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Memory and Spirits Haunt in Shara McCallum’s Mad Woman

Shara McCallum's Mad Woman dabbles in fire and duppies

If madness means being plagued by memory, haunted by ruins of the past, and housing oneself in the thick of life, then may we all be so afflicted.  In Shara McCallum’s latest collection of poems, Mad Woman (Peepal Tree Press), launched at the University of the West Indies, Mona, recently, she offers that quality of madness as possible in each and all, challenging that the proverbial mirror be confronted, while cultivating space for the unravelling.

Tanya Shirley, in delivering a most spirited launch talk, provided a deep grounding of the collection for the gathering. Herself a daring poet, Shirley spoke to the braveness of McCallum’s work, harking to the likes of Goodison, Morris and Breeze for comparison. She offered that the mad woman, a persona running through a series of poems, functioned as the heart of the collection, citing the re-establishment of woman as housed in myth, as folklore heroine and biblical figure.  Calling it a brave collection, Shirley gave heartfelt readings of choice poems, and reasoned that McCallum’s skillful crafting, use of the journey motif, of searching and questioning, were important movements in the work.

“Don’t be surprised if you encounter duppies in this collection,” Shirley warned, speaking to the dominance of the book’s possession with history and the dead.

The idea that madness is an inevitable result of living in the Caribbean was offered when Michael Bucknor, head of the Department of Literatures in English, in his welcome, spoke to the prevalence of unrest in society and the resultant mental struggles that seemed also to prevail. He said it was not surprising then, that poets continue to speak about such challenges, citing Jean Breeze and Olive Senior as among them.

For McCallum, however, madness does not seem to occupy its known limits, for the mad woman is not wholly so, or at least, not one to be taken at face value. In this, her 5th collection, McCallum charts new narratives around these and other perceptions, offering even that there is some madness in everyone. She is keen in her invocations, writing with maturity and in some respects, abandoning strict forms.

In response, McCallum gave fervent readings from the collection.  She confronted and interrogated abuse in 'Oh Abuse', thereafter challenging the stain of the past in 'Memory'. 'Mad Woman in Middle Age', 'Mad Woman as Rasta Medusa', and 'Mad Woman as Salomi' were among poems from the series that spoke unflinchingly, to the power, position and experience of the woman. Towards the end, she confronted and negotiated with death through a series of elegies, among them, 'She', 'Elegy', 'Grief', before moving into 'The Parable of Shit and Flowers'.

The collection, which finds grounding in the author’s Jamaican upbringing, moves through standard English and Jamaican patois, and seems at the same time to be journeying and grasping for root, for a known connection.

The mad woman then is not just mad, not just an upheaval without reason or purpose. The poems speak to her awareness of self and origin, of a deep grounding. She is at once hungry for freedom, occupied with unrest and charting into action. McCallum delivers these truths with accessible, skillful and organic use of form, all the while attentive, and without excesses.

Live music by Norman McCallum on guitar and Rosina Moder on recorder complimented Sunday’s readings, while book presentation and signings brought the launch to a close. The launch was held at the Neville Lecture Theatre, on December 11, 2016 at 11:00 am. The event was presented by the Department of Literatures in English.