About the Author

Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison was born in Jamaica in 1947. She has published several collections of poetry, including Tamarind Season (1980), I am Becoming My Mother (1986), Heartease (1989), To Us All Flowers Are Roses and Selected Poems. She has been writer in residence at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, and at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA. She currently divides her time between Michigan and Jamaica. Her volume of short stories, Baby Mother and the King of Swords, was published in 1990.

Books by this Author
By Love Possessed
Excerpt

The Helpweight

A gorgeous landscape by George Rodney is on display in the foyer outside the main dining room. She stops and carefully admires it for at least four minutes before making her way over to where he is sitting by himself at, she could not believe his nerve, their old table. Their old table in the corner where the lavender blossoms of a lignum vitae tree created their own painting framed by the mahogany trim of the window.

He is much heavier now and his 1960s afro is gone, taking with it an inch or two of his hairline. Their friends at Excelsior High School who used to call him King Quarter Past Midnight would no doubt notice that English winters have rendered him at least a shade lighter. Gone is the blue- black sheen, but his profile still looks like it could have been stamped on a coin, with those hooded eyes and what their History teacher once described as his Augustan nose. “Ah, Mr. Nathan Aiken, he of the Augustan – that is, large – nose, who is staring out the window even as I speak.”
It is now an older Nathan who is sitting there in the Hummingbird Restaurant, staring out the window. His navy-blue suit worn with a blue- white shirt and striped tie is no doubt the suit from Savile Row he always said he would have built by a bespoke tailor when he was called to the bar. But she looked good too, considering.

“Hail Queen, live forever. Live forever, O my Queen.  I, your lowly subject, have taken the liberty of ordering your special gin and tonic – mostly tonic with a teaspoon of gin. I’m really proud of myself for remembering that. Your Majesty, your shrimp cocktail starter and curried lobster main course await you. Is your long- lost consort good or what?”

She calmly addresses the waiter:

“A campari and soda please, and I’d like to have a look at the menu.”

“But . . .”

For the first time since she sat down at the table she stares him fully in the face. He looks sheepish and embarrassed at her blunt refusal to enter into their old game, and then right there in the presence of the waiter she says:

“Nathan, you are a dog, and having said that, please, please don’t bother with the walk down memory lane because you will definitely be walking alone. I’m only here for the free lunch and to stop you from pestering me on the telephone.  When you came back to Jamaica, you called and said you were asking me for just one favour, so I gave you the name of my real estate agent and she found you your four-bedroom Hillview townhouse. What more, in the name of Jesus, could you want from me now?”

“Don’t start beating me up yet. At least wait till you’ve ordered.”

“So what about the two swims cocktail, sir?”

“Just bring them. I’ll eat them.”

The waiter, who looks a little like Cyril, the stupid busboy from the play Smile Orange, saunters off in the direction of the kitchen. They sit in silence until the Cyril lookalike returns bearing two wide-lipped cocktail glasses each with six limp shrimps hooked over the rims.  “Your swims cocktail, sir.” He places them in the centre of the table.
The damp pink shrimps look as if they are clinging for dear life to the rim of the glasses, which are stuffed with icy lettuce.

“I’ll have the smoked marlin for my appetizer, and then the steamed red snapper, thank you.”

He tells the waiter to cancel the order of curried lobster.

“I know, I made my bed, so I’m the one who has to lie in it.  Freudian slip, right? Don’t laugh, please, you are the one woman, the one woman in the world, I’ve ever loved, and trust me, that is never going to change. The human equivalent of the cockroach, that’s me, maybe even the drummer roach, but I just can’t see the two of us living in Jamaica and not speaking to each other. Remember our song? ‘Friends and Lovers Forever’?”

She kisses her teeth.

“I never intended to marry anybody but you! I know you don’t want to hear this, but only God knows how.”

“If this is what you called me here to tell me, I am leaving right now!”

“No, please, just hear me out, there is not a day that I don’t find a reason to mention your name to somebody. A few hours ago I told a lawyer who just got back from Egypt that I was going to have lunch with this fabulous woman who looks like an Egyptian queen.”

“Nathan, to tell you the truth, our story? That is history.  Call it water under Flat Bridge if you want, so let’s cut out the rubbish. What did you really call me here for?”

“I want you to be friends with my wife, Deidra. She has no friends in Jamaica. Please take her shopping for me.”

