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“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself.”

This concept was so interesting to me and I really wanted to focus on it in today’s blog post. I feel that I talk about politics far too much for a creative writing class, but here we go again. I feel that this is very relevant to what is currently occurring in our world today, but it is the complete opposite. While it is true that every country has its own set of serious issues, it seems to all be blending together, and affecting all other countries. For example the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently the US Presidential election. In the hopes of me not getting too far off topic, I thought that Tawada did an outstanding job of creating a world in which a country goes through the ultimate crisis of nuclear apocalypse and instead of dragging other people in and “spreading the issue further” they close off their borders and confine themselves to the hell that has been created. The world she creates, and the characters she crafts do such a phenomenal job of carrying out the story and portraying the pain of a country in a deep state of crisis. I was trying to imagine what our country would be like if America were to contain our issues, and not pull anyone else in, and I feel like it would solve SO many issues especially if our President weren’t allowed to take his personal issues to Twitter. Such a fascinating concept.

In Yoko Tawada’s novel The Emissary, the concept of a dystopian Tokyo is explored through the eyes of an elderly survivor, Yoshiro, and his great-grandson, Mumei. In reading this book, it impressed me how Tawada’s description of a crumbled society, although pushed to the extreme, seems have real ties to the concerns of modern day Japanese citizens. In reading reviews and researching the state of Japan’s economy, I found that the “The graying of Japan,” is one of the biggest problems facing the nation. According to studies conducted by the Japanese government, over 60% of the Japanese population will be over the age 65 by 2060. This forecast has caused a fascinating problem, in that the Japanese government, who were previously chiefly concerned with over-population, are now primarily concerned with the lack of children being born and new marriages amongst younger people.  In Tawada’s novel, older people are not only heavily present, but depicted as the strongest of all age groups which adds a very interesting layer to her dystopian Tokyo. In her world, younger people want to be older, rather than continually seek youth. There is also an interesting parallel to reality in that the “middle” generation, are generally depicted as lost and victimized by their environment and treatment. Polls in Japan have shown that citizens younger than 40 feel that they don’t have time for a family or love due to economic and social pressure to succeed in their career. I think this aspect of the novel shows what makes Tawada’s world creation so powerful. She takes things like gender, age and patriotism and interprets them in an innovative way that can still be seen as a sort of social commentary for what is occurring in reality.

While reading this novel, I couldn’t help but compare how similar the environments of both this one and The Giver were.

What makes this novel a distinctive piece is the focus of language, imagining how language can be warped in extreme social circumstances, resulting in the use of s certain use of language to be more accurate. For example, on page 118:

“Excuse me is what you say when you want to apologize for something. A long time ago it was also used to express gratitude, but you mustn’t apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong.”
“But we’re putting them to a lot of trouble.”
“We don’t talk about putting people to a lot of trouble anymore—that expression is dead. A long time ago, when civilization hadn’t progressed to where it is now, there used to be a distinction between useful and useless people.

This can be compared to the language restriction seen in The Giver, as certain language isn’t appropriate to use because of the connotation it brings out.

In addition to this, both novels share disjointed familial relationships or a lack thereof, as in this novel, it is the grandparents who responsible for the raising of children. In The Giver, parents are more described as helpful mentors rather than invested individuals (for example, the act and language of love were forbidden to use).

 

 

Yoko Towada’s The Emissary is a chilling novel set in dystopian Japan where the elderly (young, middle, and aged) have corrupted the earth and its environment for the young “because they’d been so feckless” (93). The older generation’s “feckless” ness in this novel has resulted in a general and devastating decline in the health of Japan’s youth; Mumei’s body, as well as many of the other children readers come to know in the novel, are depicted in wheelchairs, with “milk teeth”, and several other physical disabilities, while the older characters grow stronger and more youthful the older they get. The idea that older generations have tainted the world for the younger generations is one that is prevalent in current United States’ society; things like global warming and politics and social issues are framed with a tension that stems, in part, from the stark differences in the older and younger generations. For instance, on page 30, Towada writes, “Nothing is more frightening than a law that has never been enforced. When the authorities want to throw someone in jail, all they have to do is arrest him for breaking a law that no one has bothered to obey yet.” Currently, there is a great injustice in the United States’ legal system against minorities; specifically, African-American men and women. They are followed, suspected, and arrested unjustly and often for doing the same things that their white counterparts do without questions or suspicion. These phenomena represent this quote from Towada; when white people call the cops on their black neighbors for going about their daily lives, or policemen abuse their power, black citizens are subjected to laws that have not been enforced previously.

Another parallel exists on page 42 when Mumei asks Yoshiro about why Japan’s borders are closed to the outside world: “Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself… I don’t know if it’s better or not. But at least this way there’s less danger of Japanese companies making money off the poor people living in other countries.” The isolation of Japan is a sort of inverse to our country’s current immigration issue, but the idea of standing alone persists. Where Japan has sealed itself away to contain the country’s crisis, United States’ President Trump has attempted to seal away the country to make it “great again”. Yoshiro’s criticism of his country’s policy (“Yoshiro was always careful not to tell him that he didn’t really support Japan’s isolation policy.) highlights the ways in which a country’s isolation from its neighbors is not beneficial to the country itself and seemed, to me, an instance of the subtle humor within the novel; though it was first published in 2014, two years before Donald Trump was elected, the writer’s criticism of his current ideas as a politician was both very present and darkly amusing.

