We are thrilled to present “Madwoman: A Forum on Shara McCallum’s Poetics.” Madwoman, McCallum’s fifth book (Alice James Press, 2017) is a tour de force. These poems pursue the complexities of womanhood through myth, memory, and persona vis-à-vis an array of poetic forms, including the ghazal, which invites the expectation of return through a refrain of repeated end-words. Repetition—of persona, and of the trope of memory as an elusively recursive force—becomes a thematic structure that beautifully braids the past and the present the split self must encounter, if not reconcile, in these poems. As the poem “She” ends,
She could sing the prickle from the nettle
She could sing the sorrow out of stone
She could sing the tender from the bitter
She could sing the never out of gone (13-16).
Introduced by Derrilyn Morrison, this forum is comprised of essays by Michela A. Calderaro (“Shara McCallum’s Madwoman and Other Madwomen”), Vahni Capildeo (Movement in Space: Transitions between Words in Shara McCallum’s Madwoman), Mervyn Morris (“Shara McCallum Reshaping”), Mihaela Moscaliuc (“The Patois of Intimacy In Shara McCallum’s Poetry”), and Chet’la Sebree (“The Madwoman Now Being All Women”). We would also like to link here to a recent interview with Shara McCallum in Kenyon Review Online for readers who would like to engage more with Shara McCallum’s perspective on history, myth, and memory in her poetry. This forum on Shara McCallum’s poetics explores her dazzling approach to the lyric voice through the poems that gorgeously engage the present through the past in this collection.
– Tyler Mills and Derrilyn Morrison
MCCALLUM’S IDENTITY POLITICS: THE MADWOMAN IN TIME AND SPACE
An introduction by Derrilyn Morrison
Shara McCallum has written five books of poetry and several critical essays in the field of Caribbean and American literature. She has gained prestigious awards, fellowships, and recognition beginning with her first collection, Water Between Us (1999), published by the University of Pittsburg Press. Her latest collection, Madwoman (2017), was published in the UK by Peepal Tree Press and in the US by Alice James Books. McCallum’s work as a poet and scholarly critic is found in diverse cultures and languages, appearing in journals and anthologies from the US to Latin America, the Caribbean, the UK, and Israel. The narrative lyricism of the mad woman that governs the Madwoman collection tugs at the heart as readers hear the familiar call for help and for the uncovering of truth hidden beneath layers of deception and lies.
Like all of McCallum’s poetry collections, Madwoman charts the evolution of self-identity as the poet-persona re-gathers fragments of memory from the personal and familial to communal history and traditional, religious myth. Examining her poetic works using time honored processes of re-memory, or re-membering, allows readers to see beyond the personal, and thereby gain access to the far more important politically incisive portrayal of modern society at large. Additionally, engaging familiar themes and issues of time and language in McCallum’s collection reveals orality as a unifying structure that textures the poetic works, releasing a continuous flow of socio-cultural exchange and interchange. The language rings true and roams free of artifice, filtered as it is through the madwoman’s consciousness, creating a collection of poems that are compelling in spirit, and that resonate on multiple levels of human experience. The collection exposes, as much as it defies, the social and political structures that seek to constrain and consume the life of the individual.
The subjective experiences and apprehensions of the poet-persona of McCallum’s collection are brought to bear on public knowledge, much of which is institutional and international in scope. Readers are easily (and deliberately) estranged by the unfamiliar in McCallum’s work. Her Madwoman brings to readers a complex experience of national and familial politics interlaced with the shifting perspectives of a mind that has been existing on the edge for as long as human society has persisted. The dominant images of “a mind adrift in memory” (29), or trapped “inside a story’s spell” (30) speak to the importance of memory in this poetic collection. The poems hold nuggets of instructions on how to read the mad woman. We are told that in her world “Time is jumbled” (30), and she finds herself wherever her will takes her. Readers must follow her train of thoughts to understand her behavior: “How else chart / a course than the way a child / plucks flowers from a field…” (21) the poet-persona asks.
McCallum systematically attacks the mythology of madness throughout this collection. In the collection, the mad woman is representative of “all women” (33); living in a “hall of mirrors” (33) she replicates the dilemma of those around her. Each poem in Madwoman represents the experience of a woman whose consciousness of impending doom governs her reactions to the everyday rituals of life. For example, in “Parasol,” “Coda,” “Now I’m a Mother,” and “Study of a Grasshopper,” the poet-persona lives in a world of double consciousness where the “pitfall of metaphor… quickly displaces what is in front of [ her]” (38). She cannot help the feeling of despondency that comes with the awareness that she has no control over her life, and that the gaze of those around her are designed to be reductive.
Not surprisingly, many of the poems re-gather and rehash well known myths about women and madness in such a way as to raise questions about the social stigma cast on women who, through no fault of their own, live on the edge of time. In “Fury,” there is the mother “whose placid gaze masks the storm gathering fury into its centre” (33); in “Parable of the Wayward Child,” the mother persona is keenly aware that the “edge draw near fi true,” and of the wisdom of accepting “the idea of falling,” which she knows is “plenty-plenty different from the drop” (19). Characters from the Bible are represented as women who were misunderstood as they did what was necessary to survive as individuals living in male-dominated societies. In “Lot’s wife to Madwoman,” the madwoman persona is warned by Lot’s wife: “As happen to all a we, my life been reduce / to one sad, tawdry cliché” (56). Similarly, in “Salome to Madwoman,” the Biblical character Salome points out the human tendency to label and condemn women they fear because such women are mirror images of the self: “In the centre / of your life, you baptise / as sadness what rage has wrought.” In the end, she points out, “You find absolution, calling me / Executioner” (54).
