The Way Home is Millicent Graham’s second poetry collection following her debut work The Damp in Things, also published by Peepal Tree Press, in June 2009. Although these collections are Graham’s only solo publications, her work has been published in a number of anthologies, the most recent of which being Yonder Awa (comprising of Scottish and Caribbean writers for the Empire Café Project).The collection’s cover notes rightly that the works in this latest collection can be described as “very intimate poems”. In between some comforting memories, they express the unsettled sense of home that Graham has experienced. Unsettled may yet be an understatement, for Graham’s verse echoes with the threat of violence and death, seemingly ubiquitous, to which she was exposed whilst growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, the city of her birth:
We learned the normalcy of death, and shame,
of sitting by powerless – worse – reluctant
Lines such as these from “The Yard” are very powerful, conveying a true sense of how ordinary this kind of life was for the young Graham. The use of “normalcy” here, rather than “normality” for example, might be deemed somewhat peculiar; in this particular context however, it brings to mind its syntactic similarity with “necromancy” (the practice of communicating with the dead). While perhaps not definitive, such a connection is present in the collection: Graham communicates to us the lives of not only those living but also of those lost in the violence. Whilst the rest of the lines in this poem are relatively straightforward, not all of the poems in the collection are always quite so direct in their approach. There is potent imagery in The Way Home communicating the intensity of Graham’s experience which despite the rawness of the situation, manages still to be beautifully poetic. “Breadfruit Tree” is one of my favourite examples, expressing this precisely:
Suicidal fruit, abandoning their youth
for the unknown ground and its hush,
leapt happily from her limbs,
severed the navel strings.
Her roots garner strength from their humus
and she sways while the wind hums a chorus.
Who mourns as the earth is digesting?
What coffins roll down to this resting?
She sings sankeys, soft in her leaves,
she bends and she breaks, for she grieves.
That omnipresent threat of violence and reminders of death are powerful themes woven throughout The Way Home. In the final poem, “Dandelion Heads”, Graham also articulates the lasting scars of the slave trade:
We watch the smallness of befuddled words
and wonder where they go,
slave cargo transported in my bosom’s hull.
When did we trade them and for what?
In such poems as this, we learn that home for Graham is not only uneasy, due to the personal nature of the hostility and bereavement she herself experienced, but Jamaica’s history as a previously British ruled and slave-trading nation continues to weigh heavily and painfully on the poet, resulting in a clear, collective anxiety and tension. The post-colonial legacy is something we are seeing often in Jamaican poets (consider the achingly wonderful testimonies of Kei Miller and Tanya Shirley for example). To quote the cover notes once again, Graham’s work “is guided first by her desire to write her home”, “both the actual and physical world of Jamaica” and “her equally rich imaginative poetic home.” Doubts and conflicting feelings make for a very personal but also universal response to ideas of home. This makes the work a powerful read.