Lorna Goodison is a prolific Jamaican and Caribbean writer and overall artist extraordinaire. Her poetry dates back to the year 1980, with her first collection entitled Tambrind Season. Her second collection bears the name of the poem I will be looking at today, I Am Becoming My Mother, published in 1986. With a decided feminist twist this poem harkens to womanhood and motherhood as being interwoven. Short and spicy (pun intended) is how I would describe this poem below:
Yellow/brown woman fingers smelling always of onions My mother raises rare blooms and waters them with tea her birth waters sang like rivers my mother is now me My mother had a linen dress the colour of the sky and stored lace and damask tablecloths to pull shame out of her eye. I am becoming my mother brown/yellow woman fingers smelling always of onions.
Now I am not here to speak of line length nor so much about poetic technique. What I am willing to talk about is the idea of doubling, culture and identity as it relates to the Caribbean experience. Now the speaker of the poem comes to the realisation that she is becoming her mother. This suggests a kind of doubling where she begins to morph into her mother. This suggests an inheritance, a physicality that establishes her identity once and for all. There is a sense of ambivalence that I recognise in the tone of the speaker. There is a sense of inevitability about this revelation also. Many young women vow to never be like their mother but in the end, have much of her characteristics and physical appearance. By verbalising this truth the speaker here is not only coming to terms but has reached the stage of accepting that her identity, “yellow/brown”, is forever interwoven with her mother’s and is a generational legacy. This reference to skin colour also harkens to the legacy of slavery which is a feature of Caribbean history.
This legacy not only manifests in her physical appearance but also in her performative rituals. She specifically indicates “always smelling of onions” which speaks to her mother as a provider through the provision of food. In stanza two she refers to the idea of her mother as a gardener. This metaphor captures fully the nurturing characteristics of her mother and how good she was. The daughter here indicates this mother as being attentive to her garden, as she waters her flowers with “tea” or a culturally stimulating environment that ensures traditions essential to her identity are passed down. She also celebrates her mother’s fertility through the mentioning of “birth waters that sang like the river” always flowing.
Next, there is stanza three which highlights the resilience of a mother who came from wealth to poverty but one who remained dignified in the face of adversity. The “linen dress”, “lace” and “damask tablecloth” symbolise the wealth from which the mother sprung. This is contrasted against the sentiment of “pulling shame out of her eye”. Note that these fine items were “stored”, likely brought out on special occasions and for special guests. It is a Caribbean condition I would think to want to put the best foot forward and these items represented the opportunity for the mother to do so. Not only was it a means of “pulling shame” from her eyes but that of the other members of the household, her children especially.
At the end of the poem we see what now becomes the refrain
I am becoming my mother brown/yellow woman fingers smelling always of onions.
Here there is full acceptance and agreement that the repeated sentiment carries. The speaker now feels fully entrenched in this new and emerging identity. It is one she cannot escape or deny and one she has come to terms with. I like how nuanced this poem is and how layered. It reflects a mother-daughter relationship that required coming to terms with. This idea is reflected in the silences found in this poem. SIlences that speak to acceptance celebration and respect. It is a celebration of a tradition that the speaker is now fully committed to carrying on.