Malika Booker, Pepper Seed. A Graph Review

Pepper Seed

Malika Booker                                                       A Graph Review.   66 to highpoints 68graph 66 to 68

£8.99    paperback

my copy here has a different cover and no title page but first printing seems to have been 2013.

published by Peepal Tree Press

978 184523211 5

A collection of 43 poems, divided between five titled sections.       The last ‘Epilogue’ contains but one poem on the last page:   My Mother’s Blues, a short elegy, if I can say that, which in an odd way settles this reader into a quiet contemplation of the whole after the rough-riding throughout the collection.

My overall impression, the aftertaste if you will, of reading this first collection is of seriously hard lives for the women of Guyana and Grenada.  The harsh behaviour, treatment and conditioning towards them and their girls.  And of the brutish behaviour of their menfolk.  The searching for love from a grandmother, a mother runs through, echoing  round the other contents of death and loss in varying ages.  The book flinches at nothing.  What it does offer is that behaviour is repetitious through generations; also that love can, as we know, take many forms for many reasons.  It would also seem religion has a foot in both camps.  Harsh love is often here and it’s recognition and explanation gives us a degree of understanding but a large dose of……’If only……’

This was her first collection and it catches references from the style of Lorna Goodison and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze though of a tougher breed of a new-generation born in the UK.       Malika Booker has focused her powers less on the Caribbean scene but more on the human; family realities and the failures and strength of and required by women.  Her Caribbean voices, accent and rhythms occurs naturally and smoothly.   Her poems are real, people are real and the emotions follow through to the reader where finally we may find justification for actions and plenty of room for thought.   Not an easy read.

I did sort of hope for some softer, mellower poems after a while as a form of balance, or rather contrast, to the themes.  Looking further there is a softness sneaking through the outer shell, almost between the lines, of an understanding despite……….

All in all I find Malika Booker a poet who is direct; unafraid and straightforward in creating powerful poetry, bringing to the fore memories and stories of the people of Guyana and Grenada; of the history that follows them into a second and third generation spanning both the UK and the Caribbean.  With strong language aplenty but not out of place in her harsh environment.   In total, for me, a little too much ‘full on’……. if that’s a term still usable……..but a serious talent.

The stand-outs for me from this, her first, collection are:    Notting Hill,      Island grief after hurricane Ivan,   Saltfish,    Vigil,      and    My Mother’s Blues.  

Reading the book in sequence is, unsurprisingly, the best way to understand.

Next time I see her presenting some of her work I will be be in the queue to watch her performance, expecting more sharp sparks, maybe a few glows too that show a softer side to her work.



Lorna Goodison, Windham Campbell Prize 2018…For Poetry

Lorna Goodison  is a deserving recipient of this year’s Poetry prize.  ‘Recipient’ is a brilliant word as the  individuals are not in a competition but selected by the organisers as the most ‘influential’ writer in their genre of the year.  Not necessarily for an individual work.

Read the words from Windham Campbell site:


Extracted from Windham Campbell website: for 2018 poetry prize, use links to their website for all recipients..

Lorna Goodison’s poetry draws us into a panoramic history of a woman’s life, bearing witness to female embodiment, the colonial legacy, mortality, and the sacred.

Lorna Goodison is one of the Caribbean’s foremost writers and the current Poet Laureate of Jamaica (2017-2020). The poet Derek Walcott described Goodison’s work as containing that “rare quality that has gone out of poetry … joy.” Often intensely metaphysical, even theological, her poems are at the same time deeply rooted in the particularities of time and place. She writes of her mother’s long hours at the sewing machine, of family meals, of funerals and weddings, punctuating her verse with folk songs, hymns, recipes, and family lore. Elsewhere she turns more explicitly to history, writing about the experiences of Rosa Parks and Winne Mandela, finding in such figures the promise of resistance and the hope for liberation. In “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move,” Goodison writes: “one stone is wedged across the hole in our history / and sealed with blood wax. / In this hole is our side of the story.” Goodison has long worked to move the stone, and to deliver untold stories—of duty and desire, of language and history—into the world. She has received many honors, including the Musgrave Medal (1999) and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (1987). She is Professor Emerita at the University of Michigan, where she was the Lemuel A. Johnson Professor of English and African and Afroamerican Studies.

