The River Mumma Wants Out

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The River Mumma Wants Out
Lorna Goodison

Author Biography
Poem Text
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Lorna Goodison's "The River Mumma Wants Out," published in 2005, is, on the surface, a light-hearted poem, making fun of people who look for happiness in things that glitter. Below the surface, however, the work is a scathing criticism of a popular culture that fosters insatiable desires, change for change's sake, and a lack of responsibility or spirituality. Goodison has set her poem in her homeland, Jamaica, but the message therein applies to all people everywhere.

Goodison published "River Mumma" at a time when she was equally established in the United States, where she was living with her husband and teaching at the University of Michigan, and in Jamaica, where she would return each summer. Having relationships with both her homeland and a new country provided her with the perspective needed to objectively evaluate each of the two cultures—and indeed, the assessment is fairly depressing. No one, the poem implies, wants to take care of the things that should matter most, such as the environment. Even the most sacred cultural icons have grown tired of living obscure lives with no monetary reward. These guardians, the reader understands, would rather "go clubbing" with glitzy, high-profile celebrities who make large amounts of money.

Although the poem does not present an attractive picture of what this drive for needless change and the associated endless self-absorption result in, such as a polluted Kingston Harbour, the poem could be read as a prayer, a wish, or a hope. In the poem, a speaker asks, "You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?" These questions seem to communicate the underlying message. "Wake up and take note," the speaker appears to be shouting. The contention that a mythological creature "wants out" cannot be understood as a good omen.

Author Biography

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1947, Lorna Goodison is reputed to be one of the island nation's favorite poets. She grew up as one of nine children in a family that loved books and writing. However, after comparisons were made (while she was still in public school) between her writing and that of one of her sisters, Goodison chose to keep her poetry to herself. When she published some of her poetry in a Jamaican newspaper while she was in high school, she did so anonymously. This reluctance to identify herself with her writing continued through her studies in art school. At length, as Goodison has stated, her poetry took precedence, almost like a tyrant, over all other forms of creative expression. Although she continues to paint (including the illustrations for her collections), Goodison has found that she best articulates her life experiences through poetry.

Despite her long and loving relationship with the written word, when Goodison graduated from college, her main focus was to find a job that would pay the bills. Hoping that teaching would allow her additional time to continue writing poetry, she found positions at Jamaica College and at a local high school. During this period, Goodison began publishing her poems with her name publicly attached to them. As her reputation grew, she was offered opportunities to travel and to read her poetry in other countries. The more she shared her work, the more she realized that she could finally claim the title of poet.

Not until she reached her early thirties did Goodison see her first collection of poetry, Tamarind Season (1980), published. In the twenty-five years that followed, she added nine more collections of verse to her body of work, including To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995), Traveling Mercies (2001), and Controlling the Silver (2005), in which "The River Mumma Wants Out" appears. In 1999, she received Jamaica's Musgrave Gold Medal for poetry. She also writes short stories, some of which were collected in Fool-Fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah (2005). As of the early twenty-first century, Goodison spent part of each year on the north shore of Jamaica. She has been employed as a professor at various U.S. and Canadian colleges, including Radcliffe, the University of Michigan, and the University of Toronto.

Poem Text

  You can't hear? Everything here is changing.
  The bullrushes on the river banks now want
  to be palms in the Kings's garden. (What king?)
  The river is ostriching into the sand.
  Is that not obvious? the nurse souls ask.             5
  You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?
  Mumma no longer wants to be guardian
  of our waters. She wants to be Big Mumma,
  dancehall queen of the greater Caribbean.
  She no longer wants to dispense clean water              10
  to baptize and cleanse (at least not gratis).
  She does not give a damn about polluted
  Kingston Harbour. She must expose her fish
  torso, rock the dance fans, go on tour overseas,
  go clubbing with P. Diddy, experience snow,            15
  shop in those underground multiplex malls,
  spending her strong dollars. Go away, she will
  not be seeing you, for you have no insurance.

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

The overall theme of Goodison's poem "The River Mumma Wants Out" is evident in the title. In Jamaican folklore, the River Mumma, or River Maiden, is similar to the mythological mermaid: half human, half fish. Traditionally, the River Mumma lives at the fountainhead of the island's large water channels, acting as protector of the water and of the creatures who live in it. The poem's title declares that the River Mumma would prefer to be absolved of her duties. Another meaning is also suggested by the title: the River Mumma may simply want to emerge from the water or rid herself of her somewhat confining physical form. Whichever of these meanings is implied, the change is in the course of happening.

The poem then begins with a question: "You can't hear?" With these three words, the narrator captures the reader's attention in several ways. First, the narrator's addressing the reader with the second-person pronoun "you" makes the reader a participant in the conversation of the poem. Second, in using the present tense, she invokes an immediacy, luring readers to subconsciously strain their ears, as if they might hear something even as they read. Third, she demands the active consideration of a response to the question. In the second part of the first line, Goodison provides her thematic statement: "Everything here is changing."

In the lines that follow, the narrator employs a personification of nature to characterize the changes that are occurring. "Bullrushes," which are simple, unglamorous, water-loving plants, now "want / to be palms"; the mention of palms, of course, conjures romantic notions of tropical life. Palm trees stretch their long trunks up into the sky and adorn classy gardens, whereas bullrushes are more likely to be completely overlooked. The bullrushes are looking for glory, in other words—what they would imagine to be a better life. They also want to be taken to the "Kings's garden," which desire the narrator mocks by asking, "What king?" No true kings are present on the island. Even the garden's name, the narrator implies, is pompous. Thus, everything would seem to want to be more important than it actually is.

Stanza 2

"The river is ostriching into the sand," reads the opening line of the second stanza, which might be taken in two different ways. Ostriches are known for burying their heads in sand when confronted with danger. This line could suggest that the river, which is perhaps aware that the River Mumma, its protector, wants to leave, is attempting to hide its head in the sand. The statement could also mean that the waters are drying up. Whichever interpretation is made, the river is in trouble. The next line emphasizes this trouble. "Is that not obvious? the nurse souls ask." The nurse souls might be secondary protectors who are aware of the dangerous changes taking place. They are, perhaps, unable to reverse these changes without the River Mumma; they may not have any power if the River Mumma is not involved. But the nurse souls are not hiding their heads in the sand. They are fully aware and appear to be surprised that others are not equally conscious of what is happening: "You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?" they ask.

Stanza 3

The remainder of the poem enumerates the specific things that the River Mumma wants to do rather than oversee her responsibilities. The first line of stanza 3 reads, "Mumma no longer wants to be guardian / of our waters." From the third stanza on, in fact, the narrator seems to be belittling her own culture, perhaps as a means of criticizing the culture of the world at large. She points out the commercial aspects of society and the people's needs to feed their egos. The River Mumma now "wants to be Big Mumma, / dancehall queen of the greater Caribbean." Thus, she is no longer satisfied living in her hidden places in the mountains. She wants to be noticed, glorified, and popular. She wants to go out and be entertained.

Media Adaptations

  • The British Broadcasting Corporation, at, offers an audio interview with Goodison, who talks about how she came to write poetry.

Stanza 4

In the fourth stanza, the reader is told that the River Mumma's cravings go deeper than mere entertainment and ego gratification, as she has also lost her sense of the sacred: "She no longer wants to dispense clean water / to baptize and cleanse (at least not gratis)." That is, she does not care about the health of the water and is no longer concerned with the spiritual practice of cleansing, unless she is being paid to do so. She has lost her desire to do good, to encourage and to nurture her community. She is looking out only for herself. She has retreated from lofty ideals and, like much of the culture around her, now requires some kind of material reward for services rendered. She does not even care that her lack of concern and her shirking of her responsibilities not only damages her immediate surroundings but also spreads pollution many miles beyond her home.