There is a world of confusion in the Madwoman collection, the images becoming a kaleidoscope of mental pain and distress, of alienation, exile, and sheer terror as the woman recognizes that she lives in a society that mercilessly “turn from [her], tipping their faces to a blistering sky” (51). She lives with “sorrow” (65) in a loveless world, where human relationships are blighted and the woman is stunned into a state of amnesia. It is a world without the comfort of light, where “the sun could find no habitation” (60), and where the clouds of darkness gather within her. Readers are made to feel uneasy by these disturbing images, which implicate a society that fosters these inhumane conditions that render the madwoman mute and terrified. McCallum’s Madwoman makes the call for recognition of culpability and acceptance of social and moral responsibility. There is no room for excuse as we read between the lines of poems gathered together in this bold collection.
SHARA MCCALLUM’S MADWOMAN AND OTHER MADWOMEN
By Michela A. Calderaro
The madwoman is “everywhere, so nowhere; /in plain sight [she walks] through walls” (“Race”, p. 17).
Her body is masked with “multiple skins” – a smooth skin, or scales, a flesh that is white or black. She looks like no one else, and she can belong to no person and no place. She is the “whore of Babylon,” and she is the kin sister of Lot’s wife [of Sodom and Gomorrah]. She walks alone, has no companions with whom to share her tragedy. She will always long for something that cannot be, seeking to become something that she cannot be, hoping for a life that she cannot even fathom, but knows exists.
The figure of the madwoman has always been a conspicuous presence in Shara McCallum’s writings, ever since her first collection of poems. This figure is a ghost, sometimes visible, sometimes just a vaguely perceived presence.
She is “the howling night,” a haunting nightmare. She can take on different forms: she is a mother, a daughter who can morph into a fish, a mermaid, a snake, a bird. She is a life bearer who suddenly turns into a bearer of destruction and a maker of havoc.
She is a being that cannot belong and is therefore condemned to wander through land, sky, and sea in an endless quest. She is the daughter of Destiny, the progeny of the collective memory of Europe, Africa, and the New World.
McCallum’s madwoman is always on the verge of a precipice. Exile is her status, lingering on a “doorstep forever” is her fate. She is the challenger of the patriarchal order, and as such she walks surrounded by beauty, danger, and impending violence along a path marked by memory—often an “unbearable memory.”
Here, as in McCallum’s previous works, poems are brimming with cross-cultural, historical, popular, and literary references. Poems communicate across the collection, reaching out to her earlier books.
Moreover, as with her other collections, we are led into the maze of Madwoman by an epigraphy. This time the lines that precede the poems are by Lisel Mueller: “Memory is the only afterlife I understand…” Mueller’s words, her whole oeuvre actually, reflect Shara McCallum’s own interest in the mechanics of memory, in how memory works in order to create or re-create images of ourselves, how the life we present to the public would often clash with our own private, inner self.
The fate of the madwoman is forever linked to the fate of the mermaid, who loses herself trying to understand who she really is.
Madwomen, as far back as we can remember, have always been locked up in the attic. Often, madwomen were wives or daughters who had defied the patriarchal order, wives or daughters of different skin colors or, simply different from what society was expecting them to be.
We find in McCallum’s works yet another defining trait of the madwoman: a geographical dichotomy between natural spaces—such as islands and water—where she can breathe and cultural spaces, either mental or physical, where she is kept confined.
And this leads to another larger dichotomy, between past and present. Indeed, in Shara McCallum’s new collection, time and space become closely inter-connected because the memory of outer space, which is also the memory of a time lived in the past, clashes with the claustrophobic spaces of the present. Thus, time and space define who the madwoman really is.
Mermaids, time and space, both present and past, both physical and mental, and geography and history all come together in one of the most lyrical and symbolic poems of the collection, rightly titled “Madwoman’s geography,” where we witness an astonishing and revelatory transformation.
The poem, short and seemingly less ‘impressive’ than others, actually epitomizes one of the main accomplishments of McCallum’s gift as a writer: her capacity to create a complex poetic structure, built with a multitude of levels, that combines folk tales and myths, drawn from both the European and the Afro-Caribbean tradition, including literary citations, Christian and Greek beliefs, and mythological references.Water spirits have been a constant presence in men’s lives. Each civilization has created its own version of water spirits, calling them sirens, giving them tails or wings, calling them snake-women, or bird-women, worshiping them as goddesses.
The belief in the supreme mother water goddess is closely linked to the connected notions of the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, and the indestructible soul/life force, chi, eternally moving through time and space. The mother water goddess […] controls the major transition points, situated in the water, between life and death. Furthermore, the idea of the watery transitions between life, death, and rebirth [is] tied to a circular concept of time and eternity.
The transformation of the speaking ‘I’ in the poem follows the transformation of the mythological water goddess from the snake-woman, covered with scales, to the bird-woman, flying up in the sky, to a water being, a mermaid, a siren, who, also covered in scales, follows the wake left behind by ships in order to chart her course, in a timeless circular movement, an evolutionary process leading to eternity.
Such an evolutionary process cannot but echo W. B. Yates’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” There too, we find a similar triad, “fish, flesh or fowl,” and there too the triad becomes dynamic if considered as a scansion of an evolutionary process—that is, if we move it on a temporal and spatial dimension. From the sea, as a fish, comes the man/flesh, who will soar, as a fowl—both intellectually and artistically.