Lorna Goodison: ‘I am becoming my mother’, a closer look

I am becoming my mother        By Lorna Goodson


Yellow/brown woman

Fingers smelling always of onions


Lorna Goodison cover pic

published by New Beacon Books 1986

My mother raises rare blooms

and waters them with tea

her birth waters sang like rivers

my mother is now me.


My mother had a linen dress

the colour of the sky

and stored lace and damask


to pull shame out of her eye.


I am becoming my mother

brown/yellow woman

fingers smelling always of onions.


This is a poem of fourteen lines.   A classic format is the sonnet, a poem of 14 lines, most expected as a love poem and considered to have a strict format of scan and rhyme, divided into two verses. (Note: this is poem isnot a sonnet). Such models as Shakespearean and Spencerian are common but several other variables are also set.  However, where does variation move a poem away from being a sonnet?

The paragraph above is probably slightly misleading but this poem does have fourteen lines and it’s subject would seem to be ‘love’ between mother and daughter/ daughter and mother.  Other than that it falls away from any standard sonnet form so is not a sonnet!

Another interesting section is the repeat of the first two-lined verse as the last verse but with an additional first line of: ‘I am becoming my mother’.    This line is the core of the poem and the repeating of the first verse’ two lines completes a circle……..     A circle that satisfies in many respects:  as the ending of the piece, a reinforcement of the original idea (image/emotion), and is a technique especially used in poems.  (Rondel, Rondeau are classic French verse styles).  Short stories may well use this repetition idea but using the idea rather than exact words:

‘I am becoming my mother  //   brown/yellow woman  // fingers smelling always of onions.’

In the second verse:

‘My mother raises rare blooms’      Seems to odd with her watering them with tea?

There may well be benefits to watering plants with tea and this is the initial image that we see.  A nice image but could it be the author is describing her mother raising her children with special care, attention and love, yes, even tea?  Problems and tempers are said to be solved ‘with a nice cup of tea’.  A subject repeat comes in this verse too, starting with ‘my mother’ to ‘blooms’ and the last line of the verse with ‘my mother is now me’.    Seemingly similar to the main idea of the poem but has less weight as in this line the emphasis is on ‘mother’ rather than ‘me’, the author.

Verses two and three have rhymes on lines two and four and two and five.    The other lines do not have pure rhyme but half-rhyme (or is it sibilance, assonance or alliteration?  I stick with half-rhyme)  with the words: blooms, rivers; dress, damask and tablecloths.

‘tablecloths’ gets a line to itself.    This brings the poem into fourteen lines but is likely to have been separated as it would make the previous line too long and visually unbalanced for the poem. It has enough weight and the assonance to appear alone plus it enables a slight pause before the next line that starts with the harder sounding ‘to pull’.  ( t of to pull echoing t of tablecloths).

Storing the lace and damask tablecloths, is common as saving the best for special occasions, visitors,  as would be the blue linen dress, it would seem.  Perhaps less common today.     The mother cares about what others may think of her and her home: ‘to pull shame out of her eye’.    This is a simplistic explanation and there is more that can be considered from this verse about a caring, hardworking woman, mother.

Returning to the last verse and it’s repeat of the first.  ‘Mother’ was previously the subject, now the author  ‘I’  has become the subject.  A simple image from the first verse has been amplified in some ten short lines into a description of a mother and family, a loving childhood and adulthood and more widely, on the ‘circle of life’ and its continuity.

Often acknowledged in life but beautifully celebrated here, is simply the fact that children frequently see the ways, genetic and learned habits, of their parents in themselves as they mature.  Not only see but feel. (In a similar way that parents can see the visual and emotional elements of themselves in their children.)