Stanza 5

Whereas the River Mumma used to hide in the mountain waters, she now wants to be "exposed." She wants to be famous the world over; she wants to "go clubbing with P. Diddy," an African American rapper who epitomizes the wealth and celebrity that can be attained through the world of entertainment. She wants to "experience snow," which does not exist in her homeland. In other words, she wants what she does not have, and she is willing to sacrifice everything to get it.

Stanza 6

In the last stanza, the narrator continues listing the outlandish desires of the River Mumma. She persists in wanting to seek out the worst of the commercial environment, such as by visiting the biggest and fanciest of the world's shopping malls and "spending her strong dollars." The use of the word "strong" is worth noting here, as the narrator implies that strength in the commercial world takes precedence over strength in the noncommercial world. The River Mumma is convinced that strength can be obtained only through money, not through the spiritual or mythological. The stories of the past have either failed or bored her. She wants to take part in the new world, the world of money. As such, she will pay no heed to anyone seeking her wisdom or protection—unless, of course, that person has money, which is what provides her with the "insurance" that she will remain strong.


Commercial World versus Spiritual World

The myths, or folklore, of a people are created to explain things they cannot rationally understand. According to the mythologist Joseph Campbell, spirituality is often centered on these myths. The River Mumma helped the people who believed in her to respect the water and the life that was born in the water. She may have offered these people a sense of security, as they could believe that she would always keep their water flowing and clean. To show their respect, people would bring gifts of food, music, and dance to the River Mumma. Stories about her were told to each succeeding generation, so that children would maintain the practices of respect. As Goodison's poem suggests, however, the culture is changing for the worse.

As presented in the poem, diminishing respect for spirituality is being punctuated by the rise in commercialism. The sense of the spiritual has been corrupted by the commercial world, which emphasizes the immediate gratification of physical needs. The commercial world encourages the acquiring of wealth, often at the expense of nature and with indifference toward the spiritual. In this sense, the spiritual does not refer to the dogma of religion but rather to the idea of the spirits of the culture and of the earth. Under the influence of commercialism, as Goodison asserts through her poem, people ignore the fact that waters are being polluted. The focus is on profits and material goods. As explained by the poem's narrator, the River Mumma "no longer wants to be guardian / of our waters"; rather, she wants to be "Big Mumma." She no longer wants to "baptize and cleanse"; rather, she wants to "go on tour" and to make and spend her "strong dollars." Money is at the heart of everything that the River Mumma now wants to do. She is completely preoccupied with what money can do for her and will pay no attention to anyone who comes to her with nothing but hope and prayers. In stressing the battle between commercialism and spirituality, the narrator sends a warning to her readers, hoping that they might thus see the signs of moral corruption and perhaps hoping that they will help reverse the trend.


"Everything here is changing," the poem's narrator announces in the opening line, and the changes are not toward the good. Indeed, although change is inevitable, the poem asserts that things are changing too fast and in negative ways. Readers can surmise that the changes referred to are happening in Jamaica, where heavy deforestation and water and air pollution are turning what is seen by tourists as a tropical paradise into a potentially devastated piece of real estate. In fact, while tourism fuels Jamaica's economy, the costs of dependence on tourism are high. The poem suggests that lives that used to be simple, as based on ancient traditions, are being fractured. Tourism brings commercialism to the island, and rather than being satisfied with living off the land, people come to want the glitzy life that they see displayed before them in fancy hotels. Certainly, catering to wealthy people eventually wears on the minds of the local people. Like the River Mumma, they begin to dream about being stars. They become infected by the power of money and want to center their lives on it. Change is also seen in the people's loss of love for their homeland. The people, like the River Mumma, want to move away and forget about responsibilities to the land and to the beliefs of their ancestors. All creatures, including the bullrushes, want to be transformed into something that they are not—something that they perceive as bigger and better than who they are. Change in and of itself is not bad, but as presented in this poem, when people stick their heads in the sand and fail to see the devastation around them, change is indeed bad.


Another theme expressed in "River Mumma" concerns egocentricity, or thinking of oneself over others. Self-gratification in order to feed the ego is represented in many forms, from the bullrushes wanting to be palm trees to the River Mumma wanting to be a "dancehall queen." In all of the newly developed desires of the River Mumma, the self is emphasized over others. Whereas she used to watch over the waters, she is no longer satisfied with staying in one location high in the mountains, rarely seen by anyone and rarely seeing anything but fish, water, and bullrushes. She has tired of thinking of others, finding little excitement for herself. She may have lost interest in her environment because the people around her have lost interest in her. Regardless of her reasons, the River Mumma's ego has become far more important than even the health of her surroundings. Unlike the river, which is hiding its head in the sand, she wants to do something for herself. She wants to be like everyone else, seeking celebrity at any cost. This state of affairs, one can surmise from the poem, could easily prove to be the downfall of the people on the island.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research the folklore of the Caribbean. What are some of the stories' main characters? Do similar characters exist in African folklore? Native American folklore? In what ways are the characters alike? Write a paper describing the various characters, the roles that they play, and the lessons that they teach. Were you told similar stories as a child? Discuss some of your personal experiences regarding folklore.
  • Find examples of Goodison's artwork (such as on the covers of her poetry collections). Present copies of this artwork to your class, discussing the type of art it represents. Also, compare Goodison's work to that of other artists and discuss whether her work is typical of Jamaican artists.
  • Find statistics concerning Jamaica's economic and environmental status. Compare details, such as the cost of housing and the cost of food, to the same costs in your local economy. Specifically, find details regarding literacy, per capita income, death and birth rates, inflation, pollution, deforestation, and the effects of tourism on the general population. In other words, provide an in-depth report on the island, as if you were an investigative reporter or as if your family were planning on living there. Present the report to your class.
  • Pretend to be Goodison and paint a picture, in Goodison's style, of what you think the River Mumma would look like. You can use her natural setting by a river as a background or imagine what she would look like, say, as a "dancehall queen."

Lack of Compassion and Responsibility

Compassion and responsibility for the land, the people, and the culture, which were once foremost in the River Mumma's role, have been discarded, according to Goodison's poem. In seeking the material pleasures of life, the River Mumma has forsaken her environment. She "no longer wants to be guardian / of our waters," having grown tired of that role. She no longer has compassion for the people who come to her to be cleansed, either physically or spiritually. Life cannot exist without water, but she no longer cares. She wants to live for the moment and cast off her role of responsibility. "She does not give a damn about polluted / Kingston Harbour" (Kingston is the capital of Jamaica). Her people, her water, and her water creatures will have to survive without her, unless, of course, they can supply her with the pleasures she now seeks. In accentuating this theme, Goodison exposes the concept at the heart of all the commercialism and egocentricity. When one is responsible and compassionate, one will take care of one's neighbors and the environment and will think beyond the immediate moment.


Fantastic Metaphor

"The River Mumma Wants Out" employs metaphors that can be considered fantastic in that they do not present plausible situations. At some points, the fantasy is mildly comedic, as with the bullrushes wanting to be palm trees. The metaphor wherein the "river is ostriching into the sand" presents an image that is essentially impossible to imagine. However, if the poet merely stated that the water was disappearing into the sand, the meaning conveyed would be only that the river is drying up. Thus, by using the fantastic metaphor, a more complex image is provided. A sentiment of fear is attributed to the river and so also to nature, as when an ostrich inserts its head in the sand because it is afraid.

