Claude McKay: “Songs of Jamaica” (poems)

Jamaican market woman_circa 1920
Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Poems from Songs of Jamaica (published in 1912)
. . .
Quashie to Buccra
You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
You want a basketful fe quattiewut,
‘Cause you no know how ‘tiff de bush fe cut.
De cowitch under which we hab fe ‘toop,
De shamar lyin’ t’ick like pumpkin soup,
Is killin’ somet’ing for a naygur man;
Much less de cutlass workin’ in we han’.
De sun hot like when fire ketch a town;
Shade-tree look temptin’, yet we caan’ lie down,
Aldough we wouldn’ eben ef we could,
Causen we job must finish soon an’ good.
De bush cut done, de bank dem we deh dig,
But dem caan’ ‘tan’ sake o’ we naybor pig;
For so we moul’ it up he root it do’n,
An’ we caan’ ‘peak sake o’ we naybor tongue.
Aldough de vine is little, it can bear;
It wantin’ not’in but a little care:
You see petater tear up groun’, you run,
You laughin’, sir, you must be t’ink a fun.
De fiel’ pretty? It couldn’t less ‘an dat,
We wuk de bes’, an’ den de lan’ is fat;
We dig de row dem eben in a line,
An’ keep it clean – den so it mus’ look fine.
You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it:
Yet still de hardship always melt away
Wheneber it come roun’ to reapin’ day.

. . .
Buccra = white man
petater = sweet potato
quattiewut = quattieworth: quattie is a quarter of sixpence.
cowitch = the Macuna pruriens climbing bean
shamar = Shamebush, a prickly sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
. . .

Me Bannabees
Run ober mango trees,
‘Pread chock to kitchen doo’,
Watch de blue bannabees,
Look how it ben’ down low!
De blossom draw de bees
Same how de soup draw man;
Some call it “broke-pot” peas,
It caan’ bruk we bu’n-pan.
Wha’ sweet so when it t’ick?
Though some calll it goat-tud,
Me all me finger lick,
An’ yet no chew me cud.
A mumma plant de root
One day jes’ out o’ fun;
But now look ‘pon de fruit,
See wha’ de “mek fun” done.
I jam de ‘tick dem ‘traight
Soon as it ‘tart fe ‘pread,
An begin count de date
Fe when de pod fe shed.
Me watch de vine dem grow,
S’er t’row dung a de root:
Crop time look fe me slow,
De bud tek long fe shoot.
But so de day did come,
I ‘crub de bu’n-pan bright,
An’ tu’n down ‘pon it from
De marnin’ till de night.
An’ Lard!me belly swell,
No ’cause de peas no good,
But me be’n tek a ‘pell
Mo’ dan a giant would.
Yet eben after dat
Me nyam it wid a will,
‘Causen it mek me fat;
So I wi’ lub it still.
Caan’ talk about gungu,
Fe me it is no peas;
Cockstone might do fe you,
Me want me bannabees.
. . .
Bannabees = Bonavist, a climbing bean or pea
Me nyam = I ate
gungu = Congo peas
Cockstone = red peas, the beans of America
. . .

King Banana
Green mancha mek fe naygur man;
Wha’ sweet so when it roas’?
Some boil it in a big black pan,
It sweeter in a toas’.
A buccra fancy when it ripe,
Dem use it ebery day;
It scarcely give dem belly-gripe,
Dem eat it diffran’ way.
Out yonder see somoke a rise,
An’ see de fire wicket;
Deh go’p to heaben wid de nize
Of hundred t’ousan cricket.
De black moul’ lie do’n quite prepare’
Fe feel de hoe an’ rake;
De fire bu’n, and it tek care
Fe mek de wo’m dem wake.
Wha’ lef” fe buccra teach again
Dis time about plantation?
Dere’s not’in dat can beat de plain
Good ole-time cultibation.
Banana dem fat all de same
From bunches big an’ ‘trong;
Pure nine-han’ bunch a car’ de fame, –
Ole met’od all along.
De cuttin’ done same ole-time way,
We wrap dem in a trash,
An’ pack dem neatly in a dray
So tight dat dem can’t mash.
We re’ch: banana finish sell;
Den we ‘tart back fe home:
Some hab money in t’read-bag well,
Some spen’ all in a rum.
Green mancha mek fe naygur man,
It mek fe him all way;
Our islan’ is banana lan’,
Banana car’ de sway.
. . .
mancha = “Martinique”, the best variety of banana in Jamaica

