is, however, a commonplace in dt. The first movement of the poem continues:

… to the build-up beach where a faithful few
lie rigid, submit to the smite of the sun.
Today I bless you from the sore chambers of my temples.

These lines are written in sje except for one area of possible grammatical overlap with dt. The reader may now recognise it in the last line. The first person pronoun ‘I’, because of the repetition performed in the first line, may be identified as either dt or sje. The presence of the Rasta man is maintainted by the use of dt. sje indicates that the sentiment expressed is shared by the larger Jamaica.

An examination of an additional stanza, one again involving the sentiments of all Jamaica, serves to reinforce the point. It is the third movement of the poem in which Jamaica blesses the tourist and apologises to him for inclement weather:

Bless you with a benediction of green rain, no feel no way
its not that the land of the sea and the sun has failed, is so rain
You see man need rain for food to grow
so if is your tan, or my yam fi grow? is just so.
P.S thanks for coming anyway.

(p. 53)

In the first of these lines the double negative introduces the aside which marks the switch from English to jc, ‘no feel no way’. In the next line the explanation ‘is so rain stay’ is jc. It is the voice of the peasant farmer for whom ‘green rain’ which ruins the tourist's tan is a blessing. It brings green lushness and productivity to the plants which are his source of income. He apologises for what might seem to the tourist to be a selfish preference; rain over sun. Note that jc used here can be understood (I believe) by the English-speaking foreigner who might himself have rendered it ‘that is how rain is’.

All the speakers identify with the sentiments of the next two lines but it is the voice of the Rasta man that articulates it. What seems to be the impersonal ‘man’ in sje is in fact the multifunctional pronoun of dt sometimes represented by its variants, ‘the man’, ‘I-man’, ‘the I’. It is followed by the unmarked verb of jc and of dt. The next line continues with the voice of the peasant farmer in jc, to be followed by the polished English of the tourist board representative thanking the disappointed tourist for choosing Jamaica for his holiday. In each case it is language that identifies the different actors in this dramatic piece; and the voices of characters identify their place in the society, the sectors of the society they represent, enhancing the word pictures which they accompany. It is in this example that Goodison's use of the languages of the society in poetry resembles most Senior's use of it in prose.

Dread Talk, the code of Rastafari, features very strongly in the poem above. Elsewhere in Goodison the Rasta man, through his words, is constantly acknowledged as part of the Jamaican manscape. Sometimes it is necessary to repeat an idea already expressed in sje, to accommodate this code. The repetition, however, is not obtrusive because the words are different. Note for example the following from ‘Ceremony for the Banishment of the King of Swords’ from the collection Heartease:5 ‘… go through this again so you can penetrate it …’ (p. 53) To ‘penetrate’ in sje means to go through in a very literal sense. In dt, however, it means to ‘understand’. The sentence really means ‘go through that again so you can understand it’. What is important for the purposes of this paper is the extent to which Goodison seems to have internalised the multilingual nature of the speech community.

Another example is found in ‘A Rosary of Your Names’ from this same collection. God is worshipped here in a litany of fine words:

Your names are infinity
light and possibility
and right
and blessed
and upfull

(p. 58)

‘Upfull’ is a dt word whose meaning includes both ‘right’ and ‘blessed’. And, although it is not an English word, its sound is so much in accord with the words around it that the ear accustomed to English does not reject it.

The final example of this use is the last stanza of the poem ‘Heartease I’, in which the poet puns on the sound of the pronoun ‘I’ and so includes one strong symbol from the Rastafarian belief system articulated in the words of the code: the sound which is shared by the first person pronoun mentioned before, and the organ of sight:

Believe, believe
and believe this
the eye know how far
Heartease is

(p. 33)

‘The-I’ is an alternative to ‘I-man’ and ‘I-and-I’. It is the Rastafarian sound of the ‘ego’. It is also the sound which describes the organ of sight. ‘Seeing’ is very important to the Rastafari, its opposite ‘blindness’ is a hallmark of nonbelievers. Again one might easily think Goodison is employing non-standard English and needs to correct the verb to ‘knows’. But the sentence is: ‘I know how far Heartease is’. Choosing to write ‘eye’ instead of ‘I’ concedes that the reader will take the former for granted but needs to be pointed to the latter. Goodison is generalising a sentiment. The narrator knows how far away from the present reality Heartease is, as do we all, especially the Rasta man who is particularly far from ease in the society in which he is the oppressed (downpressed). Here is clever artistry that goes beyond the simple pun and describes a multiple consciousness in what seems on the surface to be a single mode of expression.

