Three Poems

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 
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
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.