April 25, 2011

21 Days/ 21 Poems: A Poem About Ancestors/ Inheritance

For your grandmother

That time of the year when the days are shorter, darker
and cooler, when the poinsettia, fire plant,
its leaves incredibly red, these leaves
surrounding and protecting
the less conspicuous flower,
was when my grandmother’s brick oven
became more active than usual.
As grandmother prepared for that day --
glorious is what she called it,
all of us children dressed in white,
in observance of the birth of her lord and savior.

The year I turned ten I started growing into my father’s
long arms and legs, his light eyes, his burnished
complexion. I awoke
one morning to an ache in my stomach,
a spot darkening my underwear.
That Christmas, Grandmother called me into her kitchen --
walls blackened by soot,
well-scrubbed silver pots, dangling from the roof,
constant smell of pine and hickory.

She handed me, as an early present, a simple
white cotton apron, she had stayed up all night,

                        by the light of the kerosene lamp, to make.

As I placed the apron over my head she began speaking to me,
as she had spoken to my mother and all my aunts --
as my great grandmother had spoken to her and all her sisters:

“Here in Jamaica, there is never the dream of a white Christmas
therefore, the pudding is not served hot.
Housewives make one mixture: bake a portion for the cake,
steam the remainder for the pudding.
Raisins, currants, and stoned prunes
should have been soaking for months
in real Jamaican rum cut by port wine.
Spice may be added --
vanilla and almond flavouring --
but this is not a must.
Fruits must be soaked in a glass jar
with a tight fitting lid: avoid using
plastic containers.
And”  she paused,  before continuing,

                        “Always measure what you do.”

As I stood  in that kitchen that first time
doing what I knew I would be doing all my life,
surrounded by the ambiguities of my childhood --
a father long gone, a mother
unavailable to me -- I could feel my grandmother
rise to take up space in me, and I knew
she was giving me something to take out
into the world: something I would pass on.

“Recipe” by Jacqueline Bishop. Snapshots from Istanbul, Peepal Tree Press, 2009.

“Recipe” is one on those poems that grows with you. The setting is deceptively simple: a kitchen, a ten year old girl, and a grandmother, who is teaching the child how to make Jamaican Christmas pudding.
But to regard the poem as merely a piece of nostalgic writing is to miss the beauty of the poem: a young girl, “surrounded by the ambiguities of my childhood,”  growing into a woman, who will carry the wisdom of generations of women, in her mind and body. Something she will “pass on.”

The River's Song is Jacqueline Bishop’s first novel. She is also the author of two collections of poems, Fauna and Snapshots from Istanbul. Her non-fiction books are My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York and Writers Who Paint/Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists. An accomplished visual artist with exhibitions in Belgium, Morocco, USA and Italy, Ms. Bishop was a 2008-2009 Fulbright Fellow to Morocco; the 2009-2010 UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow; and is a full time Master Teacher in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University.


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