One challenge Goodison has more than adequately met is the representation of the complex Jamaican language situation within the terse form that is poetry.


Mothertongue as it is traditionally defined, is one-dimensional. It is that one language the individual first acquires and learns to use in communicating with other people. To operate effectively in the Jamaican situation however, and in situations similar to it, is to master at least two codes. Mothertongue in the Jamaican situation might usefully be thought of as ‘language’ rather than ‘a language’. Indeed, recent research into Caribbean language has certainly begun to consider acquisition in these terms.6


  1. Pamela Mordecai, ‘Wooing with Words: Some Comments on the Poetry of Lorna Goodison’, Jamaica Journal no. 45, 1981, pp. 38-40.

  2. Edward Baugh, ‘Goodison on the Road to Heartease’, Journal of West Indian Literature vol. 1, no. 1, 1986, p. 20.

  3. Lorna Goodison, ‘I Am Becoming My Mother, New Beacon Books, London, 1986.

  4. Lorna Goodison, Tamarind Season, The Institute of Jamaica, Kingston 1980.

  5. Lorna Goodison, Heartease, New Beacon Books London, 1988.

  6. See Lawrence D Carrington, ‘Acquiring Language In a Creole Setting’, Papers and Reports on Child Language Development, no. 28, Stanford University, California, 1989.

Susan Lasher (review date 1992)

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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 Jamaica “my green-clad muse,” and weaves strands of Caribbean, African, and European poetic tradition into an original tapestry filled mostly with portraits of women—from Winnie Mandela to Cleopatra, from mermaids to housemaids. In “The Mulatta as Penelope” Goodison offers her version of the failures of the epic hero, the pressures of real life on myth:

Today we said the real good-bye, he and I
but this time
I will not sit and spin and spin
the door open to let the madness in
till the sailor finally weary
of the sea
returns with tin souvenirs and a claim
to me.

(Take that, Omeros!) In this poem, Goodison imagines Penelope as a mother, substituting an intimate relationship with her son for the disappointments of marriage. This is one of many evidently personal poems where the poet speaks of love gone sour, of family relationships, of the spiritual quest that informs her work overall.

Goodison rejects the lyricism of standard English prosody, the lilting rhythms of Walcott for example, in favor of a direct vocal style that occasionally uses dialect (Creole patois) or music rhythms to locate it. The poems that work from a rhythmic principle are the overt “songs” or “hymns” like “Songs of Release”:

Unbind me now O Blue Nile
for I love your shining son
his hands sailed through my hair
like feluccas heading home.
For I would be boundless
released into space
the creator of all rivers to see.
Free and wash, cleanse unbind
release all rivers, free me.

Although there is evidence of reggae's influence—its cultural and spiritual imperatives, its unhurried pace, its diction, its optimism—generally, more crucial to Goodison are the dictates of freedom, which become a kind of benevolent despot in the poems, enforcing a loose and easy style that owes something to Goodison's visual sensibility (she studied art in New York and continues to paint) and her obvious attraction to cosmic vision, which can result in a luminous imagism:

Asi istra, star
is come
and hangs low
over Blue Mountain
Asi istra woman star
beams in
pleased with being.
See the silver points
of her light chain mail
skirts and the moonstone
anchoring her waist
and I say, “such splendor”
(with some envy)
for being only a woman
hovering between earth
and star reality.

(“Star Suite”)

The open forms also owe something to Goodison's search for an expressive mode based on the power of vocal chant and litany:

In this year of cataclysm pre-predicted
being plagued with dreams
of barefoot men marching
and tall civilizations crumbling
forward to where the gathering, gathering.
Crowdapeople, crowdapeople weep and mourn,
crowdapeople I have seen
packed in Japanese carriers
dark corpses of fallen warriors.
A man wearing a dub image of dirt
roots for fodder in a garbage can
raises a filth-encrusted hand
in a dumb acceptance/greeting
of the stasis on the land.
You see it crowdapeople?

