A Quicksilver Maker

The worldly verse of Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison’s “Quicksilver” starts: “Lost at the halfway; you were in search of a sign.” This might be the opening of an anecdote about a tourist in a confusing foreign city—or it might be a free translation of the first line of Dante’s Commedia. The poem tacks between these two possibilities, relating a simple anecdote that is also a fable of spiritual quest.

The poet chooses “a side street,” not the main road, where she comes upon a craftsman. His “mud roof” suggests this city is not in Europe or anywhere else in the prosperous north. It’s an ordinary day, a Tuesday. He is at work as usual, as countless craftsmen before him have been, to judge from those steps “swaybacked from centuries of footfall.” With delicate artistry and the right amount of force (note that “rawhide mallet”), he creates a ring the poet will wear “till its metal slips back into flux.”

“I think I learnt a lot about writing poetry,” Goodison has said about her youth in Jamaica, “from watching people do manual labor, and from my mother sewing. I love watching people make things; that’s one of the old names for a poet: a maker.” Goodison’s silversmith is a maker. The ring he creates is the orienting “star” she sought: a shining bit of metal and a symbol of what she herself might aspire to make. At the same time, he teaches her something about the temporariness of all forms. The ring is really “quicksilver,” the antique name for mercury, the liquid solid. It tells her someday she herself will be washed down and changed back into the elements of which everything is made.

Although Goodison has spent much of her life in North America, she is very much a West Indian writer. “I don’t think it is an accident,” she says, “that I was born on the first of August,” when Emancipation Day is celebrated in Jamaica, “and I don’t think it was an accident that I was given the gift of poetry, so I take that to mean that I am to write about those people and their condition.”

But she is also a world poet interested in cultural exchange, as “For Wolfgang Binder” suggests. The poem recalls a friendship with a professor in Germany who studied Chicano and Caribbean culture. The poet and the professor visited Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s allegorical ceiling fresco in Würzburg, representing the coming of civilization as the imperial conquest of the Americas. The Jamaican and the German could not undo that history, of course, but their friendship was itself a form of repair. Poignantly, however, they have lost touch.

Goodison is in Germany again in “Mullein and Hare,” where she remembers the shock of visiting the Topography of Terror exhibition in Berlin, a museum of Nazi history built on the site of Gestapo headquarters. She turns to nature for consolation and sees a rabbit and a flower. The hare is a descendant of the one that Albrecht Dürer painted with exact art centuries ago. But the flower—what is it? She can’t remember the name until she asks a museum guard “in Jamaican” to tell her. The guard is worse than no help, but a “Woman with mop and bucket,” overhearing and understanding, provides the answer.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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