The main metaphor of this poem is that of the River Mumma. As a mythical character, the River Mumma herself can be seen as a metaphor for the spiritual essence of Jamaica. She is half human and half fish, of course, which would make her wanting to do the many things presented in the poem absurd outside the context of a fantastic metaphor. Thus, the River Mumma's desires reflect the waning spirituality of the nation's citizens, perhaps especially the youth, who would be most enamored of the idea of being "dancehall queens" and so forth. In attributing the desires of her nation's citizens to such a revered legendary character, the tragedy of the situation is made clear.

Present Tense and Questions

In using the present tense in her poem, Goodison makes the situation feel immediate. In being told that "everything here is changing," the reader feels the impact of the assertion more acutely because he or she is not being told about something that happened in the past or will happen in the future. Indeed, all that the narrator relates seems to be happening as the poem is being read. In the beginning, she asks, "You can't hear?" By including questions in the present tense, Goodison heightens the intensity of the poem further. Indeed, the narrator both addresses and challenges the reader. "You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?" she asks, thus questioning the reader's intelligence, insightfulness, credibility, and awareness. This makes the reader want to open his or her senses up more fully to what is happening both in the poem and in the real world. The questions end with the second stanza; Goodison perhaps felt that by this point she had engaged the reader's attention, allowing her thenceforth to share everything she wanted the reader to hear.


Enjambment is the continuation of a clause beyond the end of a line. In "River Mumma," Goodison uses enjambment in several different places. The second and third lines of the first stanza read, "The bullrushes on the river banks now want / to be palms in the Kings's garden." In this example, the poet thus emphasizes the word "want," making the reader wait until the beginning of the third line to discover the object of this wanting. Further into the poem, Goodison uses enjambment somewhat more dramatically: at the end of the fourth stanza, she leaves the sentence open until the beginning of the fifth stanza. "She does not give a damn about polluted," reads the fourth stanza's last line, and only after the stanza break are the words "Kingston Harbour" added to close the sentence. Nowhere else in the poem is a specific place mentioned. A general reference is made to the Caribbean, as the River Mumma wants to be the "dancehall queen of the greater Caribbean," but readers do not know, at this point, from where the River Mumma comes. Once the poet mentions Kingston Harbour, however, the poem is rooted in Jamaica. Through enjambment, here, Goodison gives Kingston Harbour special emphasis.

Historical Context

Jamaican History

Jamaica, a small, mountainous, tropical island slightly smaller than Connecticut, is located south of Cuba in the main shipping lane leading to the Panama Canal. Because of its warm, humid weather and beautiful landscape and seascape, Jamaica is a popular tourist destination. Owing to its strategic location between South America and North America, on the other hand, it is a popular transit station for drug dealers. Both of these elements, in modern times, have contributed to economic growth as well as to an increased crime rate. Jamaica is often advertised as a tropical paradise, but its history is strewn with hardship and violence.

The native Arawak were settled in what is now Jamaica around the year 700, many centuries before Christopher Columbus landed there. The Arawaks, a peaceful people, were all but wiped out by the end of the sixteenth century, owing to pressures caused by the invasion of Spanish settlers. Many were forced into labor, and among those who survived this harsh reality, many more succumbed to the diseases brought by the Europeans.

The Spanish also brought African slaves to the island to work their cattle and pig farms and to raise huge crops of sugarcane. In 1654, the British invaded the poorly protected Spanish settlements and took control of the island. Before slavery was finally abolished in 1834, Jamaica was the scene of waves of bloody rebellions, as slaves occasionally organized themselves into bands that razed plantations and murdered whites. The Europeans, in turn, captured or otherwise tricked the slaves into putting down their arms; they then hung their captives or whipped them into submission. The abolition of slavery did not end the harsh conditions suffered by black people. Wage labor often relegated former slaves to deep poverty, as the wages offered were not enough to account for food and shelter. Jamaica gained independence in 1962, but this change did not end the Jamaicans' struggle against poverty.

Jamaica is ruled by a constitutional parliamentary democracy, with the British monarch acting as chief of state. Percival James Patterson became the island's first black prime minister in 1992. While the government has grown stable in modern times, the economy has not. Jamaica's financial stability is dependent on tourism, which has suffered from domestic problems, such as the rising crime rate and damage caused by hurricanes, as well as international problems, such as terrorism. The sluggish economy has exacerbated social problems, as almost 20 percent of the people live below the poverty line and 15 percent are unemployed. Drug trafficking is prevalent, as cocaine dealers launder their money in Jamaica and also use the nation as a point of transshipment between South and North America and Europe. Indeed, these factors have all marred the tourism industry and caused domestic instability. Added to this is the pollution of coastal waters by industrial waste and sewage; heavy deforestation; damage to the natural coral reefs surrounding the island; and air pollution in the capital, Kingston. Despite these conditions, according to a 2005 report by the Central Intelligence Agency, Jamaica's economy was projected to rebound by virtue of rises in tourism.

Jamaican Folklore

Jamaican folklore, including stories that have been handed down from generation to generation through an oral tradition, involves several major characters. The River Mumma, invoked in Goodison's poem, is a dominant figure who inspires both fear and awe. The River Mumma was at one time honored with offerings of food and rituals performed at the river's edge in her name. She helped in teaching reverence for the earth. The River Mumma can also be treacherous; according to local beliefs, she does not like to be seen, and if she catches anyone looking at her, that person can expect to be cursed.

People tell stories such as those about the River Mumma to maintain a sense of history and to pass lessons from one generation to the next. Many of the stories in Jamaican folklore were recounted by slaves in attempts to keep African traditions alive. The character Anansi, or Anansy, is a trickster who originated in storytelling in West Africa, especially among the Ashanti people in Ghana. Anansi is a rebel capable of outwitting his suppressors, a theme that was used in Jamaica to empower slaves. Anansi stories encouraged the concept that freedom was worth fighting for.

P. Diddy

Goodison mentions P. Diddy in her poem as a figure of celebrity. Indeed, P. Diddy may well represent the epitome of success and glamour, with respect to both excesses and failures. Born Sean John Combs in Harlem in 1969, he used the names Diddy, Puff Daddy, and Puffy during his rise to fame. He began his career as an intern at Uptown Records and soon afterward founded his own recording label, Bad Boy. In 1993, Combs made his first recording, rapping with the Notorious B.I.G., also known as Christopher Wallace, and using the name Puff Daddy. After a series of run-ins with the law and a breakup with the performer Jennifer Lopez, Combs changed his name to P. Diddy. He later created a reality television show called Making the Band, started a line of men's clothing, and ran in the New York City Marathon to raise money for the education of New York children. He was once listed in Fortune magazine as one of the forty richest men under forty years.

Critical Overview

"The River Mumma Wants Out" was published in Goodison's collection Controlling the Silver in 2005. In a review of this collection in the Caribbean arts journal Calabash, Michela A. Calderaro notes that previous collections placed Goodison in high standing among Caribbean poets. With Controlling the Silver, Goodison takes her readers "on a longer and more complex passage out of the islands and across the wide seas (and back)." Calderaro asserts that the poet's use of language ranks among "the richest and most impressive" of a "number of contemporary Caribbean writers." At the end of the review, Calderaro remarks on Controlling the Silver, "If we were to say that it is the finest Caribbean poetry book we've read this year, we'd be limiting its importance. It is, quite clearly, one of the finest books in contemporary world literature, a rich and satisfying feast for the mind."

