Poetry / Shara McCallum
:: Ae Fond Kiss ::
become Nancy when thieved to Jamaica you made her Nancy immortal in your paean to love and parting from the start she must have seen the severing was inevitable must have known dark despair would always benight must have heard beneath your words what words in that place never could be coaxed to sing if ever you loved her what did your love for her mean what use to her your tears pledged sighs waged in vain in the end who paid best and dearest in the end I ask you for whom did fortune grieve
:: To a Mouse ::
She sutured your last breath. For years, you feared the houghmanie pack would snuff your scent, but at the river, at the end, she was the breath grazing your neck, the arms laying you down into your watery grave. And you saw, in a flash of final sight some are gifted, the weight of the choice you’d made, how your love had increased her portion of cruelty. Then, your silence was the silence of regret. This is the debt, the only one you could have paid, I wish tendered. This is how I need to imagine your life flickered out. But every time I resurrect the scene of your death, my wanting is not enough. I cannot halt the vision dissolving. For ten years, you mourned your unsung genius, your rotted ambition. Ten years you tipped your ear away from her, toward Scotland—distant music you husbanded and whittled to song, wagering everything on the past, as if its recovery could compensate the present. And I, in a present you failed so utterly to imagine, how if I take you in, do I not retrod the broken path of your life? How can I—must I— claim you as kin and bear knowing you glimpsed divinity in the smallest of creatures, lit the animal soul—and spoke nothing of her suffering?
:: The Choice ::
who made my mind unfit for all I’m told is my soul’s true nature what half-mad half-fed idea be planted in my brain by what if any gods there be and how may I be worthy of all required worthy of her and the memory of those still yoked how now could I be still still be without sound be ever-hushed when phantoms come ringing round when smoke is wreathing the fields the fields still burning
From the writer
:: Account ::
The poems included in this issue are part of a forthcoming verse sequence, No Ruined Stone, that took root five years ago. In the winter of 2015, on my first visit to Scotland, I learned a little-known story about the poet Robert Burns: late in the summer of 1786, Burns had actively planned to emigrate from Scotland to Jamaica, to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation on the island. “Bookkeeper” is a misnomer. The men who held the position were responsible for daily overseeing and managing the work performed by enslaved Africans.
I carried that story about Burns around with me, like a sore or gap in the mouth one’s tongue keeps finding. At the time, I was living in London and often walking the streets of that city, feeling the layers of history beneath my feet and all around me. I don’t remember the exact date, but sometime in that spring of 2015, out one day and walking, the question occurred: what would have happened had he gone? This kind of question most often falls rightly to novelists, belonging to their wheelhouse. But being a poet, I nonetheless felt compelled to ask poems to do the work of responding.
Inexorably, this question led me only to more and returned me to some of my earliest and ongoing obsessions and vexations: with Romantic poetry and the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Englightenment, women’s rights, struggles to abolish slavery, miscegenation and passing, absent fathers and mothers and countries, mental illness, and migration and exile. What resulted is a book-length sequence offering a speculative account of the past, voiced primarily by a fictive Burns, who migrates to Jamaica, and by one of his descendants, a granddaughter and white-presenting black woman who migrates to Scotland in the early 19th-century. The story is not true nor autobiographical, exactly. But it is tied to truths of my personal and family narrative as well as the foundational narrative of Jamaica, a country birthed by the tectonic meeting of the Americas, Africa, and Europe.
From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of six books published in the US and UK, including the forthcoming verse sequence, No Ruined Stone, a speculative account of Scottish poet Robert Burns’ migration to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation. Her recent book, Madwoman (Alice James Books, 2017), received the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry and the 2018 Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club. McCallum is a professor of English at Penn State University and on the faculty of the Pacific University Low-Residency MFA Program.