In another parallel found on page 50, Towada writes, “Electrical appliances had met with disapproval ever since electric current was discovered to cause nervous disorders, numbness in the extremities, and insomnia–a condition generally known as bzzt-bzzt syndrome.” Younger generations in the United States are known to have higher levels of mental health issues like depression and anxiety due to things like academic stress and our increased usage of electronics and participation in social media, things that are not all linked directly to older generations, but often pertain to them. Millennials’ use of social media platforms like Twitter and the given opportunity from sites like Twitter have allowed the generation to make their opinions on things like gun violence more heard and, in turn, allowed change to begin. United States’ youth’s decline in mental health could also be paralleled to Japan’s youth’s physical health decline in the novel, even if it is not made as visible as Towada writes in The Emissary.

This novel, like George Orwell’s 1984, is a political statement that the author is using to instill awareness and fear into her audience. Though the United States is not so far gone, the similarities between it and the dystopian Japan described in The Emissary should alert its readers that we cannot continue on our current path.

In her novel The Emissary, Tawada is using the absurd. This is an interesting notion especially in literature as it has been used multiple times and in different cultures. If we go back to the beginning of the twentieth century when the notion of absurd in literature was theorized in Europe, we see that it was a way to be in contradiction with what has been done before but also that it was a form of protest. Indeed, at that time and especially after the first World War, some authors used this gender to show the dehumanization, the fact that the language didn’t convey anything anymore, the destruction of some inherently human characteristics. It was also seen as a humoristic type of literature but the absurdity allows some sadness to emerge and let the reader with a bittersweet taste at the end of the reading.

If we compare the play Fando & Lys by Fernando Arrabal and The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, we can see how the use of the absurd but also the creation of a dystopian world create two different readings. One is lighter, funny and doesn’t mark the reader that much. It gives a pleasant reading, sometimes a bit disturbing but overall just a good novel or play. The second one is tragic in a literal way. Because it gives the reader to see the absurdity of the world and of humanity. It also asks serious questions about how we are living and why we are living like this. It questions our way of life and how society shapes us. And the reading is not anymore just a good moment but becomes a deep reflection that gives us this bittersweet taste and that marks the reader.

The Emissary is based on a futuristic world where nature and society have been turned on their heads in every way. The young are weak, the old are strong, parents acting like children and children acting like adults, and never knowing if you are going to wake up as the same gender you were when you went to bed. However, despite all these unsettling shifts that defy logic this world has quite a few similarities to ours. One of the big things is that the young are still hopeful while the old despair. This truth is threaded throughout the story, and it fascinates me why she would have left this structure place. The world has already cracked at its faultlines; time, gender, society, but still, this hopefulness remains. It is like she is saying hope is the last thing to die. I also wonder if the next generation will lose this buffer around them that prevents despair, and what that would mean for the grandfather and his generation.

Another similarity is the derision of the elderly. We have a tendency to treat our older relatives like they don’t know anything. This is also true in The Emissary.
“‘A what? A walk? Oh, yeah, a walk, ha ha ha,’ laughed the man behind the counter, finally catching on. I was a superior sort of laugh, directed at this old geezer who still used outdated expressions like a walk.”(pg4)

The derision of the elderly is only multiplied because many blame Yoshiro’s generation for what has happened to Japan. Yoshiro blames himself and doesn’t think that he has any wisdom to give to his grandchild or his daughter. It is an interesting trait to keep in this world. 

In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, Tawada creates a dystopian world in which the old never die and the young are weak and sickly. Keeping in mind that this work has been translated from Japanese to English, Tawada’s gives us a vivid view of this dystopian Japan. She tells us that Japan has become completely isolated from the world, and her language reflects this. Through the eyes of Yoshiro, Tawada only shows us a small section of an outer district of Tokyo. Yoshiro has memories of the outside world, but he never goes far from his simple house. The same goes for Mumei who is too sickly to go far, providing us only with the view of his home and the school. Keeping the vision of these characters so narrow makes the reader believe in this isolation.

Tawada addresses some very serious questions in The Emissary. What will be the consequences of our prolonged abuse of our environment? What is the future for the elderly? The young? What are the consequences of a nuclear conflict? Tawada never directly addresses these questions, just gives us an image of an absurd and terrible future. We talked about humor in The Emissary on Tuesday but I think it is a very important part of this book. Tawada addresses these morbid questions with a bit of humor while at the same time, offering us a dark dystopian world. She makes the questions easier to digest, just not answer.

Something else we touched on briefly in The Emissary is the fact that we barely know anything about “the emissaries.” Tawada gives us a basic understanding of what it is but she never goes in depth, never explores that plot line anymore than a few pages. I wonder why she made this choice? It felt like another story was just about to begin yet she cuts it off right as it is about to start. What does she mean by making this decision to end the novel there? I don’t know if there are any real answers but it’s worth thinking about.

