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Goodison on the Road to Heartease


Source: Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1 (OCTOBER, 1986), pp. 13-22
Published by: Journal of West Indian Literature
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23019650
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Goodison on the Road to

Lorna Goodison has spoken recently about a sequence of poems

which she has been working, a sequence which may in effect constitu
long poem under the title Heartease. It appears that a recurring and
ing metaphor in the sequence will be that of a journey towards a
called Heartease. As she explains, and as we should expect, Heartea
nifies "an internal and a spiritual freedom:"

Heartease sort of tnes to speak to a place inside you,

because that is very true too, that there is this place
inside you that if you're lucky to find it then exterior
hardships become much easier.1

The choice of Heartease as geographical metaphor brings a comm

and folk dimension to this idea of private, inner peace. To a Jam
reader, Heartease would easily seem like the name of an actual p
even if such a place did not exist, on the analogy of places on the isl
with names such as Tranquility and Content. It turns out that there
at least three places in Jamaica called Heartease, all being fairly r
rural hamlets, situated in relatively hilly country. One of them, in th
Day Mountains, is at the heart of the island so to speak. In this geog
cal context, the name connotes rural folkways, the simple strength of
ant values, the rigours and deprivations as well as the blessings an
peacefulness of hill-country life. It connotes, too, the idea of walkin
repeated journeys on foot over steep, rugged terrain, and of rest an
ace at the end of the climb uphill. For the poet's purposes (and sh
not visited any of these places named Heartease) it does not ma
whether or not actual experience of these places brings such connota


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to mind. Nor does it matter for the purposes of this paper.
The idea of the journey on foot as fact and symbol of life is a deep,
archetypal reality in Jamaican folk consciousness. It is significant, there
fore, that Goodison traces, in hindsight, the beginning of her interest in
the Heartease sequence to a poem called "The Road of the Dread", which
had appeared in her first collection, Tamarind Season (Kingston: Institute
of Jamaica, 1980), and which is composed around the mataphor of endless
walking to find work, to seek help, to find peace:

I think I may have started writing "Heartease" poems from

as far back as "The Road of the Dread", which appeared in
Tamarind Season, now that I look at it. It's again,
wanting to talk about things for people

But before completing Heartease, Goodison has published a second col

lection of poems (all but one written since the completion of Tamarind
Season) entitled I am Becoming My Mother (London: New Beacon, 1986).
The aim of this paper, as its title should suggest, is to trace, however
sketchily, Goodison's poetic development between Tamarind Season and
Heartease (and the juxtaposition of the two titles is itself suggestive of a
kind of progression) by reference to the volume in-between. The poet her
self has said:

One of the things I'm very [...] concerned about is that

work should develop. It should develop as I develop as
person, as I develop emotionally and spiritually and in
every way ... ,3

The "wanting to talk about things for people" marks one important area
of Goodison's development. Of course, any poet worthy of the name talks
about things for people. Even the most personal of poets will achieve this
to the extent that the reader is able to see his own experience and feelings
reflected in those of the poet. In such instances the poet speaks for people
in proportion as he speaks arrestingly of and for himself. Goodison has not
been lacking in this kind of achievement. Alternatively, the poet may
speak about things for people, for society, by observing them detachedly,
yet sympathetically, and analysing their condition or his reaction to it.
Another way is that of identification, where the poet is able to speak from
inside the condition of the people, whether because he happens to be truly
one of them, or because his capacity for imaginative empathy enables him
to merge his personal voice with the communal voice, as happened in


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"The Road of the Dread". An increasing number of Goodison's recent
poems, ones which are likely to rank as major pieces, speak with this
voice, in which the poet's personal experience and emotion are assimilated
and transfigured by the communal condition while, at the same time, that
communal condition is made all the more immediate by the charge of per
sonal experience with which it is infused.
Through this voice, Goodison's work becomes political in a broad basic
sense. Here a comment by her on the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,
whom she admires greatly, is instructive:

I think she spoke about human feelings, because she

lived in Russia [at] the time of Stalin, and she was
badly treated by them, by him in particular he really
had a thing about her and she suffered untold, terrible
things she had an awful life ... but [there was] this
courage to win through in her life, and the fact that
she saw herself as a person who could speak for every
body, for people, for ordinary people, for people