In a review in the Weekly Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper, Tanya Batson-Savage considers Goodison's art as a poet, as exemplified by this collection: "Goodison's pen slips between the folk and the modern with enviable ease, making space for its own language." Jim Hannan, critiquing an earlier collection of Goodison's poetry in World Literature Today, states that her "spiritualism, rendered consistently in strongly earthy images that pay homage to the colors, sights, sounds, and textures of her native Jamaica, frequently predominates, although her political and social consciousness can always be discerned." Hannan adds, "Goodison distills joy and anger through compassion and justice, and through a lyrical intelligence finely observant, rigorous, spiritual, and sensuous." She "avoids fashionable convention," Hannan writes, "and creates a body of work whose clear, uncomplicated free verse, infrequent rhymes, and tactile, precise diction and rhythms perfectly match her vision, her voice, and her sense of vocation." In a review for Booklist, Patricia Monaghan describes Goodison's verse as possessing "ripe sensuousness," leading Monaghan to wish that Goodison wrote more often. Monaghan then adds, however, that if Goodison did publish more often, "her delicacy and immense aural power would probably dissipate."


Joyce Hart

Hart is a published writer and former teacher. In this essay, she looks beneath the surface of the characters addressed in Goodison's poem to discover implications regarding more complex layers of meaning.

Goodison's poem "The River Mumma Wants Out" mentions three main types of characters. First is the generic "you," as addressed by the narrator; second is the River Mumma, a figure from Jamaican folklore; and third are the nurse souls. Who are these characters, essentially? Who might they represent? Does each represent more than one being? These questions may never be answered exactly as the poet had intended, other than by Goodison herself, but in taking the liberty to explore possibilities, readers might find the poem more enriching.

The River Mumma, with whom most of the poem is concerned, is known to come from stories handed down through the ages to try to explain the unexplainable. Such stories can also help give people a sense of security, which the River Mumma indeed offers in certain ways. She is seen as a guardian of the waters, someone who maintains the health of the rivers, which are the source of the benefits of spiritual and physical cleansing. With her half-fish, half-human body, she is able to live in both worlds—water and earth, or spiritual and physical—taking care of humans and land animals as well as the creatures of her rivers. Yet something dreadful is happening to the River Mumma; after long centuries of watching over the waters, she now "wants out." What could this state of affairs represent?

Indeed, if the story of the River Mumma began as a myth to explain phenomena of the natural world, what might Goodison's revision of the story signify? If the River Mumma represents the guardian of the natural world, particularly the watery environments, the source of life and spiritual cleansing, what would her "wanting out" imply? In essence, who is the River Mumma in this new interpretation? The first image that comes to mind is decay. The reader can imagine that the River Mumma would suffer physically if she were to follow her dream of touring the world, "clubbing" and dancing all night long. Since the River Mumma is half fish, her body needs water. Thus, in trying to follow the ways of one who is fully human, she would meet her own destruction. In addition, if Kingston Harbour has already become polluted under her watch, what would happen if she were to move away? The result could only be more decay.

Since a myth is not a fact but rather a story used to explain something, readers know that the River Mumma is not real. But the message that a myth attempts to tell is real. The original story of the River Mumma might have been told so that people would respect the natural resources around them. The new story has a similar foundation but is instead told as a warning. In Goodison's poem, the River Mumma could represent the conscience of the people, or perhaps their emotions. The River Mumma wants something, Goodison announces in the poem's title, and wants are the direct result of emotions. Goodison might be saying that no one is paying attention to the environment; no one cares about what is happening in the surrounding world. Where is your conscience? she might be asking in the narrator's direct address. Why do you not notice these things? Are you so busy thinking about dancing and hanging out at the malls that you cannot see that the environment around you is dying? If Goodison could stir the people's conscience with her poem, maybe the River Mumma would no longer want out. She would be content where she is, where she belongs. Indeed, perhaps her "wants" would be turned around. Instead of wanting superfluous objects, like those she would find in a glitzy mall, she might want to help clean and therefore save the environment—and likewise, so might readers.

If the reference to the River Mumma is meant to stand as an emotional appeal, then the "you" addressed by the narrator of the poem could be precisely who it seems to be: the reader. Indeed, through this direct address, the narrator pulls any and all readers into her poem. Some of those readers would be the people of Jamaica, certainly, since the environment of that island nation is mentioned in the poem. But Jamaica is not the only place with an environment that is hurting or decaying. Although other countries may not have stories about the River Mumma, they do appear to be sticking their heads in the sand in ignorance, an act mentioned in this poem. Perhaps Goodison believes or hopes that the poem will pull their heads out. "You can't hear?" the narrator asks of everyone who is not paying attention to environmental damage. "You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?" In directing these questions to the "you" of the poem, the narrator is appealing to the intellect, as if she is trying to shake the sand out of people's eyes and ears. Do you not see what is happening around you? she asks. Be aware of your environment. Do not let your emotions, or your desires for a life of self-gratification, blind you to the consequences of those runaway desires for more and more things. Fun has its place, but in wanting too much or in desiring only to feed the ego, you might be sacrificing more than you can afford. You can live without the glitz. You cannot live without clean water. These are the appeals the narrator is making. In case the more emotional plea made through the figure of the River Mumma proves ineffective, Goodison tries to awaken the reader's intellect. Let me tell you what the River Mumma is doing, the narrator avers. Let me help you to see the danger involved in her frivolity.

So the emotional and the rational pleas have been made. Thus, what is left for the narrator to do? In fact, she might appeal to the spirit or to the soul, which is exactly what she does. The "nurse souls" are brought forth in the second stanza, appearing quite suddenly, without introduction or explanation. They are the voices behind the questions that are asked. As such, they are the ones who are trying to awaken the readers of the poem. They are the ones making a last desperate attempt to turn things around. Without a doubt, the situation is rapidly changing for the worse. If you do not feel it and do not see or understand it, then please just trust us, the nurse souls seem to be saying. "Everything here is changing," the reader is told in the first line, and the nurse souls ask, "Is that not obvious?"

Apparently, nothing is obvious to those who do not care to see or hear. Things have to be pointed out. The emotional and rational elements may be too close to the surface, so the narrator digs down deeper, to the soul. If anywhere, in this spiritual realm, everyone is connected; everyone is made of the same thing. All living creatures are united. As such, the spirit of the water is connected to the spirit of the trees, and the spirit of the trees is connected to the spirit of all human beings. All those wants and desires, all those ego concerns, and even all those rational notions are mere infants in relationship to the longevity and significance of the ancient soul. If hope can be found with respect to turning negative environmental changes into positives, it will be discovered through appeals to the soul. Possibly in an attempt to emphasize this idea, Goodison refers to spirits as nurse souls. Nurses are helpers and healers. Doctors may diagnose, operate, and prescribe pills, but the nurses are the ones who watch over patients until health is restored. The nurse souls may be acting in this way. They may be attempting to bring health back to the souls of the earth, the water, and the people who are ailing. The nurse souls are the ones who are shouting, Wake up! Look around you! See what is happening before it is too late!

And so, in a simple voice that appears to be telling a simple story about an icon that wishes to go astray, the poet makes a strong appeal to her readers. The elements of the poem seem straight-forward at first. It appears to be a whimsical little poem about a character from a story, as told on a small tropical island in the Caribbean. It has nothing to do with me, readers might imagine at first. But the poem haunts them, maybe without their knowing how. Indeed, the poem turns out to be more complex than they might have thought at first, and the poet may be a lot more clever. In appealing to her readers on the three different levels of emotion, intellect, and spirit, Goodison succeeds in driving her point home. In fact, she may drill her message deep inside some readers without their even realizing it.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "The River Mumma Wants Out," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Hugh Hodges

In the following essay excerpt, Hodges notes Goodison's inclination to write poetry of incantation, verbal rituals meant to "cleanse, heal, and strengthen."