 

One element of craft that I was very impressed by in this book is the pacing. Right from the beginning, I had so many questions about the world Yoko Tawada has placed us in. What has happened to the planet? Why are the children crippled, and where are their parents? Why is Japan so isolated from the rest of the world, and are other countries the same way?
Tawada never answered all of my questions, but I was very appreciative of the way she took her time revealing each crumb of information. Pretty much as soon as it was mentioned that Mumei is Yoshiro’s great-grandson, I wanted to know about Mumei’s parents. Instead of laying out all of the information in an expository fashion, Tawada waited until about halfway through the novel to even begin to mention Mumei’s parents. We start getting little bits of information about Yoshiro’s family and relationships earlier on, but nothing is revealed all at once.

Yoshiro’s daughter, Amana, is one of the first family members we hear about, but we are only given brief glimpses of her.  He gives us tiny snapshots of memories, such as Amana eating whole boxes of cookies at once (36), or immigrating to Okinawa with her husband (48).  Other family members take shape in this method, as well, such as Yoshiro’s wife and Amana’s son.  We slowly learn more details about them, and Tomo (Mumei’s father and Amana’s son) is the character whose backstory we learn most extensively.

Tawada’s patience in her revealing of details is quite admirable.  It’s easy to be tempted to give too much background in the beginning of a story, but Tawada never gives away any more than she absolutely has to.  I was full of questions about the characters and their circumstances for at least the first half of the book, but it was those burning questions that made me want to keep reading.

Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary takes place in a post-apocalyptic society in which Japan has closed itself off from the rest of the world.  In many ways, the people of this society are becoming opposites of what they once were.  The elderly live for well over a century, but maintain their vitality and work the jobs requiring manual labor.  The younger generation, however, is weak and unhealthy.  New research is constantly being published about how to make them grow up to be strong, healthy adults, but none of it seems to be helping.

Yoshiro and all of the people in his generation feel responsible for the state of Mumei’s (Yoshiro’s great-grandson) generation.  Yoshiro never says it outright, but I inferred that whatever disaster caused Japan’s isolation policy happened early in his lifetime, before his daughter was born, as a result of something previous Japanese citizens did wrong.  The back cover says The Emissary could take place in a more extreme post-Fukushima Japan, which I can definitely see.  In the beginning of the book, Yoshiro says something about Mumei’s teeth falling out, then hastily corrects himself in case the dentist thinks he said “fallout” (17).

Yoshiro and the people born around his time do not die – at least, not in the course of the book.  In fact, Japanese society has come up with new ways of classifying the elderly (young elderly, middle elderly, old elderly) to accommodate the increasing number of elderly people.  This extended life is their punishment for messing up Japan for their descendants.  They are responsible for whatever is making their great-grandchildren be born so weak, so as punishment they must live through the devastating consequences.

Ancestors have been and continue to be respected and treated with reverence in Japanese society.  The irony here is that the ancestors of the dying generation are not as wise as them, and don’t have the answers for how to fix their descendants.

One of the plot points in The Emissary is the fact that Japan is now an isolated country completely cut off from the rest of the world. As a result, it is unknown whether or not any outside countries have the ability to help any of the afflicted people of Japan. Japan is adamant that no outside country tries to contact them or supply them with any kind of aid. This made me think a lot about how there are many countries in our own world who often refuse to aid suffering people in other countries simply because they are from other countries, and vice versa—people who refuse the aid of other countries because they don’t trust them.

Another bit of social commentary is the fact that the older generations are looking after their great-grandchildren instead of the childrens’ biological parents, due to the parents being too irresponsible to care for their own children, or just a lack of interest in their own children. This made me think of how many terrible parents there are in the world; a lot of times, this is because they have children very young and so don’t always know how to properly care for their children while also trying to live their lives as they used to. Other reasons may include mental illness, a lack of resources, or just general unpreparedness for all the challenges that come with raising a child. Older people tend to have most things figured out, though; they know how to deal with and balance all of these things, and as a result they often end up taking over the responsibilities of their children.

A third similarity between the society in this book and our own society is how we are irreversibly destroying our planet. The Emissary is very much a cautionary tale; whose to say that anything and everything in this story—children so sick they can barely walk or eat; elderly but long-living people raising said children; whole countries cutting themselves off from the rest of the world; pollution so bad that you can’t even go outside—couldn’t happen eventually, should we continue to trash our planet like we’ve been doing for so long now? The scariest thing about dystopian worlds, I think, are the similarities that we can find in them, as well as the possibility that these fictitious worlds could eventually become our own reality. To me, the word dystopia describes a society in which an idea that seems good at first is implemented, then twisted in such a way that the cons far outweigh the pros. In The Emissary’s case, the people of Japan thought that they would be better off isolated from the rest of the world, but all it did was make their lives and the lives of their children even more unbearable as they fell victim to illness and oppression.

