ON WATCHING A LEMON SAIL THE SEA BY MAGGIE HARRIS (Cane Arrow Press)
I had the luck to watch Maggie Harris launch this collection at Tongue Punch, the Tom Thumb theatre’s monthly poetry night in Margate. The lilting cadences of her not-quite-placeable accent gave a glide and a swoop to her words, sending them soaring breathless over the storm-dark seas she refers to over and over in this collection. I fretted the work might not jump off the page with quite so much energy when I read it alone. But I fretted needlessly: her words are quite capable of standing without assistance. It’s perhaps vulgar to mention this of a poetry collection, but heavens, she gives you plenty of words for your wad – 66 solid poems, count em, none that can safely be skipped over, each a delight that deserves to be properly pondered.
The collection is divided by geography, the places that have informed and proved crucial to her life and work – Wales, England, Guyana, Ireland and Elsewhere. Landscape drives her lines, and also informs her identity: the poet seems as divided and torn by place as do her creations. In ‘Not Home’, part of the Wales section, we see her strung out between her various locations, one by birth, one by choice. Wales, in spite of the rugged, aggressive beauty which “flings itself in my face”, she decides she cannot call home.
The soil, the trees, the wind-hewn rocks, are all constant characters in this collection. “These staggered rocks”, “Budding heads of unnamed weeds”; “The wind is cutting and we’re keening after the thrill of watching the land slip away with a sigh.” No sight nor smell of her adopted terrain passes her pen by.
In the opening four part title poem, she spies a lemon bobbing, blowing across the sea, washed to Wales from – who knows where? Instantly we are transported to Maggie’s Guyana childhood, and the lemonade, “sprinkled with Demerara”, which her mother made. Before we say goodbye to the “self-contained cargo ship” at the end of part four, she has summoned plantations – “I do not remember lemons, but limes”; her aunt – “arms thin as bamboo”; the “split-bellied” “slack-jawed fish” for whom a lemon might be destined. Instead, solitary, lost between lands, incongruous and purposeless, it sits waiting. “But I/unsure of your heritage/refused you.”
In part two she describes setting the lemon free, “fresh and sharp as a sun-bright wind-cut winter’s day”, charting the waves crash and roar, cascading over the page with a fierce, insistent sensuality that leaves you tasting the salt on your tongue. At last the lemon rolls away on the tide, lost to view. Instead Harris takes up its journey round the globe, through the landscapes that have sheltered and formed her. And that same sense of incongruity, of being found purposeless, in the wrong place, identity and geography at constant odds, goes with her.
The family members which geographical features unite or divide are also critical to this collection. Harris has the ability to tease out the tiny moments that mean the most: the sound of her mother’s voice “in our home rhythms”, her husband, “full with the love of birds”; “children braving the boundless waves”. Beautiful, touching observations which flavour her images like aromatic herbs. She returns to the sea over and over, her rhythmic, lyrical poetry equally brutal, relentless and awe-inspiring.
In this collection Harris has created a work which endlessly reflects upon itself, not discursively, but within its very fabric. It’s a meditation on the redeeming role of language to those without identity, and makes the crisis of an uncertain sense of self into its central core.