(“Heartease III”)

Sometimes she combines the loose imagistic style with the loose prayer style:

God your face made manifest
on surfaces of sand or water …
in chiaroscuro
now dark
now light
in the balance of green
in the light
in the light.

(“A Rosary of Your Names”)

Adopting an elevated tone, a prophet's voice, Goodison often assumes the role of a high priestess with the strong female power to witness. We catch a glimpse of her as Antigone or Cassandra in “Jamaica 1980”:

And mine the task of writing it down
as I ride in shame round this blood-stained town.
And when the poem refuses to believe
and slimes to aloes in my hands
mine is the task of burying the dead
I the late madonna of barren lands.

The despair the poem expresses is not simply at the political economy of a society losing its body and soul to poverty and disempowerment and chaos: It is a measured despair at her own limited role as poet in the face of this disintegration. The “trees dripping blood leaves / and jasmine selling tourist-dreams” present hell on this island heaven, “For over all this edenism / hangs the smell of necromancy / and each man eats his brother's flesh. …” Goodison resorts to the terms of the spirit to describe the world of the flesh. Although her work consistently reflects the politics of freedom from racial oppression in Jamaica and elsewhere—witness the poems invoking Rosa Parks and Winnie Mandela—her invocations are increasingly couched in vague religious terms. Unfortunately, in some of the later poems of Heartease (1988), her loose style becomes simply uncrafted. “A Rosary of Your Names II,” for example, is just a long list, including: “The One in Charge / Superior / Almighty / All Knowing / Large. …” Later poems seem to “slime to aloes” as they abandon a vivid world—where women can be seen in “slack flirtation with a fat cloud” or with “spinster brown” skin or “sprout[ing] white wings on Sundays / their bosoms breathing orchid powder”; where people sell “soap bars / the color of creole,” “arum lilies pouting for deep rain kisses,” and carvings that “heap like a yam hill”—for the vague spirituality of “the true shining” and Heartease.

Although we see the poet as mother, as lover, as artist, she sees herself mainly as prophet:

In the fall I search for signs
a pattern in the New England flaming trees
“What is my mission? Speak, leaves”
(for all journeys have hidden missions).
The trees before dying, only flame brighter
maybe that is the answer, live glowing while you can.
That is the only answer, except one evening in November
I see an African in Harvard Square.
He is telling himself a story as he walks
in telling it, he takes all the parts
and I see that he has taken himself home.
And I have stories too, until I tell them
I will not find release, that is my mission …
For my mission this last life is certainly this
to be the sojourner poet caroling for peace
calling lost souls to the way of Heartease.

(“Heartease New England 1987”)

The poet's internal debate here between the aesthetics of singing (to burn always with that hard, gemlike and private flame of Pater, like the “flaming trees”) and the political science of storytelling (to take on the griot's more public role, like the “African in Harvard Square”) describes the dual concern, and the often dual tradition, that informs Goodison's work.

Can the two be synthesized? Goodison wants to show that they can: In “Mother the Great Stones Got to Move” she is both Orpheus and Tiresias:

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 stone of sacrificial lives we breed
to feed to tribalistic economic machines.
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.

(“Mother the Great Stones Got to Move”)

Here, she sings of the often harsh beauties of the world while prophesying an apocalyptic future. The poem combines metaphysical images (“the eternal coiled workings of the cosmos”), images loaded with political rhetoric (“tribalistic economic machines”) and romantic natural images (“rose quartz fountain / brimming anise and star water”). In its repeated phrase “Mother these great stones got to move,” it renders its universal observations in the local spiritual-political diction and rhythm of reggae.