In the book The Emissary, the main characters live in a dystopian society in Japan. There are many aspects of this book that differ from typical dystopian novels. One of the more obvious differences between Yoko Tawada’s novel and other dystopian books is that the technology component is missing/severely limited in the communities. A common theme in dystopian novels is that people are under constant surveillance, which is mostly done through the use of the technological component, i.e. cameras; this book does the opposite. While there is no technology for Mumei and Yoshiro, they fear breaking the law. “The entire country looked up to the inhabitants of Tokyo’s temporary housing blocks, the very first to give up their electrical appliances, as a model of the most advanced lifestyle.” This quote from page 51 shows not only the dynamic of the society, but it also shows that the people willingly gave up their technology for hopes of a better life and lifestyle.

Another thing that this novel interweaves into this new idea of dystopia is the gender transformation.

In areas where culture dictated that female fetuses should be aborted, Nature, enraged at humans disrupting her balance this way, had started playing various tricks. One trick was making sure that no one stayed the same sex all their lives. Everyone’s sex changed either once or twice and people couldn’t tell ahead of time how many times their sex would change.

This quote from page 92 shows that Nature is personified as it often is. The difference this story proposes is that Nature is seen as cunning and able to get back at the humans for killing females and disrupting her balance by turning their sex. This is similar to the Common Reed frog of West Africa; the species of frog will change sexes throughout its lifetime based on the balance of female to male population ratio. In a dystopia, it is usually more of a societal change and not a physical one. I thought of the frogs because it was something that happens in our world, so this book is pulling from the natural world and the author is pulling from our world and making it absurd.

The Emissary is a short novel which focuses on Japan after a disaster strikes the country. This calamity has created an alternate universe, set far in the future, where children are so weak they are almost unable to walk, the elderly (who are healthier than the kids) having to look after them day by day. The disaster which occurred has caused Japan to be completely shut off from the rest of the world, numerous “environmental adaptations” to happen, and most species to have gone extinct. This dystopia centers around Mumei, a child who lives with his great-grandfather named Yoshiro and must be taken care of by him. The entirety of the novel flips all that we believe to be true upside down – younger generations inheriting the earth and replacing older generations – and sets up a society which seems impossible.

 

““Grown-ups can live if children die…but if grown-ups die, children can’t live”” (36).

 

This sheer fact is already placing readers in a much different reality than what they are used to. Yoko makes a known matter of life completely irrelevant throughout The Emissary, adding to the interest of the book. That being said, Tawada seems to have also created a future that almost seems likely with the amount of conflict in our political climate. The disasters which face communities and environmental adaptations due to humans are all realities that we live with today, something which I feel Yoko took inspiration from. All of the horrible fears humans have in humanity come true in this book.

After reading The Emissary for the second time, I have come to realize that the novel is filled with fantastic humor. This is something which I greatly appreciated, as I believe that just because literature has dark connotations does not mean that it has to be completely serious. Writing humorously is also something which can be a great challenge and one which is not seen very often. Tawada succeeds in her apparent attempt at making The Emissary a humorous novel, adding to the text and the enjoyment of reading The Emissary. Some of my favorite quotations which display the humor used throughout the book are:

 

“Yoshiro wasn’t able to reach across the three baby carriages blocking his way to get to the newly published paperback In Praise of Masturbation” (67).

 

“Once thousands of dead penguins had washed up on a beach in South Africa, and a company run by an international pirate gang had dried the meat, which it then ground into powder to make meat biscuits for children. According to the newspaper, another company was smuggling the biscuits into Japan, making a killing” (94).

 

“Just as playful wrestling matches helped make lion cubs strong enough to survive on the savannah, these children were learning about the earth through physical contact. If he were to give a name to the first morning class, it would be “spontaneous romping”” (113).

 

   Reading The Emissary for the first time, I missed much of the humor which was inserted into the book. Going back a second time and focusing on the deeper meaning of the text, I was able to comprehend many of the fun tidbits which Tawada added to keep her audience entertained. The humor used is definitely presented in the word choice made, and without such clever planning, would not have been successful. I am glad to have had the time to go back over the text and make this realization for myself. Without these elements of style, The Emissary would have wound up being a very different novel, and very possibly much less enjoyable.

   One final point I would like to bring up about The Emissary is the word choice and descriptions used by Yoko (which supplements the success in the humor). Much of The Emissary are in-depth descriptions of people, places, or things.

 

“Ten empty cans were lined up on the windowsill, each four inches tall, each with a small flower in it. A purple bell, a yellow pitcher, a red firecracker, a white whin, a scarlet stain” (106).

 

To help explain how common these many descriptors are, my process of finding the given quotation was flipping to a random page in the book and reading the first sentence I laid my eyes on. Descriptions such as the given quotation fill the book to the brim, without any detail being left without great explanation.

   Overall, the literary trait I took away from this reading the most was the use of successful humor. This is a goal I have been attempting to add to my writing for a very long time, yet still struggle to create a story which adds this component to it in a manner which is done well. There are many traits I took away from Yoko’s writing which I feel I can apply to my own, and hopefully, achieve the humor I am aiming for in my written works.