. . .
The Biter Bit
[“Ole woman a swea’ fe eat calalu: calalu a swea’ fe wuk him gut.” Jamaican proverb]
Corn an’ peas growin’ t’ick an’ fas’
Wid nice blade peepin’ t’rough de grass;
An’ ratta from dem hole a peep,
T’ink all de corn dem gwin’ go reap.
Ole woman sit by kitchen doo’
Is watchin’ calalu a grow,
An’ all de time a t’inking dat
She gwin’ go nyam dem when dem fat.
But calalu, grow’n’ by de hut,
Is swearin’ too fe wuk him gut;
While she, like some, t’ink all is right
When dey are in some corner tight.
Peas time come roun’ – de corn is lef”;
An’ ratta now deh train himse’f
Upon de cornstalk dem a’ night
Fe when it fit to get him bite.
De corn-piece lie do’n all in blue,
An’ all de beard dem floatin’ too
Amongst de yellow grain so gay,
Dat you would watch dem a whole day.
An’ ratta look at ebery one,
Swea’in’ dat dem not gwin’ lef’ none;
But Quaco know a t’ing or two,
An’ swear say dat dem won’t go so.
So him go get a little meal
An’ somet’ing good fe those dat steal,
An’ mix dem up an’ ‘pread dem out
For people possess fas’ fas’ mout’.
Now ratta, comin’ from dem nes’,
See it an’ say “Dis food is bes’;”
Dem nyam an’ stop, an’ nyam again,
An’ soon lie do’n, rollin’ in pain.

. . .
calalu = “spinach” (could be Amaranthus viridis or Xanthosoma or dasheen leaves)
blue = the blueish leaf of the maize
. . .

Taken Aback
Let me go, Joe, for I want go home:
Can’t stan’ wid you,
For Pa might go come;
An’ if him only hab him rum,
I don’t know whateber I’ll do.
I must go now, for it’s gettin’ night
I am afraid,
An’ ’tis not moonlight:
Give me de last hug, an’ do it tight;
Me Pa gwin’ go knock off me head.
No, Joe, don’t come! – you will keep me late,
An’ Pa might be
In him sober state;
Him might get vex’ an’ lock up de gate,
Den what will becomin’ of me?
Go wid you, Joe? – you don’t lub me den!
I shame o’ you –
Gals caan’ trust you men!
An’ I b’en tekin’ you fe me frien’;
Good-night, Joe, you’ve proven untrue.
. . .
Say if you lub me, do tell me truly,
Ione, Ione;
For, O me dearie, not’in’ can part we,
Ione, Ione.
Under de bamboo, where de fox-tail grew,
Ione, Ione,
While de cool breeze blew – sweet, I did pledge you,
Ione, Ione.
Where calalu grows, an’ yonder brook flows,
Ione, Ione,
I held a dog-rose under your li’l nose,
Ione, Ione.
There where de lee stream plays wid de sunbeam,
Ione, Ione,
True be’n de love-gleam as a sweet day-dream,
Ione, Ione.
Watchin’ de bucktoe under de shadow,
Ione, Ione,
Of a pear-tree low dat in de stream grow,
Ione, Ione,
Mek me t’ink how when we were lee children,
Ione, Ione,
We used to fishen in old Carew Pen,
Ione, Ione.
Like tiny meshes, curl your black tresses,
Ione, Ione,
An’ my caresses tek widout blushes,
Ione, Ione.
Kiss me, my airy winsome lee fairy,
Ione, Ione;
Are you now weary, little canary,
Ione, Ione?
Then we will go, pet, as it is sunset,
Ione, Ione;
Tek dis sweet vi’let, we will be one yet,
Ione, Ione.
. . .
bucktoe = a small crawfish
Pen = the Jamaican equivalent for ranche

. . .
My Pretty Dan
I have a póliceman down at de Bay,
An’ he is true to me though far away.
I love my pólice, and he loves me too,
An’ he has promised he’ll be ever true.
My little bobby is a darlin’ one,
An’ he’s de prettiest you could set eyes ‘pon.
When he be’n station’ up de countryside,
Fus’ time I shun him sake o’ foolish pride.
But as I watched him patrolling his beat,
I got to find out he was nice an’ neat.
More still I foun’ out he was extra kin’,
An’ dat his precious heart was wholly mine.
Den I became his own true sweetheart,
An’ while life last we’re hopin’ not fe part.
He wears a truncheon an’ a handcuff case,
An’ pretty cap to match his pretty face.
Dear lilly p’liceman stationed down de sout’,
I feel your kisses rainin’ on my mout’.
I could not give against a póliceman;
For if I do, how could I lub my Dan?
Prettiest of naygur is my dear police,
We’ll lub foreber, an’ our lub won’t cease.
I have a póliceman down at de Bay,
An’ he is true to me though far away.
. . .