Goodison narrowly avoids the danger of singing only one-note songs of praise or sorrow by articulating some of the poems with distinct voices—the Rastafarian of “The Road of the Dread”; Winnie Mandela in “Bedspread”; the aging survivors of “We Are the Women.” Only the tonal limitations of the poet-as-prophet threaten to reduce some of Goodison's work to one dimension. The constant danger of vaguely lovely singing is that it, like the sirens' song to Odysseus, may merely enchant us or lull us, taking us away from our task rather than restoring us to it. …

Andrew Salkey (review date 1993)

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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 engaging and indeed enticing selection of the poet's work recently issued by the University of Michigan Press [Selected Poems], which includes spiritual, humanistic, and political themes ranging from the southern Caribbean to North America, there are poems that depict the inconsolable condition of women struggling against the aridities of “love misplaced” and the resulting social inequities and enforced loneliness (“We Are the Women,” “Mulatta Song,” “Mulatta Song II,” “Jamaica 1980,” “Garden of the Women Once Fallen”). There are also the lyric narratives, in part expressed in the demotic, in part in the Creole standard, that extol, commemorate, and offer us lasting metaphorical strophes and images of human excellence and achievement (“To Us, All Flowers Are Roses,” “Guyana Lovesong,” “For Don Drummond,” “Jah Music,” “Lullaby for Jean Rhys,” “For Rosa Parks,” “On Becoming a Tiger”). And by the way, I consider “Heartease I,” “Heartease II,” and “Heartease III” to be among the most thematically important and sensitively written lyric demotic compositions in the collection (and surely among the finest of their kind in Caribbean poetry in English).

Then there are Goodison's mother-poems, contemporary elegies, odes, and praise songs, substantially contemplative and emotional yet unsentimental, and which at once instruct and delight heart and mind and are some of the most memorably tender statements in the book (“I Am Becoming My Mother,” “Guinea Woman,” “The Woman Speaks to the Man Who Has Employed Her Son,” “Mother the Great Stones Got to Move”). Altogether, these are the poems I like best, the ones that reveal the poet's regional and at the same time her universal sense of compassion. Of course, my all-time favorite Goodison poem is “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength),” a resonant cri de coeur in support of the primacy of motherhood and family unity.

Yes, there are a few minor complaints I feel I need to make in terms of the prose phrasing and figurative choices in some of the stanzas: clichés like “a cargo of slaves” and “the deep of my bosom”; banalities like “New York is the rush of subways” and “our great love that corroded into hatred”; trite sentiments like “all things weaken towards the end” and “I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart / which shall not be put out”; and hackneyed, punning moments like “will they come again in Caravelles / to a post office (in suits of mail)?” and “I'm going to keep the word love / and use it in my next poem. / I know it's just the wordsmith's failing / to forge a new metal to ring like its rhyme / but I'll keep its fool's gold.” That out of the way, I strongly recommend Lorna Goodison's Selected Poems for its bonanza of poignant poems about the lives of women and the familial supremacy of mothers.

Adele S. Newson (review date 1996)

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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.

In To Us, All Flowers Are Roses Goodison's range is expansive, from slavery's injustices to poverty in modern Jamaica. Curiously, the topics are bound together by locale as well as by historical and cultural connections. In the poem “O Africans” Goodison reconfigures the Americas—making the Caribbean region central—and acknowledges cultural syncretism: “To the melodies of Europe / roll rhythms of the Congo / O Africans imposing bright colors / over the muted tones of Europeans.” In other poems references to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Edgar Allan Poe, and biblical figures such as Jeremiah and Lazarus add to the mix.

The opening poem, “Missing the Mountains,” sets the tone for the collection in that it reflects on having belonged and on the detachment needed to “carry proof of my past existence.” Like the Blue Mountains that inspire the poet, that sense of place compels her to remember “how to make poetry from tossed about and restless leaves.”

In keeping with the trend of other Caribbean writers such as Kwame Dawes and Merle Collins, Goodison's efforts are a tribute to the memory of times past as well as the present, which mingle to form the present character. In the poem “Outside the Gates” the poet bids us to pause to remember “a band of good women / seeking a steady and righteous living / through purveying food to children.” And in “From the Book of Local Miracles, Largely Unrecorded” we learn of the simple faith of a woman whose desire materializes after she “set a pot of water / over a candlewood fire / when she knew she had no food.”

