I’m not one who regards poems as puzzles. Yet in reading Shara McCallum’s brilliant fifth collection Madowman, winner of the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for Poetry, I discovered a sort of key—a way to move further inside of these astonishing poems of place, self, and loss.
I found it helpful to consider liminality—the outlines of places and things, particularly those that are vague or shifting. Once this notion presented itself, I found boundaries and perimeters everywhere I looked. For the Jamaican-born, Pennsylvania-based poet McCallum—an English professor at Penn State and the winner of a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry, among others—this is particularly rich territory.
The Madwoman of the title is a complicated persona that the poet herself seems to shift into and out of. The poems convey the personal, the familial, the cultural/traditional, and the mythical. As another iteration of the liminal theme, it’s not clear where the poet stops and the persona begins. This plays out in “Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman”:
8. Also, she’s concerned lists are way too postmodern, a theory, which at first she thinks is shiny as a new penny, then quickly finds annoying and infectious, like sand flies. She wants to assure you this is true even if she is mixed-race, from a host of nations, the sum of a bunch of world religions, and born in 1972.
8b. Now that she’s alluded to literature and theory, she’s a bit alarmed you might begin to think of her as a character in a story. On the other hand, she likes stories very much, especially those rarer ones in which women get to be the heroes, so if you can’t help yourself, then she thinks it would be okay, but asks that you please make her a myth.
It becomes clear in this longer prose poem how the poet and the Madwoman merge, with those same shifting boundaries that mark so many of the poems. Yet McCallum asks the reader for the courtesy of considering her a myth, rather than trying to fix that boundary. I admire the poet’s mix of confession and reserve.
The poem “Madwoman’s Geography” offers another look at liminality and the shifting self in this collection, and indeed this early poem begins to provide a rationale for the focus on outlines:
In my first life, I slid
into the length of a snake. Then
sloughed scales for wings.
Was content one hundred years
till the air, as all things must,
lost its charms. After a long time
falling, I landed in the sea. […]
I note the trying on of scales, of feathers, and of fins in a collection where the Madwoman persona shows up in different forms throughout.
Sometimes liminality shows up in a literal way in the poems, with actual boundaries drawn in. An example is noted in the book’s longest poem, “Madwoman Apocrypha”:
So it came to pass the woman grew roses.
They flourished in the garden surrounding
the house and, when clipped and arranged
in vases, filled its rooms. When the time
came to leave, of course she could not bring
them with her. Is this a story of loss or
redemption? You have to choose.
It is significant when the roses that surround the house are brought in, but that when the woman needed to move, the roses could not be removed. That feels like an odd rule, but we live our lives under odd restrictions, from the immutable, non negotiable law of gravity that sticks us to the floor but won’t let us scale the ceiling, to those stop signs you see in store parking lots—unofficial, surely, and seemingly not at all enforceable. The boundaries throughout this collection seem to exist within a wide range of permeability.
Some of my favorite parts of the collection are its more metapoetic moments, as in “Study of a Grasshopper.” Here, McCallum deals with a certain problem presented by metaphor. As we morph one thing into another (crossing yet another boundary), we run the risk of losing the tenor in the vehicle. McCallum writes,
hurdles about your legs, and your child
dashes around the yard, her limbs
blurred by intention: to catch fireflies
that will light her hands. And in a flash
you exchange your daughter,
on her chase, for the passage of time or
the way the future will disappoint her.
This is a pitfall of metaphor: so quickly
it displaces what’s in front of us.
I can’t help but observe how the child’s limbs are “blurred by intention”—so much in these poems caught between one incarnation and the next. The merging of tenor and vehicle pays off in a keener understanding of McCallum’s poetic project.
Maybe because of my own nocturnal issues, my favorite poem in the collection is “Insomnia.” This poem enacts that inner dialogue I know so well from nights when my family is asleep and I’m up, trying to resolve everything. In the poem, one self addresses another self with claims and questions. The main self asks what lessons she needs to learn, and the other, more knowing self answers like this:
Dear one, why do you assume
there are lessons? Thunder cracks open
this night, in which the soul is a carpetbag,
dragged through the dimly lit streets of the body.
It is a stunning moment—the divided self, plus the mystery of whether and where the other self stops answering and the poet takes over. But mostly it’s that metaphor—that poor, bruised, dirty soul, hauled along the ground like a thing of great weight. It’s no wonder we want to slip our boundaries from time to time.
I don’t always throw around words like “liminality,” and in writing this review, I had to hit up the dictionary with the question of whether “limn” could be a noun (that’s a hard no, by the way). I did stumble onto an interesting etymology, though: The word comes from the Middle English luminem or limnen, “to illustrate (a manuscript).” While I stop short of picturing McCallum as a monk illustrating a codex, the translucent boundaries found throughout this work does allow the light of poetic insight to bounce freely through. It works.
I have admired the work of Shara McCallum for years, since I published her poem “Dear History” in Mid-American Review—and even before, when I noticed her work appearing on the scene. (Time flies! I realize a decade and a half have passed since that time.) Her work has always stood out—from the page, from the submission pile—for the light and air that moves through it. I was not disappointed with the poems in Madowman, a collection that has earned my very highest recommendation and praise.