A Midnight Woman to the Bobby
No palm me up, you dutty brute,
You’ jam mout’ mash like ripe bread-fruit;
You fas’n now, but wait lee ya,
I’ll see you grunt under de law.
You t’ink you wise, but we wi’ see;
You not de fus’ one fas’ wid me;
I’ll lib fe see dem tu’n you out,
As sure as you got dat mash’ mout’.
I born right do’n beneat’ de clack
(You ugly brute, you tu’n you’ back?)
Don’t t’ink dat I’m a come-aroun’,
I born right ‘way in ‘panish Town.
Care how you try, you caan’ do mo’
Dan many dat was hyah befo’;
Yet whe’ dey all o’ dem te-day?
De buccra dem no kick dem ‘way?
Ko ‘pon you’ jam samplatta nose:
‘Cos you wear Mis’r Koshaw clo’es
You t’ink say you’s de only man,
Yet fus’ time ko how you be’n ‘tan’.
You big an’ ugly ole tu’n-foot
Be’n neber know fe wear a boot;
An’ chigger nyam you’ tumpa toe,
Till nit full i’ like herrin’ roe.
You come from mountain naked-‘kin,
An’ Lard a mussy! you be’n thin,
For all de bread-fruit dem be’n done,
Bein’ ‘poil’ up by de tearin’ sun:
De coco couldn’ bear at all,
For, Lard! de groun’ was pure white-marl;
An’ t’rough de rain part o’ de year
De mango tree dem couldn’ bear.
An’ when de pinch o’ time you feel
A ‘pur you a you’ chigger heel,
You lef’ you’ district, big an’ coarse,
An’ come join buccra Pólice Force.
An’ now you don’t wait fe you’ glass,
But trouble me wid you’ jam fas’;
But wait, me frien’, you’ day wi’ come,
I’ll see you go same lak a some.
Say wha’? – ‘res’ me? – you go to hell!
You t’ink Judge don’t know unno well?
You t’ink him gwin’ go sentance me
Widout a soul fe witness i’?
. . .
beneat’ de clack = the clock on the public buildings at Spanish Town
come-aroun’ = day-labourer, man or woman, in Kingston streets and wharves, famous for the heavy weight he or she can carry
samplatta = a piece of leather cut somewhat larger than the size of the foot, and tied sandal-wise to it: said of anything that is flat and broad.
Mis’r Koshaw clo’es = Mister Kershaw’s clothes i.e. police uniform. Col. Kershaw was Inspector-General of Police in 1911, (when this poem was written.)
An’ chigger nyam you’ tumpa toe, etc. = And chigoes (burrowing fleas) had eaten your maimed toe, and nits (young chigoes) had filled it.
Lard a mussy! = Lord have mercy!
unno (or onnoo) = an African word meaning “you” collectively

Jamaica_vintage photograph_early 20th centuryJamaican primary schoolhouse with children and their teacher_early 20th century photograph
Mother Dear
“HUSBAN’, I am goin’ –
Though de brooklet is a-flowin’,
An’ de coolin’ breeze is blowin’
Softly by;
Hark, how strange de cow is mooin’,
An’ our Jennie’s pigeons cooin’,
While I feel de water growin’,
Climbing high.
“Akee trees are laden,
But de yellow leaves are fadin’
Like a young an’ bloomin’ maiden
Fallen low;
In de pond de ducks are wakin’
While my body longs for Eden,
An’ my weary breat’ is gledin’
‘Way from you.
“See dem John-crows flyin’!
‘Tis a sign dat I am dyin’;
Oh, I’m wishful to be lyin’
All alone:
Fait’ful husban’, don’t go cryin’,
Life is one long self-denyin’
All-surrenderin’ an’ sighin’
Livin’ moan.”
. . .

“WIFE, de parson’s prayin’,
Won’t you listen what he’s sayin’,
Spend de endin’ of your day in
Christ our Lord?”

. . .
But de sound of horses neighin’,
Baain’ goats an’ donkeys brayin’,
Twitt’rin’ birds an’ children playin’
Was all she heard.
Things she had been rearin’,
Only those could claim her hearin’,
When de end we had been fearin’
Now had come:
Now her last pain she is bearin’,
Now de final scene is nearin’,
An’ her vacant eyes are starin’
On her home.
Oh! it was heart-rendin’
As we watched de loved life endin’,
Dat sweet sainted spirit bendin’
To de death:
Gone all further hope of mendin’,
With de angel Death attendin’,
An’ his slayin’ spirit blendin’
With her breath.
. . .
Akee = Cupania sapida, bearing beautiful red fruits
John-crows = Turkey-buzzards