 

According to a book review on Words Without Borders, Yoko Tawada’s novel The Emissary is greatly inspired by Kenzaburo Oe’s Nobel Prize winning A Personal Matter. A Personal Matter is a semi-autobiographical novel about a man who has to come to terms with the birth of his mentally disabled son. Published in 1964, the novel follows a Japanese man named Bird who wonders about taking a hypothetical trip to Africa and discovers that his newborn son was born with a brain hernia – two things that are similar to plot points in The Emissary. If they baby survived for a few days, he would receive brain surgery, but would never be a healthy child; Bird refers to the child as a “monster baby” and does not want him to ruin his plan to travel.

While The Emissary is a dystopian novel – obviously fictitious – it is easy to see from this summary how the two novels are related. “In Tawada’s novel,” writes Andrew Hungate on Words Without Borders, “the unfortunate infant of Oe’s story has grown up into a happy, albeit highly diseased child named Mumei, who is the picture of innocence and bearer of his father’s sins.” In The Emissary, readers see what it is like for the elderly to raise children they know will never be healthy; they also see what it is like for the children. It is often worse for the adults watching the children suffer than for the children themselves. When Mumei had a coughing fit he looked up at Yoshiro and asked in surprise, “Great-grandpa, are you all right?” Mumei “didn’t seem to know what ‘suffering’ meant; he simply coughed when food wouldn’t go down, or vomited it back up. Of course he felt pain, but it was pure pain, unaccompanied by any ‘Why am I the only one who has to suffer like this?’ sort of lamentations that Yoshiro knew so well” (33). Though the main character in A Personal Matter, was negatively affected by his son’s condition in a selfish way, in both novels we can see that those who aren’t actually the ones in pain often “suffer” more than those who are.

There are also similarities between the novels when it comes to the topic of travel. When Mumei has the opportunity to leave Japan, he wants to go but hesitates when he thinks of what will become of his great-grandfather. “Mumei’s resolve began to waver. Through the years, they had grown even closer than before. Fragments, scenes from that time he was supposed to have skipped over now came back to him. The Silver-Headed League, for instance. What would become of the Silver-Headed League if he were to leave?” (132). This situation is the opposite of that in A Personal Matter. Here, the sickly child is afraid to leave the healthy adult because he is concerned about what his great-grandfather will do without him. It is interesting to see how Tawada flips Oe’s ideas from a story of resentment due to illness to one of love and companionship.

“The law of gravity doesn’t forgive us. So hard to say I love you these days. I love you with urgency. I want to make a side. Without doubts. And without traps. To say I love you. Like that. Plainly.”

In this day and age it feels harder to say “I love you” than it does to say “I hate you.” Opening up, and being vulnerable with another person feels like the most terrifying thing one can do, and Varela touches upon that in her poem, ‘Love Song for Difficult Times.” This poem hurt my heart so deeply, especially the line quoted above “So hard to say I love you these days. I love you with urgency.” Varela is the type of writer who can conjure up emotions as if she is a wizard wielding a magic wand. The language she uses, and the ways in which she crafted the voice and tone leaves the audience no room to feel anything other than the depth of the sadness she is relaying. This person can not tell her person how much she loves them and I think that that is one of the saddest things a person can go through. “If it weren’t hard, Hard and tremendous. I would cast this verse and it’s cheap cadence. If it were this simple to write that I love you.” I feel that it is impossible to read these lines, and not feel a pull at your heart. She relays pain, while also relaying an unwavering love that just cannot be muttered. That is an incredible task to take on, but she executed it so beautifully, and with such eloquence it took my breath away. “I don’t want to be hurt by the absence of tenderness.” Like she is showing us that it is more painful to her to not be able to relay her love than it actually would be if she just came out and said it. That is powerful, and that is relatable to so many of us I believe (especially in a time where intimacy issues are more than prevalent.) This was such an incredible, and moving piece.

The voice mentions moments of beauty and joy that infuses the poem, as if to say that there can be unity and hope in journey that seem hopeless.

“And the sky calm like sea when it sleep

and a breeze like a laugh follow mi.

Or the man find a stream that pure like a baby mind

and the water ease down yu throat

and quiet ya inside.”

However, while there is beauty around this road the traveler has to notice it and look for it if they want to experience it. Nothing is one emotion. Often at the pinnacle of happiness there is still a slight bitter undertone, and in the deepest despair beauty can be found if one looks. I also particularly like how the voice didn’t tell the readers what was at the end of this road. It leaves the story open to ring out into the world instead of being contained with in the poem. The language adds to the poem because it gives the reader a dialect and a voice to pair with the words coming off the page. I think this is particularly true in The Road of the Dread. This voice reminds me of an African American gospel song.

In reading Lorna Goodison’s poetry, I found that the Jamaican female experience is present throughout most of the pieces. I really enjoyed the way she took her own experiences and observations and translated them into poetry in a way that feels visceral and emotionally complex. One of my favorite poems from the selections is “Birth Stone,” which is about a pregnant woman being told to carry a stone in order to slow the delivery of her first child.