Lorna Goodison, I Am Becoming My Mother; A Graph Review

I Am Becoming My  Mother                                                            A Graph Review                                                                                                                          high 65/70 throughout

Published  1986      by New Beacon Books, London                  lornGoodgraph                                  hardback and paperback simultaneously. My copy is hardback, now probably available as secondhand.
Paperback isbn: 0901241 68 7

Lorna Goodison cover picThis was her second book of poems, the first being Tamarind Season, (Institute of Jamaica 1980)

I like to read new poetry in a newly published, fresh off the press, usually slim and a pristine copy.  Am happy to discover a voice that is fresh to me or to run with a familiar name and see if I feel a change of mood and style.  Now the but:

But there is a sense of adventure in the shelves of secondhand bookshops where you can look (not always find) for the old and the lost voices of poets.  With a binding and production to show the period and value of the poet in the day.  The trading down of quality in books published in the 2nd WW, the norms of the early 20th Century and the romance of the leather tooled and plated collections of the famous.  Compare the collections, the likes of Wordsworth, Tennyson and Scott and their fine plates, marbled endpapers and gilt-edged pages and titles of the many special editions which can still be found, with the stapled dreams and boasts of pamphlets and chapbooks of the last 50 years.  Yes, and the myriad of slim, efficient productions in between.  All on a shelf.  The world condensed.  As poetry is emotion condensed, the good and ill, side by side.

The pleasure in finding Lorna Goodison’s second volume of poetry, as a hardback, published 1986, was like finding an unopened Christmas gift in the middle of summer. Published 30 years ago, the poems running through shine with quality.  Jamaica, it’s essence and heritage filter into each poem; women are the centres.

Emotional imagery fills each page.   All aspects of being a woman are encountered, usually heightened by the Jamaican point of view, coloured by Lorna Goodison’s eye as an artist.  This is a reasonably short collection of 30 poems so I recommend the book is read in one sitting.  From the stories, conjured visions, the interconnections of family and history and fable, the reader is enveloped by the poetry and the rhythm of Jamaica.

Now, some thirty years after I am becoming my mother was published, Lorna Goodison is still writing  poetry and short stories on a regular though maybe not prolific basis.  Quality runs throughout this early collection.   Anne Walmsley published Goodison’s first book of short stories in Longman Caribbean Writers series.  She also published the Longman African Writers series at the same time, as I remember well when I was working with her at Longman.  Numerous authors have established names since those times in the 80s, so pleasing that Anne was an early publisher for them.  I am just sorry that poetry was not in her remit for these series.       (Note: Most of the L.C.Writers titles over the years are currently unavailable from Longman/Pearson  but may be on re-sell sites…or hopefully published by other companies.  I am pleased to see that In the Castle of my Skin is still listed, as is Lonely Londoners but at time of writing are not in stock/ in-print)

This collection carries the weight of Jamaica and personal history with it and now, thirty years on it still reads as true and fresh.  Whether it is true to Jamaica of today I have no idea (sorry) but thei excellence will withstand time anyway.  Lorna Goodison is currently  based both at the University of Michigan and her home in Jamaica. Her work appears to be part of courses such as Women’s (Rights) and American/Caribbean studies.  I hope they feature in relevant literature/poetry courses plus there are numerous other potential options.  Her past (selected) collections, most recent 2013, are available in new or used forms.  I would like to know that she is read more widely in the UK, on or off courses, as she offers a great deal over a range of social, literary and political canvases.  Also, that a complete collection is being collated to enable the bulk of her poetry to be available in a single volume. However, to the poetry:

Lorna Goodison writes poetry with an artist’s eye.  Imagery melds with clarity of words and rhythm presenting poetry of a woman’s world, of boundaries and inner strength.

Favourites, I am not allowed to say “all”, so pick the first in the book:  My Last Poem; followed by: Farewell Our Trilogy; Tightrope Walker; The Mullatta and the Minotaur.

I would love to quote a line or two and ostensibly these few from the beginning of  Jamaica  1980  seem apt:    It trails always behind me/ a webbed seine with a catch of fantasy/ a penance I pay for being me/ who took the order of poetry.

but this is out of context and as is often the case needs further investigation:                   Read the poem.

See also a review on this site of Lorna Goodison’s: Guinea Woman, Selected and New Poems; via Lorna Goodison tag .