Lorna Goodison came to poetic maturity during a period when political violence threatened to destroy Jamaica. At that time, in the early 1980s, she wrote bitterly of "tourist-dream edenism":

  For over all this edenism
  hangs the smell of necromancy
  and each man eats his brother's flesh
  Lord, so much of the cannibal left
  in the jungle on my people's tongues.
  We've sacrificed babies
  and burnt our mothers
  as payment to some viridian-eyed God dread
  who works in cocaine under hungry men's heads.
  And mine the task of writing it down
  as I ride in shame round this blood-stained town.
                                   ("Jamaica 1980")

What Do I Read Next?

  • Donna Hemans's River Woman (2002) tells a story about a young mother who waits at the riverside for her own mother to return to her as promised. She does not notice that her own child has wandered into the water until it is too late, and she then has to face some of her worst fears as the women in her village accuse her of drowning her child on purpose.
  • From Behind the Counter: Poems from a Rural Jamaican Experience (1999) offers readers another view of life in traditional Jamaica. The poet is Easton Lee, a man who grew up holding a pivotal position in his small village: he was the clerk of his father's grocery shop. Lee has a mixed ethnic background, with substantial Chinese ancestry.
  • Kwame Dawes edited a collection of interviews with Caribbean poets, including Goodison, called Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, published in 2000. Poetry is also included in this collection, covering a wide range of topics and styles, with multiple generations of writers represented. Some of the poems are highly influenced by Caribbean music, while others follow the more classical form of English poetry. The interviews reveal the major themes of the poets' writings.
  • One of Goodison's more popular collections is To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995). In this collection, her sixth, Goodison focuses on the culture and the people of Jamaica. One prominent theme is a plea for the revision of history, to be told anew by the poor people, who could thus relate their struggles for survival and freedom.
  • For an overview of Caribbean poetry, An Introduction to West Indian Poetry (1998) is a good place to start. This collection features verse written in English by Caribbean poets from the 1920s through the 1980s. The poetry explores the effects of both colonization and decolonization on the region's people and culture.
  • In the first half of her 1999 collection Turn Thanks, Goodison explores familiar territory, writing about her family. In the second half, she offers a view of her life in North America.

Frank Birbalsingh told her, "You are not providing solutions to [the] suffering by writing poetry." She replied, "No, but I feel that where I can talk about it, I should. I think that after 1980, we should have some public grieving, some ceremony, or monument to the fact that over 800 people died. We never really did." I am Becoming My Mother and the books that followed became, in a sense, a search for appropriate ceremonies to commemorate not only those who died without monument in 1980, but also those who died in slave ships and barracoons, those who endured and died fighting slavery, oppression, and poverty. Her poems became or sought out rituals to restore hope—Edward Baugh calls them "Rituals of Redemption"—rituals to give glimpses of the true "start-over Eden" that is obscured by tourist-dreams and political necromancy (Goodison, "Never Expect").

These are small rituals. Birbalsingh is right: they are not solutions. But they put something in the universe using the one tool that neither the slaver, nor the politician, nor the International Monetary Fund can steal entirely: the human voice. It may be a soft voice—as Goodison says, Rosa Parks's was a soft voice too ("For Rosa Parks")—but it is the voice of someone traveling, out of Babylon, back to herself.

In her search for rituals—and for the correct ritual language—Goodison draws on the wealth of Jamaica's oral tradition, on mentos, ring tunes, revival hymns, and work songs, on proverbs and Anancy stories, and on the Jamaican traditions of street preaching and prophecy. Her poetry reflects a deep belief in the power of language. "The Living Converter Woman of Green Island," from her recent collection Travelling Mercies, speaks of songs that "[s]ound myrhh notes to quell / putrefaction's smell," the putrefaction being both the uneatable contents of the unconverted intestines the singer is turning inside out to clean and the equally indigestible contents of history. In effect, the converter woman's song relies on a kind of sympathetic magic to "[c]leanse the charnel house / of the bloodbath Atlantic." An analogy between tripe and "coiled and sectioned" history becomes an opportunity to work healing on history as the converter woman reads animal intestines as a leaved book

  recording abominable drama in ship's maw
  tragedy of captured and capturer
  scenes that [seem] to be calling
  for overdue acts of conversion.

The conversion here is both conversion of the uneatable contents of history into nourishment and conversion of the listener into a believer, and both are converted by song, by words that "bring in / as yet unknown revelation." Goodison's belief in the power of words is rooted in the belief that all things are mystically connected. All things are in all things, so healing in a song puts healing into the world, and the peace within a poem may "stay the devils in our heads" ("Trident"). One of the ways Goodison articulates this sense of unity is through the Rastafarian identification of the Bible as the nexus of history, the point at which past, present, and future meet. "Lush," also from Travelling Mercies, speaks of the poet's childhood Jamaica as a "slightly cultivated" garden of Eden, where "Cain and Abel / lived in the village":

  When Abel was slaughtered
  Miss Jamaica paraded the head on a sceptre
  as she rode in her win-at-all costs motorcade.
  From his blood sprung a sharp reproach bush
  which drops karma fruit upon sleeping policemen
  to remind them of their grease-palm sins of
  omission.                                  ("Lush")

Here the mapping of the present onto the biblical past gives life its lushness: its meaningfulness and its capacity for miracles to counterbalance day-to-day brutality. But Goodison's mapping of the present onto the past is not always biblical, and does not generally share Rasta's heavy emphasis on the apocalypse. Partly this is because, as "Jamaica 1980" suggests, Goodison distrusts its promise; Jamaica's modern history is a litany of failed or betrayed revolutions (and revelations). And partly it is because Goodison knows that, with one's eyes firmly fixed on the very end of suffering, one risks missing momentary joy. In some of Travelling Mercies' poems, the kaleidoscopic effect of past and present meeting captures a fleeting blissfulness:

  Gypsy man wanders, son of Camargue horse breeders
  tinkers at broken down motor cars, makes them run
  like fiery chariot-wagons over shifting horizon.
                                   ("Romany Song")

Without forgetting the hard history of the Romany, "Romany Song" is a celebration of life "that will not settle / into being contained." In part this celebration reflects the fact that Goddison's mysticism, or at least its articulation, has been informed by Sufism. The uncontained experience comes first. Goodison once said, "What happens to me very often is that I experience these things, or I write them. Then afterwards, I will find a source that will explain them to me" (Birbalsingh 153-54). In Sufism Goodison has found explanations for both her instinctive sense that there is unity in multiplicity and her sense that metaphor and analogy perform a kind of magic. However, the deep source of both instincts is the Jamaica that Goodison grew up with, and grew up within. Sufism has simply been one of the ways she has found of reconnecting with that source.

The purpose of making that connection is always, for Goodison, to heal, and her poetry often becomes the literary equivalent of the Kumina Queen's balm yard. It is a place where herbal remedies are dispensed, prayers offered, and hymns sung; a place of baptism, cleansing, and possession. Very often, even when it is not consciously working from within the balm yard, Goodison's poetry speaks from a place where ritual magic shapes the world. "Turn Thanks to Grandmother Hannah," for example, celebrates the sanctifying vocation of "laundering / the used, soiled vestments of the clergy / into immaculate and unearthly brightness":

To my grandmother with the cleansing power
  in her hands, my intention here is to give thanks
  on behalf of any who have experienced within
  something like the redemption in her washing.