 

Put the woman stone on your head

And walk through no man’s land

Go home. When you walk, the stone

And not you yet, will bear down.

 

This poem is interesting to me in that it addresses what seems to be a rural, West Indian and female experience. It depicts the hardship of the woman experiencing the pregnancy as well as the strength and determination of the woman counseling her. I appreciated the imagery Goodison uses throughout this piece, especially the line that refers to her water breaking as, “clear heraldic water,” that would break free and wash her down. This part of the poem felt almost biblical in that the woman who was suffering now would be washed clean after surviving her trials and tribulations.

There were numerous interesting differences between Goodison’s poems, specifically “The Road of the Dread” and “Songs of the Sweet Fruits of Childhood.” After reading about Lorna Goodison, it is clear to see where she got her inspiration from in the stylistic and linguistic differences presented in the poems.
The most noticeable difference between these poems (in my opinion) is the way Goodison uses language. Readers can see in “The Road of the Dread” that Goodison can connect with her Jamaican roots, allowing her to tell a beautifully told story from a believable perspective. The poem was written phonetically, further letting audience members explore the meaning behind the words used.

“and yu catch a glimpse of the end//
through the water in yu eye//
I wont tell yu what I spy//
but is fi dat alone I tread this road”

“The Road of the Dread” seems to discuss racial issues by use of the phrases “black-face road” and referring directly to color. A lovely component of this story is that even though it is written phonetically, Goodison was able to write it in a way which can be understood and interpreted by almost any English speaker, conveying a deep and meaningful message about social and personal issues. Goodison’s intellect is impressive and easily makes sense after reading her biography. (This is, of course, not to assume she is not an intellectual because of the language used in this specific poem, more so because her biography allows an insight into all of her academic and life experiences.)
On top of being a government official, Lorna Goodison was also

“a painter, prose writer, and screenwriter, a teacher…” (599).

Her successes outside of poetry contribute not only to the plot of the stories she achieves to tell but also influences the themes she focuses on.

“Songs of the Sweet Fruits of Childhood” uses fantastic, captivating language which readers may accurately assume Goodison pulls from real-world experience, serving as her research for the writing process. In the quotation

“Tough skinned//
brown pods//
of stinking toe//
you broke open hard//
upon stone//
to free the pungent//
dry powdery musk//
called by some,//
locust,”

readers become very familiar with the descriptive and pleasing prose, as well as the syntax Goodison uses. Even though audience members begin with imagery of a toe, we are soon filled with thoughts of a beautiful locust flower. Clearly “The Road of the Dread” and “Songs of the Sweet Fruits of Childhood” have numerous differences, including prose, syntax used, plot, and language used in general. However, this also begs the question if Goodison would have been as successful with “The Road of the Dread” without her experience writing other highly descriptive poems and work experience. While it may seem more straightforward to have written, I believe it must have been much more difficult to write “The Road of the Dread” rather than “Songs of the Sweet Fruits of Childhood.”

From reading these poems selected, I found a common theme I found is her use of food/drink to convey a meaning. (?)

The first poem I am going to discuss is “From the Garden of the Women Once Fallen.” I find her use of wording haunting as she conveys the image of a woman feeling humiliation for something she has done.  It is the use of the herb thyme is used as a symbolic meaning of hope, or forgiveness. Goodison writes:

When you dwell among enimies,

You never make them salt your pot.

You never make them know

Your want.

I feel as if this poem is about the biblical reference of adam and eve. How a woman should feel powerless without a man in her presence. I like how she uses salt to write about her enemies, because if you salt something too much, it either doesn’t taste good, or it preserves. I feel like Goodison is trying to write about how if you listen to those who want to bring you down, you aren’t going to be able to advance forward, thus just maintaining where you are (or preserving). BUT a powerful woman will move past the humiliation others make her feel and move forward.

 

The second poem I am going to discuss is “In the Time of Late-Blooming Pumpkins.” Goodison writes about the biblical reference of virgin Mary being pregnant with Jesus.  She writes:

“You are all concieved from sin”

but that is just some false prophet

Goodison then writes about being able to start over, again referencing (the death of) Jesus.

 

“The Road of the Dread” is the most interesting of the Lorna Goodison poems in the collection for class.  It is written in the phonetic Jamaican dialect, which made it a fun challenge to read.  Like everyone else who has posted so far, I had to read through it a few times to make sure I understood the dialect.

The title intrigues me.  By adding “the” before “Dread,” Goodison makes it seem like “Dread” is a tangible thing, almost a character.  Titling it “The Road of the Dread,” makes this feeling of reluctance to travel the road seem to carry more weight than if she were to have called it “The Road of Dread.”  Adding the extra “the” into the title also gives it a similar rhythm to the poem’s dialect.  I thin Goodison intends the poem to be a metaphor for life and the human experience.

