Saturday, December 21, 2013
Lorna Goodison’s Supplying Salt and Light poems
Book review: Lorna Goodison’s Supplying Salt and Light poems
Reviewer: Pam Rosenblatt
Title: Supplying Salt and Light
Author: Lorna Goodison
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario, 2013
To most people, religion is simply a belief in a god or gods with rules to abide by. But this word “religion” represents even more to you personally when you think about its importance in everyday life and about why it is so important to you.
Lorna Goodison’s Supplying Salt and Light is a 121 page poetry book, published by McClelland & Stewart in 2013, that deals with a lot of themes: identity, home, journey, art, music, family, etc. And these subjects all seem to stem from the major topic of religion. In this review, identity is discussed while Goodison takes you on journeys from Jamaica, where she was born and raised, from Spain and Portugal, from Africa and Europe, and from the United States. She really keeps our minds travelling through her reestablishment or confirmation of her identity. While the topic of religion may make some people uncomfortable, Goodison writes about religion without forcing you, the reader, to take sides. Her religion is part of her Jamaican heritage, and she’s at ease trying to figure out what part it plays in her life.
In her opening poem, “To Make Various Sorts of Black”, Goodison writes about different types of “black” colored objects. Although she is African from Jamaica, she doesn’t use the word “black” as a colloquialism for people of African descent in this poem. She refers mainly to “several kinds of black colours” that are “derived from soft black stone./It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned” or “a black that is obtained from vine twigs” or “the black that is scraped from burnt shells” or the “Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;/ twisted trees that bore strange fruit” or “And then there is the black that is the source of light/From a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest/Waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.” While the pain of the indentured slaves who traveled from Africa in the slave boats is present here, and Goodison refers to those buried at sea when she writes “Markers of Atlantic’s graves”, the poet never directly writes that her ancestors or she are “Black”. She only implies it. This point makes the opening poem more abstract and difficult to understand. But after reviewing “To Make Various Sorts of Black” many times and reading the other poems in the book, you probably will understand that Goodison’s identity is not “Black” but African along with a mixture of artist, poet, mother, daughter, traveler, and religious person. Here is the opening poem:
To Make Various Sorts of Black
According to The Craftman’s Handbook, chapter XXXVII
“Il Libro dell Arte” by Cerrino d’Andrea Cennini
who tells us there are several kinds of black colours.
First, there is a black derived from soft black stone.
It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned.
Then there is a black that is obtained from vine twigs.
Twigs that choose to abide on the true vine
offering up their bodies at the last to be burned,
then quenched and worked up, they can live again
as twig of the vine black; not a fat, more of a lean
colour, favoured alike by vinedressers and artists,
There is also the black that is scraped from burnt shells.
Markers of Atlantic’s graves.
Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;
twisted trees that bore strange fruit.
And then there is the black that is the source of light
from a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest
waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.
A lamp you light and place underneath – not a bushel –
but a good clean every day dish that is fit for baking.
Now bring the little flame of the lamp up the under
surface of the earthenware dish (say a distance of two
or three fingers away) and the smoke that emits
from that small flame will struggle up to strike at clay.
Strike till it crowds and collects in a mess or a mass;
now wait, wait a while please, before you sweep this
colour – now sable velvet soot – off onto any old paper
or consign it to shadows, outlines, and backgrounds.
Observe: it does not need to be worked up nor ground;
it is just perfect as it is. Refill the lamp, Cennini say.
As many times as the flames burns low, refill it.
Just the lines read “Refill the lamp, Cennini say./ As many times as the flames burns low, refill it”, suggesting the reader keep renewing his or her faith as in religious and/or ethnic identity as well as imagination, Goodison writes how important it is for you to use “Bookmarks for Eyes”.
In this poem, “Bookmarks for Eyes”, she has created a persona of a puppeteer who may or may not be representative of Lorca. This puppeteer says, “Bookmarks, he says, they will keep reading/for you long long after you close your eyes.//So we buy a purple one and pray it will not strain our sincere tries at clean clear prose.” Goodison has abstractly caught your attention. The image of a bookmark pressed against the words written on two pages of a closed book is visually present through the imagination.
Then Goodison interjects her own personal and religious fears and conflicts about reconstructing her identity. In the two stanzas below, she nervously questions God:
What do You want from me? All I desired
Was a quiet life grafting poems onto roses
singing slow at home near blue mountains.
What am I searching for outside this known
World, why am I a followfashion Columbus
gone off the map, and here there be dragons.
Having journeyed such places as Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and parts of the United States, the narrator is an explorer, interested in finding new experiences through traveling new countries as well as through the mind’s imagination. She is “a followfashion Columbus/gone off the map, and here there be dragons.” Things are not as “quiet life grafting poems onto roses/singing slow at home near blue mountains.” She is experiencing life that she had only read about before in books while in Jamaica, and some of the experiences are not “clean clear prose” but are like “dragons”, or perhaps Goodison means sinful and frightening. Her morals are being tested through her quest to explore “outside this known/world”.
The narrator speaks about her pilgrimages to Egypt and north and south Africa as well as the atrocities that happened to the abducted Africans during slavery times in her long and wonderfully powerful poem “Remember Us in Motherland”. Goddison writes how she hopes history will never repeat itself:
Jacob, I want to know not for recrimination
for that could make everyone criminal
all over again, I just want to know in the way
of a hard-head poet on whose left knee is a maroon
birthmark triangular: goods, slaves, sugar.
Marked by Africa.
Like “a friend who swears fear rode shotgun, sat sour/beside him, protecting him from being surprised by joy,/until the year he made African pilgrimage,” the narrator recalls, “I spoke so to the golden head of young King Tut, sweetfaced as my own son. Jacob, I went to Egypt, which too is Africa. I have journeyed to the north and south of Africa.”
The narrator’s travels make her and her assumed-to-be son, “Jacob”, aware of the pains of her past ancestors, as implied when Goodison writes:
Jacob, your voice calls me back. “Where in the world,” you ask,
“are the burying grounds for slaves?” And my mind answers:
In the blue boneyard of the Atlantic; along whale roads, railways,
and highways; in mortar edifices of empires, field of sugar cane,
cotton, tobacco, and humus at the root of cotton trees; in Jazz,
and Rocksteady, in our music. I crossed with my people, you know
I came with them as a chanter girl.
Gladly I toil for my people as chantwelle, to sing of patron saints
of the overworked. Annoint with almond oil the limbs
of girlchildren fanning that wringing wet pile of southern girls
underdressed, hoop skirtless Kara Walker belles, Gone with the Wind….
Goodison ends the poem with the simple request to “Jacob”, “… So Jacob, if you find the griot tell her, tell him, that till I lend/my blacktar skin into whatever earthroad I will be interred; on behalf of/foremother who pushed back downpression through muzzle-tongue of iron,//remember us in motherland.”
Lorna Goodison has compiled a fine book of poems with Jamaican idiomatic expressions and perspective on life. Through her religious influences, Supplying Salt and Light delves into Goodison’s love of ethnic and cultural identity. What she has to write is important as is religion vital to understanding the makeup of a person’s being, or identity. After all, wouldn’t we all like to be “remember(ed) in (our individual) motherland”? Supplying Salt and Light is an eye-opening, thought-intriguing read for you readers who appreciate a solid reach into the theme of identity.