Frances-Marie Coke: poems of nostalgia / poems of insight, reflecting upon a Jamaican past
Posted: August 12, 2016 Filed under: English, English: Jamaican Patois, Frances-Marie Coke
“Washday by the River” by Jamaican artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Frances-Marie Coke (Jamaica)
Behind their barely-covered lips,
The Whisperers of Above Rocks huddled
in the no man’s land where housetops leaned
and clotheslines tilted, their arms akimbo
jutting out from hilly backsides, fingers jabbing
at each other’s brows, presiding over business
in the valley. Wielding bramble brooms
dragged across their piece of dust,
they swept up kass-kass with cut-eye,
frock-tail fanning an’ kiss-teet, passing sentence
on grudgefulness and bad mind, malice and red-eye ––
hot words spiced with vinegar and scotch bonnet.
They planted after-births and futures at the navel-string tree;
washed away bad luck with sinklebible and baptized
in healing streams; read meanings in the wind,
in deadening stares of three-foot horse, dogs
howling at full moons, headless sen-seh fowls fluttering
in the feathered blood spilled in time for Sunday lunch.
Long-robed, heads wrapped in calico, they journeyed
down dark mud-tracks to their sideways church,
there to sip white rum and rule the nine-night sankey.
Their faces wore each other’s rage and everything
that caused it –– (one more half-empty butterpan
de pickney bring up wid him two lef-han from riverside!)
They railed at daughters sent to better life in town,
ending up in bed and in the way for men
with nothing but their curly hair and two-toned shoes.
No yard was spared from throw-word
when river women draped their wash-pans with their legs,
flared their noses and their skirts, (tucked in where it mattered),
and punished the missis white sheets with Guinea Gold
and corn cob, muttering underneath their breaths
when stains betrayed dark secrets of Old Stony Hill.
By sunset they’d passed judgement on everything
that counted: clear skin, dark skin, brown skin ––
each with its own grade, depending on the hair ––
knotty-knotty, picky-picky, good or nice and long ––
every version praised or damned at the river-bank,
every son instructed how to lighten with a nice brown girl.
In time we knew our verdict: “Miss G. gran-pickney dem
have good colour and nice hair, but dat one wid
de mawga foot, she want some good home-training!”
The river murmured, minding its own business.
. . .
Idlewild in August
Far from the city rattle,
in my retreat behind the country piano,
its keys at rest from the gingery fingers
of a grandfather who loved and ruled
with few breaks in his silence, I stumbled
on a haven that was mine alone –– spread out
across old pages that splintered
as I turned them to unearth another time:
adventures that entranced, words that smelled
of sky and sea; of consolation brewed
in Limacol and Lipton’s tea,
of love outgrowing loss as Gramma
brushed my hair steeped in rosemary bush
we uprooted from the pearl-pebbles
strung out along our backyard beach.
Idlewild erupted every August
when Kingston schoolyards rested
from their noisy rows of prisoners in their blue
and white, with their inky fingers scrawling over
British kings and queens, parliaments and wars
that tossed their disconnected islands out to sea.
Along the razor rocks and seagrape bush
huddled round the water’s yawning edge,
we scampered after cowrie shells
and soldier crabs between our mugs of tambrin tea,
sweet corn and condense milk.
Now, children of the salt and sand, beguiled
by freedom in the wild, we arched our backs
against the wind and vanished in the eddies
of McCarthy’s pool, defying sea-egg and mermaid,
till one by one our heads bobbed up anew,
like calabashes floating in the unbroken blue
stretched out along the spine of Idlewild.
Seasoned to the bone,
our sinews contoured on the edge-cliffs
of the creek, we threw off British history,
simmered in our praisesongs, gospels ringing
in our ears, laying tracks of who we were,
of what we would become!
. . .
Lessons for Young Women
Proper English words were not enough
to teach the serious lessons girls must learn.
Only stories of who fell, or proverbs in Jamaica talk
could do the job. From morning until night
doomsday sayings echoed, breaking silences
that drizzled in between: what it meant to be a big girl,
knowing only one woman can live inside the house
so since is not you paying rent, it can’t be you.
If you flying past yuh nest, tek sleep mark death
and call back; otherwise you soon find out
what happen to dem force-ripe girls
who paint them lip and ass in red
and hang up hang up at the gate, with all dem
old bwoy bwoy from down the road. Show me yuh company
an ah tell you who you are, for crab who walk too much
always los’ him claw and if you sleep wid dawg
you must get up wid flea. For what sweet nanny goat
always run dem belly, and what gone bad a morning
can’t come good a evening! So if you think you bad,
an’ you ears don’t have no hole, gwan you ways
but mine you don’t cut off you nose an spite you face!
. . .
One of Us is Missing
We loved you only yesterday when we were young;
when stars stopped by to hear you sing.
We loved you only yesterday
when moonlit stairways led to magic kingdoms
and golden poui petals cushioned every fall.
We loved you only yesterday when we whispered
all our dreams into the Mona sky.
The stars stopped by last night to hear you sing
but found you locked in silence.
At dusk a hand fell on your shoulder,
taking –– your fingers
groping in the darkness for a light.
You never knew the bow was bent
–– the arrow drawn and stiff ––
until you heard the songbird in the evening
and smiled into the night.
St. Mary’s Church_Port Maria, Jamaica: photograph copyright Mark Phinn
How strange that we should sip at once
both peace and poison from this cup
raised by priests and sorcerers,
chanting alleluias amid the incense-bearing altar boys,
insensate hordes of pilgrims lost,
groping in the teeming murk for light,
finding only the eternity of night.
How strange to search,
to finger baubles,
not knowing there’s a difference
between the thinly layered gloss we crave
and hammered gold that outlasts the grave.
. . .
Jamaican-born Frances-Marie Coke has lectured at the University of the West Indies, and has also been a high-school teacher and guidance counsellor. The Balm of Dusk Lilies, her first book, came out in 2001. The poems featured above are from Intersections, published in 2010 by Peepal Tree Press.
. . . . .