In a recent article in the Daily Gleaner, “Story Of The Song: Lyrics, Literature Trace Emigration Of Jamaicans,” the author claimed: “There is one wave of emigration which has not made its way into literature and music to the extent of the Latin American and Windrush generation exoduses of largely unskilled labourers. As political turmoil hit a peak in the 1970s, many middle- and upper-class Jamaicans pulled up stakes amid fears of not only violence but also that Michael Manley was taking the country along a Communist path.” This Strange Land by Shara McCallum, who was born in 1972, the year when Michael Manley came to power and who left Jamaica on the day of Bob Marley’s funeral, seems to answer the challenge. But rather than create another paean of exile, McCallum reframes the catastrophic events of the period from the perspective of gender roles in Jamaican culture.
This Strange Land, which is divided into three parts, “Dear History,” “Fury,” and “Dear Hours.” begins with the signature psalm of diasporas, Psalm 137. But McCallum’s “Psalm for Kingston,” rendered in the confessional mode of the collection, captures Kingston in her unique voice: “City of schoolchildren in uniforms playing dandy shandy/ and brown girl in the ring--tra-la-la-la-la--.” This particular recollection is telling. For as a “brown girl,” growing up in Jamaica, whose physical appearance would seem to link her with the “middle and upper class,” McCallum clearly identifies with the black urban sufferahs of Marley’ music. In the title poem of the section, “Dear History,” McCallum revisits one of the more senseless murders during the height of the political warfare when a young girl was murdered in Kingston for wearing “the wrong colour smock/ in the wrong part of town”:
I did not know death could come to a girl
walking home, stick in hand,
tracing circles in the dirt
singing as she went along.
I did not know death
would find someone
for wearing the wrong colour smock
in the wrong part of town.
The pages of This Strange Land are punctuated by the atrocities of the era: the Orange Lane fires, the stoning death of the poet Mikey Smith, and the violence of election days. Yet, what unifies “Dear History,” is the crone wisdom of “Miss Sally” whose salient counsel offers a counterpoint to the prevailing madness that surrounds her:
Mi dear, in all mi years, I never imagine
is so low we would stoop
For a people who know
what it is to be the lamb
how we go lead our own
“Miss Sally,” as a Caribbean matriarch, stands in the breach of the poet’s responses to the atrocities and the family drama, especially her relationship with her parents. “Dear History,” presents a series of portraits about the kind of childhood the poet had--estranged from her father, surrounded by violence, anchored by the wisdom of a living grandmother--which propels the “Fury” section and seems to ask, what kind of woman will I become?
“Fury,” has an undercurrent of betrayal and anger. The young poet in the process of creating an identity experiments with various guises, including temptress: “Emerging from the club near dawn, we stand on Ocean Drive, the air humid and I in nothing but bra and jeans. At twenty, I think I will change the world with lace-edged black satin.” She also imagines her mother in classic mythological roles: Persephone, Narcissus, and Penelope. But then, in a tone reminiscent of Derek Walcott’s “Sea Grapes,” “The classics can console. But not enough,” McCallum echoes another poem by Derek Walcott, “The Schooner Flight, “either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation,” and concludes in “My Mother as Penelope”:
Listen, after years of waiting,
I tire of the myth I’ve become.
If I am not an ocean,
I am nothing.
“Dear Hours,” begins with an ominous epigraph from Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” For if every major West Indian male poet can trace his lineage to T.S. Eliot, then Sylvia Plath is surely a strand in the poetic DNA of our female poets. The poems in this section detail the suburban life in North America and the poet’s growing awareness of her body: “Then I came to see my body as science fiction/ imagined myself an alien sprouting wings.” Pregnancy will do that to you.
But with the birth of her children, the poems in “Dear Hours,” seem to ask, what kind of mother will I be? The query is answered in the title poem, “Dear Hours”:
Today your mouth, cheeks, the single curl
escaping your woolen hat
conjure a snapshot of me at your age:
bangled baby, head in a kerchief,
propped on a dark green lawn,
And with the admission of growing religious belief, the poet looks back on her life:
I turn to see the woman I’ve become
reflected in the window’s glass: a stranger
moving her finger across my cheek, trying to decode
an old storey, etched as if in Braille on my flesh.
The themes culminate in the masterful “From the Book of Mothers”:
the smell of your skin fades
I forget your heft in my arms,
your hand reaching up to cup my face
as you nurse, curling into sleep.
Of course, the images of the terrible mother disturb the poet’s vision of maternal bliss:
Dark Mother, you appear to me
as mad. Mistress of blood, death,
and the death of death,
you surface from the Ganges, pregnant
stoop to give birth on shore,
then devour your child.
The collection ends with “History is a Room” where the poet confronts the horrors of her past and uses the wisdom of her mother and “Miss Sally”: “Here, I brandish weapons that serve an art my mother and grandmother knew: how to make of plantain and eggs a meal.”
In Jamaica, the period between 1972 and 1981 was marked by unprecedented violence, which accounts for many of the conditions in the island today. This Strange Land as a poetic biography presents a coherent vision of the era in a remarkable sequence of interlocked themes and images. McCallum’s journey from estranged child to devoted mother also offers a tentative solution for the survivors of the period: devotion to the family and acceptance of received personal and religious wisdom. The poems in This Strange Land reveal the private world of a sensitive witness to the atrocities of Jamaica’s undeclared civil war.
About Shara McCallum
Shara McCallum was born in Jamaica to Afro-Jamaican and Venezuelan parents and moved to the U.S. at the age of nine. She earned a B.A. from the University of Miami, an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in Poetry and African American and Caribbean Literature from Binghamton University in New York.
Her books of poetry include Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) and The Water Between Us (1999), winner of the 1998 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her poems have won a college prize from The Academy of American Poets, been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and appeared in several journals, including The Antioch Review,Chelsea, The Iowa Review, and Verse. McCallum's poems have been anthologized in The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology (ed. Michael Collier, 2000) and Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century. She is the recipient of a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant in Literature and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. McCallum lives in Pennsylvania and teaches and directs the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. She is also on the faculty of the Stonecoast Low Residency MFA program.
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