Gloria Escoffery, Mother Jackson Murders the Moon
Elaine Savory, The Caribbean Writer
It is very good to see a new volume of poems by this eminent Jamaican painter, born in 1923, and still working, still entirely committed to the examined life, and to words as well as the visual arts.
This is both an entertaining, whimsical cycle of poems and an intriguing one. The series of poems which opens the collection is peopled by characters such as Mother Moon herself and Aliveyeh, who 'has been stepped over so often / she maintains the dignity of an upright posture' (9). There is a strong voice here, refusing the rhythmic grace of lyricism and preferring a conversational tone which is often interesting and unsettling in a good way. Escoffery mostly has the core gift of successful poetry, which is to be surprising. There are many lines which unsettle the reader’s expectations and demand a revisioning of words in their relations to one another, '…Spring happens for her / regardless of impertinent bystanders' (10); 'In the general jubilation / every act of love is warmly tolerated' (11).
The title poem is not one of the strongest, dealing as it does fairly conventionally with the ol’ hige of folklore, 'If she should cry for help / the dog would skin its teeth at her' (19). This poem would perhaps have come closer to the reader if written in Jamaican rather than international English, which holds it too formally off the subject, 'Mother Jackson / swallows her bile and sprinkles oil / from the kitchen bitch on her ragged mattress' (19). 'Is Who Dat I Hear Say Carnival' (I have resisted Peepal Tree’s habit of printing poems in the text in block capitals, and used the versions of the titles in the contents page), is a lively, easy poem in Jamaican, 'An’ ef yu settle you mind fe ben’ you back / an’ tek straw mek brick, is fe you business yah,' (24).
Escoffery’s writing here is at times on the boundary between the succinctness and rhythmic identity of poetry and the directness of prose, which at time works wonderfully well, as when it conveys a wry, conversational directness, as in an informal personal letter, 'My taskmaster scowls down at me as usual / and points an arthritic forefinger, / directing his wrath at an unfinished sketch' (56). Occasionally, it fails: 'John Dunkley was the offspring of cultures / eager to mate. The drums of Africa / and the hunting horns of Europe cohabited in his veins.' The flat statement misses the tautness of poetic language and offers nothing particularly surprising, indeed, is bound to be compared to Walcott’s familiar poem about cultural complexity, 'A Far Cry from Africa', 'Where shall I turn, divided to the vein.'
There are, however, many rewards to reading this collection, such as 'Wild Words' which ends in a kind of credo, 'Spring may still prove to be a trying time, / in the garden, / in my cultivated, caring, / aged heart' (59). It is when this strong and individual voice comes through the poems in intimate conversation with the reader that they become entirely rewarding to read, unpretentious, unliterary in the best of senses, quirky, unapologetic: 'Is this grilled box with a front door some sort of trap? / I live in a personal space / where anything can happen / except that surely God’s roof / will not fall on my head' (30). The poems written in first person are the most appealing because of this: 'I pay attention to the voices / of the old furniture in my house.' (31). But the autobiographical 'Rockstone! I Too Have Lived in Arcadia,' suffers somewhat from a cluttered, if informative prosiness, 'Born in a small house in St. Mary which my father / named Arcadia, having financed its building week by week / in cash earned by giving injections to combat yaws' (28), though the opening lines are strong, 'Do not disregard the exclamation mark / that registers the colour of the work / as we Jamaicans understand it' (28).
Gloria Escoffery evidently writes poetry for enjoyment and to share with friends and those who share her passion for Jamaica and its people. There is empathy for Jamaicans which strongly informs the whole of the collection. Sometimes the fictional personae of the poems have the same easy self-acceptance, won by mature years and long experience, which characterizes the poet’s own voice, 'Good friends, like you, I am what I am, a random / ripped-off root from stock of Adam’s apple tree' (26). There is a strong respect for odd characters who do not quite fit, but who have, by their simple declaration of their oddity, won a space in a community, like Myra in 'Our Mads', of whom the police calmly say, 'Is so she like to swim, most times she naked.' In 'Shelling Gungo Peas', Escoffery celebrates the simple pleasures of being alive. 'Happiness is / sitting in one’s own chair, in one’s own living room / and shelling green gungo from one’s own backyard tree' (34). The next two poems begin with the same phrase, 'Happiness is…'. One of these, 'Bibliomania', contains some delightful images, 'One of these days I’m going to get myself / swallowed by a book…' (37) and therefore the poet will become a Jonah, 'Who can deny that Jonah within the maw of his leviathan / experienced a similar ecstasy?' (38). It is this extremely attractive poetic voice which pulls the reader into this volume, where 'Miss G' (30) celebrates being so much alive, creative and joyous in her seventies - and where we too celebrate a woman of so much generosity of spirit and sheer, admirable nerve.
This review relates to the book
Mother Jackson Murders the Moon
by Gloria Escoffery