The discovery of the universal in the most humble domestic activities, indeed uncovering the world-changing potential in any ritual act if it is "correctly and effectively done" ("Angel of Dreamers"), is a recurring theme in Goodison's poetry. Baugh gives an excellent reading of one such domestic ritual in Goodison's "The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner," in which, he argues, "the articulation of a recipe becomes the enactment of a ritual that subsumes the rituals of love and death" ("Goodison's Rituals" 28). One can also see this kind of metamorphosis in Goodison's poems about painting. A painter herself, Goodison sees in the act of painting a ritual that puts something into the universe. In "Cezanne after Emile Zola," she describes how the artist "painted Mont Saint-Victoire / over and over until [he] drew and coloured / a hard mountain range for a heart." In "Keith Jarrett—Rainmaker" "a painting becomes a / december of sorrel." And in "The Rose Conflagration," the power of the ritual or painting combines with the power of ritually spoken words, to create a sort of Pentecost:

  Last night that gift of roses
  just combusted into flames
  after I shut the blue door
  and recited your names.
  If those without ever imagined
  that the artist of Murray Mountain
  had painted a hill landscape
  that caused a conflagration,
  The inflaming of a rose fire
  in this small rented space […]

This emphasis on ritual has led some commentators to see in Goodison's poetry, particularly her poetry of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a struggle to "subdue the body to the mind" (Webhofer 50). Gudrun Webhofer suggests that "Goodison sometimes sees her role as poet/priestess/healer as conflicting with her libidinal instincts" (51). And Denise deCaires Narain sees Goodison choosing increasingly "not to speak of the body and to articulate a poetic identity which transcends […] particular pain in the projection of a disembodied poetic voice." She adds, "This shift away from the body can be traced in the changing focus of her [first] three collections of poetry […] a shift from a more reproductive/woman-centred delivery of the word to a more asexual/spiritual notion of deliverance via the word" ("Delivering the Word" 432).

There is much to be said for Narain's argument, especially as she has refined it in her more recent criticism. In Contemporary Caribbean Women's Poetry: Making Style, Narain suggests that in Heartease, the move away from an embodied woman-centered voice reflects the development of "[a] poetic identity […] which is so strongly allied to 'the people' that the individuated poetic voice merges with the collective, so that she becomes the body politic" (161). Narain also argues that Goodison's more recent collections (To Us All Flowers Are Roses and Turn Thanks) reflect a return to a voice both clearly individuated and embodied (162-63). The trajectory Narain gives Goodison's poetry—from public to increasingly private rituals and from speaking as the people to speaking "about and on behalf of the people" (163)—is, I think, quite right. But I would temper the sense that Narain and Webhofer share, that in Heartease Goodison's choice to speak "for and as 'the people'" obliges her to jettison "her embodied woman's self (162). I also think the reconnection with the body that Narain observes in Turn Thanks is not quite such a change in direction as it might seem.

The examples Narain uses to examine Goodison's rejection of an embodied, sexual self are the "Wild Woman" poems in Heartease. She argues that they "point to a contradictory pull in Goodison's work between the private and the public; between the 'private' world of female sexuality and her 'public' role as Healer/poet" (436). But it seems to me that Goodison's rejection of the wild woman is not really a rejection of sexuality. The problem with the wild woman is not her sexuality, but her tendency to "succumb to false promise / in the yes of slim dark men" ("Farewell Wild Woman ([I]"). She lacks judgment, lacks the insight that is required if one is to perform life's affirming rituals correctly and effectively. She is chaotic. And she represents a particular kind of creativity that has become less important to Goodison since she started to become her mother and began traveling towards her creative source. The wild woman is a romantic creation, the artist as tortured, convention-defying outcast. Grand-daughter of Baudelaire, she is a Western creation. Goodison has sympathy for her, keeps a room for her. Indeed, Goodison deeply empathizes with all such artists—she has written poems for Don Drummond and Vincent Van Gogh among others—modern Prometheuses destroyed by an egoistic creativity they could not control. Goodison's wild woman risks such self-destruction every time she makes poems of her "worst wounds" ("Some of My Worst Wounds"), every time she admits the King of Swords "who beckons to you with one hand, while he keeps his other hand hidden" (Birbalsingh 158-59). But in Heartease, Goodison wrote a "Ceremony for the Banishment of the King of Swords." And as she has become increasingly interested in ritual creativity, the wild woman's tendency to act egoistically, precipitously, and self-destructively has become, if not a liability, then at least an unwanted distraction.

It is important to recognize, however, that Goodison's new focus in Heartease and To Us All Flowers Are Roses is no less "woman-centred" for that. That is, the identification of a "shift from a more reproductive / woman-centred delivery of the word to a more asexual / spiritual notion of deliverance via the word" risks a rather reductionist understanding of womanhood, especially in the Jamaican context. Goodison has, as Narain observes, begun to explore the role of priestess and healer, but this exploration does not imply a rejection of womanhood, because the Jamaican concept of womanhood comprises, among other things, the role of priestess and healer. With this in mind, it is worth remarking how body-centered, and specifically female-body centered, many spiritual healing rituals are. In-filling in Pentecostalism, possession in Revivalism and Pocomania—they are all intensely physical (and predominantly female) experiences.

They are all also experiences that require a temporary suspension of the ego to allow the Holy Spirit, the Saints, or the ancestors to enter and speak through the body of the celebrant. The prayer-like opening poems of Heartease reference these rituals in a number of ways. "Because I Have Been Everything" announces "My heart life is open, transparency / my soul's life in otherworlds" (8); "My Father Always Promised Me" speaks of the receptive being as "wired for sound," "[of] all worlds and a healer / source of mystery"; and "A Forgiveness" draws on the language of the Pentecostal eudemonic, witnessing:

  All changing […]
  is light from within
  and that light will draw
  more light to itself
  and that will be light
  enough for a start
  to a new life and a self
  forgiven heart

The rite being prepared for in these poems bears fruit in "Song of Release." Having temporarily given up control of her self, the poet becomes oracle:

  I stand with palms open, salute the sun
  the old ways over. I newborn one.
  You sent a message written in
  amharic on the horizon
  I had to read quickly as the sky
  was impatient to be going
  even reading from this distance
  with just opening eyes
  was enough for me, the message
  spelt "free."

Being open to the promptings (and demands) of the spiritual world does not bring about a jettisoning of the body. In fact it is centered in the body and manifests itself in the body sometimes quite painfully. To emphasize this, the poem that follows "Song of Release" likens the experience of being ridden by poetry to the pain of delivery. Sometimes the spirit world treats its messengers brutally, and the prophet says, "I don't want to live like this anymore." It is a sentiment echoed by the prophet Jeremiah in To Us All Flowers Are Roses. "Today," he says, "I will not prophesy," but admits:

  If I do not prophesy
  God contends with me,
  Turns up a high-marrow deep
  Flame, sealed fire then
  Shut up burning in my bones.

"I did not choose prophecy," he laments, "prophecy chose me." Jeremiah does not want to be the bearer of messages no one wants to hear; he wants to "marry, / Father children and feed them," but he is "used hard" by God. The problem Goodison wrestles with in Heartease and To Us All Flowers Are Roses is how to remain obedient to her poetic calling as "sojourner poet […] / calling lost souls" without becoming a Jeremiah scorched by his vision. And she seems to have wrestled successfully ("Heartease New England 1985"). As Narain remarks, in recent years "[Goodison's] images of poetry—and the poetic 'calling'—are more often presented in confidently sensual terms, than as a painful wounding" (164). This is not because Goodison has found a way to reconnect with the body—she never really disconnected—but because she has found ways of "delivering the word" that are physically less traumatic than either the possession rites of Heartease or the wild woman antics of her earlier poetry. Her love poems, for example, have come increasingly to resemble hymns. Consider "Close to You Now" from the collection Turn Thanks, for example; even the title recalls a hymn, "Closer to You My Lord":

  I lie in my bed and cry out to you.
  I cover myself with a humming tune spread
  which says as it weaves itself
  you, you and only you.
  I want to walk across this green island
  singing like the Guinea woman
  showers, showers of blessing
  until you cover my lips
  and I go silent and still
  and I will see your face
  and want then for nothing.

