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Supplying Salt and Light

by Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison’s ninth book of poetry stands as a powerful testament to her reputation as one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated poets.

Supplying Salt and Light reconstructs the Caribbean colonial quest undertaken by 16th-century Spanish explorers driven by appetites of empire. The book is a chorus of voices that carries the weight of untold personal and collective histories. Each poem freezes a moment in time and abounds with references to Spanish towns, deities, saints, ships, maps, and harbours. Don Cristobal reports to Queen Isabella his discovery of Jamaica: “Rivers, food, fat pastures for Spanish horses, men, / and cattle; and yes, your majesty, there were some people.”

The poems betray a quiet indignation with “plot / after heinous imperial plot” and “colonial design.” “[W]hat a day it was,” the narrator laments, “when they trapped my mother’s mother’s / mother’s mother’s mother.” But Goodison’s verses are also redemptive, their inner magic emancipatory. The colour black, for instance, must not be consigned “to shadows, outlines, and backgrounds”; it does not “need to be worked up nor ground; / it is just perfect as it is.”

Like much of Goodison’s earlier poetry, Supplying Salt and Light traces the displacement of self, her narrators torn between their experience of the present and their struggle with the weight of memory and nostalgia. The displaced self is concerned with untangling cultural pluralities, seeking out roots, and steering a mind that is repeatedly “mixed up contrary divided.” The poet is “a swimmer who is out of her depth in big sea,”  “a followfashion Columbus / gone off the map.” The tone of these poems is deeply personal and confessional, yet the source of the displacement remains obscured.

Supplying Salt and Light is an outstanding embodiment of Goodison’s poetics, which are firmly grounded in the Western literary canon, with its lyrical narratives and internal rhymes. But Goodison also insists on reinventing these static forms by way of anachronistic allusions and Caribbean dialects. What continues to set her poems apart is the lofty imagery that unabashedly reveals her painter’s eye.