The form of symbolism reached by McCallum is similar to Yates’s. As in Yates, her conception of the universe is both mystical and visionary, based on images which become symbols, of beliefs and folklore which allow her to create her own order of things, her own cosmic system. And here too the speaking ‘I’ becomes the symbol of the Artist.
Once again, almost without perceivable efforts, McCallum combines experiences and influences from the many cultures that make her one of the most challenging voices in contemporary literature.
Using and reinventing language, McCallum unveils the self that, through appearing through metaphors and images, has been hidden from public view. Then she leads us towards unknown and scary territories, to the final realization that the madwoman is what we see when we wander “the hall of mirrors” and look deep enough into the broken mirror of life.
MOVEMENT IN SPACE: TRANSITIONS BETWEEN WORDS IN SHARA MCCALLUM’S MADWOMAN
By Vahni Capildeo
Just as spectators nowadays at a classical ballet may sit down and enjoy themselves, taking for granted the dancers’ performance en pointe—without perhaps actively remembering the history of dance and its shimmering innovators such as Marie Taglioni, who in 1832 rose light and quiet in her reinforced satin slippers throughout La Sylphide—similarly, readers of contemporary poetry may take for granted the expressive junctures, interruptions, flows and ambiguities created by the poem as a visual object, with its deliberate use of line breaks and white spaces. In the process of reading, one might not necessarily recall the past investigations of the art of the page that opened and developed it as a space of articulation.
Shara McCallum’s Madwoman is wise to the heritage and potential of such techniques. This is a poet at the top of her game. Before highlighting a few instances of McCallum’s exceptional and original employments of space and modes of address, I shall begin by mentioning some of the fluent, ordinary instances that a reader might expect.
Many voices whisper, chant, and admonish us in these texts. They are marked, or make themselves felt, in a number of ways. They rise clearly out of the poem from how they are rendered visually on the page. Italics are used as arrows guiding us toward the utterances of the dead, of the absent, or of the un-attributable chorus of common wisdom. They make for the truth of McCallum’s poetics—the polyvocality of any memoried, loving individual—and literally tell it slant. At the start of a poem, an italicized voice may call out “Hello darling.” Immediately, our eye is struck, our inner ear is engaged, and our sense of our situation is transformed. We have become both over hearers and addressees. The slope of speech summons us into a lilac, lavender and pumpkin-coloured world of busy affection and cruel ageing. When, two pages later, we are sent away from these images, it is with two more italicized sentences. They hang in the imagined air, a ghostly blessing. With this verbal and visual send-off, the poet cedes power. It is the elegized subject, not the poetic persona, who effects closure: “Alright darling. You go.”
This is freewheeling verse, not free verse. A stanza cannot hold it. The lines appear stepped or side-by-side. Single and grouped lines are not so much fragmentary as almost sidling or pirouetting up to and from each other. For example, the layout of the poem “History and Myth” on the page may force legendary folk resistance and violent historical etymology to line up in two columns. Yet these verticals, though distinct, are not equivalent. Set apart and not quite in synch, too widely spaced to be interlinear, they do not create an antiphonal sound but rather evoke the complexity of divisions within a shared terrain of unevenly consequential, unequally recorded actions. They work like a left hand ignoring its connection to what the right hand is doing. The author brings a dominant and interpretative gesture to the finish. Nanny, the Amazonian heroine of Jamaica’s Maroons; the goats which are part of Caribbean landscape and whose cry is coded into the Greek root of “tragedy,” “goat song”; and history as “a word” are made to converge in one typographically centred, laconic and vigilant conclusion. The parallel tracks are brought up short, tied together as all “that will not cease bleating.”
I would like to remark now on a wider and more unusual form of parallel movement in the physical world of McCallum’s book. This is the finer interplay between how certain marks of punctuation function within poems, and the magnification of that by the juxtaposition of two poems next to each other across the spine of the open book.
“Madwoman as Salome” (p. 18), an oddly wistful eight-section poem in which the Madwoman looks back at her “pivoting” body as exhibited when younger, wondering whether her “Love” would (have) recognize(d) it, ends half its stanzas (4, 6 and 8) with question marks, reminiscent of a spinning or undulating curved body. The question mark is taken up by the poem across the page, “The Parable of the Wayward Child” (p.19), which begins:
Yu know how you can see car careening
before it even start accelerate? […]
If the reader is sensitive to the visual and semantic elements working together, this modulation of the punctuation mark links and extends the whirling, girlish vulnerability of the previous text into a mechanized and dangerous fury of movement.
Still more interestingly, the dash which follows the final word of the second unrhymed couplet of “Madwoman as Salome” brings about an opening into the space of the page, rather than a closure in the form of the words. Throwing this shape might seem an extravagant or redundant poetic move, given that a blank line anyway creates an abyss between the end of one couplet and the beginning of the next. What if it is? Isn’t this the wild style of “Madwoman/Salome?” Not only. It is not enough to rest with the notion that extravagance correctly might be one of this compelling female persona’s unashamed characteristics. Rather, in view of the way that other visual elements, including hyphens and lengths of dash, are deployed throughout McCallum’s book, I would argue that the dash here is delicately suggestive: like falling, like a veil, like a fallen veil stripped off in Salome’s dance of the seven veils and into one of the seven gaps between this poem’s stanzas, like a body itself, horizontal, sexualized or prostituted into being une horizontale.
I could be a small pea, clasped
in a fist, or offer my body –
its multiple skins.
