Controlling the Silver

Controlling the Silver

by Lorna Goodison

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University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Illinois Poetry Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

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Controlling the Silver

By Lorna Goodison


Copyright © 2005 Lorna Goodison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07212-3

Chapter One

    Island Aubade

    One bright morning when my work is over,
    I will fly away home.
    —Traditional Jamaican

    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.

    Dear Cousin


    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
    hand-engraved calabash.

    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


    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.

    Poison Crab

    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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