Back at her office she calls her sister and tells her what just happened.
“So what did you tell him?”
“To kiss my royal arse.”

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From Harvey River
Excerpt

Part One
The baby was plump and pretty as a ripe ox-­heart tomato. Her mother, Margaret Wilson Harvey, gently squeezed the soft cheeks to open the tiny mouth and rubbed her little finger, which had been dipped in sugar, back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech. “Her name is Doris,” she said to her husband, David.

In later years, my mother preferred to spell her name Dorice, although in actual fact she was christened Doris. But she was registered under a different name altogether — Clarabelle. This came about because of a disagreement between her parents as to what they should call their seventh child. Her father, David, was a romantic and a dreamer, a man who loved music and books, and an avid reader of lesser known nineteenth-­century authors. He had read a story in which the heroine was called Clarabelle, and he found it to be a lovely and fitting name. He told his wife, Margaret, that that was to be the baby girl’s name. Well, Margaret had her heart set on Doris, because it was the name of a school friend of hers, a real person, not some made-­up somebody who lived in a book. Doris Louise, that was what the child would be called. They argued over it and after a while it became clear that Margaret was not going to let David best her this time. He had given their other children names like Cleodine, Albertha, Edmund, and Flavius. Lofty-­sounding names which were rapidly hacked down to size by the blunt tongues of Hanover people. Cleo, Berta, Eddie, and Flavy. That was what remained of those names when Hanover people were finished with them. Margaret had managed to name her first-­born son Howard, and her father had named Rose. Simple names for real people.

There was nobody who could be as stubborn and hard-­headed as Margaret when she set her mind to something. She was determined that her baby was not going to be called Clarabelle. “Sound like a blasted cow name,” she said. David gave up arguing with his wife about the business of naming the pretty-­faced, chubby little girl, especially after Margaret reminded him graphically of who exactly had endured the necessary hard and bloody labour to bring the child into the world. He dutifully accompanied her to church and christened the baby Doris, on the last Sunday in June 1910. Then the next day he rode into the town of Lucea and registered the child as Clarabelle Louise Harvey, and he never told anyone about this deed for fifteen years. As a matter of fact, he is not known to have ever told anyone about it, because the family only found this out when my mother tried to sit for her first Jamaica Local Exams, for which she needed her birth certificate. When she went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, they told her that there was no Doris Louise Harvey on record, but that there was a Clarabelle Louise Harvey born to David and Margaret Harvey, née Wilson, of Harvey River, Hanover. She burst into tears when she heard what her legal name was. “Clarabelle go to hell” her brothers chanted when the terrible truth was revealed. Not one to take teasing lightly, she told them to go to hell their damn selves.

Eventually her name was converted by deed poll to Doris. Thereafter, she signed her name Dorice, as if to distance her­self from the whole Clarabelle/Doris business. Besides, Dorice, pronounced “Do-­reese,” conjured up images of a woman who was not ordinary; and to be ordinary, according to my mother’s oldest sister, Cleodine, was just about the worst thing that a member of the Harvey family could be.

***
Cleodine was definitely not ordinary. She held the distinction of being the first child to be born alive to her parents, David and Margaret Harvey. She emerged into the world on January 6, 1896, as a tall, slender baby with a curious yellowish-­alabaster complexion. The child Cleodine immediately opened her mouth and bellowed so loudly that the midwife nearly dropped her. Before her, not one of the five children conceived by Margaret had emerged from her body alive. Every one had turned back, manifesting themselves only as wrenching cramps, clotted blood, and deep disappointment.

This time around, her husband, David, had watched and prayed anxiously as Margaret’s belly grew big with their sixth conception. Would this baby be the one to make it? Would it be the one to beat the curse of Margaret’s seemingly inhospitable womb? The doctor had ordered her to bed the day it was confirmed that she was again pregnant, and once this happened, her mother, Leanna, had announced that she intended to mount upon her grey mule and gallop over to Harvey River each morning to take care of her daughter. Leanna forced her to lie still for most of the nine months, forbidding her to go outside, even to use the pit latrine. Instead she made her use a large porcelain chamber pot which she herself emptied. She bathed her daughter like a baby each morning and combed her long hair into two plaits, pinning them across her head in a coronet. She prepared nourishing invalid food and fed her steamed egg custards and cornmeal porridge boiled for hours into creaminess and sweetened with rich cow’s milk. She made her thyme-­fragrant pumpkin soup and fresh carrot juice, because Margaret’s cravings were all for golden-­coloured foods, which she ate sitting up in her big four-­poster mahogany marriage bed. Another reason for feeding her these soft foods was that Margaret had become afraid that any abrupt, jarring movement might dislodge the foetus. She chewed upon these soft foods slowly and gently, and later, to occupy herself she sat propped up in bed quietly stitching and embroidering every imaginable type of garment, except for baby clothes.