Further, the dash is also an indicator of tempo—of precipitation. The poetic value acquired by a punctuation mark, once more, finds an echo and intensification in the language of the poem (an unrhymed sonnet) on the facing page. A sonnet traditionally features a volta, a turn of some kind, often though not always just before its closing couplet or quatrain. McCallum’s relentless kinesis makes her poem turn and turn again, with volta within volta, as the very middle—between line seven and line ten—finds itself marked off:
wanting nuh mek yu special. Even I –
who cotch-up myself on the side of a precipice
one time and was schupid enough
fi think it a place fi set up shop –
Once more, both what the words denote and how the text presents itself, work together to create something other and beyond the printed poem as a static, black-and-white object.
I shall look at one more example of how poems on facing pages take part in a visual and semantic interplay of word, sign, and space. What seems like rape and complex post-traumatic stress disorder is horrifically built into the everyday life of Caribbean young womanhood—
disruptive, yet almost as routine, as ordinarily encountered on the way as sand and school uniform and church. The italics which bring a voice alive here curse “Motherfucker” as the girl does not get away. The final couplet uses commas and repetition to suggest the entrapment of the body and mind into a cycle of lost breath and miserable memory:
at this hour, this hour reprising every twilight
in you, in you every falling again into night.
Up to this point in the book (and noted for the first time in this piece), McCallum’s creation of movement in words also depends on the winsome, tricky, and powerful placement of unexpected, syncopated, eye- and/or sound-rhymes within and across lines. Here is a different kind of internal and eye-rhyme: the letter-combination “ou” is central to both “hour” and “you.” The ow of pain, “where” in one of the Caribbean’s languages, or in French où, these evocations jump from line to line, the vocalic, unstopped (unstoppable) stream of sound pulled out from the middle of two unlike words. The same letter-combination recurs in the closing couplet of the next poem, to which a reader of the paperback cannot avoid glancing across, at least unconsciously:
scouring, for all who must see to see,
the scourge he left in me.
Here “ou” lengthens to “our” and hints at a compressed “courage.” The look as well as the meaning of the language moves actively into a ritual of cleansing.
The closing poem in the volume, “Madwoman Apocrypha” (pp. 71-78), assembles and moves freely with and through the whole variety of techniques of Shara McCallum’s kinetic textual poetics. Most beautiful and subtle here, perhaps, are the asterisks. There is a refrain in this poem, where one of those now-familiar, always-eerie or emphatic italicized voices asks about the night that unmakes, or makes, the poetic persona. The night refrain sometimes occurs without the asterisk nearby. However, the asterisk never is placed anywhere else than above the recurrence of the questions about night…making it a starry, starry one…
SHARA MCCALLUM RESHAPING
By Mervyn Morris
Writing poems will often involve looking critically at drafts and, however provisionally, weighing options. Shara McCallum’s The Face of Water (2011) ends with a section of “New Poems.” In Madwoman (2017), most of these poems have been revised.
As McCallum is an alert, self-critical poet, there has been tightening throughout. Some of the revisions also change the focus, as in “The Story of Madwoman and River Mumma” where what was previously first-person is now third-person narration. Some introduce variations in the tenses, with preterite verbs now made pluperfect, looking further back (as in “Lucea, Jamaica”). Some, suggesting a freer flow of consciousness, dispense with punctuation: as in “The Story of Madwoman and Horse” (formerly “Horse”) and “The Story of Madwoman and River Mumma” (which transforms “The Madwoman and Water”).
The Madwoman version of “West Coast” drops one the five sections published earlier and alters the sequence of the others. As revised, the poem keeps the old lady central, removing many of the persona’s ruminations on significance. (Such as: “The sea contains its wisdom, / bewitching and bewildering / sailors and fishermen, / their daughters and travellers, alike.”) The poet has kept or repositioned many vivid details and removed some of the commentary.
The achievement gap between the versions is considerable. Here, for instance, is a passage of extended metaphoric display:
Her mind settles for its own order,
re-sequencing images caught
inside the gears of language, worked-over
by the machinery of illness and age.
Her mind reduces the past
to a smattering of phrases,
looped tape that plays each time we meet:
I had my swim already this morning.
My father was a fisherman. (FW 126)
In contrast, the revision is elegant and haunting.
A mind adrift in memory,
she repeats phrases each time we meet:
My father was a fisherman, you know?
I had my swim already. (M29)
“Manchineel” has been reshaped.
We lived in the house of the slamming doors.
Wind blew into and though each room,
turning our home into a raft, billowing curtains
like sails, setting the four of us adrift.
Our youngest called the place a castle,
she and her sister competing to spy the turret
whenever we rounded the corner,
bringing the roof back into view.
Walking the footpath to the sea,
the children collected rocks, picked weeds
they insisted were flowers, sidestepped the plague
of African snails, entrails splayed and crisping in the sun.
Whole days were spent with each of us lost
inside time’s matrices, repeating gestures:
scooping frogs that kept stranding themselves in the pool,
borrowing trinkets from the seabed’s floor.
Once wandering the Flower Forest, the children
braceletted their arms and wrists with millipedes.
As if in a dream, my husband and I blindly saw
and smiled. Later when their fingertips flared,
we remembered we’d been given warnings to heed:
avoid the manchineel tree, with its poison apples,
its leaves weeping skin-blistering sap after rain.
Holding their hands, we smoothed ointment
on skin that glowed red for days,
marker of our narrow escape.