. . .
Dat Dirty Rum
If you must drink it, do not come
An’ chat up in my face;
I hate to see de dirty rum,
Much more to know de tas’e.
What you find dere to care about
I never understan’;
It only dutty up you mout’,
An’ mek you less a man.
I see it throw you ‘pon de grass
An ‘met you want no food,
While people scorn you as dey pass
An’ see you vomit blood.
De fust beginnin’ of it all,
You stood up calm an’ cool,
An’ put you’ back agains’ de wall
An’ cuss our teacher fool.
You cuss me too de se’fsame day
Because a say you wrong,
An’ pawn you’ books an’ went away
Widout anedder song.
Your parents’ hearts within dem sink,
When to your yout’ful lip
Dey watch you raise de glass to drink,
An’ shameless tek each sip.
I see you in de dancing-booth,
But all your joy is vain,
For on your fresh an’ glowin’ youth
Is stamped dat ugly stain.
Dat ugly stain of drink, my frien’,
Has cost you your best girl,
An’ med you fool ‘mongst better me
When your brain’s in a whirl.
You may smoke just a bit indeed,
I like de “white seal” well;
Aldough I do not use de weed,
I’m fond o’ de nice smell.
But wait until you’re growin’ old
An’ gettin’ weak an’ bent,
An’ feel your blood a-gettin’ cold
‘Fo you tek stimulent.
Then it may mek you stronger feel
While on your livin’ groun’;
But ole Time, creepin’ on your heel,
Soon, soon will pull you down:
Soon, soon will pull you down, my frien’,
De rum will help her too;
An’ you’ll give way to better men,
De best day you can do.
. . .

“white seal” = the name of a brand of cigarettes

. . .

Killin’ Nanny
Two little pickny is watchin’,
While a goat is led to deat’;
Dey are little ones of two years,
An’ know naught of badness yet.
De goat is bawlin’ fe mussy,
An’ de children watch de sight
As de butcher re’ch his sharp knife,
An’ ‘tab wid all his might.
Dey see de red blood flowin’;
An’ one chil’ trimble an’ hide
His face in de mudder’s bosom,
While t’udder look on wide-eyed.
De tears is fallin’ down hotly
From him on de mudder’s knee;
De udder wid joy is starin’,
An’ clappin’ his han’s wid glee.
When dey had forgotten Nanny,
Grown men I see dem again;
An’ de forehead of de laugher
Was brand wid de mark of Cain.

Peasants with their mules_Jamaica_early 20th century photograph

Strokes of the Tamarind Switch
I dared not look at him,
My eyes with tears were dim,
My spirit filled with hate
Of man’s depravity,
I hurried through the gate.
I went but I returned,
While in my bosom burned
The monstrous wrong that we
Oft bring upon ourselves,
And yet we cannot see.
Poor little erring wretch!
The cutting tamarind switch
Had left its bloody mark,
And on his legs were streaks
That looked like boiling bark.
I spoke to him the while:
At first he tried to smile,
But the long pent-up tears
Came gushing in a flood;
He was but of tender years.
With eyes bloodshot and red,
He told me of a father dead
And lads like himself rude,
Who goaded him to wrong:
He for the future promised to be good.
The mother yesterday
Said she was sending him away,
Away across the seas:
She told of futile prayers
Said on her wearied knees.
I wished the lad good-bye,
And left him with a sigh:
Again I heard him talk –
His limbs, he said, were sore,
He could not walk.
I ‘member when a smaller boy,
A mother’s pride, a mother’s joy,
I too was very rude:
They beat me too, though not the same,
And has it done me good?
. . .
Rise and Fall
[Thoughts of Burns – with apologies to his immortal spirit for making him speak in Jamaica dialect.]
Dey read ’em again an’ again,
An’ laugh an’ cry at ’em in turn;
I felt I was gettin’ quite vain,
But dere was a lesson fe learn.
My poverty quickly took wing,
Of life no experience had I;
I couldn’t then want anyt’ing
Dat kindness or money could buy.
Dey tek me away from me lan’,
De gay o’ de wul’ to behold,
An’ roam me t’rough palaces gran’,
An’ show’red on me honour untold.
I went to de ballroom at night,
An’ danced wid de belles of de hour;
Half dazed by de glitterin’ light,
I lounged in de palm-covered bower.
I flirted wid beautiful girls,
An’ drank o’ de wine flowin’ red;
I felt my brain movin’ in whirls,
An’ knew I was losin’ my head.
But soon I was tired of it all,
My spirit was weary to roam;
De life grew as bitter as gall,
I hungered again for my home.
Te-day I am back in me lan’,
Forgotten by all de gay throng,
A poorer but far wiser man,
An’ knowin’ de right from de wrong.
. . .
To Bennie
[ In Answer to a Letter ]
You say, dearest comrade, my love has grown cold,
But you are mistaken, it burns as of old;
And no power below, dearest lad, nor above,
Can ever lessen, frien’ Bennie, my love.
Could you but look in my eyes, you would see
That ’tis a wrong thought you have about me;
Could you but feel my hand laid on your head,
Never again would you say what you’ve said.
Naught, O my Bennie, our friendship can sever,
Dearly I love you, shall love you for ever;
Moment by moment my thoughts are of you,
Trust me, oh, trust me, for aye to be true.
. . .

. . . . .