“An Examination of My Mother’s Life through the Poetry of Nehassaiu deGannes”: MUSIC FOR EXILE Reviewed by Byron Armstrong

Read aloud, Nehassaiu deGannes’ new book of poetry, Music for Exile, might sound like my grandmother crooning lullabies to the grandchild his mother left behind in Jamaica, or the tears his mother shed over long-distance phone calls, always ending with the same gut-wrenching question. “When are you coming home?” My mother’s name is Gloria, which is important to note because children often forget their parents are human beings who play roles outside of the titles given to them. Perhaps, for me, the gift of deGannes’ poetry is some insight into Gloria’s migratory journey as a Black woman from the Caribbean, through the doorway deGannes provides with her interpretation of memory and intimate family histories. When I visit Gloria these days, at eighty-six years old the vault of memories she once kept under an airtight seal has now cracked open. It’s as if these memories want to be released now, at the twilight of her life, through black and white photos and a griot’s mental library of family lore. In “Album,” deGannes seems to express my feelings during my mother’s unexpected revelations:

Now trouble the blue
door, embossed with the outline of an Island.
Parents are an island.

“Letter for Khadeja” bears the same words scribbled across my mother’s heart; an inscription carved into the memories of women who left children behind oceans away. Like “12 tribes scattered abroad” in hopes of building new lives with more opportunities for their children, with only a phone to help them “get at family connections” to overcome the anxiety of their uprooting. Her child’s refrain, (When are you coming home?) heard as guilt’s self-interrogation:

When was the last time
you made it home?

Once I became a fully formed adult capable of seeing my mother, Gloria, in the same way, I often wondered at what point my mother began to see this new world as her home. This place where rivers replaced oceans, blanched snow ousted bronzed sand, man made parks stood in for “the bush”, and the citrus-sweet guinep trees she used to climb in her colonial schoolgirl uniform, a sacrifice willingly made on the altar of my grandmother’s lashings, were usurped by the bitterness of sour crabapples:

have faith girl
have faith in the things that bring you here.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine Gloria, newly divorced from the father of her firstborn, forced to reckon with her sense of place. As in deGannes’ “Mutter,” the memory of her “first childhood home” would have needed to be psychologically shelved to decide to stay in this new place. Despite the loneliness, she would almost need to “have no memory.” But how could she do that with a child to remind her of what she had left behind?

“Lost Planet” alludes to the sort of conflict my mother, excuse me, Gloria must have faced. To “send” for her child four years, one divorce and another bad relationship later, in the hopes he could still recognize her as his mother; the additional trauma being the stoic grieving of her own mother who, up until now, had raised him as her own:

It is music for exile…for symptoms of migra…
tion. It is the languishing. Pick
through your belongings. Decide What to take.

Another page turned in Gloria’s family album. I bear witness to this lanky dual citizenship child raised by two generations of Caribbean women, in a cub scout uniform holding hands with a chubby toddler with a ballooning afro. I imagine the awkward introduction to a baby brother brought into the world by another man, one who was as alien to him as his mother, and the offspring they produced together. Two peas stuck together in a pod, connected by a woman who left everything behind for one useless man, only to trade that one for another man as useless as the first. Gloria’s song was “Bessie’s Hymn”…

MEN I RAN WITH (subtitled) “All the wrong ones.

How many times had Gloria sat with other island expat women, saddled with a broken generation of men trying to take power stolen from them by a colonial dream with their privates and calloused hands? Now I see these women, in a new world saddled with children who are faded shadows of their absent fathers, recognizing their own strength as individuals and as a community:

But now I see. The Hand
I’ve been holding all this wild is my own:
A laying on of skirts
Petals on the Avatar’s crown!
My Banished ones come inside me to be born

I focus on Gloria’s experience before these men, including her sons, because the weight of this situation would be carried now by her, and her alone. Gloria never remarried, and In the “Last Surviving Hymn To Hathor” deGannes’ prose forces me to confront there are maybe reasons I don’t know or haven’t yet been told.

Gloria spins another tale dug out of her vault of memory that reminds me this was not the multicultural nirvana of anyone’s grand imaginings. She regales me with her story of eating in a lunchroom with a White co-worker who voiced his surprise at her adeptness with a knife and fork. Her skilled usage of common household utensils opposed to, I suppose, diving face-first into her bowl like a dog so shattered his perception of what this Black woman with the funny accent should be capable of doing that he watched her eat, stupefied. How could he know colonialism has the colonized behaving more like the colonizer than the colonizer’s descendants, or that “etiquette” was something every upright Caribbean parent taught their children, in case they ended up in some part of the Americas in a lunchroom with a White man who believed them to be little more elevated than animals?

hence the negress’ inability
to fit comfortably into the haute couture fashions of her time
thus her propensity to settle into positions
where the foot and buttocks are less likely
to be called upon to serve
the interests of the dreamer
they are most happy
when stooped or crouched in a field

Still, Gloria made a way for herself and her children after a migratory story that took her from a Parrish in Jamaica, through the UK, the USA, and Canada, where she finally settled and had my brother and me. Even after my last surviving grandparent died in Jamaica, she dutifully handed her parent’s affairs and then returned to the place she now considers home. Understand that, in her eighties, Gloria has spent more than forty years outside of the country of her birth. Distance is more than a geographical measurement. Time is an intangible marker of distance from place. The home of her memory and the family roots that might have anchored to it exist now only in memory. Out of this self-imposed exile, Gloria has built new memories, with both children and grandchildren as a new branch of roots to anchor her. Through Music For Exile, the poetry of Nehassaiu deGannes has helped open a portal to my mother’s experiences, and potentially, her feelings as a Black woman of Caribbean descent with a wandering spirit in search of a home and herself:

is a map salvaged purely from memory
and the beveled light in his hands.

Music for Exile, by Nehassaiu deGannes. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, February 2021. 87 pages. $18.95, paper.

Byron Armstrong is a freelance writer and journalist whose work centers on the intersection between art, society, and politics. He writes critical essays and art/literary reviews as the Assistant-Editor for ByBlacks.com, the leading independent online magazine for Black Canadians.

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