Read an Excerpt
Controlling the SilverPoems
By Lorna Goodison
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2005 Lorna Goodison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIsland Aubade
One bright morning when my work is over,
I will fly away home.
Before day morning, at cockcrow and firstlight,
our island is washed by the sea which has been
cleaning itself down with foamweed and sponge.
Fishermen who toiled all night and caught trash
let down their seines again on the off chance.
The never-get-weary-yet cast off and their nets
will break from abundance. On land, the feeding
trees or kotch-hotels of egrets, bird-bush lodges,
start to empty of perch occupants flown in pursuit
of proverb's worm. The faithful night watchman
will punch the clock and so end dark night's shift.
He earns the right to strike a match, light first fire
and issue out a sheer blue smoke scarf to morning.
She will catch and tie up her hair with this token,
gunman and thief slip and slide home with long bags.
And the farmer turns in the sleep that is sweet,
a laboring man sleep that, he'll flex his wrists
in practice for machete wielding; and the woman
will give suckle to a drowsing infant. In the field,
the low of cows in need of milking ministrations.
The jalousies of the choir mistress, who sleeps alone,
open as she raises a revival hymn over the yard
to hail the coming of our Lady of Second Chance,
the Mother of Morning who invites all visitors.
* * *
Come drink this cup of Blue Mountain coffee
stirred with a brown suede stick of cinnamon.
Just say no thanks, what you need is bush tea.
Pumpkin seeds parched, steeped in enamel pot
with kept-secret, fitted lid, so no steam escapes
before you raise its doctor-vapor to your face.
Thank source, she will insist, for the mysterious way
spirit debones from troubled flesh, easing you
from sickbed across entrenched ice and tundra
up the seven thousand feet peak of Blue Mountains.
Startover is where Mother Morning lives. By leaven
of struggle-up mantra, return Shulamite to Xamayca.
Morning has become my mother, bringer of curing
bush tea. She is now mother to the whole island,
grandmother to Miles, mountain born, who thought
'Maw'nin' was a lady. "Show her to me" said my son,
and we pointed him to a rose dawn over our village.
Above our house was Blue Mountain Inn, the Queen
of England dined there, we did too, till hurricane
raised high the roof. She comes bringing frangipani
and jasmine commingling in a clay jar of terra cotta,
cloth cotta on her head coiled to bear, asking where
we want these bride-ivory flowers dew-drenched
from wedding nights. Set them on the Singer machine
by the door of a concrete-nog cottage where wrote
the penkeeper of Enfield. Chalk-white walls scripted
with calligraphy of ivy, acid-wash, slate roof porous
in parts, board latches to doors and windows gaped
wide so as to allow loquacious choirs of gospelling
redthroat birds to chorus in the brick floor kitchen,
where I stood over a gas stove and stirred, porridge
for my boychild, for his dog, cornmeal and beef bones.
Stirred, till we arranged ourselves as migrating birds.
Emulate the fit fruit that mother of morning brings, mark
June plum's defensive seed, so deep the purple skin
concealing the milk-flesh of most private starapple
(which Miles consumed only in twos). She always has
the same greeting, our lady of second chance morning.
Hear her: "my children, come in like the new moon."
If we encounter turn-back northers and land after noon,
she will be pleased to fix us second breakfasts of cooked
food. Sweet potatoes, medallions struck from yellow yams,
unfertilized ground provisions we'll eat seated under
poinciana trees, which drip petals, like scotch bonnet
peppers, capsicum benediction on our second breakfast.
Don't shake hands with the wicked, eat greens, abase
and abound. After this, no one you'll meet is a stranger,
she'll say, and give you a mesh fan of flexible ferns.
For this Jamaica sunhot is hell on your skin, burnt raw
by radium. Going to bathe in the family river cousin,
we need to go back to where our people come from.
Over the Guinea Grass Piece
Fly the shutters and dun-winged sparrows beat in.
Leave ripe fruit and Demerara sugar
out on counter; let them drill through rind skin
and clear plastic, till sweet-mouthed they perch
beside this new sheaf and sing. Wedding weed
trails from the kitchen windowsill, garlands
for attendant bridesmaids. Pink corallila
embroiders the green hedgerow of bush bush.
A matched pair of brown and white milch cows graze,
nurse egrets needle flanks free of leech ticks.
A brown calf draws down its mother's warm milk,
the poinciana shivers blood issue
of petals over the guinea grass piece.
To the west the Caribbean sea, Atlantic
waters to the East.
We always said we'd go back together.
You who loved a sick joke, here is one:
we are crossing the Tropic of Cancer.
We might not reach in time to de-ice you
into renew. You lie in the foothills
of Calgary and I'd like to be able
to tell you that the azure harbor ahead
is the horseshoe of Lucea Bay, but those
white horses run too fierce.