In the central poem, “In City Gardens Grow No Roses as We Know Them,” a resilience of character is profoundly evoked. Here the poet speaks of such yearnings as those of the decapitated breadfruit tree that “refused to die completely / but stood leaning forward to the East / as if hoping to receive something regenerative.” City dwellers recycle in inventive ways: “In city gardens grow no roses as we know them. / So the people took the name and bestowed it / generic, on all flowers, called them roses. / So here we speak a litany of the roses that grow / in the paint-pan chamber-pot gardens of Kingston.” However inventive, the loss of nature is acutely felt in this poem.

Also of note is the poem “Elephant,” in which memory of au African and her diaspora is rendered through a parallel with a mother elephant who has lost her child. “Annie Pengelly” is an unforgettable poem; using direct address to create a sense of urgency, the poet comes to represent the case of the maidservant whom “History owes.”

To this volume Goodison brings the eye of the visual artist, the discriminating taste of a chef, the memory of a griot, the precision of a diamond cutter, and the hunger of an exceptional student in her quest to render substantial the essence of Jamaica. The effect is stunning!

Velma Pollard (essay date 1998)

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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, literary critic, noted some success in finding that voice, or a close approximation to it, in the drama and in the novels in the early fifties.1

Jean D'Costa, Jamaican linguist and fiction writer, extends the requirement to include the need for the voices to be understood by a foreign readership. Discussing her choices of language in the writing of her novels for children in the 1960s and 1970s, D'Costa comments that the West Indian writer who wishes to satisfy himself, his local audience and his foreign audience must evolve a “literary dialect” which not only must satisfy both audiences but must be an authentic representation of the “language culture” of his community.2 Of her own style she writes, “Variation, code-switching and minimal shifting appear … to form a complete internalized reality.”3

In the essay “Mother Tongue,” I identify the prose of Olive Senior as an almost perfect match between life and its fictive reproduction which “might serve as a kind of laboratory for examining Jamaican speech” without losing its accessibility to the foreign reader.4 Moore's complimentary comment with regard to drama and the novel is not echoed in his comment on poetry. According to Moore, “By contrast it seems to have taken rather longer for West Indian poetry to develop a full consciousness of the living language situation which surrounds it.”5 And later Pamela Mordecai finds only Brathwaite among the region's poets handling “the Creole continuum [that is, the range of language between the deepest Jamaican Creole and ‘Standard’ Jamaican English] with a versatility” comparable to that of Lorna Goodison, the author whose work is the subject of the present paper.6

This paper analyzes a single poem, “Ocho Rios II,” by Goodison, not merely to indicate the distance the poetry has traveled since Moore's comment on the fifties, but to illustrate how language may be used as a mark of identity in a medium which must be at once terse and expressive. In Goodison's hands, different voices of the Jamaican community find their expression in discrete but overlapping codes which constitute what D'Costa describes as “language culture” and the “living language situations” identified by Moore. D'Costa's “code-switching and minimal shifting” is extended, in Goodison, to an intricate weave, facilitated by the fact that all the codes used in Jamaica are English-related. Goodison is able to manipulate the different grammars without losing intelligibility to the English-reading public. She accommodates, as will be illustrated later, as many as three codes within one sentence.

A brief description of the Jamaican linguistic environment is in order. The official language of Jamaica, as of all the territories of the Anglophone Caribbean, is Jamaican English (JE), a dialect of English. It is the language of the formal motions of the society and of education. The majority of Jamaicans, however, speak Jamaican Creole (JC), a Creole of English lexicon, which everyone in the speech community understands and which almost everyone can produce. Dread Talk (DT), the code of Rastafari, is a lexical adjustment available to both languages and may be invoked to satisfy the requirements of speakers sympathetic to the philosophy of Rastafari, a socioreligious movement which originated in Jamaica.

