Friday, August 25, 2017

An Introduction to Shara McCallum's Madwoman

    Madwoman by Shara McCallum

     Alice James Books, 2017

    ISBN: 978-1-938584-28-2

Shara McCallum

Let me confess: I had never heard of Shara McCallum. At AWP Conference 2017, mid Friday morning, I listened, rapt, in a session called, “Written on a Woman’s Body: A cross-genre reading of bold writings about women and their bodies.” The presenters were prepared and impressive. The last presenter on the panel was Shara McCallum. A tough spot to be in, last. She opened, not with her own work, as the other four presenters had, but by reading Lucille Clifton’s “leda 1,” “leda 2,” and “leda 3.” McCallum’s commanding voice pulled off this reading and, in the process, put her own work in a vulnerable position. Then the strength of her own words followed—outstanding. She read from her newest publication, Madwoman, the following poems: “Madwoman a Rasta Medusa,” “Oh Abuse,” “Insomnia,” “Grief,” “To Red,” and “The Parable of Shit and Flowers,” in that order. Wow. The book was available at the Alice James booth in the book fair; I read it as I flew home from D.C. And this served as my introduction to Shara McCallum.  —Melva Sue Priddy

Shara McCallum was born in Jamaica to an African Jamaican father and a Venezuelan mother and moved to the United States with her family when she was nine. She earned a BA from the University of Miami, an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a PhD from Binghamton University. McCallum is the author of four previously published poetry books: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2011); This Strange Land (Alice James Books, US, 2011), a finalist for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 2003); and The Water Between Us (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 1999), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry.

 Recognition for her poetry includes a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Cave Canem Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series, and other awards. Her poems and personal essays have been published in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks in the US, the UK, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and have been translated into Spanish, French, and Romanian.

McCallum’s dramatic reading drew me in. But the strength of her own words are admirable, at times lapsing into her Jamaican patois. As if this weren’t magical enough, her poems slip in and out of time, yet remain timeless. She includes the mystical and commonplace. She writes of all life’s maddening contradictions matter-of-factly, without explanations, reflecting real life. Madwoman does not step neatly from one age or stage to the next; her contradictions and paradoxes are often stirred in with rewritten myths, life challenges demanding one’s need to adapt and push through living, doing what has to be done, especially for a woman of color.  

One can, of course, make a search of all the wonderful reviews and interviews available on the internet (Consider reviews listed at the bottom of .) and so I intend only to introduce McCallum to readers unfamiliar with her work.  

The persona, Madwoman, marginalized, sane, insane, and, more likely, multiple beings at once, reoccurs, scattered throughout the book, and remains an engaging thread that confounds with her many anomalies. At one point, she is “the madwoman now being all women” (27). She is addressed by various voices from multiple intersections: “Madwoman as Salome”(8), “Madwoman in Middle Age” (24), “Why Madwomen Shouldn’t Read the News” (41), “Lot’s Wife to Madwoman” (51). 

One theme that binds this book concerns the various stages of womanhood. In response to a question about those stages and whether madness was an inevitable trait, McCallum states: 

I suspect some forms of ‘madness’ are an inevitable byproduct of aging. As we go along in life, if we are fortunate to live long enough, we will all accumulate losses—of people we love to death or to the changing nature of relationships over time, or of parts of ourselves as we are forced to confront the fact that versions of who we thought we might be or a life we imagined we would live will simply not [be] coming into being. The poems in the collection address various feelings of ‘madness’ roiling below the surface—among others, rage and sadness and dislocation of the self but also defiance, a wanting to say or actually saying ‘fuck you’ to societal norms and expectations. The vantage points through which I look closely at or dwell in these poems in anger, despair, fear, moments of coming unhinged, etc. are those of womanhood and girlhood and the stages in-between, as you note. But I am sure the gamut of emotions the Madwoman confronts exists in men and women alike, in anyone who has eyes to see and does not close them. (Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

A recurring motif is memory; what gets remembered, by whom, and why. In fact, McCallum’s prologue poem, “Little Soul” after Hadrian, opens the possibilities of memory’s role in, or lack of, influence. 