This road seems to carry a lot of importance for the narrator.  It is described as an unfriendly route: “it no have no definite color/and it fence two side with live barbwire.”  There are no mileposts, and something a passerby might initially think is a rock turns out to be a snake.  Despite the unattractive aspects of the road, there are glimmers of beauty.  The narrator talks about a “breeze like a laugh” that follows her, and the pleasures of finding another person on the road to share resources with.  She also speaks of catching a glimpse of the end of the road – a sight that makes the trials of the road worth weathering.

The barbed wire fence, snakes masquerading as rocks, and lack of reference points for how far a traveler has gone represent the trials of life.  The laughing breeze and experience of making bread with a stranger are examples of the moments of connection and happiness everyone experiences.  The “glimpse of the end” is the moment where you see the results of something you’ve struggled with for a long time.

Lorna Goodison’s “Songs of the Fruits and Sweets of Childhood” is undeniably lovely in its language and tone of nostalgia. The first stanza, which reads,

O small and squat

with thin tough skin

containing the slick flesh

of mackafat

which makes fillings

like putty between

the teeth.

immediately grabbed my attention. I had to google what many of the fruits Goodison described were, and I was delighted to match her descriptions with images that she so vividly rendered on the page. A mackafat fruit resembles a coconut in its exterior and Goodison’s description of it, “O small and squat / with thin tough skin” is perfect.

The starapple

wears a thick coat

of royal purple

and at its center

sports a star

of many points.

This is a lover’s fruit

because it runs

with a sweet

staining milk

and the flesh

if bitten too deep,

has been known to bind you.

These stanzas, depicting the star fruit, are rich in language as I imagine, from Goodison’s description, the fruit is rich in flavor. There is a tenderness in her words; “sweet staining milk” and “the flesh / if bitten too deep, / has been known to bind you.” The idea of this food as a “lover’s fruit” set the stage for these images and serve to make them more powerful. Though each of these stanzas may stand alone in their beauty, the final serves as a seal to end the poem.

And the ring game

or join up

of pink top

candy bump

going round and round

in a ring

of the fruits and sweets

of childhood

sing.

Goodison has succeeded in captivating her nostalgia for childhood through her descriptions of the fruits she likely ate during that time of her life. Her subject is a simple one, so her use of beautiful, sometimes complex language to describe these things from a simpler time of her life only make the work more lovely to the reader. The idea that something as simple as the fruit one ate during her childhood can model as the subject for such a lovely poem is lovely in itself, and the specificity and attention to detail within this poem only highlight Goodison’s ability as a poet in that she does not need to write about extravagant or pretentious things for her writing to be successful. I admire that she wrote this beautiful poem, that I will likely read several more times before I move on from it, about something that most people would not consider.

In her collection of poems, Lorna Goodison makes the writing audible. Indeed, she writes in English which is the language spoken in her country, Jamaica but uses the one that is spoken in Jamaica and that is different from the one from the United States for example. This makes her style very recognizable but also creates an oral effect. It seems that she is a teller and that we can hear the story with her own voice or at least the voice of a Jamaican.  What can be disturbing and disorienting at first becomes then part of the poetry and the flow of her stanzas is impossible to imagine writing in a different way.

and yu catch a glimpse of the end

through the water in yu eye

I wont tell you what I spy

but is fi dat alone I tread this road

In this stanza from the poem “The Road of the Dread”, we can see how she uses oral forms to creates poetry but also sort of a music for the reader. The power of her writing is also in the fact that by doing that, she writes with her identity. She doesn’t try to sound like an American poet and she identifies her as a Jamaican poet. The interest of that is to see how to use the language of the historic colonization and introducing in the same time the notion of national identity in the writing. This can seem awkward at the first reading but it creates a gap that makes the reader a stranger to this language even if he is an English speaker. She immerses the reader into her culture in a very gentle way and her stanzas are beautifully written and by succeeding at that she puts the reader into a new culture and makes us discover another way to write poetry from an international writer.

The poems by Lorna Goodison are different than the poems we have read by other poets. Not only are they different in theme, but the author chose to write in an accent, which is not a style found often. This distracts the reader, but it brings an interesting point of view for the characters. It is almost like you are talking to a person with this accent face-to-face. Her poem, “Always Homing Now Soul Toward Light” was my favorite poem in this collection. It is about the “light” that is always near, the good always around the corner. This poem relates to the tragic past of Jamaica and Lorna Goodison is passionate about portraying it. The dark past of the country started off with Christopher Columbus and his enslavement of the natives, then the English attack in 1655, and then the slave trade in 1739 for Indigo, tobacco, and cocoa. Lorna focuses on the history of the people in Jamaica and in most of her poems there are lines that still contain the accent.

“Always homing now soul toward light,

Want like wings beating

Against the hold-back of dark.”