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Supplying Salt and Light
Excerpt

To Make Various Sorts of Black
 
According to The Craftsman’s Handbook, chapter XXXVII
“Il Libro dell’ Arte” by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini
 
who tells us there are several kinds of black colours.
First, there is a black derived from soft black stone.
It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned.
 
Then there is a black that is obtained from vine twigs.
Twigs that choose to abide on the true vine
offering up their bodies at the last to be burned,
 
then quenched and worked up, they can live again
as twig of the vine black; not a fat, more of a lean
colour, favoured alike by vinedressers and artists.
 
There is also the black that is scraped from burnt shells.
   Markers of Atlantic’s graves.
Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;
   twisted trees that bore strange fruit.
 
And then there is the black that is the source of light
from a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest
waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.
 
A lamp you light and place underneath – not a bushel –
but a good clean everyday dish that is fit for baking.
Now bring the little flame of the lamp up to the under
 
surface of the earthenware dish (say a distance of two
or three fingers away) and the smoke that emits
from that small flame will struggle up to strike at clay.
 
Strike till it crowds and collects in a mess or a mass;
now wait, wait a while please, before you sweep this
colour – now sable velvet soot – off onto any old paper
 
or consign it to shadows, outlines, and backgrounds.
Observe: it does not need to be worked up nor ground;
it is just perfect as it is. Refill the lamp, Cennini says.
 
As many times as the flame burns low, refill it.
 
 
Reporting Back to Queen Isabella
 
When Don Cristobal returned to a hero’s welcome,
his caravels corked with treasures of the New World,
he presented his findings; told of his great adventures
to Queen Isabella, whose speech set the gold standard
for her nation’s language. When he came to Xamaica
he described it so: “The fairest isle that eyes ever beheld.”
Then he balled up a big sheet of parchment, unclenched,
and let it fall off a flat surface before it landed at her feet.
There we were, massifs, high mountain ranges, expansive
plains, deep valleys, one he ’d christened for the Queen
of Spain. Overabundance of wood, over one hundred
rivers, food, and fat pastures for Spanish horses, men,
and cattle; and yes, your majesty, there were some people.
 
You Should Go to Toledo
 
I’d stared hard at the tongues of flame
over the heads of the disciples; I felt
a dry heat catch fire in my fontanelle.
 
“El Grec” the docent in the Prado called
him; a stranger in Spain all his days.
“What is it you like about him?” the one
who came from the dark night inquires.
 
So I say this:
 
The way his figures struggle and stretch
till they pass the mandatory seven heads
must be about grasp exceeding reach.
 
The overturning of my temples,
the slant sideways of seeing that open
as I approach his door-sized canvases.
 
And his storm-at-sea-all-dolorous blue;
and his bottle-green washing to chartreuse;
and his maroon stains of dried oxblood.
 
The verdigris undersheen of the black coat,
white lace foaming at the throat and wrist
of a knight with one hand to his chest.
 
How I cling to the hem of the garment
of La Trinidad’s broad-beam angel
who resembles my mother when she was
 
young, strong, and healthy – body able
to ease the crucified from off the cross.
 
And he who separated from the shades
and sat at table with us in a late night place
redolent with olive oil and baccalau said:
 
“Then you should go to Toledo.”

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Travelling Mercies
Excerpt

POOR MRS. LOT
And so it was that Lot’s hard-ears wife
became a pillar of solid eye water.

Poor woman, frozen there crystalline
up from ground, salt stalagmite.

One last glance at what you left behind:
your mother’s cutlery, your yellow plates.

One more look behind to memorize
the lay, the order of the landscape.

The red water tank. The church spire.
One last look is enough to petrify.

Like you, she should have cried
as she left, not daring to look back,

savouring hard homeground with salt.

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