Lorna Goodison – Mother Muse

Lorna Goodison – Mother Muse

Lorna Goodison, Mother Muse. Manchester, Carcanet, 2021, £ 10.99, 88 pages, ISBN : 978 I 80017 105 0

Lorna Goodison is a well-known Caribbean poet and was the Poet Laureate of Jamaica between 2017 and 2020. She won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize in 2018 and was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2019.
Goodison is a poet of international repute and has won numerous awards over the years. Her latest poetry collection, Mother Muse (Carcanet, 2021), looks at the contribution women have made to Jamaican history and focuses more particulalry on two important women: Sister Mary Ignatius and Anita “Margarita” Mahfood (or Mahfouz).
Sister Mary Ignatius, whose affectionate nickname was Sister Iggy, was in charge of the Alpha Boys School, an institution for “difficult” or wayward boys who had got in trouble with the law. Over the years the Alpha Boys School has acquired legendary status as so many talented Jamaican musicians studied there and learnt how to play a musical instrument. The ska trombonist Don Drummond is the most illustrious of these Alpha School alumni.
Anita “Margarita” Mahfood (or Mahfouz) was well-known as a rhumba dancer in Jamaica in the 1960s and was also Don Drummond’s girlfriend. Drummond stabbed her to death in December 1965 and was later committed to the Belleview lunatic asylum. The couple’s tragic fate has led to their identification as tragic heroes over the years.
One of the first poems in the collection, “New Year’s Morning 1965”, takes as its point of departure the fatal stabbing of Mahfood, but is also a tribute to “those who started flames/that consumed them as they blazed trails so we are now free to be…”(3). The fire motif runs through the poem, from Drummond’s “light” which eventually “combusted into violence” (2) to the “trail blazers” who started “flames”. Humour can be found in this dark poem too as Sister Mary Ignatius is referred to as a “nun more deserving/of a TV show than the highflying one of starched cornette” (2). This is an allusion to The Flying Nun, a late-1960s American TV series in which one of the characters, a nun, was able to fly when the wind caught in her cornette.
In the poem entitled “Margarita’s Version”, Margarita is allowed to tell her own story and the word “version” has a special resonance here as it evokes reggae deejaying.
As in the poem mentioned above, the poem entitled “Her Mother Loved Poetry” pays tribute to Mahfood’s mother while insisting on the cultural brainwashing British subjects were subjected to. Indeed the reference to “daffodils and flowers she had never seen” (25) and to P.B.Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” are meant to evoke the colonial education most West Indians were given before Independence.
In the poem entitled “A Lament for Margarita Mahfouz”, Margarita appears as a tragic heroine who performed in Cuba and developed the art of dancing in Jamaica “before Nettleford’s national/dance theatre” (27). She is referred to as a “lionheart gal” (27) who eventually became a sacrificial lamb. But the importance reference in this poem is to the one the song that Margarita recorded with The Skatalites (“Woman a Come”) for the producer Duke Reid. In that song, Margarita refers to herself as “Iyata Jah daughter” (27) and to her lover, Don Drummond, as her “Ungu Mulungu” man.

The poems about Sister Mary Ignatius point to the complexity of that trailblazer who came from a family who had made a fortune in the sugar trade. The poem entitled “Sugar” evokes racial and social divisions in Jamaica as Sister Iggy came from a family who had grown wealthy on the backs of slaves (“Perfumed by sugar’s money musk…”,5). Punning is used profusely in this piece as Goodison refers to Sister Mary’s “refined ancestors” (5). This a is moving poem about the pain of Jamaican history which transforms “brute cane into our music” (5).
Goodison’s collection also includes poems written as a tribute to two of the last enslaved women to be set free after the abolition of slavery, as well as tributes to Sandra Bland and Mahalia Jackson. One of the most moving pieces in this collection is a tribute to the Windrudh victims entitled “Say Something For Me English?”. The poem is about a Jamaican woman who has lived all her life in England and is told on coming back “home” after visiting relatives in Jamaica that “they’ll be needing proof that she’s really been living there for sixty years” (76). A chilling poem, especially with the repetition of the line “Say something nuh for me English ?”, which all of a sudden does not sound funny at all. Not at all.
All in all, this collection gives women pride of place in Jamaican history and allows them to tell their own stories. It is a welcome addition to the canon of Caribbean literature.


Posted on

13 June 2023