Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lorna Goodison, Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems

I've been reading a lot of poetry in translation recently, principally from Arc's Visible Translations series, but also from Carcanet. Maybe it's just because Guinea Woman shares a publisher with Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard and Inger Christensen's It (see previous and forthcoming blog posts respectively) but I found myself approaching Lorna Goodison's work as if in translation.

I've also read Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems this year, and Goodison's beautiful memoir From Harvey River, so maybe the feeling of translation stems from the *un*familiarity of hearing one story told in three, or more, ways. Family tales and figures from Jamaican history recur across the three books symphonically. Somehow, the more immersed I become in Morant Bay and nayga bikkle, the more I feel that I am on unfamiliar ground as the detail brings me up close to a world that I know only through words.

That's not to say that Goodison's poetry is alienating: not at all. It is so absorbing, such sensurround writing, that reading it has the qualities of walking through a particularly vivid dream. Or rather, that's how I want to take delight in it. I follow the rigorous yet compassionate intellect that excoriates the legacy of colonialism. I follow the narrative of family and home and love. But I want to reside in this poetry as something beyond lyric's conventional trompe l'oeil, its trick of the word. It moves (in) my body the way that watching dance does, and I've never been able to write about watching dance. I need to take up the challenge suggested by the excellent feminist poetry blog delirious hem for their August forum. They are inviting submissions to O Say Can You See: nonverbal reviews and adaptations of women's poetry.

I'd like to cook my response to Goodison's work (which is alive with food, both picked and cooked), or dance it, or paint it -- Goodison is a visual artist as well; the cover painting is her own. Her poetry urges me to reach beyond my verbal skills, the wordplay I fall back on, and find embodied, five-sense expression for the sheer joy that her work releases in me. Of course, that sounds like a get-out clause ("Miss, I can't write my essay, I'm too overwhelmed by the physical pleasures of the text") and some kind of racist echo: "Oh, this Caribbean poetry is *so* physical, not literary and intellectual like "our" writing." Which is a problem of the EuroWestern dichotomous brain: if I talk about a poetry being sensuous, physical, spiritual, colourful, sexual, edible, it's immediately in the column with "female" and "non-white", as if poems that make the reader want to dance, eat, make love, run in the rain, travel, listen to grandmothers' stories, cook, sew, or laugh are second-best.

Goodison's poem "For Love of Marpessa Dawn," about a boy who falls so madly in love with the performer who played Eurydice in Black Orpheus that he convinced himself he was going to Brazil to rescue her, speaks with a warmth that is both affective and political of the non-rational inspirations of art. "We were / willing to make that leap of faith," she writes, "For we were all misplaced beings / our true selves ripped from the world book / of myths." There are poems in this book that could make me run to Jamaica to fall in love with Aunt Rose and her honey advice. It's a poetry that makes me want to serenade beneath windows as Garth Baker intends to do in Rio.

One reason that I started writing these poetry reading notes last month was to get away from the idea that practical criticism, close reading and intellectual analysis are the only acceptable ways to approach poetry. At the same time, I wanted to be rigorous in discussing how poetry affected me emotionally, physically, imaginatively and intellectually. So how does Goodison's poetry open my mindbody up to its rhythms and images? There are a number of modes and moods in the book, including incantatory poems that draw on Rastafari. There are also a number of "writing back" poems, such as "To Mr William Wordsworth, Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland," which rework the colonial relationship between Britain and Jamaica, drawing them closer and redressing historical asymmetries in a way reminiscent of Derek Walcott's work. There are many poems that bring to life memories and family histories, like "Coir" and "In City Gardens Grow No Roses as We Know Them," rich in specific flavours and speech rhythms that prefigure the intensely immersive recall of From Harvey River. And there are tender love poems like "Domestic Incense" and "A Bed of Mint" that reach back into the traditions of pre-Islamic Arabic love poetry to engender a spiritual and located erotic.

But the poems that engage me the most in terms of wanting to *write* about them, to quote them and share them, to testify about them, are a series that run throughout the book about the poet as woman/woman as poet, and the strange practice of poetry. Sometimes witty and lighthearted -- like "The Mango of Poetry" -- and sometimes lucid and medicinal as a meditation, like "Sometimes on Days Such as This," these poems are vital and astonishing, and speak something about poetry *as* embodied practice, as lived experience, that I don't think I've heard elsewhere. Goodison reveals this as "Bringing the Wild Woman Indoors," in one of the many poems in which she writes exactly about the bodily rituals that the rest of us might gloss over as habits. She sanctifies these practices of cleansing and robing not as civilisation or religion, but as tenderness, when she envisions the freshly bathed and dressed poet greeting her wild "disheveled and weeping" self, and brings "her to live inside with [her] forever." Rather than a duality of raw and cooked, the poet casts both "starched garments of white" and a "half-hemmed dress" as poses, costumes, attitudes that do not separate but parallel the "true sister[s]."

"Some Things You Do Not Know about Me" unwinds from its disingenuous title to become a rapturous account of the act of creation, a Genesis story grounded in the details of the poet's cup "rich brown like bitter chocolate" and the evening's cooking. It's a glimpse at once intimate and universal, the poet engaged in a dervish as the poem's flow sets her dancing:
Round and round the table I go
till my wild whirling
shaves the edges off the square table,
and I'm whirling now around a round table.
I go so until I fall down,
and wherever my feet are pointed
it is there that I take the poem.
Like this one, I think now I will have to take it East,
so I will light a stick of incense
and play Bob Dylan wondering
if she might be in Tangier.
Or I just might sit quietly
and take my own self there.
There's room in this ecstasy for the domestic, for music, for tired feet -- and space, too, for the layering of "there": the poem's East, Tangier, the imagination. Above all, "there" is the body not as vehicle for possession, nor as transport system for the mind, but as the threshold for the self, which is poetry.


SF Said said...

That's a great post - you make me want to read the poems, and the one you quote makes me want to read them even more!

Delirium's Librarian said...

How amazing is that image of the cup "rich brown like bitter chocolate"! It's really a poetry of the complexity of simple pleasures -- like going on holiday, it reminds you how to look and love the world around you.

SF Said said...

It is a delicious image!