You have the eye, from the foothills you can
discern the washed bones of many million
drowned on the Atlantic side,
where long-meter waves hexameter swell:
Wild horse, mounted militia, martial law
search and destroy, thundering buffalo,
bull bucker, overseer, guineagogue,
badlove-takelife waves, gathering brute force
to draw you under, come girl, wash your heart,
with heart-rinse of machete-split coconut.
They packed you in ice early up north
where you plied your wordsmith's trade,
rubbing the salve of convince on dry tongues
which became then sure and swift of speech.
Your own tongue aches from tip to root;
you want to assuage it with water coconut,
for killer crab and that low grey lizard
beneath the water jar have harmed you.
When at age seven our two eyes made four,
you were my first cousin who taught me
how a river named by our generations
was benign, would not harm, but pull and haul,
bank to bank safety. You said to me, sit there
on the grave stones town girl, sit and learn
how to discern between one good duppy
and a bad one. Under the damp, dirt cellar
of the Harvey house we exhumed porcelain
bowl shards, buttons of bone, blank-stare dolls
with decayed bodies, and nacred spoons we used
as earth-moving tools for finding Harvey roots.
the long line of David and Margaret,
disinterring evidence of the stillborn
who did not draw breath at begetting time.
Which begins with Nana Frances Duhaney of Guinea
and William Henry Harvey of England, who wed
and begat Tom, Fanny, Mary and David
Harvey, he who wed Margaret, progeny
of Leanna Sinclair also of Guinea and George O'Brian
Wilson of Ireland. This is how we come to come from
the long-lived line of David and Margaret,
who begat Cleodine, Howard, Edmund,
Alberta, Flavius, Edmund, Rose, Doris
and Ann. And I am from Doris, and Joan
she was from Ann, but it was like we were
daughters of one woman. Come in cousin
from the cold: there are times a one has to
seek succor under own vine and fig leaf.
Let us look now to the rock and quarry
out of which our generations were hewed.
Ode to the Watchman
As we exit from the old city before day
we sight the night watchman at his post,
evidence of his vigilance against nocturnal
furies red in his eyeballs. He did not bow
though, no, not him, it is right to thank him.
All praise to you O beneficent watchman
for keeping guard over us while we slept,
blessed be your eyelids which did not blink
even once in solidarity with those lowered
shutters, window blinds and jalousies.
You remained awake, ever alert, armed,
with only your night-stick, rod, and staff,
your aged, cross mongrel dog rampant
at your side, even as the smoke pennant
blown from your rough-cut filterless
hand-rolled cigarettes flew out full staff.
For pushing against that grease-stained
tarpaulin of despair and not allowing it
to befoul us during our needed night rest.
For keeping at bay restless rolling calves,
trampling down from those sleep hills,
busted old rusty chains rattling to shake
the firm resolve of small hearts, thanks
watchie for keeping them from breaking
and entering our little children's dreams.
And now kind watchman go home to rest,
you who did not seize and beat the beloved
as she roamed the streets, composing the Song
of Solomon. Go home now good watchman.
The last hot rush of caffeine pins that pricked
your blood awake has been rained from your
thermos flask, your bread-back of night lunch
cast upon the keep-up fire in your belly. Cease
the anti-lullaby you keen to maintain wake,
the sun is here to take your place.
Our Ancestral Dwellings
Columned cotton trees are our ancestral dwellings.
Beneath them stand the departed who missed
the return voyage on redemption's longboats.
Cravers of salt, gravalitious warriors enlisted
in world wars of must-have; stirred-up ones
with unfinished business who cannot lie quiet.
Necessary guides, who without warning occupy
the skins of fervent women, commandeering
prayers to sound earthquake and storm warnings.
Undelivered orphan children seeking rebirth,
engorged navel strings in need of clean-cut,
for only then can they die and come in again.
These are ones congregated at cotton tree root,
some offering themselves for hire as if alive.
Others limbo there till moved by hosts to depart.
We have no business here. Drive past.
Recalling the Fourteen Hour Drive from
Kingston to Lucea, 1953
At least fourteen pit stops or maybe more
for engine fires to be extinguished,
to pee in the bush, then to Old Harbour
for Arawak bammy and crisp fry fish.
We leave come sun up, taking the two-lane
highway, risking our necks over Junction
Road. Chant psalms aloud, as we careen down
and around Mount Diablo's hairpin bends.
Then more stops to throw up and seal off chests
with newspaper. One hundred and ten miles
past cane fields, citrus groves, banana walks,
tall palms this island was then home to. You
lifted up your eyes to them, you small child
pressed in the back seat between big people.
The Wandering Jew and the Arab Merchant
on the Island of Allspice
Along the road we passed the wandering Jew
in his dark suit, his cart piled with dry goods.
Further along, we sighted the Arab merchant,
his wares rising from his back in a camel hump.
Attar of roses, good for your noses, come to you
from me and Moses. Buy your perfume pressed
from those fragrant rose blossoms of Lebanon.
All the way along the Damascus road, the Jew
has come to sell his things to the freed Africans.
The Arab came following the long spice route
to this island of Allspice. Shalom and Salaam
becomes 'Sallo' on the tongues of the Africans.
