Jamaica’s former poet laureate and Queen’s Gold Medal recipient Lorna Goodison is a deeply established writer who has published 15 poetry collections, a number of short story collections, and a memoir. Redemption Ground, a collection of micro-essays, lectures, meditations, and, as the cover notes, “adventures,” is Goodison’s first collection of essays that strives to map out pivotal experiences in
both her creative and personal life. The book’s non-linear meditations take readers on a journey from the Regal Theatre in Jamaica to a Parisian hair salon,
a “tea ‘ole” or café in London, and to Toronto’s Parliament Street near a
Grounded in her Jamaican roots, Goodison’s tone throughout Redemption Ground weaves a portrait of her sense of adventure in life and language, all underscored by sincere vulnerability in both English and Jamaican Patwa writing. In “Bush Your Yard,” one of the most skilled and humorous of the essays, we meet our narrator at a crossroads in her life as she unabashedly quarrels with an owl. The vigorous labour of tending to her yard complements Goodison’s poetic language: “‘Only after you bush your yard,’ hooted patoo … So bush bush. Bush here, there it all goes. Weed and flowering busy and peppermint, right along with cow itch and cerasee.”
This isn’t the only instance of the poet speaking freely to non-human entities.
“A Meditation of Friendships Past” is an account of Goodison sacrificing her marriage and career in her pursuit of poetry and she literally speaks to poetry aloud, “I want to grow, to develop to be the best that I can be at this. Now do what you want to do with me.” These essays and others display an immediate and casual voice, and sophisticated charm, as Goodison unknots serious anxieties around the process of reinventing her life.
Goodison’s visceral relationship with poetry is a constant theme throughout the collection; not merely as a writer but as a devout lifelong reader. In “Some Poems That Made Me,” she writes that the likes of Tennyson, Kipling, Eliot, and Plath have inspired her writings. In two essays she also reveals the immense impact that John Keats has had on her life; initially as a schoolgirl, then as an instructor offering his “medicinal words” to students, and finally as a mourner who seeks comfort in the marginalia written by her departed cousin in a collection of his poems and letters. Goodison’s poetic journey gradually shifts toward Black writers such as Hughes, Brooks, Louise Bennett, and Vic Reid. In eulogizing the legendary Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, she confesses to revising her own poems “with the awareness that he might be looking over my shoulder.”
And it is easy to fall into the long passages of Goodison’s own poems that are included between essays.
There are moments in Redemption Ground where there is an abandonment of depth. The collection includes 27 vignettes and the emotional charge is often clipped too soon. Perhaps this is a stylistic turn – a sharp volta that Goodison favours as a poet – albeit with abrupt endings.
This is most evident in the titular piece, “Redemption is Key.” She writes of being “drawn” to stories of redemption. However, there is little space to investigate the weightiness of this fascination – the potent force that the idea of redemption holds for Black Caribbean people – in an essay that runs less than two pages. Instead, we tumble through tidbits of the Redemption Ground market in Kingston, Jamaica, historically referenced but ultimately skimmed over.
It is both thrilling and unusual to have unfettered access to the remarkable accomplishments, idiosyncrasies, and revelations of a literary giant. Although some pieces are too sparse, it is clear that poetry, in its unwavering marvel, will forever sustain Goodison, who illustrates with great bravery how she continues to honour the “poem as source of hope and consolation; poem as lifeboat, anchor, and safe harbour.”