The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Poetry Saturday – Lorna Goodison

Posted on: January 13, 2007

Lorna Goodison was my first favourite Jamaican poet. Tennyson, Alfred Noyes, Walter de la Mare, Ogden Nash and Lewis Carrol were the favourite poets I met as a child through my own readings: through Anne meeting her doom in a leaky boat, Alice questioning the caterpillar or by American and Canadian librarians who selected poems for the youth’s edification. In the first three years of high school we read a bit of Mutabaruka and a funny poem about a court case in which the defendant was accused of stealing and eating his neighbour’s pig–a meal that made him terribly sick–which for whatever reason I remember as being Caribbean. I’m sure there were a few more but I don’t remember them. The ones that stayed with me were Tennyson’s “Eagle”, an excerpt from D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake”, Belloc’s “Tarantella” and the opening lines of Langston Hughe’s “Harlem” that was printed on one of the blank pages of the play A Raisin in the Sun.

It was not until grade 10 that we started to cover a significant number of Caribbean poets. We received a hand out of the CXC (‘O’ level) assigned poems and I greedily consumed it, as I did with any sort of literary reading material that crossed my path back then. Two of Goodison’s poems were included: “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)” and “The Woman Speaks to the Man Who Has Employed Her Son”. The first made me cry, hiccuping; I was seared. The second made me fearful, nodding my head knowingly even though I had no children and knew no one from the underworld, sequestered in a boarding school “sitting there upon a hill top”. For the first time I had read something that was *me, that was Jamaican, that spoke of my single mother, my aunt’s Singer sewing machine, of the violent underbelly that was in Kingston. The details were different but the essence was me.

Neither of those poems is the one I’m going to highlight today. (Ha! I’m such a tease.) Today you get “On Becoming a Tiger”. One of the best aspects of Goodison’s poetry is how female-centric it is. This partly stands out for me because 98% of the poets I actively read are men (I know, I know) but even so, Goodison explores the feminine perspective in sexuality, parenting, gender equality, in literature. It’s like bathing in cool water, for a time anyway, until the power of her words crash over you.

On Becoming a Tiger

The day that they stole her tiger’s-eye ring
was the day that she became a tiger.
She was inspired by advice received from Rilke

who recommended that, if the business of drinking
should become too bitter,
that one should change oneself into wine.

The tiger was actually always asleep
inside her, she had seen it
stretched out, drowsing and inert

when she lay upon her side and stared
for seven consecutive days into a tall mirror
that she turned on its side.

Her focus had penetrated all exterior
till at last she could see within her
a red flowing landscape of memory and poems,

a heart within her heart
and lying there big, bright, and golden
was the tiger, wildly darkly striped.

At night she dreams that her mother
undresses her and discovers that, under
her outerwear, her bare limbs are marked

with the broad and urgent striations
of the huge and fierce cat of Asia
with the stunning golden quartz eyes.

She has taken to wearing long dresses
to cover the rounded tail coiling behind her.
She has filled her vases with tiger lilies

and replaced her domestic cat
with a smaller relative of hers, the ocelot.
At four in the morning she practices stalking

up and down the long expanse of the hall.
What are the ingredients in tiger’s milk?
Do tigers ever mate for life?

Can she rewrite the story of Little Black Sambo?
Can a non-tiger take a tiger for wife?
To these and other questions,

she is seeking urgent answers
now that she is living an openly
tigerly life.

From Goodison’s Selected Poems published by University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor).

*At age 11 Mutabaruka’s politics was a bit beyond me. Theoretically I “got” him but the reading experience wasn’t personal. Besides his dub poetry is far more effective when he performs it than when one dissects it in English class on a hot day

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7 Responses to "Poetry Saturday – Lorna Goodison"

Oh, Alfred Noyes! I heard The Highwayman as a child, and later discovered some of his pther poetry. I particularly like The Barrel Organ – some great couplets in there.

fuck dat

I actually haven’t read any Noyes in a while although I have a collection of his back home. I do remember “Organ” though as a favourite, and was always surprised that it was only “The Highwayman” that the “establishment” that ever got noticed.

Hey guys,

Here are a few Carribean authors that I think that you will enjoy- Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)-Breath, Eye, Memory, Donna Weir-Soley (great symbolism); Opal Palmer Adisa; Curdella Forbes( she went to MBHS also); Sandra Cisneros.

Peace

This is exactly what I need, more personal recommendations (and all women too). Thanks Blossome!

“Bucked” up on this website while researching Lorna Goodison. I recommend you read her new book “From Harvey River-A Memoir of my mother and her island”. It’s like an extension of For “My Mother” and “I Am Becoming My Mother” even though there is no mention of the infidelity. But the story is really moving, didn’t want it to finish ,so ended up on google (for like 9 hours, I swear lol) trying to find out more.

Thanks so much for letting me know about that book Wendy-Ann — had no idea it existed! I’m not one for memoirs, usually, but I’ll read anything by Goodison. Hahaha, I hope your looong google search proved fruitful! Thanks for commenting.

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