Shara McCallum’s Madwoman; Review and Interview with the Author
Shara McCallum’s Madwoman; Review and Interview with the Author
Shara McCallum, Madwoman (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2017); 79 pages; ISBN 978-1845233396 (paperback)1
The theme of madness is not new to Caribbean literature, and certainly the appearance of the madwoman is not a novelty. However, Shara McCallum’s madwoman dons many hats, and we find her in conversation with a wide range of people. As in three previous collections, McCallum’s affinity to her Jamaican roots is evident, and her voice in these poems is as familiar and as fresh as the sunrise—each morning is special and new and so are these poems with their breathy rage and sure-footedness. The very first poem, “Memory,” announces its bold declaration to not be denied:
Try to leave me, I’ll pin you
between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,
even as you erase your tracks
with the tail ends of your skirt. You think
I’m gristle, begging to be chewed?
No, my love: I’m bone. (5)
The wanton freedom evident in these lines is carefully balanced with a need both historical and plaintive and with a foreboding so weighty one has to heed. This is no idle threat. McCallum’s poems read like a woman with an embroidery needle, looking out at the horizon while very attuned to the pattern she is creating with her thread. If the needle pricks her finger and she bleeds, it is no accident; but understand that, as the reader, blood will be on your hands too.
Shara McCallum’s voice in these poems is clear—a river with pebbles and fish visible from the surface. Yet as we peer further, historical icons—Salome, Vesta, Medusa, and so on—muddy the water, forcing us to submerge our faces to decipher or just try to discern what else is present in the riverbed. A couplet from the poem “Madwoman at Salome” best expresses McCallum’s process in these poems: “How did I find myself / undressing for others, pivoting” (8).
The poems are layers that are constantly being peeled back or tossed off. A blend of autobiographical and fictional data, McCallum’s poems, with the madwoman as the persona, can fool us into believing one reality while leading us into a maze with no escape route. McCallum employs a stylistic device in which she weaves multiple stories, told simultaneously as well as independently. This is most evident in the poem “History and Myth,” in which McCallum conflates as well as juxtaposes history and myth, suggesting they are interchangeable and fabricated:
I was made to understand
barter one’s freedom for another’s
Nanny like the goat so-named
is a word
that will not cease bleating. (17)
This two-column poem presents two stories, but toward the end, quoted above, both stories are conflated. McCallum makes two references, first to Nanny, the maroon warrior and leader, and to “history” itself, which is presented as myth. However, both these references function in the same manner in the poem: as a general plea for acknowledgement or as statements of truth. All realities are correct and yet inaccurate, and it is only in madness, or as the madwoman, that this complex and seemingly contradictory reality can be accepted and negotiated.
McCallum’s poems are a study of a circle drawn with crooked lines. While the majority of the work is written strictly as poetry, the collection also contains some prose poems with strong narrative elements, most evident in “Fury”:
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. (27)
In “Fury,” McCallum makes several pronouncements, including that the madwoman lives in a place that is not a country and that the madwoman is now all women. It is important that we scrutinize these two declarations to understand what McCallum means and how we should interpret this poem. As with any important work, these lines have to be read on the literal as well as the symbolic level. So whereas we can read “no country” to mean a place that has not developed to earn the label of country, we can also read the lines to mean a place that has no specific geographic boundaries because it represents all locations. Similarly, the madwoman being all women, although inclusive, does not negate or overlook the very individualized and specific nature of each woman’s needs, which is further explicated in the last four lines of the stanza. As the title suggests, the madwoman, and by extension most women, has ample reasons to be furious and has been trying to refrain from unleashing her rage.
McCallum’s Madwoman is a study in coping, an exploration of the fusion and disintegration of memory. It is autobiographical but also fiction. Ultimately, Madwoman allows readers to walk in the shoes of various Caribbean women to better understand their lives and daily struggles. McCallum’s use of language that skips in and out of Jamaican nation language and standard English, her attention to specific details, and her graceful handling of the madwoman allow her native home and all the memories through which she constructs her identity to leap off the page, becoming tangible. In the interview below, conducted via e-mail in January 2016, McCallum shares more details about the creation of this important collection and the hording of rage.
Opal Palmer Adisa: You were born in Jamaica but left before your adolescent years. Yet much of your work that I have read is deeply influenced by both the Jamaican landscape and language. What does Jamaica mean to you? And why do you believe you keep writing about it? Are you trying to write it out of your system?
Shara McCullum: I think it might be exactly the opposite. I’m trying to write Jamaica into me, keep Jamaica with me as much as I can, despite being an emigrant and not living there. Jamaican history (my family’s story as part of the larger story of the country) and culture (in various ways but especially language and landscape, as you note) are touchstones to which I return, as a writer and as a person.
OPA: Poetry is often a personal exploration of public issues as well as autobiographical—a coming to know self. This collection feels very personal and somewhat autobiographical. Many of the poems hinge on memory, but there are also references to a mother who might be mad, a father who might have committed suicide, a grandmother who, like so many Caribbean grandmothers, was the foundation and also possessed “other” spiritual qualities. Are these references autobiographical, in either a literal or a metaphorical sense, or both?
SM: They are always, for me, both. I draw on autobiography in all the ways you’ve illuminated here. But I reserve the right to change and alter factual truth in the interests of what needs to happen as I write the poem. I also question—especially and directly in this book—the nature of memory: what part is truth versus fiction, fact versus imagination? Or how much play is there between these polarities we hold up when we define memory?
OPA: The poems are a lot about memory, family history, and of course place. “Journeying to Black River” is such a poem in which it seems both geographical and familial history intersect and collapse. Where in Jamaica were you born and where did you live? Do you have a personal history with Black River?
