In short, striking lines, the poet focuses on key moments when individuals are most intimately attuned to their community–Carol Rumens for London’s Guardian. Our thanks to Robert Lee for bringing this article to our attention.
Signals from the Simple Life
A red cloth
and he knows
she is being
by the tides
of the moon.
over her sex
to interfering spirits
she is done
with the ways of the flesh.
A poor man
wears new gloves
on his wedding day,
his new beginning.
Lorna Goodison’s substantial Collected Poems has just been published, and I’m revisiting her work by popular request. In a long career, this Jamaican author’s style and idiom have sometimes changed, but a recognisable voice, which is also an attitude and a personality, has remained constant. That personality is warm, open, extrovert. It’s not the case that Goodison is uninterested in history and politics (far from it) nor that she’s never angry, but that she’s attuned to pleasure and laughter. Her style is often lavish: she relishes the juiciness of language (one of her metaphors for poetry is the mango) and, as a trained visual artist, often explores its ability to fill the imagination with colours.
Signals from the Simple Life is unusually economical, even compressed, in diction, rhythm and narrative. Each of three protagonists occupies one stanza, portrayed while “signalling” an important stage or condition of life. The associated “signal” is sartorial and simple: its presentation in the poem is equally unfussy.
The female perspective is emphasised, and it may well be the same woman depicted in the first two stanzas and, offstage, in the third. In the first, the male partner knows she is menstruating, through reading the signal of her tightly bound red headcloth. In the second, the woman has recently died, and the “interfering spirits” are being warned by the “white napkin / folded / over her sex / she is done / with the ways of the flesh”. The female carers who tended her and prepared her body for burial are invisible presences.
The last stanza has a male protagonist, but it’s centred on the occasion when a woman’s future life, traditionally, is irrevocably mapped for her: the wedding ceremony. The bridegroom, wearing his new gloves, is making the most public statement of the three personas. Offstage, there’s the bride, of course, and perhaps the priest or holy man, the congregation and the families, all listening and ready to hold him to account.
Whatever this “poor man” may have done in the past, he’s allowed his fresh start. The placing of the copulas emphasises the positive: “his hands / are clean. / This is / his new beginning”. We don’t know the colour of the gloves: it’s their newness that’s the crucial symbol.
Particularly in stanzas one and two, the protagonists are connected by images of purity. Menstruation isn’t seen as impure in itself – as in many cultures – although, needing to be signalled, it must have some associated taboo. The poem describes it as a cleansing process, and the lunar image strengthens that interpretation. The observance of taboo (which, according to cultural interpretation, may indicate the sacred as well as the forbidden) functions throughout, in the delicacy and tact of the writing. The abbreviation “sex”, for instance, ensures that no sexual organs are exposed, not even to the reader’s imagination. It’s as if the folded “white napkin” had been made of words.
Goodison’s careful selection of events reveals the moments when a person most belongs to her or his community. The signals “speak”, but they also betray that community’s silences: they announce what can’t, or shouldn’t, be verbalised.
The order of the stanzas may initially seem random: the last stanza might logically have come first, and the second, last. However, if that chronological line had been adopted, we might have quibbled about the omission of the other stages of life, such as childbirth. For the triadic principle to work, the non-chronological pattern Goodison has chosen is ideal.
Her short line is not always so short. The lines in the first stanza consist of two or three syllables. The second stanza becomes a little more expansive and includes a seven- and a six-syllable line. The effect is mimetic: those “interfering spirits” almost appear in line six, and we can certainly hear their murmuring and ticking.
The poem suggests that the priorities have been got right by the culture implicated. We’re not told which culture this is: possibly we’re asked to look beyond the Caribbean to Africa. The reader is issued with a challenge the writer has already met. Simplicity is often “taboo” among the sophisticated, whether in poetry, art or “real life”. It’s a small step from the acts of signification described to the verbal procedure of the poem. Goodison metes out her signals sparingly. Words themselves adhere to precepts of simplicity. They are not allowed to be too clever or full of themselves. Silence negotiates with them on equal terms.
Originally, Signals from the Simple Life appeared in Turn Thanks, a collection featuring many warm-hearted poems of dedication to individuals important in the poet’s larger education. It was the final poem of Part One: My Mother’s Sea Chanty, and it may well be intended as a homage to the poet’s mother and father. Its objective presentation, however, enables it to reach further. The very title urges readers to think broadly. Besides the importance of moments of individual transition, it evokes a larger platform for the eternal hopes of the “new beginning” and the trimming of ambition to more grounded, community-oriented social virtues.