Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062
The overall theme of Goodison's poem "The River Mumma Wants Out" is evident in the title. In Jamaican folklore, the River Mumma, or River Maiden, is similar to the mythological mermaid: half human, half fish. Traditionally, the River Mumma lives at the fountainhead of the island's large water...
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The overall theme of Goodison's poem "The River Mumma Wants Out" is evident in the title. In Jamaican folklore, the River Mumma, or River Maiden, is similar to the mythological mermaid: half human, half fish. Traditionally, the River Mumma lives at the fountainhead of the island's large water channels, acting as protector of the water and of the creatures who live in it. The poem's title declares that the River Mumma would prefer to be absolved of her duties. Another meaning is also suggested by the title: the River Mumma may simply want to emerge from the water or rid herself of her somewhat confining physical form. Whichever of these meanings is implied, the change is in the course of happening.
The poem then begins with a question: "You can't hear?" With these three words, the narrator captures the reader's attention in several ways. First, the narrator's addressing the reader with the second-person pronoun "you" makes the reader a participant in the conversation of the poem. Second, in using the present tense, she invokes an immediacy, luring readers to subconsciously strain their ears, as if they might hear something even as they read. Third, she demands the active consideration of a response to the question. In the second part of the first line, Goodison provides her thematic statement: "Everything here is changing."
In the lines that follow, the narrator employs a personification of nature to characterize the changes that are occurring. "Bullrushes," which are simple, unglamorous, water-loving plants, now "want / to be palms"; the mention of palms, of course, conjures romantic notions of tropical life. Palm trees stretch their long trunks up into the sky and adorn classy gardens, whereas bullrushes are more likely to be completely overlooked. The bullrushes are looking for glory, in other words—what they would imagine to be a better life. They also want to be taken to the "Kings's garden," which desire the narrator mocks by asking, "What king?" No true kings are present on the island. Even the garden's name, the narrator implies, is pompous. Thus, everything would seem to want to be more important than it actually is.
"The river is ostriching into the sand," reads the opening line of the second stanza, which might be taken in two different ways. Ostriches are known for burying their heads in sand when confronted with danger. This line could suggest that the river, which is perhaps aware that the River Mumma, its protector, wants to leave, is attempting to hide its head in the sand. The statement could also mean that the waters are drying up. Whichever interpretation is made, the river is in trouble. The next line emphasizes this trouble. "Is that not obvious? the nurse souls ask." The nurse souls might be secondary protectors who are aware of the dangerous changes taking place. They are, perhaps, unable to reverse these changes without the River Mumma; they may not have any power if the River Mumma is not involved. But the nurse souls are not hiding their heads in the sand. They are fully aware and appear to be surprised that others are not equally conscious of what is happening: "You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?" they ask.
The remainder of the poem enumerates the specific things that the River Mumma wants to do rather than oversee her responsibilities. The first line of stanza 3 reads, "Mumma no longer wants to be guardian / of our waters." From the third stanza on, in fact, the narrator seems to be belittling her own culture, perhaps as a means of criticizing the culture of the world at large. She points out the commercial aspects of society and the people's needs to feed their egos. The River Mumma now "wants to be Big Mumma, / dancehall queen of the greater Caribbean." Thus, she is no longer satisfied living in her hidden places in the mountains. She wants to be noticed, glorified, and popular. She wants to go out and be entertained.
In the fourth stanza, the reader is told that the River Mumma's cravings go deeper than mere entertainment and ego gratification, as she has also lost her sense of the sacred: "She no longer wants to dispense clean water / to baptize and cleanse (at least not gratis)." That is, she does not care about the health of the water and is no longer concerned with the spiritual practice of cleansing, unless she is being paid to do so. She has lost her desire to do good, to encourage and to nurture her community. She is looking out only for herself. She has retreated from lofty ideals and, like much of the culture around her, now requires some kind of material reward for services rendered. She does not even care that her lack of concern and her shirking of her responsibilities not only damages her immediate surroundings but also spreads pollution many miles beyond her home.
Whereas the River Mumma used to hide in the mountain waters, she now wants to be "exposed." She wants to be famous the world over; she wants to "go clubbing with P. Diddy," an African American rapper who epitomizes the wealth and celebrity that can be attained through the world of entertainment. She wants to "experience snow," which does not exist in her homeland. In other words, she wants what she does not have, and she is willing to sacrifice everything to get it.
In the last stanza, the narrator continues listing the outlandish desires of the River Mumma. She persists in wanting to seek out the worst of the commercial environment, such as by visiting the biggest and fanciest of the world's shopping malls and "spending her strong dollars." The use of the word "strong" is worth noting here, as the narrator implies that strength in the commercial world takes precedence over strength in the noncommercial world. The River Mumma is convinced that strength can be obtained only through money, not through the spiritual or mythological. The stories of the past have either failed or bored her. She wants to take part in the new world, the world of money. As such, she will pay no heed to anyone seeking her wisdom or protection—unless, of course, that person has money, which is what provides her with the "insurance" that she will remain strong.