Birdshooting season the men
make marriages with their guns
My father’s house turns macho
as from far the hunters gather
All night long contentless women
stir their brews: hot coffee
wrap pone and tie-leaf
for tomorrow’s sport. Tonight
the men drink white rum neat.
In darkness shouldering
their packs, their guns, they leave
We stand quietly on the
doorstep shivering. Little boys
longing to grow up birdhunters too
Little girls whispering:
Fly Birds Fly.
Yesterday would have been observed across the world as International Women’s Day, and poetry is always a willing vehicle in support of this. No doubt many verses through which various appropriate statements were made would have been invoked in rituals of different kinds. No doubt too, the dance halls around the Caribbean would have celebrated the emphatic sounds of indigenous musical forms such as chutney, soca and dance-hall itself, whose lyrics echoing into the early hours of this morning challenged feminist sentiments.
While these forms of Caribbean oral poetry are seen as promoting unwholesome images of women, they repeat a cycle of poetic forms through history from other parts of the world whose attitudes to women were often worse. The poetry of this region then, is part of a complex debate. But there are female poets whose work has advanced the frontiers of Caribbean poetry, and one of the directions in which they have taken it is to bring the two contending extremes in the treatment of women close together. The controversial portrayals in the dance-hall might contrast with the conventional praise songs of strong, empowered womanhood, but in the verse of some of these leading poets, hard lines and contrasts disappear as they allow the oral forms to influence the scribal.
One such leading writer is Jamaican poet, fiction and non-fiction writer Olive Senior. She at one time worked at the Institute of Jamaica, one of the firm foundations of Jamaican history, culture and literature, and publishers of the very important Jamaica Journal. Out of that background Senior has produced a few publications of non-fiction, but she emerged in the early 1970s as a prominent short story writer and poet. From an early short story ‘Confirmation Day’ about an adolescent girl’s ironic experience in this ritual of the Roman Catholic faith, she soared rapidly in West Indian literature. Mervyn Morris published that story in the Arts Review which he founded and edited at the Creative Arts Centre, UWI, Mona in 1975.
Olive Senior went on to produce important collections in the region’s literature such as the poetry volume Gardening in the Tropics and collections of short fiction Summer Lightning, a winner of the Commonwealth Prize, and The Arrival of the Snake Woman. She joined a group of emerging writers such as Erna Brodber, Lorna Goodison, Jamaica Kincaid and Velma Pollard who were at the cutting edge of Caribbean literature. The approach they adopted was of primary interest to Caribbean women writing, but more significantly, to the new and diverse forms being taken by Caribbean literature as a whole regardless of gender. But at the same time gender was of great importance because women were becoming more prominent in the literary landscape, and it was interesting that the newer women writers were among those who were “teaching the torches to burn bright” in the forms of West Indian literature.
Senior, among these writers, diversified poetic form in the region. They turned much more to modernist verse, and post-modernism in the way poems were formed, in lineation, and in stanzaic structure. There was a growing influence of orality – oral qualities in written verse, including the use of language in both prose and poetry and the spoken voice, which was to a large extent, the creole voice. There was such a shift in class consciousness that the proletariat, ‘country people’, the unprivileged and blackness assumed greater importance. Social class became more prominent in treatment as Senior drew on her own racial mix (much as Derek Walcott had done, and as did Lorna Goodison).
As a part of this the oral traditions assumed significant influence over the writing. It became less of an issue that the sub-culture of the dance-hall, the gun culture, the garrison and the ghetto were features of the poetry and in Senior’s Summer Lightning. Not only the rural traditions, but the forms and rhythms of the dub and the urban sub-culture were poetic influences as much as they were treated in the fiction. And this is where the two ‘extremes’ in the attitude to and image of women were brought closer together.
Senior addressed these in poetry as she did in both Summer Lightning and Arrival of the Snake Woman. The treatment of women is important to her work, particularly in the latter collection where women’s consciousness, growth to self discovery and other gender issues are prominent. Patriarchy is an issue as much as middle class hubris in these stories.
The poem ‘Birdshooting Season’ is reminiscent of the prominent bird poems, especially Dennis Scott’s ‘Bird.’ Significantly, while Senior’s gender roles are sharply defined in her poem, the 10-year-old boy in ‘Bird’ takes exactly the same position as the little girls in Senior’s poem who whisper “Fly Birds Fly.”
Apart from the sensitivity which is identified with the female side in ‘Birdshooting Season’ there is the strong sense of patriarchy and the clearly divided gender roles and gender positions. First of all, the men “make marriages with their guns” in the preparation for the hunt. The guns replace and displace their wives. Implied in the poem is that the guns get all their attention, all their care. The weapons are fussed over and treasured while the wives and the women are relegated to secondary subservient roles. These are ‘feminine’ roles like preparing food for the men to carry – background supporting roles. The house “turns macho” in a stamp of patriarchy.
Note Senior’s careful word choice in “contentless women.” She means that they work “all night long” in serving the men and helping their preparations; they get no ‘content’ meaning they get no rest or quiet moments. It also means ‘tireless.’ But the word is so precisely chosen that it also means ‘not happy,’ ‘not satisfied’ ‘not content’ in their relegated supporting gender roles.
In the hands of good poets no word is wasted. Note Senior’s observation of the “macho” atmosphere while the women are secondary. It is further dramatised – “drinking white rum neat” is a ‘man’s thing,’ a macho achievement, as is the “sport” of birdshooting. Then the children are “shivering” because of the chill of the early morning, but the little girls shiver as well out of fright for the birds and horror at the ‘sport’ – the thrill of the slaughter that is about to take place. The poet divides the genders; the female concerns are in the right place.
The poem is also modernist like one of the forms taken in the contemporary West Indian work. Senior employs a peculiar use of capital letters in a poem that follows the modernist, rather than the older convention of beginning each line with capitals. She discards conventions of capitalisation while employing capitals in a post-modernist way. In the final line they dramatise the sense of freedom – the girls wish this escape for the birds and the poem associates a quest, a need for freedom on the part of women in this “macho” patriarchal society.
Senior might well have witnessed these bird-shooting events as a child. She turns it into a commentary on many issues that reflect a society and its concerns. The poem has the stylistic characteristics referred to above and lends itself perfectly for a feminist reading. A fitting approach for International Women’s Day.