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Review of 'Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems'12 November 2006
Mary Hanna, The Sunday GleanerPrevious review of 'Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems'... Next review of 'Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems'... To the 'Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems' page...
'A triumph of fusions'
Prolific, wide-ranging and accomplished, Lorna Goodison's new collection, Goldengrove, is a superb compilation made up of twenty new poems and poems from her two previous books, Travelling Mercies (2001) and Controlling the Silver (2005). As such, this beautiful edition with a cover picture by Goodison allows for clear demonstration of her ability to grow from collection to collection. She 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.'
In an article in the Journal of West Indian Literature, Professor Edward Baugh describes and illuminates Goodison's growth from Tamarind Season (1980), Goodison's first book of poems, through I am Becoming My Mother (1986) to Heartease (1988), her third collection. Baugh notes the development of Goodison's striking ability to speak - as a good poet should - for people 'in proportion as he (the poet) speaks arrestingly of and for himself'. He traces the growth of her ability to merge her personal voice with the communal one, and most especially, to speak movingly for women in all their stations and functions.
These traits are found also in the collections presented in Goodison's Goldengrove, as indeed is evidence that the poet's poems - and the pain that accompanies her creating them - have grown larger.
Her poems now encompass the world of the Caribbean diaspora and beyond, for we find cultural evidence of voyages to Egypt and India and many references to the old masters in the world of art. Goodison is growing beyond writing to embrace pure imagery: she has seriously undertaken a new discipline, that of painting, and her reach of mind and perception is thereby enhanced.
On the back of the book, Derek Walcott is quoted as calling Goodson's most recent poems 'a triumph of fusions'. This approach to writing the self-as-community has the effect of producing joy - 'the rare quality that has gone out of poetry that these marvelous poems restore'. That is high praise indeed. Andrew Salkey once noted astutely that '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'. Goodison speaks with a voice of great intelligence of these many issues and areas of concern to Caribbean people.
She is without doubt one of the finest poets of our region, and a worthy recipient of the Gold Musgrave Medal from Jamaica, her home country. Goodison still speaks fluently across a wide range of Jamaican speech registers although she now lives in North America and teaches at the University of Michigan. This should be of no surprise, for the language of her poems is of the 'heart-and-mind' and is an integral part of her development as a person and a poet.
She still writes with sensitive eloquence about erotic and familial love (as Laurence Breiner has noted), but her concerns are now much broader, including signature North American images like salmon swimming upstream ('The Selflessness of Salmon'), and draw on western masters like Dante ('Giovanni Paulo'), but her heart still has at its root the breathtaking images of home:
To endure the strict days of ice
Come to absorb the green of
That egrets bring. Silk cotton
Do not leave Xamayca forever,
your wild self
sprouts here like long-limbed
dispersed, blown about and
tossed, seeded first
off the Guinea coast. You are
African star grass.
Settle lightly, moved by breath of
The egrets perch upon the trees
Blossoms of birds, or white-
('To Absorb the Green', from Travelling Mercies)
From the recent poems we find a simple (and gendered) version of homesickness, also fused with African elements and nation language:
I come from a land
where the same shop
offers morning breakfast,
dressmaking and fish.
Where the port of St Mary
is inscribed in Spanish
and called in the tongue of Twi.
Essie say the water cold
the canoe cannot go forth
for fish take low and gone deep.
No fish today, try greens.
('I Come From a Land')
'Where I Come From' also expresses an essential Jamaican-ness through the personas of the old women who 'bind living words/across their flat chests' and reach for 'medicine words' of healing from where they have recorded them at 'the base of their bellies'.
The long sequence on the apprentice Cassamere in 'On Leaving Goldengrove' shows Goodison's extraordinary versatility and narrative capability, for it is the story of 'the master of at least five trades' and his career in seven poems. Its texture brings to mind 'Controlling the Silver', the title poem of that collection, where we learn how the women of Benin, removed from their homeland, came to control silver enough to 'buy land, even to lend to massa'. When silver disappears from the banks, it reappears on the bodies of the African women:
Not a threepence, a sixpence,
not one florin.
No metal-alloyed between the
Not even a lion-pon-it shilling to
one pound to guinea, absent all
except for that revolving around
of our women like Jupiter's multiple
plunging between black mountains
into drawstring vaults of calico
Goodison ranges the globe in Travelling Mercies and Collecting the Silver, but in her recent poems she returns home with a mission to right history ('The Cruel Room') and to pay tribute to its makers ('What Happened to Peter'). She speaks of Peter Tosh in the warm tones of one artist praising another:
My impression of him was
he was a shy man,
private behind those shades
he never took off.
Between him and everyone else
he maintained a wall of smoke.
She closes her tribute with a
thank you Peter Tosh
for helping us get up stand up.
As I watched him step off
rolling lambsbread into blunt,
wherever he lives now, what a
One could say the same of Lorna Goodson: wherever she lives now, what a music! As well as the Gold Musgrave, Lorna Goodison has been awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Henry Russel Award from the University of Michigan. Her work, which has been widely translated and anthologized, appears in the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry.
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