That sense of the "courage to win through", realised in poetry in which

the communal and the personal are always shading into one another, is il
lustrated by a comparison of the already famous "Nanny" with the some
what later "My Last Poem". The interaction of personal and communal
levels is only partially realised if each poem is considered in isolation. The
realisation is complete only if we hear the individual poem in the context
of the other poems.
In "Nanny" the poet speaks in the person of a public figure, the Ma
roon warrior-heroine. She is imagined as having suppressed personal de
sires and ambitions in order to be dedicated to the liberation of her
people, and the poem is a recounting of her ritual preparation for her role.
But at the end, when Nanny suddenly uses the second-person pronoun and
addresses her people, one cannot help feeling that one is also hearing the
poet addressing her audience and her people, an impression that is rein
forced when one hears Goodison read the poem: "When your sorrow
obscures the skies/other women like me will rise" (p. 45).
By contrast with "Nanny", "My Last Poem" is ostensibly private and
intimate, a painful baring of the soul (as painful for readers as for poet)
in a time of extremity, a time when even the creative gift is taken from
the poet. One senses an autobiographical intensity, a deep personal hurt.
But, through the poet's technique, the personal takes on a wider signifi


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cance, and the subject becomes communal victim and guide. In the follow
ing passage, the motif of the difficult journey on foot is one of the factors
which suggest the communal dimension:

I gave my son
to a kind woman to keep
and walked down through the valley
on my scarred feet,
across the river
and into the guilty town
in search of bread
but they had closed the bakery down.... (p. 7)

The "scarred feet" and "the bread" help to move the literal-autobiographi
cal to a symbolic-mythic level. The town is "guilty" of having brought
about the conditions which have caused the speaker's suffering, a suffering
which is likely to be the lot of others as well. In closing the bakery, "they"
will have added to the distress of the community as a whole. By the end
of the poem, the speaker, stubbornly believing in love in spite of all bet
rayals, is a model for the will to win through. She takes her place beside
Nanny as one of the never-ending line of women who "will rise" when the
people's "sorrow obscures the skies".
Goodison has been evoking such a lineage of strong female figures,
some historically heroic, others drawn from domestic obscurity. Before
"Nanny", there was her own mother, in the well-known "For My Mother
(May I Inherit Half Her Strength)".5 Since Nanny, there has been "For
Rosa Parks" (unpubd), about the quiet woman who started the Alabama
bus boycott which brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to prominence, and
"Guinea Woman", the poet's maternal great-grandmother, matriarch of
the 'tribe', and "Bedspread", which imagines the courage and faith of
Winnie Mandela, wife of the living martyr Nelson Mandela, in the travail
of her people. Through her imaginative record of such figures, Goodison
corrects the imbalance of history, giving due recognition to the important
role which women have played in the cultural and political struggle and
progress of oppressed people, more particularly of black people.
Nanny (the Caribbean), Rosa Parks (the USA) and Winnie Mandela
(Africa) represent the three points of a triangle of Black experience and
struggle, as they constitute a sisterhood of strength and activism. Both
Nanny and Rosa Parks are imagined as continuing things begun in Africa,
as great-grandmother transmits to succeeding generations of children of the
diaspora virtues derived from Africa:


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... great grandmother
I see your features blood dark
in the children of each new
the high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
It's great grandmother's turn. (p. 40)

And in "Bedspread" the child of the diaspora pays her dues to Africa by
sharing in the dream, the certain hope of a free Azania. Speaking of the
South African police who had "arrested" the bedspread which the women
of the African National Congress had made for Mandela, she says:

They and their friends are working

to arrest the dreams in our heads
[but] the women, accustomed to closing
the eyes of the dead
are weaving cloths still brighter
to drape us in glory in a Free
Azania. (p. 43)

Goodison's sense of taking her place in this lineage of black female

example, and of continuing a sisterhood, is definitively expressed in the
title poem "I Am Becoming My Mother". The use of the continuous-pre
sent form conveys the idea of process and continuity. This poem, which
acknowledges the legacy of the forebears by succinctly imaging woman's
special attributes in the context of woman's hardships, takes its place be
side the other woman-poems already mentioned, as part of the wide-rang
ing projection of female experience which dominates much of Goodison's
more recent work.
As she says: "I am a woman and I'm a writer and I'm going to write
about what I know most about".6 And again: "I think I write about
women more than anything else, the condition of women ,..."7 This state
ment is much more applicable to the new collection than it is to Tamarind
Season, and indicate a refining of the way in which the poet has been able
to "talk about things for people". So we have woman as daughter, as sis
ter, as mother, as matriarch, as leader, as fighter, as sustainer, as lover,
as sufferer, as victim of male abuse:

We are the ones

who are always waiting


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mouth corner white
by sepulchres and
bone yards
for bodies of our men,
waiting under massa
waiting under massa table
for the trickle down of crumbs, (p. 12)

That is from a poem entitled "We Are The Women", in which Goodison
demonstrates her ability, by a felicitous choice of language and imagery,
to render abstractions emotively concrete, and to interfuse the local/con
temporary and the global/historical. The passage just quoted shows the
ability to achieve multiple, resonant nuances of signification in an absolute
simple, straightforward and lucid statement.
There are many other poems which may be mentioned in relation to
Goodison's treatment of the condition of women, but space does not per
mit. I shall just call attention to a short sequence of four lyrics entitled
"Garden of the Women Once Fallen". The title itself is fertile with conno
tations. In each of the four sections a different specimen of local flora is
used "Shame Mi Lady", "Broom Weed", "Poui" and sunflower
("Sunflower Possessed") to image a different aspect of woman's life.
In "Broom Weed", for example, we see woman as drudge:

You exhaust yourself so

O weed powerless
your life devoted to sweeping, cleansing
even in your fullest blooming, (p. 14)

The symbolic use of the broom-weed is particularly apt. Not only is it

rooted in Jamaican folk and peasant tradition; its use suggests at one and
the same time material deprivation those who can't afford store-bought
brooms have to use the broom-weed for sweeping and the value and
significance of the despised and apparently insignificant the lowly
broom-weed is called upon to perform an important function.
In contrast to "Broom Weed", "Poui" evokes the capacity of the
woman to give herself unreservedly in love, her 'clean' trusting, self-forget
ting abandonment to the mastery of sexual passion. After her "celestial
mating" with her lover, the sun, "in his high august heat" (the use of the
lower-case initial for 'august' pointing the pun), "for weeks" the poui's
"rose-gold dress/ lies tangled round her feet/ and she don't even notice",
(p. 15) so 'high' is she on love.


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Other poems by Goodison present various faces of woman in love. Not
surprisingly, she is able to get to the heart of the Jean Rhys heroine, who
herself represents eloquent by certain aspects of the condition of women,
in a brief elegy for the novelist, "Lullaby for Jean Rhys". In "Lepidop
terist" she catches, through the symbol of the woman/ lover as butterfly
collector, the anguished consciousness, the bitterness of preserving or liv
ing with the corpses of flown, dead loves, and conversely, the equally pain
ful consciousness of how much life can subsist in otherwise dead loves, or
ones which were best killed. "Lord, even in death the wings beat so", (p.
Poems like "Lepidoptenst" and the "Garden" sequence demonstrate
Goodison's increasing ability to find fresh central symbols (central to the
individual poem, that is), symbolic personae to distance and shape the raw
personal feeling, to contain it, and at the same time to release it, to make
it that much more richly accessible to the imagination of potential readers.
The process is one in which, once the matrix-symbol has been found, the
emotion which is the subject of the poem is transferred to the exploration
and elaboration of the symbol. Through his engagement with the symbol,
public and open property, the reader engages with the original emotion,
but that emotion mediated, modified, enriched by whatever of relevance
the symbol has stimulated the reader's imagination to bring to it. The pro
cess is well demonstrated in "Tightrope Walker", where the symbol of a
female tightrope walker is used to embody the heady joy and challenge
of a 'high', rare love, the risk and danger of it in circumstances that are
peculiarly 'tight', yet offering a rare sense of freedom. The exploration of
the central image, and the imagery of the whole circus-world around it,
generates its own momentum to 'liberate' the original experience of the
woman in love.
The poet has also been experimenting with the strategy of the assumed
persona that recurs through several poems, thereby enhancing the impres
sion of a large over-riding architecture in her work, the pursuit of a myth
making impetus. In several poems she speaks in the person of a figure
identified simply, anonymously yet exotically as it were, as "the Mulatta".
So there are poems with titles like "Mulatta Song", "The Mulatta as Pene
lope", "The Mulatta and the Monotaur". And there are a few of the love
poems in which the Mulatta as such does not appear, but which may be
called Mulatta poems in that their setting and personae are Egyptian/North
African poems like "Letters to the Egyptian", "Homecoming" and
"Caravanserai". Besides, the first projected title for I Am Becoming My


