Reenvisioning the Home Space

Millicent A. A. Graham, The Way Home (London: Peepal Tree, 2014); 56 pages; ISBN 978-1845232344 (paperback)

• November 2015

Among the new generation of Caribbean writers, Millicent A. A. Graham stands out because of her particular ability of expressing the deeply personal in a somewhat detached and guarded manner. The Way Home, her second collection of poetry, explores themes of loss, memory, failed relationships, and scars. Graham’s concise titles, such as “Dead,” “Lobe,” “Ebb,” and “Sting,” match her writing style. In her succinct poems she delivers stirring messages in a purposefully callous fashion that oddly adds force to her images. Unlike many of her contemporaries’ poetry with straightforward themes, Graham’s poetry is highly symbolic, even to the point of being obscure and enigmatic and yet she manages to achieve an enduring poignancy.

Graham’s metaphoric capability is coupled with her command of language; while Jamaican vernacular occasionally appears, she mostly uses Standard English. This does not mean that the Caribbean does not play a part in her writing. For instance, “Inheriting a Stewing Pot” starts with the description of gossamer silks, jeweled shoes, and saris, and ends in an Afro-Jamaican kitchen, where “The pot stews / steam pushes at the cover / weaving silk on kitchen’s surfaces” (9). By making the pot create “silk,” which refers back to the silk that belonged to the East Indians, Graham invites the reader to contemplate the variety of ethnicities that are the different ingredients inside the “Jamaican pot.” However, in most of Graham’s poetry collection, the Caribbean imagery could be described as incidental. Although she uses tropical flora and fauna, such as croakers, guineps, breadfruit, and Poui trees, they serve primarily as mediums to get across a desired message or emotion. Graham therefore both implements and transcends Caribbean elements to focus on universal themes of pain, loss, and time.

Other than the atmosphere of melancholy, another element that provides cohesiveness to the collection is the motif of space. Not space in the sense of global migration, which is now a common characteristic in Caribbean poetry, but space in an ontological sense. Graham’s spaces often represent the search for the feeling of belonging. This constant pursuit is evident in the description of transitory spaces, such as cars, trains, and stairways. Significantly, the cover of her collection displays a bridge. These nomadic spaces are more important than the actual destination, as the title, The Way Home, suggests. This illustrates how, for Graham, the home space is either never found or tainted. “Breadfruit Tree” expresses this theme. Here, the breadfruit is suicidal; it abandons its youth, breaks its navel strings, and jumps to its death. The poetic voice asks, “Who mourns as the earth is digesting? / What coffins roll down to this resting?” (25). Then, the breadfruit tree sings gospels and grieves for its lost fruit. Here we see how the breadfruit’s disconnection with its home ultimately causes its destruction.

“Lobe” expresses the longing for a home, which may also be the longing for the Caribbean. In this poem, the poetic voice compares itself to a queen conch:

The queen conch’s lobe pressing the ocean will
someday turn up lost on a sandspit, full
of her memory’s echo. I lie awake,
grudgingly dug from sand,
one ear pressed against the night’s slab
harbouring house-noises (30)

Like the queen conch, the speaker has been removed from her home and is unwillingly listening to unpleasant house noises such as “the flap-flap-flap of a list of ‘things to do’” and an “old clock” (30). However, like the conch that holds the ocean sounds within it, the poetic voice contains in her memory not only the ocean but the noises of the sound systems, speakers, and selectors of Jamaican music. After this, we reach the poem’s conclusion:

House heavy with this air
is a place to outgrow.
Carry me then on an island’s pulse
To surface on a spit somewhere. (30)

This house is evidently not a home; the poetic voice has outgrown it and wishes to travel and continue his or her search. Discovering a home depends on following “an island’s pulse,” understood as the Jamaican music. Of course, this insinuates that the Caribbean, and Jamaica specifically, are the speaker’s only chance for a true home.

Unlike this poem, which contemplates the quest, others depict the home space as tainted. The title poem begins when “memory comes / scrambling like water” (14): the speaker remembers her childhood which involves a series of events where she feels helpless. For instance, when she falls on her way to school, which provokes her brother to call her a “fool-child” (15), and at school when she cannot defend herself against a girl who steals her school supplies. Furthermore, when the school day is over, she cannot find her brother and decides to try to retrace her steps home, but she loses her way. Eventually she finds her house, but this does not improve her dismayed condition. Her mother does not provide her comfort:

I imagine her nursing—the dark
blue of her reflection on
a son—pumping an inhaler . . .
Then I feel the heaviness
of my own wanting, for her
to lift me from this dust. (19)

Her brother’s illness is not specified, but hinted at in different moments of the poem, as in the previous passage in which the speaker explains his need for an inhaler. We can assume that, because of her brother’s condition, her mother has not been able to dedicate time to her. By describing herself as buried in dust, she emphasizes her abandonment. In the final stanza, she exits her house, describing it as full of things she never loved. The very last lines, where she carries a load of clothes, are deeply metaphoric:

Somewhere inside I feel
this woman knows the way
to gather up the wash,
still damp but mostly quailed. (20)

Like the clothes, which have not been able to fully dry, her life has been unfulfilled. She may also be quailed, fearful that nothing will improve. Consequently, by finding the way home, she fell into a trap. She thought she was astray when she found herself alone, trying to retrace her steps, but now, after finding her way, she discovers that she is just as abandoned and lost inside her supposed home. In this poem, and in the rest of the collection, embedded in this problematic search for the home space are failed relationships and haunting memories.

In the corpus of Caribbean literature, the home space is often complex. For instance, home could refer to many different locations: Africa, the culturally syncretic Caribbean, the various countries of the Diaspora, and so on. Graham takes up this central topic and re-creates it by showing a unique, metaphoric angle. Instead of romanticizing, Graham subverts traditional associations with the “home.” She artfully exhibits how this space can become uncanny, a condition to which Caribbean people, with their history of colonization, can relate. Even though we may end up more lost than ever, Graham reminds us that what is most important is “the way,” the perpetual search. As her poem “Walls” displays, Graham contemplates “the distance mounting walls would bring” (7). Hence, because of the hybrid and migratory nature of Caribbean people, Graham suggests that they should not be tied down by the fixed idea of a “home” but rather can only find meaning as nomads.

Isabel Guzzardo was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She completed her BA in English literature and gender studies at the University of Puerto Rico. She is currently undertaking a master’s degree at UPR in English literature, with a focus on the anglophone Caribbean. Her main interests include gender and postcolonial studies.