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January 30, 2011

By Love Possessed by Lorna Goodison

Full disclosure would necessitate me revealing that Lorna Goodison was once my teacher, but I’d be telling you this less to note the otherwise non-existent relationship between Lorna Goodison and I than to have you know that Lorna Goodison was once my teacher, and she was wonderful. And though she is best-known as a poet, her new book By Love Possessed is strange and beautiful, collected stories written over more than two decades, and I had the gorgeous benefit of hearing Goodison’s own voice in my head the entire time that I was reading it.

Voice is integral to the entire collection, whole passages consisting of disembodied dialogue, which breaks a cardinal rule of creative writing, except that the talk is as such that you can imagine exactly who’s saying what, and what they’re doing as they do. Each story also delivered in its own particular tone, dialect as a distinguisher of class and character (but not necessarily “Character”). The story is in the telling as much as in the stories themselves. The range of voices is immense, unsurprisingly for a collection written over such an extended period whose stories would first appear in many different places, and the range of stories is as well. But Goodison manages the effect of the whole to be harmony instead of cacophony, music set against the backdrop of her native Jamaica.

These are not stories written by someone with that rather ubiquitous label, “Master of the form”. I will bring forth no comparisons to Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant; Goodison has less mastered the short story form than put her own peculiar spin on it, rendering the collection full of surprises. Such as where she is going in a story like “The Helpweight”, two old flames meeting years later and speaking lines from a play, but the lines don’t mean what we think they do, though we get the gist of it a few stories into the collection, Goodison’s male characters often being charming cads capable of talking their way into and out of anything. Their women are long-suffering, worked to the bone. A sense of nostalgia imbues the entire collection, characters looking back over the years to mine how much they’ve lost (or how much they’ve found).

“The Helpweights” takes a woman to her breaking point, when the man who long ago broke her heart returns to Jamaica with his Irish wife. In “Jamaica Hope”, it is explained that “Jamaican man married because them tired” , and Alphanso becomes tired enough to finally say yes to Lilla. “Bella Makes Life” begins with the striking image of a woman who’s dressed like a checker cab, returning to her husband and children after working in New Yorker, and her husband finding her more and more changed every time. “By Love Possessed” is the Pushcart Prize-winning story of a mismatched couple, the woman of whom becomes victim of her own pride:
“She would have forgiven him for breaking her precious things; she would like to have been able to tell the story of how bad her man was and about the day he broke everything in her china cabinet and boxed her down the steps. But he was gone, so what was the point.”

The dialogue in “House Colour” is biting and ends on a perfect note. Love goes wrong in “Angelita and Golden Days” as “Slack Goes Cultural”. From “For My Comrades Wearing Three-Piece Suits”, delivered by a man in prison burdened by principles everybody else managed to shake off long ago, we go to “Mi Amiga Gran”, from the perspective of a teenage girl whose mother in America is always late sending money, and how the girl is not quite alone in the world yet. “I Came Through” wears its melodies on its sleeve, a retrospective via interview with a woman looking back at her long career as a singer, her troubled personal life, her betrayals, and her underlying strength.

The collection is long and could stand to have been pared down a bit, and yet, I understand why it wasn’t, each story adding something unique to the whole. These are stories so absolutely invested with story that you might not even realize they were written by a poet, except, of course, for the language and the music it makes.

2 thoughts on “By Love Possessed by Lorna Goodison”

  1. patricia says:

    What serendipity. My mother visited me on the weekend, and we had lunch in the Kingsway Village. After lunch, we popped into The Book Mark, and my mother saw this book, brought it to my attention. “I went to school with Lorna’s sister,” said my mother as she turned the pages. At one point she pointed out to me a very funny line in one of the stories, something about why one should never marry a West Indian man. My mother was tempted to buy the book, but did not. I saw your review, emailed it to my mother, and now she plans on purchasing By Love Possessed.

    1. Kerry says:

      Well then, my work here is done!

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