We lived in the house of the slamming doors, wind blowing into and through each room, turning the whole of it into a raft, billowing curtains like sails, setting the four of us adrift. Daily we took the footpath to the sea, the children collecting rocks, picking weeds they insisted were flowers, sidestepping the plague of snails, entrails splayed in the sun.
Once wandering the Flower Forest, they braceletted their arms and wrists with millipedes. As if in a dream, we saw and smiled. Only when their fingertips flared did we remember we’d been given warnings to heed: Avoid the manchineel tree, its poison apples, its leaves weeping skin-blistering sap after rain.
Days were spent with each of us bound to repetition: trawling market stalls for fruit, stealing from and returning to the sea its trinkets. Trudging uphill when the sky flushed pink and indigo and, on again arriving home, scooping frogs that kept marooning themselves in our pool.
The earlier version speaks of a family adrift in imagination, living near the sea in Jamaica with little sense of threats in the attractive environment. The two girls enjoy their discoveries, while their parents look on in an amiable haze. Later, when the children’s fingertips begin to blister, the parents remember warnings against the poisonous manchineel tree.
The Madwoman revision forgoes the smoothing of ointment “on skin that glowed red for days, / marker of our narrow escape,” and the threatening information is now consigned to the middle of the poem, between two passages of celebration. There are details redistributed from the earlier version but, at the end, the most conspicuously positive image is new: “Trudging uphill when the sky flushed pink and indigo.”
As usual, there has been tightening. Words and phrases have been cut (“African,” for example, and “and crisping,” releasing an assonantal riff, and “blindly”, which wasn’t doing useful work). The phrase “time’s matrices,” perhaps more formal than the prevailing voice, has disappeared. Words have been replaced: “stealing” instead of “borrowing,” “marooned” preferred to “stranded,” “took” instead of “walking“ (“footpath” implies walking).
In one of the passages deleted the girls compete to spy “the turret” of their home, called by one of them “a castle.” In the Madwoman version they are “the children,” undifferentiated, and “my husband and I” are simply “we.” The revision is recalling experiences repeatedly shared, with less concern for individual identities. “Daily we took the footpath to the sea.” “Days were spent with each of us bound to repetition,” “and, on again arriving home, scooping frogs that kept marooning themselves in our pool.” The word “home” which appeared near the beginning of the earlier version has now been saved for near the end, where, after the “Trudging uphill”, it has greater emotional force.
The revision increases the number of present participles, and the tidy procession of two-line increments is replaced by three prose-poem paragraphs. There is a careful heightening of the language at the end: no longer “borrowing trinkets from the seabed’s floor,” but now, the syntax no longer conversational, “stealing and returning to the sea its trinkets.” The trinkets have been positioned to attract attention, placed as they are at the end of the sentence (and followed by “Trudging” where the tr sound is replicated).
Whatever else they accomplish, Shara McCallum’s revisions demonstrate detailed attention to craft.
THE PATOIS OF INTIMACY IN SHARA MCCALLUM’S POETRY
By Mihaela Moscaliuc
Whether writing primarily out of one of her self-described identities as a Caribbean, Venezuelan and Afro-Jamaican, West Indian, African American, or American, McCallum knows —perhaps intuitively, as consummate artists do—that in deepening into the particulars of one such position she is simultaneously engaging all the others.
As she ferries across borders and between cultures, charting the terrains of her belonging, McCallum reconstructs a linguistic lineage, a mother tongue that continues to instruct and inform her life in essential ways, even if it no longer holds her within its daily cadences. This tongue is inseparable from memories of her childhood, with its tales of Anancy (a spider-trickster figure) and the biblical stories of her Rastafarian household. Above all, it is inseparable from memories of her maternal grandmother, who inspired many of McCallum’s persona poems, and the Patois of her sharp wit. Sometimes unidentified speaker and sometimes cast as Miss Sally, this emblematic figure uses the wealth of her lived experience to dispense advice on politics, love, and other life matters. If young women only paid heed, she intimates, they wouldn’t let themselves be made into fools; they would learn how to navigate societal and cultural expectations without falling prey to them. In “Miss Sally on Love,” she offers “if snake bite yu//when yu see even lizard, crawling/with him belly on ground, yu run” as indirect admonishment and warning to the girl in love “with a man who have a plan fi change.” “But she nuh notice him also carry gun?” she reproves, and then, with added disbelief, “And, lawd, how she nuh see/who running the show and who/keeping house same way?”
“If you don’t have a grandmother, buy one,” people would say as I was growing up in my native Romania. At a time when the repressive communist regime was making every imaginable attempt to strip us of humanity, grandmothers became our lifeline; they could beat common sense into us, summon folk wisdom to help us navigate surreal situations, and hold our place in the line for bread. Miss Sally’s no-nonsense counsel and unabashed candor recalls the wise women of my childhood, though her morsels of critique and wisdom are delivered in Patois (also spelled Patwa) or Jamaican Creole (also known as Jam C), a language of ethnic identification for over two and a half million people on the island of Jamaica.
Here’s the clear-eyed “Miss Sally on Politics”:
He is a one-eye man
in a blind-eye country.
But how him can do better
when no one want to see
what going on. Every time
party man come around
him jumping up and down—
lickle puppy eager fi please.
Him tell mi is not woman
business, this election.
Is not fi mi fi understand.
Mi tell yu all the same what I know:
If yu see jack ass,
don’t yu must ride it?
