"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Some great-grandmother told her daughter,
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.
Each daughter told over and over,
like brush your teeth, till it stick.
How my mother run-way man with cutlass,
chase him. How my gran use cutlass pon table
to explain to her man, Don’t lose your blasted mind
and raise that hand on me.
And so we are shaped, moulded and made hard.
I remember my aunt kicked her man out
after her child was born, cut him dead
like rotten wood, after he use her like boxing bag,
kicking her womb as she lay on the floor.
That day her blood boiled through swell eye
and buss skin. She knew he could not sleep;
he knew she wanted to kill him bad bad, chop him dead …
Raised in London soil and Guyana sun,
I never understood that need for cutlass,
where it came from, till I visited Grenada,
a place where man fist pound woman flesh
like kneading hard dough. I see bull strength
knock girls flat out when she man full of rum
and carnival. How Ronald buss lash in he woman ass
every Friday and Saturday night, kick she down,
buss she tail. And next day is black eye and bruise.
As Pauline clings onto Ronald’s foot, saying
she love him through each blow, I understand.
I never knew I had it. Thought I was soft,
till that night my friend could not drive
and I offered him my bed to sleep.
I felt something in his look, he and I
alone in that room, and my blood raised up.
My pores swelled, I went to the kitchen,
took down that knife, marched upstairs,
told him, I cutting it off if you lose your mind.
Don’t think it. And if you do, don’t sleep.
If you expected Jenny Joseph’s Warning, the twinkly-eyed romp that begins ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ then you were probably a bit surprised by this. In Malika Booker’s writing, Caribbean women learn hard lessons the hard way, and pass them on to their daughters the hard way too.
If like me, you have to tune into that voice, read it more than once to appreciate its force. The speech of any particular place makes it clear that the speaker has authority to speak of that place. It works for Liz Berry writing about the Black Country or Tony Harrison writing about Bradford, and here it works for the Caribbean. This language is concise and forceful; ‘How my mother run-way man with cutlass’ is a tighter construction than ‘how my mother made a man run away by chasing him with a cutlass’.
The tradition of violence described here is deep-rooted. It’s not a daughter who is warned, but ‘each daughter’ and they are told ‘over and over…. till it stick’. This is a warning drummed into girls for their own protection as routinely as English children of the 1970s learned the Green Cross Code for road safety. Such a warning is only necessary in a place where violence is endemic. The language borrows from the kitchen and yard where the older women live much of their lives – ‘man fist pound woman flesh/ like kneading hard dough’. Their weapons are a pan of water, a knife or cutlass – the equipment of hearth or field. Booker is succinctly showing us the community these people inhabit by showing us what they have readily to hand.
The terms of violence are brutally simple – ‘chop him dead’, ‘kicking her womb’, ‘knock girls flat out’, or Ronald lashing his woman; ‘every Friday and Saturday night, kick she down, / buss she tail. And next day is black eye and bruise.’ Not a hint of euphemism here to soften the impact or offer an excuse. Even in these brutal transactions there is a flash of wit. ‘How my gran use cutlass pon table/ to explain to her man…’ suggests a very clear explanation indeed. Again we see how to ‘show, don’t tell’ – the poet doesn’t tell us that the women live in fear of abuse, but says ‘I see bull strength/ knock girls flat out when she man full of rum/ and carnival.’ Domestic violence is always worse at times of tribal celebration. In the UK it’s Special Brew and the FA Cup, in the Caribbean rum and carnival.
The line breaks follow the rhythms of speech and sense. The three sections, a form which Malika has used more than once, suggest three chapters in a life story. Are they necessary? Am I imagining the shift in language through the three parts? I think not. The language changes gradually through the three parts of the poem. By the last stanza the narrator is speaking in the standard English of England, geographically removed from the inflections of her birth land – except for the last sentence, the eponymous warning in which she flashes back to the language from which she learned it.
I don’t think her guest will be sleeping much. I think he’ll lie awake in fear, like the women who have learned to give such warnings.
[This poem appears by kind permission of Malika Booker, whose collection Pepper Seed is published by Peepal Tree Press. It also features in Penguin Modern Poets 3, which includes a selection of her poems alongside Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire.
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