Given Goodison's engagement with Jamaica's oral traditions, this development should not be surprising—love songs have been an important part of Jamaican religious music since the Great Revival of the 1860s. Ira Sankey's Gospel Hymns (a volume so influential that, in Jamaica, hymns are still generically referred to as "sankeys") devotes more hymns to the idea of Jesus as loving and beloved than to any other theme (Sizer 39). What the metaphor of Jesus as lover gives sankeys is a fresh way to speak about salvation. Conversely, for Goodison, the ritualized language of hymn and prayer has become a way of speaking about what is true, upfull, and enlightening in human sexuality.

Significantly, the wild woman has recently begun to reappear in Goodison's poetry, not now as aimless wanton, but as exuberant Revivalist "summoning the freed soul / […] to testify and pray / [t]o wear brimstone red … and to move seamlessly/up and down between the worlds of spirit and sense" ("Revival Song of the Wild Woman"). She has become a figure for many intersecting ways of being a Jamaican woman. Not just the "exuberant Revivalist," she is also "the wild heart, the crazy woman, the Accompong Nanny warrior" ("Bringing the Wild Woman Indoors"). But most of all she has become a figure for the capacity to endure or, to use a metaphor Goodison explores in "About the Tamarind," the capacity to bear. The tamarind tree becomes an emblem for Jamaican women because, as the tree says of itself,

  I bear. Not even the salt of the ocean can stunt me.
  Plant me on abiding rock or foaming restless waters.
  Set me in burying grounds, I grow shade for
  I am still here, still bearing after five hundred years.

"Bearing," of course, means both "enduring" and "reproducing," and the two senses of the word are connected. Furthermore, the ability of Jamaican culture to "flourish even in rocky terrain with little or no cultural attention" can be attributed to those who "bear" it. Nourisher, "dwelling place of the spirit of rain," healer, keeper of memory who has "not come to rule over, overpower, / vanquish, conquer or constrain anyone," the tamarind provides a powerful metaphor for the interconnectedness of woman's roles as bearer of children, bearer of culture, and source of strength and healing. Indeed, they are so intimately connected that the distinction between delivery and deliverance becomes almost meaningless. Every delivery—of a baby or a poem—is a sacred act that creates a local miracle, creates possibilities, gives a glimpse of the promise of deliverance. That is, what rituals do (the delivery of a baby is a particularly dramatic example, but they can take the most mundane domestic form) is perform in the same way that songs in Anancy stories perform. They initiate a trick; they announce a possibility that, in the face of all contradiction, becomes a miraculous reality.

Small rituals, but powerful. This was already the message of "For Rosa Parks" in I Am Becoming My Mother:

  And how was this soft-voiced woman to know
  that this 'No'
  in answer to the command to rise
  would signal the beginning
  of the time of walking?
  Soft the word
  like the closing of some aweful book—
  a too-long story
  with no pauses for reason
  but yes, an ending
  and the signal to begin the walking.
  [saw] a man with no forty acres
  just a mule
  riding towards Jerusalem
  And the children small somnambulists
  moving in the before day morning
  And the woman who never raised her voice
  never lowered her eyes
  just kept walking
  leading toward sunrise.

The use of biblical imagery here is rooted in Rastafarianism and Revivalism: the marches that characterized the black liberation movement are imagined as being both figuratively and literally the biblical exodus ("the time of walking"), and the biblical apocalypse ("the closing of some aweful book"). And that exodus leads "the children" towards a sunrise that is not just Jerusalem, but also Africa. But the core of the poem comes from further back in Jamaican culture, from Anancy stories. Rosa Parks's "No" is a short but enormously powerful "sing," and it initiates a trick that topples Babylon: by not rising, Rosa Parks rises; by refusing to move, she begins walking. In the Melodians' Rastafarian hymn "Rivers of Babylon," it is Babylon's requirement that the captive children of Israel "sing King Alpha song / In a strange land" that becomes its downfall: the song becomes a chant for freedom. In "For Rosa Parks," Babylon's unwise "command to rise" has the same result. In both cases the oppressed embark on what Goodison, in another early poem, calls "the road of the Dread." There is no sudden deliverance on this road, no apocalypse, no Zion Train. What makes it tolerable is not the promise of the road's imminent end—the promise of apocalypse—but the small miracles on the way that assure one that there is an end no matter how distant:

  [W]hen yu meet another traveller
  who have flour and yu have water and man and man
  make bread together.
  And dem time dey the road run straight and sure
  like a young horse that cant tire
  And yu catch a glimpse of the end
  through the water in yu eye
  I won't tell yu what I spy
  but is fi dat alone I tread this road.
                            ("The Road of the Dread")

These small victories against poverty and oppression become an increasingly important focus for Goodison. In "For Rosa Parks," she achieves this focus by framing the grand gesture, the mass marches, with images of the "soft-voiced woman" who began it all. In the end what the poem celebrates most is not the great exodus, but the small personal victory contained in the fact that Rosa Parks "never raised her voice / never lowered her eyes." Such small personal victories are the subject of many of Goodison's poems, particularly those in To Us All Flowers Are Roses." October in the Kingdom of the Poor," "Coir," "Nayga Bikkle," and "Bun Down Cross Roads" all celebrate largely symbolic victories over oppression that somehow suggest "a glimpse of the end."…

Eden is not the place to which we finally return; it is the place from which we are always beginning. It is the "new garden / of fresh start over" that Goodison gives thanks for in "From the Garden of Women Once Fallen." And for Goodison, it is in Jamaica.

So Jamaica is the land to which Jamaican people must literally and metaphorically return. Redemption means reclaiming Jamaica's history—both its history of pain and its history of healing. It is a process Goodison began for herself in To Us All Flowers Are Roses, trying to tell the stories of Jamaican people, "the half that has never been told" ("Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move"): the story of Bag-a-Wire, who betrayed Marcus Garvey, and of Papacita "who always favored a clean merino! over any shirt with collar and sleeves" ("Papacita"); of tenement dwellers who plant "paint pan gardens in the paved yards" ("In City Gardens"); of the sweet vendor Miss Gladys, "the queen of Ptomaine Palace / her flat fritters laying drowsy / with sleeping overnight oil ("Outside the Gates"); and of Anne Pengelly "maidservant, late of the San Fleming Estate" ("Annie Pengelly"),…

In "After the Green Gown of My Mother Gone Down," the poem that opens Turn Thanks, Goodison recalls the funeral of her mother:

  We laid her down, full of days,
  chant griot from the book of life,
  summon her kin from the longlived
  line of David and Margaret.
  Come Cleodine, Albertha,
  Flavius, Edmund, Howard and Rose,
  Marcus her husband gone before
  come and walk Dear Doris home.

This is the final chapter of life as a journey to meet the ancestors, a return to source. And this journey to the source of self is the final affirmation of the connectedness of all things, the completion of the cycle and entry into the start-over Eden:

  Mama, Aunt Ann says
  that she saw Aunt Rose
  come out of an orchard
  red with ripe fruit
  and called out laughing to you.
  And that you scaled the wall
  like two young girls
  scampering barefoot among
  the lush fruit groves.