Miss Sally’s Patois leaves many of my students flummoxed. They admit to confusion and unease, even after we paraphrase Miss Sally in “proper” English. One student announces that Patois reads as “broken English” and asks if that’s what it is. Aware that the question inadvertently echoes patronizing views of Patois as the language of the uneducated, a vernacular or lesser form of English, the student attempts re-articulation. His new language changes the discourse, but the question hasn’t changed, so we work toward clarifications. The syntax and phonology of Jamaican Creole emerged primarily from the interaction between British colonists’ English and the Western African languages of slaves, and developed over centuries along the brutal history of the island as a British sugar colony, after its independence in 1962, and in the interstices of post- or neo-colonial social and economic changes. Used primarily in verbal exchange, Patois has not adopted a standardized orthography or spelling and it exhibits much variation in its remoteness or closeness to English. However, as various linguists point out, Jamaican Creole maintains its own structures and rules, even as it continues to transform.
It is not easy to immediately trust a voice you cannot fully access or that alters the English your ears are accustomed to, one student confesses. We listen to McCallum’s recording of “Miss Sally on Politics” a few times and ears play along, making strides toward adapting. I secretly enjoy their sense of discomfort, their fear of slipping into semantic “potholes” when presented with texts that use code-switching or with Englishes that remind them theirs is not the only one. Besides, I know that if they listen closely, some will start hearing their own elders (Italian, Polish, Russian immigrants), their inflections and old world accents only a shade away from Miss Sally’s Patois. The foreign is forbidding only if we keep it at a distance.
Questions keep coming: Still, why use Patois and risk distancing your readers? Does it deliver what standard English cannot or would not? A student suggests the risk is not that of distancing readers, but of ethics, and underscores the importance of understanding who’s constructing the voice, with what intention Patois is used, and the desired effect. Answers unfold tentatively, often in the form of further questions.
We discuss the sense of authenticity and genuineness experienced through Miss Sally’s conversational voice, the immediacy of her frankness and humorous diction, her direct address.
She provides a measure of levelheadedness in “this strange land” (the title of McCallum’s third collection, which also includes most of the Miss Sally poems) as well as measure of its lost sanity.
Official politics and their attending ideologies would have Miss Sally obedient, or at least silent. Told that this election “is not woman/business” and that she does not and need not understand it, Miss Sally responds, “If yu see jack ass,/don’t you must ride it?” It is this kind of folk wisdom, that has been tested and has endured the injustices of history, that guides Miss Sally. She claims no high moral standing, but she is an astute observer. Purged of niceties and patter, her Patois cuts to the core, intent on truth-telling and on keeping the self honest. See her critique of her male compatriots’ servility: “But how him can do better /when no one want to see // what going on. Every time/party man come around//him jumping up and down— / lickle puppy eager fi please.”
Unique as the spirit that animates it, Miss Sally’s voice is also a collective, in the sense that it preserves ancestral connections and the cadences of suppressed languages. The Patois signals a repertoire of ancestral-voiced traditional sayings and stories, many of African origin, that intersect, dovetail, or clash with the repertoire of the dominant (British, colonial, neo-colonial) culture. Beverley Bryan (in “Jamaican Creole: In the Process of Becoming”) remarks on the fluidity and receptivity of Jamaican Creole to inflection and describes its variety of forms “as a gradual shading between structures that seem more African, more creolized, to those that approximate more closely to English.”
Through her speech acts, Miss Sally performs certain aspects of identity unsanctioned by the discourses of official English. Here, as in other poems (such as “Miss Sally Explains,” “Miss Sally on Love,” “Miss Sally and Fowl Run,” and “Miss Sally’s Wisdom”), her Patois counters the supposedly progressive impulse toward standardizing language, reminding that identities are constructed in language, through language. To speak in a particular tongue is a proclamation of the most profound kind of identiﬁcation. Standard English may attempt to “translate” or police Miss Sally’s identity, but it cannot erode her sense of who she is.
Miss Sally’s presence reverberates, interjecting the mellifluence of the surrounding poems, as if to say, don’t get too comfortable in the lull of those Anglo-Saxon or all-American cadences. Take, for instance, “Palisadoes” and “Election Days, Kingston,” the poems that precede and follow “Miss Sally on Politics.” Though delivered in elegant standard English, they intimate the Patois we would hear as we follow the speaker through the streets of Kingston to attend Bob Marley’s funeral or during election day, “when the air is so weighted with something / approximating hope.”
Patois is also the language of some persona poems whose female speakers remain unnamed. They belong to the community of women anchored in the culture of Jamaica and the Caribbean, but whose voices gain multivocality as they cross-pollinate with the fecund realms of Greek myth and Homeric epics and with a pre-colonial history. Familiar voices (including her mother’s and grandmother’s) are loaned mythic undertones in poems such as “Persephone Sets the Record Straight,” “Calypso,” “the siren’s defense,” “Lot’s Wife to Madwoman,” “My mother as Narcissus,” “My mother as Persephone,” and “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa.” While the myths to which the titles allude can’t help redress the troubling histories to which McCallum’s female characters belong, they can provide alternative lenses for approaching these histories and for envisioning new forms of sisterhood and female identity.