Little soul—kind, wandering—
body’s host and guest,
look how you’ve lowered yourself,
moving in a word of ice,
washed of color.  My girl, 
what compelled you once
is no more. 
Such a small, unassuming poem, and yet there it is: How are our lives shaped by memory, “what compelled you once”? Which begs of Madwoman, what role has memory played in your development? These questions will not be answered in this book. No neat little strings. McCallum doesn’t try to tell us what the meaning of her life is, what the meaning of our lives are, woman or man, madwoman or sane. And she reinforces this in the book’s second poem,“Memory” (quoted in full): 

I bruise the way the most secreted,most tender part of a thigh exposedpurples then blues.  No spit-shine shoes,I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet.Wherever you go, know I’m the windaccosting the trees, the howling nightof your sea.  Try to leave me, I’ll pin you between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,even as you erase your trackswith the tail ends of your skirt.  You thinkI’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. (5)

Nothing sentimental here, no, rather bruises, dirt, howling, bone and ruin that linger. At best, the truth will confront: “Friends,/do you remember when we were young?/Life plump with promise and dreams?/Me neither” (41). Memories can “become unbearable” (12). But answer our life’s questions?  One voice asks midway through “Madwoman Apocrypha,” “Shouldn’t the death of ten thousand matter/more to you than that of just one person?” and another answers, “Yes. But I’m afraid grief isn’t math” (75). “Insomnia” speaks: “Dear one, why do you assume/there are lessons?” (64).

Yet even in the grittiness of life, McCallum gives us some beauty and innocence, but not much. “How else chart/a course than the way a child//plucks flowers from a field—/the eye compelling the hand to reach” (11). Even “Death” waxes poetic, if absolute: “…for I am in you/as the river is inside the stone”(56). 

In McCallum’s last poem, and the longest covering nine pages, “Madwoman Apocrypha,” several voices are speaking at once. Interlaced are those who will question and those who will tell Madwoman something, each with his/her own agenda. “Apocrypha” is a biblical term referring to texts of largely unknown authorship. When asked how this word defines the poem, McCallum responds: 

It speaks to it very well. But there’s another part of the definition of the word that is important to me to add to the mix. Apocryphal texts are those omitted from the ‘canon’ and are therefore not accepted as doctrine. Aspersions are often cast upon apocryphal narratives—due to their supposed lack of authenticity or truthfulness or sufficient evidence to back them up—in order to qualify and rationalize their exclusion. (“Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

An excerpt from this poem is difficult to layout, the page is broader than the regular page, but let me try, in order to show these voices intertwining.   

          Q: Why do you make the past a fiction?
          A: Everything is a wager.

                                                                                              Duppy know who to frighten
                                                               I heard this as admonishment 
                                                                           when a child.  But now
I think she is, I will be,
                                                                                        we have always been
                                                                                                             the duppy we fear.

          Q: What do you mean “a wager”?
          A: I needed to enact a search, but something happened
          I didn’t mean to have happen. I’ve become
          a sifter and a counter of grains.  

                                                                                     When as a child I couldn't sleep,
                                                                                                  stroking my arm,
                                                            she would sit with me, repeating,  …

                                                            nursery rhymes, song, nothing making sense

  but her voice and the dark.

          A: I don’t know where she ends and I begin. (77)

This last answer, above, has no question before it. The poem attempts to imitate the many voices each of us may have to confront within ourselves, even when there are no easy reassurances. 

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. Shara McCallum reminds us they are worth hearing by bringing us into their complex world. Find her work and read. And so I give McCallum the last word.

Q: Why do you keep referring to this woman
in third person? She is you after all, isn’t she
A: I’ve come to believe all stories
are self referential. Or else none of them are. 

When comes the night of your unmaking? (78)

Melva Sue Priddy lives near Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband. In addition to reading and writing, she enjoys gardening, sewing, and grandmaw-ing. She holds an MFA from Spalding University and has published work recently with Still: the Journal, Friends Journal, Poet Lore, and LexPoMo.

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