Revolutionary South African poet Mazisi Kunene equated “mother” with the earth, not only the ground, the bare earth, which is sacred to many traditions, but the world, the globe of humanity, and with a symbol of international unity. That is the metaphor of strength that he communicates in that brief four-line poem in which he presents the earth as the mother of all its children. It is a neat, succinct picture pleading the logic of unity and the “folly of boundaries” since even “those at the end of the earth” are siblings belonging to the same mother.
Another poet, Viriata da Cruz of Angola, also a revolutionary in the years of the liberation struggle before the greedy warlords and despots destroyed that region, similarly honoured the mother with images of universal strength and power. The mother becomes a boundaryless, timeless presence that is, again, a uniting force. These poets honour and venerate her, equating her with the earth in its traditional and global senses and as creator of the cycle of life. da Cruz goes further to call her the “living drama of a race” recalling a sense of brotherhood, identity and belonging to a whole movement of people.
It is this identity of a race, of a history, of a movement of people and the inexhaustible strength of the woman that Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison continues in a number of poems. Goodison is a leading Caribbean writer of poetry and short stories and among the most celebrated Jamaican poets. She started her artistic career as a visual artist and was trained at schools of art in Jamaica and the USA. While studying and practising art she began to write poetry published under a pseudonym before eventually using her own name and becoming a professional writer. Yet she continued to hold exhibitions of her paintings and still adorns the covers of her books with her own artwork.
She won the Common-wealth Writers Prize in the Caribbean Region for I Am Becoming My Mother (1986) and although she has varied preoccupations including history, identity, and Jamaica – its character, face and places, she has become known for a preoccupation with women’s issues. Heartease (1988), Guinea Woman (2000) and From Harvey River (2008) and two collections of short stories are among her major works. Despite her many other important concerns she is indeed strong in her attention to women and her treatment of her mother in poetry. At one of her readings she commented on that autobiographical content of her work and the way her mother featured prominently as subject. She jokingly related how her mother would question why she had to be broadcasting all dem business so.
In a series of poems on women, which may be tributes, she glorifies their strength and has a recurring reference to the mother. Woman as mother is often an undercurrent although in most of them the ageless strength of women is a theme. In one series she presents the poem Nanny, which is about a national hero of Jamaica, Nanny ‘Queen of the Maroons,’ an obeah woman who led the maroons in wars against the British.
Legend has it that she was invincible and used obeah to protect her people. In one of her most powerful poems on these subjects, Goodison describes Nanny as the mother of “every one of my people’s children.” That was so even though…
My womb was sealed
with molten wax
of killer bees
for nothing should enter
nothing should leave
the state of perpetual siege
the condition of the warrior.
Even in this is that sense of sacrifice; that Nanny foregoes having any children of her own in a ritualistic conditioning in order to gain the power that made her an invincible warrior and protector. She was then in a position to become the ‘mother’ of her people.
Goodison gives another hint of this power of obeah in Guinea Woman which says her “great grandmother / was a guinea woman / wide eyes turning / the corners of her face / could see behind her.” But the important thing about the portrait of the woman is the power of her strength and conquest over time, colonialism, racism and history as she looks at the present and says “listen, children, / it’s great grandmother’s turn.” From this kind of conquest and timeless presence she turns to the sense of a cycle in I Am Becoming My Mother in which “my mother raises rare blooms / and waters them with tea” and she “had a linen dress / the colour of the sky.” In this poem the cycle is celebrated in which the daughter takes the mother’s place. Interestingly, this very ‘cycle’ is famously resisted by another writer, Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid, whose heroines rebel against becoming their mothers.
Goodison’s poem For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength) seems to be equally about the poet’s father, but in much of the poem as his presence and his deeds are treated they serve to highlight the enduring strength of the mother. She overcomes. The poet shows her bearing grief, loss and sacrifice and remembers her as the dressmaker multi-tasking to raise her children while sewing at her Singer sewing machine.
The poem becomes moving when she recounts her mother’s sacrifice, ironically the same sewing machine that provided her income was sacrificed for her family as Goodison pays her mother tribute “for the time she pawned her machine for my sister’s / Senior Cambridge fees / and for the pain she bore with the eyes of a queen.”
Like those African poets Kuene and da Cruz, Goodison captures a sense of immortality, a universal power without boundaries. She places the triumph of her mother in the context of Jamaican history. In the poem about Nanny the heroine declares on behalf of those mothers “when your sorrow obscures the skies / other women like me will rise.” And this is a tribute for my mother, “may I inherit half her strength.”
For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)
[ . . . ]
When I came to know my mother many years later, I knew her as the figure
who sat at the first thing I learned to read: “SINGER,” and she breast-fed
my brother while she sewed; and she taught us to read while she sewed and
she sat in judgement over all our disputes as she sewed.
She could work miracles, she would make a garment from a square of cloth
in a span that defied time. Or feed twenty people on a stew made from
fallen-from-the-head cabbage leaves and a carrot and a cho-cho and a palmful
And she rose early and sent us clean into the world and she went to bed in
the dark, for my father came in always last.
[. . .]
(or the folly of national boundaries)
Why should those at the end of the earth
Not drink from the same calabash
And build their homes in the valley of the earth
And together grow with our children?
Your presence, mother, is the living drama of a race
Drama of flesh and blood
Which life has written with the pen of centuries.
[ . . . ]
(Viriato da Cruz)