I have selected “Ocho Rios II” for this exercise because I think it represents a synthesis of all the codes operating in the Jamaican environment in an expression that escapes the feeling of contrivance that sometimes results from this kind of effort. The lines, to the ear of a Jamaican, are authentic. It is to this feature, I believe, that J.E. Chamberlain refers when he writes, “Goodison's language typically combines conversational naturalness with poetic artifice.”7

Pamela Mordecai, commenting on Goodison's first collection of poetry, identifies the use of language as an outstanding feature of the work and makes special reference to the effective sliding from one to another code of Jamaican speech.8 And Edward Baugh, commenting later on the development of Goodison's craft, notes the “continuous expending of linguistic possibility” and the refining of the skill of “sliding seamlessly between English and Creole.”9

The present analysis sees Goodison's product as less a sliding from one code to the other than an overlap of codes to represent the different identities of the sectors of the community represented by each speech code. The fact that all the codes are English related allows Goodison a certain security in the knowledge that an audience that reads English can understand what she writes while the local audience will be satisfied that the representation of the different strands of the society is accurate.

Language is, in the poem to be discussed, an identification marker of the person whose opinion or whose reaction to a given circumstance the writer wishes to record. The poem begins with an individual who enters the stage soliloquizing: “Today I again I forward to the sea.” The local reader immediately recognizes a Rastafarian. The first person pronoun “I” is an English form, but its repetition in the sentence suggests the “I an I” which functions as both singular and plural first person in Dread Talk. The choice of verb further identifies the Rasta man as the speaker. “Forward” to describe the act of walking is a particularly common verb in DT. It is rarely used with that meaning in either Jamaican Creole or Jamaican English. While the format identifies the speaker, the meaning is completely accessible to users of the other codes of the community.

The word “again” comments both on the habit of the Rasta man and the existence of an earlier poem, “Ocho Rios.”10 The first movement of the poem continues:

… to the built-up beach where a faithful few
lie rigid, submit to the smite of the sun.
Today I bless you from the sore chambers of my temples. …

These lines are written in JE except for the item “smite,” in which the verb/noun distinction of English is ignored in favor of DT usage, and the possibility of the English “I” in the last line being “I an I” or “the I” of Rasta convention. These items maintain the presence of the Rasta man although the words are from the repertoire of an English-speaking Jamaican.

In the next movement a larger Jamaican population joins the Rasta man on the scene. Voice and content are the sound and sentiment of the middle-class Jamaican. He/she speaks English (more or less) and understands the relationship between the tourist presence and the economy of the country, at a sophisticated level. He can banter about collaboration of Kaiser Bauxite Company and the Jamaican government. He puns on the term “exchange” using the language the society thinks of as his:

bless you Mr. Hawaiian Print Cabana suit,
I can smile at the exchange
The package tour one-upmanship
vs. the regular visitor.
Bless even you burnt to the colour of Bauxite
for the Kaiser is now our partner

The scene here includes the archetypal tourist in dress that has become classic tourist wear (the patterned shorts and shirt rarely worn by local men). The tourist might bargain with the local peddlar (“one-upmanship”) if he belongs to a poorer class who must choose the package tour. He is less likely to do that if he is a “regular” who can afford to visit Jamaica perhaps every year and can accept the peddlar's price without discussion. The “exchange” is of course both dialogue and dollars, the latter being “foreign exchange.”

A distinctly non-native code intervenes here in the exchange between tourists, overheard by the locals. The Jamaican ridicules, mildly, the tourist's newly acquired tan, comparing it, in an extended metaphor, with bauxite, for its redness, then continuing to bless the tourist: “for the Kaiser is now our partner.” “Kaiser” is the name of a foreign bauxite company. The uneasy relationships between local and foreign people and businesses are indicated by the placing of the definite article in front of “Kaiser” and so making it both the bauxite company and the World War One archenemy.

The third movement involves sentiments shared by all of Jamaica. Language identifies three different representatives. A fine fabric is woven as the middle-class speaker continues to bless the tourist in JE, but switches in midsentence (in lines 1 and 2) to JC. Another way of looking at this is that in mid-sentence he passes the microphone, so to speak, to the JC speaker:

bless you with a benediction of green rain no feel no way
its not that the land of sea and sun has failed, is so rain stay.
You see man need rain for food to grow
so if is your tan, or my yam fi grow? is just so.
P.S. thanks for coming anyway.

The rendering of complex behaviors, the sound of complex voices in a single statement by the manipulation of lexicon and grammar, is what I regard as Goodison's major contribution to the language of Caribbean literature.