Reframed within the culture of the Caribbean, McCallum’s revamped myths also play with these established narratives and their presumed universality. In “Calypso,” she transfers the epic and the point of view to Calypso while the illustrious hero and his grand odyssey shrink into the humorously rendered telling of a beguiled white fool, a “Greek boy” “croonin” into the ear of the narrator. A version of gutsy Miss Sally, Calypso sends him packing once he starts mentioning his wife’s cooking and cleaning. She also frowns, amused, at other women who, come tourist season, start “waitin for some fool-fool American,/wid belly white like fish.” Like Miss Sally, this speaker is ready to make use of what history’s taught her and to instruct other women how to avoid the entrapments of man-talk, stand their own ground, and build selfhood outside relationships that disempower them. After recounting her “lesson,” she concludes with an observation that provides sweet solace—in the distance, she hears the rhythms of calypso and is flattered to know music is named after her. Misperceptions notwithstanding—etymologically, “calypso” appears to have derived from Efik “ka isu” (“go on!”) and Ibibio “kaa iso” (“continue, go on”) rather than the Greek καλύπτω/ kalyptō (“to cover,” “to deceive”), which gave Calypso her name—the speaker makes an astute point in relating to the cadences calypso. They both have African roots and a history of upheaval, as well as a strong Afro-Caribbean identity. Speaker (her voice augmented by that of the Greek nymph) and music resound throughout the Caribbean, upending Odysseus’s epic journey. Here’s an excerpt from Calypso’s delicious calypso:
I done learn mi lesson long ago,
when I was young and craven.
keep one Greek boy called Odysseus
inna mi cave. Seven years
him croonin in mi ear an him wife nuh see him face.
The two a we was a sight fi envy. I thought
I was goin die in constant Spring at last
till the day him come to me—
as all men finally do—seyin him tired a play.
Start talkin picknie an home an wife
who can cook an clean. Hmph.
Well yu done know how I stay arredi, mi love.
I did pack up him bag and sen him back
to dat oda woman same time.
I hear from Mildred down de way
dat de gal did tek him back, too;
Him tell her is farce I did farce him fi stay
an she believe the fool. Bu lawd,
woman can also bline when she please.
Mi fren, I tell yu,
I is too ole for all dis bangarang.
I hear ova Trini way, young man is beatin steel drum,
meking sweet rhyme an callin music by mi name.
Well, dat the only romance I goin give de time a day.
A language used primarily verbally, Patois may be seen as vulnerable to all kinds of pressures and threats in our print and internet culture (though scholars such as Kathryn Shields, Beverley Bryan, and Velma Pollard have dispelled such fears, arguing Jamaican Creole is thriving and still transforming). McCallum conserves in print form the orality of a legacy that is inextricable from her own identity as a Caribbean writer and perhaps integral to the concept of Creole identity. As she defines it in her essay on Dereck Walcott (“Either I’m Nobody or I’m a Nation”: Derek Walcott’s Poetry), such identity is “predicated on conflict: to exist as a Creole is to admit competing histories and cultures into a single consciousness.” Patois has fashioned itself out of these conflicting histories as a means of coping with and bearing witness to them. The worlds McCallum’s poems recreate honor and explore the Creole consciousness. They reveal with elegance and sophistication how issues of race, class, colonialism, deracination, exile, as well as memory and language, inform even the most private articulations of selfhood.
With the exception of those few other poems that give a taste of code-switching, Patois is reserved for persona poems, and while persona poems may be as intensely personal as the more obviously autobiographical pieces, conventions require that we read distance into them. Still, in McCallum’s work, the Patois emerges as a language of intimacy, a language of trust and self-knowledge. Its confinement to persona poems also signals a partial loss of heritage and the attempt to recover it. Miss Sally’s Patois is not—or is no longer, or is not as it once was— the poet’s tongue, but its inflections, syntax, and history run though her blood and her pen.
THE MADWOMAN NOW BEING ALL WOMEN
By Chet’la Sebree
In the country where she lives, which is no country, the madwoman maps desire’s coordinates onto her body. Each hand pressing into her back meets the others that have lingered in that spot; each lover tastes the breath of those gone before, ghosting in her kisses—the madwoman now being all women. The hysteric who cordons off danger so others can believe in safety. The anorectic who starves her flesh so others may eat. The whore whose sex blooms thorns. The mystic whose dust covered feet discredit her visions. The mother whose placid gaze masks the storm gathering fury into its centre.
“Fury,” from Madwoman
I’ve never read Jane Eyre.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys—a “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s novel—made it into my hands first. After reading Rhys’s book, about Antoinette Cosway before she became the madwoman in the attic of Jean Eyre, I’ve never been interested in seeing Antoinette recast into, what I can only assume is, a flat, stock madwoman.
Like Antoinette in Rhys’s novel, Shara McCallum’s madwoman is anything but stock. Shara’s fifth collection, Madwoman, culls new poems with poems from three of her first four collections to develop the eponymous madwoman who, like Shara, “is mixed-race, from a host of nations, [and] the sum of a bunch of world religions” (“Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman”).
I met Shara in 2014—she was my boss when I was a Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry. As another woman of color writing about women’s bodies and lives, I often found myself with Shara in the belly of the Stadler Center drinking coffee and eating chocolate or at Cherry Alley pouring over the soup du jour discussing women’s lives in poetry, about how the confessional was often regarded as a four-letter word. I expressed concern that my work wouldn’t be taken seriously, and Shara, with knowing grace, commented that in poetry, like in the “real world,” women’s bodies and lives aren’t always valued.
Instructions for a dai delivering a girl:
For eighty cents more,
take the newborn child,
hold her by the waist,
turn her upside down,
give a sharp jerk
to snap the spinal cord.
“From the Book of Mothers,” from This Strange Land
She told me how she was cautioned against writing about child bearing—advice she, thankfully, left by the wayside. She told me how I’d also have to push aside these “discerning” voices that suggested what is and isn’t literature, what experiences are and are not “universal.” I came to understand that these voices were largely white, older, male voices—for whom lives and experiences were often considered “universal.”