Here, perhaps, Goodison has finally found the remedy (part bush tea, part song of conversion) for the "tourist-dream edenism" that "Jamaica 1980" lamented. And the promise of Goodison's poetry in Travelling Mercies is that there will always be this start-over—for those traveling; for wild women turned Revivalists; for Jamaica itself. Jamaica will need its healers and shepherds: people who can perform a Nine Night ceremony for those gone down, who can come representing the ancestors, and who know the properties of aloe and peppermint; people who can perform the small rituals that will bring Jamaica back to itself. It will need its griots to sound myrhh notes, shape new psalms and new praise songs; and storytellers, scholars, and bad word merchants to tell the untold half. But it will survive, as long as there are Jamaicans ready to undertake the planting of eve-living healing trees and lush fruit groves, soon come Heartease, "and it reach till / it purge evil from this place / till we start again clean" ("Heartease III").

Source: Hugh Hodges, "Start Over: Possession Rites and Healing Rituals in the Poetry of Lorna Goodison," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2005, pp. 19-32.

Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Goodison's work.

Lorna Goodison is considered one of the most accomplished anglophone Caribbean women writers to emerge in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Goodison's poetry often speaks to women, and she is known for her sympathetic yet unsentimental treatment of the downtrodden. Goodison's appeal both in Jamaica and abroad has many sources, according to Edward Baugh in Dictionary of Literary Biography, who wrote: "The appeal of her writing derives from her treatment of themes of gender, class, and race; from the eloquence with which she speaks for the ill-used and disadvantaged; from her blend of earthiness, humor, and spirituality; and from the way in which her poetic idiom combines contemporary Standard English, the traditional languages of religious devotion, and the resourcefulness of Jamaican speech."

Goodison once told CA: "My work has always been rooted in Jamaica. My first book, Tamarind Season, takes its title from a local phrase synonymous with hard times and referring to the season before the crops have been harvested, when food is scarce. The book includes widely anthologized poems about Jamaica, such as 'The Road of the Dread' and 'For Don Drummond.'" Tamarind Season also includes poems of love, both happy, sorrowful, and bitter, poems of friendship, and what Baugh describes as "satiric poems about people who deny their homeplace, their origins, and their color." There are several poems about New York, including "New York Is a Subway Stop-1969" and "Wish You Were Here," that exhibit Goodison's playful sense of humor, and "For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)," which also appears in Goodison's second collection, is a poignant tribute to the resilience of all women living in difficult circumstances. In reference to this poem, Baugh wrote, "Like other Goodison poems, it is a grateful recognition of her origins and shows her acceptance of her place in certain cultural traditions even as she sees through the petty bourgeois aspect of them. Goodison is one of a newer generation of West Indian writers whose work suggests a freedom to move beyond the crisis of cultural identity that so preoccupied earlier writers."

"My second book," Goodison told CA, "I Am Becoming My Mother, bears witness to the experience of women in Jamaica, and indeed throughout the West Indies, and to the heritage of struggle and resistance, of patience and fortitude and independence, which has been an important part of the history of my people since the dislocations and dispossessions of slavery. Poems in this book include 'Nanny,' about the great Jamaican leader Nanny of the Maroons, and a poem 'For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)'." I Am Becoming My Mother was Goodison's first book to receive a wide distribution and it brought her critical accolades and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas Region in 1986. Baugh discerns a musical inflection in many of these poems, some of which, such as "Jah Music" and "Keith Jarrett—Rainmaker," also discuss music thematically. And, like her earlier collection, in I Am Becoming My Mother "there are more radiant, large-souled love poems and more poems that speak for the socio-economically disadvantaged," remarked Baugh. As in all her collections, there are numerous poems about women; here, in addition to the piece about Nanny of the Maroons, Goodison treats Winnie Mandela, the leader of the African National Party during her husband's decades-long imprisonment, and Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white sparked the American civil rights movement of the 1950s, as well as numerous nameless women.

Goodison described the subjects of her third collection to CA: "Heartease continues this preoccupation with the experiences of the Jamaican people, and with the ways in which they are shaped by the places (the title itself refers to a place name in Jamaica) and the possibilities of their land and their ways of life." In Baugh's description, Heartease "includes some fine poems about the condition of women, such as 'A Forgiveness,' 'Survivor,' 'Farewell Wild Woman,' and the virtuoso performance of 'Ceremony for the Banishment of the King of Swords,' the poem-for-all-women, which brings a mythopoeic dimension to the theme." But whereas her first two collections are consumed with issues of love and justice, and the necessarily political and well as personal implications of these issues, Heartease finds Goodison shifting more toward spiritual concerns. These poems find the author "[working] through and [transcending] the agonies and yearnings of the heart, the tensions and disappointments of personal relationships, the clamors and temptations of the rough world to reach a soul-place she called 'Heartease,' a condition of calm, of grace and healing," summarized Baugh.

Goodison's most recent collection, To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, continues the concerns of her earlier works, especially her earliest focus on the people and culture of Jamaica and the West Indies. And, as in her other poetry collections, the sufferings of women are given recounted and thereby some restitution is made. "Taken altogether, these poems reinforce each other's many strengths and constitute a long song of struggle and survival," concluded Booklist reviewer Patricia Monaghan.

Goodison is also the author of a collection of short stories, Baby Mother and the King of Swords, many of which envision a scenario between a man and a woman in which the former is abusive or takes advantage of the latter. The first term is Jamaican slang for a woman who has a child out of wedlock or who is the victim of incest; the latter term refers to the card in the Tarot deck that features a male figure beckoning with one hand but holding a sword behind his back in the other. Goodison's Selected Poems contains poems from each of her previous three collections plus seven new ones. Goodison is also a painter whose works have been exhibited in the United States, Europe, England, and the West Indies. They also grace the covers of all of her books.

Source: Thomson Gale, "Lorna Goodison," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.


Batson-Savage, Tanya, "A Sunday Morning Serving of Poetry," in the Weekly Gleaner, North American ed., October 6-12, 2005, p. 14.

Calderaro, Michela A., "Painting with Words and Make Us See: Lorna Goodison's Controlling the Silver" in Calabash, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall-Winter 2005, pp. 167, 170, 172.

Goodison, Lorna, "The River Mumma Wants Out," in Controlling the Silver, University of Illinois Press, 2005, p. 54.

Hannan, Jim, Review of Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 76, No. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 130-31.

Monaghan, Patricia, Review of Turn Thanks, in Booklist, Vol. 95, June 1, 1999, p. 1774.

Further Reading

Adams, L. Emilie, and Llewelyn Dada Adams, Understanding Jamaican Patois: An Introduction to Afro-Jamaican Grammar, LMH Publishers, 1991.

A unique language has formed in Jamaica, combining English and African lexicons. With the popularity of reggae, Jamaican patois has come to be heard all over the world. This book helps people living outside Jamaica understand some of the popular phrases.

Jekyll, Walter, Jamaican Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes, and Dancing Tunes, Dover Publications, 2005.

This books provides an overview of some of Jamaica's mythology through stories and songs. Extensive notes and explanations are provided, giving the reader a full understanding of the stories' significance.

Mack, Douglas R. A., From Babylon to Rastafari: Origin and History of the Rastafarian Movement, Frontline Distribution International, 1999.

Much of the poetry of Jamaica is captured in the nation's popular music, much of which expresses the beliefs of the Rastafarian movement. This book was written by a member of that movement, which represents the ongoing struggle for total freedom.

Monteith, Kathleen, and Glen Richards, eds., Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage, and Culture, University of West Indies Press, 2002.

This text offers a comprehensive overview of the history of Jamaica, from the Arawak to Marcus Garvey to contemporary culture.

Stolzoff, Norman C., Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica, Duke University Press, 2000.

Stolzoff has written a comprehensive study of Jamaican music, addressing its production, its star performers, and its influence on the people. Further, Stolzoff carefully delineates the music's political and cultural influences. Much of Jamaica's poetry is presented through song; within this poetry, the voices of rebellion can still be heard.

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