They were known those days to find themselves,
the Arab and the Jew, in the same free village,
on the same day, peddling their similar wares.
And in the village square they would sit at noon
under the broad shade of old Lignum Vitae trees
and break bread together, unbraid Challah, share
aish or Syrian bread. Aish, ancient name for both
bread and humanity. They'd sit, eat and remark
how some hard-pay Africans do not like to part
with silver, and how they both dread the walk
through cockpit country. The Arab gave the Jew
a chip from the ka'ba to protect him in the valley
of the shadow. The Jew gave the Arab an amulet
shaped like Moses' tablet. To the Africans, they sell
Bibles, then all bless Father Abraham, before taking
to hill and gully roads across this island of Allspice.
Passing the Grace Vessels of Calabash
Our foreparents carved on
(lest they forget) maps, totems
symbols and secret names,
creating art when some
would claim we existed
in beast state.
Every negro in slavery days
had their own
So they'd drink water from
grace vessels, their lips
kissing lines of maps
leading back to Africa,
to villages where relatives
waited for years
before they destroyed
the cooking pots
of the ones who crossed.
So Who Was the Mother of Jamaican Art?
She was the first nameless woman who created
images of her children sold away from her.
She suspended those wood babies from a rope
round her neck, before she ate she fed them,
touched bits of pounded yam and plantains
to sealed lips; always urged them to sip water.
She carved them of heartwood, teeth and nails
her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.
Her spit cleaned face and limbs, the pitch oil
of her skin burnished. When the woodworms
bored into their bellies, she warmed castor oil;
they purged. She learned her art by breaking
hard rockstones. She did not sign her work.
Jah The Baptist
FOR THE RASTAFARI ELDERS
Children call the fruits of locust trees, stinking
toe. Are they what John the Baptist fed on?
In those Bible stories our mothers read to us,
John the Baptist was dread righteous Rastaman,
trodding wild in the desert, feeding on honey
and locusts, "herbs for my wine, honey for my strong drink."
Balancing acrid with sweet of wild bees, he invoked
brimstone, lightning and fire on generations of vipers.
Flee, he warned, from Babylonian standards. Play not
by the rules of their game, for they detest the dark
of your skin, the thick of your lips, the wool of your hair.
Strive not to imitate Babylon, become your own man and woman.
Before he baptized with the waters of clear insight,
hard-case words of locust musk kicked off his tongue.
That bunch of corroded keys
dropped in your lap, now hangs
deadweight on your days.
In morphine sleep you dream
by the bottle-torch moonlight
of village children, owners
of the roads in crab season.
Crack backs underfoot
sever limb from limb
snap those antenna eyes
scoop articulated parts
into long bags hauled home
to boiling pot. They stiffen
before yielding up flake-flesh
to scourge of hot pepper,
bow broad forehead
to strike-down of hammer.
But always there are ones
that bite back and do not let go,
till thunder roll.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Women
No, begin this praisesong again,
for our foremothers obscure,
canonize them right and left.
Since oncologists read
crab tracks in your cells,
you summon female spirit warriors
like cousin Fool-Fool Rose
who rose from being
village idiot to world class praise singer
because she practiced
legendary Xamaycan hospitality
and offered up her cup
to a stranger wanting water.
Fool-Fool Rose is Leaving Labor-in-Vain Savannah
Grass cultivation upon roof top
hot sun striking it down to chaff,
Rose bundling with strong effort
scorched fodder fit for Jackass.
Rose securing sinkhole in river
with rock salt and rose quartz,
to find favor with headmaster
inspecting her morning tea sugar.
Sign on sign and she did not heed,
returning to shut-bosom mountain
spite river's mouth spitting weeds.
Open lands with not enough room
for her to raise a modest Rose tattoo.
Soothsayers in their suits well-pressed
prophesying Rose-death from fatigue,
expecting a legacy of marrow secrets
scrolled soft-tubed in yielding bones.
A quiet stranger came empty handed
to the well; Fool-Fool Rose offered up
her cup, in thanks he uttered key words
that turned her from housetop agriculture,
and locked off her ambition to bottom
and dam a river hole. Farewell/hosanna,
Fool-Fool Rose is leaving Labor-in-Vain Savannah.
Rainstorm is Weeping: An Arawak
Folk Tale Revisited
The weeping Rainstorm from our reading book
bore strong resemblance to Aunt Cleodine.
Her full head of hair whipping up great shocks
of black rain clouds, her tall body wedged
between heaven and earth's birth passage,
and rainfall her eye-water on storm days.
She craved power, Rainstorm, for here it said
in the reading book she trained her hard gaze
at those installed on clouds, and made her way
to exalted places to sweep them out by force.
Sadly, she got stuck between sky and earth,
the reason she weeps, and why flood rains fall
Octobers and most Mays. And when she rails,
she invokes the levelling hurricanes.
Excerpted from Controlling the Silver by Lorna Goodison Copyright © 2005 by Lorna Goodison. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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