We write off that which we do not understand, often cloak it in madness.
From what I understand, we don’t know much about the madwoman in Jane Eyre except that Rochester has been tricked into marrying her and that she has mental health issues that cost her her life and Rochester his sight. The madwoman, interfering with Brontë’s titular character’s marriage plot, is an exchangeable plot device, a thing— much in the way that women’s bodies, lives, experiences are sometimes rendered.
Shara’s work, however, bucks against any suggestion that women’s lives and bodies aren’t important and challenges the shroud of madness women are dressed in. In fact, the speakers of Madwoman are rendered human through their madness. If I may borrow language from Ross Gay’s newest collection’s title, Madwoman is an unabashed catalogue of the madwoman and her deep, at times contradictory, complexities, as she exists at the borders of fact and fiction, fascination and phobia, sanity and insanity without apology. The seamless navigation of time and space is my experience of Shara’s work—her speakers are familiar because of their complexities as they traverse the linguistic, cultural, and racial borderlands that allow them to be “so everywhere, so nowhere” (“Race”).
For me, one of the most compelling poems from this collection is “Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman.” I first heard Shara read it in a small library in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. The poem is labyrinthine and nonlinear—an enumerated, prose-poem-like list that circles back on itself, as it goes from 5 to 7½ to 6 to 5b—much in the same way our lives are. The madwoman, instead of sharing explicit facts, is unpacking and investigating selfhood: the fact that “she has little actual faith…and…nonetheless has cultivated a deep belief in the colour red,” her “problems distinguishing fact from fiction.” When we finally arrive at 10b, the madwoman self-consciously admits: “If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve likely figured out she’s confused about many things.”
In both Shara’s Madwoman and Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, madwomen are allowed to be complicated, as opposed to a shell of a person, stereotyped without the benefit of back-story. In Shara’s work, women are invited to be themselves across a variety of landscapes, borders, mythologies, religions, and races. Shara renders the intricate lives we as women lead—as mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and inhabitants of our bodies—familiar and whole. Even while the madwoman is “confused about many things,” she’s complete in her imperfection—not broken, not really all that “mad” at all (“Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman”). If anything, she’s a prophet protecting us from “the storm gathering fury into its centre” (“Fury”). The madwoman is a celebration of our humanity, as she is unapologetically human.
To go a step further, I think that the complexity of this wholeness is rendered not only through content but also through the formal diversity of the collection. The enumerated prose poem quality of “Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman” appears amidst tight pantoums, ghazals, and sonnets. In her ghazal “Now I’m a Mother,” Shara nimbly marries the diametric tautness of the form with the complexity of selfhood—the poem’s dénouement reading “Even Shara is just a pseudonym now I’m a mother”—describing how motherhood both becomes and obscures the whole self. She does this delicate dance throughout the collection, her poetic movements calculated, “My mother’s screams seamed the world I left / and the one I entered, her spirit extinguished,” and her images deft, “a sickle-toothed grin” (“Hour of Duppy and Dream” and “Running”). And what is consistent amidst this formal diversity is a refusal to look away—“entrails splayed in the sun”—from things that are painful: “For example: he killed himself” (“Manchineel” and “Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman”). Her rich text traverses time, space, realities, languages, and forms, demonstrating that there are no easy answers, definitions, or resolutions.
The trick is to remember
time is a fish
swimming through dark water.
“Exile” from Madwoman
For me, as a woman of color, Shara’s work is an important celebration of the intersections at which so many women live; however, I also believe her work has an even more expansive and, dare I say, “universal” impact.
In “Madwoman to Her Deliverer,” Shara writes, “My love, / how much longer can you carry on / renaming destruction rescue and peace?” Lines like this speak volumes in our contemporary moment. There are no easy answers, and we cannot simply shy away from that which we do not understand. That solves nothing. We must lift the shroud to see the complicated back-story of our country, of what has caused us to arrive in this particular political, cultural, social, and economic moment, if we have any hope for forward motion.
In “The Parable of Shit and Flowers,” we are warned that this unveiling will be uncomfortable but also gifted with the knowledge that this discomfort can beget beauty:
I did tell yu that long time but I see now
yu hard-a-hearing. Yu ignorant so till mi nuh know
what to do with yu. Yu don’t even watch news—
stick yu head in sand like ostrich. Child,
life no easy, fi true. Yu choose fi believe
is only bed a rose, but hear mi: I did grow them.
And what yu haffi put in dirt stink to rass,
but is what mek them come up.
Shara doesn’t offer us easy answers, but I do believe, through Madwoman, she offers us truth.
 Sirens are said to have been snake-women, or to have been given wings by Demeter, who was hoping their songs would help find her daughter Persephone. They were the bird-women who would accompany the dead to the Underworld, and who later lost their wings when challenging the Muses, Zeus’s daughters, for the best song.
 Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, The Water Goddess in Igbo Cosmology, Trenton and Asmara: Africa World Press, 2008, p. 196.
 ‘West Coast’, p. 28, Madwoman (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2017).
 ‘History and Myth’, p. 26, ibid.
 ‘Madwoman as Salome’, p. 18, ibid.
 ‘The Parable of the Wayward Child’, p. 19, ibid.
 ‘Running’, p. 50, ibid.
 The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2011).
 Madwoman (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2017).
 The Face of Water 123-4. Madwoman 37.
 The Face of Water 125-7. Madwoman 28-9.