SM: I was born in Kingston, but I’m partial to the countryside. I love being in the mountains or at the rivers and by the sea, and when I am not in Jamaica, I miss the sights and sensations of the natural landscape as much as I miss the sound of the language and sensibility and history of the people and culture captured in our idioms, music, food, and so on. The poem you mention is hard for me to parse. I wrote it meditating on a literal “journey.” While reading at Calabash in 2012, I went on a boat ride with some of the other writers, which left from Treasure Beach and went up Black River before returning. During the time I was at the festival, my grandfather, who had largely raised me and with whom I was very close, was actively dying. I’d been with him and my grandmother in Miami days before I went down for the festival, when he’d taken what would be his final turn for the worse. I almost canceled going altogether, but he insisted I leave. My grandfather was Jamaican and never read poetry or understood mine (as he’d say) but was very proud of my accomplishments nonetheless, specifically my increasingly being seen as a Jamaican writer and recognized in my own home. It meant a lot to him that I was invited to read at Calabash (as it did to me). Primarily at his urging, I went, and fortunately I was able to travel back through Miami en route to Pennsylvania and see him once more before he died a few days later. But the whole time I was on that trip and in Jamaica, I knew he was going, and that knowledge was like a record playing in the back of my mind. On that same trip, I also met family on my father’s side I hadn’t known existed until very recently before then, and I saw at my reading members of the Rastafarian church (Twelve Tribes) my family and I had belonged to who recognized me and who I had not seen since childhood. For me the poem isn’t narrative, since it’s not about any of these things exactly but, rather, is about a feeling I often experience—of time breaking open and various moments and histories and versions of ourselves flooding into that rift—and the poem is about one moment in which that feeling again found purchase in me, being on that boat and going up Black River. In answering your question, ironically I’ve now written more words about that poem than are in that poem. I hope the poem is still better than, or offers more than, this explanation.
OPA: “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa” is perhaps my favorite of all the poems for many reasons, but foremost because of its portrayal of Medusa, affirming her worth by usurping her from the maligned annals of history. It can be argued that you are deconstructing and debunking the Greek’s negative portrayal of Medusa, and by rightly conflating the madwoman as both Rasta woman and Medusa you are not only rewriting this iconic character that has come to represent contemporary black woman but inserting her in a new space and with a positive historical reality. Do speak about the voice and the identity in this poem.
SM: I am so glad to hear all your thoughts on this one, which is one of the most personal for me. Thank you for seeing the Madwoman/Rasta Medusa in the way I’d most hoped for her, this merged character, to be understood, as speaking from a position of strength and claiming her own definition of beauty, despite how, in my view, she is mischaracterized in myth and culture. Thank you also and especially for recognizing several aspects of black women’s history I am seeking to rewrite/recast/redress through Madwoman/Rasta Medusa’s story and voice in this poem. One note I’d add is that I wrote this poem with awareness of a chapter in the Greek version of Medusa’s story that frequently is forgotten or elided in retellings of her narrative: Medusa was considered “ravishingly beautiful” before being raped by the God of the sea, Poseidon, in the temple of Athena. After the rape, she was transformed.
OPA: Some of the poems seem wrapped in rage, not only in their historical reference, as in “Salome to Madwoman,” but in the underlying reverberations of the madwoman reference. Are these feminist or womanist poems and are they a warning to be aware of the plight and the emotional imbalance of Jamaican women or women in general as they attempt to cope in gender-biased society?
SM: A resounding yes is in order again. Thank you for hearing the anger and rage in these poems in one of the ways, maybe the way, I’d hoped for those to reverberate most—as critique of our culture regarding gender.
OPA: I read that you began writing poetry in your twenties, and before that you were pursuing singing and dancing. Now with your fourth poetry collection published, do you refer to yourself as a poet, or do you feel as if you are still finding your way into poetry? And, second, what makes one a poet?
SM: I was involved with performing arts (dancing, singing, and acting) as a teenager but never in a professional setting. I can’t say I pursued them so much as the stage was where I began to understand something of what it means to love an art as a practitioner and of the demands it could make on the artist. Every poem is a “finding my way into poetry,” but I don’t see this as being about or in relation to publication. I called myself a poet before my first book appeared and without thinking too much of the weight or trappings of the term because I associated it early on with what I still do—my desire and choice to commit myself to writing poems seriously, with the intent of honoring my own voice within the various traditions of poetry I read. I often think of poems as being a conversation I’m having—with myself, with the dead or with people who may be alive but whom I can’t address for some reason, with ideas/feelings/situations I don’t understand or that unsettle me, with other poets I admire, and even with the art itself.
This is my definition, but there are many for what “makes one” a poet. Each person who writes poetry has to assume the mantel for him- or herself, I think, and decide the terms of his or her own engagement. The culture at large is not interested in poetry in any real way and uses the term most often as an empty signifier, a throwaway compliment, like saying something is “wonderful.” In some respects this is a boon, since it offers poets the freedom to define our own ambition for, and purpose in, writing poems.
To circle back to your question of whether or not publication is the marker of “being a poet,” of course publishing is one of the long-standing measures by which all writers define success or by which we are defined. But the more crucial yardstick is what the poems achieve or don’t achieve by the terms you accept or reject for them. For me as a writer, the stakes have only gotten higher with each book, while with each poem I write, I still have to discover, remember, and invent whatever urged me to the page. And that hasn’t changed.
Opal Palmer Adisa, a distinguished professor of the MFA program in writing at California College of the Arts, with sixteen books to her credit, is a writer across genres as well as a curator and photographer. Forthcoming in 2017 are Love’s Promise, a book of stories, and the children’s picture book Dance Quadrille, Play Quelbe. For more information, visit www.opalpalmeradisa.com.
1 Also published as Shara McCallum, Madwoman (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2017); 79 pages; ISBN 978-1938584282 (paperback).