Redemption Is the Key

Lorna Goodison, Redemption Ground: Essays and Adventures (Brighton, UK: Myriad, 2018); 176 pages; ISBN 978-1912408139 (paperback)

• October 2020

The title of Lorna Goodison’s first-ever collection of essays, Redemption Ground: Essays and Adventures, references the market of the same name in downtown Kingston. Like its namesake, Goodison’s collection is a gathering of people, voices, stories, and the fruits of great labor. Many of the essays are short, meditative, and confessional, offering a mature poet’s reflections on her craft, humanity, cross-cultural encounters, family life, and the various intimacies that have shaped her as a writer and human. These essays make themselves available in various registers because of Goodison’s easy movement between standard English and Jamaican language, lending themselves to a performative orality, or simply put, poetry. The essays are not arranged chronologically, thematically, or geographically, but tone offers a structure to the collection. The early essays carry a tone of self-assuredness that then becomes mournful, reverential, and meditative in later essays. The concluding essays manage carefully contrasting tones: initially, one of worry for the future and subsequently, one of celebration of past achievements. These complex and multivalent tones reflect the wide-ranging content curated in this collection: from a thoughtful and humorous essay on her visits to the Regal Theatre in Kingston, to a deeply moving and intimate reflection on the influence of John Keats, whom Goodison calls “the sweet boy” (101). This intimate voice is a defining feature of this collection. It is not academic, seeking to persuade its reader, nor is it entirely autobiographical, merely recounting personal narrative to an outsider.

Goodison’s collection provides snapshots of formative moments in her life and the lives of her ancestors in a similar style to her memoir, From Harvey River.1 In “Some poems that made me,” Goodison catalogs early encounters with poetry that have been pivotal to the development of her craft, as well as her recognition of the desire from a young age to write.

Poetry emerges as a divine vocation in the essay “‘Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,’” in which Goodison speaks to the importance of the hymn to her craft and family life. She positions the singing of hymns, like the recitation of poetry, as a reminder of the divine mystery and the “supply of goodness and love” made available in the world (67). Poetry is ever-present throughout the collection, a natural recourse for Goodison, who turns to her poems to begin and conclude a number of the essays, as though the world of prose can never be enough for certain moments of importance. For example, in the essay “Racism,” Goodison turns to poetry in the midst of prose to consider the death of Sandra Bland. Goodison’s feelings of hopelessness as a black woman in North America and her sense of vocation as a poet are at the center of her admission, “All that I could do was write a poem,” and indeed, what follows is a mournful and elegiac poem asking one thing of the reader, “Say her name: Sandra Bland” (154; italics in original).

Death lurks in this collection. Alongside the victims of state-sponsored white supremacist violence, many of the essays mourn people in Goodison’s life, from global figures and personal mentors, such as Derek Walcott and Winnie Mandela, to friends and family she has lost. Amid stories of death, however, are also essays that document love. In one of the most subtle and engaging essays, “The Groom,” Goodison recalls her public poetry recitation at a wedding when she was “seven or eight years old” (51). What captivates me in this essay is not the soundings of a young Goodison unaware of the poet she would become but her encounter with the groom—a St Lucian marrying a Jamaican—before the wedding. Bringing himself alone to the island, the groom bonds with the young Goodison, asking a favor: “Just please hold my hand for a bit. I’m nervous. I don’t really know anyone here. Maybe you could just pretend you’re my little sister?” (52). When she agrees, he informs her about his origins and draws a map of the West Indies, the first she had ever seen. Beneath this encounter at the wedding are whispered and nuanced longings: for a sense of a whole and united Caribbean, for a family left behind, for more discoveries of what we have yet to fully understand, for the lives we imagine we will live, and for the steadfastness of a love that will keep us strong. Goodison holds all these longing together in one line—“Your time now”—the words said to the groom (interrupting the bonding of the two outsiders, the child and the foreigner) to let him know the wedding is about to begin (53). Through the depiction of this encounter, Goodison suggests that expressions of vulnerability allow for transformative relational encounters that in turn heighten self-awareness.

A less generous reader of Redemption Ground might find a kind of self-indulgence here, such as in the final essay, “People I’d Like to Meet,” in which Goodison describes her encounters with influential global figures such as Fidel Castro, Maya Angelou, Bob Marley, and Toni Morrison, as well as the ones whom she would have liked to meet, namely, Zora Neale Hurston. “All things considered,” she writes self-consciously, “I’ve done pretty well in the meeting-of-important-people department” (161). But what might be read as self-indulgence in these essays is a narrative approach that is earned. Goodison, a recent winner of the Wyndham Campbell Prize and the first woman to be appointed as Jamaica’s Poet Laureate, has always been a poet in the middle of everything, a great translator of the contemporary moment for her people. Indeed, her oeuvre attests to her earned capability to reflect on a life well lived in the midst of humanity’s great victories, tragedies, and spectacles. That being noted, the heart of Redemption Ground is in the quotidian moments of self-discovery that Goodison recounts.

In one of the earlier essays in Redemption Ground, Goodison writes that she once felt confident of the work she needed to do with her art but believes that on her journey she forgot about this initial instinctive desire to “make people feel as if they were part of the cosmic dance, in tune with life’s rhythm like a wave of the sea” (7). What is clear enough is that along the way she did remember this vocation, or it remembered her, and since then she has done it well. This is one of the many great joys to be found in Redemption Ground, along with the lesson that if redemption is what we seek, then the continued celebration of the life we have made and continue to make together as a community is the way toward it. At times it can be easy to forget that Lorna Goodison has been, for a significant period of her life, a diasporic writer. Yet despite her being away for so long, her language, style, and warmth are firmly rooted in Jamaica. So when she addresses her absence from the Caribbean in the poem “Making Life,” originally from her 2004 collection of poetry, Controlling the Silver, I realize I have to take her word that her absence is not an exile but a part of her poetics, the joyful work of making more:

I’m from island in the sun, I had come
and my sweetheart poetry joined me.

Not really exiled you see; just making life. (71)

 

Cornel Bogle is a PhD student in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. His essay “The Spatial Politics of Homosociality in Austin Clarke’s In This City,” appearing in Studies in Canadian Literature, was awarded the 2018 Herb Wyile Prize in Canadian Literature.


1. See Lorna Goodison, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007).