In this section, one can tell that there is a hint of the Jamaican accent in the writing. This poem, in particular, represents the hope that good will rise from the tragic life they had been living. “Wanting like wings beating/against the hold-back of dark.” these lines represent the want for a happy or more joyful time and not of being oppressed and forced into slavery. Lorna Goodison uses the accent to bring her poems more characteristics and uses it to help bring her poems to life. Each poem is a story of its own, using a different tone to bring forth a different emotion or image. One of her other poems, “Of Bitterness Herbs,” is supposed to convey the emotion of hatred, or the idea that bitterness will eat you alive, and you become toxic to those around you. “Bitter Herbs grow Luxuriant where the grudgeful crow/dropped its shadow, starting a compost heap of need in you/to spray malicious toxins overall flowers in our rose gardens.” This poem could be directed at the people who have oppressed the Jamaican people throughout history and slavery.

Much of Lorna Goodison’s poetry is about the familiar. It is about her home and her culture, it is about food and tradition. Goodison immerses the reader in her world using several techniques. In “The Road of the Dread,” Goodison uses dialect. This is a clever tool that puts the reader in Jamaica without Goodison spelling it out for us. It also creates a kind of beautiful, lyrical language. The poem reads nicely and Goodison has very beautiful lines. For instance:

and yu catch a glimpse of the end

through the water in yu eye

I wont tell you what I spy

but is fi dat alone I tread this road

This stanza is an example of Goodison’s use of dialect as well as just pure beautiful language. The use of dialect does make this poem more difficult to understand though and hopefully we will discuss this poem more in depth tomorrow.

Another example of Goodison’s use of the familiar is in her poem “Songs of the Fruits and Sweets of Childhood.” Goodison talks about food, relating it to the sweetness and simplicity of childhood.  Many of the foods she mentions are native to her culture, again highlighting Goodison’s tendency to craft gorgeous language through mundane images.  Sometimes, her language is not just beautiful but odd. For example:

Hot pink

stretcher

like a fuchsia lipstick

This stanza is interesting and memorable. She compares the color to lipstick which is weird but strangely satisfying. It is a vivid image and that is exactly what Goodison wants, she wants you to remember the small and mundane and she does this successfully.

The selected poems we read by Lorna Goodison are fascinating in their contrast. “The Road of the Dread,” for example, is vastly different than any of Goodison’s other poems because it is written with phonetic spelling in the dialect of her native Jamaica.

And look no fi no milepost

fi measure you walking

and no tek no stone as

dead or familiar

This stanza is a little hard to understand at first, but after coming across the word “fi” in later stanzas and using the context clues provided, I decided that it means “to.”  Some of these stanzas are hard to decipher because of the unique spelling, but I found this to be a fun challenge rather than an inconvenient obstacle to reading the poem.

The language in this poem is a stark contrast to the other poems we read.  “Songs of the Sweet Fruits of Childhood,” for example, is full of language that we would immediately recognize as being poetic.

A mint ball

is divided by thin

varicolored stripes

like the porcelain

marble of a prince.

The rest of Goodison’s poems use similar language to this, meaning that they have proper grammar and syntax and complex language and imagery.  I love the images and rich descriptions in this poem, but I also really enjoy the cadences of the language in “The Road of the Dread.”  These two poems are interesting in their presentation and subject matter: the jargon-y sounding poem seems to be addressing deeper topics such as the passage of life, while the poem with more correct language is more focused on simple childhood enjoyment.

“Songs of the Fruits and Sweets of Childhood” is by far one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. Goodison’s prose is unbelievably lovely, each stanza so superbly written that they could be poems of their own:

Cream pink pomander

Like a lady’s sachet

Is the genteel roseapple

Scenting the breath.

 

Jade green lantern

light astringent

is the tart taste of the jimbelin.

With each description of these foreign fruits and sweets, Goodison reminds us of the simple joys of childhood. Though the poem is bursting with the complex language of an adult writer, it is contrasted by the simplicity of the poem’s subject itself. Foods like “naseberry”, “starapple”, and “jimbelin”, to name a few, help to bring a certain exoticness to this poem as we struggle to picture these far-off wonders as Goodison describes them. Her wistfulness for these simple childhood pleasures is so clearly conveyed that I too was able to feel that same nostalgia as Goodison felt it.

There are elements of adulthood in this poem as well:

This is a lover’s fruit

Because it runs

With a sweet

Staining milk

And the flesh

If bitten too deep,

Has been known to bind you.

Here we are able to catch a glimpse of an adult Goodison’s perspective in the midst of an otherwise innocent poem. There are also humorous moments in the poem as well:

A soft brown square

Of rare delight

Is a wedge

Of guava cheese.

O guava cheese

Make you sneeze.

Penny a cut

Full yu gut?

The stanza grow longer towards the end as Goodison describes the different candies from her childhood; this helps to immerse us even more fully in the poem as we are shown the process behind creating the candy:

A shaggy

Grater cake

Can be rich brown

If it takes

Its color

From burnt sugar.

But if it holds

Its coconut milk

To itself

And mixes only

With white sugar,

It becomes

What some consider

A greater cake.

It is then topped

With a show off hat

Of cochineal or magenta.

Goodison’s ability to take even the simplest of ideas and spin them into the richest and most vibrant of poems is a clear indicator of her overall skill as a poet. This is a poem that I know I will be able to reread countless times without ever getting sick of it due to its astounding prose coupled with its refreshingly simple subject matter.

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