Prayers of gratitude
Mary Hanna, The Jamaican Gleaner
Poems of praise and yearning fill this debut collection by Jacqueline Bishop. These songs of exile are translated into prayers of gratitude and joy for her home island, Jamaica, but there is something sinister at the edges of Bishop's keen perception of the life that she has left behind. Memory burns. She warns us early in the text:
All my mysteries reside in this place,
small dot of an island,
the restlessness and the need to always return
to my great grandmother's river.
Bishop reveals her poignant and shocking mystery at the end of the first section of the collection. In 'The Smell of Mango', she gives us a glimpse of what is to come when she says:
I can even tell you about the silence
within the room
as my grandfather
raises himself up,
pulls the zipper of his pants.
I am so afraid.
Bishop follows this intimation of childhood trauma with a poem of savage clarity:
I was of his darkened contorted face ...
Then the sudden sharp pain
of those large knobbed fingers between my legs. It was then
that I learnt to hate myself, to feel different,
to know that something was wrong with me.
The darkness and terror that surround the child do not end there, for the mother colludes in this incestuous rape:
She taught me to take it, to forgive my grandfather
and take it. She taught me that this was what it meant
to be a woman.
Bishop's shocking revelation comes at the end of this opening section of prize-winning poems that remember the various members of her left-behind family, tolling the generations -- great-grandparents, grandparents, parents -- speaking of the upbringing in rural Jamaica that pulls her back always to the island place. The rape is a frightening break in the series of loving poems that evoke an equally loving upbringing. Bishop does not follow through beyond this bald telling of the tale, but the reader is aware of a shift in the second section of her text, for the flora of the island speak from their point of view, in often sinister voices and weary tones. In 'Flame Tree', this despondency presents as longing for death:
I long for those days, old woman that I am
when my feather-like leaves have withered and fallen away,
leaving only the rattling seed pods called woman's-tongue,
shaking and shaking in the wind.
While, in 'Alamanda', the poet declares self-protection as valid cause for child-murder:
Everything alive develops a defense,
some way of protecting itself.
Mine is poison; all parts of me are toxic.
I had no way of discerning
it was a child's hand,
I only knew the touch was human
and deadly, reaching out to pluck
my yellow blossoms.
Similarly, in 'Oleander', there is nothing left to grind the poet/plant down. She cries:
'Tell me:/What is there to fear/ when you no longer fear/ death?'
And yet there is nothing craven or depressing about this collection. Bishop speaks in golden tones of the island from her vantage point in New York. She does not blame or show defeatist anger. Instead, she takes the burden of being an artist seriously, and blesses those who help her tell the strange and mysterious tales of her homeland. In 'Full Bloom', she gives floral gifts of thanks: 'For every time your hands/ guide the birth of a poem/ hibiscus flower'. In the third section of the collection, she speaks through the metaphors of great paintings, fixing the being and perspective of the artist:
My teacher says:
Artists, as we know, are people
by the world -
they seek to remake it.
('The Raft of the Medusa')
The artist as poet thinks about this constantly as she determines 'What to put in? /What to leave out?' Her story of her sexual abuse as a child has been put in, and it colours the entire collection as the reader seeks knowledge of how Bishop has coped with this. It is there only in these sinister and sideways references to poisonous flora, demented paintings, metaphors of books that yearn to leave the stacks in the library ('Lilith Speaks').
Bishop does not let the trauma ruin the memory of sweetness in her mental and emotional picture of her home island. She longs for Jamaica. In 'Calling Me Back Home', a poem dedicated to 'the muse', she records the endless yearning for home:
As for me
I do not walk by bushes
without hearing a woman's voice singing,
pass a body of water and not see
a familiar shape
small and dark
calling me back home.
She returns to her childhood home and lives out the memories like 'thick green grass' that are associated with it and with her father. 'Pa' is one of Bishop's award-winning poems, an intensely felt cry for the lost parent:
Now I stand in the old
abandoned house, shout your name
to the dark blue mountains.
Not even an echo returns.
Don't you remember,
remember me, Pa?
Finally, she becomes the fauna and flora that she has been so carefully imbuing with imagination and life in her poems. Bishop becomes the Jamaican bird who flew to New York ('Jamaican Birds'): 'In North America three or four species/have been identified by the peculiar way they sing'.
This collection of roughly 75 poems circles back on itself from capturing the 'fauna' that is family to specifying just what that fauna is, how numerous, how beautiful, and how mythic. Her use of the metaphor is large and sweeping. Bishop tells the tale of her family and her own journey into the other-land ('elsewhere'). But in her mind and heart, her award-winning poems grow and speak from the page about the wonders of being from the island of Jamaica and the struggle to remember it in a wholesome way from her new vantage point in New York. This is a moving and heartfelt collection that has won accolades from fellow poets. It is easy to read and full of surprises, but perhaps does not easily overcome the shock of the rape by the grandfather, which seems to this reader to colour all the poems that are presented in the rest of the collection.
This review relates to the book
by Jacqueline Bishop