In the real-life situation the JE speaker is able and even likely to code switch in this way. The artistic intention, however, is to involve the man whose stereotypical speech is JC. He is the peasant farmer for whom “green rain,” which ruins the tourist's tan, is a blessing. It brings (green) lushness and the promise of productivity to the plants which earn him his living. He apologizes to the tourist for preferring rain to the desired sun and explains away what might seem to be a selfish preference. He is a good ambassador for Jamaica, which he exonerates from blame for lack of sun in a place advertised for sun and sea. His complete statement is: “no feel no way … is so rain stay”; it might translate to English as: “Don't be angry, that is how rain behaves,” that is, unpredictably.

All the speakers identify with the sentiment expressed in the next line. But it is the voice of the Rasta man that articulates it. What might be the impersonal “man” of JE is equally a variant of the multifunctional pronoun of DT. “I-man,” “the man,” “man,” “I an I” are all equally valid ways of identifying the Rasta person. The verb which follows, “need,” is unmarked, as verbs are in JC and DT. But a mere marking of the verb (“needs”) would make the sentence English. In fact, depending on whether you read “you see” with an anglicized pronunciation or a JC pronunciation, you favor one speaker or the other.

The Rasta man and the farmer are at one in their relationship to the land. Both claim it in a very real sense. For one, it is his means of livelihood; for the other, it is what Jah (Jehovah) has given him for an inheritance. Anything that enhances its worth and beauty is important to both: “so if is your tan, or my yam fi grow? is just so.”

The voice, perhaps of the tourist board representative, speaks the afterthought of the stanza: “P.S. thanks for coming anyway.” That voice mediates between the gentle ribbing of the tourist by farmer and Rasta man, and any possible negative reaction the tourist might have to it. In addition it serves as a link with the next movement, in which a radio or TV announcer quotes a tourist statement to the media:

(we're here because we didn't believe a word of it
Jamaica is too beautiful
the people so friendly … but watch that talk of equality though)
Dont watch that. Albertha baby in the green coconut hat, bless you
still, but dont watch that.

The statement ends with an unfortunate comment which is the cue for the Rasta man's admonishment of the tourist. The admonishment suggests that while tourists are welcome to enjoy sun and sea (or to experience rain), they should try not to comment on the politics of the Jamaican situation, which is what they meddle in when they attempt to define terms like “equality” in the local context.

The poem ends, as it started, with the voice of the Rasta man, who is usually the most vocal of the unsolicited speakers in the Jamaican society. His is the voice of the nation against the outsider. Nevertheless he bestows on the outsider, the tourist, the earner of foreign exchange, the benediction from young Jamaica:

“Dont watch that. Albertha baby in the green coconut hat,
bless you
still, but dont watch that.”

The word “still” needs some elaboration here. Notice that it is located where it can be applied to either line or to both. In JE it means “yet” and suggests that a blessing is given to the tourist in spite of his attempt to interfere. In the code of the Rasta man it is a ubiquitous tag.

In these final lines once more the three codes are represented. “Dont watch that” is English if it is written. Spoken however, a slight phonological adjustment (“th” to “d”) allows that utterance to be JC. And whether Albertha is a Jamaican mother or an American tourist (as Gordon Rohlehr, personal communication, suggests), the unmarked verb “bless” allows the rest of the line to be JC but near enough to English that it can be either, depending on the phonological representation.

Three distinct voices in three codes, each representing an individual from one social group, can be identified in the poem. The fourth code is foreign and alien to the environment. It is the voice of the tourist mentioned earlier, whose sunbathing is the trigger for the discourse. It is heard in the second movement of the poem. That voice and the content it introduces are entirely out of place on a Jamaican beach. Alien content in an alien language is dull and passes without comment. Tourists compare notes:


The native Jamaican has little idea what drawn butter might be; nor does he speak of himself and things that concern him as “native.” When the voice comments on the local politics in the final movement, however, it awakens a response in the company.

The literary artist paints in words. Goodison—herself, in real life, a painter in watercolors—uses the available codes and the stereotypes associated with them to present a credible encounter on a Jamaican beach. Stereotyping is important here. Each code is associated with certain behaviors and certain recognizable physical and psychological types. R. B. LePage and Andree Tabouret-Keller say of language that through it “we can symbolize in a coded way all the other concepts which we use to define ourselves and our society.”11 “Ocho Rios II” exploits fully the possibilities of language in these terms.


