“the sun / is a mound of butter”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

33 of 100: Madwoman by Shara McCallum (2017, Alice James Books)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • When I first picked up Madwoman, noting what appears to be a scribble and a line drawn in crayon line and also noting its size (slightly larger than standard), I had the sense that I was about to embark on the kind of journey one enters when reading a child’s storybook out loud. And so I began with that feeling, best described, perhaps, at least for me, as a kind of tumbling. Remember rolling down hills as a kid? Anticipated dizziness. Invigoration. Fear. Speed and rocks as questions. The halt at the end both a relief and the realization of wanting more. Except for how the book felt in my hands, I am not entirely sure why I settled into reading the book to myself this way (the way we read to children), but I did. In a voice that wasn’t quite mine. In a rhythm that took over and propelled me (like that tumbling). In wide-eyed greeting of characters and struggles and triumphs. Whatever the impetus, I have to say that it worked. I don’t mean to imply that the verse is sing-song. It isn’t. I don’t mean to convey that its themes are simplistic. They are not. But there was something to feigning a kind of innocence in the beginning — and ultimately, of course, watching that innocence unwind itself — that really worked.
  • One of the great strengths in the book — the Madwoman title “character” — also played into the stories/fables context I adopted upon launching into its reading. It’s clear that Madwoman is a kind of mythology that’s larger than and outside of myself. I also know there’s a kind of Madwoman lore about myself that I’ve both rejected and embraced at various times in my life. I’ve internalized the bad and good of that… and ultimately learned to (still learning to, always) tap the power of that. McCallum’s Madwoman has an incredible strength and also anger that she seems able (at least more able than I am) to control and direct.
  • I can’t stop thinking about this pair of lines: “Stories wake in us what is inconsolable, / begin in us again our animal mewling.” It’s one reason I turn to poetry: to validate my thirst/hunger, which feels — regardless of what I’m craving — absolutely primal. Anyone else?
  • Currently, one of my favorite devices in poetry collections is a “recurring character,” for lack of a better descriptor. I started to be intrigued by this years ago in a graduate poetry workshop taught by Barbara Ungar. She had us read Dead Wendy by Richard Carr (the publisher’s website links here), and I was mesmerized. For this 100 book reading project, I’ve stumbled upon recurring characters in The Wynona Stone Poems by Caki Wilkinson and Oculus by Sally Wen Mao. I may even have stumbled upon a character worthy of revisiting in my own work (Charlie?), but that remains to be seen.
  • Perhaps my favorite poem in Madwoman is “The Dream” (which is linked at the bottom of this post). These lines: “If love is not this dream of itself / then it must be a waking to this dream. / If it is not a place in time / then it must be the action of placing / a vase of flowers deliberately / on a table inside a square of light.” As ekphrasis it works brilliantly: our lack of clarity about who places the flowers — the people she’s written about in the poem (including a “we”) or the painter Chagall — heightens its beauty.
  • I can’t read anything now without thinking of this damn pandemic. Here are some lines from the collection: “Sure / we had a run of it. Even some laughs. / But the day’s arrived, as deep down we knew / it would, and spectacles streaming / from across the globe should convince / even the most skeptical / of our soon-to-be extinction.”

Lines I want to remember:

  • “You think / I’m gristle, begging to be chewed? / No, my love: I’m bone. Rather: the sound / bone makes when it snaps. That ditty / lingering in you, like ruin.”
  • “All her life as if / she in a race with ruin … / did wake-up quick-quick once mi foot slip. / When edge draw near fi true / only a fool nuh accept the idea of falling / plenty-plenty different from the drop.”
  • “she was a child / and did not conceive of beauty / as something that could end or // in memory become unbearable”
  • “there is no world / for her but this one she makes”
  • “This time of day the sun / is a mound of butter, arranged / on a bone china plate.”
  • “the madwoman maps desire’s coordinates onto her body.”
  • “But these deer / in front of you are not / playthings of the imagination, / these two blocking your path / are real. And until they behave as deer / will and flee — you are all stranded.”
  • “… tumors bloomed in you the way a hawk plucks prey: / without conscience or malice. // … At the time, I believed love meant / I could not not-look. Now, // I am sure of little but death is like an ill-fitted suit / that can be worn longer than we’d imagine.”
  • “Death is a door, which keeps opening.”

What others have said:

  • from Publishers Weekly: “McCallum (The Face of Water) contemplates the complicated journey from girlhood to womanhood in this exquisite collection, questioning what it is that defines the identity of her eponymous figure. Her madwoman is neither a static nor predictable character, but a thunderous storm subject to unexpected change in severity; the madwoman is both nourished and destroyed by her memories…. Throughout, McCallum beautifully incorporates the patois of her native Jamaica and employs myth as a way to deal with the mistakes and hurts of the past. McCallum’s striking poems take the madwoman out of her attic so that she may walk and speak among the living.”
  • from readwritepoetry blog: “Madwoman may be semi-autobiographical (most poems are), but, certainly, it reflects those voices living on the margins of society, voices full of authenticity, truth and lived experience but which are often unheard.”
  • from Washington Independent Review of Books: “In a major way, McCallum peels off the layers of what it is to be a woman. She jettisons poetic forms and can exact poetic norms without waiting for a reaction. What is the conscience of a woman? What country does this come from? What’s the historical precedent for women finding their past, fighting to make it worth making? Mad women are fighting for something they don’t know they can win.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

  • Six poems: “Madwoman’s Geography,” “Lucea, Jamaica,” “Madwoman to Claudette Colvin,” “Exile,” “Invention” and “The Dream”
  • Three poems: “Memory,” “Race” and “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa”
  • Ten Things You Might Like to Know About Madwoman
  • Two poems: “The Story of Madwoman and Cockroach” and “The Story of Madwoman and Ixora”
  • “Oh Abuse” (audio below)
  • “Why Madwoman Shouldn’t Read the News” (read below by the author)

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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