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Mother was Mulatto.
In explaining this title the poet has said that her choice of it was "faceti
ous", thereby underscoring the distancing, objectifying effect of it. She

I went somewhere in Latin America once and there were these

people who kept referring to me as a mulatta, which I found
very funny, because I'd never thought of anything like that
.... They told me I was a mulatta and I said all right, I
kind of like the sound of that ....8

The persona, then, is just a device, a clever suggestion, and is neither sub
stantially delineated nor used with any intention of talking about what may
be called the mulatto condition, whether cultural or psychological.
There are other aspects of form and expression in Goodison's poetic de
velopment which require detailed comment, but which can only be noted
in passing here. Sooner or later, as the work of a poet assumes volume
and personality, a few key images are likely to emerge, which serve as dis
tinguishing marks, signatures of a sensibility. So we notice, for example,
in Goodison's work, developing from Tamarind Season, a fascination with
imagery of water and wetness rain, river, sea. This water imagery sig
nifies variously fertility, creativity, the erotic, succour, freedom, blessing,
redemption, divine grace, cleansing, purification and metamorphis. In "On
Becoming a Mermaid", for example, the woman imagines herself undergo
ing, through the agency of the buoyant element, "a sea change into some
thing rich and strange" (p. 30) and self-possessed, liberated from the
tyranny and ache of sexuality. "Jah Music" bubble[s] up through a cist
ern"; (p. 36) Keith Jarrett, the pianist, is a "rainmaker", slaking the soul
drought of the poet far from home; and she cries, after the example of
Gerard Manley Hopkins, "In this noon of my orchard/ send me deep
rain", (p. 32)
Then there is the continuous extending of linguistic possibility, which
has been one of Goodison's most distinctive features. She has been stead
ily refining her skills at sliding seamlessly between English and Creol
interweaving erudite literary allusion with the earthiness of tradition
Jamaican speech, images from modern technology with the idiom of
pop culture. This process is the perfecting of a voice at once personal
anonymous, private and public. It may reach a kind of maturity in He
tese and will be an important factor in the increasing 'largeness' of
work, as that work fuses private and communal pain and resolution.


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One small, very slight example of her linguistic dexterity and tact will
suffice. Here is "Poui" in its entirety:

She don't put out for just anyone.

She waits for HIM
and in his high august heat
he takes her

and their celestial mating

is so intense
that for weeks her rose-gold dress
lies tangled round her feet
and she don't even notice, (p. 15)

Notice how the one non-Standard English usage "don't colours the whole
poem and how easily the poem curves out of that, through the semi-col
loquial "put out", into the formality and gravity of "high august heat" and
"celestial mating", and curves back again to the contrastive, emphasising,
humorous effect of the repeated "she don't".
In an interview with Nadi Edwards, done in November 1984, Goodison

I have had, and particularly of late [. . .] some poems

I've written which have been very, very painful to write . . .
painful in the sense that they are so intense that they almost
demand that I go through the experience I'm writing about,
while I'm writing it. Sometimes I worry about that because
I'd like to, I'd really like to live an easier life. I'd
like to think I'd go into my old age with fewer problems.
My life has not been particularly easy [. ...] I suspect,
though, that for the poems to get larger, the work will have
to get harder.9

The deepening of the pain, and a corresponding discovery of new re

sources of resilience and a redemptive joy of life, are features of Goodi
son's development as a poet. Combined with the widening and subtilising
of her resources of form and expression, they have ensured that her work
has indeed been getting 'larger', and that her voice, personal and unmis
takable as it is, is increasingly, and whether she knows it or not, the voice
of a people.


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1. Interview with Edward Baugh, 19 Dec. 1984 (unpubd).

2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Tamarind Season, p61. This poem also appears in I Am Becoming My Mother, the onl
one of the Tamarind Season poems to be included in both collections.
6. Interview with Edward Baugh.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Pathways, vol. 2, no. 4 (Dec. 1984), plO.


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