Frances-Marie Coke: poems of nostalgia / poems of insight, reflecting upon a Jamaican past

"Washday by the River" by Jamaican artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes

“Washday by the River” by Jamaican artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes

Frances-Marie Coke (Jamaica)

River Women


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

St. Mary’s Church_Port Maria, Jamaica: photograph copyright Mark Phinn


The Search


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.

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