  1. Gerald Moore, “The Language of West Indian Poetry,” in Critics on Caribbean Literature, ed. Edward Baugh (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), 130.

  2. Jean D'Costa, “The West Indian Novelist and Language: A Search for a Literary Medium,” in Studies in Caribbean Language, ed. Edward Baugh (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), 252.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Velma Pollard, “Mother Tongue: Voices in the Writing of Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison,” in Motherlands: Black Woman's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, ed. Susheila Nasta (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 240.

  5. Moore, 131.

  6. Pamela Mordecai, “Wooing with Words: Some Comments on the Poetry of Lorna Goodison,” Jamaica Journal 45 (1981): 34.

  7. J. E. Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (Toronto: McClell and Steward, 1993), 211.

  8. Mordecai, 37.

  9. Edward Baugh ed. Studies in Caribbean Language (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), 20.

  10. Lorna Goodison's poem “Ocho Rios” is analyzed in detail in Mordecai's essay.

  11. R. B. LePage and Andree Tabouret-Keller, Acts of Identity: Creole Based Approaches to Language and Ethnicity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 247.

Cyril Dabydeen (review date 2000)

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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 cast in languorous lines in a collection emphasizing her craft, all in “its golden entirety.” This attitude to poetry was foreshadowed in her first book, Tamarind Season (1980), and was seen in others such as I Am Becoming My Mother (1986) and Heartease (1989). Of Tamarind Season, she would say, “It's a sort of Tagore,” and Heartease is “sort of continuing … my personal continuing journey.” Goodison's training in art—she studied art in Jamaica and New York—also comes into play as we visualize her fingers forming or shaping fruits, whether it is a mango or tamarind, all quintessentially tropical. This section, one of four here, includes acknowledgment of other artists, seen in “Letter to Vincent Van Gogh,” and of poets such as Yeats and Akhmatova, toward truly expressing her personal, continuing journey.

The other sections in the volume are “My Mother's Sea Chanty,” “This Is My Father's Country,” and “And God a Me,” all of which reflect Goodison's unfailing lyricism and unique chord as her imagination explores the various dimensions of family, lore, and tradition in intrinsically Jamaican contexts with her sense of origins and gender always in a place known for its stalwarts, beginning with the Maroons down to modern-day heroes in both matriarchal and patriarchal dimensions. And overall, in Turn Thanks we see a considerable development in Goodison's work, albeit following in the vein of I Am Becoming My Mother, with images and feelings being recast, sometimes in simply looking back to her African roots (e.g., “Africa on the Mind Today”).

Plantation life and family settings associated with domesticity dominate the middle section of the book, as the poet acknowledges her mother Miss Mirry, Grandmother Hannah, Great-Grandmother Leanna, and Uncle, while evoking other images of her mother's village, like a familiar heirloom but without banal sentimentality. And indeed, some of the best poems in Turn Thanks are “The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner,” “This Is My Father's Country,” and “About Almonds and Ambergris,” reflecting her particular sensibility with a kind of mellowness of tone: the lines often appearing languorous and enhancing her lyricism and simultaneously adding to the accessibility of her voice, as her technique demonstrates.

While there is little of the chiseled phrase one finds, say, in Derek Walcott, the poems with their dialectal rhythmic patterns (cf. “Turn Thanks to Miss Mirry”), combined with enjambment and caesura and diction that are intrinsically Jamaican, accentuate her spirit of calm assurance. Indeed, Turn Thanks does not address social issues, even indirectly, whether Caribbean- or American-based (Goodison spends a fair bit of time in the U.S.), as perhaps seen in the Chicago poet-journalist Patricia Smith in her Close to Death (which I read simultaneously with Turn Thanks). In technique and penchant, Goodison is closer to Rita Dove, preferring feeling to the delineation of past and present experience; and as she says in “Winter Dreams,” “Look no more outside yourself / Sings my heart returning,” making Caribbean writing at its finest with Turn Thanks. Indeed, Goodison could also be among the finest poets writing today.

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