by Shara McCallum
Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2016.
72 pages. $14.95 (paperback)
Much Madness is Divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
There is a long line of madwomen in Caribbean literature. Notwithstanding the overarching saturation of madness in the canon in general or masculine representations of madness in particular (Walcott’s Makak or Naipaul’s Man-Man for example), there is a tradition of the female embodiments of madness I first noticed in Miguel Street, but found persisting in various forms in Wide Sargasso Sea and later The Last Warner Woman. Laura. Bertha. Adamine. Despite the scholarship excavating the distinctly genderphobic diagnoses of madness and psychoses projected onto women in Victorian times, in Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature, Kelly Baker Josephs argues that this sustained pervasiveness of insanity is a fundamental portion of the West Indian literary aesthetic. It is upon this tradition and this aesthetic that Shara McCallum grafts her fifth collection, Madwoman (Alice James/Peepal Tree), to devastatingly haunting effect.
McCallum’s Madwoman is multitudinous and mythic. The speaking character in the poems channels a variety of voices throughout and the effect is that the Madwoman inhabits a myriad of locales, times, and perspectives, in effect becoming a vessel for womanhood at odds with the rigid prisons created by patriarchal social norms. Furthermore, the Madwoman, after shedding convention, embraces the magic and beauty of the world especially in the quieter registers and scales. In “The Story of Madwoman and Ixora”, we meet the Madwoman as a child waging her own little war against an ixora bush:
she plucked the red flowers from the bush in the garden
where tamarinds were strewn and rotting underfoot she waded like a sovereign
or a god feeling little remorse for wreckage wrought by whim
The stereotypical virginal innocence expected from literary representations of the girl-child is steered clear of, and instead, McCallum imbues the figure with the contrasting and competing qualities of admiration for the flower’s beauty and the primal desire to destroy it. In this, and other poems, the Madwoman is embodied simultaneously by such creative and destructive forces. It may be apt then to imagine her as a sort of creolised Kali figure.
Of particular interest may be the poet’s subversion of another trope of femininity – that of maternal instincts and figures. She begins this by reversing the image of doting mother and helpless infant by making the child “consume its own mumma” (“Hour of Duppy and Dream”). This genesis allows for poems like “The Parable of the Wayward Child”, one of the few poems that takes a third-person view of the Madwoman and constructs the society’s perspective of her inability to accept her lot in life. In this case, just dreaming of something more is madness:
When edge draw near fi true
only a fool nuh accept the idea of falling
plenty-plenty different from the drop.
McCallum’s universe is one that we all inhabit. Her Madwoman is haunted by the traumas of the past – all its ruined houses and minds –just as all citizens of postcolonial landscapes are. What this collection ultimately accomplishes is a portrait of a myriad of social constructs around blackness and gender with such breath-taking clarity that it compels and challenges us to embrace our own psychic unravellings as a font of strength and creativity.